A Suburban Two-story

((From -> The Navi Shop))

By the time Jenny arrived at her friend's house, she was feeling sorely tempted to make an immediate start on some of the snacks she'd brought with her. There was enough movie food in her back pack to last both of them all night and ensure that neither of them wold really be interested in eating anything substantial all evening. More responsible people would disapprove, but they weren't here. Well. One was, but he was going to keep his pretty face quiet anyway.

Rachel's home was very similar to her own. Beyond a certain stage, the suburban sprawl led to sets of houses that were functionally carbon copies of one another, at least at a basic level. Rachel's family had opted to focus on the hyper modern design aspects, and the facade of the home was all white panels and silver fittings, with a sleek modern feel, even if it was structurally not very different from her own. The garden had been replaced with a raked gravel bed, with artsy rocks dotted about it in various places, and the steps led up to a broad verandah that jutted out above the two-car car port with its sliding door closed, beneath.

The doorbell was a simple buzzer that replicated the sound of an old pull-ringer, complete with the ratcheting sound behind the rotary clapper and the retraction of the cord; it was an odd piece of 'ye olde' juxtaposed with the refined, modern design of everything else.

Inside the house was more of the same, and Jenny had never ceased to find it amusing. Smooth, clear, almost futuristic settings, remarkable for their minimalism, dotted about with the occasional ancient brass or steel relic from ages long past. Rachel followed after her father in terms of tech smarts and a fascination with the marvels of modern design and programming, while her mother enjoyed mocking them both with her tinkering projects, pulled wholesale out of some hidden time portal.

Today was not the time for tours, however, and before long Jenny and Rachel had ensconced themselves in the latter's bedroom, surrounded on the bed by bowled-up selections of corn chips, jelly snakes and a half a dozen other foods that they both knew they really oughtn't eat in the amounts they were probably going to. Between them a spread of cases for different movies made a messy nest of titles.

“...and I hung them on a peg at the other end of the change room! It was hilarious. I really don't know what came over me, hehe!!” Jenny was already working up a blush from simply sharing the embarrassing story, bouncing slightly where she sat cross-legged on the bed, but Rachel only waved a hand at her as she smirked back.

“Yeah, but did you at least get a good look... you know? Don't tell me you did all that but you didn't end up peeking?” Rach had leaned in, eyes dancing and grin bright as she hung on the details.

“No! Of course not!! I mean... Well, I thought about it, but...” She waved her hands in a futile attempt to communicate the feeling. “No! Anyway, that was it! I got dressed after hat and we got out of there!” More laughter filled the bedroom as their chatter moved on. Eventually a movie was selected and started, while neither girl paid too much attention to it in reality. After about half an hour of snacking nad chatting, a lull in the conversation prompted Jenny to throw a jelly snake at her friend.

“So, come on. You went to a sex shop. And you bought something. I want you to tell me everything. Properly, this time.” It was during the nervous giggles that courser finally decided it was time to clear his throat.

“Ladies, as much as I'm aware you aren't going to be studying much, I did promise you mum that I would be sure to remind you to do your work. So. I'm reminding you to do your work. Promise discharged. I think it's about time I left you both to your girls' night though, don't you?”

At the sound of a male voice in the room, both girls jumped and gasped, and Jenny rolled her eyes while Rachel giggled. Jenny rolled over and fussed with her bag for a bit, retrieving the PET and tossing it across to Rachel, who snagged it out of the air.

“Right, right, I'll send you over. Have fun with Nara, she knows you're coming!” Rachel pulled her own device out of her bedside table and quickly fiddled with both of them to handle the transfer, before dropping both into the top drawer and closing it again. She turned back and bend over the edge of the bed, searching for something else, before she returned with a small black bag, bearing a stylish red logo, a mischievous grin plastering her features. “So...”

As fascinating as it might be listening to his charge and her equally teenage friend giggling over naughty excursions into adult shops, Courser himself was somewhat relieved to find himself landing at the entrance to Nara's personal homespace, inside Rachel's PET.

It was a familiar space; softly lit aquarium-lights showing a myriad of platforms of different heights and shapes, each with their own functions. There were no walls here, and the floor was make of gently flowing spring water that seemed to come up from below in the centre of each platform, connecting back to the ground via thin, gracefully curving conduits.

The navi herself was waiting for him, leaning with her arms folded and a small smile, in the curve of one of the supporting curls of water. Nara was the first navi he'd ever met, and his most formative memories were of spending time with her, getting his bearings and testing his capabilities. Today, she was dressed in a short jacket made of damp material that slipped easily across the dark brown of her skin. A chest band preserved her modesty, while still showing off the impressive definition of an athletic, slim build. A thin sarong was tied about her waist, sheer enough to show short, blue swim shorts underneath, but revealing the rest of her otherwise bare legs.

“Hey there, pretty boy.”
“Hey, scary lady.” Courser shrugged and let himself glide across to her with a small bow. “My thanks for allowing me to visit you in your most elegant abode.” A short peal of laughter was followed by a hand down to shove his shoulder lightly.
“Shut up, you...” He stood and spread his arms in helpless gesture, before Nara grabbed him into a brief hug. He gripped back and they laughed for a moment before parting. Her expression turned serious and soft as they calmed. “How you doing? I heard you were getting into some serious business...” She tilted her head and raised an eyebrow, and Courser just nodded back.

“Yeah... Got some real worries.”
“Boss-man's been tweaking the nose of organised crime!” A decoy hung off his shoulder, smirking as it piped up.
“And joining them too!” Another slipped out of shadowy curls on his other side. courser grimaced and waved the errant thoughts away.
“That's not even the big news!” A clone slipped up from the waters, lying on its front and kicking its heels behind it playfully.
“Hush you!” He banished it, but Nara was already looking at him with a measuring eye.
“You sure you're okay?”
“It's complicated.” She nodded and walked with him back to the centre of the main platform before making a small gesture with her hand. The water rose, swelling at first, then splitting into rising streams that carried the two navis up and around to one of the smaller platforms set with furniture. Courser let one hand slip into the column as it guided him, the rest of his body free, until he could drop down into one of the watery cushioned blob-chairs. Nara slipped down beside him, one hand on her chin as she watched him. It took him a few moments of of focus to pick his words and ensure no errant thoughts became mouthy decoys.

“I'm worried. I don't know if I'm keeping this together as well as I'm pretending to.” Beside him, Nara ran a spare hand through her hair, flicking water out of the long blue-black strands as she pulled two cups of a faintly blue-green drink from the ether.

“From the beginning then...” She handed him a mug and Courser took it, along with a deep breath.


Talking to Nara was always calming for him; it made talking about the honest things easier, when he couldn't with others. As much as Jenny and Rachel both assumed they were spending the time in intimate activity... and they were... but their relationship had never actually been like that, and courser felt strangely more comfortable that both girls thought he was just making a house call for sex. It was an illusion he and Nara both maintained.

Despite his best efforts, frequent slips from decoys rushing ahead in his story, or spilling indelicate descriptions of things that he had wanted to explain more tactfully. It was a comfort, in way, that her eyes never wavered from him as they spoke, and she never paid his clone slips any direct attention. A few times, they even complained of her ignoring them, which was new since they'd last spoken, but she kept a straight face all through it. Eventually he reached the end of his story.

“I don't know what I'm going to do about this 'blesser' problem, but I'm involved in it, and the mafia, now beyond any really getting out of it.” He shook his head, “and beside that, I... there are people who will get hurt if I step away now.” Here, Nara leaned back and contemplated him with a turn of her head.

“This isn't your normal flirt-and run behaviour, is it? You like these girls? It sounded like you got quite serious about it.” Courser let his head drop and looked down at himself for a few moments.

“Navis bond quickly, I know. I've known them barely any time at all, but... it's been fun, and I've enjoyed spending time playing with them, teasing them, flirting... but... but I think I would be upset, if something were to happen to them.” He stood and stretched, rolled his shoulders and took a walk around the platform they'd rested on. “I've actually...”

“Pretty-boy's got a Daaaate!!” From off to the side, a clone lounged in another chair, holding both hands under his chin as he teased. Courser ignored it.

“There's a celebration, for Mime being exonerated and free. It's tonight.” Here, Nara just grinned at him.
“Well you'd better get going then, sport! You don't want to be late, do you?”
“It's... also where I'm supposed to get formally accepted into the net mafia...”
“Yeah...” Courser ran a hand through his hair and focused on straightening his already straight jacket. Nara stood and stepped in behind, putting her arms around his shoulders. He relaxed and closed his eyes, leaning his had back against the woman's shoulder in response.
“Listen... you'll be fine. Just be you. All of you. I know it's gotten worse, and I know you're scared, but you're going to be okay.” She gave him a squeeze then stood back and turned him around.

“Now go be dazzling, pretty boy. I can handle the jack-in from here, and as long as you're back before tomorrow morning I doubt the girls will notice.” She winked at him and courser grinned back.

“Right. How do I look?”
“Roguish and dangerous, you tall glass of water.”
“Thanks Nara. See you later!” He straightened properly and gave her a last salute as she brought up a touch screen and managed the permissions, before the navi sank back into the shadows and disappeared.

((To -> TaxidermyMan's Museum))
((Returning from -> TaxidermyMan's Museum))

Courser felt mentally and emotionally exhausted by the time he returned, first to Rachel and Nara's PET, and the soft, water-bed cushions of her living area. The other navi was nowhere to be seen initially, but after a moment she arrived, sliding down one of the curving water columns from a platform above. She dropped into a seat across from him and folded her arms, raising an eyebrow.

“You look wrecked. Rough couple of hours?” Courser nodded, then sat up and stood, rolling his shoulders and shaking himself out.

“Yeah. Everyone is safe, for now. I'm... 'accepted' into the mafia now. It certifiably is a mess, but I think I understand more about some of the angles. My new boss thinks I'm mouthy. Don't know where she gets that impression from.” Here he paused and glanced to Nara with a weary, but wry expression while she smirked. She stood again as well after a moment.

“Well, you can tell me more about it later. Right now, a certain someone is desperate to talk to you about an odd message you sent her, so you'd best get going.” Courser just nodded back, then hugged the other navi when she stepped in closer. After a few more seconds, they parted and courser gave her a lazy salute, before stepping off the platform and disappearing into shadows.


He arrived back in his own PET a moment later, and was immediately treated to a sudden swing in view as Jenny scooped it off the table it had been resting on. Out of the drawer, then, he noted. Her face appeared before the screen, eyes bright and curious, with with a false suspicious narrowing that he tried hard not to be amused by.

“There you are! You didn't tell me you were going out! What was with that message? Nothing happened, after it anyway, and Nara wouldn't tell us where you were!” Edging in beside her, though less obviously energetic, Rachel cast him a more amused eye over her friend's shoulder. Courser just shrugged.

“Well, Jen, a person has to have their secrets, don't they? Do you think you dad would like it if he knew what sorts of movies you two were watching tonight, while not-studying?” Jenny pinked in the cheeks very quickly, but he raised his hands to placate her before she could object or take his comment poorly.

“Don't worry, don't' worry. I'll tell you some, but not all. It was more of that business I told you about, which I can't get you involved in... and that goes for you as well, Rachel... I know Jen's probably told you everything by now, enough to know it's serious stuff. I'm not going to put either of you at risk.”

“And what about you, hmm?” Rachel has crossed her arms and sat back on the end of the bed, with a frown. “The mafia uses jack out barriers, you know... you need to be careful, and someone else needs to know where you are and what you're doing, just in case.” Here, Jenny turned to look at her friend with a startled expression.

“Barriers? You mean, like, so he won't just zip back if he gets zapped or something?” The other girl nodded.
“Murder is a bit harder in the net world, but the criminal element has its ways... and looking at your expression, CourseMan, I'd say you're very aware of that already. Just what were you doing? Come on. Answers, now.” There was a more serious sense of command in Rachel's tone, and it was hard to directly deny the one responsible for his existence. Courser shook his head and sighed.

“Alright, alright. Just settle, both of you, and I'll tell you what I can. but you've got to promise me, neither of you are getting involved, and neither of you are going snooping on my behalf. Understood?” When they both nodded in response, Courser relented and began to fill in the details of his excursions for them.


It was a few days later before Courser took the opportunity to actually use the reward payments he'd been given.

((Courser, Branch to -> The Navi Shop))
((Courser, Branch Back from -> The Navi Shop))

A few days passed in relative normalcy for Courser, after the events at the museum. No urgent notifications or mail messages came from anyone, and he spent the time contemplating his own unstable mental condition. It wasn't too bad, most of the time. It only got pressing when he was conflicted, or his underlying thoughts were at odds with his actions.

Jenny was being good other word, at least, and hadn't prodded any further after he'd given them both as much of the story as he could. As much as he played it off, he was still uncomfortable about how close he had probably come to getting several people killed – and how a single errant thought escaping through a decoy could have changed everything in very undesirable ways.

It was a rainy afternoon, a few days later, when Courser gave up on serious meditation and practice with his clones – one too many under-the-radar heckles and they had started to get on his nerves enough to more or less ruin his concentration. He banished the remaining clones and stood with an aggravated sigh.

“Hey Jenny, are you up to much this afternoon?” He called out, glancing across at the screen. It was facing her bedroom, from her desk. Jenny herself was lying in an awkward position on her bed, skimming through internet videos with a bored expression. She perked up at the sound of his voice.

“Nah. New episode won't come out until tomorrow. I really don't need to do any more study or homework though. Really. Like, my lit assignment isn't due for two weeks, and that's the only thing I've got right now. No work tonight, Courser... please?” She groaned and flailed in an ineffectual manner, waving her tablet about. This was supposed to lend weight to her please, he supposed. fortunately, Jenny was in luck.

“Alright, alright. Listen, I actually wanted to go shake some of the rust off and stretch myself out a bit. I need to get out of my head for a bit, and clearing out a few viruses would be a good way to do it. What do you say? Feel up to manning the chips for a while?” He began to stretch out before she answered anyway, moving through to the exit pad of the PET's internal home page.

“Oh! Yeah, that'd be fun. I'm tired of watching these super ancient minecraft videos. Can you believe that that's what 'good' game graphics used to look like? Let me just get a snack, then I'll jack you in!” She bounced off the bed with all the enthusiasm of a teenager who felt like she'd dodged homework, and Courser waited until her footsteps on the stairs had retreated, and then returned, and the girl had settled herself again, PET in hand.

((Courser, Jacking In -> The Bounty Shop))

Only a short while into operating for Courser, Jenny found herself looking out the window and imagining the cool breeze that she could see blowing in the trees outside, as they swayed their branches in the warm afternoon sun that was now breaking throught the now rained-out clouds. She sighed and kicked her legs as she lay on her bed.

“I don't want to be inside...” On the screen, Courser was carefully scouting the scenes of his latest battle and checking for remaining threats, while data spoils were channelled into the PET's storage. Jenny absently fed it a blank chip to print onto.

“Hey... There was that terrace cafe that Rach was telling me to try out, wasn't there? She said she takes lunch there any time she's swinging by SciLab for parts. I keep promising to check it out. We could go there!” On screen, Courser did one final pass of the area before relaxing for a moment.

“If you like, Jen. Just let your mum know that you're going out. I think I'm okay here. Probably lose you in the transit for a moment or two, but there's nothing here I can't take care of, I don't think. Bring a coat, I know it's sunny and warm now, but you know it gets cool quickly in the afternoons around SciLab.” Jenny was already clambering off the bed and pulling open her closet to get changed.

((Jenny, moving to -> SciLab))
((From -> Scilab, by way of the Navi Shop))

The smell of something rich and meaty filled the downstairs of the house as Jenny arrived home and her nose carried her steps to the kitchen in a brief, unintended detour. Her father looked up from the middle of the kitchen space, halfway through a half dozen tasks while simmering sounds bubbled away beneath the whirr of the extractor.

“There's the little study-bug! Just in time. How's this taste?” Jenny had slipped onto one of the kitchen stools, resting her elbows on the black marble counter-top and obediently leaned forward to taste the spoon that was pressed in her direction. It was just about too hot to taste properly, and she swirled the thimbleful of liquid about her mouth to cool it down and stop it from burning her.

“Good! Maybe more vinegar?” Her father laughed and winked at her as he turned back to his work.
“'at's my girl. Knew it needed more bite.” His free hand pulled the bottle of apple cider vinegar from the shelf and added another long, liberal pour to the pan. Jenny knew that she had inherited her father's love of sharp flavours, and her mother didn't quite agree with either of their cooking habits, but she giggled along with him anyway. Secondary tastes were rarely forthcoming, however, and after a moment Jenny slipped off the stool again.

“Won't be long. Five minutes, so go drop your things and clean up. Let you mother know you're home too, I think she's about to call you!” Her father's voice followed her as she headed up the stairs towards her room.

How had it gotten to evening already? Jenny shook her head as she slung her things onto the bed and closed her bedroom door, beginning to strip out of her things and pull something cleaner and more comfortable out of her closet. She didn't actually need to go tell her mum that she was in, of course – she'd have heard the door, and her her on the stairs, and heard her father's calling, most likely. She paused to look at herself in the mirror again, once she was down to her underthings and in the process of unhooking her most ill-fitting garment. Her other hand poked at a particularly noticeable freckle just above her hip, running one fingertip over the slightly rough texture as she twisted back and forth, looking the rest of her body over with a measuring frown. She was fit enough, and tended to run or jog wherever she went... but she wasn't sporty and a bookish lifestyle still left her... well, a little bit more comfortable than the more athletic girls her age. If she toned up a bit more, it might lead more boys to want to flirt with her. Then all she'd need to deal with would be her crippling social anxiety around said cute boys. She leaned forward and bared her teeth, looking at her multi-coloured braces again. Soon.

As she was re-dressing in her comfy home-clothes, Courser's voice spoke up from the PET. She briefly started, glancing to make sure he wasn't looking too closely, but as usual the navi hadn't emerged from the device into his hologram, and the screen itself had landed facing the wall.

“Oh, Jenny, I know you're about to head down to dinner, but if you wouldn't mind... could you jack me in again before you go? I have a quick errand to run, and I'd like to get it done before we try to explain all this to Rachel.” Jenny had relaxed initially, but froze now, one arm into her loose shirt, and turned her eyes toward the PET. She had been meaning to call Rach and tell her about the afternoon, but it hadn't quite occurred to her that the seriousness of it might become more of a grilling. She pulled the shirt on the rest of the way and tied the drawstring on her track pants.

“Right. She's going to be mad, isn't she? Okay, sure, gimmie a second.” She checked herself in the mirror one more time, then grabbed the device. “What errand? Where am I sending you?”
“Just to the net square is fine. I just want to check some things, no danger.” She nodded and let her fingers move across the keys.
“Alright, just don't be long, if I have to tell Rachel I might have broken her creation, then you're going to be there too.”
“Won't be long, Jen. See you soon.” She nodded, then threw the PET onto her bed and darted out the door when her mother's voice called up to her from downstairs.

((Courser To => The Navi Net-Shop))
((Courser returning From => The Navi Shop, etc.,))

It was early the next morning when Jenny arrived outside her friend's front door and listened tot he old style ring and ratchet of the door bell. It was a few moments waiting on the sleek, modern verandah before the door opened to reveal a woman that looked a lot like Rachel, plus a dubiously low handful of year and with several more ink and oil smudges dotting her face and working overalls. Rachel's mother was wearing what looked like a series of reticulated eye lenses over one eye and was part way through wiping her hands off on an oily cloth that might actually have been making them worse.

“Jen! Hi, come in, come in. How's school been? Rachel is up in her room, head up whenever you want, but you might want to stay down here for a drink first, she's been in a stress tizzy since last night!” Here, the other woman winked as she ushered Jenny inside, through the spotlessly clear and smooth minimalist household, into the kitchen which currently had a large cloth sheet spread over one counter and an assortment of ancient-looking brass and iron mechanical bits and pieces. She guided Jenny to stand more or less in the middle of the kitchen, moving around her as she got cool drinks from the fridge and began pouring and mixing the partial mix of blackberry and lemon cordial that she knew the schoolgirl liked.

“But, I suspect you know all about that, don't you? She's been fretting about that navi she made for you, it sounds like. Hope it's nothing too serious.” Here Jenny sipped her drink and managed a nervous chuckle.

“I, um, I think it's fine, really. Courser says he's okay at least. What are you working on?” The question was sufficient to derail the other woman into looking back to the scattered parts with a smirk.

“I'm building a little auto-mechanical frame to fit over the fridge door. It'll hold a pencil and a notepad, and when you pull the switch, it will tear off the top sheet of paper, fold it up, and deposit it just over there, next to where we keep the grocery bags. It's for writing shopping lists.” She was grinning and her eyes danced with glee. Jenny glanced at the parts, and then at the PET that was holstered in a bracket near the house's climate controls.

“Ah... but, doesn't your house navi just...”
“I know!” Her grin grew wider and more mischievous. “I'm so excited to try it out.” Jenny half expected her to break into maniacal cackles any moment, but couldn't help grinning herself as well. “Anyway, you just go sort out that daughter of mine, and let me know if either of you need anything. Our home is your home, Jen. Go on, have fun!” She waved her off as Jenny finished her drink and retreated towards the stairs up.

Rachel was waiting at the top of the stairs to hurriedly pull her into the bedroom and drag her over to the bed immediately with a worried look on her face. Worried, but there was an eager excitement to her energy as well. The phone conversation they'd had the night before had been disbelieving, but Rachel hadn't been content to wait until Sunday to meet up, and had allegedly cancelled all of her Saturday plans instead. She dropped onto the bed opposite Jenny and fixed her with a serious expression

“Okay, so, what's all this about you taking Courser to go fight a Cybeast. From the beginning, tell me everything.” Jenny nodded and looked for a place to start.

Later, Rachel had moved to work at the computer on her desk, leaving Jenny to lie on the bed and stare are the technicolour tracery that lined the ceiling of her friend's bedroom. Courser had been called out to stand on the desk and show himself off as still intact, and Rachel had seemed relieved to see him being his usual playful self as he'd answered her questions. Not far from him, Nara was also out in her holographic projection, leaning with her arms folded against the window frame watching Courser.

Jenny hadn't ever had too much direct contact with Nara – Rachel's personal navi was sporty and friendly, on the surface, but she'd always felt that there was something more to the dark-skinned woman, watching with care from behind grey eyes. Today she seemed to be wearing what she could only identity as a wet-suit bikini, in a pale blue-grey; it was a two-piece that left her midsection bare as well as her legs and most of her shoulders. She always looked like she'd just gotten out of a pool, and always liked showing off her toned, athletic figure no matter what she wore. Now, she stood forward, casting her gaze towards Courser, and then up to both girls, one at a time with a measuring look.

“It sounds like no-one is in danger of any catastrophic failures. Courser, you're feeling okay?” She glanced aside, shrugging as she tossed the comment in his direction, without looking at him directly, and the other navi nodded back.

“Aye, I think I've got it all under control and no problems now. I'm still me, and nothing out of control.” Rachel nodded and bit her lip, clearly still processing everything that she'd been told, and Nara stepped forward, unfolding her arms as she wandered closer to where Courser was standing by his own PET.

“Right, well then... I think I'd like to run some diagnostics of my own, just to be sure. You mind, Rachel? Got to put the boy through his paces after a story like that, don't I?” She was grinning as she turned her head aside to glance in his direction. “What do you say? Up for some testing?” Across from her, Courser laughed and shook his head.

“Hey, come on... least you could do is be a bit tactful about it. I'm a gentleman after all.” He shrugged and then rubbed his neck, looking away. “But, ah... I mean... I'll never say no. Just... feel uncouth to be saying so out where other ladies can hear.”
“Hey, I only said tests and diagnostics. I don't know where your mind is going, you lady-killer.” she laughed and it was echoed by giggles from Jenny and Rachel in turn. Courser threw up his hands.

“Could someone just either delete me or do the transfer already, and get me out of this?” At his plea, Rachel relented and grabbed the two devices, letting both navis disappear a moment later. She set them down and swivelled on her chair to look at Jenny again.

“It should be okay, I think I've checked into what I can, but information is scarce. Outside that, I didn't see anything too anomalous when I looked at his data. There's definitely foreign influence there that's not been partially assimilated into his makeup, and I don't think I could extract it if I tried, now... but it isn't doing anything, for now.” she sighed and rand fingers through her hair, then leaned back in her chair.

“He'll have access to the data though, and it's got a lot of potential ability to rewrite him, if he loses control, or does too much with it. I don't think it'll be anything that I can't fix, if he does, but its not as stable as he's pretending... And he is pretending. Nara might have been making a joke, but I do want to run some tests, real tests.” Jenny sat up and crossed her legs, resting an elbow on her knees and thinking.

“So... I noticed, when I was scanning through all of his registry data last night, there's new things there. I think he's put something together to channel whatever influence the data fragment might be having into something that he has control of, or, maybe. Something like that. Did you see it?” Her friend nodded, biting her lip.

“Yeah. The problem is, we're kind of out of the realm of proper science here. If it was just code, then I'd be able to analyse exactly what it does, or could do, and it would be simple, but... it's not like that. I hate that it's not.... but nearest I can tell? That fragment wants to be used. It's got a power all its own that isn't any part of courser, or his own power sources. He can draw on it, and he'll get power from it that ,as near as I can tell, doesn't seem to come from anywhere at all, but that data shard. If that's what cybeasts are then it's no wonder they caused so much trouble. There might be no limit to the power he could draw from it, but, the more of it he uses... well... It's like a balance, I think. If there's more of it than him, that's bad for us.” The serious conversation felt strange, all things considered, but Jenny was growing used to unexpectedly serious situations coming up with her navi by now, and Rachel always got this way when she was working on a problem. She was out of her depth, and there wasn't too much she could add to the conversation at this point. Instead she focused on Rachel.

“So... what do we do?”
“Well, first, we have some lunch, and I think about this. Then, once I've worked out how best to test this, we do that, carefully.”
“Okay, Lunch is something I can help with. You want the usual?” Here Rachel's serious expression broke into one of brief relief.
“Oh gods yes. Extra mustard too, please.” Jenny grinned and slipped off the bed, to her feet.
“Coming up.”


Once he was inside Nara's own personal home space, Courser felt a soft sense of calm settle over the tension he'd been feeling as the girls had discussed his situation. He looked around the watery domain and drew a long breath, then let it out again slowly. Nara appeared alongside him, slipping around to put hands on his shoulders and find his eyes with her own.

“Hey there, pretty boy.” She was smiling, a small, comforting smile and Courser grinned back.
“Hey, scary lady.” They held like that for a moment before Courser stepped in, throwing his arms about her and resting his head on her shoulder, burying his eyes against the damp material of her top. Her arms slipped around to hold him tightly in response.

“Easy... I'm here, and you're okay. That sounded like an ordeal.” She rubbed his back as he nodded without speaking. “We're away from those two now... How are you doing, really?” She continued to rub his back slowly until Courser took a fresh breath and lifted his head. He held on to her tightly still, staring past her, over her shoulder, into the swirling water patterns beyond.

“I'm scared.” Behind him, shapes slipped from the shadows within the flows of water; other Coursers voicing half-formed thoughts.

“We can control it, so it's probably fine...”
“We're controlling it, but it's not like us. It's not a part of us.”
“Not us, but in us.” This one, Courser knew, was dressed as his mime cross, he could tell from the inflection, and he could feel her folding her arms with dissatisfaction.
“Yeah, and it's angry as hell too.” That one would have appeared like his Jailbird cross. He was starting to recognise their ways of speaking. Each clone faded away after the thought giving it life had passed.

“It's power, though, and it's useful.”
“Only... Boss-man's got to use it. Open way or another, it's got to be used...”
“And there's no getting rid of it either. No running away.”

Courser squeezed Nara tighter and swallowed, quieting his thoughts as best he could. He spoke in a small whisper.

“I can draw the power into myself, and it's begun to merge with me already. But if I do, I'm giving over my body to it, at least a bit. I'm scared that if I do that...” He bit back the words, not finishing the thought.

“We might not come back.” A half a dozen voices finished it for him anyway, from the shapes of numerous shadowy clones. He willed them away again.

“Okay.” Nara's voice was calm and sure, and firm as she squeezed him one more time then stood back, finding his eyes again and fixing on them. “Okay. Come on, come, sit with me...” She stepped back further, letting her hands slide down to take hold of his and drew him back to the part of her home that contained the watery blobs she used as furniture, then guided him to sit across from her on one of the longer, lower ones.

“So... I know that you're going to be fine. I know you, and I believe that...” She watched him, and Courser looked back, trying to focus on his breathing and keeping his thoughts still. She continued with a patient smile. “But you don't, and you need to. And the only way you're going to is with proof. Show him to me, Courser. Show me the shape behind that fear.” She reached out to hold onto one of his hands, and Courser nodded. He could do that much at least. He'd already done that.

After focusing for a moment, he reached out one hand into the open space to the side of them. The water that made up the floor twisted and writhed, darkening to black shadows that rose to take the now familiar shape of his legacy from Squallo, its shark-skull mask scanning back and forth while it bared his teeth. Nara took in the grey sharkskin and bony protrusions covering the clone's body and nodded.

“Well, you certainly make him look a lot prettier than the shark beast. Get him to sit down.” Courser glanced at her then focused for a moment. The decoy calmed and settled, sitting cross-legged on the floor near to them both.
“I had to think about it, Nara. Really focus. It's not me, not really. Not like the others.”
“And that's what you'll look like, if you try to use it?” She had turned her attention back to him, dismissing the clone and watching courser directly instead. He frowned and rubbed at his neck.
“Maybe. Not at first, I don't think, but... but maybe, if I go too far.” Nara nodded then waved a hand without looking in the clone's direction.
“Alright. Get rid of it.” He banished the shark-courser, and let it melt back into fading shadow. “Good. So, it had to be used, but you haven't drawn it out fully yet. You're going to have to, sooner or alter... So let's do this right. Here, now, together. Because you want to, not because it needs to.” Her eyes held his, grey slate that seemed to wrap him in an assurance as sure as any embrace. Courser swallowed.

“Alright.” He stood and took a step away, but Nara rose with him, holding onto his hands anyway.
“I'm here. I'm with you, and you're with me, Courser. You are; not it. I'm going to stay with you, and you're going to stay with me, and we're not going to let anything get out of control. Are you ready?” He took an extra moment, then nodded. She smiled. “Okay, I'm watching you.”

He reached for the shard of power, letting his eyes closed as he focused on it, sitting within the core of his being, but not quite of it. The fragment responded, rippling, then flowed up through him. Just a thread at first, but growing stronger into a stream of energy that coursed through his whole form. He could feel what it might be like to let it wash him away, but it was just a thought; the power washed over him and he opened his eyes, focusing on Nara instead. Her hands gripped his as hse felt the other changes ripple across his form. It wanted to do a lot, but her controlled the rush of new energy, narrowing it down to a single thin stream of influence, barely as much as one of his cross links. It was similar, in a way, but very different too. He felt the surge writhe, and then settle when it couldn't change any more and he wouldn't let it expand further. The power remained, yearning to be dawn on, but it wouldn't come unless he let it, and... and even when it surged, he was stronger, here and now, when he was calm. This was... okay. His eyes fluttered and he nodded, still focused on Nara's cautious gaze.

“I've... I've got it...” He felt a growl in his voice. There was more to it. Feeling ,sensation. Desires that weren't quite his, but echoes of things he did feel. The urge to fight, to rend and consume, to destroy, and... to defend a home. Strange. Or maybe not. He nodded again. “I've got it.”

“Okay, then let's have a look at you.” Right, that. Somehow it had slipped his mind. Together they inspected his body; crushed down as tight as it was, the changes that came throguh had been minimal. He could feel the zig-zag of his teeth and the urge to grin and show them off was palpable, but overall...

“Not too bad, I think. This is strange. I... I want to fight. I want to have something to fight. A lot fo feelings that aren't quite me, but they sort of are too. I'm ramping up what's already there, I think. I... I can shut it off, if I want to. Easily, I think.” He stepped away, and took a few experimental strides and letting his body move in the way it wanted to by instinct; a fighting stance, twisting and turning, snapping, biting... but a thought was enough to be more sensible; he fought with weapons, not with his teeth. He looked back to his friend.

“I... I could see myself not wanting to shut it off, maybe.. if the wrong emotions got hot enough... but as long as I want to, I can turn it off with a though. I think.”

“Alright, do it then.” She gestured to him with one hand, and his senses caught something. Just a hint; she was cautious of him. The realisation made Courser start in surprise, and in an instant he cut off the flow of power and put the fragment back in its box. In the same instant the changes slipped away, snapping him back to his usual self and with it, a sudden wave of exhaustion and weakness. He staggered a half step, and Nara's hand caught him under the shoulders a moment later. She helped him stand, until they both dropped back into the squishy water couches. She turned her head to one side, regarding him from the corner of one eye and grinned.

“So, pretty boy... how do you feel?” Courser thought about it with a small frown, then raised his eyebrows as he examined his feelings.

“I... Better. Much better. I could still lose control... and sooner or later I'm going to have to assimilate this completely, and it might change me permanently, somehow... but I don't feel like I'm going to lose myself to it. I don't think that's as much of a risk as I was afraid of. I think I–” A soft chiming sound rang through the space and Courser cut himself off and fell silent.

“Hey Nara, we've worked out–” As Rachel's voice came across the communication line, Nara took a few deep breaths and let them out in rapid succession then spoke loudly over her.

“Kinda in the... middle of something...” She made herself sound breathless and panting with the words, and Rachel's communication cut off sharply. Nara grinned and winked at Courser who fought the urge to chuckle. They'd done this before. When she was sure the line was muted again, Nara stretched and relaxed.

“So... Tell me about this Hevari you mentioned...” Together they relaxed and talked, and it was only later on that Courser returned to his own PET.

Two teenage girls exchanged glances with one another, somewhere between the urge to giggle and blush with embarrassment. Well, no, Jenny had to admit to herself... She was blushing, Rachel just looked amused.

“Right. The plan.”
“Yeah.” Rachel shook her head, putting a palm to her forehead for a moment before she scrubbed at her face and attempted to get back on track. “I'm going to set up some safety tools with my PET, and I'll piggyback with yours when you send Courser in.” As she spoke, Jenny tried, very hard, to take her mind away from what her navi was doing right now, with Rachel's navi, and she most certainly wasn't imagining being in the position of one of them, or wondering what it would be like, or wondering, at all, what it must be like to be that free and comfortable with... doing things like that. Rach had asked her a question. She fumbled for context.

“Ah... yeah, yeah, that sounds okay. Um, Courser has his rogue net pass now, and he signed on for another bounty hunt last night, too, so if we send him somewhere he can do that, that will work, right?” She blinked a few times, her blush deepening from embarrassment this time.

“We'll do that then, what did he sign on for?”
“Oh, oh I didn't check... but he'll know what net we need. And we're just going to test how it reacts in a fight, and how much power he can take from it safely?” Rachel was nodding.
“And I'll be watching from my side, so if anything starts to go wrong, I can nix it right away. It's the best we can do for now.” Jenny glanced at the two PETs on the computer table, and Rachel looked at them as well.

“So, um...”
“I should have told them to cool it while we had tests to do.
“Want to watch another episode of Whitefang Academy?” Rachel offered an escape from the situation and Jenny found herself nodding and blushing fiercely at the same time.

Eventually, several episodes later, She noticed that Courser had returned to his own PET, and they were able to get the test underway at last.

((Courser to → A Beastly Experiment))