Paintslinger Girl

A Daria/Gunslinger Girl crossover


"In truth there is no better place to be

Than falling out of darkness still to see"

-- The Light Before we Land ("The Delgadoes")


If she hadn't read the paperwork before hand, Claire never would have been able to guess that the girl in the bed in front of her in the ICU was ten years old. The soft beeps of the various monitoring equipment hooked up to the girl were the only signs she was alive and not the dessicated mummy she appeared to be. The girl's short black hair stood in vivid contrast to the pale skin that clearly showed the outline of every bone. Here and there, the sterile white of bandages contrasted with the pasty white of the skin.

A soft voice intruded on her thoughts. "Ms. Defoe? I'm Dr. Gherardo Napolitano. I'm the one in charge of Jane's case." After shaking her hand, he added, "We should talk in my office. I don't want to risk disturbing her."

Claire simply nodded and followed the doctor to his office. Once out of the ICU, Gherardo said, "I'm happy the Social Welfare Agency responded to my request so quickly."

"I happened to be in the area, so they sent me the initial report. How is she doing?"

"About as well as can be expected, given the state she was found in."

"I've never seen a case of starvation that bad."

"I have, but I was doing aid work in Africa at the time. That wouldn't have had time to kill her, though. If she had been found a few hours later she'd have been dead of dehydration. And even if she managed to survive both of those, some of those bites are infected, and her immune system isn't much to speak of right now. Given the environment she was in, I wouldn't be surprised if she was extremely malnourished to begin with."

"I want to hear more about that. The preliminary report I received was short on information."

"I have the file in my office. The police have sent me some updates since we first contacted your agency."

They spent the rest of the walk in silence. In his office, Gherardo offered her a drink, and once they were both settled in he elaborated.

"Her family's house had been foreclosed on about half a year earlier. The bank wasn't doing anything to maintain it, so there was no one to notice that, well, she was still there. The police haven't been able to find any sign of her family in the country more recent than a year ago."

"She has living relatives?"

Gherardo smiled sadly. "No one knows if they're living. Certainly, the police haven't been able to track down any of them."

"So she was abandoned?"

"Not completely. Her brother was found with her."

"I take it he died, then?"

Gherardo nodded. "The police are used to getting complaints about abandoned houses from the neighbors. They checked the place a number of times, but no windows were broken and the doors were still locked. The house had apparently been in the most disreputable state of disrepair even when the family was officially living there. The police already had a large file of complaints about it from before the foreclosure, so they didn't pay much attention to the ones about the smell after it. Not until someone with pull started making them, anyway."

"The smell?" Claire's eye's narrowed. "You mean..."

"Yes. Her brother had been dead for quite some time by this point. When the police broke in, they found Jane curled up in bed next to what was left of her brother's body."

Claire went pale. After a moment, she asked, "Dehydration?"

"To be honest, the coroner can't tell. Between the advanced state of decay, and the scavengers -- Jane has a number of rat bites as well -- there simply isn't enough of the body left to accurately determine cause. Personally, I'd bet on an overdose of some kind, but I wouldn't expect the toxicology reports to give anything definitive at this point."

"An overdose? Of what?"

"Dealer's choice. The police found a quite amazing drug lab in the basement. They were doing everything from growing marijuana to processing PCP." He added, slightly snidely, "They think that might have something to do with the family's disappearance. There was plenty of residue left of any one of half a dozen drugs for him to OD on. Luckily, Jane shows no signs of any of them."

"And even without a drug lab there's always plenty of nasty things around someone desperate might drink."

"More than usual in this case. Someone there was a photographer, and one of the bathrooms had been converted to a developing lab."

"How long was it?"

"Since her brother died? Again, we're not sure. He certainly died long enough ago that Jane should have long since died of either dehydration or starvation if she had been completely dependent on him."

Claire nodded slowly, then stared out the window. Gherardo waited patiently for her to collect herself.

She sighed, then looked down at her hands, in her lap. Quietly, she said, "I've only been doing this job for a short time. I thought I knew what to expect from the paperwork."

"Reading about them is always different than seeing them."

"I'll have to confirm it with headquarters, but I think we can help on this one."

"Good. Because she's going to need a lot of support. She's lost a large amount of muscle mass. Going through the kind of physical therapy it'll take to rebuild that is hard enough for stable adults with plenty of emotional support. She'll need someone close to her, someone she can count on unconditionally."

"I'll be managing this case personally." Claire stood, followed shortly by the doctor, and they shook hands. "I'll get the paperwork going immediately."

"I don't want her moved until she's stable, but I know how fast the gears of bureaucracy grind, so that's probably for the best," he said wryly. "I'll makes sure you get copies of her charts. Oh, and one more thing, before I forget."

Gherardo picked up a small cardboard box from a shelf behind him, and handed it to Claire. "Most of the house was a complete disaster. It's such a health hazard that I'm told they're going to have to demolish it. This was all they could find that was worth salvaging."

Claire took the lid off the box. It was filled with photographs. Even loose in a pile, it was obvious that the photographer had not been much interested in human subjects. Landscapes, objects, buildings, ruins and the like make up the bulk of them. But placed on top was one of a girl, maybe eight years old, with short black hair, blue eyes, and a wide smile, holding up a small painting that was obviously her own work. A painting of two people with black hair, one short and female, and one tall and male.

"You sure she's the one you want, hon?"

This question was directed to Claire by the rather obviously artificially enhanced blonde woman in a lab coat.

Claire shifted her gaze from the girl in the gurney in front of her, clearly worried. "Is it that bad, Dr. Shar?"

"Oh, don't fret yourself, sugar. I was just asking. It's nothing me and my boys can't handle. It's just goin' to take time to build her up, the old-fashioned way, I mean, before we can start on the cybernetics. Happily, boss lady's in no hurry."

Claire relaxed slightly. "Oh."

"You decide what you're going to call her?"

Claire returned her gaze to Jane. Although she still looked like a stereotypical famine victim, she looked noticeably better than she had when Claire first saw her in the public hospital. "Picasso."

Shar's always wide grin widened even further. "I tried to get a little office pool goin' on that one, but no takers. That's what everyone wanted to put money on. Not much of a game when there's no one on the other side"

"Excuse me for being predictable."

"You just leave it to us. Scoot on over to Dr. Manson's office and she'll fill you in on the updates they've made to the conditioning since Pippi."

"Um... I want to be here when she wakes up."

"She won't remember it after Dr. Manson gets done with her, but she's your little girl. I'll give you a holler before we let up on the sedation. So shoo, and let the nice doctors get on with the doctoring."

Claire stood in the shade near a bus stop at the edge of a warehouse district. She was dressed in a conservative, dark colored, formal pant suit, paired with a not at all conservative or subdued mauve tie. The suit was very well tailored, and did an excellent job hiding the shoulder holster she wore under the jacket. She was also wearing leather gloves and sunglasses, and was hoping no one would start wondering why people would wait for a bus on a day none ran to that stop. Only a nearby observer would have been able to spot the discreet earbud she wore in one ear.

Next to her was an eleven year old girl, with short black hair and restless, vivid blue eyes that never stopped scanning the area around them. She was also dressed in a black pant suit, complete with vest and tie, with a spot of white on her chest where the edge of a handkerchief stuck out of her breast pocket. It was just as well tailored as Claire's, concealing the Sig-Sauer in its holster. In the shade, her coat appeared to be the same deep black as the rest of her suit, but when her wandering took her out in to full sunlight, it was revealed to be an extremely dark red. She carried a tripod case over one shoulder.

The radio crackled to life, and a female voice spoke. "Jackie reports no status change in the last hour, and I've seen none here. The area's as clear as it's going to get, so you may as well get to it."

Claire casually rubbed her nose, speaking into the cuff of her suit. "Roger."

Turning to the girl next to her, she said, "Remember, Pika. One outside, seven inside. We need Edwards alive at all cost." Picasso nodded, and Claire continued, "Do you remember the blueprints?"

"Yes, mom." Picasso said with an exaggerated patience.

"Just remember what we practiced."

Claire watched as Picasso nodded and jogged off down a side street.

Picasso hurried a couple of blocks before slipping in to an alley. Setting down her case, she unzipped it and pulled out a pair of M84 stun grenades, which she clipped to her belt. She then pulled out a Winchester model 1897 and checked to make sure it was fully loaded. Setting it aside, she then pulled out a sheathed bayonet. At nearly two feet long in total, it looked like a short sword in her small hands. Dropping the sheath back in the bag, she affixed the bayonet to the end of the shotgun. With the length of the bayonet added to it, the shotgun was nearly as long as the girl was tall. Dipping in to the bag one last time, she grabbed a pair of metal handles connected by a wide leather strap. Stuffing this in to her pocket, she slung the shotgun over her back, and sneaked to the end of the ally.

The man standing outside the door of the warehouse had the look of an ex-boxer pounded in to his face. His suit was a cheap off-the-rack affair that did nothing to disguise the bulge of the full-size pistol in his shoulder holster. He held a small walkie-talkie in one hand. He was clearly bored, and trying to stay alert, but had been standing outside for too long, and was wondering how much longer it'd be before he was relieved.

Picasso sneaked around the corner of the building, crouched low and moving fast. The shotgun was slung over her shoulder, and she held the metal handles in her hands, the strap stretched between them. The guard was looking in the wrong direction, and he never noticed the sound behind him before the strap was looped around his neck. He didn't have a chance to react before Picasso turned and pulled, crushing his trachea and snapping his neck instantly. The original plan had been to use piano wire, but experimentation had suggested that her enhanced strength would simply decapitate her target. Given the trouble the resulting mess would have been, the garrote had been changed to the leather strap.

Picasso eased the body to the ground, and quickly dragged the 230 pound body down the street and in to an alley.

Returning to the doorway, Picasso knelt and examined the doorknob, then pressed her ear against the door. After listening for a moment, she carefully turned the knob and quietly eased the door open a fraction. She closed her eyes and listened intently for several moments, giving her eyes time to get used to darkness. Standing, she flung open the door and charged through it. She spotted one man standing near the top of the stairs leading to the second floor offices. He stared at her in complete surprise, and didn't recover in time to raise the MAC-10 in his hands before a 12-gauge slug hit him square in the chest.

Further down the hall, hidden from the bottom of the stairs, another man with a MAC-10 turned at the sound of the gunshot to see the first guard falling over backwards in a spray of blood. His shock only lasted a moment before the sound of footsteps running up the stairs broke through and he raised his weapon.

Outside the warehouse, on the roof of another a close distance away, another girl, no older than Picasso, lay on her stomach, waiting. Her short brunette hair was tied in to a pair of pigtails, and a light dusting of freckles lay across her face. Although she was named Jacqueline, most people called her Jackie or Jack. She was dressed in simple boys clothing, and had picked a position that gave her a clear line of sight down two sides of the warehouse Picasso had entered. Not coincidentally, this also allowed her to see through the second floor windows on the side with the offices.

She had been watching the figures in the hall and in the room at the closest corner of the building. As soon as the first gunshot rang out, her head dipped down to look through the sight on the Dragunov SVD she was holding. It took her only a moment to adjust her aim and pull the trigger.

The 7.62mm round hit the man in his head before he even finished raising his MAC-10.

Picasso heard the shot from the rifle while she was on the stairs. She rounded the top of the stairs, and ran for the room at the end of the hall, ignoring the two bodies. Before she even got to the door, she heard another pair of shots from outside, and cursed under her breath. "Dammit, Jackie, leave some for me."

Outside, Jackie had shifted her aim to the occupied room at the end of the hall. One man was heading for the door with a pistol in his hand. Since he was moving, her first shot only hit him in the arm, and she had to fire a second round. She looked for other targets in the room, but found them dropping to the floor and moving out of sight of the window. Speaking in to her radio, she said, "Ms. Morris? One's missing."

Picasso paused outside the door, and pulled one of the M84s off her belt. Standing with her back to the wall beside the doorway, trying to stay out of sight of anyone in the room, she leaned over and kicked the door open. A few desultory shots were fired through the open doorway as Jane pulled the pin on the M84 and counted under her breath. She then tossed the grenade in the doorway behind her and shut her eyes. The men inside had just enough time to recognize it as a grenade before it went off.

Picasso spun, sliding around the door frame and in to the room. She ignored the body by the door, and started walking towards the dark haired man in a brown suit, who was on his knees having obvious problems standing up. As she approached him, she casually fired a slug in to each of the other two disoriented men on the floor, automatically pumping a new shell into the chamber after each shot.

She pulled a set of plastic zip-tie handcuffs from an inside pocket. Kicking his arms out from under him, she set knelt down and set her shotgun down before cuffing his hands behind his back. She started to raise her wrist to her mouth to report the mission complete when a door burst open behind her. She turned to see a man with a Glock 17, and had enough time time to raise her arm in front of her face and think "Of all the times for you to take a potty break..." before he fired.

The shot hit her raised arm. She was already reaching for her shotgun with the other hand, but didn't have a chance to grab it, much less raise it before another shot from outside took care of the problem.

Claire and Picasso watched as several men in large suits manhandled Ken Edwards into the back of a black SUV. Picasso had her injured arm out of her coat, and her sleeve had been torn open for the first aid.

As the SUV drove off, Claire put her hand on Picasso's head, and said, "Are you sure you're okay?'

Picasso smirked at her. "'Tis but a scratch."

Claire frowned at her. "Young lady, if your arm falls off I am going to be very upset."

Picasso's expression turned serious. "No, really, it isn't a big deal." When Claire continued to look at her doubtfully, she smiled and added, "It's just a flesh wound. I've had worse."

Claire sighed and shook her head, letting her hand drop to her side. Putting a stern expression on her face, she asked, "Do you know what you did wrong?"

Picasso sighed and looked away. "I knew there was one more guy in there. I should have neutralized him before securing the target. Kenny couldn't have got away at that point even if he recovered, because you and Morris were already covering the exits."

Claire nodded. "You tend to get a little too caught up in the moment. We'll have to work on that."

Picasso hung her head. Claire watched Picasso study her own shoes for a moment, then said, "Other than that, you did well. Let's get going, and I'll finish your debriefing in the car." Picasso looked up at her with a grin.

Picasso sat on a hospital table, watching as a woman in a lab coat probed at her injured arm.

"How is she, Dr. Bacon?"

"Nothing major. I should be able to get the bullet out without any trouble. It doesn't look like the musculature has been harmed, so as long there's no sign of spalling we can probably leave it at that. I know you hate using the medication on her when you don't have to, so if Pika here doesn't mind, I can go ahead and do it without anesthetic."

Claire looked at Picasso, who looked up at her and shrugged. "It's kind of cool being able to see inside my own arm. Why sleep through it?"

"All right. Once Dr. Bacon is done with you, head back to the dormitory."


Dr. Bacon picked up a ring handled extractor and started without any further preliminaries.

"Ow!" Picasso started cursing like a longshoreman.

Claire looked at her in surprise for a moment, then asked, "Where on earth did you learn all those words?"

Dr. Bacon paused in her work. Picasso swallowed, then said, "Um..."

"Let me guess. Bad Movie Night with Alonso?"


Claire gave her a stern look. "If you don't watch your language, I'll have to put a stop to those."

"Okay, okay. I'll keep my mouth clean."

Dr. Bacon started probing again. As she pulled out the bullet, Picasso shouted, "Aaargh, primitive-and-outmoded-concept on a crutch! That hurt like a son of an unwed female dog Oedipal copulator!"

Claire sighed and said, "Alonso is a bad influence on you."

She managed to keep her stern expression until she got in to the hall.

Four figures sat around a table in a nondescript conference room. The head of Section 42, Ms. Li, was meeting with the heads of the cyborg development team, Dr. Shar and Dr. Manson, as well as Claire, who was representing the ops team.

"And how is our guest, Mr. Edwards, doing?" Li asked.

"Spike and Ms. Barch are interrogating him now, Ms. Li" Claire replied.

Ms. Li frowned. "Hmph. I hope someone is keeping an eye on them. We need him to survive the interrogation."

"Don't worry, Mrs. Bennett is keeping an eye on them."

"Can she keep them in check? I wouldn't want anything to ruin it now. I can't wait to see the expression on the face of that bitch -- I mean, that woman -- Linda over in Section 1 after I tell her we caught him."

"Some people might say stopping him from trying to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge was the important part." Dr. Shar noted.

"We still need to find out where he was planning on getting his explosives from. For the honor and glory of Section 42. I want to keep rolling up the chain. How are the cyborgs?"

"Some minor damage to Pika, but nothing important. Jackie was unharmed. You'll have the full after action report tomorrow. We're ready to start working on the next op whenever it's set."

"Good, good. Dr. Shar, when will Pippilotta be able to leave the hospital and move back to active ops training?"

"Far as we're concerned, she could have left a week ago." Dr. Shar responded with a shrug. "Nothing physically wrong with her except that hypochondriac limp noodle of a handler."

Ms. Li sighed. "I'll have a little talk with Mr. O'Neill. Any problems on your end, Dr. Manson?"

"Her long-term memory is progressively degrading, but it's within the expected parameters given the amount of experimentation we had to do on her conditioning. It's certainly not to the point where we'd have to keep her off active duty. I do want to step up her psych exam schedule, however. This is our first opportunity to really examine the late-stage progression of the conditioning side-effects, and anything we can learn now can be worked in to the second generation project."

"Understood. I want to make sure it's kept active as long as possible. Those things are expensive, and I intend to get my... I mean, the government's money's worth out of them.

Well, I think that's enough for now. I'll read over the reports. If we have good news from Ms. Barch, we'll start planning the next op. Maybe we'll be able to steal another march on Section 1."

Picasso walked in to the dorms with her jacket over one shoulder and one sleeve of her shirt missing, leaving the new bandages visible. "Are you two the only ones here?"

Two other girls, both about Picasso's age, were already in the room which served as a common area in the cyborg dorms. Some of the girls jokingly referred to is as the stables. Some of the staff simply called it the garage.

One of the girls, Cora, was a black girl with her black hair in cornrows. She was dressed in a pink shirt and a dark grey skirt and sitting at a long table in the middle of the room. Since her feet didn't reach the floor from the chair, she was cheerfully swinging her legs while field stripping an IMI Micro Uzi. The other girl, Alonso, was a white brunette girl wearing thick glasses. She was dressed in a dark green jacket over a dark orange shirt and a black skirt. She was sitting nearby in a recliner, with her legs tucked up beneath her, and reading a book.

Cora was the first to answer. "Hey, Pika. Spike's minding your latest target, and Pippi's still in the hospital."

Alonso added, "Hilde's off in the middle of bum-fuck nowhere with Gibson, trying to track down someone. How'd the competition go?"

"No good. This was my last chance this month to catch up to Spike, but it looks like the blonde bimbo will win this round. I only added four to my score this time. And look what they did to my favorite jacket!" Picasso held up the sleeve with the bullet holes.

"You better hope she doesn't hear you call her that," Cora said. After a pause she used to begin cleaning the parts laid out neatly in front of her, she added, "You're more worried about the jacket than your arm?"

"Hey, this is my lucky jacket. Do you know how hard it is to get bloodstains out? They can always replace my arm."

"If you don't want it damaged, why do you always wear it on missions?" Alonso asked, without looking up from her book.

"Didn't you hear me? Lucky jacket. Back in a sec, I just want to get this soaking." Picasso left the room, and returned shortly without the jacket, but without having bothered to change her shirt.

When Picasso returned, she headed straight for the corner of the room where a small counter and sink were placed. She continued the conversation like she hadn't left, while pouring a cup of coffee for herself. "Anyway, what's wrong with Pippi? I thought she was ready to get back to work, the lazy freeloader."

"She's ready. Mr. O'Neill isn't." Cora continued to carefully clean her weapon as she talked.

"Timid Timmy again? Should have guessed. The guy did name the only Asian girl here after Pippi Longstocking. How did he ever get to be an agent with Section 42, anyway?"

"Haven't you noticed the way he and Mrs. Barch are together?"

Picasso joined Cora at the table. "The light begins to dawn. Please, say no more. I do not need the mental image."

Alonso spoke up, "Spike and Pippi noticed a long time ago. Timmy's just lucky Spike can tell that Janet's serious about him, Agency man or not."

"If she wasn't so direct, I'd have been surprised he noticed. Anyway, what are you reading there, Al?"

Alonso finally looked up. She had a disconcerting stare at the best of times, but also had an absolute talent for tilting her head at just the right angle to cause any light in the room to glare off the surface of her glasses. The combination of the two meant she never lost a staring contest. "Al?"

"Hey, if no-one's going to call me by my full name, I'm going to use diminutives on everyone else."

"You can keep wondering about the book, then." Was all she said as she returned to reading.

"I see vegetables on the front. Reading about gardening?" Picasso started laughing.

"Actually, I am."

Picasso stopped laughing and stared. "Seriously? Why?"

Alonso ignored her.

"I mean, that sounds like work," Picasso continued, "And I thought you didn't like work."

Alonso continued to ignore her.

Picasso asked, "Alonso?"

"I got permission to plant some herbs and tomatoes. I'm going to get a good pizza in this place if it kills me."

Cora just shook her head, examining the parts arranged neatly in front of her one last time before she began to reassemble the weapon..

Picasso nodded. "Now that's a goal I can get behind. Glad to see there's someone with some talent and vision around here. I can't wait to tear in to a good slice."

"Good. I could use some help with the weeding."


"No workee, no eatee."

"Cheapskate. Besides, I've got a job, you're the one who hangs out here all the time. Hey, there's an idea. Why not join us on the next op? You could help even if you don't have a handler, and we can grab a pizza before we come back."

"Staying here is my job. The guinea pig doesn't leave the cage." Like the rest of her conversation, this was stated flatly and with minimal inflection. It was a statement of fact, not a complaint.

"I'll help." Cora said, performing a quick function test on her reassembled Uzi before setting it down.

"I'm not surprised."

"I am," Alonso said, looking up. "You're already trying to help the Pneumatic Squeak keep up with her studies in, well, just about everything except tactics, and helping Jackie with her CQB, and Picasso here with her math, and Hildegard with her Dari. When are you going to find time?"

"You guys really should call her Spike all the time. One of these days you'll slip when she's around and she'll slap you silly." Obviously concerned, she added, "Seriously, though, Alonso. Don't you ever get lonely?"

"At least when everyone else is out I can read in peace."

Jacqueline suddenly opened the door. She was wearing a sweat suit, and had blood running down her front from her nose. "Ah, there you are. Cora, Bennett wants you."

"What happened to you?" Picasso asked.

Jacqueline looked down and to the side and pouted a little. "Ms. Morris got mad at me." she added, sulkily.

Cora hopped up from her chair and ran over to her. "I'm sure it wasn't anything important, Jackie. At least clean your face up."

Pulling out a handkerchief, she began wiping at Jacqueline's face. Jacqueline smiled at her, and the two of them quickly left to find Mrs. Bennett.

Picasso took a long drink from her still steaming coffee and said, "Cora sure likes playing mommy, doesn't she?"

"I do hope you aren't planning to call me daddy."

"Given that we share a room, and that I prefer to wake up without horrible things having happened to me in my sleep, no, I don't think I shall."

"Good call."

After a pause, Picasso asked, "How is Pippi really doing?"

"You haven't been to visit her in a while." Alonso made it a statement, not a question.

Picasso shook her head.

Alonso said, "Everyone but Cora is avoiding it. The side-effects are getting too obvious, and it makes them uncomfortable." They all knew Pippilotta was the first of the cyborgs, and assuming none of them were killed in action, anything that happened to her was going to happen to the rest of them eventually.

"The memory loss is that bad?"

Alonso shook her head. "No, that's easy to work around. Just don't talk about anything that happened a long time ago. Jackie's the only one who can remember anything before the Agency anyway, so everyone's used to that. Her speech impediment is getting worse."

Picasso nodded. No one was sure when exactly it started, but Pippilotta's speech had been gradually slowing down. She hadn't been used in any kind of scouting or observation role for a while. They sat in silence for a while, Alonso reading and Picasso nursing her coffee.

The two girls looked up as Claire entered the room. Alonso, seeing that Claire's attention was on Picasso, quickly returned to her reading. Picasso, seeing Claire's gaze drop to the coffee mug in her hands, grinned sheepishly.

"Coffee before bedtime again?"

"Hey, I didn't brew this batch. This dirty water couldn't possibly keep me awake." Picasso stood up, leaving the cup on the table, and walked over to Claire.

Claire ruffled her hair, then said, "Remind me to get you a replacement for that shirt. Unless you'd like to actually go shopping for once."

"Nah, another of the same is fine. But if you really want to get me something, I am almost out of Cadmium Yellow and Viridian. A little more Ultramarine would be nice, too."

Claire nodded. "I'll stop by tomorrow and see how your paint supply is doing when I check on the progress of your latest project." Shifting her gaze over to Alonso, she added, "Speaking of which, Mr. O'Neill wants the first draft of your story by this weekend."

Alonso didn't look up from her book as she replied, "Only the first draft? No problem."

"Then it's about time for the two of you to go to bed." Although she was addressing both girls, Claire had one hand on Picasso's shoulder, and was eying her bandages. "Alonso has a busy schedule tomorrow, and I want your report on the op before lunch. We'll be conducting the full after action review in a couple days. In the mean time, you should think about replacing that old 1897 of yours. I can arrange to have some new models brought in for you to try out."

Picasso looked pained. "Get rid of Old Sweepy? I mean, I know he's not the most cutting edge thing around, but I like the old fellow."

"I'm not saying you have to, but at least think about it."

"I am not giving up Mr. Stabbity."

"We can get a bayonet mount machined if we have to. I'm just asking you to think about it." Claire gave her a quick hug before turning her around, and tapping her in the back. "Now, off to bed."

"Goodnight." Claire stood and watched as Picasso quickly rinsed out her cup and Alonso closed her book, stood up, and stretched. She didn't leave until the two girls had gone down the hall to their room.

The girls' room was fairly large. A bunk bed stood against one wall. The top bed was extremely neatly made and had a half dozen pillows of various sizes arranged on it. The bottom bed had been made by someone in a hurry who obviously didn't care about neatness. The opposite wall had two desks, side by side. One had a shelf full of books, and on the desk itself was a pile of loose, unruled paper, as well as a marble desk base and clock holding a pair of Parker 51 fountain pens. The other desk held a random collection of things that looked like they were scraped up after an internal combustion engine exploded next to a shelf of pottery. The wall opposite the door was dominated by a large bay window, with a built-in window seat which showed signs of frequent use. Neither girl had much use for a large wardrobe, and had stuck their dresser in the closet.

Paintings were scattered around the walls, in variety of styles, ranging from Romanticism to Cubism to Rimpa to Madhubani. All of the girls were given some kind of hobby that would train their fine motor skills with the cybernetics. Most of them were learning musical instruments, and Alonso's flute case sat next to her desk with the case for her H&K VP70M, the latter of which Picasso had never actually seen her use. Picasso was the only one not learning an instrument. The paintings, along with various things from pottery to macrame, were her training.

Picasso didn't bother to wait until they were in the room before she had her tie and vest off, and she was already working on her shirt when Alonso closed the door. Picasso dropped clothing here and there as she headed to the closet for her pajamas. Alonso started picking up Picasso's discarded outfit. "You never did say what your project was this time. Did you go with the idea about the guillotine?"

"Nah, I decided I'd do something different for a change. I'm working on a supernova."

"Ah. Hence the colors."

"Yeah. Hey, I'll bring back some pizza when we go get the paint."

"It'll be all cold and greasy by then." Alonso paused, then continued, "But bad pizza is better than no pizza."

"And how about your story? I wish you'd tell me what those things are about before you finish them. Going to let me read this one?"

"Yeah, probably." Alonso deposited Picasso's clothing in the hamper, and started unbuttoning her shirt.

"You get to the hiking scene yet?"

Alonso suddenly froze, and glared at Picasso, who had finished changing and was standing smirking at her.

"How did you know there was a hiking scene?"

Picasso caught the dangerous note in her voice and raised her hands. "Relax, I haven't been sneaking peeks. It took me a while to notice, but everything you write has something about hiking in it. Even the one about the flesh eating virus."

Alonso looked thoughtful for a while, then frowned. "You're right."

As Alonso resumed undressing, Picasso walked over to the bottom bed and flopped in. "You must love hiking. You wouldn't be going on secret curfew-breaking hikes and not invite your best friend along, would you?"

"I've never even been on a hike."

Picasso stretched. "I suppose. That would rather require physical exertion."

"Very funny. And true."

Alonso finished changing, and picked up her gardening book before climbing in to the top bed.

"Hey, where did you get that book, anyway? I don't remember seeing any gardening books in here."

"There's a room over in the handlers' apartments that's full of books."

Picasso stuck her head out over the side of her bed. "Okay, hikes are one thing. But you aren't even asking me along to sneak in to the handlers' quarters? Now I'm hurt."

Alonso was laying on her stomach with the book propped open in front of her, and didn't bother looking over the side. "No sneaking involved. They all know about it, and I was given a key to the room."

Picasso pulled her head back and let it fall on her pillow. "Hmm. Who gave it to you?"

Alonso paused in her reading. "Don't remember."

"Well, if it's in the handlers' apartments, shouldn't one of the handlers be staying there? Whose room is it?"

"They just tell me to consider it my library. I don't think anyone's ever lived there. If there's something you want to read, let me know, and I'll see if I can find it."

Picasso yawned. "Nah. But if you come across some good pictures of explosions..."

After lying in silence for a while, Picasso said, "I'm going to turn out the light. Claire'll probably be checking up on us soon."

Alonso closed her book and made a "Mm" noise in reply as she removed her glasses.

After the light was out and the footsteps in the hall had come and gone, Picasso softly spoke. "Alonso?"

There was a sigh from the top bed. "What now?"

"Maybe someday you'll meet the right man, settle down, and go on assassinations like a normal girl."

Alonso replied with an exasperated, "Say goodnight, Picasso."

Picasso's reply was dripping with audible smirk. "Goodnight, Picasso."

Alonso then demonstrated why she had so many pillows on her bed. When backed by cybernetically enhanced strength, a thrown pillow makes a most satisfying whump.