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Hitori Ja Nai (You Are Not Alone)

a CAPOW tale by Dot and Dare

Lift me up (when I'm falling)
Lift me up (I'm weak and I'm dying)
Lift me up (I need you to hold me)
Lift me up (keep me from drowning again)

from "Flood", written and sung by Jars of Clay,

I. Samui

     Samui stared at the ceiling, counting the bumps she could make out by the light of the dawning sun.

     '717, 718, 719...'

     There would be no further sleep. The nightmares ensured that. It had gotten so bad that even if Samui merely closed her eyes, she could see the disturbing visions that plagued her nighttime hours.

     '724, 725, 726...'

     With each passing night, the nightmares became clearer and more violent. This time, Samui had been able to make out the faces of the bodies. Some of them looked disturbingly like people she knew.

     '741, 742, 743...'

     Her hands and feet were freezing, even though she was under two blankets. She darted a glance at the clock. 7:30 a.m. Three more hours until Talon would come by, and then the two would head down to the office for the previous day's reports.

     '780...forget it. Might as well get up now.' Summoning her strength, Samui rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom.

     "You look terrible," she told her reflection, inspecting the dark circles under her eyes.

     A while later, Samui emerged from a hot shower, feeling slightly refreshed, but still tired. Methodically, she entered the kitchen, filled a kettle with water, and set it on the stove, then popped a piece of bread into the toaster. Somewhere outside, a clock tower's bells tolled eight times.

     The water was boiling by the time Samui came back into her apartment with the paper. Setting the paper on the kitchen table, Samui took a tea packet out of the box sitting on the counter and dropped it into her favorite mug, then poured the hot water into it. She also took out the (slightly burnt) toast and set it on a plate. Finally, she sat down and opened the paper to the headlines, eating as she read.

     At 8:45, Samui gathered her dirty clothes and headed to the laundromat. While her clothes were in the washer, and then the dryer, she read Asimov.

     By the time Samui finished putting her clothes away, it was slightly past ten. She headed back into the kitchen and poured herself another cup of water from the kettle.

     --screams of horror and pain and flash of knife and he went down--

     Samui's grip tightened on the cup until it shattered. She stared at the glittering fragments of glass, her pulse racing.

     "No..." she whispered.

     --stop please stop please dont kill me blood dripping like candle wax--

     Samui fell to her knees, wrapping her arms around her body as if it suddenly turned cold. She began to rock back and forth. "No..."

     --bodies everywhere blood everywhere clothes bloody somebody still alive guts coming out--

     Samui hugged herself even tighter. "Nonononononono..." ---      Blink. The cold steel cuffs were slapped hard on Talon's wrists. Piece of shit, they spat at him. Thought you could get away with it, they yelled at him. They prodded him along, tripped him, and he fell to the ground. He felt pain as someone's boot hit the back of his head, his mouth rubbing against the dirt.

     Blink. He was kneeling, his neck rested on a piece of wood. He could hear the angry crowd yelling his name over and over. Talon. Talon. Talon. A burly man with a black hood stood menacingly over him, fingering the edge of an axe keenly. Talon struggled futilely but the ropes were securely fastened to his wrists and ankles. The chanting grew louder and louder.

     Blink. The executioner lifted his cowl. Talon gasped. The man spit into his hands and gripped the handle of the heavy axe. "Time to give the devil his due," the man said with a smile. With a mighty heave, he drew the axe up and hurled the blade at Talon's neck.


     Talon awoke with a jolt. His face was drenched with sweat, his heart was pounding hard. A dream, it was just a dream. He checked the clock. Eight in the morning. Why did he feel so tired? Wearily, he got up and headed to the washroom. Wringing a wet towel, he patted his face and soaked the towel in the warm water.

     He nearly missed a beat.

     The sink was red.

     Talon looked up in the mirror. Blood was dripping down his neck.

     Talon screamed. ---      Room 119 of the UCHWAN was where Samui Namida stayed. She was a woman of average height, measuring about 5'6", with a lean, fit figure. Her hair was green, which may have been odd, but what was even stranger were her almond-shaped eyes and how they had no pupils. It was like she was in some sort of trance-like state all the time.

     Talon didn't think much of his partner in terms of appearance. It wasn't polite to judge people by their looks. Plus, you usually got everything wrong. Talon Gauss knew his partner better than that, or at least he thought so. He rembembered the first time they met. Talon was hired to find an exiled King and Samui was the one protecting him, but at the time, he didn't know that. Instead, he was under the impression that she had kidnapped him. They fought, him with his staff and her with a ridiculous mop with the end broken off. Talon chuckled every time he thought about her holding that mop, a determined look on her face and every incentive to protect her charge. To him, it was quite a funny picture in his head.

     They worked well, it seemed, when Talon learned the truth about those who hired him. Samui offered him a job, to be her partner. At first, Talon didn't want it. He was a loner, he didn't like getting close to someone else. It might mean he would hurt them. Like, like that time, that boy. But he resisted his urge to run away. It was what he had been doing so well all his life, running away. So he accepted a place in the Space-Time Regulation Agency.

     The Space-Time Regulation Agency did not have any sort of 9-to-5 policy for its agents. The only real imperative they had was to receive daily briefings from their superiors. Otherwise, it was your own time to do as you pleased. Nobody expected agents to be in the office, either, except to receive those briefings or to clear up some paperwork. That was why Samui insisted they get some extra hours of sleep during non-peak periods.

     So Talon found himself outside room 119 of the UCHWAN, glancing at his watch. He was there every morning at the same time, 10:37am. The very first time Samui had arranged for him to pick her up, it was 10:37am. There was nothing unusual about that. However, the second morning following, he had shown up a little earlier, about twelve minutes early. He was about to knock on her door when something had stopped him. He didn't know what or why, but something told him it was too early. He had stood outside her doorway, staring at the embossed numbers 1-1-9 for exactly twelve minutes before knocking on her door.

     The third day, he had arrived seven minutes early, and again, there was an urge not to knock. One of the local residents passed him in the hallway, giving him a suspicious but casual glance. Talon checked his watch casually as well, hoping to appear as if nothing was wrong. The woman walked away but he had thought he saw her shaking her head slightly. He had frowned, wondering what was the matter with him. After the seven minutes were up, he knocked on the door and Samui was there to greet him.

     Today, he was lucky. He checked his watch and it was 10:35am. He was two minutes early. He was so used to the routine now that he leaned back against the wall opposite her door. He had memorized everything about the embossed numbers. There was a small scratch on the bottom of the second one, a slight chink at the top-right corner of the first digit. The nine was slightly duller than the the two ones and the screw holding up the top of the nine wasn't securely fastened as the others. The eyehole below the middle of the one was slightly to the left and there were scratches around the copper border of it. Talon knew all this without having to look, the result of several days of staring at the door.

     He checked his watch. It was time. He yawned, putting a hand over his mouth. He wasn't getting very good sleep lately, but he couldn't figure out why. Getting off from the wall, he knocked on her door and instinctively stepped back and put on a smile. Nobody answered. Odd, he thought. Of all the times he had been here, she was never usually late in opening the door. Sometimes he wondered if she stood on the other side of the door, watching him, and the minute--no, the second--he knocked she would open the door. But not so today.

     He knocked again. Could she be in the shower? No, her hair was never wet when she greeted him, which seemed to suggest she didn't shower in the morning. His heart began to race. Where was she? Maybe she was doing this on purpose, to see how he would react. He didn't preclude the idea entirely. There was so much about her he didn't know, that sometimes he felt he didn't _want_ to know. Everyone had their privacy, their deep dark secrets. What skeletons are you hiding in your closet, Samui?

     Talon knocked again, a little more rapidly. He jiggled the doorknob, but found it locked.

     "Samui?" he called out. "Samui, are you there? It's Talon. Open up, please. Samui? SAMUI!" His voice was growing desperate.

     Finally, he decided. Pulling back, he gave himself a small start and threw his shoulder against the door, hard. He gave it a few more hits before the door gave in entirely. He landed on the floor and right above her face. Samui's body was lying on the floor, twitching in pain, almost convulsing. She was sweating heavily, and the rivlets of water that dripped on the floor contained traces of blood.

     "SAMUI!" ---      "This is bad," Dr. Jikuza Hino said. The old doctor rubbed an eye. he put the clipboard down at the foot of Samui's bed in the STRA infirmary. There were many monitors hooked up to Samui's still body. She was giving some hypo-sprays for her convulsions, and she seemed to be resting peacefully now. Somehow, though, Talon knew that was anything but the case.

     "What's wrong, Doctor?" Talon asked concernedly.

     "She's in a coma. Her mind is active, but it's not responding to any of the treatments I've tried. It's like she's blocking us out."

     "Isn't there something we can do?" Talon's voice was growing hoarse.

     "Well, obviously we're dealing with some kind of mental illness." Dr. Hino scratched his chin. "There's a procedure we could try, but untested and could be very dangerous--"

     "Do it!" Talon said without letting him finish.

     The doctor put his hands up. "Whoa, hold it! Let me continue. There's as much risk to the person as to Samui. You could lose your mind in there. We could end up losing both people."

     "Fine, I'll do it." Talon began removing his jacket.

     The doctor was almost taken aback. "Didn't you hear what I just said? If you go in her mind, you're subject to her rules. She could rip your mind apart in a flash! Don't you get what I'm saying, boy? It's dangerous for you to go in there alone and hope to save her mind as well!"

     "Then I'll go with him," a woman's voice said from behind them.

     The two turned around, astonished, to find a stranger before them. She was old, but not in the sense that she was getting into her years. Far from it, her face was smooth and her features were stunning, the most prominent of which was her rich black hair that cascaded down her back in a low boyish ponytail. Talon saw right away, however, that her dark eyes were much too old for someone who looked so young.

     The woman walked to Samui's bed and gently caressed the comatose agent's cheek. She took Samui's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. "It's been a long time," she whispered softly. She gently put Samui's hand back on the bed.

     "Who are you, if you don't mind my asking?" Talon spoke up.

     The woman looked up. "I will be your guide inside her mind." She smiled. "I was--no, am--Samui's mentor." ---      Talon raised an eyebrow. "Mentor?"

     The woman nodded. "It's a long story. You'd better sit down." Talon pulled up a chair and sat in it, and the woman did the same. "First off, I think some introductions are necessary." The woman held out her hand. "Shelly McLaughlin."

     Talon took her hand, and felt the rough callouses on her palm. "Talon Gauss."

     "I take it that you are aware of other universes?"

     Talon nodded. "I've passed through a few."

     "I won't bore you with how these universes are thought to be formed, since that's not what's important right now. You see, in one of these universes, the world was ruled by many large corporations which fought intensely among themselves. Before long, the arms race had escalated to enormous proportions...and the age of living weapons began." Shelly sighed. "Cyborg technology had already been around, but the realm of artificial intelligence was a new and relatively unexplored territory. But eventually, someone came to realize that it was only necessary to program some sort of learning algorithm into a robot, and 'teach' it the necessary skills."

     "So...what does any of this have to do with Samui?" Talon asked, already half guessing where Shelly was heading.

     Shelly drew in a long breath. "Well, you could say that she's an android, but it's a whole lot more complicated than that."

     Talon blinked, but he didn't feel too surprised at learning this news. He had seen Samui do some pretty amazing things that were definitely impossible for a human being her size, like dodge bullets. "Is that why she's so unemotional?"

     "No, Samui is just as human as either one of us." Shelly looked at Samui sadly. "She's that way because she's under the mistaken impression that people wouldn't get hurt because of her if she doesn't get close to them."

     Indeed, Talon realized, Samui was always very formal to everyone around her, and never made any effort to make their relatioship any more than that of colleagues. Additionally, Shelly never talked about herself, and rarely made herself the center of anyone's attention. Sometimes, it even felt as if Samui could disappear into her surroundings if she stayed quiet enough.

     "Samui is terrified of what she's able to do," Shelly continued. "And even more terrified that one day, she'll lose her control over her abilities." Shelly reached out and traced her finger along the bandaged wrapped around Samui's hand. "She must have collapsed because she thought that was what would happen." She looked back up at Talon. "You still want to do this?"

     "Absolutely." ---      The triangular metal clips that they put on Talon's hair made him, in his opinion, look a bit like a cat.

     "They help transmit the neural signals better," Shelly explained, also putting a clip into her hair.

     "I'll take your word for that," Talon replied a bit dubiously as he sat down in the strangely shaped chair.

     Shelly also sat down and forced a smile. "Well, at least you don't have to wear a ridiculously tight suit."

     "Er..." Talon, even though he wasn't quite sure what so funny about that, also forced a smile. "Right." He quickly regained his seriousness. "Shall we proceed?" ---      "...absolute borderline passed."

     The world swirled with a cacaphony of colors, making Talon feel like he was passing through a tunnel.



     A white circle glowed around him, and his head cleared immeadiately.

     "Sorry about that," Shelly apologized from behind him. "I should have warned you."

     "How did you do that?" Talon wondered with amazement, staring at the bright globe surrounding them.

     Shelly shrugged. "Good question. I've never really thought about it."

     The barrier Shelly erected cast light in a radius several feet wide. In the distance, however, Talon could see a distinct dark wall.

     "You think that's where we should be headed?" Talon asked, indicating the wall.

     Shelly nodded. "It's worth a look." ---      Talon ran his hand along the wall. "Doesn't look very interesting."

     Shelly raised a hand and mumbled some words. "Look again."

     Talon did, and felt his knees go weak. "My God..." he whispered.

     Samui's soul had taken the form of a very young child. The oversized t-shirt she wore barely covered the bruises and scars that were all over her body. Apparently unaware of anyone else, she continued to hug her knees to her chest, her downcast eyes full of fear.

     " foolish, foolish girl..." Shelly murmured, holding back tears.

     Talon pounded hard on the 'wall', but nothing happened. "Damn! What is this stuff made of?"

     Mournfully, Shelly shook her head. "I don't know, but I'm pretty sure that Samui can't see or hear us."

     Out of frustration, Talon gave the wall a kick. "Why? Why is she doing this to herself?"


     /The man was on his knees, pleading and crying for his life. But she shot him in the head anyway./

     "Talon?" Shelly turned to see Talon slump to the ground.

     /Everyone was dead, and everything was burning. And she was next./

     Shelly touched Talon's hand, and gasped at how cold it had turned.

     /She bit her lip to keep herself from crying out while they beat Kent senseless. Each time a hit landed, her heart broke a little more./

     Shelly shook Talon's shoulder, hard. "Snap out of it, Talon!"

     /Chi-Chi was dying, and there was nothing she could do except hold onto the frail, thin hand and watch as Chi-Chi's life slipped away./

     Shelly looked into the barrier. "I see," she whispered.

     /He dropped the sword he was holding. "I-I'm sorry," he stammered. "I've been a little jumpy lately."/

     A tear, both of happiness and pain, slid down Shelly's face. She placed a hand on the wall. "Good bye, Samui. I wanted so much to see you again."

     /The small girl wrapped her arms around her in an unpretentiously kind gesture. "Hi!" she greeted, not at all afraid of her./

     Giving Samui one last fond look, Shelly took out a small device and pressed a button on it. "My job is done," she reported. And with that, she disappeared.

     /He gave her a lopsided smile. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's go!"/ ---      Talon opened his eyes. Wait. Something didn't quite seem right. He looked down at himself, and discovered that he was still wearing his clothes, but they had somehow gotten much too big for him.

     "What...?" His voice came out at a much higher pitch. Talon felt his face, and as he suspected, it felt much too soft to be that of a soldier's.

     Talon forgot all of that when he saw Samui practically right in front of him.

     "Samui," Talon called out hesitantly. She looked up at him, but made no indication that she recognized him. Talon took in a deep breath, and held out her hand. "Please." He wondered what to say next.

     When he saw Samui's eyes light up, he understood that he didn't really need to say anything more.

     Her tiny hand reached up to his equally tiny hand.

     Contact. ---      Talon opened his eyes and tried to sit up, but his body refused to cooperate. There didn't seem to be an ounce of energy left in his body except what was necessary to keep him alive. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Samui sitting up, and somehow managed to turn his eyes toward her.

     "Welcome back, Talon," she greeted softly. "And thank you."

     And then she smiled. Not the polite, formal smile of "Tomoe" nor the overly cheerful (but obviously fake) smile of "Soujirou", but the smile of someone truly at peace with herself. She almost looked like she was glowing.

     Talon smiled back. "No sweat, but I hope I never have to do that again." He turned to the other chair, and was surprised to find it empty. "Did Shelly leave before I woke up?"

     Samui drew in a breath. "Shelly was here?"

     Talon nodded. "She helped me make it to you without getting overwhelmed by your mind."

     Samui got to her feet and walked over to the other chair. "Yes, she was definitely here," she muttered to herself, picking up two metal clips. She looked into the distance, as if concentrating on something far away.

     "Uh...Samui?" Talon prompted a bit worriedly.

     Samui put the clips down. "I'm all right. It's just that Shelly's been presumed dead for a few years now, and I haven't seen her since she retired right before that." She shook her head. "But enough dwelling in the past." She smiled again. "How would you like to have some cheescake at 'The Brighter Side of Insomnia'? My treat."

     This time, Talon grinned. "Sure, as soon as I can walk." --- "Even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me."

From the 23th Psalm --- II. Talon

     The cheesecake at The Brighter Side of Insomnia never tasted better, Talon thought as they walked out of the dessert cafe. He snuck a sidelong glance at his partner. She looked as emotionless as ever, but for Talon, he knew that meant she was perfectly fine.

     "I wonder what I should do with all this vacation time?" Samui wondered aloud.

     "Relax and take it easy, Samui," Talon advised. "Even if you feel perfectly fine, you've still gone through quite an experience. I think you deserve this little break."

     "I guess it will be nice not to have to go back to the office for a while and nothing hanging over me."

     Talon was just about to agree when a sharp light briefly blinded their eyes. Horizontal lines appeared in the air and expanded vertically. Uniformed men quickly stepped from the illuminated gateways. There fatigues were blue and black with no marking insignias. Most wore face shields over their faces so that their identities could not be seen. Instead, they gave off a shiny reflection. They were all armed with short rifles, which were expertly pointed at Talon and Samui.

     The last man to exit the gateway was different. His uniform had gold stripes lining it and he wore no face guard. He did have a determined look in his eye and a proud smirk across his lips. "Ah, Talon, so we finally caught you."

     "Braxus," Talon spat.

     Samui noticed the tension drop slightly in Talon's posture. "You know him?" she asked. She turned to Braxus. "Who are you people?"

     "Quiet!" he barked. "We're not interested in you. Talon, you son of a bitch, you thought you could escape justice? By order of the legate, I hereby arrest you for the murder of Tarwin Jeel. Will you come peacefully?" He smirked even more. "Or will you resist?"

     Talon's shoulders slumped resignedly. "I will go on the condition that my friend is not harmed."

     Samui stood up. "Hold on."

     "Like I said, we're not interested in her! Take him!" One of the men clasped solid metal cuffs around Talon's wrists and started pushing him toward the gateway.

     Samui tried to move forward, but she was blocked by Braxus' rifle. "Don't interfere, girl. Justice will be served. Talon is a murderer and he will be tried for his crimes."

     "All right, you leave me no choice." Samui pulled out her badge. "By Article of STRA Law, I request that this man remain under our custody until proof of his guilt can be brought forth."

     "I don't think so, miss." Braxus glared at Samui, but she stood her ground. The tension in the air was almost palpable for a full minute. "Now, move, before I arrest you for obstruction of justice."

     "Please," Talon added softly.

     "Very well." Samui stepped aside.

     "Now that wasn't so hard, was it?" Braxus asked with a smirk. He motioned with his rifle for the others to move out. The thin lines of light reappeared behind each man and they quickly stepped backwards through the gateway. Talon mouthed "sorry about this" to Samui as he was led through. ---      Itsuko looked up from the thick book of STRA laws and policies. "Sorry, Samui, but since the alleged crime happened well before Talon joined us, I'm afraid the immunity clause isn't going to apply."

     Samui slammed her hands onto Itsuko's desk. "Then give me permission to help Talon."

     "S-samui!" Itsuko stuttered, stunned by this sudden outburst.

     "I know it's not exactly standard procedure, but I'd rather be chewed out about innapropriate behavior than be court-martialed for out right disobedience."

     Itsuko looked into Samui's grey eyes, and realized that she was serious. "All right," she sighed. "Go. But please, don't do anything stupid, okay?" ---      The courtroom was unusually bright. The ceiling was high and the walls a neutral beige colour. Banners of the world hung along the walls, adding what little colour there was to the room. At one end was a large stand where the legate presided. To either side of his stand were two tables where the prosecution and defense sat. The single chair in the centre of the room was where Talon was seated, still cuffed with the metal braces.

     Braxus sat in the prosecution's station. Talon's appointed defense, a small man named Kedovar Sink, fumbled with his papers as the legate was getting settled into his chair. From the rumors, Kedovar was fresh from the bar and inexperienced. Such was the typical treatment "off-worlders" got here.

     The legate skimmed through the preliminary papers. "Case 114032A, the State vs. Talon Gauss, an off-worlder. Charged with the murder of Tarwin Jeel. Defense, what say you for your client?"

     Kedovar continued getting his papers in order. "Umm.. ummm," he started. He adjusted his glasses and stood up. "Umm," he started again, realizing he wasn't facing the legate so he smartly turned to his left. "Your honour, my client--"

     "My client requests a new attorney!" someone shouted as they burst into the courtroom.

     Talon turned around. It was Samui. "Samui, what are you doing here?"

     "Getting you out of this mess," she whispered. She turned to the legate. "Your honour, my client requests a new attorney. Under article 451B, subsection 3, subparagraph 12, heading 2, 'All accused are entitled to self-appointed attorney or if one cannot be provided, one will be appointed by the State.' Your honour, my client requests my services in his defense."

     "Samui! I told you not to get involved!" Talon hissed back.

     "Silence!" the legate ordered. He was a young man, younger than most legates in their judiciary system.

     "Your honour!" Braxus protested. "She's an off-worlder too, she has no jurisdiction here. I move that we dismiss her claim to defend Mr. Gauss."

     The legate mulled it over in his head. "On the contrary, Detective-Captain Braxus, since Talon is an off-worlder, he should be entitled to defense by one as well. I accept the motion."

     "But--" Braxus started.

     The legate turned to him. "I am the legate here and what I say is final, or have you forgotten the basic precepts of the judiciary system? If you continue to interrupt this court, I will find you in contempt. Do I make myself clear?"

     Samui almost smiled. ---      Talon was taken back to his holding cell where Samui stayed to review the papers with him. At first, Braxus was extremely reluctant to hand over the documents. Samui had to resort to quoting more legal sections regarding the proper distribution of information to both defense and prosecution. Braxus grumbled as he got the folders together. He even began ranting about how STRA was just a self-appointed tyrannical agency bent on ruling every world and that their world would never stand for it. Samui just ignored him.

     The case seemed fairly simple. Most crimes usually were. Talon, several years ago, was passing through this world looking for something. He got involved with a woman named Silmara Delene and they became lovers. At the same time, her estranged husband Tarwin Jeel was owing money to the Drifter Syndicate, a well-known crime organization with nearly one-third of control of the state and even the government. Jeel came to his wife looking for money but she refused to pay. Silmara reports that he started to become agressive and agitated. He threatened to ruin her career and life by exposing her as an off-world collaborator. Silmara had no choice but to gather the money. She and Talon went to Jeel's apartment to deliver it. Security cameras clearly show them entering and leaving. The police found Jeel's body an hour later and issued a warrant for both Silmara and Talon. Silmara was apprehended but Talon escaped somehow.

     "I don't want you involved in this," Talon insisted, a blank look on his face as he looked across his cell to the other wall. The cell was neatly furnished with a mattress on a steel frame and a toilet in the corner. A small counter was placed on the far wall where inmates could easily access a sink of clean water. The entrance was protected by force-field.

     "I'm not about to lose the first partner I got." Samui flipped through more documents. "Besides, I'm good at minding things that aren't my buisness."

     "Is this about before? You don't have to owe me. I don't want you to feel that you need to repay me for saving you earlier." Samui didn't respond to that. "Do you want to know if I killed him? I know you must be wondering."

     "No, not really," Samui said offhandedly.

     "I killed him. Yes, I did it. Okay? Can't you see you're wasting your time?"

     Samui looked up. "I don't believe that for a second. I know you, Talon, you're no killer. Who are you protecting? Is it Silmara?" Samui had all her attention on him.

     Talon blinked. "I'm not protecting anyone. It's the truth. I killed him."

     "Then where did you take the money?" Samui asked, changing topics.

     That caught him offguard. "Huh?"

     "The money," she pointed to the document, "the police say the money that Silmara had collected wasn't there when they arrived. So what happened to it?"

     "I don't know," Talon said honestly. "After we killed him, we left immediately. I guess Silmara forgot about the money."

     "'After WE killed him'?" Samui repeated with emphasis. "You just said you killed Tarwin. Talon, you don't make a very convincing liar. If you're gonna help me exonerate you, you need to be me helpful." Samui drew in a breath and leaned back in her seat. "Now, the money. It must have been a lot. The report says Tarwin was asking for several thousand credits. You guys just conveniently forgot about it?"

     "Honestly, we didn't take it with us! Actually, as I remember now, Silmara was upset that she forgot about the bag and wanted to go back. I convinced her not to."

     Samui stared at him a little. "Okay, I believe you. But if the police didn't have the money after arriving at the scene, who does? Was anyone else in the apartment? Any witnesses nearby even after you left?"

     "No, we saw no one."

     "Someone must have came by later to get that bag of money." Samui pulled out the console laptop she was giving and opened the data disc that held the security camera records. She watched, in fast forward motion, Talon and Silmara entering an apartment. The door was just in the lower right hand corner of the screen, just barely in the camera's field of vision. About ten minutes later, the camera showed the two leaving the apartment. She put the disc into faster speed and watched as an hour passed with nobody else entering the room. The police then showed up, led by Braxus and his men. They brought the body of Tarwin. She carefully noted the number of people who went in and out of the crime scene and from her best guess, she was able to assume that none of them had taken any bag. Acccording to Silmara in her deposition, the bag was fairly large and difficult to hide. Where could it have been?

     She frowned. Along the ceiling she made out a small white box that almost blended into the background. She set the zoom and magnification level to maximum. There was no mistaking it at the highest resolution that the white box was another security camera. ---      Braxus was at his desk, writing up a report on his pad when he felt a presence overshadow him. He looked up to see Samui. "What do you want?" he sneered.

     "Some manners would be a nice start," Samui said without any indication she was making a joke (or not).

     Braxus ignored her.

     "I want the other disc," Samui requested politely.

     "I beg your pardon?" Braxus responded in an almost insincere way.

     "There's a second security camera down the hall, I want to see what's on it."

     "The disc I gave you is suffcient. It clearly shows Talon and Silmara entering and leaving the premises. That's all you should need."

     Samui countered. "That camera has barely got half the door in its view. Who knows if someone slipped by unnoticed on this camera disc?"

     The detective-captain shook his head. "No, we searched the place carefully. Nobody came in after they left. My men are the best there are and they did a thorough job."

     "Then you won't mind giving me the other security disc."

     Reluctantly, he pulled out his drawer and produced a second disc. "Here, take it. I doubt you'll find anything. Talon is a murderer, simple as that. I've been in this field long enough to know things. If it looks like someone killed someone else, it's likely to be true. Justice will be served!"

     Samui took the disc in her palm and without so much as a smirk, she said, "Shove it." ---      "There." Samui pointed to the screen. "About twenty minutes after you left, look." The second security camera showed the door to Tarwin's apartment open slightly. A small man slid out, hugging the wall carefully. In his hand he held a bag. The man carefully looked up to the first security camera as he passed under it, undetected. "Who's that?"

     Talon slid over on his bed to see the screen. He shook his head. "I don't know that person."

     "Well, it's clear he has the money. If that's so, he probably knows what happened in the apartment. What _really_ happened. And I'm sure he can prove your innocence."

     Talon shook his head again. "Give it up, Samui. How are you going to find him? He's long gone by now."

     She tapped his bracer. "You can find him, with your Locate materia." They had neglected to remove it as they thought it was just some braclet that Talon wore. The purple materia was securely fastened to the metal bracer.

     "No can do, Samui," said Talon. "I can't locate someone from just some fuzzy image on security circuit."

     "But what about the bag? If you located the bag, you could find him?"

     "That's crazy! He's probably dumped the bag by now! Besides, I'd have to talk to Silmara to picture that bag in my head and I doubt they'd let me talk to her."

     Samui grabbed the bracer from Talon's wrist. "No, but I can." ---      Silmara was tired. Her eyes had dark rings under them and she looked haggard. She was a handsome woman, which is to say that she wasn't exactly beautiful but she wasn't ordinary either. She must have been several years older than Samui by appearance alone.

     "I need your help, Silmara Delene," Samui started. "I want you to describe that bag for me, the one that had all your money in it."

     "Why? Whatever for?"

     "So I can clear Talon Gauss for the murder of your ex-husband."

     "Clear Talon? Who are you?" Silmara asked.

     "I'm his partner."

     Silmara'e eyes widened. "You and Talon are married?"

     Samui coughed, her cheeks coloring slightly. "No, not _that_ kind of partner. We work together. Listen, I know he didn't kill Tarwin Jeel, and I can prove it, but I need your help."

     Silmara smiled, a sickly sweet smile. "I know Talon didn't kill Tarwin. I did."

     "You did?" Samui was almost taken aback.

     "Yes, I killed him, not Talon. I am going to take the blame for it."

     Samui's eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute, I see what's going on here. You two are trying to protect each other: he's going to take the blame for you, and vice versa. That's not going to work. They're just going to convict the both of you and where will that land you two?"

     "What? How?"

     Samui rolled her eyes upwards. "Of all the women in the world," she muttered to herself, "you'd think Talon could fall for someone a little smarter." She spoke up again. "Just describe that bag to me." She bored her eyes into Silmara's. "Quickly."

     " it's been a while. It's a brown bag with two thick handles. There's a zipper along the middle. Oh and it's leather and it's shaped like a bowling ball bag." She nodded to herself in confirmation.

     Samui raised an eyebrow. "You people still bowl?"

     "Absolutely!" Silmara nodded with a smile.

     Samui put a hand over her face. "Advanced society, I'm sure. Anything else you can remember about the bag in particular? Was it busted anywhere? Did the zipper stick? Anything?"


     Samui sighed and took out Talon's bracer. She had studied materia in one of her academy trainings about that dimension and she knew exactly how they worked. Additionally, since Talon had been in her mind, they were somehow linked. She cleared her mind, which was an easy task for her disciplined self, and began to focus on a bag that was once owned by this Silmara Delene. ---      Samui clutched her coat tightly to prevent the chill from blowing down her chest. The district was run-down and dank, but she wasn't very surprised at this sight. Societies like this one usually looked gleaming on the outside but if you looked closely, you could see the slums and areas where they neglected entirely in favour of the presentable places.

     The Locate materia pulsated rapidly although dully. It was a subtle sign that only the user could notice, and it meant that Samui was close to the bag. And, hopefully, the man in the security video. She found herself in front of an apartment door. She knocked several times before it opened a crack.

     "Excuse me, sir," she began, and decided to go for the direct approach. "Were you at the scene of the Tarwin Jeel murder?"

     The man's eye went wide and he backed off from the door. Bingo, Samui thought as she pushed the door open. By this time, the man was trying to crawl out a window, but Samui grabbed him by the hips and pulled him back in. He lunged for her but she easily grabbed him in midair and threw him against the wall. He slumped to the floor, still conscious.

     "So, you here to kill me?" The man demanded, although it was obvious he was terrified.

     "Why do you say that?" Samui asked.

     "Pretty damn obvious. I took the money, Drifter's been after me ever since and now you found me. Well, get on with it." He closed his eyes tightly.

     "I'm not with the Drifter Syndicate," Samui assured. "I'm not here to kill you. In fact, I'm here because I need your help."

     The man's eyes opened a little. "Really?"

     "Yes, you were a witness in the death of Tarwin Jeel. I saw you on the camera taking the money. I don't care about the money, I just need you to testify as to what happened."

     The man's expression changed to one of fear and desparation. "I can't! They'll kill me if I show my face in public!"

     "An innocent man is going to be executed for a murder he didn't commit," Samui said plainly. "You are the only one able to convince them of what happened."

     "That offworlder and that woman?" the man asked. "And what if I did see what happened? What if he did kill Tarwin, how's that going to help?"

     Samui shook her head. "I know Talon and I know he didn't kill him. I'll make you a deal. I'll offer you immunity if you help testify."

     "Immunity?" He laughed. "How are you gonna protect me from the Syndicate?"

     Samui offered her hand. "Namida Samui, STRA special agent."

     "STRA?" the man repeated. "I've heard of you people. Offworlders, pretty powerful. So, if I testify as to what I saw, you'll protect me?" Samui nodded. His face turned frantic again. "Then protect me!"

     Samui spun around to see three large men advancing. "Keylon Grayzer, you back-stabbing sonuvabitch! Nobody runs from the Syndicate."

     Samui stood up. "Mr. Grayzer is under my protection. If you'll excuse me, gentlemen, he has a court appearance to make." Samui opened her stance a little. They were clearly looking for a fight and in no mood to talk. Without any indication, they jumped her.

     Samui calmly double-punched the first man in the jaw, elbowed the second man behind her in the stomach, and backhanded the third man into the wall of the apartment.

     Keylon stared at the heap that the men had become. "How'd you do that?"

     "A lot of practice," Samui replied. "Now, you have a testimony to give." ---      "So where's your offworlder friend?" Braxus asked sweetly. "I think she abandoned you once she realized you for what you were." Talon said nothing, though he was slightly surprised at Samui's absence for the trial.

     Braxus continued. "Your honour, the defense has failed to show up to defend her client. I move that this trial be declared in default by the state. Furthermore, the accused has already confessed his guilt along with the other woman. We should move onto sentencing." He smiled politely. "I'm sure your honour has more pressing issues to attend to. If we can be done with this ,then."

     The young legate thought it over for a moment. He gave Talon a reproachful look. "Very well. Talon Gauss, I hereby find you--"

     "Stop!" Samui shouted as she burst into the courtroom a second time with a young man in tow, both slightly dirty but otherwise uninjured. "Your honour, I have a new witness to the Tarwin Jeel murder."

     "Your honour!" Braxus protested. "The trial is over, Talon Gauss has confessed, what more is there to hear?"

     "On the contrary, your honour." Samui contested. "This man will shed some new light on the case and prove that Talon didn't murder Tarwin Jeel."

     "Your honour, she's obviously desparate to find some excuse to free her friend!"

     "Your honour, this man is from _this_ world. Are you saying you would take the word of an offworlder over your own kind?" Samui asked, using the prejudice against them. The legate winced and he knew she had put him in a difficult situation.

     "Alright," he said, "what do you have to say?"

     Keylon Grayzer stepped up to the stand. "Umm.. yes your honour, I was there at the murder."

     "And who are you?" the legate asked.

     "My name is Keylon Grayzer. I'm a representative for the...ah...affiliation to which Mr. Jeel owed them money. I was there to collect the money from him when he assured me he was going to get it. I hid myself in the closet when two people came at his door. I watched as that man," he pointed to Talon, "and the other woman enter the apartment. She had the money that my employers were looking for. She dumped it on his bed and begged Tarwin to take it and leave her life. But I believe Mr. Jeel still had some feelings for his ex-wife and wanted her back. He accused her of betraying her people by being with an off-worlder and that he couldn't stand she would chose Talon over him. He pulled out a gun and said that if he couldn't have her, no one could. Talon tried to grab the gun from him and the three of them wrestled for a few seconds before it went off. Tarwin fell to the floor. The woman looked shocked and she dropped the gun from her hand. She cried as Talon comforted her and they left. From my view-point, it was clearly self-defense. Tarwin Jeel was going to murder his ex-wife and Talon, but in the end, he ended up dying himself."

     Braxus had his arms folded across his chest. "What happened to the money?"

     Keylon scratched the back of his head sheepishly. "I took it."

     "Taking evidence from a crime scene is an offense, Mr. Grayzer." He turned back to the legate. "Your honour, this man is clearly some misfit, you can't possibly believe any of his lies. Furthermore, the issue of the money is still unresolved. He obviously admits he took it and therefore must be an accomplice to their murder of Tarwin Jeel."

     Samui decided to play her last hand. "Your honour, I have in my possession fifteen thousand credits, which I am presenting back to the court. This money rightfully belongs to Silmara Delene, but I believe it can be given up as evidence and distributed to the public's trust." She produced the brown bag and placed it before the stunned legate.

     "I see," the legate said after recovering from his shock. "Very well, then. There is no evidence in support of the prosecution's claims that Talon and Silmara killed Tarwin Jeel. I must, therefore, agree with Mr. Grayzer's testimony. I hereby find Talon Gauss and Silmara Delene cleared of any charges of murder in the death of Tarwin Jeel." He lifted the small stone on his stand and dropped it lightly, officially ended the trial.

     "Your honour!" Braxus continued protesting.

     The legate turned to him. "As you said, Detective-Captain, I have much more pressing issues to attend to. Now that this case is settled, I must see to them. Good day." His last words were spoken more harshly than usual.

     Braxus turned his glare back to the three standing in the middle of the courtroom. "You think you can escape justice, Talon? I know you killed Tarwin. Justice has to be served!"

     "Wrong." Samui said. "You're not looking for justice. You're looking for an excuse, for vengeance. Talon's not from this world and you decided to make him the perfect scapegoat for an unexplained death of one of your people. That's why you didn't check the other security disc. You were so blinded in your pursuit of Talon you didn't even bother to see if there was another angle to this story. And now you lost your case."

     The detective was almost ready to spit but he remembered where he was. "Don't tell me about justice. Your kind could never understand that sort of thing. In any case, Keylon Grayzer, you are under arrest for the possession of evidence and obstruction of justice." He moved to take Keylon.

     Samui stepped between them. "Not so fast, Braxus. Keylon's with me now. I've granted him immunity with STRA. He's coming back with us."

     "What?! You cannot do such a thing! STRA has no powers here and has no right to interfere with our legal system. This man must be tried for his crimes!"

     "On the contrary," Samui responded. "Keylon Grayzer asked for asylum with STRA, thereby putting my agency into the matter. We ARE involved now and we can exercise our right to protect anyone seeking refuge with us. Don't pursue this, Braxus. You won't win."

     Braxus was jumpy and tense and he very much wanted to grab Samui. "You--"

     Samui gave Braxus a look so chilling that the room seemed to drop a few degrees. "I would advise against fighting me. Not only can I arrest you for assault on an agent, I can also kick your ass easily."

     Keylon nodded enthusiastically. "She can! She just took out three guys your size, all at the same time, too!"

     Braxus' fist was clenched so tightly his nuckles were white and a vein was starting to throb in his left temple. "Leave, then! If you ever come back--any of you--I'll see to it that you are prosecuted under our laws, STRA immunity or not!" He stomped out of the courtroom like a kid who had just lost his exclusive rights to the sandbox.

     Samui let out a long sigh and rubbed her temples. "Good riddance." She turned to Talon. "You ready to go back now, or do you want to see how Silmara's doing?" ---      Silimara looked at the ground, drawing circles with her feet. "It's been a long time."

     "Yeah." Talon reached out to Silmara, but drew back before he actually touched her. " have you been?"

     "Okay. And you?"

     "Pretty good. I'm working with the STRA now."

     "Yeah, Samui told me. She can be a bit scary, but she's a sweet girl."

     Talon felt his face grow hot. "Yeah."

     Silmara finally looked up at him. " this is goodbye, then?"

     Talon nodded. "You have your own life now, and I have mine. It wouldn't be fair for me to ask you to give all that up."

     "Not fair at all," Silmara agreed, although it was obvious that she was on the verge of tears. Choking back a sob, she threw herself into Talon's arms. "I'll miss you," she whispered into his coat.

     Talon awkwardly patted Silmara's head. "I'll miss you too." ---      "Ah, you're back!" Itskuo greeted as Samui and Talon walked into the office. She pulled Samui aside. "You didn't start any interdimensional incidents, did you?"

     "Well, the witness that testified to Talon's incident sought refuge with us and the prosecuting officer wanted to kill me, but aside from that, I don't think so."

     Itsuko seemed to be on the verge of a tirade for a few moments.

     And then she smiled. "Ah, heck, they're all assholes anyway. The people upstairs can deal with their complaints." She clapped a hand on Samui's shoulder. "Welcome back." Still smiling, Itskuo dropped a thick manila folder into Samui's hands. "And here's all the stuff you missed while you were gone. Have fun!"

Authoress' Notes: Another collaborative effort with Dare! He just gives me so many neat ideas. I think he may be my Muse in disguise, but he insists that he's merely human. (I see that harp you're hiding behind your back, Dare. :)

Shelly McLaughlin was a character I created as long ago as 4th grade, IIRC. She was the "avatar" I used to interact with characters from shows like GI Joe, X-Men, etc. She went through numerous incarnations and powers--and even died a few times--before I finally realized how boring an all-powerful self-insert character was, and 'retired' her. To this day, though, bits and pieces of her personality still pop up in my writing; in fact, a good part of Samui is based on a version of Shelly.

Author's Notes: I'd like to thank my friends and family who firmly supported me while I was writing this story. I know I must have been a pain in the ass, thanks for putting up with me. I'd also like to thank Dot for her great work and her ideas. I'd like to dedicate this Pulitzer to my cat, Fifi. I'll miss you, Fifi, this one's for you!

Braxus was a school yard bully that used to pick on me a lot, especially in the playground. It took a lot of effort, but I stood up to him, and I'm glad to say that to this very day, his rotting corpse is still decomposing and the police cannot prove a thing. Muaahahahahahaa!

[gets hauled off stage by a cane and subsequently beat to a pulp]

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