"ESPers and I didn't get off to the best start in the world. The first one I met was a bit of a tool to say the least." She stretched out her right arm, the scars on it standing out against her skin. "Me and a bunch of guys were on a standard police raid. You know kick the tool's door in, beat him up for something he may or may not have done, take his stuff as evidence and make up the charges later. Pretty simple."

"Only the problem was that this tool was a ESPer, or a PK or... whatever you call them. Of course, nobody knew about it and nobody was ready. So when he blew the whole frelling place up in front of us, it was a bit if a surprise."

"The stupid tool cost me three fingers, my right eye and my job. He made me who I am today, which is to say, twisted, bitter and cynical. And it did kind of color my view of the tools. You know, what am I meant to say to one? Put down the brain and you won't get hurt?"

"Funnily enough, after that it was a case of years and years of nothing, then they all come along at once." She flexed her fingers, then put her arm down. "You know? I see one ESPer, then nothing, then I meet a whole pile of the randy tools at once."

"Like this one time, I was hired to hunt down this boofhead called Matt. Big guy. Big muscles. Brains of a trout. Only, I didn't know that he was an ESPer at the time. 'course, somebody else did, and had sent me after him as some sort of whacko test. Anyway, Boofhead beats the stuffing out of me, and then declares that I'm 'not worth killing' as it would take him too much work. I was both relieved and insulted at the same time."

"I ran into Boofhead again a couple of months later, when I was doing another job. He was looking a little worse for wear, having lost an eye in a way that made me look like a frelling supermodel by comparison. He'd taken over a small gang, and was hiding out in the Zone. 'course, I didn't know that at the time. So I got my date handed to me in a sling."

"Then another ESPer came along. We had a reasonably common objective, and so we agreed to work together... that is, after she beat the snot out of me. That got things off to a great start. Anyways, she dealt with Boofhead and I made it off with the loot. I figured it was fair, as she seemed to have some sort of mad-on about him."

"I should have felt bad about leaving her like that, but by then, I was getting pretty sick of the whole ESPer thing. I figured that they probably deserved each other. Okay, so she might have been a decent person. But you tend to think that way about people who bash you into a wall as a form of greeting."

"And then... well... next one was special. And I mean, 'short bus' special." She rolled her eyes. "I was working with a guy called Drake, obstinately helping him to beat up some gang, but really providing the backup for his one-man revenge trip. With us was Marta Nys, and yes, that's 'All the fanboys hold my photo with one hand' Marta Nys. Anyways, she managed to mess it up completely and get herself captured."

"Problem is that this gang was being lead by an ESPer. And not your usual 'blow crap up' ESPer, I mean a 'mind taking' type. He Zombified Marty and sent her after us. That's when my next encounter comes in."

"I wailed for help, and who should appear but Ms High and Mighty Empress herself Shion 'my sister holds my photo with one hand' Nys. Her Arseness then proceeds to blow the seventeen shades of living carpet out of everything in the vicinity, including Mentok the Mind Taker, grab Marty and run. Only problem is, she left me and Drake stuck on the ground with a few dozen flesh-eating Zombies to deal with."

"So, I ended up doing a few things that I still regret now. It was pretty horrible, actually. As you can imagine, I came out with less like for 'em then I had before."

"Of course, after that, I managed to remain ESPer free for a good while. OK, it was mainly because I was messed up in my own personal problems and being a self-important tool with piles of stupid emotional needs and longings and the like. That and I wasn't in the Zone. In retrospect, I shoulda been a smarter tool then I was, and stayed away. I woulda avoided them too."

"Instead, nope, I went back to the frelling Zone. And what do I run into? Matt, old Boofhead Thunderpants himself. I'll admit, I was really hoping that woman had done him in when they knocked heads. No, as per typical for my luck, he was still alive and, more importantly, hot on my date over what I may or may not have done to him back then."

"And perchance, while running, I bumped into a guy called Ray. Ray just happened to be Matt's brother; another ESPer, nearly as powerful and a lot nicer to boot. 'course, I didn't know their relationship at the time. All I know was that Ray was willing to stick himself in Matt's path. They fought; I helped. In the end, Matt ended up... dead."

"And for once, I met an ESPer who wasn't a tool."

"You can see why I don't like 'em. But at the same time, I'll admit now that maybe, just maybe, not all of 'em are tool fairies."


"Here we are." I point to a spot in the screen, where a small dot glows brightly. "Wan Chai District, Hong Kong Island."

David Lam brushes his long hair out of his face and leans in closer. "I see. And where are we going?"

"Outside." I give him my best "innocent synthetic" smile in reply to his puzzled glance.

We are sitting in my first floor office, looking at a map of Hong Kong on the flat screen of my computer. I've been asked to take David out and help him buy some needed items for himself and the apartment he shares with Sandra Blackmore. Sandra would do it herself, but she's apparently off getting shot at, which is SOP for her it seems. As for David, I'm fairly sure he hasn't stepped outside the building once in all the time he's been here—which isn't as bad as it sounds, actually. You can do a lot and never leave Mandarin Towers, and if you take the Skywalk, you can go all over Wan Chai and never go "outside."

I tap the mouse and the map changes to a close-up of the district, showing the cramped network of streets and alleys that make up Wan Chai. The Towers remain a red point of light, while other dots mark the Convention Centre and the Pacific Place shopping center.

"You need clothes, toiletries, food, and other articles, right?" I give him a glance and then go back to my spiel. "I'm going to take you to the same place I took Sandra when she first arrived. The open-air market. You can get just about anything there." I pause and look up at David's admittedly handsome face. "Anything."

"Anything," he replies with a thoughtful look. I'm serious about the "anything" part. You can get software, hardware, firearms, clothing, food, even emergency medical services. Just don't ask too many questions about where the stuff is from or what kind of warranty it comes with. The market is definitely a place where "let the buyer beware" is the overriding rule.

"Yes, anything," I repeat. "So I hope you've brought a shopping list." As I talk I click the mouse a few more times, reducing the scale of the map until it shows all of Hong Kong, which includes Hong Kong Island, Lantau Island, Kowloon, the New Territories, Shenzhen, and what seems like an infinite number of outlying islands. "Now, before we head out, a few things you probably should know."

"Oh? Like what?"

I point at the map again, feeling less like David's landlady and far more like one of the perpetually cheerful tourguides that seem to infest the Central and Western District of Hong Kong Island. "Hong Kong isn't like most other cities. In fact, it's become an independent city-state, much like Singapore. This also means its become the dumping ground for the Pacific Rim, with just about everyone and anyone ending up here at some time or another." I pause, take a sip of water, and continue. "Aside from the native Chinese who were born here and the descendants of British nationals who never left, you get refugees from the fighting on the mainland, Japanese tourists, Australian expatriates, UNA fortune seekers, domestics from the Philippines, and migrant workers from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Not to mention all the replicated humans, cyborgs mercenaries working the border, cyberdroids, and multinational personnel from all over the world." I look up from the map. "Hong Kong is a crowded place."

David shrugs. "Can't be worse than Neo York."

I shrug back. "I've never been to Neo York, so I can't really say, but Hong Kong has more people per square mile than anywhere else. Which means the city is crowded, noisy, and smelly."

"Smelly?" he asks, giving me a quizzical look.

"Yup," I give him a grin I usually reserve for talking to Sandra about some of my less intelligent tenants. "First there's all the people, not to mention all the vehicles spewing out exhaust fumes. Then we have the harbor to think about, and on a bad day, the stink of saltwater, sewage, and rotting whatever is everywhere. Oh, and the market will have fish, meat, spices, incense, and dried vegetables, so I hope you have a strong stomach for the smell."

David ponders that for a few moments and then grins in return, like he knows something and I don't. "I think I can manage." Well, it's not like I'm trying to scare him off or anything, just let him know what to expect. So I stand up, adjust my jacket (I'm wearing a fairly utilitarian outfit today—low boots, trousers, a nice blouse, vest, and jacket. The vest may look a bit formal, but since it is lined with a layer of carbon nanotubes and can stop a variety of small arms rounds, I think of it as a required dress accessory.) and say, "Ready?"

A few moments later we are standing outside of Mandarin Towers Apartments in the relatively free space that marks the entrance. True to my words, the sidewalk is crowded with salarimen, tourists, shoppers, and even some University students. They come by in a tight wedge, with hair spiked in all directions and plastic raincoats alight with inset glowpanels. Like most people these days, cables run from jacks behind their ears to an assortment of electronic devices, including PDAs, simsense decks, and VR goggles.

The crowd parts for them and then reforms behind, and we quickly join the seething mass of humanity. David spends the first few minutes trying not to bump into everyone as well as trying not to get run over by the mobs of cyclists in the street. I finally take pity on him and give him a good tug on one arm and pull him in behind me. Some how, I don't think Sandra wants me to bring him back trampled.

As we head towards the harbor, I simply dodge around people, while David makes like a tourist and gawks. Not that I can blame him, Honk Kong, especially Wan Chai, can be a bit overwhelming to a first timer. The road is packed with cyclists, buses, taxis, and delivery trucks, while the buildings to either side are covered in video screens, neon tubing, and banners in all shapes and sizes. I'm just glad one of the local temples isn't having a processional, we'd never get anywhere.

Eventually, I tug on David's arm and we make a left turn into a narrower side street. No more cars—the street is too narrow—but it's still almost as crowded. And just as noisy. The shops lining the street push out from the walls, and each one has either the required hanging sign overhead, the product on display, and either a sound or video system advertising the same. Untuned radios engage in audio combat with the latest in Cantopop, while flickering hologram adverts guarantee a migraine for anyone who looks at them too long. As for me, I love it.

The people are a bit different as well. The further we go down the street, the less we see of overdressed tourists and severely-suited salarimen. Here are more HK natives, immigrant workers, a heavy-labor cyborg or two, and a scattering of synths either unloading cargo from scattered haulers, or engaged in construction of yet another shop. The merchandise goes from gaudy tourist trinkets and overpriced designerware to genuinely useful stuff, such as cheaper imitations and knockoffs. David points out tubs of chips in clear plastic cases, recycled cyberdecks, and racks of pirated 'ware. I remind him he's supposed to be buying some new clothes, bedsheets, toiletries, and other living amenities. He gives some of the hardware a looking over, informs me it's six months out of date (at least) and moves on. I'm not fooled for a minute and am willing to bet he'll be back in a week or so to stock up.

The deeper we go through different twists and turns, the narrower the streets get. The buildings to either side press in, blocking out the sky to a great extent. The signs become thicker, as do the banners. Neon signs advertise Australian beer, Japanese cars, and Hong Kong software. The people become even more varied, what with some semi-obvious Yakuza soldiers (it's the sunglasses you see) and a scattering of war vets to make things interesting. The latter are a mix of run-down combat cybergrafts, amputees with military-grade prosthetics, and booster addicts. Leftovers from the fighting on the mainland. I hear these days they have a lot more synths and 'driods on the border and a lot less humans. Apparently synths and 'driods don't suffer from stress, drug addiction, or a desire to go home after a while.

The open-air market is almost an anticlimax after the walk to get there. We arrive at a large open space between towering housing developments which never were built according to the laws of feng shui. The place is crammed with stalls and shops, with plastic sheeting, plywood, and waterproof tarps run over head to keep the worst of the weather off. Lighting is provided by everything from inset glowstrips to strings of bare bulbs. The narrow streets are crammed with shoppers of all sorts—young, old, male, female, of all nationalities and colors—although I am the only blue person in evidence.

David spends a few moments simply staring, and there's a lot of stare at. The closest shop has racks of last year's designer shirts out of Paris (copies of course), while the next one over is selling tri-vid players out of Indonesia—each unit still wrapped in shipping plastic. Then there are the stacks of holodiscs, a stall crammed with bundles of optical cable, another with nothing but power supplies of all sizes, makes, and models, and another with tubs of cosmetics samplers. As I told David, one can get just about anything here.

What follows is a bit of a whirlwind shopping spree. The first time I brought Sandra here, she ended up bringing back about a dozen bags of stuff, and David looks like he's going to equal the score. He gets everything form a back of cheap plastic combs to some genuine silk shirts. He even manages to ask my opinion on some rather lacy lingerie, but since I tend to wear basic black cotton briefs and sports bras, I can't offer much of an opinion. I also don't see the point in putting something on that's only going to make the other person want to take it off.

We end up at one of the many places for hot food in the market, eating dumplings, soup, and aquaculture shrimp grilled on skewers. David tells me the market is like the best parts of the Zone, except the selection of goods is better, the food less suspect (little does he know...), the people less dirty, and he can go home to a dry apartment and take a hot shower when he's done. I'm just about to agree with him on the part about hot showers (not to mention a long soak in a hot tub), when the market explodes.

There is a moment where I swear time has stopped. David has a dumpling halfway to his mouth and I'm washing down a shrimp with a swallow of beer. Out of the corner of my eye I see a body fall through the air, smashing into the sheeting and tarps overhead and bringing a lot of it down in a crash of debris. Triad soldiers dash by, yammering loudly and brandishing an assortment of firearms. People are starting to turn, point, and duck for cover. Then the spot where the body fell bulges outwards as the stands and stalls are torn to shreds and sent flying into the air.

For the moment David and I are beyond the blast radius and can only stare as a localized typhoon comes into existence. Chipboard sheeting, foam packing, plastic tarps, metal and wooden poles, and a lot of bamboo spirals up into the air, joined by apparently anything and everything that isn't nailed down, which basically means nine-tenths of the bazaar. Mesmerized, I let my beer drop from my hand, the silver can rattling at my feet. David, to his credit, seems to keep his head and this time he yanks my arm and pulls me down to the presumed safety of the counter we had just been eating at. The brilliant orange-yellow blossom of a detonating propane tank shows that our choice of cover may not be the best.

The debris comes raining down in a deafening series of crashes as screaming patrons do their best to clear out. As we huddle together a Triad gunslinger empties his weapon in the general direction of where the figure fell, the steady pop of weapon fire only adding to the din. A moment later he's flattened into the ground as a woman drops down on top of him.

I catch a glimpse of low red boots, white leggings, a red and white top, and lavender hair before she jumps into the air and vanishes from view. Glancing over at David I see he's just as confused as I am. Well, was, since I think I know what's going on. Poking him in the side, I point out to where the bazaar seems to eating itself. "Espers!" David nods and then tries to burrow down as low as he can go. A loud bang and a mushrooming cloud of smoke makes that seem to be a very good idea right now.

I honestly have had next to no contact with an esper, which isn't saying much, most everyone I know hasn't either. I had a drunken esper decide to go flying in the empty center well of the Tower, and I've seen them on the vid, but I can't say I've ever met the likes of the Empress or any of her compatriots. I do know the women who had graced our presence for about 15 seconds is named Athena. She lives here in HK along with her partner/boyfriend who's name I can't recall much less pronounce. But be that as it may, I can say this—they frighten me.

I realize as a free-willed replicated human, I scare and disgust my fair share of people, but espers are something else. A replicant is usually easy to spot, while espers look just like everyone else (not counting the Empress). And while I know they aren't all a bunch of drooling psychos out to destroy the Human Race As We Know It, I also know the typical esper is usually pretty damn random with his powers. Whatever it is that lets them do what they can do never seems to be under their total control, meaning one esper can cause enough collateral damage for a whole squadron of combat synths. Case in point? The now-ruined open-air market.

We catch a quick glimpse of Athena, who's red-and-white ensemble makes her easy to spot, as well as two others. One is dressed all in blue denim and black leather jacket, while the other has on a torn three-piece suit. Not what I'd consider proper combat wear, but then I'm not an esper who can flatten cars with a thought.

They seems to be dancing around in the center of the typhoon-cum-market, mostly flying around in the air when they aren't trying to stare each other to death. They seem to like throwing things at each other, and I see quite a bit of former merchandise hurling through the air before its all over. And just like that, it is all over. The Triad goons finish running around, shooting apparently at random, and occasionally getting crushed by nothing I can see, when Athena and her two dance partners go arcing off into the air to hopefully inflict aimless destruction on some other part of the district. If I'm lucky, it won't be the Tower.

The strange part (and this is relative of course) is how everything that had been floating in the air up until this point drops once the three espers are out of sight. So you think its safe and then there's this deafening crash as all this stuff drops out of the air. Finally, David and I poke our heads out of the stall (which is still standing... mostly), and look around. Smoke, dust, and steam fill the air, as does the crackle of flames, and a lot of screaming and shouting. I stand there, trying to think of something clever, or at least useful to say, when David gives me a grin and a gestures out at the mess. "I guess it's not so different from the Zone after all."



The trash-strewn alley was wet, the scattered puddles filled by the faint drizzle coming from a low, gray sky. Weeds grew rank in the corners, with splintered wooden shipping pallets, a rotting matress, and the decayed shell of a car only adding to the ambiance. About the only thing the alley didn't have was otherwise homeless squatters, but that was because they'd taken up residence in the abandoned buildings to either side.

The girl who came pounding down the center of the alley was dressed in a long, worn black coat, a stained white turtleneck, black jeans, and cracked boots that kicked up a spray of water with each step. Her hair, long and black like her coat, bobbed from side to side in time to her strides.

Scant moments after she passed came her pursuers. To a man, they were lean, muscular, with hair cropped short and bleached out to be as blond as possible. Tattoos ran up and down sinewy arms, the images ranging from swastikas to abstract "tribal" patterns. Their sneakers made a hollow slapping sound on the wet asphal, while the collection of knives and steel pipes they bore glinted dully in the faint sun.

Resisting the urge to glance behind her, since to do so risked tripping over something and ending the chase right there, Marta had to wonder what she'd done to get the MnM's after her. Probably not a damn thing. Most likely one of them had spotted her and had decided to add her to the gang's collection of working girls. Once they caught up with her, there would be the obligatory beatdown (to teach her a lesson, you see), then each one would rape her (as part of the initiation ritual), and then she'd be forced to service who ever (and whatever) had the cash.

Reaching into her coat, Marta's fingers closed around the hand of a ceramic-bladed folding knife. The blade was incredibly sharp and would supposedly remain so forever. She wasn't sure about that claim, but knew there was almost nothing it hadn't be able to cut so far. Bringing it out of her coat pocket, she kept a tight grip on it, eyes glancing to the left and right as she looked for the best way out of the alley.

Breaking to her left, she leaped over a mangled shopping cart to land in wide pool of water, her jeans soaking through almost up to her knees. The boots weren't the best, and running in wet socks wasn't the best idea she had, but slowing down now was akin to a death sentence. Behind her she heard a curse and a crash as one of the MnM's didn't make the leap and hopefully went face-first over the cart. Suppressing a snicker, Marta hoped for a broken nose at the very least.

Dodging the mangled, burned-out wreck of an overturned car, Marta snatched a look up into the sky. Was her sister around? Somewhere? Being able to fly meant she tended to keep the the rooftops. A little divine intervention would come in useful right about now.

A right and she was in a narrower alley, this one carpeted with a carpet of rotting paper, broken glass, and rusting cans. Putting on speed, her lungs starting to burn, and a stitch developing in her side, Marta pushed ahead, swearing to herself that she'd outrun a bunch of cigarette smoking would-be white supremacists come Hell or high water. Then a hurled length of pipe caught her near the ankles.

Taken by suprise, Marta was still quick enough to turn her fall into a roll, a flic of the wrist bringing the gleaming white length of ceramic blade out. The first MnM doubled over from a boot to his groin, while the second ended up with knife through his palm. Turning the blade and pulling up, the finely-honed edge parting flesh and tendon like it was butter, Marta neatly cut his hand in half lengthwise, leaving the would-be rapist screaming as blood sprayed the water-soaked paper at his feet.

A flash of white sneaker and her knife when flying down the alley. Then a burly body slammed into her own, knocking the wind out of her and putting her on her back in the slime. Screaming, kicking, punching, Marta managed to get her teeth into her attacker's ear, earning a howl of pain and a buffet across the face. Then he was astride her, one hand on her throat, another holding a knife pointed at one eye. The face beyond the sharp point was flushed red and angry, the skin in sharp contrast to the yellow-white hair.

"Fuckin' bitch!!!" Spittle sprayed from his lips, making Marta blink. "Makin' us run! Yer gonna pay for that! We're gonna learn yo ass, then yo gonna suck and fuck and...."

Marta never learned what else she was "gonna" have to do, because at that moment a hand came down on the MnM's shoulder and promptly tossed him into a nearby wall. He hit with a crack and crumpled to the ground, only to actually get to his feet and glare at his new attacker.

Sprawled on the ground, Marta found herself staring at chrome-buckled boots and the frayed hem of a pair of blue jeans. A pale gray coat started at about knee-height, topped with a beautiful, albeit furious, face and a flowing mass of pure-white hair. "shee..." Marta croaked through her sore throat.

Eyes narrowing, Shion pointed her fist at the staggering ganger. The ground tore itself apart as a furrow ripped from her to the wall in a swirl of paper and crushed cans. The brick wall behind the MnM actually pushed inwards as the bolt slammed home, his body seeming to collapse into itself.

Visibly relaxing, Shion looked down at her sister and extended a hand. As Marta got to her feet she could see the rest of her pursuers scattered about the alley. They lay broken and still, all except the one she'd knifed, who was curled up around his maimed hand, his pants soaked with blood.

"You okay?" Shion asked?

"Yea-yeah," Marta managed. "That was close."

"Too close." Shion shook her head. "We gotta get out of her. Get out of Chicago, get somewhere safe."

Rubbing her throat, Marta looked around for her knife, making sure to grab her attacker's while she was at it. "Is anywhere safe?"

A shrug was Shion's reply. "I have no idea, but I know this...."


"We've gotta keep looking out for each other."

"Pretty," he said, gently stroking her face.

She could feel the twisting, pulsing in her body, the vibration in her bones from the telekinetic waves he was radiating. A cloud of dust swirled around them, and pebbles skittered and danced over the ground at their feet. Before his power, she could do nothing but stand and wait and tremble.

Then he began moving away, floating just above the ground, red cloak and black hair billowing in the telekinetic swirl that surrounded him. Just go. Please just go. Please just go away this time.

Then he stopped. Not again. Turned. Not again. Glanced back at her. Oh, please, not again. And all the bones in her body shattered and flew off in different directions.

Then she woke up.

Damn. The Ran dream again.

Since she and Ray had started actively searching for Ayane and the others, her nightmares about abandoning them had faded gone away. But instead of going back to the erotic fantasies that used to characterize her dreams, she'd just moved on to a different assortment of nightmares, as if her hindbrain just wouldn't stop worrying things over. Her recent nightmares usually replayed past events in her life, but with a twist. Sometimes she dreamed of the raid she'd done with the Puma Sisters, but when she got to the point where she found the dead Lynx security guard they'd killed, it was Ayane lying there instead. And when she dreamed of the night Nagate was killed back in Australia, it would instead be either Ken or CK that she failed to protect. And of course, there was the Ran dream.

Some months back, she and the Puma Sisters had had the bad luck to stumble across Ran while target shooting in the Zone wastes. They'd been utterly helpless before his power, but had gotten lucky; he'd been in a benign mood. In her nightmare, though, it was different. Instead of teleporting away, he'd turn and kill her with his powers, always in a different, but horrible way. But tonight there'd been yet another new twist to the dream. Tonight, it had been Ray instead of Ran in the dream.

Does that mean anything? Or is my subconscious just making up crap to screw with me?

If the Ran dream meant she was scared of espers or their powers, did Ray taking Ran's place mean she was also scared of him? Even though he was her friend and had done more to help her find her missing family than any other person? She hoped not. Of course, she also knew Raven Clark, and Raven hadn't ever taken Ran's place in the nightmare, so who knew? Heck, maybe it just meant her hindbrain had noticed that Ray and Ran had only a one letter difference in their names, and so was playing with swapping them around. I sure hope so, anyway. I like Ray, and I don't want to be afraid of him, not even in my dreams. Maybe especially not in my dreams.

She turned her head. On the nightstand beside her, the clock balefully glowed 5:10 am. Nuts. Too early to get up, too late to go back to sleep.

Finally deciding that she was thinking too much to fall asleep again, she threw off the sweat-dampened covers and climbed out of bed. She didn't she bother with any clothes as she padded out into the hallway and down to the guest bath, as neither Korey nor Ray would be up this early. Once there, she turned on the shower, cranking the water to full hot and dialing the shower heads to the maximum pulse massage, and stepped in, hoping the hot water sluicing over her would wash her worries away along with her sweat.

"Alright... Alright, I'll be there soon. Yes." With that, the line went dead. Aoi sighed and tucked her mobile back into her jacket. She leaned up against the simple seats of her subway car, and stared blankly up at the ceiling.

"Work?" asked a voice beside her. Turning to check, she found she had company. A handsome man with a young face and serious, formal attire was next to her. She blinked in surprise, then realized he must have taken the seat while she was preoccupied with her call.

"Sorry, I don't mean to pry," he said, grimacing at the look on her face. "I've got a long ride ahead of me."

Aoi shook her head slightly. "No, it's okay. And yes, it was work. Well, sorta..." Aoi cut herself off before she jumbled her words any more. In truth, it was hard enough to understand her exact relationship with Shion, let alone explain it to a stranger.

"If you don't mind, may I ask what you do?"

Aoi examined him closely. He'd clearly taken in her crisp yet informal suit, and may have spotted the pistol concealed within her jacket. She imagined she must cut an odd figure, seated in a dimly lit subway carriage.

She smiled slightly, and nodded to him. "It's alright but... Well, it may be a bit hard to believe."

"Try me," he replied.

"Okay..." Aoi took a deep breath as she tried to arrange her words. How to explain best? Then she figured it was easiest to simply be direct. "I work as the Empress's personal assistant."

The reaction was immediate. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped and he leaned forwards in a classic display of surprise. Aoi inched back, waiting for his laughter to start. Instead, he quickly regained his composure and simply said "Really?"

Aoi nodded earnestly. "I said you wouldn't believe me."

He held up a hand in protest, his smile broadening. "I believe, really. It's just funny, that's all."

"Funny?" Aoi raised an eyebrow. Her job was many things—exciting and boring, certainly dangerous and unpredictable, and often frustrating. But funny?

He waved a hand dismissively. "I mean, not your job, just such a coincidence. I mean—I'll start again." He leaned back, straightening his suit and taking a moment to regain his composure. Then he extended a hand and announced "Cristophe Taylor, assistant to World Class Esper Allen Schwartzkern."

Aoi stared in disbelief. Her literal opposite number, possibly the only man with a job like hers, had wound up next to her on the train. She enthusiastically shook his hand, gleefully returning the introduction. "Aoi Hari."

"Running errands, I take it?" He asked.

She nodded. "Yourself?"

"Believe it," he said, rolling his eyes. He leaned back into the seat and looked up at the ceiling. "I've got to run half-way across the city to find this one tailor to pick up this one suit that he ordered, only because he can't be bothered blinking out of his penthouse to deal with the plebs himself."

Aoi shook her head in amazement. It was as if he had recounted her own thoughts. "And is he ever going to actually wear it?" She asked.

He stared back at her. "Yours does that too, right?"

Aoi chuckled. "You should see her wardrobe!" She mimicked tossing clothes left and right as she put on a bad imitation of Shion's voice. "'Oh, this one cost a thousand, and this cost a hundred thousand, and I don't know why I got this one, but it was half a million...'" She held up an imaginary coat hanger in front of her, and continued her impression. "'And I don't think I'll ever wear it, it's just nice to have around.'"

Christophe couldn't help it—he immediately burst out laughing. Aoi joined in as he clutched his side, almost doubling over with laughter. "And you think by now they'd learn some manners!" Christophe gasped between fits of laughter.

Aoi waved a hand, as if to ward him off. "I mean, she's alright there. Cold, yes, but she at least lets you know you're being snubbed."

"I should be so lucky." He straightened up at last, and sighed. "I mean, he doesn't want to listen to me, fine. But that's no excuse to vanish from his own house while I'm talking! Then he pops back two days later with souvenirs from Moscow!"

Aoi shook her head in wonderment. Shion would never do that to her... at least, she hoped. "He does that a lot?"

"Believe it. One time, he just up and decided on a holiday. So he grabbed me, and next thing you know, we're in Hawaii for a week!"

"Hawaii!" Aoi gasped out. "And he dragged you along?"

"Well someone had to book him a room while he got down to some serious beach front loafing." He shook his head, then turned back to Aoi. "But at least he paid for my stay."

Aoi gasped in alarm. "Well I wouldn't be complaining!" She shot back.

"Oh, I wasn't at the time, trust me." He shook his head, a rueful smile on his face. "But it drove my wife nuts!"

"Wife..." Aoi muttered, and her smile vanished.

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