Hidden Seas Shopping Center

Upon arriving, the mission applicants would find themselves at the front doors of what appeared to be a multi-level shopping mall... but probably not like any mall Kabuki, Frio, or either of their operators had seen. If anyone was in the surrounding area, they were keeping themselves well hidden: in contrast to the usual blinding lights, glitz, and glamour of NetVegas, the area was completely dark, as though uninhabited. In the dark, it was hard to tell, but it appeared some sort of courtyard stretched out behind them. It looked like the planters were empty of any shrubbery, the tile cracked, and a large, expensive-looking fountain piece completely dry. Even though few appeared to be around, the jumpy among the potential contestants would likely find themselves feeling watched...

There wasn't much incentive to venture forward into that courtyard and find out just how far its lack of upkeep extended. When one took in the surroundings and examined the mall ahead, they'd probably expect boarded up doors (or even a "condemned" warning?). In contrast, however, the glass storefront was lit, although it looked like the inside of each door had been paneled over with brightly-colored present wrapping paper... it might be a fair question to wonder if they would open in that state.

There were two other things to note, the only things that suggested the group wasn't completely alone: first, and most obviously, two other people seemed to be standing around, although it wasn't clear whether they were a pair of greeters, fellow contestants waiting to greet the competition, or perhaps passerbys trying to decide if this was something they wanted any involvement in...

The first Navi was a young woman with fairly short purple hair pulled into a very short ponytail at the neck. She appeared to be Netopian by design, but was well tanned. She had dark eyes, no makeup, and a bit of a big mouth, currently fixed in an absent smile as she glanced around. She had a fit, lean figure, but only average height. She was wearing a blue-grey wet suit that covered her body from the neck, terminating just before the elbows and knees. A dark navy coloration started below the armpits and began to overtake the lighter color on the way down, becoming the dominant color at about the stomach level. She had no shoes of any kind, matching her generally out-of-place appearance but leaving her shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot. She was carrying a large board in with a classic sunset pattern across it. It was well waxed, and looked for all the world like an ordinary (if expensive, name-brand) surfboard, with the exclusion of a shimmering network like circuitry visible only where the light from the doorway hit it. On both the board and the center of her surf suit, her Navi emblem could be seen, showing a brown surfboard cresting a dark blue wave against a light-blue sky. She seemed to be modeled a year or two older than Frio.

The second woman was tall, with thin, model-like proportions and lacking much muscle. This Navi had very light brown hair, feathered into a short pompadour that came back from her forehead. She wore a red metallic visor, with a pattern of white and black stripes at the bill. She also wore sharp, sporty-looking shades with a yellow tint. Both were strapped to her red plastic-like earguards in a way that seemed to suggest it was all one assembly. Her lips were painted red, and held in a frown that seemed frozen and fixed as she faced unerringly straight towards the storefront. Her outfit appeared to consist something like a sleeveless black jumpsuit with discrete clasps across it that appeared to hold it together over a dark red Navisuit that could only be faintly glimpsed at the neck or just below the upper and lower parts. The Navisuit was also sleeveless, revealing her thin arms all the way to fingerless black gloves. Some red accents adorned the jumpsuit: most notably, a conservative open collar, but also the rims of the sleeves and a line down each side of the suit in general. From the neck down the middle to the crotch of the jumpsuit and back up the other side to the shoulders was a pattern of thin green and red lines. At the back of the suit was a design like a dartboard, with alternating white, black, green, and red spaces and white numbers all around. If that didn't make her theme obvious enough, she also had a Navi emblem at her chest and earpieces, showing what could only be a black-and-white dartboard with a single green dart in the bullseye. She seemed perhaps a bit younger than Kabuki.

The less obvious presence would probably only be seen by one looking carefully for where the "watched" feeling was coming from. One of the present-wrapped panels were torn, revealing some sort of camera appeared to be positioned inside, a dark green lens almost pressed against the glass at eye level. A thin green light that would immediately call to mind a winking eye was contained within. If someone was holding the camera, it would be impossible to tell without opening the door.
A shower of pink flower petals came onto the net, swirling in a cylinder formation and growing increasingly dense. As the cylinder subsided, spreading petals on the floor, it deposited Kabuki into NetVegas Net. Both she and the pile of petals seemed very out of place, given their bright, cheery colors among the drab, dark ruin of the shopping center she'd touched down into. Despite that, she held out one hand, jumped on one leg three times, rolled her head, and glowed bright red through her crevices, announcing herself at length. "KAAA~BUUU~KIII!" she explained, for those who weren't familiar either with herself or the ancient form of theater. She came to a rest with one knee bent, standing on one leg, and turning her head slowly to survey the area.

Her glow faded, putting her hair back to its natural black and her skin to its standard brown. She'd been beaming down anticipating a game show set, where she'd immediately capture the hearts and minds of her fellow competitors and the hosts alike, but the area looked like just about the least likely place to host a game show she'd seen in recent memory. On the other hand, there at least a few others around, and they didn't look like dangerous UnderNet types, so that was a little encouraging. She collected herself, stood up straight, and approached them (on two legs now). "Greetings... My name is Kabuki. I'm assuming we're all here for the same thing?" she asked, pulling her folding fan from one of the long, black-and-white sleeves of her outer tunic, but leaving it folded for now as she crossed her arms loosely. Suddenly, a thought occurred to her... these navis could be out here for the show, or it could be she'd gotten the wrong address. If so, they might be drug dealers or something... That was an unsettling thought.

A bit more of a look around revealed to her an odd wall, matted over with wrapping paper, from which a camera seemed appeared to be peeking out. Part of the game show, perhaps. "Reality TV?" she wondered to herself.

Of course, it was key that she not reveal she was here on business ordered by the NP, so she kept quiet about her origin. She assumed from the lack of chit chat between the girls that they must be strangers too, and that also, they could use her special brand of ice-breaking. As the eldest girl of the group (she admitted that much to herself, but she wouldn't want anyone else to say it), she knew she had a responsibility to get them to warm up to one another. "I've got a friend who's coming soon, also to help with the show," she informed them with a pleasant, closed smile. That smile turned somewhat more unintentionally menacing as her lips curled open to reveal a white row of shark-like teeth, standing out in the darkness. Her hair glowed back to red and began to fan, as though wind was sweeping it, while her skin faded to white and she began to light up like a neon-pink night light. "But I'm eager to make you two my BOS~SOM BUD~DIES as well! Please, tell me about yourselves! I'm a STAGE PER~FOR~MAAAAR myself! What about the two of you?" she asked, unfolding her fan now and flapping it excitedly at the side of her face, as if her earlier entrance had tired her out. Her bright, fully pink eyes switched back and forth between the two of them as she waited, grinning.
Frio's icy blue entrance beam zapped down placing the boy lion Navi behind Kabuki and the other two Navi's who seemed to be waiting for the same thing. He wasn't as over looking as his mission partner so he wouldn't notice the camera that probably had all four under a stern gaze. His arrival came admidst a short greeting performance from Kabuki, while the other two looked on.

"Annnnnnnd my name is Frio... a... lion." Seeing that he was in the presence of three female Navi's cause him to stand up straight, poke his chest out and flex for just a moment. "I assume we're all here for the talk show? I'm pretty excited what about y'all?" The kabuki styled stage dance wasn't exactly his cup of tea but the Navi Kabuki on the other hand grasped his attention. Her colorful hair and body drew him in.

"What do you ladies say, how about we open the door and get things started?" Frio asked, keeping his gaze set on his mission partner.

The smaller of the two Navis watching them regarded them curiously, but didn't interrupt their introduction. The taller one in the shades barely acknowledged them at all, simply turning her head with the same frown. Considering neither of them jumped even as Kabuki made her loud arrival, it was probably safe to guess Kabuki and Frio were expected. The purple-haired surfer spoke up first in response. "I'm Surf... this ray of sunshine is Dart. If you mean you're going to be contestants on this game show, I guess we are in the same boat. If you're wondering what we're doing out here, well..."

The one called Dart finally spoke up, her voice cracking before settling into a cool, serious tone that matched her appearance better. "I felt it would be smarter to wait and know who was coming before wandering into danger. If you were a bounty hunter like me, you'd-"

"Dude!" Surf exclaimed, looking frustrated but laughing in spite of herself. "You told me you weren't going to say anything about being a bounty hunter here! The first words outta your mouth and you spilled the beans!"

The taller Navi clicked her teeth, obviously caught in the act. "And my saying it wouldn't have any special significance if you didn't call me out on it!"

Surf rolled her eyes, still smiling. "Don't you think you're digging us deeper...? Anyway, yeah, it'd be swell if you two just forgot you heard all that. That'll make us bosom buddies much faster! Well, I say that, but..." Surf's smile cocked up at the edge as she looked back to Frio. "Are you one of those cats that doesn't like the water? I don't think I could get along well with anybody who I can't hang in the ocean with. Well, as far as what we're doing here, I'm pretty sure Dart was just scared to get moving. Which, I don't even get it because it's obviously better lit inside."

As Dart and Surf sniped at each other some more, an observant watcher would notice the camera had moved out of view. Light was visible the tear it had vacated.

"Anyway, even though we said that thing that none of us remember before, I consider myself a professional surfer. I enter competitions... surfing competitions..." Surf added, seemingly chasing off a bad memory as she suddenly frowned. "... You can think of Dart as a professional dart player."

"The best," Dart added defensively, as though someone had claimed otherwise.

"So what about you, dude?" Surf asked Frio, tiling her head. "I get the feeling your more of a personal Navi than a professional anything. No offense, of course, you just have that look."

"Enough chit-chat," Dart declared, finally moving forward for the doors. "I'll be the one to get started," she declared, as though nobody else had suggested it first.

The door swung open with Dart's first pull and with no tearing: it seemed the wrapping paper was placed over each door panel rather than continuously across all of them. The inside of the mall was completely dark, save for a trail of lights leading directly forward. The path was lit by green metal lanterns, vaguely like old-fashioned street lamps, with multi-colored holiday lights strung between them in thin ropes. Notably, while the decorations looked brand new, the pastel-colored tiles of the floor were faded and in disrepair as the outside of the building would suggest.

At the end of the path, which felt necessarily long and gave a feel of the size of the mall they were in, a Navi was standing in front of a light display and facing away from the others who had entered. The Navi was wearing a dark leather hood and leaning on an ax almost as tall as themselves, approximately five feet long, with its head resting on the floor. The Navi also had a dark cloak on, which obscured most of their form: a pale, muscular arm from within the cloak was visible against the ax, ending in a leather-gloved hand.

The light display in front of the hooded Navi was a squat Santa Claus with bright light shining through its colorful body, likely plastic. While the festive decor might be odd enough, an extra detail brought it straight from "weird" to "unsettling": one of the eyes of the Santa had been replaced with a camera of the type that had appeared in the storefront, a green light shining inside. The camera was turned to face the newcomers. The light from inside the Santa was only enough to light up the central plaza of the mall, but shapes in the dark around suggested there was probably a lot more to see...

There was one additional detail that would likely only be noticed by Frio. At certain points, whenever he was looking to the left and no one else, was, a red-gloved mechanical hand was reaching out of a nearby restroom entrance, making a beckoning curl of its finger. It was so dark over there that the only way he'd be likely to notice it was that one of the cameras also peeked from within, its green light calling attention. Any time anyone other than Frio glanced over, though, both the hand and camera would quickly duck back in, giving the impression that it was trying to get his attention and his alone... of course, maybe that would change if Frio called the attention of the others to it.
If Kabuki hadn't been expecting her teammate to show up, she probably would have jumped at suddenly hearing his voice behind her, given the environment. Instead, she responded with a pink glow and a big, toothy grin. "Of course, AAAAI~BOOOO! I am always excited, but now PAR~TIC~YEW~LAR~LEEEE!" she exclaimed, placing her hands on her hips and puffing her own chest out to match his pose, not that her chest had exactly been lacking for attention before. "And may I compliment you on your FAAAAB~YEW~LOUS MANE? It is not often that I find one that can match my own! Ha ha ha!" Frio wasn't alone in checking out the physique of his ally, as Kabuki's eyes, all pink and no pupil with only a hint of movement in the dark behind her flesh, allowed her a few looks up and down him as well. She was silently thankful for the chance to work with a young man; there hadn't been a lot of those recently. Well, young lion-man, that is; there hadn't been one of those ever. "I am always REEEEH~DEE for a good time!" she reiterated in response to his question, possibly a misleading choice of words given where his attentions were focused.

"Good to meet you too, Surf and Dart," Kabuki continued, calming back down to black hair, dark complexion, and unlit body lines. She did jump briefly back into pink hair as her new ally revealed that she was a bounty hunter, not just a show contestant, but quickly fought to bring it back down to its previous level once she realized that reacting too strongly would point out the significance of the revelation. "As far as I know, she's just a professional dart-thrower," Kabuki winked in agreement. As it turned out, a moment later, it was revealed that Dart was, in fact, a professional darts player. All of the girls here fit their professions rather obviously, she realized with some amusement.

There were no good surprises inside, except for a little light... the company seemed a little sketchy, along with the venue, along with... just about everything. If all of the girls were dressed their profession, then what did that make the executioner-looking navi there? Ignorant of any eerie metal hands as they advanced, Kabuki's attention would be on the odd light arrangement and the creepy navi who was standing near it. "Hello, friend...?" she began tentatively, as she neared the axe-wielding stranger. Her eyes moved briefly to the camera's lens, but it was pretty hard to focus on that when the blade of an axe was glinting in the light. Tellingly, this was the first introduction she'd made where she didn't, at some point, burst into lights, song, and dance. "We are here for the show. Are you perhaps one of the participants as well?" she guessed, keeping her hands folded inside her sleeves, together around her waist. She wasn't sure of the navi's gender yet, although there arms certainly had some definition for a girl, far outclassing her own, fit as she was. It didn't stand to reason that a navi that looked like this would have a name like PeekingMan, but it wouldn't be the strangest thing about this mission so far if it turned out to be the case...
My mane is nice but it is second to that of your tantalizing appearance." Frio finally straitened his gaze managing to keep eye contact with the theatrical beauty.

"Bounty hunter? Like you hunt viruses and stuff? I'm hunting Bombcorn right now..." Maybe it was his youth. but the fact that the type of bounty hunter Surf was referring to was the kind that hunted other Navis, never once crossed his mind. In fact he just moved on to answer the follow up question, None taken, I guess you could call me a personal Navi. I'm more of a companion, younger brother to my operator.." The young lion was interrupted abruptly by Dart pushing the door open.

"Ladies first." Frio Stepped up to hold the door for his new aquaintences in a gentlemanly fashion, only to follow it up with a pervy glance at each of their backsides as the strolled in front of him. It wasn't long before the somewhat holiday lit path led them to see the spooky looking executioner styled Navi with santa cam. "That's a pretty well placed camera don't ya think?" Frio called out to the cloak covered Navi who had his back turned. Wether a response came out not, Frio would have his attention pulled elsewhere. The hand, with a second camera stuck out to him and pierced his curiosity, ultimately pulling him away from the group.

"I'll be right back guys." Frio spoke this phrase while stepping away to check out the luring presence in the bathroom.
Surf grinned and rolled her eyes as Frio and Kabuki had some friendly back-and-forth in their introduction. Dart, on the other hand, continued frowning, crossing her arms. "Psh. That Wrangler's board cheapened the name of bounty hunters. To think, any Navi can call themselves a bounty hunter for hunting petty viruses now! No, I am a bounty hunter of wanted crimi-"

"Would you pleeeease put a sock in it, dude?!" Surf laughed, standing on her toes to slap a hand over her mouth. "My dude? My dart-playin' dude?!"

Dart looked between the others and muttered, then nodded to show her consent. She headed in first, while Frio held the door, followed by Surf and, finally, the kabuki actress. The three moved forward with understandable hesitation into the creepy room, giving the young lion man a brief moment to compare assets against the light of the storefront as they weren't walking in file... Surf's was tight from fitness and hugged by the shape of her wetsuit; Dart had a nice figure, thin at the waist and flared at the hips, and with especially nice legs aided by a runway strut that seemed to be her natural gait; Kabuki's was likely the most interesting of all three, especially if Frio liked them volume, but her garment hid her form a bit more than the other ladies.

None of the three seemed any the wiser to where Frio's attention was focused, first at their behinds and then at the mysterious hand. After all, the light display and the executioner ahead were clear attention-getters. The Navi didn't turn around as it was addressed, which made Frio the only one looking backward to see the beckoning gesture. By the time he announced he was leaving, the hand had ducked back into the restroom.

"The call of the wild, I guess," Surf muttered, from his direction to face the Santa again and rolling her eyes once more at her own lame joke. "Don't stay gone too long, Frio! I don't know if they'll start without all of us here..."

The hooded Navi finally turned around: it turned out her earlier impression was probably a trick of the eerie lighting and the expectations of a Navi dressed that way. Nonetheless, she was definitely creepy: pale-skinned, muscular (but less so than she'd looked at a distance), with fanged teeth and glowing full-yellow eyes that were permanently shadowed by her hood. She shifted her axe up to hold it in both hands... then dismissed it in a flash of light, leaving her holding a smaller hand axe, which she placed blunt-end-in-palm. "Yes, I'm a contestant. No, there's no need for friends or greetings." She spoke in a haughty voice, scanning each of the others as she talked. "We'll have to wait for your friend to come back... I've already wasted quite some time waiting here, so I don't think anything's starting until we're all present."


Separate from the others, who wouldn't have any need to visit the men's room whether they had lavatory functions or not, Frio entered the restroom. With the light from the camera hidden inside, he was able to make it forward to the door only from memory, and was lucky there were no obstructions along the floor. If the condition continued inside the restroom, he'd be in trouble...

... Luckily, the camera which had been casting light had retreated to the rear of the restroom, but was clearly visible against the darkness. It reflected off a mirror over a sink in the room, giving the odd feeling of two eyes watching in the darkness... similarly, a single metal hand rapping on the sink counter became two, moving in unison. "Frio," a low, synthesized voice cut through the eerie silence, sounding as though it were coming from a speaker in the corner of the room.

The hand went flat-palmed below the camera, as though pressing to a chest. "I'm your host, PeekingMan. Everything you can win here belongs to me, and everything you experience will be from my generosity. If you want to give me a thank you, I'll wait..." The eye of the camera seemed to wink at him as the voice paused, and the hand went back to rapping. Whether Frio thanked his host or not, PeekingMan's voice continued. "You're an unknown in this competition, Frio. That means you can be very interesting. I don't know you from the Net. You don't look like an UnderNet type, either, making me wonder why you're here, and how you got here... Tell me, Frio. Why are you here? And more importantly... what do you want from this competition? The lone man here, with these other lovely contestants... What do you want? Don't disappoint me with this answer, Frio. Don't bore me with some crap. I can be your best friend and your generous benefactor... but if you make me a thorn in your side, buddy," the synthesized voice added, the finger pointing to Frio's chest sharply, "I can make this a living hell for you. Don't lie to me... I have eyes everywhere, and... hmhmhm... I see everything... You'll be hearing something outside. Ignore it. As a general rule, ignore everything else when I'm trying to talk to you, Frio. I'll tell you everything you need to know. But for now, tell me what I want to know."


"Greetings, ladies!" a voice spoke up in the center of the mall, booming out from several speakers at once. The voice didn't sound like the one Frio was hearing in the bathroom: it had no synthetic mask and sounded like a young man with obnoxious enthusiasm dripping from every syllable. Dart and the hooded woman both jumped in surprise. "Oh? What's this? We only have four contestants at the gathering! I was sure we were supposed to have six... Oh well. Wherever those guys are, I'm sure they're learning a lesson..." The voice punctuated this with an obnoxious giggle...

A huge display, as though cast by a projector, appeared on the back wall of the mall, revealing the building was three stories tall, the upper levels having concrete railings but being mostly open to the main lobby. The figure which appeared on the projection was a Navi with a dark green, rounded helmet containing an enormous, circular green lens in the center, a familiar light winking inside it. Two hands were clasped in front of the mouth of the figure, as though concealing a giggle: a cartoon smile was painted across the gauntlets. On further inspection, although the image jumped, it appeared to be a still frame. "It's meeeee! Oh? You don't know me...? Let's try this!" the voice cried, before a thick white beard and Santa hat appeared on the image, looking poorly edited in. "It's me! Santa Claus!"

All of the ladies murmured amongst themselves, with the exception of Dart, who preposterously shouted "You're not Santa Claus!"

"Hohoho, but I am, Dart! I'm Santa Claus, and three of you are on my naughty list, huhuhoho..." Santa giggled dementedly. "Dart and Surf... I saw you two on my ol' TV up at my co-o-old workshop! It was on that program, what was it... 'Beach' something? Let's just say that one kept ol' Santa warm while he was stuffing his sack, Ho ho ho!"

Surf recoiled with what looked like a mixture of embarrassment and horror. Dart, on the other hand, flushed, but kept her lip tight. "Don't worry, Surf. It's not the real Santa... We're probably still on the Nice list."

"And you, Cowl... you've been extra naughty! And not just because of your hilarious antics with my favorite little elf, or your day-to-day activities as rank... what was it now? 43rd in the NetMafia head family? But even today! You're up to a fun bit of mischief even being here, aren't you...? Maybe I forgot my reading glasses, but I coulda sworn old Santa said this was a team event! Where's your daddy, little girl?" "Santa" asked, tittering as though withholding a secret.

"41st..." the hooded woman, Cowl, growled in a low, no-nonsense voice. "My partner is here, but he's invisible... No rules against that, right?"

"Oh, is he now?" Santa asked in a teasing tone. "He's here, invisible...? Well, fair enough, ho ho hee... But, let's get to the most interesting contestant! Kabuki, you and your friend Frio! Now, Frio's in the bathroom, but don't worry, I'll get him all filled in. More importantly, you look like a nice girl, Kabuki! You have a scary face, but Santa sees past appearances... past those robes on your chest, straight into... your heart! You're a nice girl, aren't you Kabuki? Or... is Santa wrong? Are you... a naughty girl? A naughty girl who's come to get her stocking stuffed by ol' Santa, and win some of his prizes...?"

"Geez, what a creep," Surf muttered in a low voice, watching Kabuki with a side eye, unwilling to turn away from the screen.

"Don't worry, Kabuki. Even if you tell him you're naughty, Santa will surely still bring you presents. There is no likelihood this is the real Santa," Dart reassured Kabuki pointlessly.

Cowl didn't have any words of encouragement, looking stone-still as she watched the screen alone.
"Oh ho ho! You FUR~REE FLIRT, you!" Kabuki giggled, not at all minding the attention Frio was heaping on her. Still, with how bluntly he was going at it, she thought the parallel between him and Yoshitsune was quite amusing. She could see that she was going to try to have to be at least a little level-headed during this mission, or else the other two girls were going to be rolling their eyes out of their heads before it was all over. "Ha ha ha! And I am like a YUUUN~GER SIII~STAR to my operator!" the tall actress laughed. Something about her interpretation seemed a little backwards.

As Dart repeatedly spilled the beans, Kabuki clenched her sharp teeth together and fanned herself nervously using one of her unfolded, pink paper fans. "A BAAAR~GAIN HUNTER, huh? I guess some gals just love BAAAAR~GAIN SHOP~PING, huh? You can spend a whole day just BROOOW~SING the stores!" she added in a sing-songy lie. It was hard to tell if she was joking or actually trying to help, but either way, the group briefly became an impromptu profile line-up for Frio to judge butts, just as he'd planned. Kabuki wouldn't notice; Yoshitsune might have... if he wasn't doing more or less the same thing during the down time.

Kabuki was surprised that Frio would pick now, of all silly times, to use the restroom... and a little surprised he had to use the restroom at all. Still, she shrugged, and nodded along with Surf's request, keeping her big smile on. Up close, she met the executioner... oddly, the new girl's features mirrored Kabuki's in some ways: the eyes, the teeth, and the body definition were pretty similar. The attitudes were pretty different. "Aw, don't bother trying to be SOOOW~WAAAR around me, friend! You'll find that my upbeat attitude is UN~DEE~NYE~YAH~BLEE infectious!" she insisted, giving the hooded girl a big grin over the edge of her fan.

Frio did indeed stay gone a while. In the mean time, a far less pleasant man's voice began speaking to them, though granted, not as unpleasant as the one she thus far hadn't heard, addressing Frio inside the men's bathroom. His first words were already a little mysterious: he implied there were supposed to be six navis? Frio was in the bathroom, but could someone else be in there as well? She couldn't help but give an incredulous grin towards Dart as well. "Even Yoshitsune gave up the Santa thing... a few years back," she thought, unable to stifle a giggle.

It became a little harder to smile as the guy showed Yoshitsune and Frio both how it was done, in terms of being a creepy pervert. The fact that he was basically not present to glare at only made it worse. She turned her eyes curiously back to the one who she now knew was named Cowl and brought one long sleeve up, rubbing her chin thoughtfully with her doll-jointed fingers. "Invisible? This keeps getting stranger!" she thought to herf. Ordinarily, being called interesting would be flattering for her, but Kabuki couldn't stifle a shiver at the grotesque behavior of their host. "I believe in JUUUUS~TICE, my friend! I cannot be on any naughty lists," she answered jokingly... she was starting to think that she wouldn't mind stuffing his mouth with her fist, and wanted to say as much, but that wouldn't be very nice on her part as an actress. "I'm a JUUUUS~TISS EN~THEWS~SEE~YIST anyway! Do you have any prizes for nice girls?" She bat her eyelashes, such as they were... more like blinking on and off her eye-lights... girlishly.
Frio found himself in the restroom, odd enough as Kabuki though herself earlier, did Navis even have to potty? Frio is just lucky that at the moment, curiosity would kill the icy jungle cat. PeekingMan bombarded the crowd contestant with questions, threats, and promises of rewards. "Hmmm? Thanks... I guess... You want to know why I'm here?" Frio couldn't spill the beans and let the camera/hand/speaker find out how he and his partner showed up on this shady game show's doorstep so he just went with the flow.

"You said it yourself man..." An image of the three female Navis he had already met simmered through his mind for a moment. "I'm here for the ladies! Oh and for what I want? I want everything you can give me. I want ALL the prizes bud." This last part was brutally honest, as Frio knew how much Layla appreciated anything of value.

Frio could hear the show starring to pick up steam with the perverted announcer. "Hey bud, you think I could get back to my friend? I'm ready to start winning." The words were straight forward when the lion got even closer to the camera staring deeply into the lens as if he was trying to see if anything was behind it.
The synthetic voice remained quiet and the camera relatively still as Frio gave his response, though the fingers shifted eerily on the countertop. "Hmm..." the voice finally spoke, the hand moving up to stroke the camera with one finger. As Frio had gotten closer, he could see the camera was suspended on a metal, snake-like cord, but couldn't tell where it terminated in the darkness. It was also clearer that the voice wasn't coming from the camera itself, but from a separate speaker in the room. "Hmm. That answer's not bad, but not as good as I was hoping for. Simple. So simple I have a hard time understanding how you even got here. But that won't be a problem for you or for me so long as you play by my rules. Since you answered honestly, I'm going to let you enjoy the little show you have planned. You'll have plenty of fun and, if you play by the rules, you'll win plenty of prizes. But I won't be showing any special favor. You'll be competing fairly with all of the others..."

The metal hand waved back, giving a strangely perfect "jazz hands" in the reflection of the mirror. "Bye bye, Frio. Have fun with your hot, freaky doll lady, and good luck winning fabulous prizes. Oh, and don't tell anyone what we talked about if you don't want to go home early. Not even Kabuki. Forget you saw me." With that, the camera didn't stay around for any further small talk. The light shut off, making the restroom completely dark, and there was a sound like the crack of a metal whip. Frio could feel the air of something whooshing by, and afterwards he would feel the presence had exited, leaving him alone. Thankfully, he hadn't walked in far, so he could probably feel his way out... the place didn't look well kept, so he might consider himself lucky to find no sticky puddles or protruding nails on along his path.


The voice outside also remained quiet as Kabuki gave her answer. "... Juuuus-tice? Justice?! Ohohohaha, that's a new one! I think that might be the first contestant I've gotten on this show that gave me an answer as dumb as justice! How did you even get here?! But that's great. Santa's got prizes for nice, dumb girls, too. And in the meantime... you let me know if you find any justice in here, hohohuuuum..."

The long beard and hat disappeared from the image abruptly, leaving just the Navi who'd appeared originally on the projection. "All right, I got bored of the Santa thing. Sorry! I had a bunch more dirty Santa puns I wanted to use, but aaah... You know what? I'm gonna reserve the right to use some later if I feel like it."

About this time, Frio would probably have returned if he wasn't hanging around the bathroom, for whatever reason. "Our buddy Frio's back from his potty break! Oh, and we've got... another here too, right? And he's hiding... That's because it's Cowl's partner HiddenMan! HiddenMan? HiddenMaaaaan, where aaaare yooou?"

"I'm here," a deep voice came from the darkness, where two red lights suddenly flashed. Just as soon, however, they were off again, with no figure in the darkness revealing itself as the source.

"HiddenMan...?" Cowl growled, clenching her teeth and grimacing.

"I know! Weird, right?" PeekingMan giggled. "Kinda funny how one moment, HiddenMan is sneaking around the mall, looking for something on your orders... and the next, he's back in this room, listening to the announcement? Wanna shed some light on that situation, HiddenMan?"

The red lights, visible now as eyes, appeared in the darkness again. "It's true, ma'am. One minute I was clearing rooms. The next, a sharp pain... and now I'm here again. I don't-"

"Heehehee! Mysterious, right? A pain like that and you'd think you'd jack out, riiiight? And when you jack out, you'd think you'd be back in your PET, riiiight? But here you are! Almost like some really handsome, super smart game show host... has complete and total control over everything that happens here." The voice paused, letting that chill hang over the room, before continuing. "Now don't worry! This isn't one of those murder game shows. I don't mean to threaten any of you, just to let you know that even if you're invisible like this tool-bag, I can take you off my show at any time. Once you're off the show, the encryption, which updates regularly, will definitely block you from coming back. So with that in mind, the main rule here: I make the rules. You do what I want. You play the show my way. And... you win fabulous prizes!"

With that line, three spotlights turned on, illuminating three spots on the ground: one ahead of the group and one on each side. The one ahead looked like a full sack, the lip curled away so peeking inside was impossible. The one on the right was a plain, unmarked shoe box... but careful inspection would reveal it couldn't be lifted from the ground, as though adhered to the floor. The one on the left was a party ball, suspended from a fixture on the baluster of the next floor up, and designed to crack open by pulling a draw string that was a well within reach of the average height among the group.

"Prizes! I want to show you I'm not lying about this part so you don't all just scurry off. People like my personality, but I find they love their prizes... and they're willing to do anything to get them! You'll be on three teams, I think you can figure out how they're set up. Kabuki, Cowl, Surf... I want you three to each collect one of the prizes. Don't fight over them, now, there's plenty more where they come from! Help yourselves. Frio, HiddenMan, Dart, you just watch for now."

"Cowl, right, zenny." HiddenMan spoke from the darkness.

Wordlessly, Cowl began to sprint towards the right towards the shoebox. Anyone who wanted that prize would have to beat feet to make it there first.

"What? That's foul play!" Dart shouted indignantly. "Frio, make yourself useful and grab that caped crook!" For her part, Surf still seemed frozen by the circumstances, and Kabuki would definitely have her pick over the shell-shocked surfer... assuming the actress decided to play the part she was asked at all.

"It's not a cape, it's a cowl, you cretin!" the hooded Navi shouted back, pausing momentarily to throw her correction before attempting to run again.

"Hey, I'm not complaining!" PeekingMan laughed. "If I had HiddenMan's vision I'd probably use it for something more fun, but... Yeah, Frio, instead of standing around, try and stop her! That way Kabuki can get you guys the sweet, sweet zenny in that box... Heeheehee!~"
Frio began running different scenarios back and forth through his head, thinking about the conversation he had with the voice in the restroom. He wondered if he should go against what he had been commanded, and tell Kabuki or not. After a few moments of tossing the decision back and forth, he decided that he would tell her, but wait for a better opportunity.

Frio finally made his way on the scene, and stood behind Kabuki while PeekingMan brought everyone's attention to the prizes around them."Sorry, that took a little longer then expected, but it's time for the fun to start right?" The lion glanced at the prizes on the ground around them. He assumed that Kabuki would in fact choose to pursue one... because who didn't like prizes right? He looked a little confused as Dart commanded him to take action on her benefit. "It dosen't work that way my friend..."

"I'll make it a little easier for you to get to which ever prize you choose." He whispered gently outside of Kabuki's ear. The temperature seemed to drop noticeably all around the area of the contestants, and host. Frio tapped into his powers, and touched his right palm to the floor. A chilling wind swept across the ground leaving a frosty sheet of ice in its wake. The ice was sure to prove itself as a troublesome obstacle for anybody who carelessly ran out towards the prizes. "Now I'll open up a path for you as you head towards the prizes." Which ever way Kabuki chose to go, Frio would use his Tectonic Shift ability to switch the ice in her way with some normal panels, that were to the outside of the frozen arena he had created.
"EV~ERR~REE~ONE'S justice is a little different, my friend! I'll show you; I'll make my own JUUUS~TIIICE!" Kabuki retorted, spinning her head dramatically and sending her hair in a wheel. She hoped that was cool enough sounding to cover up the fact that she probably shouldn't have brought up justice to begin with. The goody-two-shoes was having a hard time remembering that this was, in fact, a shady underground broadcast. Frio came back just in time to see that their host was putting the Christmas decorations back in their boxes. For now, he held his cards close to his chest regarding what he'd seen in the bathroom, so Kabuki just gave him a polite, if overly toothy, grin, assuming he'd just been doing some ordinary business in there. She rolled her eyes, then looked back up to the monitor. "I'm not sure how much fun it's going to be, but we will simply have to make the best of a strange SIT~CHEW~WAY~SHUN!"

The two would listen a bit longer as their host hounded Cowl and HiddenMan for their deception thus far. It sounded like those suspicious navis had come in with a plan to win the contest, which had now been foiled... It reminded Kabuki that although she and Frio were here on orders from one of the GNA's posted missions, the show likely had its own rich rewards as well. On that note, once the boxes appeared, HiddenMan seemed to have a pretty good idea of their contents. "But does he really? I get the feeling that PeekingMan, if that is who our host is, will only let us see what he wants. It could be a trap," she thought to herself; her fade back to dark skin and black hair made it evident that she was wrestling with her own hesitation. As it turned out, that particular moment was a bad one for hesitation, because Cowl had already burst into motion and Frio had come up with a plan that required immediate action from her. She thanked him wordlessly for declining Dart's plan, as the girl really did seem to be pretty poor at hiding their nature here; working together too much with her would definitely prove something was fishy.

She was in the zone to the point that she didn't realize that her new ally whispering with his lips up close to her ear was a bit intimate for their short acquaintance. Yoshitsune did, and frowned deeply. "We'll see how he likes it when I put my lips up to his operator's ear!" he thought jealously, resolving to try that same move out on Layla if he got the chance.

"Well, I'm in it to win it, so let's go for the prize that EV~ER~REE~ONE is after!" she responded to him, flashing another grin to her side as her hair fired up to its pink form and she began her sprint. Her attention was on the right package, the same one Cowl had gone after. "I'll take the path you've set out BE~FORE me!" she agreed, trying to make sure that she moved out of line with Cowl so that her opponent could be properly affected by the ice while she made her run for it. The broad sleeves and trailing hem of her robe flapped with her movements, as did her rather notable breasts, an unavoidable consequence of her attire that tended to accompany most of her theatrical movements. At this point, she wished she still had the full range of her gliding capabilities, but the transfer over to Yoshitsune's PET had taken with it many of her power-ups, so she'd have to make do. Thankfully, one talent she had recovered was her Seri Elevator; with a wink to the other competitors, she transferred beneath the ground inside the mechanical contraption, then rode it through jerky movements towards the box that HiddenMan had instructed Cowl to go after.

Hopefully, her elevator could take her all the way there. If it did, she'd reach up alike a zombie from underground, her slender white fingers hooking the lower lip of the lid to flip it over. Of course, the elevator wasn't always reliable; if it didn't play nice and only traveled half the distance, she'd need to spring back up and hoof it the rest of the way there.
Dart bristled, looking genuinely offended that Frio wasn't going to immediately do whatever he was asked. "I'm asking you because you're the only man here!" she griped, eliciting a cough from somewhere in the shadows. "But no, don't be a gentleman. Feel free to sit there and groom yourself instead, furball!"

As it turned out, however, Frio had other plans, freezing the area around the contestants, far enough so that even Cowl, who'd split from the gang, got caught. "Wha-!" she started, pausing in place and carefully maintaining her balance, turning her head back to give Frio an evil glare. "You miserable... I'll teach you what it means to cross me, lion-boy!" she shouted, summoning a short hand axe and taking a couple of steps in his direction... only to end up sliding uncontrollably towards the group as she tried to pick up speed. She took a swing at Frio that went very wide as she continued moving, with various contestants sidestepping with as little movement as possible to make room.

Dart clicked her teeth, glancing at the ice all around her. "Well? Surf?! You're an aqua Navi, right? Go get that Zenny!"

"She said they're all prizes!" Surf said with a laugh, walking casually across the ice towards the bag. "Why's everyone all obsessed with that box? You're just mad because Frio wouldn't do what you wanted, which... I don't even know, dude. Let the lion man live, man!"

As Frio managed a path in the ice for his partner, Dart silently fumed, and HiddenMan remained hidden, all three of the other contestants made their way toward what would be their prizes. Due to her momentum, Cowl was moving the fastest, but in the opposite direction from which she started. That would leave Kabuki the first one to reach her package, though not by much.

From underground, Kabuki's hands emerged to grab the underside of the lid and flip it off. That was a decision that seemed calculated to give Kabuki maximum defense against any traps... The only problem being, there was no way to see what was in the box without surfacing. At the very least, there wasn't any apparent trap, no sudden explosion.

When Kabuki surfaced to confirm this and possibly claim her prize, she'd find a surprise inside after all: a pair of shiny, metallic red gloves that would look familiar to Frio, if he could see them. As soon as they were revealed, the metallic hands moved to reveal the box was covered in nozzles, like a mechanical part. At the bottom of the box was a shiny packet of Zenny, the promised prize...

That might be the least of Kabuki's concerns, however. The hands had moved to grab Kabuki's wrists, pulling her hands into the box and allowing a type of foam to shoot out of its nozzles. Meanwhile, the hands shifted onto Kabuki's, first pressing them into the goop and then, once they were submerged, climbing up Kabuki's arms like survivors escaping quicksand. Alarmingly, Kabuki wouldn't be able to counter this immediately, as the foam seemed to have hardened around her hands. Being less restricted, the metal hands wasted no time hopping from Kabuki's arms, straight down the front of her tunic, and onto the task of groping at her chest. This wasn't painful as might be expected, as the gloves appeared to have a padded material like felt on the underside, but it was vigorous, and Kabuki would be in little shape to stop it herself.

"Kabuki's found the first of my prizes, so let me explain the first type of challenge!" PeekingMan shouted with excitement. "Kabuki has stumbled upon the first 'cooperation challenge!' The cooperation challenge is intended to be overcome through teamwork, and by overcoming it together, both Navis can receive fantastic prizes! Well, Frio, don't just stand there, help- ohoh! What's this?! Looks like Cowl has discovered the second type!"

If Cowl had seen what was happening to Kabuki, she'd likely have thought twice about opening her prize. She hardly had time to worry about that, though, and had grabbed the cord of the party ball primarily to stop herself from sliding any farther. Doing so caused the cord to pull along with her. The party ball cracked open, and, perhaps to little surprise, a pair of metal hands emerged, sliding swiftly down the remaining cord to cuff around Cowl's wrists and lock her to the cord. The cord, meanwhile, continued to stretch like elastic, the hands contributing to the momentum away from the center of the mall...

Finally, the hands released, sending Cowl flying from the floor and up the floor above, passing the banister and disappearing into the darkness with a messy crash. "The second type is a trap! Just a good old fashioned trap," PeekingMan explained with mirth. "Traps are the easiest, cause all you gotta do is let it happen and then you get the prize. Of course, Cowl is in no position to pick it up, so HiddenMan, would you be so kind as to bring it to her?"

"You bastard," the voice spoke from the position of the eyes, which moved quickly in a circle around the ice to make its way to what the party ball dropped, something too small to be seen. "Cowl!" he shouted, moving off into the darkness again.

Surf, not being as gung-ho as the others in the first place, was understandably hesitating in front of the bag, watching to see what happened to the others. Finally, she gulped, turning back to Kabuki. "Uh, you dudes said you like prizes, right? You want another free one, on the house? You guys can take this bag, and Dart'n I'll... uh... we'll work twice as hard for round 2! Okay?"

"Come now, show a little backbone," Dart commanded, seeming nervous herself. "You pick up this one, I'll pick up the next one! It can't be any worse than what we had to do before."

"You're so eager, you do it!" Surf complained in response, in no rush to investigate.

"Well someone's gotta check it out or we're never gonna learn what the third type is, and it can't be Dart! I already said I wanted Surf to do it, and what I says, goes! Of course... if Kabuki and Frio wanted an extra prize, I guess I could let them off with a warning if they decided they wanted to swipe this one, too... Either way, hurry up, guys! This is just the pre-show. The real fun part hasn't even started!"

Depending on whether or not Kabuki had escaped or been helped out of her predicament, she and Frio might be more or less inclined to pick up another prize. It sounded like they could shunt that offer back onto Surf if they wanted, though. In any case, Kabuki would probably want her hands free. If she was particularly resourceful, she might be able to activate a battlechip to break it and help herself without Frio's assistance, in spite of PeekingMan's wishes. Either way, if she didn't, Frio could probably dig away at the foam from the outside and the two could excavate Kabuki's hands without the aid of battlechips.
Dart though a feline oriented insult at Frio that left him with a puffy face. The look however quickly vanished as Cowl came sliding in to take his head off. The lion's right fist began to frost as he pr pared to counter attack but decided against it as he noticed she had little control, and harmlessly slid past him and the rest of the contestants. "Don't know why y'all are mad at me, it was a little to hot in here for me, I just wanted to cool the temperature down." A hint of sarcasm rolled off of his tongue as Frio's eyes floated back and forth between insulted and attacker.

A smile walked its way across Frio's expression after Surf gave her partner a hard time at his defense. "Aqua Navis gotta stick together am I right."

Any happiness was quickly diminished as Kabuki found her hands stuck inside the prize box she had managed to claim, where PeekingMan explained that they would have to work together to free her. The trap itself didn't seem to threading, it sure wasn't the largest point of concern. Yet... the hands... the same metal hands that he had met on the bathroom moments ago, where now making a perverse detour at his partner's chest. Though he and Kabuki weren't connected by any amazing friendship yet, he wouldn't sit by and let the hands have their way.

Frio didn't bother tracing the path he had laid out for Kabuki, instead he quickly, yet masterfully made his way across the icy field to the problem at hand. WaistIng no time, his fist once again began to cover with ice, unlike his normal signature he controlled how long the tip of the icicle was, keeping it shorter as to not harm Kabuki's hands. With a quick jab, Frio shoved his frozen spike covered fist(Icicle Punch) into the hardened foam with the intent of cracking it, and setting her free. He didn't stop there though, and prepared to punch one of the hands as soon as Kabuki managed to shake them off.

Wasn't much longer before Cowl was sent flying away do to her prize/trap. "Hmph, serves you right." Frio childishly stuck his tongue out as the captured Navi was dragged by. "Are you okay?" He turned back to his friend, keeping an eye out for any retaliation from the hands or PeekingMan, knowing he was sure to be unhappy with Frio's aggression towards the hands.

A cat's curiosity gripped and pulled at Frio's strings again, once the offer to have him and Kabuki open the third prize. If he was able to relax, he would ask her, "What do you say? Wanna get that one to?" His request might come off as geeed, but Frio really just wanted to learn more about what they were dealing with on top of getting more prizes.

The whole ice trap seemed to be going very well as Kabuki popped up to claim her prize, other than that she came up just in time to see Frio almost decapitated by a swinging hand-ax. That said, the view inside the box was puzzling. "I am VIC~TOR~REE~YUUUUS and I have won... gloves?" she announced somewhat stupidly, unable to understand what she was seeing inside the box. She then remembered that she'd been expecting a trap before she'd gotten caught up in the game, and so it was: a pair of handsy robo-hands were waiting inside the box, which was also full of foam dispensers. "I do not feel like a WINN~NAR!" she informed the others, as her hands were cemented inside. She struggled for a moment as things went from bad to worse: the hands that had initially surprised her now reminded her that they were on a seedy undernet show by taking a leap from clutching her arms to the waiting hem of her outer tunic, wiggling past the fabric and onto the soft surface of her bosom. "Ah! Nnnn-nn-nn-nnngh! I need help!" she called out to Frio, bending over as she tried to pull her arms free with a new sense of urgency.

Although Kabuki was modeled to look older than Frio and Yoshitsune, she didn't have a wealth of experience of this type, and found herself cursing that the unfamiliar sensation should be coming from a creepy pair of disembodied hands. It might be arousing if it wasn't so thoroughly unwanted, coming from an unseen source in front of a bunch of strangers.

She turned her head with a swish of her long hair, which had now changed back to black, as she attempted to break her way free without the use of her hands. "Aiee! Please be careful. It will hurt me quite a bit if you miss the foam," Kabuki warned her partner, recognizing that the best tool for freeing her was also inconveniently formed of ice, which would make it all the more painful if it pierced her.

Yoshitsune, in the mean time, mentally commended the lion for not taking the opportunity to join in the Kabuki groping... he figured it would be plenty hard to resist, with her hands bound and her bottom poked out like that. "Perhaps this man-lion is not all bad after all," he resolved, nodding his head with a serious frown and privately wondering if he'd have been so strong.

Hopefully, the foam could be broken so that Kabuki could wipe off her wrists and shake her hands, feeling a little shaken still. "Thank you, my friend," she spoke quietly; she was equally thankful he hadn't attempted to reach in and move the hands. To that end, she reached in herself and attempted to pull them off. With any luck, they'd come out without much fuss, at which point she'd sling them into the darkness past the boxes with no lack of aggravation. If they didn't, she'd try to focus on the rest of the situation anyway.

She'd correctly guessed the box was going to be a trap... And she'd be frankly amazed if the sack that remained untouched wasn't a trap as well, given the evidence presented by two-out of three of the prizes so far. She really wanted to say something like "Justice demands we not steal the third prize from another team, please, accept it," but even Surf wanted her to pick it up, let alone Frio, and she owed him one for freeing her earlier. "Okay! Let's see what else we get. Ahem, we do get to keep the prizes for whatever we open, right?" she added, giving a grin that wasn't quite her full shark-tooth smile. Since the last trick, she hadn't been able to muster back up all the enthusiasm she had before, especially since it wasn't as though there was an enemy to actually fight... it was hard to walk straight into a trap that way.

Provided she'd gotten her hands free to do so and Surf hadn't had some change of hard, shoving her out of the way or something, she'd go over to the bag and open it, bending slightly to peer inside rather than exercising the caution she ought to have. It would probably be better to stick out one arm and do it from a distance, but even now, she couldn't abandon her sense of showmanship, and doing that would look way too lame for her to consider a viable option.

"... Is the cape girl coming back?" Yoshitune asked, narrowing his eyes impatiently. He didn't particularly care about Cowl, but he didn't like the idea that Kabuki could have been flung into the cheap seats if she'd pulled the wrong cord either.
Frio managed to break the foam with surgical precision. Once fractured, the hardened foam did little to prevent Kabuki from removing her hands, the removing PeekingMan's unwanted hands from her person. While it was clear they could propel themselves to some degree and had a tight grip if they wanted to, that didn't imply the devices themselves were especially resilient. With some effort, Kabuki managed to remove them and give them a toss. If Frio wanted, he could tag one in the air with a frozen fist, sending it flying broken at another trajectory. The other hand scurried off into the darkness like a robotic insect.

"Oh nooooo!" PeekingMan's voice screeched over the loudspeakers. "My precious support program! You killed it, I don't know what I'll do or where I'll hahahaa, just kidding. I got a million of those guys, all ready to carry out my bidding! Along with a little hired help, they're how I got this dump looking so festive. Anyway, Frio, that was a real dull reaction. Are you a lion, or a... kittycat?"

"It's called 'being a gentleman,' dude," Surf chided the voice. "Maybe not all guys are thinking about grabbing a girl's fun parts the first time they lay eyes on them, you know?"

"Or perhaps some men like to take any easy opportunity to paint themselves as heroic," Dart added, still frowning at Frio (and sounding like she was going to hold this petty grudge). "Don't let your guard down around the cat-boy, Kabuki."

"Either way, it's boring! How did such a boring guy get into my competition?! Ugh. Oh well. Yes, by all means, check the bag... if you dare!" the voice shouted with unnecessary drama. "Oh yeah, and of course, whatever you earn is yours to keep. Unless you ain't touchin' my dirty money outta some weird principle, which by the way would probably make this whole shindig real pointless for you, the shiny stuff in that box is yours, too. You can even have Frio reach in this time, if you don't trust it, heehee..."

If anyone was to look in the box, they'd discover the shady-sounding voice was at least telling the truth on this point. It wasn't much, but a total of 1,000 zenny was in the box. It was in two compressed packets, implying 500 of it was probably intended for each of them.

Regardless, the prize in the bag was still waiting for them, as Surf was making no movements towards it in spite of hearing about the reward the box had contained. As Kabuki theatrically peered inside...

... She'd be pleased, at least, to see that there were no metallic hands jumping out to grab her face, or any other part of her. Rather, the bag seemed to be full of cameras. Frio might recognize them from the restroom, and Kabuki might recognize them from the eyeless Santa ornament. Neither, however, would recognize the rotors that began spinning from them, which lifted them into the air along with the bag. If Kabuki didn't let go of the bag, they'd raise up inside of it, tearing it apart until they were finally free.

"So, the last type of challenge is a 'Grade Challenge.' The person or pair of people who accept them will receive a nice prize depending on how well they entertain me with their response to the challenge... so that means no punching my pretties, okay? That was only funny once, hehe. Anyway, your bravery is rewarded here! This Grade Challenge is just to let my camera drone follow your team so I can get nice, dynamic angles. As long as you aren't, like, hiding from them or shooting them out of the air, you'll win the maximum prize. And, the prize this time is a real treat... it's the key to the grand prize: my Peeking Puzzle!"

The screen that had been showing the odd helmeted figure switched to display what looked like a series of blanks, with only one letter filled in:

Quote ()

_ _ _ _ K
_ _ _ _ _ _ _
_ _ _
_ _ _

"You see, contestants, I am hiding somewhere around this mall. If you find me, you'll get the grand prize, the piece de resistance, the one you really want: anything you want! That's right. Within my power, I'll grant you any one wish I'm capable of, and my capabilities are grand! You could search this whole place looking for me, or, you could solve my Grade Challenges: high scorers will get to guess another letter, and I'll fill in all the blanks that match that letter. You only get to guess one vowel, though. Keeps it from being too easy. Of cooourse, if all you've got room for in your head is justice or hairballs, maybe you think you're not smart enough to solve my puzzle. That's okay! You can still complete my other challenges for fantastic prizes, hoohohoooo... And with that-"

The projection screen shut off and the lights of the mall came on. Their level of surprise might depend on what they were imagining waited in the darkness: it was more lively than an abandoned shopping mall ought to be, but less lively than a shopping mall that wanted to stay in business ought to be. Scattered throughout the first floor, lights were illuminating select businesses and destinations, while others remained shuttered. Glancing around, it appeared that the lights had fallen upon the following locations: an information kiosk, with a pair of metal gloves waiting at the counter; a gift store with an animated neon sign depicting the simple, blue crest of a wave; a disturbingly named Burger Peeking, illuminated with a red neon sign that only looked half-correct, as though the other half belonged to a different sign; a glass-faced elevator, which might be a bit crowded with four contestants; a door marked lost-and-found (no illuminated signs, only an official placard, black text on white); and the very restroom Frio had entered earlier, now revealed to have a neighboring women's room, both well-lit. The other storefronts were dark. At one point, there must have been fifteen on this floor alone, but all were now shuttered. Lights had come on over the upper floors, but it was impossible to see what kind of stores were above without going up.

"The mall is yours to explore! I've got fans to entertain, restless eyes and restless hands, so get cracking on those traps, challenges, and puzzles! Please note the grand prize is the full, taxing limit of my generosity, and I've only got one in me: that means it's first come, first serve. I'll be providing commentary throughout, treating you all to my lovely speaking voice. Don't disappoint!"

With a static pop, PeekingMan's voice shut off. The mall felt somehow even more eerie now, seeming occupied and yet completely void of movement. It was so still that any movement or noise at all stood out: the group could hear Cowl screeching about something and HIddenMan's more muted replies above, but they were difficult to make out as anything more than noise.

Surf walked over to her partner and summoned her surfboard, setting Dart on top and leaving it floating in the air so she could move over the ice unobstructed. "Well, the two of us lost an embarrassing contest earlier, so no way I'm gonna let it happen again. You two might as well enjoy your fun and your pocket change, because we're getting that grand prize!"

"It's actually rather important that we do..." Dart added meaningfully, giving a wink that was only visible by the movement of her eyebrow and face muscles, seeing as she was wearing dark shades.

"That said, no reason we have to split up right now. The two of us are going up, so come hang if you want." Surf headed to the elevator, crossing the ice and having her board follow behind. Dart remained on her knees, hanging onto the board warily as it passed over the ice. A camera drone followed them, hovering languidly behind. Another drone had floated up to the second floor and disappeared from view. The final hung around Kabuki and Frio, backing up to try and capture both in shot.
"Whew... Thanks Frio. That's a load off my chest, literally," Kabuki sighed with relief, once the hands, which were apparently, as a pair, one support program, were gotten rid of. "Well, if he's deceiving me, that's the lesser of two evils as far as I'm concerned," she shrugged to Dart, though there wasn't much obligation to answer in the first place. "One more favor, Frio: could you grab that zenny from the box while I take care of the bag?"

Once she'd opened up the bag, she immediately gave it and its contents some distance and backed away, expecting the cameras to pop out and do something embarrassing to her. As it turned out, their purpose was a little embarrassing, but not as much so as she'd hoped. It sounded like her actions were going to be closely watched (and Frio's, but she had to imagine her own were the point). It also sounded like the Peeking Puzzle that he'd mentioned would be the greatest source of reward from this mission... but then, it was worth remembering they weren't here to claim that reward. She decided to send a message to Frio and be vague, hoping that the meaning would be lost if the message was somehow intercepted.

Quote (Kabuki)

Hey buddy, let's keep a close eye on those hands, okay? I think it's going to be very important that we find the source of them.

As it turned out, the reward was more important than she figured: finding PeekingMan would yield any reward they would request. It would present a fine opportunity to both complete their main task by asking him to give them the schematics and also to capture him for their secondary goal. Of course, a less honorable person might make the observation that the prize PeekingMan could offer them could be so great, with the means he appeared to possess, that it would overshadow the original earnings they'd been promised by Mini at the outset of the operation. Repeated insults to the value of justice could not be tolerated, though; Kabuki adopted her pink glow again and looked up to the monitor, shaking her fist. "You don't need IN~TELL~LEE~GENTS when you have justice! I'll show you that a spirit that burns with justice is the ULT~TEE~MATE means to any end!" she warned their host in a loud voice, which reverberated through the uncrowded area.

As the voice finally died down, Surf filled the void, explaining their plan to head upstairs and check out the rest of the mall. It was true that they shouldn't allow themselves to stay in the dark too long... but on the other hand, the cantankerous hooded navi was still up there, and she was probably still holding a grudge against Frio and Kabuki for swiping her present earlier. For that matter, there was another way she could get the lay of the land without heading up there. "Thanks for the offer guys, but there is a perfectly good IN~FOR~MAY~SHUN booth down here! If we don't go there now, it would be rather REE~DICK~YOO~LUSS to go in after exploring the mall, wouldn't you say? Let's seize the OPP~POR~TUNE~NIT~TEE now!" she sang, pointing the way. It probably wasn't the most exciting choice, but she doubted that PeekingMan was going to let it be as boring a regular trip to an information kiosk would be. "Is that agreeable, Frio?" she asked, darkening back down to black. "Surf, Dart, you are both free to join us if you change you change your minds. Otherwise, we'll see you upstairs later."

She wasn't sure Frio would want to go for something so pedestrian (she wasn't really sure she wanted to, for that matter), but she thought the logic worked out... and she also hoped Frio would see that giving Cowl some time to cool down might be a good idea. At any rate, she'd head over to the information kiosk if he agreed, or wait and listen if he didn't. She wasn't so optimistic as to think that the kiosk was really going to be a great source of information, but if she could find some of those setup workers that had been mentioned, they might be able to get some information on their employer out of them.

Kabuki also remembered that she'd need to put on a show for the cameras... but there wasn't a good way to do that just yet.
Frio let out a loud majestic roar, one that only the mighty king of the jungle could release. It came in response to PeekingMan's kittycat insult. "Ill show you how much of a lion I am when I find you... because we will find you." Enthusiasm radiated from his words as the slid from the Navi's lips. "Kabuki has no reason to watch her back, because I'm here watching it for her." He replied to Dart sternly. Different ideas of how to be less boring ran through his brain. Surely there was a way to change that viewpoint, while maintaining his innocence and respect towards Kabuki. She was lovely, and it wouldn't have been hard to cross any lines with her, but Frio wasn't the type of man that naturally used underhanded tactics towards any woman. Maybe there would be a situation that gave a more flirtatious opportunity and he could use that to show a more playful side... but until then he took backseat and followed Kabuki's instruction.

The jungle cat very carefully reached into the box to scoop up the zenny and anything else that may have been in there. At the same time, the cameras had burst from the bag his partner had opened. Putting the contestants in what could be viewed as a bigger spotlight. Frio didn't budge as her message came through, and quickly responded,

Quote (Frio)

Yea I believe so to. Let's keep playing for now.

He still didn't feel like it was a good time to tell her about the communication he had with PeekingMan in the bathroom and would continue to wait for a more opportune moment... which may be a little harder now that there was a camera tracking them. He began to wonder... the prize sounded real promising... but would they even be able to get it? Was there a way to complete the mission at hand, and still win the game? The atmosphere became much birther once the spotlights shined down on the highlighted areas of interest. "Nah I'll stick with Kabuki's plan, maybe we will come upstairs once we finish checking out the information booth." He let her lead the way as they headed to the location she had picked, it was hard for him not to keep his eyes trained on her shape. She was a very breathtaking navi, from figure, her walk, and even the way she forcefully influenced certain words. It was all very captivating to Frio. He only hoped he hand't done anything to bother her up to that point.

"Do you think there will be anything there?" He caught up to her, and matched her pace side by side so they could talk and walk eye to eye.
Kabuki's usual passionate defense of justice and Frio's display of bravado led PeekingMan to issue a creepy giggle over the loudspeakers, but no further response. The host went silent for the moment, allowing the confident pair to converse with the bounty hunters.

"The information booth?" looking pensive before tilting her head back, frowning. "Has that nut-job got something planned for the information booth? I guess you guys might get lucky and find a map of this place, at least. Now I'm starting to get jealous, maybe I'm not on the smart team!"

"There's no fault in my intellect," Dart defended herself, still clinging to the board in embarrassing posture. "Starting upstairs is the reasonable choice. There may be an obvious source of information these two won't even see."

"Well, that's fair too," Surf agreed, nodding. "Catch you two on the sunset! I was being polite, but I'm gonna be happy not to share this little elevator with two other people, anyhow..."

"Have fun watching Kabuki's back," Dart dismissed Frio with pointed disapproval, finally stepping off the board and walking the rest of the way to the elevator as she cleared the ice patch. The two ladies and their camera disappeared into the elevator: the pattern of lighting around the elevator made it hard to look in, even with the glass front. That said, it took a bit to start moving. By the time it did, Frio and Kabuki would likely be on to their own destination.

"The information booth, huh? I like that! You two might not be as dumb as I thought, at least it seems like you're thinking about it..."

Partway through the announcement emanating from the camera following the two, the voice suddenly redirected to a source behind the information booth desk, a square-shaped desk with a rectangular backboard displaying a number of travel locations and what looked like it had once been a directory of the mall, the lettering now missing to the point of unreadability. As for the voice, a Navi rose from behind the desk. From his stance, it looked as though he'd been lying down, hidden until someone approached. His purple armor was the recognizable, sharp-edged style of a HeelNavi, a resident of the seedier parts of the Net. More interestingly, though, while his body generally looked stiff, his hands, each gloved in one of the red metal "SPs" the two had seen earlier, were gesturing with greater animation. Furthermore, his head was encased in a helmet fashioned to look like one of the many cameras the others had seen. Kabuki wouldn't recognize it, but Frio would note the voice he spoke in was the same synthetic machine voice he'd heard in the bathroom.

"Welcome to the Information Booth. It would be my pleasure to introduce you to the many attractions of the Net, and this mall, specifically. I have some pamphlets here for you, but each of you, let me know: what would you like to see first...? I can show Frio a couple of great sights... I can help the two of you learn about a great swimming destination... I could give you a tour of the third floor... or I can share some interesting information about your fellow competitors. What would you like? It's my pleasure to serve." The Navi leaned forward and rubbed his gloved hands together obsequiously, his green lens shimmering faintly.
"Ha ha ha! All JO~KING aside, I am pretty glad I have a partner here. This isn't the kind of place one wants to be by one's LONE~SOME self," Kabuki laughed honestly, grinning sideways at Frio and brightening back up. "And I don't mind if you have my side EITH~THAR!" She wasn't sure what they'd find at the information booth, but she'd be perfectly fine if it wasn't a surprise, per say; plain old information would suit her just fine. As the elevator holding the others ascended, she watched it go with some vague suspicion about the tinted glass. Hopefully, Dart and Surf could handle whatever nonsense PeekingMan had planned, because no one else would be in a position to intervene for a while.

She was happy to see that the information booth was manned, at least, but that was about as far as any good feelings on the proceedings could go. Seeing a HeelNavi was never cause for much celebration to begin with, as they were the standard navi type favored by miscreants, future mafioso, or, bare minimum, net trolls. Worse, this one had a few added accessories, which looked very familiar from the box she'd opened earlier. At least it didn't look like these ones were going to jump out and start groping her again, but she had to wonder if they were perhaps offering PeekingMan some form of remote control over the host. That would be an unprecedented ability for any normal navi or SP to have; presumably, that was why Mini wanted her SP schematic back so badly. It begged the question of whether the navi's helmet was also related... it wasn't hard to imagine from the design that the headgear was designed to allow PeekingMan to see out of it, or perhaps even broadcast, since she had heard this was a show.

"Eh, hehe, no swimming please," Kabuki laughed, heading that one off at the pass and fading back to her darker form. It'd be cute if Frio was jumping at the chance to go to such a date-like location, but... "Water and I don't mix. Less than ice, that is," she pointed out. They'd been given a very strange array of choices and her immediate suspicion was that each of these were something that'd be fun for PeekingMan (or his audience) in one way or another. She was especially curious as to why the only tour that had been offered was for the third floor, not the first or second. So curious, in fact, that she recommended that course of action. "The third floor, huh? What's so special up there?" she asked, reaching out to accept a pamphlet as she gave her answer. "If you have anything special you want to see, feel free to pitch in, Frio. He offered to show you specifically 'a couple of great sights,' after all," she chuckled wryly.

"Spank Kabuki's big ass," Yoshitsune suddenly mumbled, causing her to jump in shock.

"Aiyee! Brother, that is a most UN~WEL~COME suggestion at this point!" Kabuki protested, clutching her fists at her sides as a blush ran across her newly white face. "Why would you suggest SOME~THING like that?!"

"Oh, I was thinking about the Hangman game that we're trying to resolve. It could be 'Spank Kabuki's big ass.' Perhaps Frio should try it... that may unlock the clue to finding PeekingMan," the operator nodded thoughtfully, then wiped a small trail of blood from his nose with one thumb, turning his head from Layla as he did.

"Brother, that's ASS~SIN~NINE. If 'K' was the letter, you'd see it show up twice in the word 'KA~BOO~KEE' too! Please try not to EM~BARE~RESS me even more than I already am being on this show," she sighed, hoping Frio wasn't overly susceptible to her operator's impulsive requests. "We'll try to find the SOL~LOO~SHUN once we have more clues, okay?"