By Max Fauth

Theresa thought of Aoi.

Neo York was full of more than enough distractions for her, but nonetheless the diminutive street samurai was on her mind. She twirled on the elevated walkway, stretched between two glass-and-steel monoliths, reflecting the contrasting neon glare of uncountable distractions that ran throughout the city. She gazed up at the buildings that surrounded her as they reached up into seeming infinity and her habitual smile broadened as she watched spinners dance overhead, jockeying for valuable airspace and casting more lights into the chromatic confusion that stretched out around her. Yes, this was her city, the modern- day Babylon, the cornucopia of indulgences that existed only to tempt her to sample its endless vices until she drowned in her own sin. Here, at her feet was everything she could ever want.

And still she thought about Aoi.

This wasn't an unusual thing for Theresa, but it was getting annoying. She had met the girl only briefly, and they had shared some impressive killing. Theresa had gotten herself shot, and just enough self-realisation had crept in through the pain for her to realize, as she passed out that she wouldn't see another day.

Only Aoi had saved her, which made no sense. Not only was she cutting Theresa into her payment for the job, but she'd also spent most of the rest of it getting Theresa airlifted to a doctor. The smart thing to do would be to leave her to die, collect the cash and gloat on the stupidity of ring-ins. Instead, it seemed Theresa was only alive because a girl wanted to do the right thing, and Theresa couldn't figure out why.

So she thought about Aoi.

But not tonight, she promised herself. Tonight was for partying. Truly, every night was a party for Theresa, whether dancing, screwing, drugged or killing - and often all of them at once. But tonight's entertainment was marginally more conventional than most for her.

The club was 'Flesh,' and its theme tonight was goth. Sure, she thought, the goth crowd was more pretentious than most but at least they put some effort into it. Not like most of Neo York's clubbers who were all airs and nothing else. It was a style of elaborate discomfort, which she could appreciate, and most importantly they had the best drugs.

The dress was choking and stifling, covering and emphasizing her figure without displaying an inch of skin below her chin. She drank in the casual perversion on display even as she wove her way through the overdressed crowd and tried to shut out the appalling music. Money changed hands and a new purchase was crushed between her teeth. What few colours there were brightened as she lay back and took in the surroundings. A young man shuffled past her, trailing behind his partner on a leash, and she thought of Aoi.

She was still too straight for the night, she immediately decided. She did a line off a young man's spine. He somehow perfectly caught the frail and tragic feel that half the crowd were struggling for, and Theresa knew he had to be preserved for all time. They writhed together on the dance floor and she thought about Aoi.

Theresa took him aside and let herself be pinned. They were still in view of enough of the patrons that Theresa could feel on display to the world, and she marvelled in it even as she was exposed. She moaned, gasped, grunted, scratched, kicked, cackled, wailed and screamed and even then she thought about Aoi.

She reclined, barely covered, smiling in numbing contentment as he was swallowed up by the crowd once more. Even here, thoughts of the green-eyed girl nagged at her.

We have to do something about this. She matters to us, and nobody should.

"This is crazy."

We like crazy.

The Yaks had filled Theresa in on one "Rachel," Aoi's employer, mistress or what have you. The relationship between the two was curiously ambiguous; while both were well-known; each made very little reference to the other. Most intriguingly, only one recent phone call (which had lead to the fated meeting) confirmed that Rachel was still alive. However, one more lead had emerged which she hoped would prove useful.

And so it was that one cheerful morning found her escorted through the offices of Shiroko-Tsuhi, former employer of one Rachel (surname unknown). Theresa bore her usual, spotless attire - starched shirt, frock coat, dress shoes and string tie - and turned many heads as she passed. She favoured the desk zombies with a manic grin, lost in a momentary flight of fancy to do with executing co-workers with mundane office supplies, when she rounded a corner and met an angel at a desk.

The girl seemed no more than fifteen, though Theresa would have sworn she was at most a year out of the tank that spawned her. Short blue hair framed an innocent, wide-eyed face that was almost obscured by the two massive, feathered wings that were folded across her back - one jet black, the other downy white.

"Miss Theresa Morraine?"

Theresa blinked in surprise to find her new Most Beautiful Thing Ever talking to her. "Can you fly?" she asked back, still lost in a daze.

The cutest little smile crossed the angel's face. "I'm afraid they're only for display, madam."

Theresa sighed in obvious disappointment. Something occurred to her and she glanced around. "Oh yeah, I was here to see your boss.

"He's been expecting you. Please head in," she offered indicating to the door beside her. As she passed by, Theresa could sweat she saw a thin tail flicking across the floor.

The office beyond was plain and simple, belying the occupant's position. A slate-grey desk was clear save for a monitor and a Newton's cradle tapping backwards and forth to itself. The only other furnishings were a pair of old, uncomfortable looking chairs. A man stood from behind the desk; greasy, limp hair, hook nose and pale, withered face making him look like a sweating vulture in a suit.

Tick-tick-tick-tick went through Theresa's head as she watched the cradle. I can quote the theorems behind this little toy backwards, she thought. Why don't I know anything useful?

Because you don't pay attention to anything even slightly boring.

"Miss Morraine? Richard Allman. I've had occasion to work with your father."

They shook, her eyes still fixed on the cradle. She shot out her hand and seized the ball on the upswing, silently and gently bringing it to rest. She looked up at Allman and flashed him a toothy grin.

He twitched.

The left side of his face jerked upwards in an involuntary spasm, dragging the corner of his mouth out of shape and leaving him ever so briefly with a one-eyed squint. Theresa started back ever so slightly.

Theresa let the silence hang for a few seconds, enough to realize something was expected of her. "Of course. Theresa. Pleased. You have an angel in your office," she all but blurted out at the end.

He twitched again, Theresa charting every tiny motion of the whole as it rapidly distorted and relaxed his face. "Of course. It's quite a story, and I do fee-" Another twitch interrupted him, but he resumed all but immediately. "Feel it's quite rele-" Twitch went his face. "-vant to the matter at  

hand." He gestured to the seat.

"Oh, I'll stand," Theresa said with a wave of her hand.

"Very well." He sat, his face pulling all out of shape for an agonizing instant. "I have in past made clear my-" Twitch "-dislike of overdone custom replicants and those that have little enough respect for them to-" Twitch "-bring these poor creatures into being."

Theresa nodded, watching his face on dreaded anticipation as he continued. "Thus a pair of my subordinates de-" Twitch "-cided that I should be gifted with one as-" Twitch "-outrageous as possible."

Theresa nodded slowly. "Did I see a tail?" She asked.

He nodded his reply. "Their creature could barely walk for the weight of her wings." Twitch. "And now she handles my appointments, conferencing, twitch, and everything I am twitch unable twitch to manage in the modern office with cybernetic rejection."

"That explains the..." Theresa indicated vaguely to his face.

"Twitch why I could not rely on cybertwitchnetic muscle grafts twitch as a cure."

"Huh. So what about the guys who had her made?"

A faint smile crossed his face at the fond memory... Only to be jerked out of shape. "I find she handily replaces twitch both of them."

Theresa gave a satisfied chuckle as she nodded. "Gotcha. Respect. Those guys got gutted because they didn't respect your wishes."

"Indeed. In the business of people, respect twitch blah blah twitch."

It was hypnotic. Theresa couldn't have torn her gaze from his randomly erupting face had she wanted to. She found her hand quivering in sympathy, even as her nerves stretched with irritation at his jarring speech.

"The relevance blah twitch blah Rachel." Theresa suddenly perked up again, trying to focus on new information on one of her quarries. "She had no restwitchpect for her colleagues, superiors, blah or even blah. Blah rhubarb first twitch met blah, rhubarb rhubarb twitch blah..."

She couldn't help it. Even as it fascinated her, her irritation built. It was like a physical itch, one that she had none of her usual tools to scratch. The room seemed to shrink, filled with his droning, until her sight was blotted out by his pale face, watery eyes and all-controlling twitch.

"I have to kill him."

Don't, you fool. He's being helpful, and even we can't get out of the trouble that will cause.

"I like him. He's a ruthless hardass who got the short end, bad. But that-" Twitch. "-is driving me crazy."

You're already crazy, remember?

Theresa sighed. "In the colloquial sense."

"Which brings us to the twitch present day. Your question was?"

She stared like an idiot for a second. Of course he had been talking all this time; she was vaguely aware that he had imparted Rachel's history to her, but she couldn't begin to recall it. Think fast. What was he saying? Try as she might, she didn't catch any mention of a Japanese girl in the back-story. Bluff and delay, girl. "How would you describe her as a person?"

"Barely as one at all, twitch. She lacked discipline, patience, twitch, and any respect for those around her. She was a violent and uncontrollable hedonist."

She sounds just like you. We like her.

Suppressing a growing grin, Theresa forged on ahead. "Could you spare any images of her?"

By way of response he turned the monitor in her direction. It showed a young blonde woman, lean apart from her considerable chest and dressed in stylishly shredded grey and black street clothes. Theresa leaned over the desk and examined one of the head shots and cooed appreciatively. "Green eyes too..."

"I'm sorry?"

Theresa looked up in amazement at his completing a sentence uninterrupted. "Green eyes. Like the person I'm looking for."

"Do go twitch on."

Back to normal. "Japanese woman, yay high," Theresa said, indicating to her shoulder.

"Yes, about her height," Allman replied.

Theresa indicated to the profile picture. "Line-up says otherwise."

"Something of a comtwitchplex about her height. Wore ridiculous platforms, even in the field. Atrocioustwitchly vain twitch as well." His scowl spoke volumes on his regard for the former employee.

"And that shape too," she muttered, pointedly ignoring the blonde's over-emphasized cleavage. Wheels started turning in her head.

"I don't recall her having any twitch acquaintances matching that description." Allman idly muttered.

"So when did she leave your employ?" Theresa asked, gaze locked on that of the picture.

"Twitch about June, '31."

Theresa nodded. "About when she appeared..." She trailed off, smiling eagerly. Things were falling into place surprisingly well. If she was right, this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Right now, nothing could dent her good mood.

"Is that all?" he asked and double-twitched. The moment his face relaxed, as his twisted visage began to return to normal, it jerked upwards again, fully shutting his eye and dragging his mouth open.

Theresa gaped, her mind a blank. Each hand seized the other behind her back, reflexively saving her from lunging forwards and strangling him. That was that! She couldn't imagine living with such irritation; she wanted it gone, removed, purged from her life forever.

Make a move now and we'll never get out of here.

She used the full reserves of her minimal self-restraint and fixed her expression into a toothy grin. "That's wonderful, more than I'd hoped for," she said and earnestly meant it.

Theresa could feel sweat beading on her brow as he replied ponderously. "Glad that" don'tdoitdon'tdoitdon'tdoit "I could be" don'tlookdon'tthinkaboutit "could be of-" The tiniest little twitch deformed his face.

"Gotta go," Theresa blurted out. She twirled, already in motion and was out the door in a flash.

"Service," Allman muttered to his empty office. With a shrug, he turned the monitor back around and resumed his work.

Outside, Theresa fumed as she all but stomped through the office. She liked Allman. He was ruthless and unforgiving, and he dressed it in a veneer of respect that made it hard for others to retaliate. But that tic of his! She couldn't get it out of her mind, and she desperately wanted to ponder her latest theory. She needed a release, and fast.

She spied a young man approaching, coiled cables tucked under his arm. He had the perfect look for an office junior - cheap shirt, short hair and an expression of desperate frustration. Theresa paused behind a corner, waiting until he stepped out of sight of the other workers before seizing him by his shoulders. He started a startled cry, but nothing escaped Theresa's lips freshly clamped on his. She drew in closer, holding him to her until his resistance melted away. When she finally drew back, he was flushed and confused but undeniably excited.

"Store room?" she asked casually.

He nodded eagerly. "This way."

The moment the heavy store room door closed, they were on each other. Theresa felt herself pressed against the edge of the metal shelving as he pulled at her clothes. She responded in kind, hands grasping across his back and pulling him harder into her. Her legs tucked up as she half-sat on the shelf, letting him hold her up. Theresa screamed with him, her frustrations cleared by their rough passions. As they panted together, her hands snaked up and she took a hold of his head.

"Thank you," she purred and rammed sideways. His skull met the metal shelving with a dull thump. The second blow let off a loud crack, and she felt something give with the third. He tumbled backwards, blood flowing from his scalp, dragging Theresa to the floor in a tangled heap where she lay for a few minutes more, senselessly enjoying the afterglow.

"Much better," she said at length. She disentangled herself from the body on the floor and straightened out her clothes. Out came the compact to fix her makeup, followed by drawing a cigarette. She made to light it before remembering where she was.

"Oh yes, no smoking. Silly me." With a shrug, flicking the cigarette to land by the bloodied corpse, she stepped out to go about her ruminations.

She couldn't recall the name of the all-to-fancy restaurant she sat in, but she certainly enjoyed the view. Again, the city of Neo York lay spread about before her but this time even the tops of the nearby towers lay beneath her feet. She sipped a drink made with ginger oil, of all things, which burned a pleasant trail down her throat. She thought of Aoi and sighed in contentment.

They had the same eyes, the same shape and if some reports were to be believed, the same customized handgun. It seemed more than possible that Aoi was Rachel, reborn for some reason with a new face and new life. Which Theresa thought was an awful shame, as the more she heard about the violent hedonist that was Rachel, the more she liked the woman. She fantasised for a second about the pair of them as partners, cutting a bloody swath across the city. But it seemed it could never happen.

"We have to confirm it," she said at length.

First we have to find her, and observe her.

"Closely, yes. Very closely." She purred in contentment and cast her eyes out onto the gathered crowd. The restaurant was spacious, letting her see the whole variety of overstuffed corporate couples that choked the life out of it. She stood out, she knew; not just for her age, nor her customary outfit, but simply for being alone in one of the city's most romantic spots.

And then she spotted someone who stood out even more. A shimmering royal blue dress, cut past the navel and open at the back and sides, barely covering the wearer's gorgeous figure. Theresa was mesmerised to watch it reflect the soft light, casting ever changing shapes across the few scraps of fabric that composed it. "We like blue," she intoned to herself.

Yes, we do. A dress like that almost got us killed.

And now that dress, in her mind, against all probability the very one she had spied in the Zone, was sauntering it's way over to her. Its wearer was beautiful beyond all reality, as if she had been cast from a fantasy this very second without allowing life to interfere.

Theresa didn't approve. She liked the infinity of imperfections, the smorgasbord of incongruities that made people fun, that made each experience its own. Platinum blonde hair and amber eyes. The woman looked manufactured, a combination of idealised features designed mathematically to appeal, a process into which no human input had interfered.

"I saw you watching me." Her voice was like overly flowery descriptive text.

"I was watching the dress," Theresa replied, clearly avoiding returning her gaze. "The colour is so vibrant, almost alive."

"I'm glad you like it," she replied, sliding into the seat opposite Theresa. All around the restaurant, she felt the patron's eyes on her.

"That has to be for someone special," Theresa said.

"Oh, she's not here yet," the mystery woman said, sliding her hand across the table and gently brushing Theresa's.

Well crafted. Availability, intention and preferences all in one go. Is she just made of sex?

Theresa withdrew her hand to take another sip. The fire was confident, reassuring. "Theresa Morraine," she threw out, eventually.

"Call me Silver."

Cute. "Alright Silver, what do you do aside from approach random women in fancy restaurants?"

Silver gave a smug smirk. "Between jobs, actually. My last job was as bodyguard to the head of the BioTrack corporation." She sat back, watching for Theresa's response.

For her part, Theresa was genuinely shocked. Not only that the Barbie doll opposite her might be more than she seemed, but also for the connection to her own last mission. "Luckenstein? No kidding. I just got back from trashing his place."

It was Silver's turn to be surprised, but it barely registered on her moulded features. "I was wondering how long it would take Jinsei to move on him."

"Well, it was just a simple data retrieval." It had started as a simple data retrieval; it had turned into a full-fledged home invasion and running gunfight with copious amounts of property damage and a swathe of arson thrown in for good measure. Theresa had fun there. "The master of the house was absent, I'm afraid." The contract hadn't said anything about Luckenstein's survival, but Theresa was good at reading between the lines.

Silver frowned at the tale. "He had a girl living there, all but abducted from Tokyo."

Theresa nodded, her expression souring. The girl had been frustrating; utterly silent. No matter what Theresa did to her, and she had taken the time out to try, she wouldn't make a sound. "She's fine," Theresa said at length. Her smile reappeared and she looked back up at Silver. "Sent her home." Not that anyone would recognize her.

"I'm so glad," Silver replied earnestly, taking Theresa's hand. She looked over the blonde with an appraising eye. Not a scar on her (and the dress would have shown just about any she had) and seemingly no muscle tone. Then again, Theresa was certain she was an upgrade, if not actually a synthetic. Cyberware was definitely possible, but again she took pains to conceal it. Stupidly vain, she thought. Theresa idly wondered what she'd be like in a fight and how easily she could kill the blonde.

Another, familiar voice interrupted her thoughts, and both snapped around to look at the newcomer. "I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" Green eyes. Short. Japanese. Green eyes. Long hair, tight bun. Elegant hairpins. Leather gloves. Green. White shirt. Open collar. Waistcoat. Black dress pants. Dress shoes. Green. Earrings, many and varied on one side, one pearl stud on the other. Jacket, slung artfully over one shoulder. Green. Combat butler casual, Theresa immediately labelled the style. Bright, deep green eyes, twinkling with humour, glowing with affection, unadorned, natural. She had lost herself in those eyes, Theresa realized, lost and now found herself again as their eyes met once more.


Silver stood and kissed Aoi.

Her mind moved in a flash: - someone special - enjoyed the view - not here yet - lay beneath her feet - one of the city's most romantic spots... If you invited your lover here, and certainly the pair could be nothing less, you wouldn't sour it by flirting with random strangers. And if you lived as a street samurai, you wouldn't spend this much on the location without a special occasion. So Aoi called Silver here for a romantic moment, and Theresa would be ruining it with her presence.

Which was good. Because she realized she had to drive these two apart. Aoi, Rachel, whoever had to be with her, was a part of her already. Why had she saved Theresa, lost all that money, taken the risk? Would Rachel have done it? She had to know.

"Sorry I'm late. Boss wanted me to stand and nod while she picked out a dress." Aoi chuckled slightly.

"So you watched her change, hmm?" Silver asked, brushing a hand down Aoi's cheek.

For her part, Aoi only sighed and shook her head. She turned to Theresa at last. "Sorry to have..." She trailed off on recognition.

Theresa stood slowly, positively beaming at Aoi, saying "You would not believe how I've looked forward to this." She leaned forwards and gently pecked her on the cheek.

Aoi started back in surprise, hand to newly reddened cheek where Theresa had kissed her. Silver glanced between the two of them curiously. "You know each other?" The implication was clear in her tone.

"Not yet," Theresa replied with a smouldering look.

Silver looked between the two women and smiled. "Then should we all get better acquainted?"

"Not like that," Aoi said, casting a filthy glance at Silver. "Theresa helped me out on an op in the Zone."

"She saved my life. C'mon," she added, sitting and beckoning for them to do the same.

Any further discussion was interrupted by the waiter's arrival. They quickly settled on their order and virtually shooed him off. The moment he had left, Silver leaned over towards Theresa, all but inviting a state down her dress. "So tell me what happened," she asked eagerly.

Aoi glanced over at Theresa and nodded. "It was meant to be a data retrieval but I was outgunned. I called in a favour, and they sent in Theresa as backup."

Aoi called in the favour, hmm?

Silver nodded, and Theresa could see her arm shift. No doubt her hand was firmly planted on Aoi somewhere by now. "So how did she perform? Was she good enough for you?"

"Brilliantly." Theresa paused as their drinks were served. "Got the thingy and took out short, gruesome and hairy."

"I didn't do that well, or I would have gotten the shooter before you were hit." Aoi flinched slightly at the recollection. Pained or embarrassed? Hmm...

Theresa decided to finish off the tale. "And I woke up, I was in a trauma team spinner with my saviour, standing over me and holding my hand." Head tilted, eyes fluttering, Theresa gave Aoi a wistful look.

"It was the least I could do, given how you bailed me out."

Theresa waved a hand dismissively. "Please, that call probably cost you most of your split for the job." She turned back to Silver, making sure she registered a subtle peer down the dress. "I offered to waive my split, but she wouldn't have any of it."

Silver turned to Aoi with a questioning look. Theresa watched on as the brief, silent interplay passed between them. Silver seemed quite pleased with her lover, who gave a sigh of resignation. Any chance to save the planned moment was long gone, and she had little chance to deflect Silver's interest in this newcomer.

Silver nodded approvingly at Aoi then regarded Theresa with a coy smile. "Well, if my Aoi vouches for you, I'd love to have you join us." Theresa blinked as she felt a delicate hand snaking up her leg.

"For the op?" Aoi asked.

Silver nodded, not taking her eyes of Theresa. "Yes, that too," came her reply.

First Silver wanted to pick her up, now she wanted Theresa to join the couple? She had a hard time believing their relationship was so open, given how straight-laced Aoi had been on the job. Then again, given Aoi's ferocious glare at her partner, this was probably a thorn of contention between the two.

"What have you been trained in?" Silver asked her.

"Guns, knives, h-2-h, that sort of stuff. General purpose killing things."

"Heavy weapons?"

The fantasy in the cellophane was talking big guns with her. Oh, how she loved this lifestyle. "Shot a few. Not really at anyone, but I can find my way around them."

Aoi nodded earnestly to Silver. "She'd be good on the response. Fast on her feet and a quick thinker." Which Theresa was sure she hadn't particularly shown off, but she wasn't one to shoot down praise. But she wants me going along, she thought, probably not just for the job. Did I make that much of an impression? Does she want to collect? What's the angle?

Silver pondered briefly, and gave a thoughtful nod. "Alright," she said simply. A look of delight crossed Aoi's face for a second, before she caught Theresa's eye and cringed with embarrassment. For her part, Theresa couldn't help but smirk. They're letting me in, that makes it so much easier.

"We'll go over the plan shortly." Silver looked up and past Theresa. "But first, we enjoy the food and good company."

Oh, we will.

And so the evening had dragged on. Theresa had watched the interplay between the pair carefully, noting its extremes. They would be laughing together or gazing into each others' eyes one minute then Aoi would be scowling and glaring at Silver the next. She was beginning to catalogue subjects and seeing how each reacted. Aoi was happy to talk about her 'business' as a street Sam along with her past assignments, whereas Silver would largely gloss over them. On the other hand, when Silver brought up sex (which seemed to be most of her conversation), Aoi would generally blush and pay careful attention to her drink.

The last one was a fascinating topic. Silver had supplied some remarkably explicit details and Aoi had always insisted they change the subject. The girl was happily working, living and sleeping with another woman, but seemed almost ready to deny it. She could not imagine what kept the couple together for the life of her.

"Well, this has been delightful," Silver began as they polished off their desserts, "But I can tell you two have a lot of catching up to do. I just need to freshen up and check a few reports, so I'll leave you to it." They nodded and she stood, drawing a number of stares as she sashayed away.

Theresa leaned back and drew out a cigarette. She lit up and took a long drag, letting a languid stream of smoke trail off. Aoi for her part watched as Silver departed, eyes not leaving her form until it had vanished from sight.

"Afraid she's going to do someone in the washroom?" Theresa asked. Aoi's scowl as she turned back showed that to be a distinct possibility. "You're so cute when you're grumpy," Theresa said with a grin.

Aoi shrugged. "I guess I worry too much," she replied.

Theresa nodded, and let another trail of smoke coil around the table. She looked off past where Silver had vanished. "Of course, I would do her on the washroom," she idly added.

Aoi blinked rapidly, flustered yet again. "You? I didn't think... Um..." she trailed off into silence.

Theresa returned a satisfied smirk. "On occasion, though I have no idea how you survive on girlsex alone."

Aoi shook her head. "It's not just that. We've been through a lot... Well, we understand each other."

"She didn't really seem that complex," Theresa replied with a shrug.

Aoi nodded. "This is just her partying. When it's down to business, she can be a whole different person."

"Speaking of business, you said this job was a follow-up."

Another nod. "I - well, we, really - brought in one of the architects of the Zone invasion not too long back." Her frown and distant gaze let Theresa know there was more to that one job, but she wouldn't find out what here and now. "So the coming objective is his superior."

"Fighting the good fight for the people back home?"

"Well..." Aoi trailed off, gazing out the window. Views across the river had fallen out of fashion a long time ago, and what few remained had been blacked out in the recent months. Nonetheless, Theresa could imagine what Aoi was seeing in her mind's eye. "I feel I should be doing so much more."

Zone patriotism never made sense to Theresa. She understood the appeal of living without laws - it was as if the world had caught up with her on that one. But she'd much rather do it in a bustling city than a rancid cesspit. She was a creature of comforts, and unless a major syndicate owned you, the Zone was sparse on comforts. Still, Rachel had been raised there, and the feeling might have carried over. Time to score some points. Solemn face.

"Not at all." Suddenly serious, Theresa took Aoi's hand in both of hers. "When I was over there, all I could do was pick off their troopers. And they never run out." Wouldn't be any fun if they had. "You, you're getting to the root of the problem, making a real difference."

Aoi looked up at her, eyes wide. "You mean that?" A nod. "Thank you." Theresa gently squeezed her hand, and felt the gesture returned. "Hopefully I can put all this madness behind me at last."

"How do you mean?"

"Well, this is probably going to be my last independent job. I've got a regular employer nowadays, and I want to focus on those duties."

Theresa sighed theatrically. "Such a loss to guns-for-hire everywhere. They all say you're one of the best on this area."

"Hardly." Well, it had been an outright lie... "I rarely get out of a job without some major trouble. And my last long-term went nowhere."

"Ooh, that was the, ah..." Theresa snapped her fingers, as if they would conjure a name from the air. "Heiress. Hunted. Big bounty."

"Midori Harihatu," she replied.

"Oh yeah!" Theresa slapped the table loudly. "I remember, she shows up in a fancy place with the bad boy industrialist, and next thing you know the Black Company's reduced his place to matchsticks."

Aoi nodded with a grimace. "I was in there, covering their retreat." Theresa winced in hollow sympathy, giving her hand what she hoped was a reassuring squeeze. "But I was the one who blew that."

"Never," came the reply. Theresa already knew the majority of this - many Bothans had died to bring her this information - but she was fascinated to hear Aoi's take on the events. "What could have happened?"

"I betrayed her trust. Let personal matters distract me, and dragged her into them."

Which Theresa could see nothing wrong with. Personal matters were all that mattered, after all. But someone paying for a bodyguard might disagree. Besides, this sounded juicy. "What was it, in the end?"

Aoi pulled back, gently sliding her hand from Theresa's grasp as she slowly shook her head. Theresa soon realized this was all she'd get on the subject and sighed. Still, if Aoi didn't want to talk about it, then Theresa wanted to find out more.

A subject change was due, though. "So then what's this regular job?"

"She hasn't told you yet?" Theresa blinked as Silver pressed against her back, leaning over and draping her arms down Theresa's front. "You will not believe this." Her voice was heavy, close to Theresa's ear and her perfume was vibrant and strong, almost overpowering.

She's flirting over her partner's employment. Can this person even be subtle?

The look on Aoi's face spoke volumes. Annoyed. Disapproving. Resigned? But not jealous. Interesting. Was her behaviour bringing out this petite scowl, and not the attention being lavished on another? Either Aoi welcomed other partners into their love life - no, she'd made her stance on that clear within minutes of their reunion. Then was it... Yes.

Silver didn't love her. And Aoi was resigned to that.

"I'm working as a sort of assistant-turned-valet these days. I still see a fair bit of action, but I travel and get paid better."

The implications all hit Theresa at once. A rocky patch? Did they fight? Something had changed, as they sounded so lovey-dovey talking about their early days.

"And? Tell her who it is!"

Still together though, and she was acting like everything was fine. But Theresa caught the signs that she knew Silver couldn't see. How long could she keep this up? Theresa knew that she would book at the first chance.

But you wouldn't have saved her.

And tonight. Big ticket, fancy place, big moment... No, not to strengthen their relationship. Aoi was here to-

"The Empress. I work for Shion Nys."

Damn. Almost onto it and I lost... Wait, what? "No," Theresa said almost automatically. The shock registered on her face and she blurted out another, louder "No!"

"Really," Silver breathed in her ear.

"Really? Our little," she paused, the word unsaid as she held a level hand to her shoulder, "With the great big," her hand shot up, indicating as far as she could reach.

"Sometimes, I don't believe it myself." Aoi positively beamed with pride. Silver released Theresa and circled the table, now resting a hand on Aoi's shoulder.

"But what could you do for the big, bad Empress? Do you know what she's capable of? You do know," she said, leaning over the table, "That she destroyed an entire Jinsei armoured division because some trooper spilled her drink?"

Aoi chuckled, but Theresa couldn't fathom why.

"That's a kicker." Theresa nodded, largely to herself.

"Spends a fair deal of time with her too, just the two of them..." Silver cuddled Aoi from behind. "A girl could get jealous."

"You don't mean-"


Huh. Theresa blinked as Aoi cut her off. Given the glare that was now boring its way into I-bet-she-prefers-Eve's forehead, that was very much a no-go. Silverlyn just shrugged, idly commenting "A girl can dream."

Theresa watched Aoi's face sour, and decided to interject. "She'd nuke the place if she heard that." She raised her glass to Aoi with a twinkle in her eye. "Right?"

Aoi turned back, her scowl vanishing. Before she could reply, a polite clearing of the throat announced the waiter's return, cheque in hand.

The trio rapidly took the hint. After much flurrying of cash, jackets and coats were collected and they wound their way outside.

"We never did go over the job," Theresa commented as they waited for the elevator.

The couple exchanged a brief look, and Aoi nodded. "Head back home with us. We can run over the details there, and at least put you up for the night."

Now that would be interesting.

Panting heavily, eyes closed, Aoi rolled over onto her side and let her head hit the pillow. Beside her, Silver dropped back onto the bed with little more than a contented sigh and a smile. One arm reached idly over and played up and down her lover's back. Aoi reached aside and pulled the discarded sheet back onto the bed, yet Silver shrugged it off and lay bare.

They lay there, minutes passing in relative silence. Aoi curled herself up in the sheet and huddled up on her side. Slipping away, she was brought back by a chuckle from the other side of the bed.

"Wha?" She asked.

"Theresa," Silver simply said. "She likes you."

"I saved her life," came the reply.

Smiling, Silver shook her head. "I mean, she really likes you." The sheet stirred, and Aoi was looking back over at her. She rolled her head to face the petite girl. "I don't mind."

Aoi blinked and rolled back, resting her head once more. "It's not like that," she muttered.

"Really, I don't." She twirled a few long, black strands of hair around her finger. "Actually, I think it would be good for you."

"I am not hearing this."

Silver chuckled once more. "You two get along so well. And I really think she could help you relax a lot."

Aoi groaned. "Not now. We've got work in the morning."

"Think about it."

"Go to sleep."

Silver glanced briefly away to the doorway then leaned back once more. She listened as Aoi's breathing softened, then closed her eyes and gently slipped off to sleep.

In the doorway, Theresa watched, waiting. The couple were well and truly out by now, and with their flatmates away, that meant the apartment was hers. Yet all that mattered lay before her.

We can't just kill her. Aoi's feelings are too strong. It would poison her against us.

"But I do have to tear them apart." Theresa's eyes wandered over their prostate forms. "She's controlling my Aoi. But only because Aoi wants to be with her."

Change that, and she's yours.

Theresa nodded. She took a cautious, silent step into the room. Seeing no response from either, she wound her way around the room to approach from Aoi's side. "Turn them against one another. It is not enough that we succeed," and here her eyes fell once more on Silver, "Others must also fail."

Vidal. He makes sense of the world.

She squatted down, peering in close to Aoi. "Oh, I don't want things to make sense. Just to be mine."

Gently, silently, she leaned forwards, puckering up. Her lips delicately brushed Aoi's, parting after the briefest contact. As she pulled back, as she made her way out of their innermost sanctum, she knew she saw a smile cross the Japanese girl's face.

Theresa thought of Aoi in delight.

A frigid gust passed over her back, making Theresa question her decision to join this mission for the thousandth time. Not that it would lack action, not that the company was bad, not that the pay was a let-down, but simply that she had to spend so long waiting. Theresa hated waiting, especially with such a perfect vantage point and a high-powered anti-material rifle cradled in her hands.

It was obscene. An electromagnetic rail accelerator loaded with a magazine of HEAP ammunition, propelled at astounding velocities and producing the sort of impact that could scatter lightweight military cyberdroids across half the city. And linked up to smartgun goggles that could let her hit a pigeon from across the river. Uncountable civilians spread out before her, unprotected, unaware... And she had to wait.

We'll have plenty to shoot at soon.

And besides, the company was good. At particular points across the city, Aoi and Silver lay in wait with identical rifles - no, these were too much to be just rifles - identical killers by their sides. Each was in their own 'work clothes,' and even Theresa had put aside her favourite fashions for the occasion.

Gray was her colour, sky gray blending into endless concrete rooftops such as the one she lay upon. Gunmetal ribbing and piping wrapped around strategic parts of her body - supposedly for added support and protection, although she also loved what they did in emphasising her figure. Aoi had stuck with rugged synthleathers, looking like some biker's kid of indeterminate gender. And Silver...

The blonde had geared up in a half-shell composite plate and ballistic mesh outfit done in a mottled gray-blue-black urban camo scheme. Even on her ridiculous proportions, it managed to look military and professional. So did the woman beneath, for that matter. Through the briefing and gearing up, she had kept a stern, determined attitude and hadn't thrown out a single come on. Maybe Aoi was right and there was more to her than plastic and smut.

Her earpiece cut in, and Aoi - no, Gem spoke in her ear. Codenames were the order of the day, and these two seemed well used to theirs. "Ten minutes to firing," was the report. "Tech support is online."

'Tech support' was their rental hacker, tapped into the communications of the three spinners that were just now leaving the local Jinsei erection. Her job - Theresa had a hard time imagining a man getting involved at this point - would be to let the trio know which spinner would be carrying Mario Musikiya, Jinsei dignitary and wanted man. Their job was to create a disturbance that would get their com chatter going. Theresa liked her disturbance.

"Good to be working with you," Evelyn-Silver-Kami replied. The name was an odd one; she wondered for whole seconds what had inspired the choice.

"Welcome to the party!" Theresa called back. She'd gone with 'Foxhound' on a whim, and was liking the feel of it so far.

"Witchcraft here," came the surprisingly light voice. Theresa blinked on surprise. "Tap is live, chatter is minimal, all are-"

"You're a kid," she blurted out.

"What? I am not!" came the distinctly childish outburst. Theresa could swear she heard Gem giggling on the far end of the line.

"Cut the chatter," Kami cut in. Cool and professional. Also, no fun. "Continue your report."

Witchcraft gave a petite "Hmmph!" as she collected her thoughts. "Anyway, all is on schedule. I'm isolating their response teams, but it looks like they could have two more spinners at any of the crash sites within five minutes."

"Keep us posted," Kami replied. Theresa could imagine the blonde glaring daggers at her, trying to be taken seriously while falling out of her gown.

"Will do," Witchcraft replied, and signed off.

"Gem?" Kami asked softly.

"Trust me, she's good."

"You two adopting her?" Theresa needled. The response was immediate, Aoi's fit of laughter busting out over the channel. The mood was infectious, and soon enough Theresa was cackling madly with her, position be damned.

"Alright, settle down," Kami interjected, although the amusement was clear even in her voice.

"But seriously. Gonna be mommies?" Theresa couldn't help but needle.

"Oh, not for a long time," Kami replied nonchalantly. "I'm still too young to be tied down.

The silence that followed was just long enough to be uncomfortable. At length, Gem came over with "Tighten it. Targets due any second."

Theresa understood clearly; Kami had all but stated 'I refuse to take our relationship seriously.' And yet Gem remained devoted to the woman, despite what was no doubt constant emotional abuse like that. What was the hold this Evelyn had over her? Is that why Rachel had vanished?

Had Evelyn remade her?

It clicked. Everything came together. Not long after she first appeared in the Zone, oh so soon after Rachel's disappearance, Aoi had been sighted with a particular blonde stripper. Eve -clearly sociopathic, Theresa decided, given her shifting personality - had somehow taken a hold of Rachel and remade her, physically and mentally, after... What?

She hit a snag. How had this forceful, unpredictable, lively woman been so quashed into the submissive girl that Theresa had met? What had started it off? Some kind of opportunity had presented itself to Evelyn, allowed that vile, manipulative witch to control Aoi.

Only we should be allowed to control her.

"I have visual!" Came the excited gasp from Gem.

Snapped back to reality, Theresa hastily scanned the sky. Sure enough, the elongated luxury spinner was zooming towards her. Armour-plated by all reports, with sophisticated jamming and electronic countermeasures topped off with an all-leather interior and auto-serving minibar. Sleek, jet black and tearing straight into her sights.

A burst of chatter erupted in her ear, headed up by Witchcraft's shrill call. "You're spotted, they're going evasive."

All of a sudden the spinner yanked itself hard around. Many fine drinks would be spilled onboard. Theresa acted on impulse, squeezing the trigger on her monstrous companion. The sound was hollow, like a sonic boom in a tin can, but neatly drowned out by the roaring eruption from the spinner's front end. She basked in the glorious fireball that signalled the demise of its fuel cells and watched as it began its lazy plunge to the courtyard below. Glass shattered upon its impact with the transparent shelter, raining fragments onto terrified shoppers who scattered from the path of the vehicle's descent. It ploughed more than landed, tearing up artfully laid tiles before coming to a crumpled rest in amongst a stand of benches and bushes on the middle of the plaza.

Theresa exhaled. "Foxhound, firing," she barked out a little too late. For now, the crash was still. The passenger compartment would be so full of safeties that the chance of losing their quarry to the impact was virtually nil. Of course, it would take some time to extract him from such a wreck.

"Kami, firing." Theresa waited anxiously for the final report.

"Gem fir- Damn! Target has slipped away!"

"Don't worry," Came Witchcraft's report. "Chatter indicates target is down at the Washington Galleries."

Which was her. Somehow, she knew she'd win the jackpot. Now to make them proud. "Foxhound confirms. Wreck in sight, no movement."

"We're moving," Was Kami's report. "Keep them pinned down until we can arrive for extraction."

'Pinned down' sounded dull. She had several minutes to keep them occupied, and they had wound up on an open area with plenty of escape routes. Already there was movement around the wreck - a driver had miraculously survived and clambered out, and now what looked like on-site security was trickling out. She glanced at the small assortment of firearms she had at the ready, but they paled in comparison to her monster.

A wicked thought sprang to mind. She sighted and fired, sending a high-explosive round from an anti-cyberdroid rifle careening at unimaginable velocities toward the unsuspecting driver.

She gaped at the result. Naught that was recognizable remained beyond a fine red mist. "Oh my god," she mouthed. "They explode."

A fearsome grin crossed her face as she sighted on one of the rent-a-cops, already running for cover. Not that it would help.

"My life has taken on new meaning."

The motorbike was small, light and fast, perfect for slipping between the deadlocked cars of downtown Neo York. Aoi's focus shifted from the heads-up display showing her route and the positions of the traffic between her and the plaza to the tortuously tight gaps between the vehicles themselves. A hard right put her on a clear course to the plaza's closest entrance. She gunned the bike, surging through the rapidly thinning traffic and up onto the pavement itself. A gap between two commercial towers beckoned, tantalizing glimpses of the plaza beyond drawing Aoi forwards.

"On site," she reported. "What's the situation?"

"Having FUN!" That was Theresa. Aoi sighed a little.

"Jinsei backup got here a minute ago," Kami interjected. "Get in behind and cut them off from their flier."

"Got it." She tore between the two buildings and into chaos. The crashed spinner was the centre of the proceedings, with a squad of troopers covering two men pulling out of its body. Kami was crouched behind a much-abused public terminal cradling an assault rifle in her hands and waiting for her opportunity. Across from them, she saw Theresa dash past, spraying a machinepistol one-handed before diving behind a low concrete embankment. And opposite her allies, with troopers and wreckage separating them was a slate-grey troop transport, doors open and ready for dust off.

The bike turned sharply, dashing behind the pillars that ringed the plaza. Focusing on the transport, Aoi circled the fire fight at breakneck speed, avoiding the shooters' attention for now. Once she was past their line, she turned again and shot out of cover, tearing straight at the transport. A couple of the soldiers turned their attention and fire on her but Kami used their distraction to her advantage, a short burst keeping their heads down and clipping one.

A soldier stepped from the back of the transport ahead of her, sighting Aoi immediately. His rifle raised and opened fire, even as the motorbike tore at him. Rounds spanged off the armoured screen at the front tore into the body and clipped Aoi's thick combat leathers. Desperate, she killed the engine and turned the bike, letting its momentum carry it side-on to the transport, tires scoring twin paths on the tiles in protest. In one smooth motion she yanked a grenade from her belt - Kami's purchases for the mission had been thorough - primed it with a squeeze and flung it into the transport's gaping rear even as she tumbled from the bike. It careened straight into the soldier, taking out his legs and sending him sprawling, tangled in its disintegrating frame. The grenade detonated, shaking the transport from within and grounding it permanently. And Aoi rolled and tumbled from the impact until her back smacked into a tree, bringing her to a jarring halt. She cried out, arching her back before falling again.

Aoi quickly regained her senses. Across from her, Theresa was in amongst the guards, beaming in pure delight. A pistol and knife flashed in her hands as she ducked, wove and spun between them, their numbers thinning. A pair backed out of the hurricane of violence, only to be caught by a tight burst from Kami, cutting them both down. She glanced across, sighting the target as he and his bodyguard disappeared into a subway entrance.

She swore, loudly, over the channel. "In pursuit," she added as she sprang after the duo. Behind her, a throat-high slash dropped the last of the Jinsei troopers with a spray of blood. Theresa glanced around, only to have Kami tear past her in hot pursuit. She joined in the chase.

"Does she always do this?" Theresa asked casually as she quickly descended into the underground passage.

"Run on ahead?" Kami had her sights on the target, well ahead of them but mostly obscured by the crowd. "Pretty much."

Up ahead of the two, Aoi cursed as she ran. Pain was shooting up and down her back, and she knew she'd have a nasty bruise on her shoulder from tumbling off the bike. At least the target was still in sight, although in this crowd she wouldn't dare take a shot. Somehow, the plan was falling apart. If she'd hit her target, they wouldn't have been reinforced. If she'd done her job right...

Witchcraft's voice suddenly broke in on her thoughts. "Chatter's coming through. They're getting a pickup at the top of a construction site a block away. Details inbound."

Aoi blinked in recognition. She had passed that site on her way to the plaza. She veered off, suddenly vaulting over turnstiles and cutting across the upper level of a train station. "I'll cut them off. You two keep up the chase."

"Great," Kami muttered as Gem vanished from sight. "What are we supposed to do?"

"Slow them down," Theresa shot back. Aiming high, she fired twice with her pistol. The effect was immediate, the gunshots raising screams from the crowd in the passage. Panicked pedestrians ran everywhere, suddenly filling the arching tunnel and slowing progress almost to a crawl.

She started shoving, elbowing and outright kicking pedestrians out of her way as she drew closer on the target. "Some days, I love this job."

Someday, it'll be another office block, Aoi mused as she approached. A small collection of workmen were being shuffled out of the site, mostly obscured from view by the temporary brown fencing. A Jinsei banner dominated the proceedings from this side. She hopped, kicked off a metal pipe and grabbed the top of the fence, easily hauling herself over. She was immediately engulfed by the work within.

The bare skeleton of the office tower rose around her. At its centre, perched atop a concrete and steel column were the long and powerful arms of an enormous construction cyberdroid. Numerous smaller models stood idle around the grounds in amongst the nearly stacked materials, their blocky and utilitarian forms only hinting at humanoid ancestry. For now they were deactivated, no doubt clearing the way for the defence and rescue of their VIP. Aoi was only glad to be here ahead of the troops.

A brief glance at a site map showed her the landing pad by the massive cyberdroid, no doubt their planned point of exit. She traced a path to a massive freight elevator, and was soon ascending through the structure.

"Give me an update," she said over the comms.

"Spinner inbound, ETA just under two minutes. Orders are to fan out and secure the site; number of assailants is unknown."

A plan formed in her head. "Get that Kami, Foxhound?"

"Check." Kami's voice was cool and collected, though Aoi could hear a trace of exhaustion in it. "We'll be onsite just after they land."

Aoi checked over her equipment. A second grenade was at her belt, a submachinegun was strapped across her back and she felt the comforting weight of her customised pistol tucked into her jacket. She briefly wished she had brought along her cane, but knew that it would have just slowed down her pursuit.

Overhead, the roar of heavy turbofans separated from the general droning noise of the city around her. She halted the lift and hopped out, still several levels below the rooftop pad. For now she weaved her way in between the metal pipes, the plastic sheets, the plasterboard and the gaping floor that made up the building so far. Deep in its heart, she found pooling shadows and barriers to the light where she hid, waiting.

Theresa was not having fun. The crowd was thicker and stupider than she had expected, and kicking random bystanders lost its appeal knowing that each kick meant a fat bounty and Aoi's favour had inched away from her. Funnily enough, Urban Camo Barbie at her side had no problem with the wanton violence, but likewise wasn't taking part. Another break between the two? Fun stuff.

For now, the crowd was moving with them, muscular action on all sides squeezing them upstairs and into daylight. The fleeing mass of humanity dispersed as they exited, most veering away from the towering construction that stood before them. A pair of workmen held the site gate closed, even as one fumbled with a lock and chain. Tap, tap, no more workmen.

Kami stepped ahead and eased open the gate, peering through the gap. For her part, Theresa looked up and down the street for other entrances. "He's at an elevator, no sign of troops," she reported.

"Copy," Gem replied. "Flush him upwards, and keep your eyes open for troops." A beat. "Be careful, okay?" her voice was softer, tender. Theresa wished it was for her.

"Now we be targets." She shouldered open the gate and sprinted, machinepistol in hand. Fire opened up from levels above them, snapping and bursting through the many gaps around them. She sprayed wildly upwards as she ran, sowing chaos amongst her opponents. Too dark, too many obstructions to tell if she hit anything. She skidded to a halt behind a stack of metal piping which began to soak up rounds for her.

From the gate, Kami squeezed off two short bursts at their unseen assailants. Her fire was joined by a long spray from Theresa, leaning out of her hiding place. With no immediate return fire, Kami broke into a run, weaving her way between obstacles towards a nearby staircase. Gunfire opened up above them, was answered, and ended with a sudden scream. Soon enough, Theresa was beside her, checking up the stairs for targets.

"He's on his way up," Kami reported.

"And we've definitely gotten the goon squad's attention," Theresa added.

"Roger that," Aoi replied. "I'll be waiting for him."

Now their real task began. They began up the stairs, keeping a watch for targets. The more trouble they caused here, the more troops were liable to be called down, hopefully giving Aoi a clean shot at Mario when he reached the roof. Kami seemed less than thrilled at the idea of being a distraction, but Theresa couldn't imagine why. After all, she mused as a chest shot sent a soldier thudding down the stairs ahead of them, who wouldn't relish the chance to spread mayhem and discord amongst the ranks?

"I'm showing a large concentration of soldiers on your level," Witchcraft piped in. "They're spread out, but chatter says they're keeping eyes on each other."

Kami nodded. "Split up."

"Right." A sly grin played across her face. "That way we can do more damage."

She wound her way to the left, ducking temporary supports and plastic sheeting, weaving her way between plasterboard barriers and exposed cabling. She could hear the sounds of muted motion around her; an occasional scrape, a slow footstep or the low murmur of a nearby voice. Keeping low, she poked around a corner and found herself behind a Jinsei grunt.

The armour was clamshell composite and ballistic mesh; her handgun would be next to worthless against it. She fondly thought of the railgun she had shot down Mario's transport with and her mood soured, remembering how its magazine had run dry. Oh, my sleek black murder machine, I did love you, but you failed me in the end.

Focus. We're a distraction, remember?

And nothing distracts like some random violence. She reached behind her and slid a thin knife from its sheathe. She had picked it up in the Zone and called it 'Mine' on a whim. It was a very good knife, and they had made such beautiful music together. For now, she crept forwards with Mine ready to exploit a basic failing of the armour.

She rose swiftly behind the trooper. Her arm crossed his front and was dragged back faster than he could react. Blood welled from the gash in his throat, and he clutched his hands to the wound even as he fell, trying to keep his life from slipping away. His desperate gurgles must have crossed the communicator, as a second stepped into view.

Theresa's wired kicked up to its maximum and the world slowed around her. She was in motion as the grunt's finger squeezed, down and weaving as the rifle roared, lunging upwards before he could even move, driving Mine up under his chin and through his cranium. The body twitched, rifle still in hand, firing wildly. More fire joined the cacophony and she twisted, instinctively putting the body between her and the third soldier. It twitched and spasmed with every crunch and wet thud as one soldier's fire cut through the other's armour and flesh. Her free hand pulled a pistol from her hip and she fired from behind her improvised cover.

Her assailant dropped like a boneless sack. Theresa blinked and casually withdrew Mine from the guard's head. She let the body drop as she examined the pistol. It was an old, ivory-handled semiautomatic, no doubt more of an heirloom than a weapon to whoever in the Zone she'd killed for it. She glanced back at the soldier - very dead, two holes clean through the breastplate. Frowning, she popped the magazine out of the pistol's grip. Armour-piercing rounds, neatly stacked and ready, stared back at her. Huh. She vaguely remembered loading the cop-killers this morning, like she vaguely remembered doing some coke before the planning session. Oh well.

Muted gunfire reached her ears and she snapped her pistol up, looking around. Her senses were all enhanced, letting her virtually feel out the entire floor. She concentrated for a second. There, three guards. There, Kami. Cover, pop out, short burst, return. Two guards. It was almost mechanical, annoyingly precise and formal. The girl seemed so dedicated to killing, yet didn't seem to care about it at all. The philosophy was an affront to Theresa.

She's close... Her eyes wandered onto a plasterboard divider, splitting the incomplete room in half and separating the two combatants. One guard. It would be so convenient if something happened to her, so nice to get her out of the way. But Theresa couldn't have Aoi suspect her. But in the heat of battle... And it was only plasterboard.

A guard stepped up behind her. Theresa snapped up her pistol and fired, two rounds vanishing through the board even as she dove to one side. The world exploded in a cacophony of sound. Gunfire, all around her as she scrambled for cover. A wail of pain, from the radio. Desperation, Aoi's. Rifle rounds tearing up brickwork around her, inches from harm. Impacts, on the other side of the plasterboard. Cannonfire, her own pistol. The rending of plate and the thud of bodies. On both halves of the divided room, sudden silence.

"Got hit..." An audible grimace. "I'm okay."

Theresa's eyes widened. Surely those should have gone straight through her body armour, and last night's generous inspection would have revealed any dermal plating. Was she winged? It was hardly precise, but she was sure the blonde had been right in front of her. Rounding the temporary wall, she finally caught sight of her casualty.

Kami had already levered off her shoulderguards and Theresa watched as the harness opened, splitting front and back and revealing the injury. Her bodysuit was already darkening, a wide red stain welling out from two dark points and languidly creeping down her back. Theresa glanced at the backplate; she could see right through the two tiny holes in it.

"Not serious," Kami grunted out. Their eyes met and she raised a finger to her lips.

"Where were you hit?" Aoi's alarm was plainly obvious.

"I think it just scraped my shoulder. Nothing to worry about."

"Theresa, get to her. Please!"

Theresa smiled and cut in on the call. "Found her. Armour’s in bad shape, but she looks fine underneath it all."

"You're sure?" Aoi pleaded.

"Nothing to worry about."

"Just focus on your end," Kami interjected and cut the line. As soon as it was off, she let out a gasp of pain and slumped against the wall.

Theresa just shook her head as she looked down at Kami. "Geez, that should have gone right through you."

"Should have?" Kami asked.

Whoops. "Looks like it should have, rather." As she watched, Kami started stripping off the underlay, leaving her bare back exposed to Theresa. She knelt behind her ally and started sifting through Kami's emergency kit.

"I went for vital sheathing," Kami offered by way of explanation. "I'm tougher than I look."

That explained a lot. Vital sheathing protected certain vital organs beneath the skin and bone with individual armour. It was more intrusive and expensive than the traditional dermal armour, while it offered less protection and a risk of side-effects. The only plus was that it was invisible, unlike the unsightly lumps that dermal armour brought out. Tough, but still beautiful, especially for someone who liked to bare skin. Stupidly vain.

Theresa got to work. Antiseptic cleaner, self-adhesive patches, the works. She'd still need to see a doc, and that would hopefully put her out for a couple of days. Not an entirely wasted gesture after all.

"So why'd you lie to her?" Theresa shot bluntly.

"She couldn't do a thing, regardless of how badly hurt I was. This way she won't be worried about me, and can focus on her end."

Heartless. Keen. Theresa gave the dressing a final pat, eliciting a sharp shout from Kami. "Can you walk?"

"I think so... Just."

"Right." She hauled Kami to her feet, eliciting a gasp of pain that made her smile. Kami threw an arm over her shoulder and the pair started for the elevator.

"Do you think she'll need us?" Theresa asked.

"Not a chance."

Crouching, silent, shadowed, Aoi waited. Her customised pistol was in hand, comforting in its weight and grip. She'd checked, cleaned and prepped it this morning, hoping to avoid one of its all-too-frequent jams. Still, the parts were wearing out faster than ever these days. Maybe it needed replacing. With luck, she wouldn't even need to fire it.

She had been changing for a long time now, shucking layers of her old life - places, people, habits and now her line of work. This was just another change, another way to fully become the person she wanted to be.

And it was a new opportunity, too. She had felt something, working with Theresa that one time. A familiarity to her old life, her old behaviour, even her old way of thinking. She could tell Theresa had no future; soon she'd burn away all her opportunities and be abandoned. Like I was.

But Aoi saw it as a chance for both of them. She could repay the kindness everyone had showed her, the support that had brought her to this point. And she could help Theresa change, like she had, to become a better person.

She would save Theresa from herself.

She focused on the growing rumble of the cargo elevator. It rose slowly beneath her, carrying two figures into view. Her target, tall, olive-skinned and undeniably handsome. And his bodyguard, a shorter, long-haired Chinese man. He was alert, pistol outstretched, watching for trouble. Next to him, Mario straightened his suit. He looked as fresh as if he'd just stepped from his luxury spinner. Aoi flattened herself to the rear of a protruding pipe and waited.

The elevator ground to a halt. They rapidly stepped out before her, making a beeline for the transport that was waiting ahead of them. She took her opportunity, striding out and audibly cocking her pistol. Before they could respond, it was pressed against Musikiya's head.

"I'm bringing you in," Aoi said calmly, her gaze locking with the bodyguard's.

A hand lashed out. Even as she brought her gun to bare on the bodyguard, it was slapped from her grip. The Chinese man followed with a quick pair of knife-edge strikes which had her rapidly retreating. Already Mario was on the move and she was being driven away from him. She ducked a sweeping forearm and turned the motion into a spinning slide, taking Mario's feet out from under him and landing him on his chest.

Even as she sprang to her feet, the bodyguard was on her, elegant, sweeping kicks giving him reach. She blocked high, to her midriff, and a third to her chest which she roughly pushed away. This last one left him stumbling into her reach, and she surged forwards with a fast elbow strike. His face was struck but he spun with the blow, rolling inside her guard and behind her in an instant. She felt hard strikes on her back and a yank at her ankle, went sprawling and all but bounded back to her feet. Again they were separated, but this time Mario was behind him, clambering to his feet.

Hands low, stance loose, she watched her opponent for a second. He had called her bluff, known that she wouldn't shoot her objective and used him as a dead zone for her aim. Now he stood between them, slowly circling as his arms shifted from position to position. Soon, Mario would have a clear run at the transport. Like she'd let that happen.

She sprang, kicking high in the air. He dropped down under her, leg outstretched and hands poised to strike upwards. Even as he did she moved, surging past him. His arms whirled, a forceful windmill of strikes as he rose, twisting around to her. But she was already in position, dragging Mario's jacket down with one hand and rolling over his back. The bodyguard stopped short for an instant. Aoi grinned with delight and yanked hard, pulling Mario behind as she spin, dance-like around him. The motion turned into a punishing spin kick, catching him on the face and staggering him back a step.

"Works both ways, see?" Aoi said, smiling. Her grip on Mario was firm, and the executive seemed too terrified to act on his own. The bodyguard returned Aoi's satisfied smile and took a moment to loosen his cuffs before resuming his fighting posture.

They watched each other for a second more, him walking his slow, shifting circle around her as she adjusted to keep between the two men. She fired a quick snap kick, blocked as soon as she'd moved, and sprang back. A second, then he stepped in with a flurry of hand strikes. She blocked and stepped back, pulling Mario between them as he pulled his hands back. He struck out, but this time seized his charge and pulled him from his jacket, leaving it on Aoi's hand. Surprise flashed on her face, leaving her open. He took the chance to strike out with his palm, sending her staggering back. He followed up, spinning around into a powerful overhead chop. Aoi recovered in time, crossing her arms above her to catch the blow. She bent under the strike, sinking quickly into a low crouch. Then in one swift motion she sprung up, flipping backwards even as she leaped forwards, both feet catching him under his chin and flinging him off his feet. He crashed to the floor with a painful thud.

But he had bought his employer enough time. As she watched, Mario reached the transport parked half-way across the roof. He clambered through the open door, into the driver's cabin...

Where he'll find the driver cuffed and gagged. Aoi smiled as Mario's head shot out of the door, livid with anger. And of course, he can't do anything without the starter code, which would be...

The bodyguard slowly rose to his feet. Hearing Mario's curses, he turned once more to Aoi. She pulled the security card for the transport from her jacket and dangled it childishly in front of him.

He lunged, fingers reaching for the card in her right hand. She yanked it out if the way, striking with her left and taking advantage of his opening. He came back with an open palm, trying to slap the card from her hand. Now she pulled it behind her, stepping in with a low kick to his calves. The two were pressed against each other now, each with one hand outstretched, warring over the card, while they traded blows and blocks in tight proximity.

And all the while they both smiled with glee. He knows I'm playing around. It'd be smart of me to finish this now, but I haven't had such a match in ages. They parted, both twisting around as the card danced above and behind, and clashed once more. Now they were back to back, hands reaching across each other, feeling the warmth of the other's proximity. A chuckle of childish glee from Aoi was matched by the bodyguard's low snicker.

She's heavy, was all Theresa could think as she supported Kami. The blonde practically snuggled against her as they ascended in the cargo lift, but more than anything else, Theresa could feel her weight. Her bones must be reinforced, that's the only way to account for it. She could take a lot of abuse, no doubt... It vexed her. As they held one another, Theresa dreamed up ways to kill Kami.

The lift crunched to a halt. The open platform off the building's roof, completed early to use as a landing pad, stretched out in front of them. Ahead was an armoured Jinsei transport, and off to their right...

Kami surged forwards at the sight, wincing in pain and stopping abruptly as Theresa held out a hand to bar her path. "Don't," was all she said.

Across from them, Aoi and a Chinese man twisted around, opposite hands linked on something they couldn't see. They spun in place, both around the centre and each in place before separating, surging apart, each adopting an opposite stance; Aoi high and loose, her opponent low and rigid, stretched out.

"She's making art," was all the explanation Theresa gave.

"Stay with her," Kami said. She raised her rifle, gritting her teeth against the pain and started towards the transport. The cabin door opened and a dark-skinned figured leaned out. Mario.

Kami snapped up her rifle and fired. Two shots spanged off the armoured frame right by his head. She surged forwards, shouting "Freeze!" Mario immediately compiled, flattening his back against the hull, barely maintaining his composure as he stared down Kami's barrel.

Theresa nodded her approval as she strolled casually towards the match. Aoi was ducking, weaving between supports for coming furnishings and hopping over the occasional gap in the floor, all with a childish glee. His opponent, not bad looking, was a step behind, always reaching out to her, his moves circular, sweeping and elegant. She was beautiful to watch, and Theresa fancied dancing like this together.

But it was, sadly, time to go. "Alright, lovergirl. Time to wrap things up," she called out. Aoi's response was immediate. She flicked something from her hands, letting in slowly arc at her opponent. He straightened up, lunging with both hand to catch it. And lunging straight in to Aoi's follow-up, a flying side kick that caught her distracted opponent clean in the chest. He all but flew back, the object of desire scattering across the roof. His back struck a pillar and he rebounded, staggering and falling, dropping down one of the gaps in the roof.

Aoi scooped up the prize and turned to Theresa. She was dirty, scuffed and scraped, and had the makings of a nice big bruise on her jaw. But she glowed with victory, with the joy of the challenge. She strode towards Theresa with pride.

"Nice going," Theresa commented, letting a hand casually brush Aoi's arm.

"How is she?" was the reply, concern crossing her face.

"Hurt." Theresa gave a rare frown, her disapproval showing. "She didn't think you afford to worry about you."

Couldn't resist a dig at her, could you?

Aoi turned and scurried across the roof, headed for the showdown at the transport. Theresa shook her head, the smile returning to her face. She'd had fun. Stabbed some guys, shot a friend in the back and fired a stupidly big rifle. Just one loose end to tie up. She eased herself down a gap I'm the roof, landing with a thud by the prone bodyguard. His smile was broad, if strained. Happy through the pain.

She squatted down by him. "She likes you," Theresa said and put two bullets in his brain.

The transport soared. In the front, Theresa kept one eye on the sky and the other on her monitor, showing her three passengers. Aoi insisted that Kami should have told her how bad it was. Kami coolly repeated that Aoi could have done nothing but be distracted. Mario, bound and gagged, seemed fascinated by his captors' domestic squabble.

She'd seen so much of Aoi today; the fire and the madness. More and more she knew her path - to drive them apart, to take Rachel back from Kami, Silver, whoever. Of course, she didn't know if it was possible, if they were even the same person, or if she was just mad and imagining it.

We are mad. And we're not imagining it.

Oh, yes. She lit an elegant cigarillo and took a long pull. The hows would wait. Soon, she would begin.

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