By Jeff Skagen and Jamie Jeans
January 19th, 2033

The four pulsating jets of hot water beat furiously against her neck and spine, but despite their best efforts they couldn't wash away Shoko's feelings of guilt. Not three days ago she had been lying unconscious, buried under the rubble that was all that remained of Bell's Motors after a disastrous clash with Jinsei cyberdroids. Not the healthiest of positions for her, to be sure, but in getting there she'd managed to buy enough time for everyone else at the garage—except Ken, who'd been killed earlier—to escape. If she'd perished under that rubble, it would have been with the comfort of knowing that she'd done all that she could have.

But then, through little more than dumb luck, she'd been rescued. Korey Winters, whom she'd only met once, a few months before, had come to the garage to try to recruit her for a combat mission. Korey and her esper friend Ray had found her and dug her out, and then when a Jinsei patrol found them Ray had quickly teleported them to Korey's home in Neo York. And so here she was, in Korey's home with a real bed to sleep in and a real shower to bathe under and a load of survivor's guilt that was keeping her from enjoying any of it.

Giving up on the shower, she reached over and shut it off. As she stepped out and started to towel off, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Her red hair, darkened with moisture and plastered to her head, seemed like runnels of blood spilling down her face. Averting her eyes, she toweled her hair half-dry, and then dared the mirror again. Somewhat better; now she just looked like a feral animal...

She snagged the freshly laundered undersuit of the CBA off the hook where she'd hung it when she came in and pulled it on. That actually took a bit of effort, as it was almost indecently skintight, but it was also the only thing approaching clothing she had left in the entire world at the moment, and it was better than walking around Korey's home wearing only a too-short towel wrapped around herself. Unfortunately, none of Korey's clothing would come even remotely close to fitting her.

Stepping out of the bathroom, she decided she could use a drink and headed downstairs to see if Korey still had any Victoria Bitter left over from Silver's birthday party a few months back. The party...the memory of it made her pause a moment, heavy-hearted, as she suddenly thought of all her other friends who were still trapped the Zone. Silver, Aoi, Anna and Uni, Roy and Nami...she'd been so focused on Ayane and the others from the garage that she'd hardly thought of her other friends and acquaintances who were still trapped in the Zone as well, in the middle of what amounted to a war. She shook her head...what the hell was she doing here?

She resumed her course downstairs toward Korey's bar, hoping a couple of beers might take the dark edge off her heart. As she entered the room, however, she saw Ray standing behind the full-sized bar, apparently mixing himself a drink. He looked up at her arrival and smiled tentatively.

She hesitated an instant in the doorway, and then walked over to him. "Hi there. I was just looking for a drink. Do you know if Korey still has any Victoria Bitter back there?"

He nodded and, from out of the under the bartop fridge, he floated up a can of the beer for her, along with a large glass. "Here you are." He watched her silently for a few moments as she opened up the can and poured it out. "How are you feeling?" he finally asked.

Shoko contemplated the foamy head on her beer a moment before answering. "Tired. I guess," she finally answered. "And worried about all my friends that are still in the Zone. I didn't sleep too well last night."

"That is to be expected. Survivor's Guilt is the layman's term, I believe." He held up a book entitled 'The Dummy's Guide to Psychology: 7th Edition.' "Korey has encouraged my curiosity for all things."

"Uh...that's good of her," answered Shoko, at a bit of a loss. She wondered why Ray seemed to feel he needed Korey's encouragement. "Yeah, I understand about survivors guilt. And of course, synthetics like me are made to be loyal. But knowing why I feel like this doesn't really help. I still hate that I can't actually be doing something to help them right this moment, y'know?"

"Ah, yes, I feel the same as well about the sense of loyalty. I owe a great debt to Korey for rescuing me from the Zone some months ago when I could not help myself." From the bar he mixed himself a simple drink of cola and whiskey and experimentally sipped it. He made a face, and set the drink down. "It would be hard for me to sit idly by even when I could do nothing to help her, were she in danger."

"Yeah, that's exactly how I feel." Shoko shook her head and took a long swig of her beer. Then she paused and shot Ray a puzzled look. "Hey, did you just say Korey rescued you from the Zone too? But you're an esper. Couldn't you just port yourself out?"

Ray shook his head. "I was starved and weak, and could not support myself at the time. For you see, at the time, I had recently escaped from Ishiyama." He waited to see if this got any reaction before adding "I was one of the few synthetic espers produced."

She stared at him, eyes wide is surprise. "You're a synthetic esper? They can really do that now? Oh man...the news you miss in the Zone." She tipped her head back and finished of the rest of her beer in one long series of gulps. "Escaped, huh? Damn, I bet they have a serious hard-on to get you back. Is Korey helping to hide you, then?"

Ray actually blushed a little under her scrutinizing eyes. "It was not so much escaped as left during the confusion, when a number of friends of Raven Clark attempted to steal the secrets to creating esper synthetics. Ishiyama suffered such a loss when their Neo York headquarters was destroyed that they never bothered to track me down, according to Korey. Ever since then, I have simply passed myself off as a rather na•ve human."

"Wow. That's...really similar to my own story," said Shoko, sounding astonished. "I was a new kind of synthetic too, also one of only a few. And just like you, I also left in the confusion when the corporation that made me was also destroyed and eventually ended up in the Zero Zone, and later here." She shook her head in disbelief. "What a coincidence."

"I had wondered about your tail and such," said Ray. "Not many models of Puma carry them, outside of specially customized ones." He tried another sip of his drink, frowned, and then poured himself a glass of juice instead. "But, getting back to you, I would have to say that for all you are feeling, you must reason this out. You are low on supplies, you do not have information on where in the Zone your friends are, and there are the constant patrols by Jinsei you would have to contend with. Until either of these conditions change, there is nothing much you can do." He paused a moment, and placed his hand on hers, giving it a comforting squeeze, or what he hoped was a comforting squeeze. It had certainly looked as though it had worked in that one movie.

Shoko placed her other hand atop his, sandwiching his hand between hers, and smiled as she returned the squeeze. "Thanks, Ray. I already know all that, in my head. It's just that my heart doesn't always listen to my head is telling it, y'know?" She sighed softly, then nodded her head to indicate her empty beer can. "Got another of those? Or maybe something stronger?"

Ray smiled, glad that he had been able to help in some manner, and floated up another can of beer for her. "Perhaps you should stay with the beer, yes? And Shoko? Please do not tell Korey that I am a synthetic. She believes me to be a human, and even though I trust her, I wish to tell her in due time."

A little nervously, Shoko plucked the beer can out of the air and popped it open. "I understand. Your secret's safe with me, as long as Korey doesn't point-blank ask me. I can't imagine why she would, but I won't outright lie to her, either." As she poured the can into her glass, she continued, "So, any special reason you haven't you told her yet? Or is it none of my business?"

"No real reason," stated Ray as he poured himself a soda. "But, from time to time, I have the feeling that Korey is hiding a rather personal secret herself. As though..." He trailed off into silence, cupping his chin as he sank into thought. "It is as though she has something to tell, and yet does not feel ready to tell it. Thus, when she is ready, I will tell her my secret in return."

Shoko mulled this a moment, then shrugged. "That sounds fair. I'm sure she'll tell you when she's ready." Pausing to sip at her beer, she continued, "And I'm sure not gonna risk pissing her off by prying, especially while I'm utterly dependent on her charity. As far as I'm concerned, she's welcome to her secrets for as long as she wants them."

Ray nodded and the two drank in silence until the patter of footsteps coming down the stairs signaled the arrival of Korey. She was dressed rather casually, in a tank top and jeans, which showed off the fresh bandage on her shoulder where she had been shot on her last mission into the Zero Zone. Despite this, she was in good spirits and waved hello to the pair.

"Good evening all, enjoying a drink are we?" she asked.

"We sure are," answered Shoko. "Will you join us?"

"But of course." Korey sidled up to the chair beside Shoko and nodded to Ray. "A Long Island Iced Tea, please." As Ray went to work on making the drink, she turned to Shoko. "And how are you doing, Shoko? Is everything... well?"

"Uh...well, no, not really," confessed Shoko. "I was just telling Ray that I haven't been sleeping well. I'm worried about everyone I left behind in the Zone, y'know?"

"That's to be expected, of course," said Korey. "After all, you are here and they are there."

"Even though I've done my best to comfort her and reason with her about the realities of the situation," added Ray.

"Indeed, and as I've explained to Ray, reason is for the head, not the heart." Shoko swirled the beer in her glass, but didn't drink it. "Oh well, I imagine I'll stop fretting so much once I've met with the Spycorp people. If they agree to search for my friends, then great, and if they don't, well then at least I'll know I have go back into the Zone and try to find them myself."

"Not by yourself, no" Korey corrected her. "You will have both mine and Ray's services to draw upon for that." To which Ray readily nodded his agreement.

"Really? You mean that?" her gaze jumped from Korey to Ray and back again, but she saw nothing but sincerity on their faces. "But, I'm just a...that is, you've only known me a few days. Why would you do that, risk that, for me?"

Ray's response was typically Ray. "Why wouldn't we?" he said with a mild look of confusion on his face.

Korey's face was strangely cryptic, as though remembering something from long ago. "Because I know how important it is to have... someone there for you, and you obviously need someone to be there for you, in light of all that has happened."

Shoko gazed at them for a few moments, seeming surprised, then slowly nodded. "You're right. It's important to have friends you can count on. Thank you, both of you. Your offer means a lot to me. I just hope I don't have to take you up on it." She smiled sadly and shook her head. "It's too bad more people don't think like you do."

"Actually, there is one request I have," said Ray. "It is a minor one, and may be dismissed if you don't wish to comply."

"I'm sure it won't be a problem," she replied, curiosity piqued. "What is it you want?"

Tentatively, almost shyly, Ray reached forward with one hand... and began to scratch her ears. The act was so unexpected, and the sight so surreal to Korey, that she could not help but instantly dissolve into a most unprofessional like state of giggles.

Holding back a few giggles of her own, Shoko obligingly leaned her head forward to accommodate him, ears twitching with amusement. She was surprised at how much tension the simple touch seemed to drain from her head and neck. "Mmmm... You know, that feels really good," she purred.

"I had been wondering since after we meet," started Ray as he used both hands now to caress and massage her ears. "If this was as modeled after cats if the rest had been modeled as much after humans." He smiled a little smile.

"I guess they might be. At least, I've never seen a cat that didn't like being scratched behind the ears too," Shoko answered, arching her back a bit. "Y'know, having your support and friendship has really helped. Add a few of my favorite beers and Ray's ear scratching to that, and I think I'll finally get some good sleep tonight. Thanks guys."

"Gladly," said Korey. And with that she walked behind the bar and grabbed a few more beers for them all, freeing Ray up to continue scratching Shoko's ears.

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