- VI -


You've been doing very well in our sessions lately," Kani remarked as she smiled at him over her datapad. "How are your mood swings these days?"

"Better," he admitted in a grudging tone. "I don't want to kill as many fluffy bunnies anymore."

That rewarded him a surprising peal of laughter. "Well, that's good. Progress, right?"

He stared at her as she typed in a few more notes, noticing for the first time the diamond and peridot rings on her finger. "You are married?"

"Yes, I am," she replied offhandedly.

"Your rings are beautiful."

"Thank you."

He shifted in his seat. "I've a serious question."

"Yes?" she asked, still looking down at her datapad.

"Can you share what happened to you?"

Her typing stilled and her gaze flickered to him, the color of her irises darker than normal. "I'm afraid I can't. That would be self-disclosing, and as a counselor I'm not free to do that."

"Then how about as a friend?"


"I have been more open because I don't consider you a counselor, Makani," he told her. "I consider you a friend. And there is sadness in you I see."

She hesitated, studying him.

"Today's session is over. You can drop the counselor act. I know by now that it is only one part of you."

She was frowning now, the first time he'd seen her do so since the day they had blown up at each other. He could tell she wanted to reprimand him, but a clear struggle rose behind that stark intelligence. Finally, she switched off her datapad and leaned back in her chair, her posture shifting from professional to leisurely.

"Okay. I think of you as a friend, too," she said, her speech subtly different, more personal. "What exactly do you want to know?"

"What drove you to want to help others? And how did you find the strength to be as you are now?" His curiosity was legitimate. He had witnessed and gone through his share of traumatizing ordeals, and it had taken him years to even agree to seek help, much less get over them.

Kani's eyes had grown detached, the warmth absent as she regarded him with an expression he'd never seen her wear before. "Short version? There have been two notable men in my life, not counting my husband. The first I still have nightmares about. I'll elaborate later. The second was the only person I was ever in love with."

Krieger managed to nod, taken aback by the coldness in her husky voice.

"We were together for a long time, engaged for half of it. Then I found out he cheated so I broke off the relationship. After the fight, he insisted on driving me home." She didn't blink as she spoke the next words. "He crashed the car that night on a broken metal railing on the highway. He walked away with scratches. Me? Not so much. A steel rod impaled me. I almost died."

"WHAT?!" Krieger shouted. He had expected to hear the worst, but even the worst couldn't compare to that.

"I was rushed to the hospital. The rod had struck partially through my uterus. The doctors repaired what they could, and I was expected to make a full recovery." There was no bitterness, only a matter-of-fact tone. "However, during my recovery period, I was battered and raped while I was alone at home. It... complicated my injury. To this day, it's possible I may not be able to have a child."

What the hell was this? What did this girl do to deserve all this shit? He didn't know what to say. He only stared at her, dumbfounded. "Fuck..."

She appeared calm about it, but the turmoil beneath the surface reared its head. Inside, she was crying. The pain was written in her eyes. But the strength that kept it all in check proved remarkable. His ex-girlfriend had never been the same after they'd lost their unborn child. He had watched a group of women fall apart and shatter on that ship from Norgaard to Germany. He didn't understand how Kani was here, on her own two feet and offering her help to others, when what she'd gone through would have completely annihilated anyone else.

"Yes, I fell into a deep depression. Yes, I tried at more than one point to kill myself. But another life-and-death situation woke me up." Finally, the emotion broke through. She gave him a sad, gentle smile as the tears came and trailed down her face.

He felt his heart constrict for her. It was good to finally see her reveal the human part of herself. She had exhibited considerable strength, but there was only so much burden one could carry. If there was one thing he felt for Kani, it was respect.

She swiped at her cheeks and sat up straighter, the moment of weakness gone. "I pulled myself together. I had to survive. I had to keep going. Because that was the only choice I was giving myself."

Kani was his inspiration to move forward with his life and leave the past behind. Without her, he didn't know where he would have ended up. Back in the mental hospital, in prison, or six feet underground. She had been there to support him. She was his foundation. And so he intended to make damn sure he didn't lose her.

The months passed with no sign of danger. A few more meetings with Mouse revealed that Reaver and Jace had gone off the radar. The knowledge came off as troubling, but Krieger stayed vigilant. The instant either of those two popped back into view, he was going to use their faces as target practice for his newest firearms.

He and Kani had become closer than ever, although her pesky former lover Sierra still lingered around her. The woman was even pregnant with some unknown man's child, and still she felt inclined on spending time at Prism Star during their working hours. It was no wonder when rumors started circulating that Kani may have been the one to impregnate her. He had half a mind to correct every idiot that spouted that crap in front of him by pitching them into a wall, but he knew how hard Kani worked to maintain her androgyny, and she already stated she would rather endure the hearsay than reveal herself. Still, he would have preferred it if she'd at least wear lingerie again.

Christian Blancarte had called one afternoon. Up to that point, Krieger had almost forgotten about his existence and didn't appreciate the reminder that Kani legally belonged with someone else. A marriage of convenience, she had told him. She and Christian had been best friends and married for medical and financial reasons right after all the shit she went through in Florida. She had relocated to Hawaii by herself to finish her last year of college, and Krieger wished to God he had met her before she'd wedded another man.

So when he learned of the possibility that she was going back to Earth to try to start a family with her husband, Krieger threw a tantrum. And not just any tantrum. He managed to singlehandedly destroy half of the lower district, fueled by rage at the thought of her leaving him to start a life of domesticity with the spouse she barely even cared about. During his rampage, however, he made a crucial discovery.

When he had torn off the malfunctioning door of an abandoned warehouse, he saw something slip by in his peripheral vision. Chucking the door to the side, he surged forward and around the corner, where the missing hired gun Jace had the misfortune of finding himself at a dead end. Their eyes locked for a fraction of a second before both drew their weapons. Jace was quick, but Krieger was quicker. He shot the less experienced man in the chest, missing his heart but hitting a vital artery. Jace went down with a strangled groan, and Krieger had him by the neck before he hit the ground.

"Who hired you?" Krieger snarled, pressing the barrel of his energy pistol against Jace's head.

"Heh... wouldn't you like to know?"

"Talk or I shove this gun down your throat."

Jace spat at him. "Even if you kill me, he's three steps ahead of you. I'm not saying nothing."

Krieger's blood boiled. "Then open wide."

He rammed the pistol into Jace's mouth and pulled the trigger. The back of the other man's head and neck promptly exploded, spraying the concrete with blood and matter. He swiped the processor watch from the corpse and hacked into the secure hard drive with ease, moving through the interface and checking all activity logs. His stomach turned to lead when he realized that Jace had been following his movements for months, sending coordinates of his locations and patterns to an encrypted address he would need time to decode.

And in a grand display of bad timing, security arrived. The scene could not have looked more compromising. He found himself abruptly arrested (again) and placed behind bars overnight. In the morning, a pair of officers brought him before the exasperated Chief Harkon, the head of Solarus security who had seen his face in his office one too many times. Jace's processor watch had been confiscated, but after explaining the contract on Kani, Krieger received a community service order and a smack on the hand with the promise that security would look into the case. While Harkon disliked him on the basis that he was an Earth-born, and a troublesome one at that, the two men's year-long acquaintance had given Krieger time to prove himself as an honorable sort. Even if he did need to work on his anger management.

He then returned home to find that Kani had also just arrived after spending the night with yet another woman, which drove him crazy. In his anxiety over her safety, displeasure over her return to Earth, and stress over retaliation for Jace's death, he went into a lust-fueled frenzy that kept her close to him at all times. She only seemed to mind when he pulled her to the back for quickies at work, so he continued with the new frequency of their lovemaking, just wanting her near and in his grasp. He began to feel helpless, something he found he hated, even with Mouse gathering intel and security actively working to find out who wanted to target Kani.

The most he could do to hold onto his sanity right now was to physically make sure that she remained with him.


He walked into her office just in time to see her give herself a papercut.

"Ow! Fuck!" Kani cursed in a way unbefitting of a counselor, her back to him. "It's 2182. Why the hell do we still have fucking hard copies of these goddamn books? Holy shit, this stings..."

"Did not know the lotusblüte could swear like a sailor."

She started at the sound of his voice and whirled around, horrified. "Krieger! There is no session today. What can I help you with?"

He snickered at her attempt to compose herself. "Please, Makani, we are friends now, ja? And is not session day so just be yourself around me."

She relaxed and examined the cut on her finger, a small grin on her lips. "Well, in that case, you need to start calling me Kani."

Soon after that, when his time with the counseling program had reached its completion, he made the first move. They became intimate, and he stayed in Hawaii with her until they relocated to Solarus. Krieger learned more of the person beneath the counselor. He found out her imperfections and her downfalls, but loved her despite them all. And while she revealed many positive things about her character, her most distinguishing trait was her huge heart for others. And he was willing to do anything to make certain that that heart kept beating.

Several more months passed undisturbed, and Kani had gone to be with Sierra while she gave birth to her hellspawn. Krieger took the opportunity to hit the shooting range in Sierra's absence to blow off some steam via continuous headshots on the cardboard targets. Once he got home, he started to feel less apprehensive, but when Kani returned from the hospital, he could tell something was wrong.

"Liebste, what happened?"

She had her poker face on, but her voice sounded distraught. "I can't go back to Earth right now. I don't want to think about pregnancy, kids, or a family. Christian can divorce me if he wants. I can't do any of it."

Krieger reached up and pulled her onto his lap on the couch. She curled up into a little ball against his chest, almost like a child, and he held her in the quiet of their living room. He knew precisely what had brought on this mood. For a woman struggling with infertility, watching a live birth must have been unbearable. A reminder of what one had lost and what one could have had. He understood that part very well.

He had learned some time ago of the man who haunted her nightmares, the central cause of her pain: John Covington.

And he needed to ask the question that had been tugging at him for nearly a year. "Kani. The reason you think you cannot have children. The one who attacked and raped you after your surgery..."

She nodded, face buried in the crook of his neck. "It was John."

Krieger had sworn he would protect her. His entire job centered on keeping her safe. And he would regret, for the rest of his life, the one time he didn't stand in his corner in Prism Star Lounge.

Reaver had reared his ugly head again. On their way to work one evening, Krieger had spotted the repaired android standing none too discreetly across the road, eyeing him in challenge. He pushed Kani into the building and instructed her to go up to the lounge as fast as possible because he had a job to finish. When she did, he turned and gave chase to the synthetic grunt, who opened fire on him as he ran. A round struck Krieger in one shoulder, but his armor deflected the bullet. He countered with his own shots, finally catching the android in the leg. Reaver toppled forward and skidded into a row of trash cans in an alley similar to the one across from Sierra's apartment.

"It seems I did not kill you properly last time," Krieger rumbled as he aimed his energy pistol at Reaver's head. "I will not make the same mistake again."

To his annoyance, the android started laughing from the ground. "Go ahead. Game's over, anyway, hero. He's played you in the palm of his hand from day one."

"I made your work partner eat my thermal clip when he did not answer this question. Maybe you don't like the taste of bullets as much. I will ask only once. Who put out the contract for Kani?"

"Someone smart enough to use two hired guns as decoys, convert your intel 'expert' Mouse to a double agent, and avoid complete detection from security." Reaver barked out a harsh laugh. "If I wasn't about to be permanently decommissioned, I'd be applauding his genius."

The revelation stopped Krieger's heart. "What do you mean, decoys?"

"Didn't you wonder why Jace and I were on a contract to spy on the target? We're fucking guns for hire, we don't do that espionage shit. Turns out we were just used as decoys to lure you away from her while he went in and gathered info on her firsthand," Reaver replied, glaring at him in malice as his retinas glowed orange. "When I showed up that one night at the lounge—and you beat the shit out of me, you fucker—it was a test to see whether either one of you was aware of the contract. When Jace showed up while you were demolishing that district, she was being watched when she went to Purgatory. And even this time you ran after me, leaving her all alone."

Krieger wanted to rip the smirk off Reaver's face.

"So... guess who's over at the lounge with her now."

The blood in the bodyguard's veins instantly ran cold. "One last chance. Who is he?"

"Who the fuck do you think? An old friend of hers. A very... persistent old friend of hers."

He knew then at that moment. "John Covington."

"Good job, hero. That took you only until it was too late to figure it out."

Krieger still had the energy pistol pointed at him and began to squeeze the trigger.

The android seemed too consumed by hatred to fear his imminent demise. "And for the record, yeah, if you hadn't interfered, I would have taken Kani back to my place and fucked her raw."

Reaver's head snapped back as the bullet lodged itself in the middle of his forehead, his central processor sparking in irreversible damage.

Krieger left the body there and practically flew to Prism Star. This couldn't be real. He had been so careful, so watchful. Once he barreled through the doors, he found the bartenders all arguing amongst themselves. Kani wasn't there.

"What the hell is going on? Where is Kani?" he demanded, stomping up to the bar with more aggression than usual to hide the sheer terror that washed over him.

"That's what we're trying to figure out," Aron told him, words heavy with worry. "She disappeared a while ago."

Krieger rarely experienced panic, but it struck him now and only increased when Kani failed to come home that night. He couldn't reach her cell, security had been slow to respond to his demands to investigate her disappearance, and he could feel his world falling apart as more time flew by without any word. He should have seen something like this coming. His suspicions had all been correct, but they hadn't been accurate enough.

He looked for her day and night, restless in his search. He interrogated her past lovers, harassed her friends from the other clubs in the districts. Many of her fans and regular patrons joined him. She was the flair bartender of Prism Star, and people weren't simply going to sit around when she'd been taken. His plan to hunt down and dismember Mouse for double-crossing him was foiled when the duct rat went into hiding. For months, he tore through Solarus to find any clue, any trace that could hint at where she'd gone to. Or where she'd been kidnapped.

When he wasn't out searching for her, he spent his days rotating between destroying things, sitting at home in a drunken stupor, and crying into her belongings. Completely alone and lost without her, he struggled to force himself forward. He had to keep believing in her ability to endure. She had fought through so much in life. She had already proven herself a survivor.

And yet, someone could only survive for so long.

Kani was gone. And nearly one year later, she was still missing.