By The Vainglory

Theresa leaned with her outstretched hand against the wall and considered the contents of her closet. She wasn't exactly deciding what to wear; that was largely a foregone conclusion. But she stood. And thought. Dressed in somewhat impractical but attractive lacey underwear that she preferred for the same reasons she liked her shirts thoroughly overstarched. Style always won out over comfort; even if no one was looking.

It was with uncharacteristic seriousness that Theresa carefully examined her circumstances. She lit a cigarette and began to smoke as she continued to mentally itemize and calculate the value of each of the factors in her life at the moment. She eventually came to one undeniable conclusion.

It was time to leave.

Theresa had grown to like the Zone. The whole "Zero Law Enforcement" thing meant she could indulge her compulsions without fear of reprisal. Well, legal reprisal anyway. And the Zone, being the Zone, could absorb a lot more "missing persons" without raising suspicions than nearly anywhere else. She could also afford to be much lazier about the little details like properly hiding bodies afterward.

So that was the case for staying.

On the other hand, Jinsei was rapidly making itself a bigger pain in the ass than the local police ever did. More pressing, however, was the problem with amenities. Her closet, that she'd spent the past ten minutes gazing into, was the most obvious example. At the very end of the far side, there were exactly three suits remaining; still wrapped in the plastic bags from the laundromat. The rest of the hangers were occupied by dozens of identical sets of the same outfit. All were torn, covered with splatters of dried blood, or simply encrusted with ordinary Zone dirt.

Underneath the row of identical suits, there was a row of identical men's leather dress shoes. Only one pair remained shiny, glossy black; buffed to the mirror finish that she was usually so proud of. The rest were scuffed, dirty and unpleasant looking. A flicker of irritation flashed over Theresa's face. There was going to be hell to pay if she ever found out who killed her personal shoeshine bum.

Clothes were only part of the problem. Zone living had a Wild West freedom to it, but it was also dirty and rough. And rough living was low on Theresa's list of likes. She went through far more water than the average Zone resident and was nearly out. The words "moderation" and "conservation" didn't really enter into her vocabulary often.

Then there was the deal breaker: It was really getting hard to score drugs in a war zone. Her pillbox was half empty and there was nothing left to replace it with. A few words with Ritz had confirmed her suspicions: Zone smuggling had never been better than it was right now, but the vast majority of it was weapons and hardware; practical goods for a people at war. Not from some fresh burst of morality, vice just took a back seat to self-preservation, that's all.

Theresa inhaled a line of speed off the back of her thumb and swallowed a few times at the heavy alkaline taste dripping at the back of her throat. It was infuriating. Not the taste; that was more like an old friend. What irritated her was the fact that she was reduced to buying low grade pills from street hoodlums to crush while there was a modern day Babylon a stone's throw across the river. And the day she ran out of speed would be a dark day for the Zone. She licked the residue from her hand.

So it was time to go back.

As she began to button up one of her remaining white shirts, her mood brightened a bit. Once she'd decided to leave the Zone, it freed up her mind to enjoy the time she still spent here. She'd take care of her last minute business with a smile on her face. She smoothed the faint crinkles on her dress shirt; like always, it was nearly stiff enough to stand up on its own.

Once she was back in the real Neo York she could do other things she'd been meaning to get around to. Theresa tugged her slacks past her rounded hips. She could hunt for that pretty street samurai with the beautiful green eyes. Theresa cinched a leather belt around her comparatively narrow wasp waist. The girl had been on her mind a lot lately, but she couldn't put her finger on why. Suspenders next. Theresa recalled that wearing both suspenders and a belt violated some hard and fast rule invented by the people who made it their business to decide these things. She didn't really care. Theresa liked suspenders. She hooked her thumbs, stretched them out and let them spring back with a satisfying *snap*.

Theresa tied her shoes, mentally reciting the sing-song rhyme about it she'd learned when she was five years old.

The girl had almost undoubtedly saved her life and she was at a complete loss as to why. There was no tangible benefit for her; the mission was pretty much over and most of the gangers had been taken out. In fact, saving her was actually a detriment: If she was dead, she wouldn't need to be paid and Theresa did not work cheap. She had told the girl afterward she'd discharge the debt, but she hadn't known that ahead of time. Hadn't known before she'd carried an unconscious Theresa out of harm's way.

Theresa slipped into her frock coat. She liked that too. They had been big in 18th Century France and, appropriately enough, in the Old West. Nowadays, they were the exclusive province of goth kids and period players. An open suit jacket that hung all the way to her knees, Theresa thought it was a good compromise; practical enough, but fashionable and different from the long dusters that were heavily favored throughout the Zone. On a whim, she spun in a circle and enjoyed the feeling of the edges flaring out from her like a dress.

Maybe it had been a whim. Theresa understood whim at least. The indescribable, irresistible desire to do something irrational for no good reason. But no, she'd seemed quite sure of herself afterward. Quite convinced it had been "The Right Thing to Do." How peculiar. Theresa knotted her black silk tie without the benefit of a mirror or bothering to look down. Her hands made the long-practiced motions independent of her wandering mind.

More out of habit than anything else, Theresa brushed her hair to one side, then the other, touching the silver inverted crosses that dangled from each of her ears. It wasn't as though she expected them to be anywhere else; she never took them off, after all.

Theresa was very much a creature of naked self-interest. She quite simply lacked the ability to comprehend altruism. There was always something to be gained. Even her waiving of the fee was simple reciprocation. Theresa understood that as well; you encouraged behavior you'd like to see more of. Everybody did, and that's what made the world go 'round.

She withdrew a tube of deep red lipstick from her chest of drawers and began to apply it. It was the only splash of color against her pale skin, black hair and the monochrome of her outfit.

So she'd been curious. Not painfully curious yet, but interested enough to ask around a bit. Theresa moved in a lot of circles and had a startling number of connections. Apparently, the description of "Aoi Hari" also matched that of a young street samurai called "Gem." The name had come up often enough that Theresa suspected the two were one and the same. "Gem" had popped up in Zone out of the blue and no one knew where she'd come from. Nothing terribly special there, lots of people came to the Zone that way. Her reputation was less than sterling; the girl had been a known troublemaker. Theresa reflexively broke into a sudden grin and nearly ruined her lipstick job. She could certainly identify with that.

Theresa folded a piece of paper in half and blotted her lips with it. Then she rolled it into a tight, narrow tube and did another hit of speed.

Not too long ago, "Gem" had pulled up roots and disappeared. Aoi was still in business by the look of things, though. Theresa wondered what her real name was.

She picked up her long, thin knife from the dresser top. When she'd first got it, Theresa had affectionately dubbed the blade "Mine." And it had stuck that way in her mind; it seemed appropriate at the time. Guns came and went, after all, but sharp edges needed a proper name. Theresa twirled the dagger through her fingers and slid it into its familiar place next to her hip.

The girl had been clean, kempt and professional looking. Theresa guessed she was staying somewhere in Neo York proper. Zone sams tended to look rougher around the edges after a while.

Theresa knelt over her sprawling collection of guns and picked up a few things that appealed to her at the moment.

She still had one place left to inquire that she'd been saving. Possibly the most useful one. That was first on her list of things to do today. After that, things got more nebulous, but she had a vague idea of what she wanted. A few errands to run here and there, and then she could get back to joining the real world. This little vacation was over.

Theresa walked over to the mirror, skirting the blankets along the way so she could savor the sound of her wooden heels clip-clopping against the floorboards. Her mirror was a full-length dressing style. And quite likely the most immaculate surface in the apartment; a testament to Theresa's vanity.

She posed, thrusting out her hip and resting her hand on it. Only one thing missing now... Theresa lit up and blew a cloud of smoke. There. Perfect.

"Well," she addressed her reflection, "how do I look?"


You're a sick, twisted sociopath with a childishly stunted emotional development and absolutely no regard for anyone but yourself.

But we are beautiful.

She brought the cigarette to her lips again and inhaled as long as she could stand to. Theresa took delight in her cigarettes. Took delight in her clothes. Her drugs. In just being Theresa. And she had more raw joy in her right now than she thought she could stand.

Theresa crossed her arms over her chest and squeezed herself a little.

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