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Aftermath: Daemon's Chosen
By:
LadyBard

Chapter 12 - Darkness and Light

Author's Note: Some parts in this chapter have been edited due to intimate material. If you wish to read the original version, it is avaliable at fanfiction.net.

The present

“Damn it,” Dot swore in frustration, earning concerned looks from both Mouse and AndrAIa. The three women sat around the console of the penthouse office, each into their work in their attempts to find as much information as possible on Dot’s purported enemies. It was Dot who now searched various information outlets for news on Ran DeCrypt.

“Dot, what’s wrong?” AndrAIa asked.

“I can’t find anything on this guy!” Dot said, “and I know it’s there. There has to be something on the son of a null.”

“What ya have, sugah?” Mouse asked.

“Zero,” Dot said. “He covers his tracks well.”

“Not well enough for me,” Mouse said. “Pass the torch this way.”

Dot began programming, “I wish Bob and Matrix would call. User, I’m going out of my mind with worry.”

“If anyone can find Little Enzo they can,” Mouse said. “I’m almost into Ran DeCrypt’s database. If he could do that to you, we can do it to him.”

“We can get information on businesses that he’s acquired and --,” AndrAIa abruptly halted. Dot and Mouse both stared at her, when she remained silent. Her eyes went wide and she seemed to be staring at something over Mouse’s shoulder.

Dot turned in her seat first.

He stood there like a grim sentinel, his hard stare for only one of the three woman. After a nano he back-kicked the metallic blue board, his “Surf-Baud” into an upright position.

Ray Tracer.

The hours and several upgrades had changed him rather minutely. He wore his hair a little longer now, with a thin ponytail in the back and a tinted visor had replaced his goggles.

He didn’t speak but his eyes remained on Mouse.

“Ray!” Dot broke the silence and for the first time the web surfer smiled.

“Dot, AndrAIa,” Ray crossed the room and hugged Dot. “I just heard, love. How are you holding up?”

“As well as I can,” Dot said.

“Don’t get up, Dre,” Ray smiled at her, “My User, look at you! How much longer?”

“Any second now, so my doctor told me,” AndrAIa said as Ray hugged her around the shoulders.

Then his gaze fell on Mouse.

“Mouse,” Ray said.

Mouse didn’t even look up from the console, “So what are you doing here?”

“What do you think?” Ray snapped. “I’m here to help find Enzo. He’s still my Little Mate you know.”

“So what do you know about Raven?”

“I’ve heard of the ruddy bloke,” Ray said. “But I heard he got deleted on System 998. That was his last known whereabouts. I thought I’d start there. And just why aren’t you out there?”

“We’re all tryin’ to get the dirt of Ran DeCrypt,” Mouse said.

“Who in the net is that?”

“Well if you were around when this whole thing went down--,”

“Stop it you two!” Dot had had enough, “We have more important things to think about right now. Settle your differences later! Enzo’s life is at stake here.”

“You’re right Dot, I apologize,” Ray said. “Better fill me in.”

All through her explanation, Ray kept his eyes on Mouse, who pointedly ignored him. Those two really needed to talk, Dot thought. No one quite knew what they had fought about but it had been serious enough to cause Ray to leave Mainframe for four whole minutes.

“Like I said love, I’m leaving here and going straight for System 998. I’ll try and get in contact with Bob and Matrix and get them to meet me there. I may need some backup,” Ray stood. “The best thing you all can do right now is keep on what you’re doing.”

He glanced out the window. A game cube had fallen about a half millisecond ago, “Melissa in the game? I’d like to see how she’s faring before I leave but --”

“She’s the same as me, although she wanted to hunt down this Raven herself,” Dot said. “And Hex well --”

“That Raven is either totally random or basic,” Ray said. “All right love, I’ll get on out there now.” Ray gave Dot a quick peck on the cheek.

“Dot?” AndrAIa suddenly spoke up. “I’m not feeling too well. Could you help me to the bathroom please?”

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see what AndrAIa was trying to do.

“Nice try Dre,” Ray smiled. He also kissed her on the cheek.

“It wasn’t a ruse, Ray, in case you haven’t noticed, I am pregnant.” AndrAIa snapped.

“And you look lovely,” Ray smiled.

Dot came around and helped AndrAIa from her seat, “Come on. Those two really do need a moment.”

* * *

It was good to be home.

Ray Tracer had smiled at the sight of Mainframe. Four long minutes surfing the net and the web and he had actually found himself becoming homesick, but not for his own home system, but for his new home, Mainframe.

But Mouse was in Mainframe.

Before returning, Ray had visited his old birth system and had dropped in on his parents. Although aging, they were still active members of society and were both duly proud of their second eldest son. Since she had met them they had asked why Mouse wasn’t with him and since Ray had never kept anything from his parents he told them.

His mother had spoken first. “Go back to her. Don’t let her get away.”

He wasn’t sure his pride could take another rejection from her.

“If you truly love her,” his mother had said, “you’ll fight for her. You didn’t help things by leaving.”

Then he had heard about Enzo being kidnapped. The news had reached his home system in a short time. Well no wonder, considering whom Enzo was and Ray knew he had no choice but to go back. He had been telling the truth when he told Dot that Enzo was still his “Little Mate.”

So now he had returned and for the first time in four minutes he was alone with Mouse.

“I guess they expect us to settle things,” Ray said.

“Ain’t no chance of that happening,” Mouse grunted.

“No, I suppose not,” Ray let his mother’s words repeat themselves in his mind. “Then I’d better get going.”

“Yeah you better,” Mouse said.

Ray hopped on Baud and started towards the balcony. He paused and turned back, “I missed you, you know.”

She looked at him for the first time, “Yeah I missed you, too.”

He smiled slightly, blew her a kiss and glided smoothly outside.

* * *

Mouse sighed, “I’m sorry Ray. I know how much you’re hurting. But I can’t do it. I can’t marry you. Maybe I’ll tell you why someday, but not now. Guess there are some things even I don’t have the circuits to do.”

* * *

Seven hours into the past.

Matrix came awake with a frightened cry.

Outside his window lightening lit up the sky and the awful crash of thunder assaulted his ears. The eerie light illuminated just for a nano, the muscular figure standing at the window.

“Who’s there?” Matrix demanded.

“It’s all right, Matrix,” Bob moved quickly over to him. “I’m here, it’s okay.”

“B-bob?” He hated the plaintive whisper that was his voice.

“Yes. Did you have a nightmare?”

“Yes,” Matrix lifted his hand to his eye and felt the bandages. “Is it over? Am I all right?”

“Yes, you’re fine. We didn’t expect you to wake up so soon though. Dr. Align said you would sleep through the night.”

“AndrAIa? Dot?”

“They went downstairs to get us some food,” Bob said. “They’ll be back in a few nanos.”

“You’ve all been here all this time?”

“Of course.”

“Thanks Bob.”

Even in the darkness, Matrix knew he was smiling at him. “Get some downtime.”

Bob started to turn away but Matrix grasped his arm, “No wait – please. I – I don’t want to go back to sleep. Can we talk for a little while?” Again his voice was soft but he couldn’t help it.

“Sure Matrix,” Bob pulled up a chair, turned it around and straddled it, while resting his arms on the chair back.

“I wanted to say I was sorry about the fight,” Matrix said.

“It’s okay. I’m sorry too. I wanted to do the same thing when I went to question them.”

Matrix chuckled, “I was – I thought you’d never forgive me.”

“Of course I did. We’re friends aren’t we?”

“Yes,” Matrix smiled, then flinched when another sharp report of thunder split the air.

“Are you all right?”

Matrix was mortified that Bob had seen his reaction, “It – it’s nothing. I’m fine.”

“It must be something,” Bob’s voice was soft. “The storm, does it upset you?”

Matrix hesitated to reply, “I was always afraid of the really bad ones when I was young. There was a bad storm the night after my parents – well – and then when Dre and I first game hopped, we landed on this primitive system that constantly experienced bad storms. I was hurt and had lost a lot of blood. AndrAIa had to drag me into this cave where we stayed until the storm was over. I remember flinching every time and being cold and in pain --,”

His voice trailed off. A tremor raced over his body. Bob got up and walked across the room and opened a door, which Matrix realized was a closet, when Bob brought out a blanket. Without a word, Bob draped it him.

“Thanks Bob.” Matrix said.

“Go back to sleep,” Bob said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Matrix pulled the blanket up over himself and turned towards Bob, giving him a sleepy smile. His hero’s face was the last thing he saw before slumber took him and that time he didn’t dream.

* * *

“Bob?”

Bob woke up and smiled at AndrAIa as she handed him a cup filled with java.

“Where’s Dot?”

“Ladies' room,” she put her fingers to her lips and motioned behind her. Matrix was still sleeping.

“Storm over?” Bob sipped the java.

“For now.”

Again Bob was struck by how pretty she was. His admiration immediately became sorrow.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” AndrAIa asked.

“I was just thinking about what an intelligent young woman you’ve become,” Bob said.

She blushed, “Thank you.”

“And I missed it all, your growing up that is,” Bob’s voice held a note of regret. “I missed it because I trusted a lying virus. Worse yet, you missed growing up and experiencing the joys of childhood with Enzo, all because of me.”

“It was not all because of you,” AndrAIa sat on the floor, “I know Dot’s been through this with you. You know Bob, in the time I’ve been a part of this world, I’ve learned that nothing happens without a reason. Yes we’ve been through a lot, but look at where we are now.”

Bob laughed lightly, “Why are all the women so level-headed?”

“We have to keep you men in line somehow,” AndrAIa returned the smile.

“You know Dre, I never thanked you for rescuing me and for taking care of Enzo so well,” Bob said.

“You don’t have to for the first and for the second well – I love him.”

“That’s obvious,” Bob looked up as Dot entered followed by Dr. Align, who was wheeling a cart with various medical instruments. Matrix chose that moment to awaken.

“Good morning,” Bob offered his cup of java to Dot and she took a sip.

“Mr. Matrix,” Dr. Align said. “How are you feeling?”

“All right,” Matrix said.

A technician came in, carrying a large metal box.

“Now I’m going to remove the bandage,” Dr. Align said, “And I want you to cover your eye with your hand after I do it, all right?”

“Yes.”

While Dr. Align snipped away at the cloth with a pair of tiny scissors, the technician unlocked and opened the box. Gun was nestled inside.

“I made some modifications,” Dr. Align was saying.

“What modifications?” Matrix said a little too loudly.

“You now have a homing beacon so in case Gun is lost, you merely have to give the command – ‘Gun, homing beacon’, and it will signal you. Also, you have return targeting. Use the command, ‘Gun, targeting -- return’, and if you ever miss a target, the shot will return to the object targeted.”

“I never miss,” Matrix muttered, “But thanks, doc.”

“You’re welcome. Now hold your hand over your eye.”

An organizer similar to Dot’s was also on the table. Dr. Align opened it and began programming, “Now you’ll feel a little strange for a time while you adjust to your new eye and it does so to you, but don’t be alarmed.”

AndrAIa moved beside Matrix and laid a hand on his shoulder.

“Hey!” Matrix suddenly exclaimed.

“That’s the strangeness. All right, Matrix, open your eye and lower your hand slowly.”

Matrix did so.

Intrigued, Bob moved forward and got his first good look at Matrix’s eye. It was similar to his old eye with his trademark ‘M’ bull’s-eye, but this time his eye was metallic silver. Matrix grinned. “It feels okay.”

Dr. Align nodded. The technician lifted Gun from the box. Just at the moment, Ray and Mouse walked in. Bob nodded at them both.

“Thought we were going to miss this, sugah,” Mouse commented quietly.

“All right, it’s ready. Go ahead, Matrix.”

Matrix took a deep breath, held out his hand and said forcefully, “Gun!”

The weapon flew into his hand. The action was followed by hearty applause. Matrix smiled fully.

“Thanks Doc, I really appreciate this. I owe you big time.”

“Your trust is reward enough for me,” Dr. Align said. “I’ll expect to see you periodically for checkups and upgrades.”

“Whatever you say, Doc.”

“Now I suggest you go somewhere and test your formidable weapon out.”

“Matrix,” Bob smiled, “I have just the place.”

***

The practice range at the Academy was quieter than usual. Still there were a few Guardians present working on their skills. It reminded Bob of Mina. He had dropped in on her and found her fairing much better and would be getting out within a few seconds. Bob led them to a large domed room. Outside the room was a computer console where various practice exercises could be activated within the room, usually for Guardian training, endurance and marksmanship. It was one of the tests for marksmanship that Bob programmed in now.

“You know you’re all welcome to use this room at any time,” Bob commented as he worked.

For the next few micro’s they were treated to watching Matrix shoot, dodge, run and jump through the various practice sessions.

“Overall score, ninety-six percent first try. Very good Matrix.” Bob spoke to him through the comm.

“Thanks but I’d like to try for one hundred.”

“You got it,” and Bob increased the skill level.

A few micros later Rule approached, “Prime Guardian?”

“Yes Rule.”

“I have an urgent message for Ms. Matrix.”

Dot, who had been watching Matrix with pride, turned to the young cadet, “What is it?”

“Phong requests that you return to Mainframe immediately. There apparently is a problem with your little brother.”

“What? Enzo?”

Bob gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze, “Hey, I’m sure he’s fine. Why don’t you head on over to the portal room? Rule, what’s the weather like?”

“Actually, we’re down to a drizzle, sir. A portal may be possible.”

“Have them prepare the portal generator,” Bob said, then to Dot he said, “I’ll give Katiyana a call and have her watch things and then we’ll all go. There’s little more we can do now with the hurricane almost upon us anyway.”

“All right Bob,” Dot said. “What in the net could be wrong now?”

* * *

Enzo and Melissa spent most of their free time together now. Sometimes they would jet bowl or circuit race but they spent most of their time at Floating Point, talking. Enzo found Melissa was easy to talk to even if she didn’t understand a lot of things. Of course that was where Enzo came in. He liked being her teacher and she was a fast and eager learner.

They sat on the edge of an upper tier and looked down on the people below them, scurrying about like ants.

“Melissa, are you sure you don’t mind sitting here like this?” Enzo still sometimes had to fight to muster up enough energy to do things.

“No Enzo. As long as I’m spending the time with you.”

He smiled at that. She was his best friend. No one else seemed to understand him as well.

“I am curious as to what they are doing though,” she pointed below them to where a group of kids were playing baseball.

“It’s called baseball,” and Enzo gave her a brief explanation of the game.

“I see,” Melissa said. “I’d like to get a closer look.”

“Well, okay,” Enzo said. He wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. They tended to stay away from other kids because all of them reacted the same way to Melissa. Enzo had already been in several near fights that miraculously, Dot hadn’t heard about. Well, she had been busy.

They used their zip boards so not to draw any undue attention and from within a stand of data trees they watched the game.

“They seem to be having fun,” Melissa commented after awhile.

“Yeah,” Enzo said. Baseball was one of his all-time favorites.

Melissa looked at him, “Did you want to go over and play? I can stay here.”

“Well --,” he did want to play but quite honestly he knew the kids wouldn’t accept him. A lot of them knew he hung out with Melissa and the rest still feared Guardians so his relationship with Bob always came into play. “That’s okay. I like just watching.”

Melissa turned around abruptly, “Enzo.”

Three sprite boys were just making their way through the trees towards them. The trio didn’t see the sprite and virus at first and Enzo was hoping they could just slip away. No such luck, one of the boys saw them, “Hey, look at that!”

Enzo stepped in front of Melissa as they approached.

The first boy, a yellow-skinned sprite and the one that had spotted them said, “Hey, you’re that Matrix kid aren’t you?”

Since the boy was no older than Enzo, the question annoyed the green-skinned sprite, “Who you callin’ a kid, kid?”

“No way! Link, look at that,” the second said as he motioned to Melissa, “It’s that she-virus.”

“That she-virus has a name,” Enzo said coldly.

“Yeah, so what?” The first boy said. “What are you some kind virus-lover?”

Enzo felt his face warm, “Yeah, so what if I am? It’s none of your business.”

Enzo know it was the wrong thing to say. The expression on their faces turned mean.

“You trying to start something?” the first asked.

“Only if you are.”

“Do you know what we do to virus lovers in this system?”

“This is my system, null-brains. My sister runs this place, so you don’t do anything here.”

“Oh yeah, big wup. Bet you think you’re hot chips don’t you?”

Melissa spoke for the first time, “Why don’t you go away and leave us alone?”

“She talks,” the boy named Link said.

“What you gonna do, virus?” The first boy said, “You can’t hurt us. You’ll get into trouble.”

“Don’t lay your chips on that,” Melissa said.

“Look we don’t want any trouble, okay?” Enzo said.

“Wuss,” Link snickered.

“Who are you calling, wuss?” Enzo stepped forward.

“You, wussy-boy, what are you going to do about it?”

Enzo caught him in his flying tackle before the boy could say anything further. The next thing the little sprite knew he was taking on all three of them. He remembered little about the fight, except Melissa screaming for them all to stop and his yelling at her not to use her power, knowing what trouble that would cause.

The one called Link, gave him a black eye and Enzo returned the favor by bloodying his nose and sending the boy running home crying to his mother. Enzo had the first boy on the ground and was pounding him good when there was a flash of light and Hexadecimal appeared. One of her jester grins had the first boy wetting himself and the second running.

Hex had then gathered them both up and teleported them to the Principal Office, right before a startled Phong. The venerable sprite escorted Enzo to the infirmary. He had a few scratches and bruises and the shiner, but was okay and felt good because he knew he had protected Melissa.

He felt good that is, until Phong told him he had called Dot.

***

The portal flickered several times, sparked, then collapsed.

“Oh dear,” Phong said.

“I guess the storm started again,” Dot turned to Bob. “Guess we’re all stuck here for now.”

“I don’t know whether to be glad or furious. I can’t afford to stay away from the Super Computer for very long,” Bob said, then sighed, “But it is good to be home.”

“And since you haven’t slept in ages, I suggest you do it.”

“Not until we’ve talked to Enzo,” Bob said.

Dot raised an eyebrow. We? She supposed she would have to get used to that. It was just that she was so used to taking care of Enzo, that the thought of someone else having a say in his discipline was a little too unsettling for Dot. Still if Bob was going to play a larger part in both their lives she would have to accept the fact that he’d be an integral voice in Enzo’s upbringing.

“All right Bob,” Dot said, “Matrix, you come along, too. There’s something I need for you to do for me afterwards.”

“Sure Dot.”

“AndrAIa, if you would assist me with possibly getting the portal generator in working order?” Phong said.

“All right.”

“We can go over the information Rose gave us, sugah,” Mouse said to Ray. “Unless you’ve got other ‘things’ to do.”

“Oh of all the ruddy --” Ray began, “Dot, is everything ready?”

“Ready and waiting Ray,” Dot said.

“Now what’s going on with you two?” Mouse demanded.

“Since we’re here,” Ray said taking Mouse’s arm, “You might as well know, come on.” He pulled Mouse from the room.

“She’s going to be surprised,” Dot said as they began walking.

“What’s it all about, Dot?”

“Yeah, sis, don’t leave us in a lurch.”

“Well, since everyone will find out anyway – Ray rented a condo from me, in your building as a matter of fact, Bob.”

“Wait a nano,” Bob said, “You own my building?”

“Oh, don’t be so surprised.”

“Yeah, geez, Bob.”

“But that means I’ve been paying you rent!”

“You have a problem with that?”

“Next time we go out dinner is on you,” Bob muttered.

“So why did he rent the condo?” Matrix asked.

“Well, since he’s in Mainframe so much and I guess he plans on extending his stay, he wants a place to park Baud,” Dot smiled mysteriously, “And he wants to ask Mouse to – um – share space with him.”

“No way, really?” Matrix sounded a little more like Enzo, “Ray and Mouse keeping house.”

“Oh,” Dot groaned, “That was awful little brother.”

Bob had a strange look on his face. Dot wondered what it meant.

***

Enzo was sitting on the couch watching TV with Ronnie; Baby Dot was in Ronnie’s lap when Dot entered.

“Enzo?”

Her younger version brother was holding an ice pack up to his eye but he lowered it, and he blushed, when Dot had spoke.

“Enzo, what in the Net!” Dot crossed the room and knelt before him. “Thanks for watching him, Ronnie.”

“Anytime,” Ronnie lifted Baby Dot up and left the room.

Dot took Ronnie’s place beside him on the couch. Bob sat on the java table. Matrix leaned against the wall.

“Well young man, what have you got to say for yourself?”

“They started it,” Enzo said.

“Who started what?” Dot said.

“Three guys came up and started picking on us,” Enzo said, “So what was I supposed to do? I gotta protect Melissa.”

“You could have just walked away,” Dot said. “I don’t ever want to hear of you fighting again, is that clear? Look at you! A black eye! I’ve never had to worry about things like this before --”

“But Dot, geez, what was I supposed to do? Let them pound on me? And what about Melissa? She can’t use her powers and I’m not going let anybody pick on her.”

“Enzo --”

“Dot, may I speak with you in the kitchen?” Bob interrupted.

Dot gave him a scathing look, which quickly faded when she saw the earnest expression on his face, “All right. You stay put, young man.”

“Yes, Dot.”

Dot followed Bob into the kitchen. The first thing he said was, “I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“Oh – well – you seemed kind of angry --”

“I was for a nano, but I’ve realized that you’re going to have a bigger part in raising him now. I just have to get used to it.  Be patient with me?” She smiled at him.

“Of course, I understand,” Bob said, “I just wanted to say a few things to you.”

“All right”

“He’s a little boy,” Bob said. “Little boys get black eyes and scraped knees and they get into fights.”

Dot glanced around him to the living room with some apprehension, “I know. It’s just that – I’ve never had to worry about that before. His getting into fights I mean.”

“Because there were no sprites his age to get into fights with?”

“Yes,” Dot sighed, “It is going to be different now, especially since he’s friends with Melissa, and all these strangers are in Mainframe and they’re not used to how we do things here. They're not into our usual ‘stick together’ attitude.”

“You have to be patient with us guys,” Bob smiled, “We learn eventually, when you women keep on us.”

Dot returned his smile, loving him all the more, “Well,” she nodded past him, “at least some good came of it.”

Bob turned and was surprised to see Matrix, standing by the couch, talking to Enzo. The brawny sprite was showing his young counterpart a basic fighting move – an elbow jab – and Enzo was nodding. Bob and Dot waited a few nanos before reentering the living room.

“And remember, Kid,” Matrix was saying as the couple approached, “Next time, duck.”

“Sure Matrix,” Enzo said, rather grudgingly, “Thanks.”

“Enzo,” Dot said, “I understand you were trying to protect Melissa, but I want you to promise me if you can walk away from now on you will, all right?”

“All right Dot, I promise.”

“And by the way, you’re grounded for two cycles.”

“Aw Dot --!”

“To your room until dinner’s ready,” Dot said.

“But Dot --”

“You heard Dot,” Bob said, “Get moving, Little Man.”

Enzo expelled a frustrated breath, but obeyed. Dot sighed as she watched him go.

“I’m glad it wasn’t too serious,” Bob said.

“Yes,” the she turned to her bigger brother format, “Matrix, there’s something I want you to check on for me. I’m sure you remember Captain Syn?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Well I’ve had Hack and Slash tailing him but their reports have been somewhat vague,” Dot said, “I need a professional who can track Syn and let me know what he’s up to. As far as I can tell, he’s been hanging around with this group of leftovers from the war.”

“Why haven’t the CPU’s been rounding them up?”

“They don’t have the manpower or the training,” Dot said, “Most of our seasoned CPU’s were deleted during the war.” Dot tilted her head and tapped her chin with one slim finger, “Maybe you can do something about that to, for now, I’d like a full report on Syn.”

“You got it, sis,” Matrix said.

“And you,” Dot turned to Bob, “You get some downtime.”

“Aw Dot --”

“Don’t you whine to me, mister,” Dot said. “As soon as the connection to the Super Computer is open we’ll let you know. I have to get down to the docks and check on the Saucy Mare’s progress, I’ve got about one hundred e-mails to read, and I have to reconfigure the security grid for--”

“Okay, okay, I’m going,” Bob walked towards the door where Matrix was waiting for him.

“She still does that! How does she do that?”

“If you mean get everyone to do what she says, I still haven’t figured that out.” Matrix replied.

***

Bob woke up later that evening. Since he hadn’t received any calls, he assumed the portal generator still wasn’t in working order. Of course, he could always try creating his own, but he’d need a tear for that and there was still no guarantee he could make one to the Super Computer without the storm disrupting it. With his luck he’d end up being dumped in the web again.

So he slipped his boots on and headed for the Principal Office. He found Dot in her office there, working away at her organizer. She didn’t notice him until he knocked on the doorframe.

She looked up and smiled, “Oh hi, handsome,” she said.

It was the first time she had said he was handsome and Bob found that he liked it, “I’m assuming that the portal generator isn’t in working order?”

“The last I checked, AndrAIa was swearing at it and Phong was just standing there drinking cocoa and shaking his head.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Matrix is still on Level 31 with Hack and Slash,” Dot shook her head, “He hasn’t deleted them yet. He just reported a few nanos ago and all’s quiet. Syn has been drinking alone at Al’s and no one’s approached him.”

“Good,” Bob said.

“As for Ray and Mouse – well, since I’ve not heard from or seen either of them, Mouse must have liked the apartment,” Dot blushed slightly.

An idea had been doing the rounds in Bob’s processor and he figured now was as good a time as any to bring it to light, “It’s good that they’re sharing space. It’ll give them a better chance to get to know each other.”

“Umm hmm,” Dot said, already deep into her organizer again.

Bob rubbed his hands together in a nervous gesture. Well here goes everything, “So,” he said, “Um – what about us?”

Dot’s fingers froze in mid-type. She turned her head slowly and regarded him carefully, “What?”

“Um--” Bob couldn’t believe how nervous he was. They had been intimate and yet Bob found himself reacting like he was asking her out for the first time. He moved closer to stand beside her chair. “It’s just that – I like it when I’m with you and --” User, did he sound as lame as he thought he did?

“Bob,” Dot said, carefully, “Are you saying we should live together?”

“Um – yeah.”

For a moment she didn’t speak and that made him all the more nervous, “Look Dot,” he needed to break the silence, “I know I could say something like, ‘the very thought of spending all my waking moments with you fills me with ecstasy’, although it does – I mean I know we kind of have this unspoken agreement but – I mean, wouldn’t this be a great chance to get to know each other better?” He was babbling and he knew it, but he figured if he kept talking she wouldn’t have a chance to say no.

She was smiling slightly at him now. Oh no, was she laughing at him?

“Bob,” she said at last. “How can I resist those big brown eyes and that quirky smile?”

“Quirky?” Bob said, “Is that good or bad?”

She laughed lightly, “All right, Bob but you have to promise me one thing.”

“Wait a nano, is this a yes?”

“Of course,” Dot said, “But I’d like for you to talk to Little Enzo first to make sure it’s okay with him. Come by for dinner in a few milliseconds.”

A grin spread across Bob’s face and his core-com literally danced, “I thought we could give Matrix and AndrAIa my old place – that is, unless you want to move into my place--?”

“Um -- no,” Dot smiled, “Giving your place to them is a good idea. They’ll have a place of their own instead of being in the P.O.’s guest quarters.”

“Then I’ll see you in a few milliseconds?”

“Okay.”

Bob turned, walked a few steps out of the room, he pumped his arm in triumph and said at the same time, “Yes!”

***

Earlier that second, Mouse flew with Ray on Surf Baud. The search engine was uncharacteristically silent.

Mouse hadn’t meant to pry but she couldn’t stand it that he had gone off like that without telling her what the ‘things’ were about. Oh well, guess she was going to find out.

She was surprised to find they were heading for the Eight Ball Arms in Kits.

“What you up to, sugah?”

“You’ll see, love.”

They flew around to the entrance of one of the apartments. To her surprise, Ray took a key card from his belt and opened the door. The place was similar to Bob’s, with a large interior garage adjacent to the living area. The only difference between this place and Bob’s was that it was completely empty.

Curious, Mouse hopped off Baud and Ray leaned the board against the nearest wall.

“Come on love,” Ray walked ahead and Mouse followed.

Without furniture or decorations, the place was roomy and starkly lit. Mouse imagined curtains on the windows, pictures on the walls; the floor was hardwood, which was the way Mouse liked it, so it would stay as it was. It could use a bit of polishing though. Mouse smiled inwardly. She seldom if ever thought of things like that. Never took the time, she thought. So why had she thought that way now?

“Um – I guess you’re wondering why I brought you here,” Ray said.

“The thought had crossed my mind, sugah.”

“Well – um – I was,” Ray sighed, “You’re back’s been hurting you on that cot.”

Mouse turned and regarded him mildly. She had never seen him this nervous, which meant whatever was on his mind was serious. “And?”

“Well I thought, maybe if I – if we got a place like this,” Ray said, “That is if we shared a place – well we could have somewhere to hang our hats when we needed to.”

Mouse hadn’t been that shocked in quite a long time, “Ray honey, are you saying we should live together?”

“Well – it wouldn’t be living together – just sharing space – I mean,” Ray winced, “I’m not saying we should settle down, User knows neither of us wants that. I’m saying you know whenever we happen to be in Mainframe, together or not, we’ll have a place to crash.”

Mouse turned away her processor working while she contemplated his offer. Ray continued to speak.

“It has two bedrooms,” Ray said, “I took the liberty of getting us a few things, just preliminaries mind you. Anyway, I think this would be a good chance to get to know each other better and well since we’ll be in Mainframe for awhile at least I hope we are--”

“Sugah, you’re beginning to sound like Little Enzo.”

“Oh – um – sorry.”

Mouse walked around, her boots echoing on the hardwood. She let her eyes travel around the place, liking it all the more. And the idea of sharing space with Ray Tracer had a certain appeal.

“So what do you say love?”

Mouse shrugged, “I like the place. Let’s do it.”

Ray’s eyes went wide for a nano, “Oh, um, yeah – yeah! Okay – you mean moving in, right.”

What else did he think she meant?

“So that’s what you and Dot were talking about. She owns this place too? I’ll bet Bob will be fit to be tied when he finds out.”

The doorbell rang. “That would be our stuff,” Ray said.

Deliverymen brought in several packages and boxes. Mouse watched with interest. They turned out to be several pairs of blinds and various items for the kitchen and bathroom that Ray had purchased and Dot had arranged to be delivered.

“They can hang the blinds or we can do it ourselves,” Ray said as he tipped the deliverymen.

“It’s our place, so let's do it ourselves,” Mouse said.

For the rest of the afternoon the two sprites worked on getting their new place at least reasonably comfortable. Ray had also purchased an air mattress, which he inflated and spread on the living room floor.

Once the blinds were up. Mouse suggested they get dinner. She knew of a good Chinese place nearby and zipped down in a few nanos. On the way back, she picked up a bottle of sake.

She was surprised to find that Ray was lighting candles and placing them all around the rapidly darkening apartment.

“What happened, sugah?”

“Not sure love,” Ray smiled apologetically, “Something up with the electricity in the building. Didn’t you notice? I’ve got a call into the super.

Mouse hadn’t noticed if the other apartments were dark, she had been so intent on getting back.

“That’s okay sugah, this is nice,” Mouse put the bags on the floor and the bottle of sake, “Okay, we got General Tso’s Chicken, Moo Goo Gai Pan, Hunan Beef, some egg rolls and a bottle of sake.”

“Um -- love, sake goes with sushi doesn't it?”

Mouse waved him away, “Don’t bother me with facts, sugah.”

Ray chuckled, “You’ve got enough to feed a battalion of binomes here.”

“Well you weren’t specific with what you wanted.” Mouse removed handfuls of duck sauce from one of the bags, plus utensils and napkins, “Get us some cups.”

Ray dug through one of the bags and brought out a package of disposable cups.

Mouse set out the food them poured them each some sake. “So sugah, we’re going halfsies on this place, right?”

“I hope so,” Ray said.

“If you don’t mind my asking, just how do you make money?”

“The same way you do,” Ray said, “Look I can pull my own weight. I’m not a pauper or anything. I’ve got a little bit tucked away on several systems.”

“I wasn’t saying you couldn’t, sugah. I’m in the same boat.”

“So Dot said we could sign the lease anytime,” Ray said. “Six-forty a minute.”

“No problem.” Mouse frowned into her cup, “Can you warm this sake up?”

Ray clasped the cup between his hands and the low hum of his power had the liquid steaming, “How’s that?”

“Okay sugah, dig in.”

They spent a millisecond or so going over the information of their investigation again. Rose had nothing really new on the virus and its effects. She had given it a name – Hybrid-X.

“I don’t know what else we can do,” Mouse said, draining her second cup of sake. She pushed the Notepad away. “Until we can get back to the Super Computer, we’re at a deleted end.”

“Umm hmm,” Ray sighed, “Been awfully quiet hasn’t it?”

Mouse opened the Notebook again, although she knew she wouldn’t find anything new, “Yeah, I suppose everyone’s settled for the night.” She sighed and looked up at him, “You know --,”

Mouse halted abruptly at his look, “Um – more sake, sugah?”

“Sure,” he held out his cup, it was his third.

The look was making her nervous, it was almost as if he were angry. Ray’s intense gaze seemed to penetrate whatever walls she had erected. Nervously, she turned away and pretended to be studying their research, but she could still feel that fiery gaze on her.

“All right sugah, what’s wrong?” Mouse turned to him. “What bug do have up your ASCII?”

He gave an imperceptible smile, then the intense gaze returned. Calmly, silently, he sipped his drink.

“Ray Tracer, if you don’t answer me right now, I’m going to go random on you.”

Ray set the cup down and folded his arms on his raised knee. “So you’re going to make me spell it out for you?”

Mouse stared at him, “What in the net are you talking about?”

Ray crawled to her and pulled her to him, kissing her hungrily. When they parted he whispered, “Do you hear what I’m trying to say now?”

Mouse realized that the look he had been giving her had not been one of anger, but of desire. She had had her share of affairs, however brief. When she was through, she went her way and so did the man in question. As of late, no one had caught her interest, and of course she had been occupied with other things. Nothing had ever been serious, but after meeting Ray things seemed to change. Mouse wanted more. Ray wouldn’t be like the others. More than a fling, she had a feeling he wanted something much deeper. But there was something she needed to be certain of.

“Take off your goggles.”

“What?”

“Your goggles, take them off now.”

“It won’t be what you expect,” Ray warned.

“I don’t care. I want to see your eyes. I want to make certain it’s me you want.”

“You’re not certain?”

“Do it.”

Ray sighed and ran his hands around the side of his head. Strangely, Mouse realized for the first time that Ray didn’t have ears, at least none that she could see. There was an audible click and the search engine lowered his goggles from his face.

Mouse was mildly shocked. It couldn’t be helped, but she masked her reaction well, from hours of experience. What were supposed to be the whites of his eyes were black, and the irises were burgundy, encircled with blue. There was no visible pupil. Mouse leaned forward, fascinated. The blue circles seemed to pulse and glow with a life of their own. Mouse had never seen anything like it.

“Amazing,” she whispered.

“You – they don’t disturb you?”

“No sugah, I think they’re beautiful.”

His relief was evident. Abruptly, his look changed, became intense once again and Mouse felt a shiver race across her skin.

“Can’t you see how much I want you?” he said.

“Yes,” she framed his face with her hands and kissed him deeply. “I was wondering when you were gonna make a move. Now no more talking, sugah.”


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