VERSUS, Part 2

By Max Fauth and Michael Surbrook

Safe. Or something close to it, anyway. Aoi leaned back in the seat and sighed. She was off of I-95, sitting in the parking lot of a long-abandoned fast food restaurant located somewhere in Fort Lee, New Jersey. So far there had been no further sign of her pursuers, which didn't surprise her any, considering the wreckage they'd left strewn across the interstate. 95 north was effectively blocked for the time being, with emergency vehicles and the police trying to sort out the mess. Aoi wished them luck, there had been innocents caught in the crossfire.

Her mission now was to get rid of the car. It was too distinctive, and too shot-up, to be of any use. Opening the door, Aoi stepped out onto the cracked asphalt, feeling a sudden sense of deja vu. Fort Lee, it seemed, wasn't all that different than Bayonne. Perhaps all of New Jersey was one continuous expanse of antiquated buildings and crumbling side streets. Certainly where she was now seemed to have the required daily allotment of stripped vehicles. They were a sort of urban weed, with the ability to sprout almost anywhere.

The front driver's side quarterpanel was wrinkled and dented, the headlight gone. The front bumper was missing as well, and there was a gaping crater where the passenger headlight had been. Aoi gave that a careful examination. She wasn't sure what the biker had fired at the car, but it certainly had been explosive. The impact had even pushed the hood up a bit, no mean feat considered the armoring the car had. Amazingly enough, the passenger side of the car was fairly clean, with no real dents. The driver's side, on the other hand, was a mess, with long shallow scrapes down its length. The back was even worse, as the rear bumper was gone, all the tail lights were smashed, and the rear deck was pocked with numerous bullet scars. Of course, the rear widow was missing as well, reduced to crumbled bits of glass all over the inside of the car.

Speaking of which, it was time to get Shion out and away. The car was in no shape to go anywhere, so she had no choice but to leave it. Opening the rear driver's side door she found Shion crumpled down in the footwells, limp, but breathing. Whatever that gas had been, it wasn't good for an esper, that was for sure.

"Time to go." Reaching in, Aoi hooked Shion under the arms and dragged her out of the back of the car. Small chunks of glass glittered in her hair and clothes, some of it falling to the ground with a faint tinkling sound. Once she was out, it was back to the fireman's carry, which brought a slightly uncomfortable realization to Aoi. Carrying an unconscious Shion over one shoulder was a bit more intimate than she liked. "Boss, more than your height, I think it's your chest that bothers me the most." Which was true enough. As she'd said to Moira, normal people just didn't look like Shion. "Must be nice."

"This is stupid," Aoi muttered, trying to ignore the stares from the few passers-by as she carried her unconscious employer over one shoulder. The streets of Fort Lee were largely deserted at this time in the afternoon, but there were still enough pedestrians to make her feel rather self-conscious about the situation. She'd managed to get them several blocks from the abandoned car, twisting and turning through the back streets of the bleak suburb, and was yet to see any sign of their pursuers. Of course, having never come here before she was thoroughly lost, but that was reassuring in itself. Their pursuers wouldn't have a clue where they were by now.

Their enemy... Aoi found herself wondering just who they were up against. The ambush had been immaculately planned, with four optically camouflaged cyberdroids waiting against mistakes. Of course, it had come for naught when Shion's powers had gone haywire, but soon enough they had picked up the trail, and were chasing her down on the freeway. Well equipped, well planned, and ruthlessly efficient. Aoi gritted her teeth as she reached the only likely conclusion. They were up against a major corporate operation, one that had no doubt been planned out weeks in advance.

All of a sudden she felt less secure. People were still watching them, and any could be reporting to their hunters. She shook her head briefly, clearing that thought. It was no good getting paranoid, but still, it wouldn't hurt to get out of view. Looking up from the street, she found herself in front of an unlit neon sign, proclaiming "Imperial Hunan Kitchen." As she expected, it belonged to a small Chinese restaurant, empty save for a couple of customers and a nervous man standing by the kitchen. Figures, she thought. Just about all Chinese restaurants seemed to have the same ten words in their name. Imperial, Hunan, Golden, Royal, Kitchen, Dragon, whatever it was, it would have what they needed.

Stepping inside, the reaction was immediate. The chef rushed them at the door, practically pushing Aoi back onto the street while yammering "This no good, this no good" in rapid, if broken English.

"I just need a place to rest. Please!" Aoi implored him. The man shook his head, darting from side to while repeating his cry. "She's not well. She needs help," Aoi pleaded.

"You not stay here, is no good!" He repeated, before literally pushing into Aoi, trying to shove her out the door.

"Fine!" Aoi spurted out. Reaching into her jacket, she drew a wad of bills she'd recovered from the car. "Five hundred. Happy?"

It had happened so fast. A brief stop in the kitchen with a few hand towels had cleaned up Shion's face. After that she was quickly ushered into a small back room cluttered with boxes, sacks of flour and vegetables. The table had been cleared, Shion was laid carefully in a soft chair and a bowl of steamed rice had appeared out of nowhere for them. Aoi slumped into the spare chair—far less comfortable than Shion's, she noticed—and let out a long sigh. They were safe, for now, but she was still confused and worried. And, looking at the rice, suddenly hungry. First things first.

Sitting back again, the bowl half empty, Aoi could finally let herself relax for a second and take stock of the situation. They were alone, in unknown territory with only limited supplies. The money from the car was mostly gone, but it had gotten them safety for now. She had also recovered her own pistol and cane, as well as Shion's usual weapons, although it had been rather amusing to find a sword stashed in the trunk. Beyond that they had precious little to carry them through. Shion was still unconscious, although her breathing was more regular. That at least wasn't a worry.

"What'd they do to you?" Aoi muttered. She leaned over and gently brushed a few stray hairs from Shion's face. It was odd to see her so peaceful, even if it was chemically induced. Her boss seemed to go through life with a perpetual scowl; now, almost in sleep, her face seemed softer and gentler. She wasn't smiling, thought Aoi, but it was a start.

And now here they were. Safe for now, but she didn't know how long it would last. Hopefully Shion would recover before anyone found them, and she'd be able to deal with them. After that ambush, Aoi imagined her boss would relish the chance for revenge. Nodding to herself, smiling slightly, Aoi couldn't help but feel optimistic. It was only a matter of time then. Shion would wake up, and the problem would resolve itself. She clasped her hands and stretched behind her, yawning loudly. For the middle of the afternoon, she'd had an awfully long day. Maybe she could catch a nap here...

Aoi shook her head briefly, dispelling the sleep from her eyes. No, keep alert. She needed something to wake her up properly. "Tea," she said to herself, and grasped the armrests to rise. She stopped for a second, feeling something odd on her hands. Drawing herself back down, she raised her hands to examine them. They felt strange, an odd tingling coming from her palms that she couldn't identify. Looking closer, she could barely make out an ever so fine powder coating her hands. Glancing down along her sleeve, it was there in patches.

"Where the heck did this come from?" she muttered. She looked over at Shion, screwing up her eyes in concentration. There it was on her coat, barely visible, but present nonetheless. "Must have come from the gas," she said as she stood and brushed a patch from it. A faint mist erupted from the coat, before quickly settling down over Shion, the table and the floor below. "Funny, it should have evaporated by now," Aoi muttered. A chill came down her spine as she imagined a horrifying possibility. Once more she raised her hand to her face and, concentrating on it, flicked on the UV filter in her cybereyes.

Her hand glowed, bright as daylight. Patches of her arm glowed as well, where she had rubbed off Shion. The armchair she was sitting on held the same bright shine. Glancing right, Shion stood out, covered in the phosphorous powder that shone like like a beacon over her. Aoi's glance lead down to the floor, and the trail of shining foot prints that lead out to the front of the restaurant.

Down the street. Along her chaotic path. Straight back to the car.

A wave of panic swept over her. The powder was on everything now; everywhere she'd put her hands, the walls of the restaurant... But Shion's face was clean. It washes off, she realised in a moment of sudden relief. It was cut short by the unmistakable sounds of a commotion coming from the front of the restaurant. Aoi knew immediately that they'd been found, and she had seconds to escape. Stowing the pistols, she scooped up Shion and slung her roughly over one shoulder. Feeling the thump of her employer hanging limply against her back, Aoi muttered "Sorry," before taking off out the back door.

A quick sprint through a withered garden was accompanied by the sounds of troops moving through the building. Pausing briefly at the high fence, Aoi glanced back and was greeted by her first glimpse of their pursuers. A pair of figures were running through the back room, carrying short rifles with what looked to be integral grenade launchers. They wore fully-covering bodysuits with visored helmets, all in dark grey, reminding her of motorcycle gear. The similarities ended there, as they both had a slim backpacks, rather over-sized plated boots and some sort of boxy unit attached to the suit's right forearm. Added to that was a collection of slim, almost form-fitting pouches and pockets, similar to army webbing but integral to the suit, and a small radio and camera unit on the left side of the helmet.

Wasting no more time, Aoi seized the top of the fence and half-leapt, half vaulted herself and Shion over the back fence. She landed in a narrow alley, forking off left and right ahead. Holding Shion tight over her shoulder, she broke into a run for the end of the street. Her sprint was interrupted by a heavy thumping behind her. Glancing back as she sped around the corner, she saw the first soldier rise from a crouch as the second sailed over the fence in a smooth and confident leap. Aoi shook her head and powered down the street, confident in their gear to slow them down or at least to hear them approach.

The faintest noise behind her caused her to stop and, a split second later, spring to one side just as a trio of rounds sped past her ear. She spun in place, barely able to maintain her balance with Shion's weight on her shoulder, drawing her pistol fast as lightning. Ahead, she saw no sign of her pursuers, only the empty alleyway. Another burst of rounds shot from the corner, clipping stray hairs at her shoulder. She leapt to the side, collapsing in a heap in a small alcove made by ages-old renovations. Pausing briefly to check Shion was okay, she glanced out into the alleyway again.

Nothing. "This is crazy," she muttered. Her cybereyes clearly showed the trace of her progress to the middle of the alley, stopping in front of a manhole before making her desperate dive. She blinked, flicking over to infra-red scanning. Again, nothing showed up. She knew her assailant was by the corner opposite her, but even switching back to normal sight revealed nothing. Optical camouflage? No, such camo systems often ran hot, revealing clear and obvious heat systems. She had barely even heard the rifle fire, suggesting an integral silencer and probably flash suppressant. She leaned out further, checking her side of the alley. The same bleak white plaster greeted her, with still no sign of her adversary.

Aoi's eyes opened wide in surprise as the barrel of a rifle emerged from seemingly nowhere. She watched in horror as the shape of one of the soldiers stepped away from the wall next to her, his suit the same off-white as the plaster. She sprung up as he leveled the rifle, sweeping the butt of her pistol up and striking his arm. The rifle fired high, barely over her head. Weapons locked, Aoi grabbed his wrist with her free hand, dragged it across her body and simultaneously brought her knee into the man's chest. The result was something like kicking a wall, as the cloth of his uniform held strong and blunted the impact of her strike. Over his shoulder, she could see a similarly colored shaped peeling away from the opposite corner. Crap. Gotta end this quick.

Noting her distraction, the first soldier strained in her grasp and thrust the rifle into her side. She let out a gasp of pain, almost doubling over. Keeping her eyes open, she could see the rifle butt heading straight for her face. She launched herself forwards, rolling into the man's grasp and bowling them both off their feet. She continued to roll, back over his chest and coming to her feet, wrenching the rifle from his hands. Ignoring the disarmed soldier, she leapt to the side as the second fired and locked him up with his comrade's rifle.

See how you like it, she thought as she squeezed the trigger. It locked in place, refusing to fire. Coded trigger? Can it only fire for the soldier? The possibilities shocked almost beyond reason. She watched helplessly as the second soldier swung the rifle, catching her across the cheek with the rifle's reinforced butt. Moving on instinct, she swung with the blow and brought her own rifle around against his chest. The weight of the impact stunned him for a split second, long enough for her to swing up again, catch his rifle with her own and claim both for her own. Grasping one in each hand, she smashed them both against his helmet and lashed out with one foot, striking his chest and bowling him back along the road.

Both were down and disarmed for now, but she didn't have much time. Glancing back to Shion, she spotted the manhole cover again. Perfect. With all her strength she threw the rifles down the street and set forwards to reclaim her employer and discarded pistol. Sweeping both up in a second, she stepped up to the manhole. A rustle of movement drew her attention to the first soldier, lying against the wall and raising the boxy contraption on his forearm at her. She sighted down five barrels; the top-most of pistol caliber, while the four arranged beneath it were far too large.

What sort of gear is this? Jump-boot, camo uniforms, coded rifles, and now wrist rockets? Who the hell is outfitting them? Glancing around desperately for an option, she felt her foot nudge against the edge of the manhole cover. Right. No other choice.

She slammed her foot down on the disc-shaped hunk of iron beneath her. One edge dipped down, and she caught the steel-capped toe of her shoe beneath it. Straining the wire and metal muscles in her whole body, she kicked the cover up just as they both fired. She crouched low, catching it in mid-air, she crouched down and held it flat in front of her. The micro-rockets impacted on the surface, almost deafening her with the roar of the blast as the heat washed over her, singeing her uniform. Moving fast, she flipped the cover horizontal and, grasping with both hands, swung and hurled it at the closest soldier. He ducked to the ground, cringing as the heavy iron disc lodged in the wall above his head. Then, holding Shion tight to her, Aoi turned and jumped down into the hole.

In her life, and especially in the couple of months since the Jinsei invasion of the Zero Zone, Aoi had spent a good period of time trudging through the sewers of that same place. It was an interesting experience, more akin to caving than urban exploration. There were occasional cave-ins, or patches of road torn or broken off to let light filter in. Often roots would creep their way into the sewer tunnels, creating an interesting but often frustrating diversion. And of course, patches of floor and wall had broken through, leading to other tunnels from who-knows how long ago. Most notably, running water hadn't been common in the Zone for around twenty years, thus the sewers were surprisingly clean. If she could assign a smell to the experience, it would be a general smell of nature.

The New Jersey sewers smelled of nature all right, but it wasn't the kind of nature spoken of in polite company. The walls were dank and slimy, the roof low and claustrophobic, and the walkways at the sides all too narrow for someone carrying a load like hers. So far she'd been trudging through the sewer tunnels for ten minutes, half convinced she had lost her pursuers and reaching one unavoidable conclusion.

"I fucking hate New Jersey," she muttered under her breath. Pausing for a second, trying not to breath too hard lest the smell overcome her, she leaned against a wall. The sound of water was ever-present throughout this place, but she was listening for something more subtle. The sound of footsteps, splashing in the fetid rivers in the middle, or squelching on the slimy paths at the side. All too often it seemed the waters overflowed the middle and left their mark on the walkways. This at least Aoi was grateful for, as it had let her hear her pursuers coming twice already. But for now, it seemed, they were in the clear.

And what now? she pondered. She had no idea where they were at all. A manhole came into view further down the path. She briefly considered popping up for a look, but dismissed the idea as pointless. She'd never been to Jersey before; how could she tell one street from the other? They were well and truly lost, but at least their pursuers had no idea where they were going either.

A coughing and spluttering brought her attention back to her load. She felt the twitching of Shion's body over her back as the esper was wracked with a coughing fit. Gently, moving slowly, she laid her on the path, half propped against a wall. She then squatted down next to her, watching her with concern.

The coughing ended with a strangled gasp, and Shion's eyes slowly fluttered open. She fixed her sight in Aoi's direction and took a deep breath in. Her eyes widened in alarm, and another brief coughing attack followed. Aoi held her shoulders tight, keeping her from toppling over or dropping in the sewage. Soon enough it was over, and she looked up at Aoi again.

"Boss?" Aoi asked with concern.

"We're in a sewer," came the reply. Her voice was raspy, her throat dry and sore.

Aoi let out a nervous laugh. "Sorry about that. A lot's happened." Shion tried to stand, but found herself still weak and slumped back against the wall. "Easy there, boss," Aoi said, gently pressing her back down.

"Tell me what happened," Shion said. Her voice was returning, and Aoi could even feel a faint hint of Shion's commanding tone.

"Well, what do you remember?" Aoi asked.

"Picking up the case," she replied. She closed her eyes, focusing on the event. "Something happened... A spray of gas. I went dizzy, my head unclear. I was attacked..."

"Four cyberdroids with optic camoflauge," Aoi replied. "You squashed them all."

A shadow of concern crossed Shion's face, but it was gone in an instant. "The Johnson?"

Aoi shook her head slowly. "He escaped in the confusion. That's when you passed out."

"Then?" Shion asked, her commanding tone returning in force.

Aoi gave her a brief account of the flight along the freeway and the chase from the restaurant. Shion winced at Aoi's description of the damage to her car, but remained silent throughout. When Aoi had finished, Shion asked the one question Aoi had been dreading: "Who are they?"

"I don't know," Aoi replied. "This sounds like a corporate job. Governments don't act like that."

"Well equipped, too," Shion added. "Top military technology, probably manufactured by the corporation behind the attack."

"Jinsei springs to mind," Aoi said. "Or Gunkoku. They're ahead of Jinsei in some of those departments." She looked away, more names coming to mind. "Could be Mitsumi too, come to think of it."

"Too many of them to worry about now," Shion said. She pulled herself weakly to her feet, staggering in place as she tried to straighten up.

"Take it easy, boss," Aoi said. She offered an arm to Shion to support her, but the esper refused.

"I can walk on my own," she said quietly. She took a step forwards and faltered, almost toppling over.

Aoi sighed. "Alright, but..." When Shion turned a steely glare on her, she shrugged. "I've been hiking for a while, and I think I pulled something in my bad leg." She leaned on her injured knee for emphasis.

"So?" Shion asked.

"I... think I need a little support then," Aoi said, trying hard to keep a grin from her face.

Shion let out a tiny sigh. "Very well. Give me your arm."

A casual observer would have seen Aoi walking off, supporting Shion as she staggered her way down the sewer, gaining confidence with every step. But they both knew better.

"Hold on," Aoi said as the pair rounded a corner. It had been another five minutes, trudging along in an uncomfortable silence. Shion was gaining strength slowly, but seemed well on the way to recovery. Although she didn't want to show it, Aoi was worried about her own injured leg. The stunt she'd pulled with the manhole cover had only strained the cybernetics even further. For now she could ignore it, and keep up supporting her employer.

They stopped at the corner, both listening to their surroundings. They could hear rushing water, coming from some kind of drop-off nearby. But what caught their attention was the slight squelching sound nearby, similar to the one they made on the walkways.

"Our pursuers," Shion said flatly. Aoi glanced up at her odd tone, and nodded her response. "How many?"

"Two, but they may have reinforcements."

"You said you'd thrown them off by walking through the water," Shion said, again in a flat tone. Aoi had told her what little she could figure about the phosphorus poweder covering them both. Watching it through her cybereyes, she'd been careful to leave no trail for sections of their journey, whenever she thought it safe to make that much noise.

"They must have picked it up again," Aoi replied. Since Shion had awoken, they had progressed slowly on the paths. Aoi shook her head, realising how easy it would have made them to trail. "Let's get in position," she said, glancing further down the tunnel. "You can blast them when they make it here."


A cold chill ran down Aoi's spine. She looked up at her employer as the woman stood straight, pulling herself from Aoi's support. Was she still too worn out? No, she'd recovered enough to walk on her own, and the colour was coming back to her face already. Even the stench of the sewer didn't seem to bother her anymore.

"What do you mean?" Aoi asked in a whisper.

"I've tried," Shion replied, her voice sounding faint and far away. "As we were walking. I can't summon the power."

Aoi felt her stomach drop. Her plan had been to let Shion take care of their escape once she was recovered. But her powers, gone? How had it happened? The words came unbidden to her lips. "The gas."

Shion nodded. "That was its job. I drained myself when I... almost lost control," she replied, slowly chosing her words.

Aoi swore under her breath. They could hear the footsteps approaching; slowly, cautiously yet inevitably bearing down on them. Aoi took Shion's hand and broke into a run down the tunnel. It veered to the left, then dropped them at a dead end. Ahead was an angled drop down to a larger chamber, with water flowing down at an alarming rate. To her left she could see a ladder heading up to street level.

"Where now?" Shion murmured, peering down the long drop in front of her.

"Up," Aoi said, pointing at the drop. She held a finger up to her lips, and motioned for Shion to go ahead.

The esper nodded and, steeling herself, stepped onto the slide and let herself be swept away. Aoi pounced at the ladder, springing up it and reaching the cover. She whipped off her jacket, wiping it against the cover and the rim of the exit, smearing phosphorus powder on both while knocking the cover ajar. Then, bracing herself for the fall, she leapt at the slide and was swept away.

The pair emerged, sodden and smelly from a storm water drain underneath a low bridge. The sun was dipping low ahead of them, beginning to tint the surroundings with an orange glow. Around them was nothing but bleak concrete, sloping up to a wire fence then a row of identical, catalogue houses without a patch of greenery in sight. A chill went down Aoi's spine as she looked out at the view and the term 'suburban hell' sprang unbidden to mind.

"Have we lost them?" Shion's voice startled Aoi to awareness. The esper was looking far worse for the trip, her heavy coat hanging off her and seeming to weigh her down. Her long hair, usually immaculate, was clumped up and sticking to her in odd places. Yet still she maintained what dignity she could, standing perfectly straight and striding in front of Aoi.

No-one's watching, boss. You can give it up, Aoi thought. She silently flicked her cybereyes back to their UV filters and scanned their path. "Not good," she muttered after a few seconds. "That stuff's more persistent than I thought. But there's no sign of them yet, so we should be fine for a while."

Shion sighed and looked ahead at the setting sun. Her eyes squinted, still adjusting to the light after so long in the darkness. "How do we get it off?" she asked quietly.

Glancing up at her, Aoi could still see the phosphorus powder coating her clothes and matted into her hair. Her face was clean of it. Pondering for a second, Aoi remembered how she had washed off Shion's blood-streaked face when they'd first arrived at the restaurant. "Soap," she said suddenly. "Soap and water."

"Good," Shion said, setting out for the road. Aoi fell into step behind her, marvelling at how she had recovered. Her strength seemed to be mostly returned, and though she barely showed it, Aoi could tell she still felt a touch dizzy. She only hoped the gas's main effect would wear off soon, restoring Shion's powers and delivering them from crisis. But until then, they had to play it smart and stay hidden.

Shion strode up the embankment, reaching the closest house. It was a short, two story affair like all the others; sloping roof, small concrete yard, wide glass door at the back and surprisingly few windows. A quick glance told Aoi that no-one was home; the car port at the front was empty, no lights were on and the place was deathly silent.

Shion immediately stepped up to the front door and carefully placed a hand on it. "Aoi," she said abruptly. "We need to clean up here and now."

Aoi nodded her agreement. "Otherwise they can follow us anywhere."

"And this is the closest opportunity," she added, betraying no hint of emotion.

Aoi guessed where this was going. "I suppose we'll have to, then."

Shion nodded slightly. Her hand lowered, stopping at the handle. Her arm twitched almost imperceptibly and, with a loud crashing sound the door swung open abruptly.

"Powers coming back?" Aoi asked as they stepped inside.

"No," Shion replied and continued on to the back of the house. Aoi glanced at the broken lock as she gently shut the door. Point to remember, she thought. Even without powers, she's really freaking strong.

Aoi shook her head in amazement and took off after her employer, taking in the house. A long hall lead to different bedrooms, stairs and their target, a spacious bathroom. Everything here seemed to be in cream and beige, and ruthlessly clean and organised. Aoi felt like she was in a doctor's waiting room more than a house. Everything seemed so sanitised and restrained; like Shion's own penthouse on a smaller scale.

She stopped at the bathroom door behind Shion. The taller woman was already inside, splashing her face with water from the sink. Aoi couldn't imagine how trying this was for her. Taken down so easily, hunted like an animal, and worst of all, missing her best defense. She leant against the doorframe, watching closely as Shion stared almost forlornly in at her own reflection.

That's it, isn't it? Aoi thought. Her powers. For too long, Shion had let her powers define her. And now without them, what was left? Airs and arrogance? Aoi shook her head to dismiss such thoughts. Her employer was a lot more than a set of abilities, and she had confidence that they'd both make it through this. Which meant they had to do something first.

Aoi cleared her throat, alerting Shion to her presence. The taller woman turned to look at her with an inquiring glance. "We haven't got that long," Aoi said. "We've still left a trail here, which they can pick up easily. So the sooner we're clean and gone, the better."

Shion nodded, and checked the sink at her side. Aoi interrupted her, shaking her head. "No, this stuff seeps through the clothing. I already checked."

"Then what do you suggest?" Shion asked, looking Aoi in the eye.

The solution sprang immediately to Aoi's mind. Blushing, she turned away and instead reached for the shower recess. She silently slid the glass door aside and looked inside. "Strip off," she said.

"What?" Aoi could see the surprise in Shion's face, reflected on the glass of the shower. "Of course. I'll be first."

Shaking her head slightly, Aoi started to unbutton her own shirt. "Like I said, we're short of time. Besides, we need to wash everywhere. And it's easier... if..." She trailed off, cringing in embarrassment. Memories of Kami sprang to mind, of their shared shower on that first morning together.

"Of course," Shion said in a carefully neutral tone. She could hear Shion breathing deeply behind her, working her self-control to its limits. For her part, Aoi wordlessly stripped off her shirt and pants, throwing each to a corner of the bathroom where they wouldn't get in the way. Shion silently strode up next to her, clad only in her underwear, her face a blank mask.

Glancing between them, Aoi knew there was no comparison. Her short, boyish figure, clad in sensible black cotton was as nothing next to the tall, voluptuous form of her employer, especially in the white lace that barely preserved her modesty. Looking up at her again, Aoi shook her head.

"You're not serious," Shion said quietly.

"Sorry. It's seeped all the way through." Aoi carefully pulled her own bra off, stepped out of her panties and walked stark naked into the shower in front of her employer. She kept her back to Shion, hoping to hide her own embarrassment. Instead she focused on the shower, starting the water and juggling the temperature until a good amount of steam was billowing at the floor.

A rustle of fabric was the only warning Aoi had before she felt Shion step into the shower. Aoi started at the feel of the taller woman's breasts pressing into her head and back. New feelings came unwanted, memories of the hot spring bath they'd shared before, as well as her own conflicting desires for Kami and now her employer.

"It's a bit cramped," Shion muttered behind her.

"No kidding," she replied with an embarassed giggle. She folded her arms in front of her, hugging them close to her body and trying to ignore the feelings of desire that came to her. Instead, she glanced around for what they'd need. Shower gel. Body sponge. Right in front of her. She took them up and finally turned to face her employer.

Shion gazed down at her, her face impassive as she watched Aoi fumble nervously with the soap and sponge. "Well?" she asked, a touch impatient.

"Me?" Aoi said, her face redder than the steam should have caused.

Shion nodded slightly. "You can see where it is."

"Yes, boss," Aoi quickly replied. She reached up and began wiping down Shion's neck. She could see an immediate reaction, the green glowing melting off her body and flowing down the drain. Shion sighed slightly, leaning back and closing her eyes as Aoi went to work.

I wonder what she's thinking of? Aoi pondered. Shion seemed to be at peace, if anything. She deserved it after her ordeal so far, but the thought couldn't help but nag her. Some man she'd met? One of those ten-thousand-dollar-per-night sexaroids? Aoi had only one thought in mind, and it came back ever stronger as she began to wipe the last traces of powder from Shion's impressive chest.

No, she thought, trying to clear her mind. Not the time or place for such perverted thoughts. But oh, she thought, trailing the sponge down Shion's abdomen, what would be a better time or place than naked together in a shower? A slight gasp from above brought her back to reality as she realised just where the sponge was trailing, and she quickly moved it around to her back, starting to work on her boss' toned thighs. This is insane, she thought. Shion's not like that.

But she could be. The foreign voice came again, as if haunting her from the past. Think about it, the voice said, almost as clear as if there was a third person in the shower. You know about her sister. And it can run in the family, hmm?

"Almost done," Aoi said as much to herself as Shion as she stood suddenly. Shion snapped to attention, straightening up at the same time. Aoi stumbled slightly at her sudden movement, and wound up with her face buried in the Esper's cleavage. They held position for agonising seconds, a tableau frozen by shock and fear until both simultaneously pulled back. Aoi looked away, trying to ignore Shion's cold stare. Long moments passed until Aoi finally spoke up. "Uh... Boss?"

"Yes?" The frigid voice dug into Aoi, making her shudder.

"Turn around. I need to do your back." Shion immediately turned on her heel, baring her back to Aoi and resting down on her knees. Aoi blinked in surprise, recognising the pose. Way back when they'd first left the zone, Rachel and Nicole had shared a shower, delighting in the novelty as they washed each other's hair. A sudden realisation came to Aoi, and she muttered "You've done this before."

Shion nodded slightly. "My sister and I used to, a long time ago."

Aoi winced at the reference, glad Shion couldn't see her pained face. She'd only met Marta the once, but the dark-haired street sam had made quite an impression on her. More startling was the contrast between the two. Then again, the way Rachel and Nicole had behaved, it wasn't hard to believe. She shook her head, returning to her work. The last traces were washed from Shion's rear and Aoi sighed, pulling back and looking over Shion once more. The only traces of the green phsophorus she could see were matted into her hair. That was another matter.

"You're done; just your hair to go," Aoi said as she started to sponge down her arms. It seemed that she had been labouring over Shion's body for hours; whereas it had only been minutes. She quickly turned away as Shion stood, trying not to stare at her seemingly perfect form. Get a grip, she thought as she paid minute attention to her own work. This is no time to let your mind wander.

The minutes dragged on in uncomfortable silence as they each worked alone. At length, Aoi reached around for her back, but stopped abruptly. Behind her, Shion was rinsing her hair once more, almost finished. It couldn't hurt, she thought. And it's better than swabbing away blindly. She pulled her own hair across her shoulder, baring her muscular back to the taller woman. "Boss?" She asked quietly over her shoulder. When no reply came, she pressed on. "Would you mind... doing my back?"

Aoi felt more than heard a slight sigh from her employer. Oh great, now I've gone and blown it. But before she could react, Shion had virtually snatched the sponge from her hand. A tingle went down Aoi's spine as she felt it being run across her back with surprising delicacy. Aoi let herself relax, feeling days of tension flowing right out of her. She let out a contented sigh as Shion continued her work, and softly muttered "You're good at this."

"You too," came the quiet reply from behind. Aoi snapped to attention, feeling a rush of cold air on her back. She turned to see Shion step from the shower and reach for a towel. She carefully wrapped it around her body and strode from the room.

Suddenly alone and feeling cold, Aoi wrapped her arms across her chest and held herself tight. It was good while it lasted, she thought, and couldn't help but smile.

Aoi found her afterwards in the main bedroom. She'd quickly finished off her own hair, and done a quick scan in the mirror to check that the powder was gone. From there, it had been a problem to find new clothes, as her own were well and truly contaminated. She had managed well with a pair of baggy cargo pants, a t-shirt and a comfortable baseball jacket. A large cap found lying on the floor had completed the outfit, letting her tuck her hair away out of sight. Of course, she didn't want to admit that she'd raided the bedroom of a twelve year-old boy for this.

And now it was Shion's turn. She watched as the older woman casually drew outfits from the wardrobe and just as quickly lay them on the bed behind her. A small dress was the latest, earning a second more consideration than others, as she dryly remarked "This will never do."

"No luck?" Aoi asked from the door.

"Everything's too small, if nothing else," Shion said without even looking back at her.

A quick glance at the collection on the bed confirmed Aoi's suspicions. The clothes were all very conventional—bordering on downright boring—but certainly much smaller than the six-foot tall esper required. Aoi glanced at the notably smaller wardrobe on the other side of the room and said "What about there?"

Shion followed her gaze, but quickly dismissed the suggestion. "That's the husband's wardrobe," she said plainly.

Aoi stepped forward to face her. "Well, it's more likely to be your size," she said bluntly. "Not every housewife is six feet tall."

An uncomfortable silence followed as Shion carefully considered the clothes laid out on the bed. Then, without a word, she crossed the room and opened up the other wardrobe. Aoi watched in silence as she sorted through the outfits, finally saying "Much better."

A quick selection followed—white business shirt, grey slacks, and jacket—and Shion casually discarded her towel to get dressed. Aoi started at the sight, and quickly turned away. Watching her back, Shion couldn't help but smile.

"I'm finished," she said at length. Aoi turned to see her tossing her hair back, letting it flow out down her back.

"Even in disguise," Aoi said, shaking her head, "You look amazing."

"Was there any doubt?" Shion replied, a smile playing across her lips again.

Aoi shook her head, smiling in response. "But we'll need to do up your hair. It's still too distinctive."

Shion only nodded her consent, and turned her back to Aoi. Realising her employer's intentions, Aoi stepped forwards and started work, loosely braiding Shion's long tresses and eventually bunching them up tightly at the base of her head. "That should do," Aoi said. "But you'll need a high collar and a hat."

"My coat will do fine," Shion replied, turning back to face her.

Aoi shook her head. "No can do. It's still coated with the phsophorus. Touch it, and we'll have to start all over again."

"It's also armoured," Shion replied, her voice reverting to the cold tone Aoi was most familiar with.

Aoi reached into the wardrobe and pulled out a long coat. "Here. When this is over, I'll buy you a new one."

Donning the coat along with a strangely old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat, Shion strode out of the room and to the front door. "We've been here too long," she said, her tone business-like once more.

"Time to move," Aoi replied. "But at least they can't track us now."

Shion swept the door open and stepped out. The sun was sinking below the horizon, casting a reddish glare onto everything in sight. She gazed up and down the street, looking for familiar landmarks or signs of their location, yet finding none. "From here?"

Aoi paused to consider. They had their weapons, safely tucked away under coat and jacket, but little else. They had no idea where they were, or what their attackers' next plans were. But for now they were safe, and she could work with that.

"We keep on the move," Aoi said. "Find a crowd, blend in and vanish. And see where we can go from there." Shion nodded her consent and started off across the bridge. Aoi fell into step behind her. The situation was bleak, yet Shion stood tall and strong, and Aoi felt oddly confident. They'd pull through, she knew. There was no doubt.

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