By Max Fauth and Mike Surbrook

Note: This takes place immediately after "Falling Down," and before "Versus."

It was, for once, a quiet afternoon. Reclining on her couch; dressed in loose, casual wear; reading a light yet interesting book; sipping a glass of wine and nibbling off a small platter, Shion relaxed. It had been a busy time of late; the Zero Zone invasion stirring up a wasp's nest of trouble. Not just the anticipated revenge attacks against Jinsei though. In fact, all of the major corporations had found themselves under increased scrutiny and growing pressure. But with no jobs for the day, no outstanding offers or meetings, and no appointments in the near future, Shion found herself relaxing, enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

Her casual time was abruptly interrupted by the shrill noise of her intercom. A simple buzz alerted her to someone waiting at the base of the apartment tower, signaling her. This in itself was odd, she thought as she stood from her couch; anyone who wanted to see her made an appointment, rather than coming straight to her home. She swept through her penthouse, interested and slightly annoyed at this turn of events and wondering just who had come to disturb her.

Reaching the intercom by the front door, Shion looked down at it in surprise. Her recent acquaintance and sometimes valet Aoi was on the screen. At a glance, she could tell something was wrong. Dressed in casual clothes, carrying nothing but her walking cane, she was clearly unprepared for a visit. More to the point, her hair was a mess and her face was streaked with dried tears. Crying? Shion thought.

"Yes?" she said after a second at the intercom.

She saw Aoi glance up at the monitor, her eyes red-rimmed from her recent tears. She bobbed her head uncertainly. "Can I come in?" She asked in a rough voice.

Clearly trouble. And she's come straight to me. Shion considered the options for a second, then simply clicked open the door. "Yes."

Aoi bobbed her head again and made her way into the ground floor elevator. Shion shrugged as she vanished from the screen, and returned to her couch. Whatever the matter was, it would become apparent soon enough.

Aoi paused before entering Shion's spacious living room, steeling herself with a deep breath. She stepped forwards slowly, looking at her employer. Shion was dressed casually, in loose and comfortable lounging clothes. A book rested on her lap, and a small plate and glass waited on the table in front of her.

"Sorry to barge in like this," Aoi said in an unusually subdued tone.

Shion cocked an eye at her one-time assistant but didn't comment on her appearance. Instead she motioned to one section of the couch. "You look like you could use a rest."

Aoi let out a long sigh and sat, wincing slightly as she briefly took her weight off her cane. "Thanks," she said quietly, eyes down at the couch.

Setting the book on the table, Shion got up and started to make her way to the kitchen. "Want anything to drink?"

"Yeah, I'll get it," Aoi said hurriedly. She stood to cut Shion off, wincing slightly.

"Sit down." Shion said and then turned and walked out.

Torn between guilt and gratitude, Aoi slumped back onto the couch. This was going all wrong, she thought. What am I doing here? The clink of glass and a splash of water drew Aoi's attention; Shion had returned with a glass and a hand towel. Aoi glanced up at Shion as she returned, and nodded her thanks.

The white-haired woman sat delicately on the couch, crossing her legs and clasping her hands on one knee. She waited patiently as Aoi took a drink, then dabbed down her face with the moist towel. Seeing she was done, Shion simply asked "What happened?"

Aoi bit her lip. This was the hard part, the issue she needed to handle delicately. She wasn't sure how Shion would react if she knew about Kami; especially to the most important question. "I uh, had a fight with my roommate," she said shortly. "I need a place to stay."

A quirked eyebrow was the only sign of Shion's reaction. She took a delicate sip from her own glass and said "I see..."

"I can pay and all," Aoi started. "Make myself useful. You know, like before. It's all kind of abrupt, I know, but I can't really go back right now."

There was a long painful silence as Shion pondered the issue. Aoi felt herself wilting under Shion's stare as she sipped her glass thoughtfully. "What did your roommate do to you?" She said in a dark tone

She cheated on me, Aoi thought, but she couldn't say that out loud, least of all to Shion. While that hurt her to no end, it wasn't what had truly driven them apart.

"She got greedy. She wanted to trade someone else in to get good with a contact of hers. I wouldn't let her, and..." Aoi trailed off into a despondent shrug.

"You had a fight."

Aoi nodded. "It went badly. We said, well, all kinds of things. And I tried to hit her."

Shion continued to sip at her water. "And you need somewhere to stay until things cool down enough that you might be able to talk to her again." Aoi only nodded her response.

There was a long moment of silence as Shion continued to consider Aoi's request. In truth, she didn't exactly know what to say. She had lived alone for some time and quiet enjoyed her privacy. But, oddly enough, she had also found herself rather liking having Aoi around during the short time they had worked together last year.

"So here I am," Aoi added quietly.

"Yes. Here you are." Setting her glass down Shion regarded Aoi for a moment. "And if I say no, where will you go?"

She looked at Shion, her expression half way between surprise and fear. "I don't know..." she said at length. "I guess I could find a room somewhere..."

Some time ago, Raven had told Shion she needed more friends. Or, to be more accurate, she needed friends to being with. And, to be honest, she did like Aoi. She was smart and capable of taking care of herself, and had even managed to impress Shion by breaking into her apartment—something no one had ever done before (or ever would again if Shion had anything to say about it).

Shion's expression suddenly softened. "Try upstairs. I have a spare room you can use."

Aoi visibly relaxed, letting out a deep sigh of relief. "Thanks, boss... I mean it."

Raising one hand languidly, Shion casually dismissed her. "Dinner will be at seven."

She lifted her head to look at her benefactor, a slight smile playing on her face. "Want me to cook?"

"Have you gotten any better?" Aoi's smiled broadened as she nodded in earnest. Another wave of the hand followed. "You know where the kitchen is."

Aoi nodded in earnest. "Thank you, Shion," she said. She slowly stood, looking out over the city. She tried not to think of her own home, where just this morning she had stormed out in a fit. Instead, she turned back to her boss. "I'll go clean up," she said, and slowly made her way out.

So here I am, Aoi thought. It was the middle of the morning, and as she lay on the ridiculously soft bed in Shion's guest room, Aoi couldn't help but feel at ease. Yesterday she'd virtually thrown away the fragile relationship with Kami that had dragged her out of the Zone, walked away from one of the people who had helped her change the most. She had stalked out of her own home and barged into someone else's, virtually demanding a place to stay.

"Home..." Aoi couldn't help but feel lost. She'd had a proper home once, back in the Zone. Well, Rachel had at least. She had walked away from it so long ago, had changed so much that no-one could recognize her now. And worse still, the invasion had come. Suddenly she was wracked with anxiety. Had Jinsei reached her old home, the small dojo in the church district? What had happened to her family; Gen, the old man who'd raised her, and Nicole, the sister she'd tried to kill? No, she thought, shaking her head. They're not my family any more. I turned my back on them, long before I even became Aoi.

But still... Maybe if I explained. Maybe they could forgive me... "Maybe there's still a place for me," she said out loud. There could be. Nodding, suddenly determined and decisive, she sprang from the bed. She knew where home was.

It had been a long, hard journey through the old sewer tunnels, those lost routes from the city to the Zone that were now busier than ever. She had heard the reports of the Jinsei Sky Dragons, and could finally see their effect. People were virtually flowing out of the Zone, their meager possessions bundled up as they made their way through the old sewers. Aoi knew there was precious little for them on the other side, yet they pressed on. Anything had to be better than a war zone.

Strangely enough, this made her even more determined to press on. For too long now, she had felt that she hadn't done enough for the Zone. It was her home, the place where she grew up. And the attack on the HQ which she'd been a part of had only stirred things up, bringing more horrible destruction to the people and places she knew. Her mind was set. She'd find Nicole, and volunteer her help. Whatever was needed.

Soon enough, she emerged in familiar territory. The ground was mostly bare concrete, cracked in a multitude of places with grass and vines bursting through. An old cathedral stood in front of her, its windows largely shattered and one side half collapsed. She winced, remembering the damage that had been inflicted by her friends trying to save her from herself, the day that Rachel had finally died. Just behind her was the familiar old playground, a patch of bare dirt that was soft enough for the kids to run and tumble on without hurting themselves. And to her left...

She took in the sight as she clambered out of the manhole. The old dojo, a simple, single story building with a single room. Its floor was covered in soft mats, and a ladder led up to the lush rooftop garden. She climbed up and stood before it, lost in reminiscence. Here she had grown up with her sister, always being the trouble maker and always being saved by Nicole. Here she had learnt to fight and defend herself, learnt the skills that had made her a successful Street Sam. And on the roof she had convinced Nicole to leave with her, to join Shiroko-Tsuhi.

"What are you doing here?" The abrupt voice behind her shocked her back to reality. She spun around, coming face to face with a short, blonde woman dressed in rugged, dirty white work clothes. Her arm was in a sling, and stained bandage was wrapped around her head. Aoi's gaze fixed on her brilliant green eyes, then on the pearl stud that matched her own.

"Nicole..." Aoi said softly, calling out her sister's name.

Nicole's eyes darted across Aoi's form, taking in the expensive combat suit, the immaculate hair, the diamond and platinum earring, then finally resting on Aoi's green eyes and pearl stud. "Sorry, I don't think we've met," she said coldly.

Aoi stepped back, wounded by the remark. She knew Nicole recognized her form; they had met the day before she had reverted to being Rachel, before that fateful fight in the church. "But... Nicole, it's me..." She stammered out.

Nicole tilted her head to one side, watching Aoi carefully. "Aoi, isn't it? You were working for Midori," she said, her tone as icy as ever.

"I..." Aoi trailed off. Her cover had been blown the moment Nicole had seen her before. And now she was refusing to acknowledge their connection. She stepped back, looking around once more. The place was completely deserted; no-one remained apart from the two of them. "What happened here?"

"Reports are that a Sky Dragon is on the way. It'll be here in a few minutes." Nicole shrugged, looking up over the dojo. "It's pretty much pointless trying to fight them, and there were so many kids that we had to evacuate."

"The old man?" Aoi asked, her tone betraying her fears.

Nicole slowly shook her head. "Jinsei took him away, the day before the Sky Dragons appeared. We think he's back at their camp."

This was too much for her. Her home was about to be demolished, her guardian and mentor was gone from her reach, and her own sister, the only family she had, wouldn't even acknowledge her existence. She fell to her knees, agape in horror. "You knew him, huh?" Nicole asked. Aoi could only nod mutely as she felt the tears coming.

"Hey, don't be like that," the blonde said. She knelt in front of Aoi, gazing into her eyes. "This isn't your problem."

"What?" Aoi blurted out. She fell back, pushing away from Nicole. "Of course it is! I'm-"

"You're from the city," Nicole interrupted. She looked up and down Aoi once more, and added "And it looks like you've got a good life there."

"But... You know who I am? Right?" She lunged forwards once more, hands on Nicole's shoulder. She was desperate for some recognition, some acknowledgment from her own sister. Yet it would not come.

"You're a professional bodyguard, and a good one from what I've heard of you." Aoi's hands slumped off her shoulders, and she sank back in despair. Nicole laid a hand gently on her shoulder, and smiled softly. "This is a battle for Zone residents. But you belong in the city." Their eyes met, and Aoi found her fear melting away. "You have everything you ever wanted there, right? You didn't grow up here. That person..."

Now Aoi knew. Nicole wanted her to go, wanted her to live her own life as Aoi, free from Rachel's past and obligations. She had come looking for a confirmation of her past, but had found something better; a confirmation of herself.

"I hear she's dead," Aoi said quietly. Nicole nodded, and took her by the shoulders. They stood together, and as one turned to look at the old dojo.

"I'll miss it," Aoi said quietly after a moment's reflection.

"So will I," Nicole said. "But go make your own memories, alright?" Aoi nodded silently.

A low hum emerged from the background, on the edge of hearing, but distinctive to both of them. "They're coming," Nicole said. "Time for you to go."

Aoi nodded her agreement. She watched as Nicole turned and fled, not looking back once. Following her lead, Aoi clambered back down the manhole and sealed it tight. Whoever she was, it was still hard to turn her back on all she knew.

Another quiet afternoon had come about, finding Shion again relaxing on her couch. Aoi had been out the whole day, but Shion didn't mind. No doubt the girl had some things to sort out. And if there was trouble, she'd know it by now. Behind her, the front door slowly swung open. She paid it no heed, keeping attention on her book. Aoi was the only other person with a key, and she trusted the girl enough to let her come and go as she pleased.

She felt, more than heard Aoi drop into the couch next to her. She turned to look at the girl, but before she could respond, Aoi pitched forwards and collapsed into her lap. Shion sat dead still, arms up in the air, hanging over Aoi. She looked down at the girl's back, agape at Aoi. "Uhm..." She muttered, as a soft sobbing emerged from her tenant.

Shion carefully laid her book on the table, and brought her arms back over Aoi. Shaking, nervous and almost afraid, Shion lowered one hand to Aoi's back, then quickly drew it back. "What... What do I do now?" she said, horrified.

But she didn't move. Aoi sobbed quietly to herself for several minutes before finally falling still. She had drifted off to sleep, collapsed on top of her employer, lost in her sadness. And yet all Shion could do was sit, nervous and afraid, muttering "What do I do?"

Return to Kazei 5 PBEM Stories