What the hell was I thinking?

Pax Metallica

I'll tell you this; in spite of all the high hopes my creators had for me, and even Dr. Cain's extra help along the way, I was never any shining star in the ranks of Maverick Hunter. So when my promotion came through, on a gusty day toward the middle of December, there wasn't a happier Reploid in all over headquarters. They were moving me from third rank in a recon squad to actual command of a short squad -- actual command! I think there were several points through the day when I nearly fell over for the shock of it all.

But all that, of course, was before I met my new squad . . .

Silver Bells


The brown-and-blue armored Reploid turned curiously, hearing his name, to see a familiar figure in slate grey and bright yellow scrambling down the hall toward him. A red and white hat flopped on his head, sliding rakishly over his right eye when he skidded to a halt. "Pax!" he said again, grinning.

Pax himself looked at the other doubtfully and started to walk down the hall again. "What is it, Kivver?"

"Hey -- wait up a sec, Pax!"

"I'll be late to my training session, Kivril."

"Pa-ax," the other retorted wheedlingly, "they've posted the new squad assignments!"

"They've --" Pax stopped in his tracks.

"Come on!" His friend had already turned and was running back the direction he'd come. Pax ran after him, catching up and grinning at him.

"Have you already looked?"

Kivril shook his head, grinning back. "When I saw everybody milling around the bulletin screen, I came looking for you."

Pax looked doubtful, but he didn't say anything about it, instead asking, "Hey, Kiv . . ."


"What's with that hat?"

"What --?" he began, then stopped, yanking the accessory in question from his head to reveal a shock of bright red hair. "Oh -- this." A grin of embarrassment flashed across his face and his cheeks colored slightly. "It's -- ah . . ."

"Did Ari drag you into something again?"

"Well -- it's for the Hunter Choir Christmas program -- she said they were short a singer, and --"

Pax rolled his eyes. "That's all I needed to hear." He didn't give his friend a chance to protest as he rounded the last corner and sprang into the open lobby of Maverick Hunter Headquarters. Even as his friend had reported, Hunters were milling everywhere -- but mostly around the central message board that dominated the back wall of the lobby. The pair hustled through the crowd, pushing and shoving where necessary, until they broke through to the very inner semi-circle around the board. There, several seasoned Hunter veterans stood, hallmarks of a time many years ago when a young rookie, dissatisfied with his placement, threw a dramatic hissy tantrum and destroyed several thousand dollars' worth of equipment. He was later jailed for assaulting his commander, and after stewing for several months in prison declared himself a Maverick and ran off to parts unknown. He hadn't been heard from since, and no one particularly missed him.

Ignoring the noises behind him -- as well as the elbows dug unceremoniously into his back, Pax scanned the board anxiously for his name, while his companion did likewise. It was Kivril who broke their shared silence first with a triumphant shout. "Hey, they promoted me! I'm the new XO!"

"Congrats!" Pax said to his friend, tossing off a dazzling grin, then he returned his attention to the board. After a few more moments of searching, he gave a shout of his own when he saw his name -- then a louder shout when he saw his standing. "A command!" he cried, "They gave me a command!" He paused, reading off the name. "The Blue Sirens?"

His red-haired friend looked at him blankly for a moment. "Never heard of them," he said, then, "A command? Bugger." He clapped a hand on Pax's shoulder, grinning congratulations as they stumbled again through the jostling crowd.

It was as they made their way through the fringes that another figure seeking escape from the crush of Hunters crashed into Pax from behind. He spun sharply to catch the other, but she pushed away, shaking her head and mumbling apologies.

"Lime!" Pax said suddenly, recognizing her. She darted him an uncharacteristically chagrined grin by way of acknowledgment and tried to move on her way, but he held her there, still smiling broadly. "I got promoted, Lime! They gave me my own command!"

She cast him the same grin again, as if she were trying not to use her bared teeth to rip his throat out. "Yes," she said, "I know." She then slithered from his grasp and hurried on her way, leaving him staring after her in confusion.

He soon dismissed her peculiar behavior from his mind completely, as Kivver was tugging him insistently toward the bar on the pretense of celebration.

Lime, on the other hand, sought the refuge of a nearby hallway, leaning her head back against the wall and tapping her fingers against the lukewarm plaster behind her. For the briefest of moments, she regretted her behavior toward her long-time friend. If only he had chosen another time to tell her the "good news". She sighed wearily to herself and pushed away from the wall, walking down toward her squad quarters with stooped shoulder. He probably didn't know anyway.

The door swished open in front of her and shut behind her before she even realized she'd reached the room, and with a grimace she realized she didn't have a good story to tell her comrades, who were already looking up at her expectantly. All except Sylva, in any case, who sat sharpening her scythe at the edge of the bed. Kiki had immediately bounced to attention, crouching on her four paws with blue eyes alight, jostling Medallion, absorbed in a book, who elbowed her irritably. Kimberly looked up from her computer desk, pushing her round glasses back on her nose, and smiled encouragement.

When she was silent, head bowed, for several moments instead of speaking to them, Kiki tilted her head worriedly. "Lime . . . not happy?"

Medallion frowned. "They posted the assignments, right?"

Lime nodded shortly, tossing her green bangs into her face, and a frown twisted her small mouth. Sylva glanced at her half-hidden face once, then snorted her disdain at the world in general and returned to work.

"They didn't pass you up for promotion again!" Kimberly exploded, jumping to her feet and scattering papers everywhere.

Lime lifted her head with a lame smile and nodded.

The human girl tossed her black hair in disgust, hands on her hips, and sat down again, carefully, to gather up her research. "How --"

"Well, you have to admit," Lime gritted, keeping a hastily constructed smile frozen on her face, "our performance hasn't exactly been . . . exemplary."

Medallion shook her head, nose dropping back into her book. "So who are they shoving on us this time?" she asked from within its pages, and the green-haired Reploid shrugged at her, not particularly willing to divulge the information.

"But --" Kimberly began again, bouncing the papers up and down in her lap in an attempt to assemble them in some sort of order, "-- maybe our performance hasn't been . . . great -- but, Lime -- yours has!"

Kiki, who had been staring dejectedly at her paws, glanced up sharply to nod her firm agreement. "Lime --"

"Oh, shut up, guys," Lime muttered, lifting her head and walking away from the door. "We go through this every year, and every year it's the same."

"But that doesn't make it right," Kim grumbled, sifting through her papers, which were resisting her every attempt to put them in proper order. "Blast!" she said to herself, now completely absorbed in the problem. "And I had it ready to go, too."

"What is it?" Lime asked mildly, grateful for the change in subject.

"A bomb," Medallion responded laconically, not lifting her eyes from the pages of her book.

"It is not," Kimberly snapped indignantly, glaring at the Reploid, "They wouldn't let me back into explosives work after --"

"Must we get into that again?" Sylva asked, setting the scythe to one side and gazing at the human with her typically unreadable expression.

Medallion turned a page and yawned. "I was talking about the murder weapon."

Kimberly looked at her blankly, and she turned another page.

"Oooo," Lime said, glancing at the cover. "A bloody slasher-killer murder mystery. What a great way to get into the holiday spirit."

"It gives me great ideas about what to do to our superior officers," Medallion replied without missing a beat. "And anyway, Lime," she continued, lifting her head slightly above the edge of the paperback and fixing her with a steely glare, "you never answered my question. Who's replacing the psycho-bitch?"

Lime grimaced and stopped where she stood, trying to think of something to say. Kiki, who had been busily washing her face, paused in mid-swipe and stared at Lime curiously, and Sylva looked around for something new to sharpen. Just as the green-haired Reploid was about to surrender and tell all, a polite knock came at the door.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Pax hesitated before the door, brow creasing as he considered all he'd heard in the bar. Not that you should believe everything you hear in a bar . . . he reflected to himself. Maybe they were all exaggerating. They were all drunk, weren't they? And drunks exaggerate a lot. He swallowed hard.

"I wonder who's got Hellcat Squadron this time around," a Hunter near Pax had said, swishing his beer around in a mostly empty mug. "Pity the poor sap . . ."

Said Hunter's companion uttered a slight snigger. "I hear the only guy they ever assigned to that squadron got mauled his first week by that cat-girl." He wiped his nose messily and took another slug of beer. "They've assigned women to the squad ever since."

At this point, Pax felt compelled to question the two. "Hellcat Squadron?" he asked curiously, taking the mug Kivril offered him in both hands and not drinking from it. Kiv looked at him oddly, then shrugged and proceeded to take mighty swigs from his own.

The pair of Reploids glanced at him and nodded, oddly synchronized, then proceeded to explain. "Hellcat Squadron ain't its real name. Just what everyone calls it," said the first one, finishing off his drink and waving for another. "It's a squad made up entirely of females . . . all of 'em are good friends, too. One of 'em's a psycho maniac who loves killing . . ." The bartender slid him his drink, and he promptly became absorbed in imbibing it, so his friend picked up where he left off.

"One of 'em is a bomb expert an' a computer technician -- a human -- she got her license taken away after she accidentally blew up Cain's personal mech project." He grinned broadly.

Pax offered him a lop-sided smile in return, and the first started talking again. "Then there's that freaky cat-girl. She's way over-protective of the entire squad . . . the last time they assigned a guy to the squadron, he made a move on one of the girls, and she attacked him."

"He was in intensive care for six weeks!" the other giggled gleefully into his drink.

"The other two are pretty much normal," the first shrugged, casting his friend a slightly irritable look. "Except the one with purple hair got caught planning to murder her superior and nearly got charged with -- uh -- treason."

"Not treason, you idiot," the second one growled. "It was attempted murder. And they almost accused her of bein' a Maverick, but she got off the charges." He stared at his beer curiously. "I'm not sure how."

"The human prob'ly hacked the system," his companion shrugged amiably. "The leader's the only one got any potential, and with that squad attached to her, ain't no way she's gonna go anywhere."

Pax frowned slightly, then turned as Kivril tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at his drink questioningly. He shook his head, and his friend promptly relieved him of it, smiling hugely. "You said Hellcat Squadron wasn't its real name . . ." he said slowly, a cold feeling of dread building in his belly. "So what is it . . . ?"

"The real name?" the first one asked, then frowned. "Well . . . we've called it Hellcat so long --"

"I know what it is," the second volunteered, waving his mug in the air and spilling some of the murky beverage within on his friend. "They started out bein' called the Blue Sirens!"

Pax sighed, raising his hand to knock again, and the door swung open.

Lime jumped away from the door as soon as it was open, then watched everyone anxiously for danger signs. Even if he had taken her squad away from her, she didn't want him to get hurt for it. For several moments, there was dead silence. Kimberly had turned in her seat to face the door, Kiki had glanced up in curiosity, Medallion had lowered her book slightly, and Sylva had leaned lazily up against her scythe.

Pax stood in the doorway, looking slightly confused. Then, he spoke. "I -- am at the right squad room . . . right?" He paused. "The Blue Sirens?"

Sylva snorted disdainfully. Medallion dropped her book.

Then several things happened at once.

Even as Lime managed to burst out "I can explain!", Kiki and Medallion were on their feet and across the room, Kiki gaining an iron hold on the male Reploid's arm, and Medallion leaning seductively against the doorframe. Sylva arched an eyebrow and shook her head disgustedly, and Lime's words faded to an open-mouthed stare of incredulity.

Kim pushed her glasses up on her nose, whistling appreciatively, before she glanced at her thunderstruck friend and said, "Geez, Lime, you didn't tell us our new commander was a hottie."

Lime stared at her, then her gaze returned to the scene at the doorway. "Hey, GUYS!" she growled out, just as Pax seemed to be ready to bolt in the other direction down the hall.

Kiki turned her head, eyes curious, and Medallion turned around to glare, then she realized her tone had turned to one of anger. She swallowed a growl, then said, tone a little shaky, "Give the guy some room, huh?"

Pax shot her a look of relief, and Kiki relaxed her grip, ears drooping in a sulk. Medallion turn from the doorway, directing an eyeroll at her friend.

"I . . . take it you are the Blue Sirens . . . ?" Pax asked warily, attempting to sidle past his two admirers.

"Yes, we are," Lime said shortly, then went around the room tossing off one-word introductions with a point of her finger. "Kimberly. Sylva. Kiki. Medallion." Then she took a deep breath. "Everybody, this is Pax, my --" she broke off. "Our new commander." My old friend.

Pax looked at her for a moment, a worried frown working at his mouth. I didn't know this was your squad, his eyes said.

She turned slightly, arms folded. "I trust you'll make him welcome." Kiki was the only one who missed the sarcasm.

Kim frowned, pushing her glasses up on her nose again. "Welcome to the gang, Pax," she said, tilting her head with a bright smile. "Want me to show you around?" she asked, much to the irritation of Kiki and Medallion.

The male Reploid was still trying to catch Lime's eye when the girl spoke, and he started, looking at her with a nod. Kim colored slightly, then flashed him a grin and said, "Well, actually, there's not much to show . . ." She gestured toward the one door in the room -- besides the entrance, which he was again backing toward. "The bedroom is back there, and so is the bathroom." She gestured to the bed against the back wall. "That's Kiki's bed. She, ah, likes to play watchdog." Kiki beamed at Pax, who smiled politely, and Kim continued. "We don't have our own kitchen or anything, but we have a computer terminal, just like everyone else, and there's our bookshelf." She pointed, looking somewhat embarrassed. "That's . . . really all there is."

He looked astonished. "But -- isn't it a little overcrowded?"

"Oh, of course," Kim laughed. "It's just like college, sort of."

"I hate Chinese," offered up the typically laconic Sylva.

"Well . . ." Pax said slowly, managing an unsteady grin, "I guess I can stay in my own quarters, so I won't crowd you any more than usual."

"They usually do," said Lime, shifting her shoulders crossly.

Medallion gave her a slit-eyed look, and a knife-slash smile flickered across her face. "So," she purred, slinking back toward Pax with a saunter to her hips and a stoop to her shoulder, "Lime, why didn't you tell us you had a boyfriend?"

Lime, who had been glaring again, trying to think of a way to stop her without looking horribly foolish, dropped to an open-mouthed stare for the second time that morning. "B-boyfriend!?" Her face blanched with what she hoped was embarrassment, and she looked at Pax in the hope that he wasn't offended. "We're -- we're not --"

Pax, on the other hand, looked amused. "No, you don't understand," he smiled, assuming Lime had already told the group of their acquaintance. "Our creators were good friends. We grew up together, so to speak."

"Oh," Medallion murmured, silk in her tone, "so that means you're available."

The brown-haired Reploid stopped in the middle of his speech, face draining of color. Lime could barely resist a smirk, tossing her green hair, as he stammered out. "Well -- I -- that is -- I think I . . . had better go . . ."

Kiki jumped to her feet, ears laid back and tail lashing. Her ordinarily warm, blue eyes were flashing with outrage as she opened her fanged mouth to growl out, "Medallion forgetting she taken by pretty-boy commander from two months ago!"

Medallion's shoulders gave a jerk, and she came close to losing the sultry look she had been directing at a bewildered Pax only moments before. "You seem to be forgetting," she grated out, smile twitching, "that you yourself sent him to the emergency room, and after that he kind of lost interest." She directed the cat-girl a cool look. "You seem to have that effect on men . . ."

"Medallion only think so because she make a living --"

"WHAT DID YOU SAY!?" screeched Medallion, leaping at her.

"I no finish!" she shouted triumphantly back, pulling a rude face.

Pax backed toward the door again, smiling politely at them all. "I -- really do have to go. To a -- briefing!"

Lime looked at him darkly, and Medallion and Kiki stopped in mid-shout.

"Look -- can I talk to you later, Lime? About five -- I'll see you!" With that, he had jumped out the door and slammed it behind him, leaving them flabbergasted and silent.

"Gosh, I hope he comes back," Kimberly murmured.

The Holiday Spirit

Pax, however, did not return that day, much to the disappointment of at least three of the members of the Blue Sirens. Sylva, in her usual way, was feigning disinterest in the whole matter, and had settled down wait for it to blow over. When Lime left at fifteen 'til five, all hope at the situation going away vanished, and she sank into what in another being would be a sulk. In Sylva, it was a mood of dead, chilling silence.

When she was in moods such as this, people had a tendency to gravitate away from her. Preferably to other rooms. Her squad, however, had developed the unique ability to ignore her, and they stayed put, Kim tapping away at the computer, Kiki working a small jigsaw puzzle, and Medallion half-heartedly staring at the pages of her book. Sylva picked up her scythe and began to sharpen it again.

"Would you quit it with the noise over there?" Medallion demanded finally, tossing her book on the floor and glaring at her silver-haired squadmate.

Sylva's returning glance was expressionless. She continued in her task.

Medallion looked to the others for support. "Come on guys, make her stop! Don't tell me it isn't driving you up the wall, too."

"Medallion, I don't think it's Sylva's noise that's driving you up the wall," Kimberly responded with her usual frankness, and Kiki fitted another piece into her puzzle, completing the face of one of the ponies.

The human eyed her computer idly, as if contemplating whether she should hack the main system and play with the duty rosters again, and Medallion allowed silence to reign for a few moments while she thought up a suitable response. "It'd be a whole lot simpler if Lime just didn't know the guy," she said finally, and Kim turned her head, pushing her glasses up again.

"What would be?" she asked mildly, and the Reploid gave her a long look.

"Ugh," she said finally, standing up. "Just this whole thing! I mean -- it's plain as day she likes the guy . . ."

Kiki yawned expressively, fitting another piece. "Someone else like him, too," she put in, sticking her tongue out rudely.

"I do not," Medallion snapped at her, and she uttered an unladylike snort, swishing her tail.

"Then why all that display at the door?" Kim countered, tapping at her keyboard.

"That," said the purple-haired robot, "was just to see if he could resist my seductive charms -- or if he was just another pervo."

"What charms?" Sylva delivered the punch line.

"You know, I am really starting to dislike you," Medallion growled in her direction, then, before anyone else could speak, "Obviously, he could, because obviously --"

"You not very charming," Kiki responded blandly.

"Shut up, Kiki," Kim said, before Medallion could. "Just let her finish."

"He likes her, too," Medallion said, finishing her sentence and plunking down on the edge of Kiki's bed. A long, metallic screech came from Sylva's end of the bed, then her sharpening resumed its usual, short scratching noise.

Kiki flicked her ears and uttered a slight sigh, poking around her half-completed puzzle with another placeless piece. Medallion glanced down at her with a roll of her eyes.

"It's kind of sweet, when you look at it," Kim put in half-heartedly, after a long silence.

"Oh, shut up, Kim," Medallion growled. "You like him, too."

"Don't shove your problems on everyone else, Medallion," the human girl uttered sharply, jabbing her finger viciously at the enter key. "It wouldn't be so bad if they'd just admit it."

"Lime'd never do that."

"Of course she wouldn't. Not with him running the squad."

"Maybe they don't even know."

"Entirely possible."

Kiki lifted her head abruptly. "You two, SHUT UP! Stupid gossip! Kiki tired of it!" She hunched her shoulders and went back to her puzzle, leaving the pair to stare at her blankly until Kim finally decided what would be the most fun to do to the duty rosters.

Lime had been pacing in front of the fountain in Maverick Hunter's central courtyard for five minutes before Pax showed up, panting and waving his apology. "I'm -- sorry," he said between gasps. "I was -- on patrol -- with Kivril."

She shrugged. "It's all right. I only got here a few minutes ago." Before he could say anything else on the subject of pleasantries, she asked him directly, "What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Ah . . ." he began, then fell silent, scratching uncomfortably at the back of his head.

She folded her arms and waited. Get on with it, Pax.

"Well . . . it's about the squad . . ." But you already knew that.

"What about it?" Did they scare you off, too?

"I . . . I don't really know how to say this . . ." For godsakes, I didn't know it was your squad!

She remained silent.

"I just . . . don't feel right . . . taking over like this."

"What's that supposed to mean?" She accidentally said it out loud.

"I know you're the one really running the squad, and I don't want to --"

"Pax!" she said sharply, breaking in. "Look -- you have your orders." He began to make a sound of protest, but she plowed on, ignoring him. "You have your orders . . . and the squad's reacted better to you than they have to anybody else they've sent to us."

"But --"

"Let me finish, Pax." She took a deep breath. "The squad -- is yours now. It wasn't ever mine. And . . . besides, this is your first command . . . and you shouldn't pass it up for personal reasons." They'd all kill me if you left. "Just watch your step . . . I wouldn't push this squad too hard. As much as they think you're the hottest thing on earth, they don't like being pushed around."

Pax looked at her blankly for a moment. "The -- what?" But she was already gone. He sighed. I wish she wouldn't do that. He frowned, sinking down on the edge of the fountain and turning his thoughts to the other matters at hand.

If the Blue Sirens had as bad a reputation as they appeared to . . . he was in for quite a struggle. And not necessarily with them.

It was early morning -- early enough that it was still dark outside. Lime's mouth twitched slightly, and she rolled over in bed as her mind attempted to resolve the jarring beep-beep of a communicator panel with the pleasant dreamscape she was frolicking in. Just as the two seemed about to merge in a fairly illogical understanding, she struck the floor.

"Aaaooww . . ." she gritted, rolling over in a tangle of blankets to scrabble at the clock on the bedside table. She barely managed to drag it down to eye level without yanking the cord out of the wall, and she could hardly contain a screech as her bleary eyes came into focus on the numbers. Leaving the clock on the floor and shedding her blankets behind her, she stalked over to the communications panel, tapping "Receive" with more delicacy than even she thought she had this morning.

"Um . . . Lime?" queried a familiar voice on the other end of the line, and Pax's face came into view on the screen beside the speaker.

Her mouth twitched.

"Oh, it is you. Good morning!" he managed with flagging cheerfulness.

"It's five in the morning, Pax," she informed him flatly, some corner of her mind convinced that he hadn't looked at a clock or checked his internal chronometer since the night before.

He laughed nervously, hand going to the back of his head, as was his habit when he knew he'd just irritated her. "I . . . know. Eheh, I'm really sorry about this whole thing, but --"

"Pax, I'm going back to bed." She reached over to cancel the call.

"No!" he half-shouted, then flinched, glancing around him.

He must be at a public comm . . . she thought wearily, his next words registering late in her sleep-fogged mind.

"This was the only time I could schedule a training session in the sims. You guys had better get down here before the next group wants in."

She looked at him steadily for a moment, arms folded, as understanding trickled through her conscious mind. Meeting his uncertain gaze with the same level stare she'd managed to keep through most of the conversation, she switched the comm panel off, and turned around, kicking the clock over so that the numbers 5:03 glared up at her in accusing red. Then, hands dropping to her sides, she uttered a screech of fury to rival any banshee and stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind her.

Sylva and Kim sat up with a jerk, the human nearly tumbling out of her place on the top bunk of the bed she shared with Lime. Medallion continued to snore.

Despair was the first thing Pax felt on seeing his squad straggle dazedly into the simulation exactly one half-hour after he had sent his summons. Lime stood at the very edge of the small group, arms folded and head bowed. Kim stood next to her, alternately wiping her glasses and rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. Medallion yawned expressively, giving Kiki a shove as the catgirl leaned against her, threatening to fall asleep. Sylva fingered her scythe.

The Reploids were all neatly fitted out in their armor, which was no surprise. All it took was the push of a button. But the human was sloppily clothed in a pair of half-ragged jeans and an old t-shirt.

"Kim, where's your armor?" he asked, tone firm and businesslike.

She stopped in the middle of a stretch and a yawn and stared at him blearily. "Armor?" Her face registered confusion for a moment. "Oh! Armor. Right . . ." Her voice trailed off in another yawn. "They took it away, sir."

"Took it away?" He tried not to let the blank confusion he felt flit across his face.

She nodded, yawning again. "When they took my license away, they took the armor, too."

"That's when we figured out they weren't gonna send us on any real missions anymore," Medallion grimaced, giving Kiki another push. The cat-girl failed to regain her balance and went sprawling, a slight yelp the only sign of acknowledgement.

"Well . . . ah . . . I'll have to see about that," Pax muttered lamely.

"Don't worry about it too much," Kim responded, voice almost cheerful, "I mean, it's not like they're going to --"

"Sure they will!" Pax said, cutting her off.

Sylva rolled her eyes.

Kiki snored softly, head resting on an outstretched arm.

"You -- just have to shape up!" he offered lamely, and Kim burst into a fit of giggles.

"I suppose you're trying to tell us -- Commander --" she said, a grin breaking through on her face, "that we're getting pudgy just sitting around on our butts all day?"

"I didn't say it," Pax answered her, returning the grin.

"Ghehehe!" The human jabbed Medallion in the ribs. "This might just be fun after all."

"Please," Medallion muttered, covering her face with one hand.

"Well, guys," they vaguely heard their commander say, "we've only got an hour left before our time's up, so let's get started!"

Looking back, the first training session hadn't been too disastrous. It had taken another five minutes to wake Kiki, a task eventually accomplished by someone's booted foot coming down on her unfortunate tail. Pax managed to find Kim some spare armor -- ill-fitting as it was -- and a laser pistol. Apparently, they had confiscated her weapons as well. "Graah, this thing's puny!" had been her sole comment about the gun, but she seemed to have no trouble at all using it.

Sylva was the astonishing performer of the morning. The grim, silent girl had come to life almost as soon as the simulation had begun. She'd swept through the ranks of their holographic attackers, scythe mowing them brutally down. "It's the weapon she prefers," Lime had shrugged. "She's pretty good with a whip, too." It all led Pax to wonder idly what kind of sick maniac her creator had been.

Kiki, he quickly discovered, was easily distracted, even in the middle of a battle. At least three times, he caught her chasing after an insect or rodent rather than the attacking Mavericks. "She's a cat," Lime explained. "What do you want?"

"Her attention," he retorted.

Medallion was proficient with a Model 2 Beam Saber, with a static blade set in a curve, rather than the standard-issue variable that most recruits used. When asked where she'd gotten it, she tossed off a sadistic grin and slashed an oncoming hologram in two.

He found little to say about Lime in either praise or rebuke. He'd trained with her before, and he knew her moves -- just as she knew his. He spent most of his time with her questioning her about the other squad members. He had come to a number of conclusions by the time their training session ended, most of which he needed to discuss with her.

"We'll do holo-battles for the next couple of days," he'd said, dismissing them. "We'll start sparring next week." He checked his internal chronometer and uttered a mental curse. Five minutes over. I'll catch hell for this. "Lime, can I talk to you?"

She paused in midstep, headed for the door, and walked back over to him as the others filed out of the room. "What is it, Pax?"

"I'd, ah, like to see about getting the squad involved in some of the Christmas stuff that's going on around here. You know, the decorating, the carolling, the --"

She held up one hand, stilling his voice. "Are you nuts?" she demanded, dropping the hand to her hip. "What makes you think they'd want to participate -- even if you could get them to let us!"

"I could," he argued. "I know a couple of the guys working with the preparations. They're short on manpower -- I know they'd let me --"

"Until they saw us!" she retorted. "Don't you have any idea what kind of reputation we have!?"

"Only what I heard in the bar," he told her, "Now look -- when I saw you guys working in the sim today -- I mean, you were great! You're all really excellent fighters, excellent as a team. The problem you have is that the only team you see is the little one -- your squad." He paused, hoping the tightening around her eyes wasn't indicative of disaster. "You just don't see the bigger group -- Maverick Hunter -- that you're a part of."

"And why should we?" she bit out, eyes flashing. "They're the ones who rejected us, Pax. NOT the other way around. You know what they call us, right? The Hellcats, the Misfits. Well, you want to know why? You want to know exactly who you've gotten involved with?"

He took a step back, looking uncertain, but she plunged on, regardless. "Kiki's creator threw her out by the side of the road when she was three days old. Three days, Pax. Someone from HQ picked her up and brought her in as a refugee. Medallion was activated by accident a full six weeks before her final security diagnostics went through -- everyone's afraid she'll go Maverick." She drew in a deep breath, and he raised a hand, looking helpless. At the glare she shot him, it dropped to his side. "Kim -- Kim was your garden-variety nerd until she came in after a Maverick attack decimated her town. At least, that's the way the story goes in the reports. She was experimenting with an explosive in her basement, and when the Mavericks broke through, they set it off. That's what destroyed the town." Her shoulders gave a jerk, and she stepped back. "And Sylva --" She shook her head and sighed. "You've seen Sylva. Nobody knows what happened to make her that way."

Pax raised his hands placatingly, "Lime, I --"

"We're the ones who got rejected here, Pax. Maybe if we got a little respect --"

At that, he cut her off. "Lime, if you guys want any respect, you have to show a little yourselves." He was about to continue, when a snarling noise erupted outside the room.

"Kiki," Lime groaned aloud, dashing toward the source of the noise. Pax was close behind her.

The scene in the hallway was something akin to an interrupted bar brawl. Kiki was on one side of the hall, eyes ablaze as she strained against Medallion and Kimberly's hold on her. On the other side of the hall, a small group of Hunters was struggling to hold back one of their own members, who looked about to fly into a frenzy. The left side of his face appeared to have been raked with claws.

"Kiki!" Lime half-shouted, and the cat-girl gave a guilty start, ears flipping back.

"What happened here?" Pax followed up immediately, glaring at the opposing squad.

"That stupid --"

"Kiki no stupid, jerk!" the girl shouted in defense of herself.

"All I did was --"

"No touch Kiki's friends!"

Before the other Hunter could say a word, Lime broke in. "Just hold it, people." She took a deep breath. "Kiki, I've told you not to attack other Hunters."

The cat-girl swished her tail guiltily, but she gave her head a sullen nod.

"And," Pax said quickly to the Hunter, who was still glaring irately, "I believe it's your turn in the sim, so you'd better take it." With that, he ushered the rest of his squad quickly down the hall. "What happened?" he growled softly to the small group. "We could have lost the sim over that."

"He goosed me," Medallion uttered shortly, and Kiki rumbled.

Pax sighed, drawing back a bit and glancing at Lime. "If your reputation's as widespread as you keep telling me, why don't people --"

"They like to push their limits," Medallion said coolly, rubbing her behind.

"Let's go back to our quarters," Lime suggested quietly, with a glance at Pax. "Is that all right, commander?"

The brown-haired Reploid cast her a doubtful look and shrugged. "Yeah, I guess that's fine. We won't get much else done today."

Without another look at him, the squad trailed off down the hall, dejection in their posture. Then Kim stopped and bolted back to him, a chagrined look on her face. "Oh hey -- the armor and the gun --"

"Keep 'em for now," Pax said, then he turned on his heel and walked off before she could thank him.