By Max Fauth.

Note: This story takes place after the events of "Gunfight."

The mission was simple. All there was to it was to intercept the terrorist behind the recent Neo York corporate attacks. Using Spycorp's resources, it was easy to guess the terrorist's next target, along with where in the building they would strike. Now Aoi found herself waiting by the secondary loading bay at the Gunkoku arcology.

Al the previous attacks had been at loading docks on the east side of the target buildings, all three days apart between 1:15 and 1:45 AM. Evidence suggested that a single person gaining access to the building through the loading dock had perpetrated each one. From that, Aoi guessed that her upcoming opponent was another agent, possibly with training and cybernetics on par with her own. She marveled at her target's almost mechanic precision, and similar predictability. Almost as if they wanted to be caught.

At this late hour, even the bustling city was quiet. The workers at the dock had long since packed up and gone home, leaving a clear, open bay for their confrontation. Aoi had surveyed the scene and set herself up in the shadows of the main entrance. From here, she could see anyone approaching, and would have the drop on her opponent. She was toying with the idea of shooting them as they entered the compound, but had dismissed it. It would be squandering a perfect opportunity.

She was quite looking forward to their fight.

She heard a movement nearby which broke the perfect stillness of the night. Across the bay, a woman stepped out of the shadows, as if she had just appeared there. Aoi watched her closely as she stepped into the dim light of the moon. She appeared to be in her early twenties, had a lean, attractive figure, a calm look on her face and was wearing a dark grey bodysuit. Aoi could make out her silky black hair, tied into a long braid resting over her shoulder and reflecting the moon's light.

Aoi silently drew her pistol and smiled. She was safe in the shadows as her opponent approached in plain view. She waited for the woman to step closer, out into the light, before she sprung. Aoi leapt down from her vantage point, pistol aimed at the woman's head. Her face was in the light, and she knew the intruder could see her smile.

"Caught you," Aoi said simply. "I'm almost disappointed."

The woman turned to look at her. The moonlight reflected in her clear blue eyes as she fixed a piercing gaze on Aoi. Without warning, Aoi's arm twisted and her pistol flew from her grip, clattering amongst crates to her right. She watched her hand dumbly, then turned up to look at the woman. Unmoving, unblinking, she sent a blast of invisible force streaking towards Aoi. It struck her in the chest, flinging her against a stack of crates like a rag doll and leaving her to slump to the ground.

Aoi shook her head to clear it, then felt invisible fingers grip her throat. She was lifted into the air as the woman slowly stepped towards her, trying to get a better look. Aoi waited as she approached then lashed out with her foot, sweeping it upwards. The woman surged back, avoiding the blow and relaxing her grip on Aoi. She dropped to the ground and sprang at her opponent.

As she struck forwards, Aoi cursed her own stupidity. The Spycorp report indicated a possibility of the intruder being esper, but she had ignored the warning, much to her chagrin. Now as she swung at her foe, she hoped her powers were all she could rely on.

The woman dodged her two first punches easily, then caught her hand on her third blow. The woman twisted, dragging Aoi to the ground and wrapping her arm up in a painful lock. Aoi rolled into it, kicking up and breaking the hold. She swept her other foot around but it shot below the other woman as she sprang to her feet. In an instant Aoi was on her feet in front of the woman, only to be struck in the chest by a second invisible blast. A third followed, which Aoi barely managed to evade.

The woman took the offensive, swinging around with a stinging backhand and following with a high thrust kick. Aoi ducked under the kick, sweeping the woman's legs out from under her. As she fell, Aoi thrust down with a punch, only to find her fist blocked by an invisible wall of force. The woman pushed her back and silently levitated to her feet. Aoi sprang forwards once more, ducking to the side as the woman threw up another wall of force and striking high, kicking her in the side of the head.

The woman staggered back, dazed. Aoi grinned and pressed her advantage, striking her repeatedly in the gut. This had turned out perfectly for her. She had taken out a esper, all on her own! She spun around with a massive spin kick to finish her opponent off, only to have her leg caught. The woman hauled back with esperally enhanced strength, pulling Aoi off her feet before smashing her knee against the concrete. Aoi screamed in pain, arching her back before falling quietly to the ground.

The woman looked down at her. "I expected more," she said quietly, then turned her back on Aoi and resumed her path to the loading bay doors.

Behind her, Aoi struggled to her feet. She felt an immense pain in her right knee where it had been smashed against the pavement, but tried to ignore it. "I'm not done yet!" Aoi gasped out. The woman stopped dead in her tracks and turned slowly to face her. Once again, Aoi charged.

This time she leapt up, kicking in the air at her face. The woman surged back, floating above the ground to avoid Aoi's blows. Aoi pressed forwards, lashing out with blinding speed, missing her opponent by the nearest margins. She stepped forwards, aiming a kick at the woman's face. Her foot was stopped an inch from its target by an invisible wall of force. Aoi's eyes widened, and she threw herself to one side, barely avoiding the invisible blast that followed.

Aoi found herself scurrying back as the woman drifted forwards, mere inches above the ground. She looked up at her opponent's eyes as they blazed bright blue, seemingly burning from within. Almost from instinct, Aoi hurled herself aside a split second before the ground was torn up by another blast. Aoi rolled to her feet and broke into a run, heading for a pile of crates. The woman watched impassively, firing another blast that streaked behind Aoi before she dived behind the crates. She aimed past the crates and fired, expecting Aoi to emerge from the other end. Instead, Aoi stood from behind the crate, firing her recovered pistol. The rounds stopped in mid-air before the woman, before clattering uselessly to the ground.

Aoi stood still, dumbstruck by the display of power. The woman seized her opportunity and concentrated on her. Aoi felt an invisible force binding her arms and legs, pulling them open and leaving her spread-eagled in the air. She was floated forwards by the force, coming to a halt in front of her opponent.

"Curious," The woman said softly, tilting her head to one side and blinking.

"What's so funny?" Aoi spat back. She strained against her invisible bonds to no avail.

"You. You fight back, when you know you can't win."

Aoi looked bitterly at her. The few times she had struck her opponent had little lasting effect. She needed to hit hard, and quickly But first, to escape her hold...

Aoi thrust her head forwards and connected, dazing the woman briefly. The invisible grip relaxed, and Aoi landed on the ground. She sprang up again, driving her knee into her opponent's chest. The woman let out a gasp of pain and staggered backwards. Seizing her chance, Aoi leapt forwards, spinning in mid-air, aiming a kick at her opponent's face.

Only to stop dead in mid-air. Before she realised what was happening, Aoi felt a tremendous pressure on her right leg. The woman furrowed her brow in concentration, increasing the pressure. Aoi let out a howl of pain, and raised her pistol to fire on her opponent. Seeing the threat, the esper twisted with her mental powers, wrenching Aoi's leg and sending her spinning to the ground.

Aoi crashed to the ground, screaming in pain. She could barely think, barely see through the haze of pain before her eyes. She rolled aside, clutching her injured right leg with both hands. Ahead, she could see the woman turn her back and start towards the loading dock once more. Struggling, she brought herself to one knee and raised her pistol. She grasped it with both hands, trying to steady her aim on the woman's back. With great effort, she hauled herself to her feet.

As she stood, Aoi felt another spike of pain from her leg. It collapsed under her weight, sending her toppling to the ground. She screamed out in pain, dropping her pistol, her vision blurring as she collapsed into unconsciousness.

She felt as if she was floating on a cloud. The pain was gone. She couldn't feel the hard ground or the heavy gun in her hand. She sighed softly, enjoying the feeling of lightness. Suddenly she could hear herself breathing, as if it was the first breath she'd ever taken. She hummed softly in pleasure, wanting nothing more than to sink back into the peaceful oblivion of her new surroundings.

Was she dead? She had been close before, closer than that fight. Maybe this had finally finished her off. Is this what it's like, she thought, just soft comfort forever? No, said another voice. This one was hard and bitter. I'm not going to lose like that. I'm not going to give up. I'm not going to let you blow it for both of us. She found herself agreeing with the voice, as alien as it seemed to her.

She slowly opened her eyes, moving the lids as if they were made of lead. A soft, white ceiling stretched out above her. Other senses were returning slowly. She could hear faint noises of people nearby. She felt the soft sheets of a comfortable bed. A faint throbbing came from her leg, but it was easy enough to ignore. She smiled to herself. At least it was still there.

All of a sudden, a blurry form obscured her vision, all white and yellow and pink. "Hey, she's awake!" it yelled out. She blinked twice, and the form resolved itself. April was leaning over her in bed, and now Keiko had joined her. Both were wearing white outfits that she couldn't make out. Looking around, she took in other details; the hastily furnished room, the familiar stairs, and the wide windows to her side.

She was home again. Aoi's home.

"Good to see you're awake," Keiko said. She looked back up at the girl. For some reason, they were both wearing small white hats. Odd.

"What happened?" Aoi croaked out. Her throat felt dry and sore.

"Dunno. We found you on the floor, all banged up," April responded.

Aoi sighed. She was in her own living room, on the fold-out couch bed, which she had bought for just such an occasion. A thought nagged at her, but she ignored it for now. There were more pressing concerns.

"I'm starving," she muttered.

April giggled and turned to the kitchen. Watching her depart, she could make out a scandalously short white skirt and tight blouse. She looked up at Keiko, recognising the same outfit on the Japanese girl. "We're playing nurses," Keiko reply by means of explanation.

She sighed. "Figures."

"No, seriously." Keiko busied herself adjusting Aoi's sheets, and offering her a glass of water that was resting on a table by the couch. "We've been looking after you since we found you here."

Aoi craned her head up to sip from the glass and asked "When was that?"

"Yesterday morning." Keiko shrugged. "We got back at about 4, and just found you there crumpled up on the floor."

"Yesterday?" Aoi glanced at the window. The sky was bright, and the sun was overhead. "What time is it?"

"Almost noon."

"Here 'tis!" April called out. She emerged from the kitchen with a steaming bowl. "Just some soup to get you started. Eat up."

"Thank you," Aoi replied. She sat up, propping herself up on the pillows. She felt an immediate draft, and looked down to find...

April giggled as Aoi yanked the sheets back up over her chest. "We had to," Keiko added, nudging April with her elbow. "And it's not like you keep a hospital gown handy or anything."

Aoi moaned and rolled her eyes. "You guys undressed me," she stated.

"Come on, it's nothing we haven't seen before." April leant over, aiming her unbuttoned blouse at Aoi's face. "Now eat up."

Aoi took the soup, all the while sparing the two girls sour looks. They glanced at each other, then promptly burst out laughing.

"What's so funny?" Aoi asked between mouthfuls.

"Just your reaction... It's priceless," April gasped out between sobs of laughter.

Aoi shook her head. She couldn't help but smile. She'd taken on a esper and the worst thing she had to show for it was being laughed at by her roommates. She could live with that.

I can't, the bitter voice said back.

Aoi looked down at the sheets again. "My leg..." She said vaguely.

Keiko bit her lip. "It's braced, but she said it'll be fine in a while."

"Who said?" Aoi asked.

"I did," came the reply. Aoi looked up to the landing over the kitchen to see Angel leaning on the railing. She was wearing a loose dressing gown, and her hair hung limply as if she was fresh out of the shower. "First thing they did was call me," she added.

Aoi lay back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. "So how bad am I?"

"Worse than last time," Angel said with a chuckle. "Except for that leg of yours."

Aoi nodded solemnly. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Angel wander off into the second floor. Our floor, Aoi thought. She'd been careful to set up the kids - April and Keiko - on the first floor of the apartment, and Eve and her room and study on the second. So what's Angel doing up there? She thought.

"Girls?" Aoi asked quietly.

"What's wrong? Don't like the soup?" April glanced at the mostly-full bowl and pouted.

Aoi shook her head. "It's fine. Just... If I'm on the couch, where's Angel staying?" They had no spare bedrooms.

April looked oddly bashful, but Keiko stepped forwards to speak. "She's set up in your room," She said quietly.

"What?" Startled, Aoi sat up and swung her legs out of the bed. She tried to stand, but crashed to the floor amongst her sheets. April and Keiko immediately helped her back into bed.

"Don't push it! We told you to stay off your feet," April said, the concern clear on her face.

"I'm not letting her sleep in my room," Aoi replied.

"Then come up here and kick me out." Angel's voice drifted lazily downstairs.

Aoi frowned. She could imagine Angel going through Eve's belongings, keeping tabs on her former pet. The thought galled her. But there wasn't anything she could do for now; not on her own.

"April, can you get me the laptop?" she asked.

"What for?" April replied, curious.

A slight smile broke across Aoi's face. "I need some new gear."

Angel lay back on the soft bed, reveling in the newfound comfort. The two lovebirds aren't shy about pampering themselves, she thought. She glanced around the bedroom, noting the stark contrasts. Everything was clearly divided into Eve and Aoi's separate sections. While Eve had plenty of outfits, ranging from her combat gear to the most outrageous party wear, Aoi's clothes seemed to consist of a few conservative suits and even fewer formal dresses. While Eve had a variety of jewelry and other accessories, all Aoi had was the earrings she wore. And as for toys... Angel smirked at the thought, noting Eve's dominace in that area.

She'd heard all sorts of noises downstairs. Someone had arrived, just to drop something off, as far as she could tell. Whoever he was, he'd left quickly with the minimum of fuss. That was followed by some amusing arguing and cursing on Aoi's behalf. Whatever she was doing, the others heartily disagreed with it. Then the apartment had gone quiet again.

But now there was another noise. She looked up, listening carefully. A faint thudding followed by a tap, all the time growing louder. Someone coming up the stairs slowly, Angel thought. But that tap that followed each step? A smile crossed her face at the thought. She lay back and stretched out, enjoying the comfort of the stolen room for the last few seconds.

The bedroom door swung open, revealing Aoi. Her hair was hastily tied, with strands falling in her face and across her shoulders. She was dressed in a long white blouse and seemingly nothing else. In her right hand was a long bamboo walking cane, and around her leg was some kind of metallic brace. A slight whirring noise signaled its motors coming to a halt, and she could see a wire trailing up from the hip, probably to one of Aoi's datajacks.

"You," the younger woman said, gasping for breath and pointing her free hand at Angel. "Out."

Angel laughed.

The damage to the Gunkoku arcology had been worse than on the previous attacks. Aoi had received an earful from her employers on her failure, esper notwithstanding. They had cancelled her assignment, stating that she would never be able to stop an ESPer on her own. Aoi figured that the next target - the Jinsei Arcology, no less - wasn't their concern. Nobody liked Jinsei these days.

"So it's over," Angel said, lazing on the couch and watching Aoi with amusement. "There's no need for you to go back and risk your life."

Aoi grunted and returned to her work. She'd cleared off a part of the living room floor and was now stretching and exercising on it - all to whip her injured leg into shape. Angel knew that the attack was due that very night, and that Aoi was hell-bent on being there for it.

"So how's Evelyn been?" Angel asked. She humoured Aoi by using the girl's preferred name for her lover.

"Ask her yourself, she'll be getting back soon," Aoi muttered through gritted teeth.

Angel gave an amused chuckle. "And you're doing well together, I see? No problems?"

"We're happy," Aoi replied.

"Have you re-thought-"

"'No' is the answer," Aoi interrupted. "No, I'm not interested and neither is she," she finished, sparing Angel a filthy look.

"But she'd be so disappointed to come home and see you injured. Why not give this up?" Angel watched Aoi as the girl worked on in silence, seemingly ignoring her question. "Did you and this ESPer make some agreement? Did she challenge you again?" Angel grinned to herself. "That's it, isn't it? You relish the challenge of taking down an ESPer, right?" Again, Aoi ignored her. Angel watched her for a second, then said, "No. It's your pride."

Aoi stopped in the middle of a sit-up and stared at the older woman. "Nonsense," she eventually said.

"Ah, but it is." She stood and leaned over Aoi as she continued her training. "You were beaten by a superior opponent and you can't deal with it."

Aoi spared her another filthy glance before turning away from her and stretching out her injured leg. A grunt of pain escaped the young woman's lips, prompting another chuckle from Angel.

Angel turned, theatrically throwing out her hands. "Alright, I can see I'm not going to convince you as to the error of your ways." She glanced back, grinning. "But at least let me give you some pointers."

Aoi stared back at her, surprised.

The east side loading bay of the Jinsei Arcology was practically a fortress in and of itself. Massive steel doors, usually open all through the day, were sealed tight. Security cameras monitored every corner of the enourmous bay. There were no workers at this late hour; a brief break between the late shift and the early morning shift that provided the perfect opportunity for the attacker.

The bay itself was a massive, cavernous chamber, cluttered with innumerable crates and containers. A number of small forklifts lined the back wall, and freight lifts reached up to the higher levels. The bay was dimly illuminated, the crates casting shadows across the whole room.

The air shimmered briefly and a woman appeared in the middle of the bay. As before, she was dressed in a dark grey bodysuit, and her long black hair was braided to lie across her shoulder. She glanced around the room, looking for any sign of opposition.

"Take her by surprise," Angel said. "No-one's alert all the time, and an ESPer can't keep their defenses up permanently."

Aoi nodded. "What else?"

Without warning, Aoi launched herself from atop a crate. She crashed into the woman foot-first, knocking her to the floor. Aoi landed beside her, grunting in pain as her injured leg took her weight. She shifted back to her good leg, and spun around to face her adversary.

The woman was on her feet in an instant, sweeping her hair back to hang behind her. Aoi struck high, lashing out her right leg at blinding speed, the motors in her brace whining in complaint. The woman ducked her head back, avoiding the blow by the nearest fraction. Aoi was struck by her smile.

Angel stood and leaned over Aoi as the girl continued her workout. "Next thing is that you've got to keep the pressure on her."

Aoi looked up again. "How's that going to help."

"If you're faster than her - and I'm sure you are - you can keep her from striking back. Or at least from using her powers."

"How does that work?" Aoi said without looking back.

Angel sat on the floor next to her. "Most ESPers need to concentrate on their powers. Keep her busy, and she can't use them."

Aoi sent a second kick high, but was blocked. Undeterred, Aoi struck again, punching at her chest and stomach. The woman blocked her again, then dropped low and swept Aoi's feet from under her. Even as she fell, Aoi struck out with a foot, striking her on her back and knocking her down.

Both lay on the floor for a split second, before springing into action. Aoi pushed herself off the floor with her hands, kicking out backwards at her prone opponent. The woman rolled away, springing to her feet and arcing her foot up in one fluid motion. She struck down again, bringing her foot down at Aoi's chest. Aoi blocked her foot with both hands, grabbed hold and yanked her off her feet. Aoi sprang back and leapt to her feet, while her opponent merely tumbled with her fall and resumed her footing.

So much for that, Aoi thought. Again, she was unnerved by the woman's amused smile.

"Alright. So she's busy and can't use her powers. But she's still a good fighter," Aoi replied. "If she can take me down for a second-"

"She gets the opportunity to mash you," Angel finished rather casually.

"Thanks," Aoi deadpanned.

Angel sat in silence for a few seconds, watching Aoi as she exercised. "Tell me," she said eventually. "How was she fighting?"

Aoi looked at her in surprise. She thought over the fight, remembering a brief glimpse of her opponent's low stance. "Um... Commando training, I think." Aoi replied. "She grappled a lot, and her blows were all direct and powerful."

"But it's also a fairly rigid style." Angel smiled. "Be spontaneous. Vary your attacks. Go for her feet and keep her off guard. But most of all, don't let her get a hold of you!"

Once more Aoi sprung forwards. This time she lashed down with her foot, striking at the woman's ankles. She gasped in pain as Aoi struck, and sprung back. Aoi pressed forwards, continuing to strike low, out of arm's reach to avoid being blocked. The woman stepped carefully, keeping her eyes on Aoi's feet and dancing out of harm's way.

Aoi leant back, lashing at her feet once more. At the last second she flicked her leg up and struck her opponent's chest hard. While the woman staggered, Aoi dropped to the ground and swept low. Her opponent recovered at the last second and held strong, clutching Aoi's leg between hers as they both fell. The woman rolled over, twisting Aoi's leg back. Instead of resisting, Aoi rolled with the woman, landing both of them on their backs. Aoi kept rolling into her opponent, striking upwards with her free leg, connecting with the woman's chest once more.

Again, they sprang to their feet simultaneously. This time Aoi noted her opponent was practically laughing with joy. "You're even better than I expected," she said with childish glee.

"And if all that fails?" Aoi asked.

"Your gun's useless," Angel stated plainly. "She knows to expect it. Reach for it, and she'll use her powers."

"So..." Aoi sat up and stared glumly at the wall.

"So use your secret weapon."

Aoi gritted her teeth and leapt. She knew her flying kick would leave her open, but it was the only choice if she was going to take the woman down fast. Her opponent knew what to expect however, and ducked aside at the last second. Aoi landed gracefully, but immediately felt her opponent grab her from behind. She locked her arms around Aoi's shoulders and swung, aiming to ram her head into a metal container.

Gasping in pain, straining with effort, Aoi bent double in the woman's grasp and kicked her legs up against the container. For a second they were locked in a bizzare tableau, before Aoi's strength won out and pushed them both back. Once more they went sprawling to the floor, but rather than face her opponent, Aoi rolled to her feet and turned around. There! She spotted a slender shape on the floor, where she had left it.

Aoi blinked in surprise. How did Angel know what she was planning? Then the thought came to her. Of course, Angel had all the time she wanted to snoop around and go through her things. Discovering her new toy would have been easy.

"I was planning to open with that," Aoi said.

Angel shook her head and inched closer to Aoi. "No good. If she sees you wielding that, she'll take more risks and blast you straight out. At least, that's what I'd do if I could."

Aoi cursed under her breath. "So it's useless?" she asked.

Angel shook her head. "Absolutely not. One blow could kill her. But you have to be sure to take her by surprise. Make sure she's angry or dazed when you reach for it."

Aoi dived across the floor, arm outstretched, reaching for the slim shape. Behind her, she could hear her opponent getting to her feet. There was a faint buzzing noise, a slight change in the air and Aoi knew the woman's powers had activated. Without hesitation, without considering failure, Aoi siezed her weapon, spun and struck.

Angel leaned herself against Aoi's toned body, smiling childishly. "You're so cute when you try to be serious like this."

Aoi glared at her, then shook her head and smiled. "Thanks," she said softly. "But don't get any ideas."

The woman stood still, eyes wide open, mouth gaping in shock. Aoi stood before her, watching as she crossed her arms over the wound on her chest and collapsed to her knees. Blood seeped from the cut, staining her grey jumpsuit. Aoi drew up the weapon in her hands, a slender blade with a plain wooden hilt. On the ground was the slim shape of her walking cane, now emptied of its lethal surprise. She silently placed the blade across the back of her opponent's neck.

"Yield," Aoi said simply.

The woman nodded. "Finish me off," she said, gasping for breath.

Aoi hesitated. She had won. Her opponent was helpless and at her mercy. She was a dangerous terrorist, and if let free, could strike again at any time. Aoi had nothing to lose by executing her, and everything to gain.

"No," she said simply, almost unable to believe her words. She withdrew the blade and flicked the blood off its edge. "You can go."

The woman looked up, startled. "Why?"

Aoi hesitated once more. How could she explain it? In past, she hadn't given a second thought to finishing off an opponent. But now?

"I beat you," she said in a hollow tone. The words came by themselves; Aoi felt like nothing more than a spectator. "That's all I wanted to do."

The woman nodded, seeming to understand. "What's your name?" She asked painfully.

"Aoi Hari," she replied simply.

"I'm Shiki," the woman said, and vanished.

Aoi blinked. It was hard to believe what had happened. But nonetheless, she had fought an ESPer on her own and won. Sighing, she recovered her cane, slid the blade into place, and turned away from the scene.

I never did find out why she was attacking corps, Aoi thought. But I guess it doesn't really matter.

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