By Max Fauth and Mathieu Roy

Note: This takes place after Interception and before Wedding Day.

All in all, Aoi had to admit she'd had better days. She had signed up for a Spycorp mission into the zone, thinking that with her knowledge of the place she would be invaluable. It was a simple insertion via aerodyne and strike on a stranded corporate operative. Nothing personal, just business.

Then it had all gone wrong. Pretty much the moment she was out of the Aerodyne, it had been hit from the ground. She remembered watching in horror as it spiraled out of control, smoke trailing from its engines. She'd lost sight of it long before it had crashed, but it was hard to miss the rosy explosion on the horizon. She was stranded without hope of immediate rescue.

From there, the op got difficult. The target had ingratiated himself with a gang - practically a tribe, out in the wastes - who'd come to his defence. It had taken a while to plead, bargain, and beat her way through them, to finally reach the man in question. Surprisingly enough, he'd taken a liking to the more primitive conditions in the worst part of the zone. Her real objective was a set of files he'd liberated on New Year's eve, and he turned those over without hesitation. Aoi had left them alone from there. She was sore but not injured, tired but not weary, and new she had a long trek ahead of her if she was to make it back home.

And so it was that she finally made her way, slowly and steadily, back to what passed for civilization in the zone. All around she had seen the signs of the drawn out battle between the residents and the invading Jinsei forces. She longed to stay, to help out, and to find her old 'family,' but now was not the time. She had a mission to complete, and people back in Neo York who were depending on her.

She craned her sore neck up to take in the closely-packed apartments and knew immediately where she was. Clark Street. Doc Lydia's clinic. There, if anywhere, she knew she would find help. Sighing, she pressed on.

Before long, she came upon what could only be described as a battlement. A makeshift barricade of overturned, burned out car husks, pieces of concrete building walls, various sorts of metal plate, and other assorted debris blocked the street. In front of the wall, they had actually gone through the trouble of digging up an actual trench, or a ditch, cracking through the asphalt to do so. The earth from this excavation then reinforced the wall as a barricade.

Aoi, a veteran of the Zone, knew better than to walk down the middle of the street. Carefully hidden behind a corner, Aoi glanced at the wall and spotted a handful of gang members and other Zone residents manning this fortification, all of them with firearms—some even toted the standard-issue Jinsei M-60 pulse rifle, looted from enemy casualties, she figured.

Aoi swore under her breath. Approaching them was a bad idea, and she guessed they'd reinforce the whole street. Still, they'd have to leave exits somewhere... She slipped back down the street she'd came from. Her best bet would be through one of the many apartment blocks here. She checked at each cross street, and soon found herself an ideal target. Out of view of the nearest barricade was an open shop-front, much like the one she'd escaped to with Korey so recently. She broke into a run, dashing across the street before jumping into the empty store. She rolled to her feet and made her way through the remaining shelves. The door at the back yielded eventually, and she made her way through to Clark Street.

It wasn't all that difficult to meld in the crowd while she sneaked over to the clinic. The area was in some effervescence, gangers and Zoners milling about in one task or another, strengthening the defenses of the area or sometimes just chilling out. Patrols of squads of residents, armed with an assortment of guns that would have been eye-popping before Jinsei came to the Zone, walked down the street regularly, drawing barely a glance from the refugees. Occasionally, an heavily-armed, cybered mercenary or an organized crime soldier would break the monotony, striding purposefully and parting the crowd before them.

Finally Aoi reached the clinic itself. She had managed to elude detection by the Street's defenders, but it seemed nothing slipped by Doctor Lydia. The wizened old lady stood in front of her clinic, looking straight at Aoi as she broke through the crowd to make her way to the converted storefront.

Aoi winced internally as she remembered some of her run-ins with the doctor before, often involving her own handiwork. She glanced away from the elderly woman, wondering if she'd made a mistake in coming here after all. She sighed, and stepped forwards, looking up at her again wordlessly.

"Well, hello there," said the doctor kindly. She smiled, knowingly. "What can I help you with?"

"It's..." Aoi trailed off, uncomfortably. For some reason, she recognised her smile in Gen, her old guardian. "I'm actually looking for Raven."

"She's up in her room," replied the doctor. "It's the door to your left, right after the stairs." Just like that. No questions, no worries, no nothing.

Aoi nodded quietly and stepped towards the doorway. She stopped uncertainly, and looked to Lydia again. "I'm... I'm sorry. I know I've been a real trouble maker at times."

"Don't be silly," Lydia said, waving her away like a mother shooing a child. "Everyone around here is a troublemaker at times."

She nodded quietly and muttered "Thank you," then made her way inside. Inside was a mess. The place was largely disorganised, and cluttered with patients. Most bore fresh injuries from the fighting. Aoi picked her way between a number of patients who were laid out in the corridor. She could only guess that they were the less severe or immediate cases. She hung her head, trying not to look at the people around her and concentrated on finding her destination.

Door to the left, just after the stairs. She faced up to the door, giving one more glance to the casualties around her, then softly knocked.

"We need to find you some new clothes," Raven said as she looked Elisa over. Thankfully, the Puma wasn't wearing one of her usual overtight female shirts, instead having slipped on a man's shirt that was a size too large—quite a large man, considering the Puma's size. Raven had gotten the shirt for Elisa and the Puma had obediently put it on the very next day, but this bothered Raven because she wasn't sure if the Puma didn't prefer the tighter fit—and had refused to express a preference besides repeating that what Raven thought best was fine.

"Yes, Ms. Clark," said Elisa, predictably, with that not-quite-eager smile. Then she went on, "Would you like some breakfast maybe?"

Raven sighed. "Didn't you hear Auntie? She said she'd bring some along later." Her stomach grumbled at the thought. The esper shrugged the matter away. For someone who was programmed to be compliant, Elisa could be surprisingly stubborn in her refusal to make her own mind, but now wasn't the time to make another try to get through to the replicant. Besides, she had to find a shirt that wasn't too dirty to put on. She rummaged through her clothes ruefully. Before her trip in the corporation's golden cage, she would have worn any of these without a second thought, and now she was adamantly trying to find one that was merely dirty instead of filthy.

There was a polite knock at the door and Raven absently called, "Come in."

"Come in," came the soft reply from inside. Aoi nodded to herself and swung open the door. Inside was quite a sight. The room was small and cluttered, but looked comfortable enough. To one side was a female Puma with short white hair, oddly dressed in an over-sized t-shirt that seemed to hang off her ample chest. She was watching Raven with a look that bordered between interest and annoyance. Looking over at Raven, Gem noted immediately that she was wearing dirty jeans and her bra - but apparently nothing else. She looked somewhat disheveled, and her hair was a mess. In between the two was Raven's bed, which she couldn't help but notice was big enough for two people.

She glanced between the Puma and Raven a couple more times, then noted the rumpled sheets on the bed. Ah, Aoi thought. Why am I not surprised?

The Puma suddenly sped forward, her massive form blocking the doorway. Her ears were flat on her head, and she glared at Aoi menacingly, fists clenched. Aoi noted that the Puma was at eye level, and wasn't sure whether to be glad not to be staring in her chest, for once—or be wary that the white-haired replicant had already fallen into a crouch, ready to pounce at her.

"Elisa, what are you doing? She's a friend." The Puma turned back to Raven with an air of contrition and something that the esper had never seen in her puppy eyes—actual surprise. "It's all right," Raven went on. "I promise. Just back off."

For one tense moment Elisa actually kept her position—the first time she hadn't bowed to Raven's authority, even her slightest whim, with immediate, compliant diligence. For an odd moment the esper was happy, as it was something that Raven had worked on for days now, but why, and why now?

Shock and confusion mingled for a moment on the replicant's face, then her features melted in the compliant half-smile, her eyes regained the liquid submissiveness they always had, and Elisa straightened and walked to hover obediently next to her owner. Raven still looked at her pensively, wondering what had brought this on.

Aoi found herself staring blankly at the pair as their small drama unfolded. Except for Shoko, she had never gotten along with synths before, but this was the first one that had tried to attack her on sight. She watched the Puma cautiously as she stepped aside, then turned her attention back to Raven. Realising Raven's state of undress, she blinked and looked up at the Esper's face. It seemed just her luck these days that everywhere she went she was confronted with an undressed woman who was notably better endowed then her.

"Sorry to..." Aoi trailed off and glanced between the Puma and the bed again. "Interrupt," she finished cautiously.

"Oh!" Raven snapped out of her reverie and realized that Aoi was in the room, carefully looking at her face. "Hi, Gem! Um, sorry about that." She picked a shirt at random and pulled it over her head so as to not embarrass Aoi any further. "I was expecting Auntie, as you can imagine." She noticed Aoi's look towards the bed, and laughed.

Aoi seemed about to speak, then thought better of it. Instead she pulled the door shut behind her, keeping her eyes on the Puma. "What's the matter with her?" she asked Raven quietly.

"I'm not sure," said Raven. "Have you two met before?"

Aoi shook her head. Despite her numerous run-ins with Pumas over the years, she didn't recall one like Elisa. There was something familiar about her, but nothing she could immediately recognise. "No, sorry," she said simply. Raven nodded and looked at Elisa, still standing obediently behind

Raven's right shoulder. "Um, Elisa, have you met Gem before?" The Puma nodded, but said nothing. A little surprised by this evasiveness, Raven glanced at Gem curiously, and asked, "When?"

"It was about a year and a half ago," said Elisa in her soft, husky voice, "in 93 Underground."

Raven nodded, comprehension dawning in her eyes. "Back when you were Shion-Hime." She turned to Gem. "That's why you didn't recognize her. She looked like a cat-eared Shion back then."

Recognition flooded over Aoi's face and she slowly closed her eyes. Her breathing slowed and she remained silent, then nodded slowly.

Curiosity filled Raven's eyes as an angel passed in the room, Elisa looking at Aoi and Aoi standing there with her eyes closed. "Remember her, now?" asked Raven.

Aoi nodded solemnly. "I shot her," she said shortly, and fell silent again.

"You..." Raven gasped, and looked over her shoulder at Elisa, who was standing impassively, as if the admission was of no import. Raven didn't believe that for a second. She looked back at the contrite Aoi, and sighed. "Wow..." Small world, small world indeed. Aoi in a room with two people and she'd tried to kill both. "Was it the same sort of thing as for me?" she had to ask.

Aoi nodded solemnly. "I was after her owner. She..." She opened her eyes and looked sadly over at Elisa. "She did her job."

Raven sat on the bed, holding her forehead. Towering over her, Elisa stood impassively, which was such a change from her usual solicitousness that it betrayed the depth of her emotion, kept under iron control. Then an idea germed into the esper's head and she looked up at Aoi. "I think you need to resolve this with her, not with me." Elisa's eyes widened in surprise at this pronouncement. Raven looked from one to the other with a pained smile. "It's only fair."

Aoi looked Raven in the eyes. She remained quiet for a few seconds, contemplating what was going on. "It's hard to know what to say," she said eventually. "It was business. That's all."

Elisa looked at Raven, bewildered and a bit pained. "Ms. Clark, it's quite all right..."

"Is it?" Raven asked. She looked Aoi in the eye. "You apologized for trying to kill me, you explained yourself, and I forgave you." This new revelation caused Elisa to tense up again, but it was fleeting.

Aoi turned solemnly to face Raven. "Raven, you've killed people on missions, haven't you?"

Raven nodded silently. She omitted to add that she had killed people when NOT on missions, too.

"Do you apologise to their guns?"

Raven's eyes narrowed dangerously at that. "I hope you have a point. A good point." Behind her Elisa tensed visibly, ears flat, sensing the esper's anger.

Aoi nodded and turned back to Elisa. "When I shot you, you weren't my target. You were protecting your owner, William Case. In many ways, you were like a gun, or an armoured suit; you were just a tool for him. I'd gotten used to corporate life, and to seeing synths as nothing but items. But since then..." She trailed off, glancing at Raven to gauge her expression. "Since then I've learnt that Synths can change too, and become more than they were created to be. So I am asking you, Elisa. Have you done that? Are you more than just a synthetic?" She sighed and crossed her arms over her chest. "I will not apologise to someone's property. But I will apologise to Elisa as a person."

Raven's eyebrows rose, and she stepped back, folding her arms, to look at Elisa curiously. That was rather clever, she thought, half-smiling. Let's see how it goes.

Elisa's ears had perked up, and she gazed at Gem with total confusion on her face for a moment. Then the emotion drained away, and her face took on her usual, almost-eager expression. "There's no need to apologize, Ms. Gem," she said.

Raven sighed at that. "Oh, well," she mumbled. Then she noted with some interest that Elisa seemed a lot less tense around Gem—more the submissive puppy and less the attack dog ready to pounce. At least, it seemed Gem had gotten to her on some level.

Gem sighed, clearly disappointed. She turned back to Raven and shrugged. "Sorry to bother you."

"No, I think..." She turned to Elisa. "Could you stay here for a couple minutes, Elisa?"

"Of course, Ms. Clark," said the Puma, predictably.

"Thanks." Gently, she took Gem's arm and led her outside the room. "Auntie's prepared breakfast. We can talk over food."

Aoi nodded as her stomach growled. She winced in embarrassment when she realised how long it had been since she'd eaten. "Thanks," she said, and fell into step behind Raven.

Raven led them outside the room and closed the door behind them. Then she turn to Aoi and said, "Thanks for trying."

Aoi nodded solemnly. "I owe her better. But I wasn't going to apologise just because you told me to."

"Well, if it means anything, I think she did forgive you," Raven said, walking through the corridor and shooting solicitous smiles at the patients she was tending as an unofficial and very occasional nurse. "In her own way."

"I'd rather she hit me," Aoi replied casually. "Especially if you didn't want her to."

Raven managed a laugh. "I think she almost did, at that." She sighed. "I don't think she even wants a life of her own."

Aoi only nodded, and remained silent.

"Well. We're not going to solve this today, are we." Raven shrugged the matter away for the time being. "So, why the visit? I appreciate it, but these days people don't do many courtesy calls in the Zone."

"It's kind of embarrassing," She replied. "I got stranded after an op, and..."

"Stranded. In the Zone. With no way back?" Raven ventured.

Aoi nodded. "And the only way back I know..." She trailed off meekly, looking at Raven.

"Well. I'm willing to do it for you this once, but you have to understand, I can't spend all my time ferrying you or anyone else across constantly. For one thing, it's very noisy and Ran or any sensitives Jinsei have might detect it." She counted off her fingers. "Second, we don't do it from here. I don't want the psychic noise to attract anyone to Clark Street. So I'm afraid that means another stroll through the Zone."

"Thank you," Aoi said. "I understand it's really selfish of me to ask. But I just can't think of any way back."

"Don't worry. Don't just rely on it. Like I said—I can't do this often."

"Trust me, I didn't plan to," Aoi replied. A sheepish smile spread across her face.

"Well, breakfast first, right?" Raven's stomach gurgled at the thought of food. "Come, it's right this way."

"Stop it right there!" Corporal Svoboda said, her squad pointing their assault rifles at the scruffy figures hunched over near the wall. With no apparent fear, they turned around and faced her with insane smiles and a mad gleam in their eyes. Hopped up on Bolter or some other superamphetamine, she bet. The men's motion revealed their victim, a sobbing, half-naked girl. She was pretty, but not beautiful—either a new arrival, then, or an entertainer who'd have the means and the motivation to take care of their appearance.

"Now step away from her. Slowly." Svoboda commanded with her best drill bellow. The men didn't move, just looked at her with those mad eyes and grins that made them seem about to burst in uncontrollable, manic laughter.

A scraping on her left, and the troopers on that side cursed and turned to train their guns on more doped-up gangers approaching from that side—those holding a mishmash of firearms and even a makeshift crossbow. Her heart sinking, Svoboda looked to her right and saw dark shapes approaching from that direction too. She gestured her men around. "Halley, this is Svoboda," she spoke in her radio in a low voice. "We are going to need backup AS...."

Gunfire erupting from behind, the regular staccato of several Jinsei M-60s mingled with the disparate cacophony of Zone-scrounged weapons, interrupted her, but it was all the response she needed. Backup was not forthcoming. Gritting her teeth, Svoboda shouldered her rifle. "One last time...," she began, sounding for all the world as if she weren't surrounded and outnumbered...

Nearby, Aoi and Raven crested a pile of rubble that had once marked an intersection. Up ahead, they could see the confrontation - a small, isolated squad of Jinsei troopers surrounded by a rag-tag bunch of Zone gangers. Most notably, they spotted the gangers' victim. Aoi turned her attention back to the Jinsei squad, and reached into her jacket for her pistol.

"Ah hell," she muttered. "What do we do?"

Raven's eyes flashed as she looked at the scene. Behind her, Elisa tensed at her visible anger, the Puma lifting up her M-100 slightly.

"I don't know about you," the esper let drop in a chilling tone, pure rage bubbling just below the surface, "but I'm planning to kill some gangbangers."

"And the soldiers?" Aoi asked. Oddly enough, her voice showed concern, but for whom, Raven couldn't tell.

Raven shrugged. "First things first. I'm not going to complain that they're shooting 'bangers—we'll figure out what to do with them after."

Aoi nodded grimly as she drew her pistol. "They haven't spotted us yet. I'll get behind this lot," She nodded towards a small group of gangers nearby, "If you can handle the ones with the girl from here."

"I think I'd better go get the girl," Raven said. "Elisa'll help you out."

Aoi looked nervously back at Elisa. She still wasn't entirely sure about the Puma, but she'd accept her help. "Alright," she replied. "Elisa, c'mon."

Quietly, obediently, Elisa went after Aoi. Raven didn't spare the pair a second glance; her rage-filled eyes were looking down in the street. Slowly, she drew her monosword from the sheath at her back; it gleamed malevolently in her hands, but not half as her eyes did. "I'll give you some time to get ready," she said. "Unless something happens."

Aoi nodded silently. She crouched low to the ground and set off, circling around behind the nearest group of gangers.

Raven counted the seconds. Her rage fuelled the Power, and it lay ready to lash out, to destroy those doped-up sickos. She formed it into the familiar pattern of teleportation, ready to bring her into contact with the gangers and rescue their erstwhile victim. She closed her eyes, counted the last few numbers... then, she moved.

She popped into the midst of the gangers, gravel leaping away from her to pelt the legs of the surrounding mooks. Her eyes opened, their fierce rage sweeping over her opponents, and a pair of Jinsei troopers who were uncertainly pointing guns at her. More gangers were pointing guns, chains and knives at her a lot less uncertainly. Raven paid the weapons no heed at all.

Instead, she whirled to the short, bulky ganger next to her, and cut with her sword upwards. Even in her cold rage she clove with the teachings of Kazuko, her wrists making the cut rather than the arms—though a good helping of telekinesis helped the blade along. She did not bother with useless follow-through when she was done cutting the man from crotch to shoulder. He gurgled and fell backwards. Raven didn't bear witness to his collapse; she spun around to face the next ganger, a large, burly man.

He had reacted with admirable speed and had a knife up as soon as she faced him. The big, serrated survival knife might have looked intimidating, but Raven had four feet of monomolecular-edged surgical steel in her hand. He nonetheless lunged the weapon forward, aiming for Raven's stomach. The esper snapped the blade sideways, deflecting the man's thrust just enough to miss. This put her inside his guard for her counter, which took out his throat.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a female ganger, rail-thin and greasy-haired, charge her shoulder first. For all that she was thin, she had a lot of speed and weight behind her check, and the impact knocked Raven backwards into the wall. Her kinetic shield absorbed the brunt of both impacts, leaving Raven with her back to the wall facing a smug-looking ganger woman. The smile disappeared from her face when Raven leapt forward, blade high. Combat drugs enhanced the ganger's reaction; she whipped a small revolver up with both hands and fired while Raven was in mid-air. The small-caliber round flattened against the epser's shield.

The ganger's eyes widened just before Raven's downward chop took both her hands off. She screamed, staring uselessly at the stumps, and Raven followed up with a high kick that sent the shocked ganger away. The esper brought the deadly sword up, looking for another victim.

Aoi watched the carnage from her secure position. She and Elisa were crouched behind a half-demolished wall, watching the confrontation as it unfolded. The Jinsei troops were wisely falling back, while more doped-up gangers rushed into the fray with Raven. "Them," Aoi said, pointing out the re-inforcements. "Now."

As one, the pair popped up from behind the wall. Elisa stood behind a four-foot high section - which still left her half exposed - while Aoi vaulted over and broke into a low run. Elisa opened fire, shots tearing over Aoi's head and cutting down the leading reinforcements. The others broke, looking wildly around for their attackers. Aoi's gun spat, cutting down the tallest of them, a scarred man with a mohawk. Only two were left of that bunch, and they broke in separate directions. Aoi glanced at Elisa and noted her tracking the one fleeing to the left. She swung back around, bringing a bead on the man running to the right. Both women fired; both men dropped to the broken ground.

Aoi glanced around, taking stock of the situation. A small group of gangers crested a pile of debris behind the Jinsei squad. She broke into a run, shouting "Elisa! Support Raven!" as she neared the squad. They turned as a unit, bringing their rifles to bear on her. Aoi cursed loudly and dived to the side, firing her pistol above the soldiers' heads. The squad's leader turned to watch a ganger tumble from the pile of debris, as more raised their weapons and charged. Aoi circled around the squad, watching the ensuing gunfight. The squad had precision and numbers over this group; they gangers were slaughtered.

Unseen, she slipped back around the squad, searching out for more targets.

Raven stepped back, blade ready in front of her, next to the terrified young woman who was hunched leaning against the wall. One of the gangers charged Raven with chain swinging above his head; Raven planted her feet and cut sideways, her telekinetic strength driving the monoblade clean across the man's chest, slicing through flesh, bone, and vital organs alike. The man fell; almost absently, Raven ducked her head to one side to avoid the out-of-control chain.

Another ganger was charging forward, but he was picked off by an accurate burst before he could reach her. Raven glanced in the direction of the gunfire to see Elisa standing behind cover, her weapon covering part of the alley in support of her.

Two gangers charged forward, one with a length of pipe and another lifting a shotgun. Raven grimly clenched her teeth; with the amount of drugs they had in their bodies, they wouldn't be discouraged by mere trifles such as having to stride over the cut-up corpses of their comrades. Both had the erratic movements of heavy doses of combat drugs, but if the shotgun was loaded with buckshot, the man wouldn't miss at this range.

Raven extended her right hand, the one without the sword, and telekinetically reached out to grab the shotgun an instant before the man could bring it to bear. Her brow furrowing, she yanked hard, but the man didn't relinquish his grip on his weapon and stumbled forward, almost crashing into her. This suited the esper just fine, as he was now far too close to use the shotgun effectively.

Rapid movement out of the corner of her eyes made her release the shotgun and bring her sword up, just in time to deflect the metal pipe. She felt the displaced air as the heavy weapon swished over her head. Raven balled her hand into a fist and slammed it into the man's chest, a move that had little of Kazuko's training but a lot of her Power behind it. She felt bones break under her heavily telekinetic punch, and the man rolled away, spitting blood.

She dodged wildly to avoid the gun butt that the would-be gunman predictably sent her way, then slashed her blade two-handed at him. He stepped out of range, grabbed the shotgun by the barrel, and swung at her again. Raven took another step back, opening the range again.

Then she ducked furiously as the man she'd punched came at her with a nasty swing from his pipe. The man's chest cavity must've been caved in, but he had not only gotten up but had kept his grasp on his makeshift weapon. Making use of her low position, Raven countered against the man's overextended right leg, slicing it off at the knee. Then, with visions of an ancient comedy movie flowing through her, she punched him hard in the gut, just in case. The legless man flew back, leaving a trail of blood. He wouldn't get up after that.

The second man swung down at the crouching Raven with the shotgun, and Raven hurled herself back to avoid the blow, taking extra care not to get cut up on her own sword. Telekinesis turned her mad dodging into a weird somersault that left her on her feet with her sword in her right hand. The man came at him again, swinging the shotgun-club wildly. Raven blocked the blow with her free hand, deftly grabbed the shotgun's handle, and pulled the trigger. Buckshot, fired at point-blank range, tore through the man's side and he stumbled back, his nerveless fingers releasing their hold on the shotgun. Raven threw the weapon down and stepped forward against the injured man, blade ready.

"Stop it!" came Aoi's voice from behind her.

Raven whirled towards her, blade ready, then recognizing Aoi, lowered her sword rather sheepishly.

"He's already finished off. They all are." Aoi swept her gaze over the carnage Raven had wrought. "It's over."

Raven looked around numbly at the carnage she and her friends caused. Aoi was right; none of the gangers remained standing. It was a good thing Raven had grown up in a Zone clinic, else the gory sight she'd herself created might overwhelm her. It had overwhelmed the victim they'd been rescuing.

Raven closed her eyes, took a deep breath, calming down, calming the Power down. There were no enemies left to destroy. Then her eyes popped open. "The Jinsei squad?"

"They're backing off," Aoi replied, looking over the retreating troops. "We should leave them be."

"Typical," Raven muttered, nodding to the impassive Elisa who was approaching, her weapon leaned over her massive shoulder. Raven carefully wiped her sword before sheathing it. "They'll be back with reinforcements, soon."

Aoi looked impassively at Raven, noting the carnage surrounding her. "Somehow I doubt that will be a problem," she said quietly.

Raven smiled wryly, then turned and crouched next to the crying woman, and gently touched her shoulder. "Hey," she said softly. "It's over." The woman jerked her shoulder away, and continued crying.

Aoi sighed and held Raven back. "Leave her be for a minute. You can't much blame her," she added under her breath.

"No, I can't," Raven said sadly, standing up. She looked around the carnage and sighed.

"And you?" Aoi asked, leaning herself on a pile of rubble and wincing. "Are you okay?"

Raven shrugged. "About as much as I can be after something like this. The sword doesn't require as much power as most other stuff so I didn't get a nosebleed or anything. And you?"

"Nothing new." Aoi rubbed her leg and winced. "Got a headache, though."

Raven looked at Aoi curiously. "How come?"

Aoi shrugged. "Don't know. Probably just tired." She sighed, looking out over the terrain. "It's been a long, hard day."

"Betcha you want to get to bed ASAP," Raven said. She turned to Elisa. "You alright?"

"I am fine, Ms. Clark," said the Puma. She was looking around, wary of any further attacks.

Aoi smiled wryly. "C'mon, lets wrap things up here. I feel like the living dead."

Raven nodded, and jerked her head towards the terrified woman. "I think you should try," she said quietly. "I think I scare her."

Aoi nodded, and signaled Raven back. She cautiously approached the scared woman and knelt down near her. "Hey. You alright?" She asked softly.

The woman turned puffed, red eyes towards her and sniffled. She shook her head wordlessly, turned terrified eyes towards Raven, and turned her face towards the wall again.

Raven sighed and said, "I'm sorry. I was just trying to help you."

Aoi signaled for Raven to back off, then turned back to the woman. "Can you walk? I know someone who can help you."

Raven turned and walk away. The scared woman watched her go, then turned to Aoi and nodded. "I... I think so."

Aoi nodded. "Alright. Do you know doctor Lydia?"

The woman silently shook her head. Her clothes looked dirty and rough, but not old—clearly, this was a newcomer trapped in the Zone.

"That's alright," Aoi said softly. "I'll take you there." She slowly offered her hand to the woman.

The woman took it, wobbling to a standing position. She looked at Aoi and gave a little smile, then glanced at the impassive Puma. Raven was fifty feet further, looking away.

Aoi gently put the woman's arm over her shoulder and helped her to stand. "Here. I'll help you on the way." She glanced back at Raven and Elisa, then started back towards the clinic.

The door swung open, and Aoi stepped inside. Beyond was a large, comfortable apartment, consisting mostly of a spacious and sparesly-furnished living room. As she walked in, Raven saw a small kitchenette to her right and a hallway to her left, leading off to other rooms. The living room stretched out ahead of her and ended in a sliding glass door, leading onto a balcony that overlooked the Zero Zone. Beyond the kitchenette was a staircase, leading up to a landing over her head, which in turn lead to more rooms on the second floor. "It's not much," Aoi said modestly. "But it's mine."

"Hey, you've seen my room in the Zero Zone," Raven said, looking around. "Compared to that, your place looks downright luxurious." Behind her, Elisa automatically stood next to the door, waiting expectantly.

"Well, I do have to share it," Aoi muttered. "Now if you'll excuse me, I really need a change of clothes."

"Of course. Um..." Raven chuckled, a bit embarrassed. "Can I use your shower? Been a while since I've had running water, and..."

Aoi chuckled, remembering what Zone life was like. "Sure. Head down there," she said, pointing down the short hallway, "And take the first on your right. That's the main bathroom." She looked over Raven's attire and added "I'd offer you a change of clothes, but I don't think I've got anything that would fit..."

Raven chuckled at that. "I don't think I should ask about laundry either, should I?"

"Feel free," Aoi replied. "If you want to hang around for a while, that is."

"Thanks—you got a bathrobe or something I could borrow?"

"Yeah, there should be one in the laundry - that's the second on your right. Hope you don't mind pastel pink."

Raven glanced at Elisa. "You make yourself comfortable, okay?"

"I am comfortable, Ms. Clark," said the Puma.

"Right." Raven shrugged and head off towards the bathroom.

Aoi watched her go, then turned her attention to Elisa. "She's right. Sit down. Get yourself a drink or something."

"Thank you, Ms. Aoi." She dutifully went to the fridge for a can of Coke, and sat down in a comfy chair.

Shaking her head, Aoi made her way upstairs.

Raven made her way to the laundry and found the bathrobe Gem had mentioned. She held it up in front of her, eyeing it disbelievingly. That was VERY pink, and looked a little small. Shrugging—she wouldn't wear it for very long at any rate—she headed to the bathroom.

Carefully closing the door behind her, Raven quickly removed her dirty clothes and tossed them on the counter. She hung the pink robe and a towel on the post next to the shower and went in.

Aoi's shower was your standard, no frills thing; a single head, two faucets, the very standard drill. After some time living in the Zone, however, it seemed an incredible luxury to Raven. She turned the faucets until she got a strong, hot spray and merely stood under it, enjoying the feel of the water on her skin after missing it for so long.

"Hmm... you do get used to showers..." she said to herself, relaxing.

Soon the room was full of steam and the hissing noise of the shower drowned out all else. Raven felt a slight draft, but it passed quickly enough. She returned her attention to the spray for a brief second, but was rudely interrupted. Someone in the shower grabbed her from behind, hands firmly planted on Raven's chest, while a voice said "Thought you could use my shower, huh?"

"Hey!" Startled, Raven grabbed the offending hands and forcibly moved them away from their perfect position on her breasts—hard. Her telekinetically-enhanced strength didn't allow her visitor to resist. She turned around. "Aoi, you told me I could and I'm..."

Her visitor staggered back, a startled look on her face. On inspection, it wasn't Aoi - rather, another Japanese girl with notably shorter hair. Behind her was a blonde American girl. Both looked to be in their late teens and were - Raven couldn't help but notice - stark naked.

"I thought you were Aoi!" The japanese girl blurted out. "What are you doing here?"

"I am taking a shower," Raven said, her eyes narrowed, looking suspiciously from one to the other. Why would they'd sneak up in the shower... even if they thought it was Aoi? Either they had some sense of humor, Aoi had some really forward friends, or they were desperate to cop a feel. Raven's cheeks reddened when she realized that the girl had just fondled her—she was used to being looked at, even when naked, but that was a bit... "Who're you?" she said, deflecting her line of thought.

"Keiko!" The Japanese girl stammered. "I live here! With Kami and Gem!" She blurted out. The American girl however just kept staring at Raven's naked body.

"And I suppose you also live here?" Raven demanded of the blonde, shaking her head at the way she was being stared at.

The blonde girl nodded, then seemed to snap out of her daze. "Uh... yeah. I'm April." She gently took a hold of Keiko's shoulders from behind. "Sorry about that. We didn't know Aoi had guests in. And she doesn't usually use this shower so we wanted to play a joke on her."

"Looks like the joke's on me," Raven said, releasing her hold on Keiko's wrists.

Keiko stepped back into April's arms, rubbing her wrists gently. April looked down at Keiko, then returned her gaze to Raven. "So you're a friend of Aoi's?" she asked.

"Yeah, I am," Raven said, looking meaningfully towards the shower door.

"A friend?" April replied, cocking one eyebrow. Keiko nudged her in the ribs, then turned to Raven. "Sorry we broke in on you."

"That's... all right, I guess," Raven said.

April smiled slyly. "So can we join you?" she asked.

Raven rolled her eyes. "Usually, you ask if you can do something before you do it."

Keiko laughed nervously, but April continued on, unabashed. "There's enough room for three."

"Only if you squeeze close, and that's not what I had in mind," Raven countered. "Sorry."

"Aww..." April seemed disappointed, but Keiko simply turned and hauled the blonde girl out of the bathroom.

Raven shook her head, closed the shower door, and reached for the soap. She wasn't shy—not anymore—but that was just... Suddenly, she decided for a quick shower.

A few minutes later, Raven emerged from the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her head and the wearing the very pink, and rather tight, bathrobe. She brought the bundle of dirty clothes over to the laundry machine and popped them in.

Emerging from the laundry, she could hear April and Keiko's giggling coming from the living room. This was followed by the sound of footsteps on the stairs, each one accompanied by an odd tapping noise.

Curious, Raven tightened the belt of her robe and headed towards the living room, a little worried about what she'd see there... remembering that she'd left Elisa there.

The first thing she noticed was Elisa, sitting patiently on the couch. April and Keiko, at last dressed in simple street clothes were snuggling up on either side of the Puma, seemingly having the time of their lives. They looked up as Raven approached, giggling some more.

"Sorry about them," Aoi said softly from the stairs. Looking up, Raven could see her wearing a loose white blouse and black slacks, and leaning heavily on a bamboo walking cane.

Raven chuckled. "It was funny, in a way," she said. "Then again they didn't seem TOO mortified at their mistake." She looked at the snuggling trio—or rather the snuggling pair and the impassive Puma. "Y'know, in a way it's impressive how she can just sit there and ignore them both."

"You don't seem to mind," Aoi said. She made her way down the stairs to join Raven at the bottom.

"My tolerance is better than it once was," Raven said. "Besides, they're kinda sweet, in a very NC-17 kind of way."

Aoi looked at Raven with a puzzled expression, then simply shook her head. She turned to the girls on the couch and said "Alright, leave her alone."

Raven sighed. "I keep wondering if I should be protecting her from this kind of thing, or letting her learn how to handle it herself," she said in a low voice.

"Let me put it this way." Aoi watched as the girls ignored her, and started stroking Elisa's ears. "If they asked her to go to bed with them - and they will, trust me - how do you think she'd respond?"

Raven sighed. "She'd probably ask me what I wanted her to do."

"And wouldn't object at all herself." Aoi sighed and leaned against a wall. "Y'see, she's incapable of saying no without consulting you. You've got to take responsibility for her. And frankly, I'd say it's better to get her away from them before it comes to that."

"But then she never learns how to say 'no' herself." Raven sighed again, feeling trapped, then strode across the room, the bottom overtight robe sashaying about her legs. "Okay, that's enough," she said. "Leave her alone."

"Awww, why?" April whined. "She's enjoying it." Behind Raven, Aoi shook her head in dismay.

"Are you enjoying it, Elisa?" Raven asked, curiously. Elisa looked up at her with a confused look on her face, ignoring the girls stroking her. The esper sighed. "You don't know, do you? You don't really have an opinion."

April seized her chance. "She loves the attention. Don't you?" she said, directing the question to Elisa.

Elisa didn't respond; she was still looking at Raven, her owner, for guidance. Raven shook her head in defeat. "She doesn't."

"I don't," Elisa replied dutifully.

April pouted and turned away from Elisa, clearly disappointed. "Fine then. Have your Puma back," she said bitterly.

"She's not mine," Raven said, motioning Elisa to sit on an easy chair, one that allowed no room for other people. The Puma quickly moved over to the indicated seat.

Aoi rolled her eyes and shook her head. "They're always like that," she muttered to Raven. On the couch, April had turned her head from Raven, while Keiko was watching the esper curiously.

"Thank you." She met Keiko's gaze for a few moments, then looked at Aoi, and a smile formed on her lips. "You all want to go out for some ice cream once my clothes are dry? My treat. I feel like it's been ages since I've had any."

"Alright!" Keiko said cheerfully. She elbowed April and told her "See? She isn't so bad after all."

Aoi looked oddly at her friend and nodded. "Thanks," she said simply.

"Hey, no problem." Raven picked a couch and sat. "Know any good ice cream places? I know one that's heavenly but it's over in LA."

"I know a good one," Aoi replied. The girls both stared at her. "What? I'm allowed, too!"

The ice cream parlour itself was a breath of fresh air in the crowded city. It was an old fashioned, white-counter corner store with an endearingly archaic design that looked about a hundred years out of date. The staff were all in friendly white uniforms, and the place smelled of fresh cream. The door rang a small bell when Aoi pushed it open, and ushered her guests inside.

"I'm telling you it's her," April whispered rather loudly as they entered.

"It can't be," Keiko replied just as noisily.

"I'm sure of it!" April hissed in reply.

Aoi looked watched the pair enter and shook her head. She turned to watch Raven entering behind them, with Elisa taking up the rear.

Elisa hovered protectively behind Raven's shoulder as the esper approached the counter. "Okay... what do you guys want?" She pointedly looked to Elisa. "And don't tell me 'whatever you want'."

Elisa closed her mouth and looked confusedly at the menu.

"That's right, pick something you like. And you girls?"

"You're paying, right?" April asked eagerly.

"I said it was my treat," Raven replied.

"Alright! A triple-layered caramel and fudge sundae with whipped cream and cherries please!" April called out to the man at the counter.

"I'll have what you're having," Keiko said to Raven, giggling. Aoi only shrugged.

"Chocolate-covered banana split?" Raven asked to confirm.

"Perfect," Keiko replied.

The esper turned to Gem. "Aoi?"

Aoi looked over her guests, unsure what to say. "Just a milkshake," she eventually replied.

"Not hungry?" Raven asked.

Aoi shook her head. "Just being careful about my choices," she muttered, cautiously eyeing the girls.

Raven looked at her weirdly. "C'm'on, don't be a wimp."

Aoi sighed. "Fine. I'll have two scoops of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and cherries." Behind her, the girls twittered in amusement.

The esper turned to Elisa. "What will you have?"

Elisa looked at the menu uncertainly and turned to Raven. "The same as you, Ms. Clark."

Aoi shook her head. "Sorry Elisa, you're not allowed. Choose again."

Elisa tittered nervously and said, "Then I'll have what you're having, Ms. Aoi."

"And if I change my mind?" Aoi asked Elisa.

Elisa actually squirmed and turned to Raven for support. She found very little, though there was sympathy in the esper's eyes.

"Ms. Clark," said the synthetic, "I... don't know what to choose... I've never had any of this."

"First time for everything," Aoi replied. She patted Elisa on the back and pointed up to the menu above the counter. "Now just pick out something you like the sound of."

Raven smiled broadly as Elisa looked over the menu and said, "Strawberry sundae? I like strawberries."

"Sounds like a plan," Raven said, patting Elisa's shoulder affectionately—which meant she had to stand on tiptoe to do it. She turned to the server. "Okay, we'll be sitting at that corner table."

Aoi nodded encouragingly to Elisa and lead the party over to the corner table. She made sure to place herself between April, Keiko and Elisa as they sat.

Raven arrived at the table last to find that the last available seat was an open space left open between April and Keiko. Getting there, predictably, required squeezing in past the Oriental girl, who carefully shifted so she was _in_ the way. Raven snorted in derisive laughter as her body brushed against Keiko's and finally managed to sit snugly between the pair.

Aoi shook her head once more. "Alright, behave you two," she told April and Keiko.

Raven chuckled and leaned her elbows on the table. "So you girls all live together?"

"Oh yeah! We're very close," April said, leaning against Raven while looking meaningfully at Aoi.

"It's not like that," Aoi replied.

Raven giggled. "I believe that," she said.

"She rescued us from the zone, sort of," Keiko explained. "Well, her and Kami."

"Great timing," Raven commented. Her eyes grew stormy as she dwelled back on the Zone, and the jackbooted invaders crawling within. "It's not a good place to be right now. Not at all."

Aoi glanced at her friend, frowning in concern. "We've gotten ourselves pretty well set up here," she said, trying to draw Raven out of her mood.

Raven nodded. "You've got a nice apartment, but can you fit four people in there?"

April nodded and leaned up against Raven. "If they're really close, sure," she said, gazing at the Esper.

"I see," Raven said, leaning away from her slightly—and therefore into Keiko. "But that leaves Aoi, and that Kami person..."

Keiko glanced at Aoi suspiciously, while April giggled. "Didn't she tell you about Kami at all?" the blonde asked her. Raven could see Aoi cringing in embarrassment.

Raven shook her head. "The only Kami I know of is a street sam over in the Zone with a reputation for being willing to kill people at the drop of a hat," she said. "And not seeming to care about doing it either."

April frowned, and seemed to inch away from Raven. She looked down and traced one finger across the table top. "Yeah, that's her," she said in a rather subdued tone.

Oops, thought Raven. I didn't think it could possibly be her. "Well, I've never met her," the esper said rather lamely. "So I can't tell if any of the rumors are true." She laughed nervously. "Heck, I wonder what rumors they spread about me."

With that, April burst into a fit of giggles. Keiko tried not to laugh, and instead reached over and gave April a gentle shove. "Stop it, I told you it's not her!" She said. Aoi could only watch the two in bemusement.

Raven's eyes narrowed, but her lips turned up in an amused smile. "Okay, fess up. What is it that it's not me?"

The girls tried to pass the duty off to each other, before April finally gave in. She sighed and looked up at Raven. "Well you see, we found this video online of a girl and a Lynx from this Megatokyo hotel, right? And I swear she looks just like you, only Keiko doesn't believe it."

Raven's eyes widened in shock, and her cheeks reddened. "Urm, you saw that? Well... um..." She looked at Aoi, studiously avoiding the stares of both Keiko and April. She sighed resignedly, and shook her head helplessly. "Remind me I need to go have a 'chat' with my Megatokyo fixer about that."

"I told you!" April called out to Keiko. "See? And her with a Puma now..." The girls gave this revelation a second's thought, then as one smiled and snuggled up next to Raven.

"I knew I was right about you," April said, grinning broadly.

"We've got all your webcam videos too," Keiko added, matching her grin.

"Okay, let's get a few things straight. That was one time and I didn't know I was getting filmed, I didn't want any of those security videos to get out either, and most importantly I am not sleeping with Elisa!" She stood up, annoyed, as she spoke, only to end up face to face with the waiter bearing a plate of ice-cold goodies. "Um. Sorry." Raven sat down sheepishly as the waiter, in a credit to the restaurant's service, set the ice cream treats on the table while studiously avoiding staring at any of the attractive females around the table.

The two girls stared at Raven in almost blank horror, their mouths gaping open. Aoi looked between them, and silence reigned at the table.

"They're always like that," Aoi eventually said casually.

Raven lowered her head and shook it, laughing softly. "Like I said, kinda sweet in their own NC-17 way."

Aoi shook her head, and finally turned to her desert. She paused uncertainly, noting the placement of the ice cream scoops and particularly the cherries. This elicited a stifled giggle from April. Aoi glanced up at Raven and muttered "Told you."

Raven snickered, reached across with her spoon, scopped one of Gem's cherries from one of the ice cream balls and brought it back to eat it. "Yum yum. Hey look, you're problem's solved," she said, grinning.

"No fair!" Aoi replied.

"Hey, don't worry," Keiko said. She deftly removed the other cherry with her spoon. "There. All even now."

Raven laughed and plucked the cherry from her own sundae to put it in Aoi's, on the side of the ice cream balls. "Here."

April watched the others quietly as she slowly poked at her ice cream with a spoon. Eventually she looked up at Raven. "I'm sorry I was so rude to you," she said quietly.

"Meh, don't worry about it," Raven said. "It was kinda funny in a very embarassing way." She pointed at April's ice cream with her spoon. "Now eat up before it melts." She pointed at Elisa's sundae. "You too."

April grinned at her. "Hey, do you think I'd let something like this go to waste when I'm not paying for it?" She nudged Raven in the ribs, then tucked into her sundae.

Raven grinned back and cut a piece of banana to bring to her mouth. "Yummy," she said. "It's a nice place you've found. Gotta remember it."

"Next time, we'll bring you here," Keiko replied, nudging Raven.

"Sure thing," Raven said. "I'm always up for ice cream."

Keiko and April shared a conspiratorial glance, and both grinned. "Y'know, we've got plenty more at home," April told Raven.

The esper snickered and waved her spoon at Keiko. "We've barely even started THIS batch!"

"We've also got a great way to serve it," April added, laughing along.

"Right," Raven said. "I bet you do, too." She took another bite of her ice cream, and watched Elisa eat hers—at least she seemed to be enjoying it.

"We can show you, if you want," Keiko said. She offered spoonful of ice cream to Raven. Nearby, Aoi shook her head.

Raven rolled her eyes. "Fine, I'll bite—this once." She leaned in to take the spoonful.

"C'mon then!" April said. She glanced down at her sundae and added "As soon as we finish."

Raven giggled. "What? I've already had my bite."

April shook her head. "Now you know that's not what we mean," she said slyly.

"Oh really?" said Raven mock-innocently. "Gee, it's too bad I've already had my bite then." She dug in to her own banana split.

April "Hmmphed" in disappointment and returned her attention to her own sundae.

Raven winked at Aoi, and savored another bite of banana.

Aoi shook her head, her face a mixture of exasperation and relief. She finished off the last spoonful of ice cream and leaned back. "I know I shouldn't have done that," she muttered to herself.

Keiko poked Aoi in the ribs. "You need to walk all that off," she said cheekily.

"Please, no," Aoi replied lazily. "Why don't you girls go?"

"Shopping trip?" April suggested.

"Hmm, good idea," Raven said. "I haven't been shopping in... well, ages. You up for it, Elisa?"

"Of course, Ms. Clark," said Elisa. She set her spoon in the empty sundae bowl in front of her.

"Of course you are," Raven said in exasperation, "Why did I ever ask." She turned to Aoi. "You sure you don't want to come?"

Aoi glanced between her friend, the girls on either side of her, and finally at the Puma sitting next to her. She nodded and took hold of her walking cane. "I'd better," she said.

"Great. Anyone know a good place?"

April and Keiko had unanimously agreed on the "Coral Concourse," a massive ground-floor mall of the Neo York Jinsei Arcology. Entering at the ground floor, they could see it spread out in front of them. It was a spacious multi-leveled area, with much of the open area devoted to...

"Fish tanks?" Aoi said in surprise. Dispersed amongst the stores and concourses were a number of thin fish tanks that stretched from floor to ceiling - essentially comprising a living, transparent wall. Marine life of all shapes and sizes meandered around in their tanks to the delight of visitors. Entranced, Aoi wandered slowly forwards to watch the display.

"They're all robot fish, of course," April said beside her, breaking her out of her reverie. "C'mon, let's get moving. I have to show Raven to 'Vanessa's Whispers.'"

Aoi shook her head, recognising the name of an upcoming chain of lingerie stores. Leaning on her cane, she fell into step with the group.

Raven rolled her eyes as she fell in besides Aoi. "I should've known—they picked the mall because of the lingerie store."

"Oh, come on! There's more to it than that!" Keiko said.

"Yeah! There's a really neat Chinese boutique in here." April took Raven's arm and pointed across the mall. "Now you'd look great in their silks outfits."

Raven leaned over to Aoi. "Why do I feel like a doll in a dress-up game?" she whispered in her friend's ear.

Aoi couldn't help but chuckle in response. "I wouldn't worry about it. Actually, I do need a new outfit..." She trailed off, looking around the stores.

"If you'll allow me, Ms. Aoi," Elisa said, stepping forward and drawing stunned stares from Raven and Aoi, "I think that this blouse here would complement your skin tone very well." She picked a lavender blouse off the rack and held it over Gem's chest. The Puma nodded in satisfaction. "And a black skirt to go with it—knee length, I think."

"That um..." Aoi looked down at the blouse, then back up at Elisa. "It does. Thank you," she stammered, almost too surprised to think. She blinked, then grinned. "Although I don't wear skirts as a rule. What would you suggest instead?" She said to Elisa. She then shot a conspiratorial wink to Raven.

"Dark blue or black jeans," said Elisa. "Either would complement the blouse well and go easily with other tops you might have."

"Dark blue. I'm a bit tired of black," she said, glancing down at her black slacks. She rubbed her chin and looked around the store. "Should that have a jacket, too?"

She glanced quickly back at Raven and the girls. "You go on ahead," she said quietly.

"By myself? With those two?" Raven's face twisted in an expression of mock terror. "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

She glanced back at Elisa, checking that the Puma was distracted going through the racks. "She's making decisions, showing initiative... Heck, I've never seen a normal Puma like this. I don't want to take the chance she'll stop."

April and Keiko shared broad grins, and each took Raven by an arm. "C'mon, you really have to see 'Vanessa's Whispers,'" April said, steering Raven off to the left. Half-worried and half-intrigued, Raven followed

Elisa looked up from the rack. "It's difficult to pick a jacket without knowing what the rest of your wardrobe looks like, Ms. Aoi. Ideally you would want a jacket to match a large portion of your clothes."

Aoi rubbed her chin again. "I dunno... What I really need is a new style, so I'm going for something unlike my old wardrobe." She stepped up to Elisa and looked down at the rack of jackets. "I mean, I usually wear black suits, and that's it. Pretty boring, huh?"

"I don't know, Ms. Aoi," Elisa replied. "Black suits are always appropriate. But if you want an entire new wardrobe using these two as your starting point, you could go with this dark blue jacket here. It is semi-casual which will give you the most options, and will go well with blue, white, black, and a variety of other colors. A very versatile item."

Aoi took the jacket in her hands, and looked admiringly up at Elisa. "You're pretty good at this, you know," she said.

"Thank you, Ms. Aoi," said the Puma, smiling happily for once. "Can I do anything else for you?"

"Just wondering why you decided to speak out in the first place."

Elisa seemed a little taken aback at that. "It looked like you might appreciate a bit of advice," the synthetic said.

"It's just that you're usually so quiet around everyone." Aoi smiled to herself as she leaned back against a shelf of folded jeans. "You should make your opinion known more often."

Elisa busied herself silently looking at racks of clothes for a few moments. Then she said, "This... is unusual to me. Mr. Case did not want me to give my opinion unless he asked for it, and he seldom did. He merely made his wishes known. I am still working out how Ms. Clark wishes me to act, and do not want to make her angry."

Aoi chuckled to herself. "Well, you won't find out by keeping quiet, that's for sure. Now, how about this?" Aoi asked as she pulled a garish pink t-shirt from a shelf and held it up to her chest.

Elisa visibly hesitated. "I do not think it will fit well with your wardrobe," she said diplomatically.

"Really?" She looked down at it. "I think it's crap," she said, and tossed it over her shoulder. "And if you think it is, tell me, okay?" She smiled to Elisa. "I know you didn't like it, but you didn't want to offend me since I picked it out. Right?"

Elisa nodded. "Yes, Ms. Aoi." Her eyes looked a bit confused as she sorted out through those unusual instructions.

Aoi chuckled to herself. She turned back to the jackets, smiling contentedly. That'll do for now, she thought. I hope Raven doesn't mind what I've done to her Puma.

"I can't believe you actually made me try that thing on," said Raven, waving her beer at April. A quiet slow tune played in the background as the five sat in a leather-covered booth in the Lounge 428. It was an old bar, with dim lighting, slow music, and an impressive selection of expensive imported beers.

"Spare me the details," Aoi replied as she glanced back and forth between her friends. They were in a large corner booth with a wonderfully comfortable leather bench wrapped around a single table. Keiko sat on one end, with April next to her. Raven had strategically placed herself between the girls and Elisa, and Aoi had taken the other end of the bench.

Aoi sipped her bloody mary and met Raven's eyes briefly. She seemed unusually happy, although her new outfit - a sleeveless Chinese blouse and tight blue jeans - could have been responsible. "But you had fun, right?" she asked, subtly inclining her head towards the girls.

"Not half as much as they did, I'll bet." Raven said, grinning. She was wearing a simple, form-hugging red dress with a pronounced neckline, purchased that very afternoon.

"Did we ever!" April replied enthusiastically. "Raven makes a great model."

Aoi couldn't help but smile. "New career plan?" She asked her friend.

Raven tapped her lips with one finger. "Maybe I should look in that direction."

"Are you serious?" Keiko asked.

Raven grinned, eyes twinkling mischievously. "Why not? Looks like I'm already popular in certain circles."

"I was joking, you know," Aoi added.

"Oh, really?" Raven said in mock surprise. "Wow, it sounded so serious." Aoi grinned briefly, but said nothing.

Glancing between the two, Keiko finally spoke up. "So just how do you two know each other anyway?"

Raven chuckled and looked at Aoi. "Shall I tell them?"

Before Aoi could reply, April spoke up. "C'mon, we want to know! Aoi never tells us anything."

Aoi rolled her eyes and nodded. "Go ahead."

"Well, it happened when Aoi was fighting a crusade against Shiroko-Tsuhi... and at the Edge of Night she came across that very corporation's prized esper weapon," Raven began dramatically.

"So you had a fight?" April asked. She leaned in, eagerly watching Raven to soak up the details. "Who won?"

"Don't be silly," Keiko replied. "You know she couldn't beat Raven."

"She tried to take me by surprise, but it didn't work. We had a harsh chat, and I let her go."

April looked between Raven and Aoi, and cocked one eyebrow. "That's it?"

"That's it," Aoi replied and drained her glass.

"Okay," April said, clearly disappointed. "So how'd you go from 'harsh chat' to sitting in a bar together?"

"Well, we had another chat where I convinced her to stop coming after me. Later, after I had, um, forcibly resigned, we worked together on a mission and we cleared out our differences."

"Basically, she beat some sense into me," Aoi replied, smiling. She nodded towards Raven. "Best thing that ever happened to me."

Raven laughed. "Oh? And what about meeting Kami, hmm?"

Aoi immediately flushed red, and seemed as if she was going to choke. For long seconds she gaped, wide-mouthed before eventually settling back. "Well, that's a bit more... um..." She intently watched her fingers, trying hard not to look up at Raven.

Raven quirked an eyebrow and waved her beer at April. "Do YOU know that story?"

April fluttered her eyelids and posed, hands against her cheeks. "She said it was love at first sight," she said, falling into a mock swoon.

Raven put the back of her hand to her forehead. "Oh, my, that's soooo romantic!" she said.

"Cut it out," Aoi replied, although she couldn't help but smile. "But no, it wasn't quite like that."

"Maybe you should set the record straight," Raven suggested, "lest some unkind souls start spreading gossip and false rumors. Not that anyone around this table would EVER do that!"

Aoi glanced between April and Keiko's grins and Raven's mock innocent smile then shook her head. "Alright. I bailed her out at the Underground. There was a confrontation with a couple of corp brats and their pet..." She paused, glancing nervously at Elisa. "Er, well their bodyguard Puma." She cleared her throat, turning red with embarrassment again. "I scared them off for her, and we kind of hit it off from there."

Elisa's pleasant expression didn't change. Raven grinned and lifted her beer glass to Aoi. "To good friends and chance encounters then," and she drained it down.

"Shall I go for seconds?" asked the Puma, standing up.

"Stay there," Aoi replied. "I'll go. Same for everyone?"

Elisa sat back. "Nothing for me, thank you."

"I'll have the same," Raven said.

Aoi glanced between Raven and Elisa. "Same as you had or same as her?"

Raven chuckled, thinking it ironic that she might follow Elisa's lead as opposed to the other way around, but said, "I mean another beer."

"Sorry," Aoi replied, chuckling. "You two?" April and Keiko both nodded. "Alright. Back in a sec."

Raven watched her go and turned to April and Keiko. "So when did you two meet Aoi?"

Keiko nodded to April. "This one's her story."

April took her cue to lean in towards Raven and Elisa. "Well this takes up just after she met Kami. See, we were living together at the time, and I come home one morning. I know Kami's got someone with her, so I'm waiting in the main room until she gets up. Then suddenly, BAM!" She shouted out, leaning back. "Aoi springs out the door to Kami's room, stark naked and clutching her clothes!" April broke into a raucous laugh, while Keiko carefully watched Raven's reaction.

Raven's eyes widened in complete surprise. "Oh my God! I didn't realize it was THAT kind of friendship." She looked after Aoi. "Explains some things tho."

"You didn't?" Keiko burst out. "They've been together for ages. What, she never told you?"

"No, but we're not exactly all that close really. We've met a few times, worked together once or twice."

"And what things does it explain anyway," April asked, slyly.

"Your love-at-first-sight comment, for one," Raven said. "I thought you were kidding."

April shook her head. "Get real. Kami's just like us. And you think girls like us could leave someone as hot as Aoi alone, hmm?"

Raven snorted. "If that episode in the shower is any indication—no."

April pouted and shook her head. "Alright, but you can't say you don't like the attention."

Raven smirked. "It depends on how it gets expressed—getting groped from behind by a complete stranger isn't high on my list of preferences."

Keiko giggled and put a gentle hand on Raven's shoulder. "Alright, we said we were sorry. Can you forgive us?"

"Okay, sure, I'll forgive you this time," Raven said.

"This time?" April shot back. "What, are we on probation or something?"

Raven smirked. "Are you going to do something like that again?"

April leaned in close, her nose almost touching Raven's. "Do you want us to?" The esper lifted an eyebrow. "Sorry."

The sound of someone noisily clearing their throat snapped April back to attention. Aoi stood over the pair, her expression carefully blank, holding a tray of drinks. "I was about to ask what you got up to in my absence," She said, her attention flicking from April to Raven and then to Keiko. "But I'm not sure I want to know."

Raven chuckled self-consciously. "That's probably a good idea." She picked her beer from Aoi's tray.

Aoi merely shook her head and handed out the drinks. She had switched from her initial cocktail to a strong beer. Putting the tray aside, she resumed her place between Keiko and Elisa. "So... Cheers," she said, popping the top off her bottle.

"Cheers!" said Raven, lifting her beer then taking a long gulp.

The apartment door swung open once more to the sound of raucous laughter. April was the first to stagger in, clearly drunk and virtually dragging Raven by her arm, laughing as she went. Behind them came Aoi, with Keiko on her arm. The Japanese girl turned to hurry Elisa in, then broke away from Aoi to join the others in the main room.

"Now you tell me that wasn't fun!" April squealed out to Raven as she collapsed back onto a couch.

"It shure was," slurred Raven as she stumbled to sit in the couch besides April. "I don't tink I've ever sheen Shem this red."

April broke into squeals of laughter as she stretched her arm across Raven's shoulders. Keiko dropped down on the other side of Raven, looking up at Gem all the way. "It's like, she still can't deal that she's sleepin' with a girl!" She added.

"You tink she'd be ushed to it by now," Raven said. She threw back her head and laughed. "Ssho, is Shilver pretty?"

"Is she ever," April said. She leaned back and gazed dreamily up at the ceiling. "She looks like a dream, y'know?"

"I guessh you don't have my dreamsh," muttered Raven.

"Serious!" April replied. "She's slim, well curved... Has a great figure. And this gorgeous silvery hair..."

Raven grinned drunkenly at Aoi. "You'sh got a catsh, Shem..."

Before Aoi could reply, April said out loud "Well she used to be mine!"

In the small kitchenette, Aoi grimaced and shook her head. "It was her choice, April," she replied quietly.

April pouted. "At least you could share."

"You're weird," Raven offered.

"Seriously Gem," April said, seemingly ignoring Raven. "If you don't ease up on this monogamy kick of yours, you're gonna lose her."

"Well that's my choice," Aoi replied, barely restraining her anger. "Now drop it!"

"'Shokay, Shem... Let'sh talk about shomething elshe. Like, do you have beer in this plashe?"

Aoi frowned. "Don't you think you've had enough yet?"

"Hey, I only had... How many wash it?"

"I lost count," Aoi said cooly as she ferreted in the cupboards.

"I had... hmmm..." Raven tried counting on her fingers and lost count. "Argh... Pretty shure it was shingle dishits..."

Aoi sighed. "Fine. Do whatever you like," she said, not even looking back at them.

Raven was still busy trying to count. "Sheven, I think..."

Aoi only shook her head. "Fine. Beers all round, I guess."

"Yeah! Let 'em flow!" April yelled back.

"Parrthy!" Raven yelled.

"I'll go get the beers," said Elisa, walking off towards the fridge.

Aoi held up a hand to stop Elisa. "You sit. My place, I'll get the beers."

Elisa looked a little confused, but she stepped back.

Aoi retrieved a trio of beers and handed them out. "Here we are. Just don't make too much of a mess."

The drunken esper giggled. "We'll be good, I promishe." She twisted off the cap and took a long gulp of her beer.

Aoi merely shook her head and turned away.

"Feh, she alwaysh a party-pooper?" Raven asked of April.

"Always," April said as a malicious grin spread across her face. She watched Aoi's back and continued, all too loudly. "It's like she has to have someone all to her self. And she won't even look at anyone else."

"Hey, knock it off," Raven told the girl. "I happen to think it'sh romantic."

"And you?" April turned back to Raven, leaning in to gaze hungrily into her eyes. "Do you share?"

Apparently oblivious to April's come on, Raven giggled and sipped at her beer. "Got nobody to share, shee...."

"You do now," April said, gently slipping the strap of Raven's dress of her shoulder.

Aoi cast a disgusted glance at the trio on the couch. Shaking her head, she stalked past them and onto the balcony, slamming the door shut behind her.

"Shh, you're frishky!" Raven said, laughing. She gently pulled her shoulder away from April's teasing hands—which of course pushed it right into Keiko. "And shneaky!"

"What's the matter?" Keiko said, running her hands across Raven's stomach. She started tickling the Esper up and down her side.

"Heeey!" Raven laughed and twisted away. "I'm ticklish, darn it!"

April and Keiko looked at each other in glee, then both dove in, tickling Raven all over.

"Heeeey! Heeey!" Raven laughed and tried to cover herself with her arms and legs. "Shtop it!" Woozilly, she pushed telekinetically at April, but missed and sent a pillow next to her flying away instead. "Ooopsh! SHTOP IT!"

"Aww, don't tell me it's not fun," April replied as she came to a halt.

The balcony door slid open and Aoi stood in the doorway, looking sternly at the girls. "Leave her alone," she said, gently fingering the mis-placed pillow.

"Shorry about that, Shem," Raven said sheepishly. "I short of misshed."

"Just leave off Raven," Aoi said. She cast her stern gaze between the girls and then back to Raven.

"Sh'no fun, shust a harmless a good game of ticklesh..."

Aoi blinked in surprise. "You really don't know?" she asked.

April siezed her chance. "She's right! There's no harm in it!"

Raven looked at Aoi in confusion. "Huh?"

Aoi looked sternly at her friend. "Raven, they're-"

"Having fun," April said, grinning. "Aren't we, Raven?"

Raven grumbled. "I'm shure you are. I'm shust getting tickled."

Aoi nodded silently, and made her way back onto the balcony, slowly shutting the door behind her.

Raven reached for her beer on the table and took a long gulp. "At leasht the tickling'sh over..."

Keiko giggled to herself, while April leaned in close to Raven again. "See?" She took a pull on her own beer. "The girl's no fun."

"I wouldn't shay that... She jusht likesh different shtuff, that'sh all."

"We know what she likes," April said, casting a meaningful glance to Keiko. "So are you up for more?"

Raven drunkenly glared at her. "No more tickling! I'm too thrunk to defend myshelf."

"Aww..." April pouted. "Your turn, then."

"Hah!" Raven snorted. "You're not ticklish if you shay that." She looked around, noting something odd. "Shay, where did Elisha go? She went with Shem?"

"She probably wanted to leave us alone," Keiko said. She gently put her arms around Raven from behind, and leaned against the Esper's back.

"Maybe she'sh ticklish," Raven said, giggling.

April perked up. "Can we try?"

Raven considered this idea—a difficult task, through the numbing, drunken haze, then shook her head. "Naah... she'd jusht let ush and that'd be no fun."

"True," April said. She turned back to Raven with a devilish gleam in her eyes. "It's more fun when you have to work for it!" She began her assault on Raven again, while Keiko surreptitiously unzipped the back of her dress.

"Heeey! Shtop it! Arrgh!" Raven squirmed away from April, rolling off the couch and onto the floor. "SHTOP!"

Keiko squawked in surprise as she toppled off the couch with Raven, winding up pinned underneath her. April looked down at the pair and burst out laughing. Keiko quickly joined in, her hands resting on Raven's stomach.

Raven laughed, too, and got up on her knees, her dress threatening to fall off her shoulders. "Whoa, how'd that happen?" she said, fumbling behind her for the zipper to her dress. "It'sh coming looshe!"

Keiko pulled herself up, clinging onto Raven as she did. Her hands slipped, yanking the dress down off her shoulders and baring her underwear to the girls. "Whoops!" Keiko shouted out, laughing as she did.

"Hey!" Raven protested, grabbing her dress in an effort to pull it back up. "You did that on purposhe!"

"You got me," Keiko replied, grinning. She yanked down on the dress, trying to keep it out of Raven's hands.

"Oh stop," April said to her. "You look great." She slid off the couch to kneel in front of Raven, slipping her arms around the Esper's shoulders.

"Shee, thanksh," Raven said, too focused on pulling on her dress against Keiko to stop April. "But it'sh really rude to undressh people without their permisshion you know..."

April leaned in close, brushing her lips against Raven's cheek. She winked surreptitiously to Keiko, who gave the dress another yank. This sent Raven toppling to the ground again, with April lying flat on top of her.

You can undress us if you like," April said, pressing herself against Raven's bare body.

"I'd rather dressh myshelf up," said Raven, clumsily pushing April off. Drunk though she might have been, with her telekinetically-enhanced strength she still managed to shove April to one side. "You girlsh are crashy!"

"We're just having fun," April whined. "Aw, c'mon..."

"Like in the shower?" Raven asked. She tried to pull on her dress again, struggling with Keiko for the garment... Even in her drunken state she realized she mustn't pull hard enough lest she rip her clothes, but Keiko was under no such limitation and it gave the girl a considerable advantadge.

"Yeah!" April replied. She got up to put her arms around Raven again. "You and us. Whaddya say?"

Keiko let go of the dress, and Raven pulled it up only to get it tangled around April's arms. "You jusht never give up, don'tcha?" the esper said petulantly, letting go of her dress to push ineffectually against April.

"Why should we?" April said, giving her a peck on the cheek. "I think you like us too much."

Raven couldn't help but grin at that. "Yeah, you're shweet, in your own way," she said. "Now let me put my dressh on."

"Aww..." They whined in unison. They fell away from Raven, sitting on the floor and watching her plaintively.

Raven got up and slowly slid the dress back into place onto her body, concentrating on the task. Then she looked at the crestfallen pair. "Aww, don't be shad..."

April looked down at Raven's feet, tears forming in her eyes. "Why don't you like us?" she said, trying not to sniff.

"I do like you... jusht... not like that..." said Raven, weakly.

April didn't respond; instead she stared up at Raven with tear-filled eyes.

"Pleashe don't cry..." said Raven.

"But.. but why not?" April said, looking down at Raven's feet again. She let out a sniff and wiped her eyes.

"Can't we be friendsh? We can shtill have tickle fightsh," the esper replied.

Before April could reply, the balcony door swept open letting in a gust of cold night air. Aoi stood in the doorway again, looking down at April with a scornfull glare. "She said no already," Aoi said sternly, arms crossed.

The change in April's attitude was immediate. She let out a small squeak and quickly backpedalled away from Raven. The tears and sorrow had vanished from her face as she looked around, half-panicked.

Raven looked from April to Aoi. "You're not sho shcary..." she said.

Aoi sighed and shook her head. "You two leave her be. You got that?" April nodded quietly, as did Keiko who had shuffled out of the way.

Raven's eyes narrowed at April as it slowly dawned on her that the girl was acting. "That washn't nishe," she admonished April.

April cringed under Raven's gaze. "Sorreee!" She squealed.

"No you're not," Raven countered with a smirk.

April grinned in reply. "You got me there. Can't blame a girl for trying."

Raven muttered and glared at her.

"Raven?" Aoi asked, stepping aside and clearing the doorway for her. "Let's talk."

"Shure, let'sh," Raven said, walking past her to the next room.

Aoi slid the door shut behind them. The balcony was fairly small, but had a magnificent view out over the city, looking towards the Zero Zone. Aoi nodded to a pair of chairs set up by the door, one of which had her walking cane resting on it. "Take a seat," she said quietly.

Raven looked over the view for a moment before sitting down, hugging her arms. "Kinda shilly," she said.

Aoi sat next to her, cradling her walking cane in her arms. "I'm sorry," she suddenly said. "I shouldn't have butted in."

"It'sh probably a good thing you did," Raven said. "She had me."

"I mean before. The first time." She sighed, and continued. "I should have let you... Heck, you can handle yourself."

Raven giggled. "Maybe sho, maybe not... she's shneaky! Thanksh for your help anyway! She had me tricked, the little minxsh."

Aoi let out a deep sigh. "Yeah, it's pretty easy to fall for that." She took a pull from her beer, and gazed out at the night sky.

Raven quietly took a gulp from her, then looked at the empty bottle. "Well, thish one'sh done."

Aoi sat quietly for a second, then asked "Is it really that bad? I mean, over there..."

Raven sighed. "It'sh a war. It'sh ugly. You've sheen shome of it..."

She pulled her legs up to her chest, and hugged her knees. "It's just... I feel I should be doing more. But I can't."

"I know whatcha mean... I feel a bit guilty every time I'm not fighting." She looked down at her empty bottle. "Like when I'm drinking and having fun."

"I shouldn't have dragged you over here... I'm sorry, Raven..."

"'Sh'okay, really! I think Auntie wash going to make me take a break, or elshe—doctor'sh ordersh and all that." Raven looked down at her empty bottle.

Aoi didn't reply. Instead she drew her legs in closer, hugging her knees to her chest.

The weather was clear the next morning, giving all assembled a view out over Aoi's balcony to the Zero Zone. Raven sighed as she looked out at her destination. Once again she was wearing the simple, hard-wearing clothes she had arrived in, holding her recent acquisitions close. Elisa stood close behind her, hands on the esper's shoulders to secure her for the coming teleportation. Aoi nodded silently to her, her hands on the girls' shoulders, gently holding them back.

Raven glanced out at the Zone once more, then turned back. "Well, this is it," she said.

Aoi simply said "Take care."

"Come visit us again!" April said with a wink.

"Sure, but no tickle fights," Raven shot back.

April made a show of poking out her tongue. Raven couldn't help but smile in return. With a moment's concentration, she and Elisa vanished from sight.

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