By Max Fauth

In truth, it wasn't much like a hospital. The lights were dim and the room was small, barely enough for the patient's bed and a couple of visitors to stand. A 'cubicle hospital,' Theresa had called it, where the patients were isolated from each other, and the mobile beds were lined up with the room doors, letting them be moved in and out fast. But then again, it was hardly a real hospital.

The medical wing was small and compact, on the ground floor of one of the converted warehouses in Stone's Spycorp complex. A well-equipped facility to help those agents who'd encountered trouble on their chosen missions. Its latest patient rested on her side, tucked away under the sheets and trying not to think about the rounds pulled from her back only hours ago.

The lights brightened slightly as the door hissed open, revealing two figures beyond. Aoi's jacket was absent, revealing an ash-grey undershirt, filthy with sweat. Her hair was ruffled and she held a cold pack against her jaw and cheek. Beside her, Theresa was looking spotless, with her grey combat suit unzipped to a degree that Evelyn, now sitting up in bed, could appreciate.

They strode in wearing mismatched smiles. Aoi's relief was apparent, but Theresa's grin was inscrutable. Aoi all but bounded to her side, sweeping her up in a fierce hug.

"Okay, okay... Ow, seriously," Kami protested. Aoi quickly pulled backed. Kami looked into her lover's eyes and stifled a chuckle.

"What's so funny?" Aoi asked, caught between concern and a scowl.

"You," Kami answered, gently brushing her cheek.

Theresa leaned in, beaming at Aoi. "You look so cute when you're upset."

"I've got every right to be," she replied, arms folded. "You should have told me how badly hurt you were."

Kami's reply was calm and straightforward. "I couldn't have you worrying, not at such a late stage. I had Theresa to back me up, and the floor was clear."

When Aoi's scowl fell on her, Theresa raised her hands defensively, though the pose was belied by her amused grin. "Hey, she was the mission planner. I had to follow her lead."

Aoi sighed and shook her head. "Still... I guess being cooped up in here is punishment enough."

"Agreed." Kami flopped back on the bed, wincing as she lay down. "I'll be here a few days still. They have to complete the repair work in my cybernetics, then they can accelerate the skin repair."

Theresa nodded. "Leave you with a couple of nice holes on your back."

"No, I'm putting in extra to have the scarring undone." She winked at Aoi. "Have to look my best."

"Of course," Theresa said. Stupidly vain.

"Don't rush it, you hear?" Aoi gently took Kami's hand. "Take care of yourself."

The blonde cocked an eyebrow at her. "Isn't that meant to be my line, hmm?" Aoi's bashful smile was all the reply she needed.

A brief buzzing had Aoi scrambling for her phone. She glanced at it, then turned to the others. "The boss," she said simply. As Theresa watched on, she leaned down to peck Kami on the cheek, then fled from the room.

Turning back to Kami, Theresa asked "The boss?"

"The Empress," came the hushed reply. Theresa gave an appreciative whistle, and sidled up closer to Kami's side.

They stood on a frozen tableau for agonizing seconds until Kami gently reached out to stroke Theresa's hand. "Thank you," she said simply.


"Being there. Helping out. And for taking care of her."

Theresa shrugged. "I think she can take care of herself."

"She's just so good at getting herself into trouble."

"Oh, but you know best?" Kami's reply, a simple nod, spoke volumes. Always knows best, I'll bet. Woe be it to she who has an original thought around this one. "Well, she'll just have to manage for a few days then."

"And what about you?"

Theresa blinked. "Me? Hmm....” In truth, she had no solid plans. She had a fine place in the city and a lot of cash to blow, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to get in good with She of the Green Eyes. "I guess I'll just hang. Catch up with Aoi, maybe wreck some stuff together."

Kami nodded her approval. "You like her?"

"Yup," came the enthusiastic reply. "She kicks like nobody's business, and is just so easy to wind up."

"I meant," Kami replied, squeezing Theresa's hand for emphasis, "Do you like her?"

"Oh yeah." Theresa's grin stretched into a feral display of teeth. "Of course, you and her, and her being so straight laced....”

"You'd be surprised. She can be pretty wild. And I think being with you would be good for her. Let her relax, and loosen up some."

"Hang on....” You're pimping out your girl, and telling me it'll be good for her? Or is this just stage one to getting us both in together?

"This is a new period to her life... I want her to enjoy it as much as she can, but she's still too indrawn." Kami's gaze met Theresa's, her eyes warm and her smile genuine. "I know she wants to, that she wants you. Let her know it's okay."

Which matched so wonderfully to the little talk she had 'accidentally' overheard last night. Who cared for Kami's reasons, she was all but shoving the pair of them together. Where was the silver platter?

"We'll celebrate," Theresa stated. "I'm sure she's got a lot to party about, and I know all the best spots."

"Thank you."

Theresa waved her goodbyes and strode out. Thank me? For shooting you and stealing your girl? Maybe I should kill your puppy and get a medal for it. Things couldn't have been going better.

Each time she drove it, from her usual sedate chauffeur runs to the one, truly exhilarating car chase she'd had behind its wheel, Aoi marvelled at the Mercedes SL2028 AMG. It was luxury, sporty, bulletproof. Everything one could have wanted. Truly a vehicle for the elite, and more than anywhere else, she felt she belonged to that upper layer, to the money and prestige, when she was behind its wheel.

"Bring the car back to the tower when you're done. I don't quite trust security on the long-term parking."

"Security, right," Aoi repeated, eyeing her passenger on the rear-view mirror. Shion was dressed comfortably and simply, anticipating a calm and quiet flight. Of course, the sky-grey skirt and blazer that counted as simple for her were no doubt designer labels, and she couldn't even guess at the pedigree of the black turtleneck top.

"Everything I should need has been packed, but if anything else is required, I’ll ask you to express it over."

"Express, right." Shion held a wine glass in one hand and a data screen in the other. Legs gently crossed, reclining comfortably as if she were in a lounge, rather than approaching one hundred kph on the freeway. Elegance Aoi envied, that she knew she'd never have. But what she had...

"And you're to be adamant about contracts, regardless of the payment. I won't be taking any offers over the next week. Or... say... for three days after. Even my sister will be worn down by then."

"Adamant, right." She had Evelyn, and they were... Happy? They disagreed constantly, but they always made up. Stable? They had their rough patches, certainly, but every couple did... right? They weren't the best match, although they understood each other, they seemed to have more differences than anything else these days.

"Not that it should be a worry. Things are stable for now, or at the least progressing well without my input."

"Stable....” And then Theresa had shown up, and changed everything. She was drawn to her, as dangerous and lively as she was. And it was as much excitement as pity, knowing that unless something changed, Theresa had no future. She always felt there was something locked away inside Evelyn, something she couldn't let herself feel or express. But Theresa was so expressive, so emotional; it was all she could do not to get swept away.

"But there’s always the constant threat of invasion from Mars. Complete with flying saucers and giant tripods. It’s a nuisance, but what do you expect from bug-eyed monsters who want our women?"

"Monsters... What?" Aoi started, and glanced in the mirror again. Shion was focused on the datapad, her face a mask of indifference. Aoi saw her glance up, and their eyes met in the mirror.

"Something's distracting you," Shion stated more than asked.

A thousand thoughts raced through her head. What could she say? What did Shion know? Aoi had done her best to keep her business and personal lives separate, but could Shion have guessed she was seeing someone? That it was another woman?

She fixed her eyes back on the road, flushing with embarrassment. "It's nothing."

Behind her, she heard a sigh and the soft rustle of fabric. Her employer lay down the datapad, and she could feel the steely gaze boring into the back of her head. "Spit it out. I want you focused."

Aoi nodded, and proceeded as best she could. "There's a- someone I've been seeing, only we're not going so well at the moment. Only someone else likes me now, and....” She quietly trailed off, glancing at the mirror to see her employer drilling a ferocious stare into the back of her head.

Of course she was the wrong person to talk to. As far as Aoi knew, Shion had never had a long-term relationship outside her family. Still, Aoi needed to get this off her chest, and knew that she was as short of friends as Shion—perhaps even shorter.

The tension hung in the air for a long moment. Shion gradually gave a low hum, and leaned back once more. "Well, I appreciate your candour, vague as it was."

"Sorry," Aoi muttered nervously.

This elicited a simple shrug from Shion. "I asked. And I did mean it—I don't want you distracted." She contemplated her glass for a few moments, giving it a gentle swirl and taking a dainty sip. Eventually, she looked back to the mirror, taking in her assistant's lowered gaze and reddened cheeks.

"Just be honest," she abruptly stated. When Aoi glanced up, she pressed on. "Stupid, blunt honesty has been your best trait so far. Simply tell each the situation and judge by their responses."

Stupid? Blunt? While it was true she tended to run her mouth without thinking, surely that wasn't fair. And then she caught the faintest glimmer in her bosses' eyes. Of course Shion was making fun of her. "Thanks, boss."

"Any other drastic social matters I can solve?" If she was smirking, it was obscured by the glass.

"Only that they say....” She looked up, letting their eyes meet once more. "That you took out an entire Jinsei armoured division."

Shion blinked.

"Because one of them spilled your drink."

Shion gave a low, throaty chuckle. "Still it grows," she muttered to herself, her smile betraying a delight born of pure ego.

"Then we're done?"

Aoi nodded, replying with a sharp "Yes, boss."

Shion's gaze shifted once more, fixed again on her handheld screen. "I'll have you join me the day before the wedding. Hopefully you can sort things after a week....”

"A week. Right." Hopefully, she could.

Theresa was happy. She was in her finest outfit—no, her usual outfit, which happened to be her best—relaxed, rested, cleaned and still tingling from the hit she'd taken in the taxi on the way over. It seemed like nothing could dampen the mood, even if it hadn't been chemically supported. For tonight, she had a date, even if her date didn't know it yet.

She wound her way past the indistinguishable shop fronts, searching for the gateway to the tower above. A plain glass door gave way with a sigh of refrigerated air, then shut behind her, cutting off the noise of the street. A simple screen and keypad stood opposite her, just before the elevator. She punched in Aoi's number and buzzed.

Long moments passed before the screen lit up. A blonde girl in a strapless top filled it, peering curiously at her. She looked like everyone, although Theresa had never seen her before.

"Who's there?" The girl asked. Her face said teenager, her shape told an entirely different story.

"I'm here to pick up Aoi," Theresa simply replied.

"Oh, you're Theresa then?"

She wished for a hat to dramatically sweep with her deep bow to the camera. "The one and only. Can you put her on?"

"Sorry, she's not back yet." The girl gave a nonchalant shrug. "Shouldn't be too long, though."

So much for my big entrance. "Then what do I do?"

The blonde pushed a button on her end, and the elevator doors slid open. "Come on up. Might as well hang with us while you wait."

"Cool," was all Theresa said. She tilted the hat she didn't have, hooked her hands in her pockets and strolled nonchalantly into the elevator. As the doors slid shut she drew out a smoke, spotted the ever-present sign, and tucked it away with a sigh. She leaned against the back wall and waited.

The dreaded housemates, April and Keiko. Probably not Keiko, all things considered. From what she'd pieced together, they were Kami's live-in harem before Aoi came along. A pair of strippers from the Underground. Moved to the city proper along with Aoi and Kami. She couldn't imagine what they'd be doing upon leaving the Zone; probably just stripping for a different clientele.

The elevator finally arrived, and Theresa selected the appropriate door. Her rapid knocking was answered with considerable speed, April apparently lurking in wait for her.

"Welcome!" she all but bellowed and brushed Theresa inside. "Get you a drink?"

The strapless top was accompanied by short shorts and bright sandals. She seemed to shine like the afternoon sun, casting bright shadows and painting everything orange. That same glow illuminated the spacious living room before her, simple and minimally decorated. Theresa's gaze fell on the room's other occupant, lounging on a couch, who smiled gently in return.

She glanced back to April with a dismissive wave. "Nah, I'm good," she said as she strolled out into the room before her. "April and Keiko, I take it?"

The girl on the couch stood and nodded. She was Asian, about the same age and build as April, sporting a dark tee and a denim skirt. "That's us," she replied.

Theresa nodded as she glanced around. The place was comfortable, but impersonal, a nice place to visit but nothing to call home. Then again, how would two strippers and two killers decorate?

"It's a nice place."

April nodded, coming up behind Theresa. "Sure is. Have a seat?" She brushed Theresa's arm as she indicated the couch. Just wide enough for three if they were good friends. Theresa dropped down as Keiko sat, and April perched herself on an armrest. She was surrounded.

"So tell me," Theresa began, cutting off their incoming questions. "How do a pair of beauties like you wind up with a pair of solos like Aoi and Eve?"

While Keiko twittered in delight, April leaned over and began. "Well, I've known Silver the longest." Not possessive at all. "We worked together at the Underground, then we became partners, then we became roommates, then....”

I'll bet that took whole minutes. "And you?" Theresa asked of Keiko.

The other girl gasped and all but stumbled over her words. "I was ah... In service... To the Yaks. But Eve rescued me."

"So the three of you?" Theresa cocked an inquisitive eyebrow for punctuation.

April took over the tale. "Not with Keiko. I mean, I took her in, but Eve didn't seem to want her. Which is weird, 'cause we never had problems sharing before."

"She didn't trust me." Theresa turned back to Keiko. "I don't mind really, she was right to be concerned."

"Well I still love ya." April leaned over and playfully tousled Keiko's hair. All of a sudden, Theresa needed a sharpie.

"And that's when Aoi showed up?" she prompted.

"Actually, they were together before I met Silver," Keiko replied.

April took over. "I just came home one morning and found her stumbling naked out of Silver's room." She let out a shrill cackle, both at the memory and Theresa's aghast expression. "And suddenly Aoi's clinging to her. She wouldn't let me anywhere near her," the girl added with a pout.

"They were just an item, out of the blue?"

Keiko nodded. "When I met them, Aoi and Silver were going steady. But April was there for me." The pair exchanged saccharine-sweet glances.

Theresa could see just how it had been presented to them. Their saviour, all light colours, suddenly enamoured with the short, dark and scary newcomer. She wondered if Keiko ever realized she was a consolation prize for April. Then again, the girl seemed content to just fawn over Eve from a distance.

Who were these two before they had been crushed? Is this what awaited Aoi? Endless doting on an emotionally distant saviour while she took on yet another girl to break? The more they rambled, the more resolved Theresa became.

It was the right thing to do.

Theresa noticed the door opening before either of her hostesses. She gave an expansive wave as Aoi stepped in, dressed in a gray chauffeur's outfit, complete with floppy hat. On her small frame it looked outrageous, humiliating and awfully cute.

"Theresa?" Aoi asked. She stepped into the room, pulling off her cap and letting her long hair tumble down her back.

The girls turned in surprise. April all but leapt off the couch, calling out her hellos whereas Keiko waved modestly and, Theresa couldn't help but notice, shrank away ever so slightly.

"What are you doing here?" Aoi asked.

"Coming to pick you up, of course." Theresa's grin broadened as she saw Aoi's puzzlement. "Just thought we could head out, hit the town together." She seemed surprised, but Theresa pressed on. "Just because Eve's indisposed doesn't mean you have to go lonely." She shot a wink at April who gasped in delight.

Aoi glanced between the three of them, deep in thought. At length she simply said "Sure." She stepped into the kitchenette, moving with practiced ease. "If only to keep you safe from these two."

April put on a show of pouting, hand on hips and head tilted. "Really, what do you take us for?"

Aoi's hands moved to the fridge and cupboard, even as she glared at April. "After how you treated Raven?" Tomato juice, vodka. Hmm. "I don't think I should answer that."

"Oh, that's not fair!" April huffed. "You know she was having fun."

"The drink helped, I'm sure." She finished pouring and gave her concoction a gentle sip. "Give me ten to get changed, alright?"

"Make it good!" Theresa replied.

Aoi nodded, cast a fierce glance at April, and wound her way upstairs to the loft. "And you two behave," she called down.

"Not if she doesn't want us to," April called back. Aoi rolled her eyes and vanished into her shared room.

"You guys don't get along?" Theresa asked, carefully watching Keiko.

"She thinks she's so special," April said, the disdain clear in her voice.

"She's okay, really. Just kinda reserved." There was a tone of something else in Keiko's voice. Doubt? Fear?

"Really, she'd enjoy herself so much more if she opened up like we do." With that, April winked to the others.

Theresa nodded knowingly. "Cool. I think I can help." The slightest gasp from Keiko confirmed her growing suspicions. "Actually, I may take you up on that drink."

April looked over to the kitchenette, then back to the couch. "What are you having?" She called back.

"Surprise me."

As April strolled behind the counter, Theresa nodded at Keiko and indicated to the balcony. "Shall we?" She asked.


Theresa led the way, opening the glass door into the cooling breeze. "Aah, nothing like it." As she stepped out, she drew and lit a cigarette in a single smooth motion. She took a few seconds to puff contentedly, before turning to study Keiko, away from prying eyes.

The Asian girl saw Theresa's smile fade, to be replaced with a look of concern. "What happened with Aoi?" she asked softly.

Keiko started, and stepped back from Theresa, stammering. "Wh-what do you m-mean."

"Keiko, I saw how you reacted when Aoi arrived. Like you were scared of her."

The girl shook her head. "It's not like that, it's just once, when she....” She trailed off into silence, looking away from Theresa.

She gently cradled Keiko's face in her hands, and turned the girl back to look at her. "Please, Keiko. Aoi is....” She paused, swallowing hard. "She's hurting. And I want to help her. But I need to know—to understand—what happened with her." She gently brushed Keiko's cheek as she drew away her hand. "Please. For all of us."

What a performance.

Keiko nodded, blinking hard to hold back tears. "Alright." She sighed and turned to the railing, looking out over the city. "It happened when I first met her. I was alone at our old place in the Zone, and Aoi showed up, looking for Silver. We got to talking and I made a pass on her."

"She turned you down?" Theresa asked softly.

Keiko shook her head. "No, she was really eager. We started making out on the couch, but she got really forceful, and aggressive." She suppressed a shudder, crossing her arms tightly as if to ward off a chill. "She bit me, forced me down. She got this really cocky grin, like she could do anything she wanted to me. Then she—she started to choke me."

That was Aoi? That repressed, straight-laced girl? It couldn't be.

It has to be.

"What happened?" Theresa said, gently placing her hands on Keiko's shoulders.

"She just stopped. Dead still, like she didn't know what was going on. I ran, I shut myself in my room, and she starts....”


Keiko turned to face Theresa. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes red and moist. She gazed up at the other woman, equal parts horror and confusion on her face. "She begged me to... To forgive her."

Theresa blinked in shock. "Just like that?"

"She said she wasn't like that, that she didn't want to hurt me....” She paused, fumbling for words. "She said she didn't do that, like she was....”

"Another person?" Keiko nodded to Theresa's soft words. A strange feeling, a trembling of delight grew in her, seeming to run down her spine. It was true! Aoi was Rachel, and had been again, even if for a few short moments. Now she was sure. She had to find a way to bring that feeling back, bring that person back. If she could copy the circumstances, somehow...

"Ta-daa!" April appeared behind them with a shout, multicoloured concoction in hand. Keiko started, letting out a little yelp, whereas Theresa spun in place, hand reaching for Mine stashed at her back before she recognized the blonde.

Theresa blinked, eyes transfixed on the layered, neon drink. "What is it?" she finally said, dumbfounded.

"Try it," was all April replied, offering the glass. With a nonchalant shrug, Theresa seized it and drank deeply. She drew back, glancing in bewilderment between the glass and the server. "Whaddya think?"

"Strong." Overwhelming. "Sweet." Sickly. "A good mixture." Haphazard. "I like." It is a crime.

"Cool, thanks! Glad ya like."

Theresa stepped back inside and put the glass down on a side table, hoping to never touch it again. "So where were we?"

"Bringing you up to date on the goss,” April replied, keeping close to her. Behind them, unnoticed, Keiko dried her eyes.

"Oh yeah!" Theresa turned back to the blonde. "So Aoi's with Silver, and you're with Keiko. And that's the way it's been since?"

"Mostly," April replied. "Just recently Silver fooled around while on a business trip to Japan. They had a fight over that one."


April shrugged. "I don't know what Aoi was so fussed about. She's always known what Silver's like. Why does Aoi think she won't see other girls?"

Which made sense. Why should Theresa pin herself down to one man at a time? Somehow, she knew Rachel would understand.

Keiko stepped in behind them, saying "And there was Rachel, too."

What? "What? But she's-"

Quiet you fool, you'll blow everything.

"I got it, I got it." Rachel? When, how, where? Was she wrong? How could she be? Everything made sense. It all connected, but if Eve and Rachel had been together after Aoi came along....

She realized the twins were staring at her. Between her outburst and her gaping stare, that was hardly surprising. She blinked twice, and rallied. "Yay high? Messy blonde?" She asked.

April nodded. "You know her?"

"Oh yeah." Theresa's feral grin spoke volumes. "Fun girl. Real wildcat." She nodded, arms folded. "You three and her must have been a real party."

"Hardly," April replied. Pouting seemed to be her natural state. "She was dressed for it, but was really reserved. I mean, it figures." She began stalking about the room, punctuating her rant with widely-flung arms. "Silver finally lets up and takes out another girl, and she's just as straight-laced as Aoi." She ended by the kitchen counter with a monumental huff.

Gears ran wild in Theresa's heads as different threads pulled together. All she needed to know... "What did Aoi make of that?"

"Don't know." It was, of course, Keiko's turn. "She was gone for weeks when it happened. Next we saw her, she was moving us into this place."

Time out enough for two bouts of massive cosmetic surgery? She'd done the research, and it was possible with the top clinics to go through such a radical change in a very short time. There were telltale signs left over, but nothing Theresa could tell without a closer inspection. It would take a huge amount of money as well, but from the timeline, it seemed she'd turned back into Aoi about the time she started working for the Empress. Money to burn...

And she had been, for want of better words, Aoi in Rachel's body. Probably went back under the knife after a reversion, like what happened with Keiko. Oh, this was more than possible now. And as for the trigger...

"Sorry to keep you," Aoi's voice called from above. All three turned to see her descending from the loft. Her wooden cane tapped in time with heavy combat boots, wrapped around her tight, blue-black jeans. With the drooping, off-balance belt, they only served to emphasize her long, gorgeously toned legs. The shirt was black with a mandarin collar and caught the light with a gentle shimmer. Her right arm was bare, but the left had a form-fitting translucent sleeve with its own leather bracelet as a cuff. Red embroidery trailed across her back and down her arm, but for now Theresa couldn't make it out. Her hair was pulled up in a rough bun, with two long green pins protruding from it. A riot of silver at one ear, a pearl stud at the other.

You're staring.

"I don't care," Theresa muttered, not bothering to deny it. Behind her, Keiko cooed appreciatively. Fear and desire? What was going on with that girl?

"You clean up well," April said smiling, cheerfully two-faced.

"Shall we?" Aoi said, indicating to the door.

Theresa stepped up, wrapping an arm around Aoi's waist and not-so-gently guiding her ahead. "Oh we shall," she replied.

Yes, we most definitely shall.

As the pair departed, Theresa briefly turned and winked to the wretched, wasted shells she left behind. "Don't wait up," she said.

Aoi couldn't find the words to describe her feelings as she idled her way down a nameless Neo York street alongside Theresa. In truth, she had been planning just such an outing and had prepared her outfit for this very night. But she was meant to be with Eve, celebrating their success, and Aoi's shift in career. It was the end of an era for her; no more scraping for corporate missions as she had since she could fight. That lifestyle had brought untold heartache and pain, and she was glad to be out of it.

But instead, here she was with Theresa, and that alone excited her. She was dangerous and wild, her behaviour so familiar. At times Aoi felt she was staring back through the years, at her own downward spiral of self-destruction. And yet that same reckless abandon brought with it a fierce magnetic energy that she couldn't help but be drawn to. She wanted to help Theresa, to save her from the inevitable downfall and demise that had nearly taken her. But just as much, she wanted to be with Theresa, to bask in her vigour and fire. And that made her afraid she would do something foolish.

She had made a commitment to Evelyn. Not only to keep her lover close, but to keep herself away from the same wild affairs that had punctuated her younger years. And yet Eve had encouraged her, again and again to be with other women, to experience more of the world and its pleasures rather than narrowing her view. And a few nights ago, she had all but told Aoi to sleep with Theresa. Somehow, she knew Theresa had similar instructions. And Aoi was afraid that was what she - no, what they both wanted.

Should she have refused this night, their 'date?' The air between them was charged, making things unpredictable. But she felt that Theresa was drawn to her too, in just the same way. This attention they shared would be the best chance to connect with her, to show her the mistakes, the indulgence, the foolishness that had nearly cost her everything. Somehow, she knew she would get through to her...

She glanced aside to her companion. Theresa had been seemingly enjoying the silence, watching the brightly dressed partygoers pass with varying degrees of interest. But even as one turned her head, she would be back to Aoi in an instant. Seeing the attention on her, Theresa winked and pointed ahead.

"What have you got?" Aoi asked, her voice raised above the crowd. People were moving in and out of the local dance clubs, creating an undulating tide of brightly-coloured humanity.

"Bite to eat first, then we hit a place I know up ahead." Theresa pointed at a little stand up ahead, wedged in between larger and more inviting entrances. Glancing ahead, Aoi recognized the sign and smiled.

"A Silver Diner," she said. A fully automated fast food stand with a touch screen menu and machine- prepared food. This one consisted of little more than a bench in front of a counter, with meals no doubt deployed straight onto the counter once ordered.

"Cheap and impersonal, that's me." Theresa swung her legs up and over the bench, planting herself firmly in front of the screen. It was playing a string of ads, but with a flick of her finger Theresa summoned the menu.

Aoi stepped over and sat, laying her cane across both their knees. It was a tight fit with the other patrons, and she found herself pressed against Theresa's side. The other woman gave her an indecipherable smile, as much surprise as desire. Trying to ignore it, Aoi busied herself with the menu.

Theresa watched as her partner selected an item with a few deft strokes. "You know this place?" She asked.

Aoi nodded. "Last time I was at one, I was in a firefight. That was a crazy night."

"Did the Ministry of Good Taste hit up the place?"

Aoi couldn't help but chuckle. "No, a bounty hunter. I think. Never did find out who hired him."

Theresa gripped one arm and aimed a finger pistol at a nearby patron. "Bang," she called out, drawing a few glances. "Not much left to ask either, right?"

Aoi shook her head, but her reply was cut off by a chime. The screens before them slid up, and a pair of steaming bowls of ramen were ejected on mechanical arms. A dispenser shot out spoons and chopsticks, then the whole array vanished once more behind the touch panel.

"I love that part," Theresa said. She glanced between their bowls, and raised a chunk of chicken as Aoi slurped on her noodles. "No meat?" Theresa asked.

Aoi glanced at her bowl and shrugged. "I was raised by a devout Buddhist, so I'm sort of vegetarian by habit."

"Don't worry, this hardly counts." Theresa popped the offending item in her mouth and made a face.

"It's not that big an issue... Just a preference."

Theresa nodded. "Cool. I take it the nonviolence bit didn't work out."

"I should have listened better, really. Could've saved me a lot of trouble." They both paused a moment to enjoy their meals. Truth told, it wasn't so bad, but Aoi still felt it was somehow unnatural.

"On that..." Theresa began, and held off for a loud slurp. "Well, I wouldn't have thought it. People keep saying you used to be really wild."

Aoi nodded solemnly. Even when she had first taken this appearance, she had still been trouble. It was only so recently - the last year? Less? - that she had become more responsible. "It took a lot to beat that into me though," she said, as much to herself as to Theresa.

Aoi laid down her chopsticks and turned to her friend. "The way I acted, the way I lived, brought me so much trouble." She watched as Theresa laid down her own utensils and met her gaze. "I alienated my friends and turned on my family. I kept fighting for no reason, just to satisfy my childish impulses. And I brought it all down on my own head."

"Whf hffnned?" Theresa asked, her mouth still full.

"They gave up, let me die. And so I lashed out at them, and bought myself more trouble. In the end, my old employers hunted me down."

Theresa swallowed hard, locked in her green gaze. "And Eve saved you."

"Her and others. I learnt a lot from them, to be responsible and respect other people." They sat still for a moment before Aoi returned her attention to her meal.

"Where does that leave you?"

Aoi shrugged. "Trying to make up for what I've done."

"Huh," was all the reply Theresa gave. Each resumed dining, thinking about what had been said, and what had passed between them.

Out of the blue, Theresa reached out and wrapped an arm around Aoi's shoulders, pulling her close in. She suddenly planted a small peck on Aoi's cheek, leaving her flushed.

"What was that for?" Aoi burst out.

"Thanks," Theresa said, drawing back. "For sharing. And for trusting me enough to share."

"Sure." Had she gotten through? Did Theresa see the similarities? For now she couldn't tell, but she would keep with it over the course of the night.

Theresa pulled away, dabbing delicately at her lips with a napkin. A frown crossed her face, and she looked around distractedly.

"Something wrong?" Aoi asked.

"Oh, you know." She grinned in embarrassment and indicated to one side. "Gotta, y'know..."

Aoi nodded, an easy smile on her face. "Sure. I'll finish up here."

"Back in a flash!" Theresa called out. With that, she sprang to her feet and dashed away.

Jill the Ripper felt exposed. The Need had come to her, with no time to prepare. Not that she had a stash nearby; without her coat and hat, she could be identified. The risk was great, but the Need was unrelenting. It added a new layer of danger, a new thrill that heightened her anticipation of the deed to be done.

The alley was broad, but filthy. A wide cleft between two red-brick cliffs, seemingly a natural catchment for the waste that swept by the streets at either end. Ahead of her a lone figure slouched slowly forwards, hands in his pockets and a red ember at his lips, eyes fixed on the neon words that illuminated the street beyond. Jill closed in with stealth and speed, feeling the heat of his proximity before he realized the alley was otherwise occupied.

Mine slid from the leather sheath at her back, slipping its restraint without a sound. She reached across and back, flashing the blade through yielding flesh with practiced ease. A new grin appeared at his throat, then split wide in a mirthless laugh. She pressed against his back, one hand clamped down on his mouth to silence his inarticulate gurgles, the other holding down on his body's new vent.

Crimson life flowed between her fingers, thick and rich and warm. The feeling was narcotic, the closeness of his body as the spirit fled from it sending a pure and organic thrill through hers. She sighed, gasped with the heat of it... But all too soon it was over. She let the limp form slip from her hands, let it slump to the ground like and empty sack, its contents taken and consumed. Jill glanced down at her red right hand, hypnotised by its colour as she drew it ever closer. She gave one finger a lick, then another, savouring the lingering warmth.

Aah, but that was enough indulgence for now. The Need was satisfied, and she should be moving, lest she be missed or discovered. She turned back the way she came, drawing out a handkerchief to dispose of the last of the evidence.

"All done!" Theresa called out, pitching a scrunched-up hand towel into a nearby bin.

"Likewise," Aoi said. She swung her legs back over the bench and stood, easing herself up with her cane.

Theresa gently tapped Aoi's cane as she guided the other woman down the street. "What's the deal with the stick, anyway?"

"Leg almost got twisted off by a psychokinetic once. I had to get this and a mechanical brace just to walk for a while."

Theresa gave a low whistle. "Impressive. That you lived." When Aoi gaped at her, she giggled in an uncharacteristically girlish fashion. "You're so cute when you're shocked. No, as I hear, most PKs don't like leaving survivors around. Bad for their rep, or something."

Aoi nodded, thinking immediately of her own employer. "That I can relate to. But the more I think of it, the more it seems she just wanted a good fight."

"Not that you minded, right?"

"Well..." She had to admit it, as embarrassed as she was. "I guess so. It was a chance to test my skills, a chance I doubt I'll ever get again. A real one-on-one with an Esper." Theresa peered at her, deeply pondering her words. "I guess I just wanted a good fight too."

Theresa nodded, to herself as much as to Aoi. "I like it," she said and abruptly seized her friend's arm, almost throwing her off balance.

Aoi flushed once more, her heart racing. She hadn't felt like this since she first met Evelyn, so long ago now. She had fought it then, tried to deny the attraction, but had lost out. And she felt the same impending struggle now.

How did Theresa feel? What little she'd seen of the other woman told Aoi that she wasn't shy with her feelings. But was this genuine affection or overstated friendliness? How could she know? All she could measure against was her overly direct flatmates and her professionally cold employer, none of which were good examples.

I need to meet some normal people, Aoi thought to herself with a chuckle. Theresa blinked at her, asking "What's got you now?"

"N-nothing," Aoi stammered and immediately cursed herself. She was acting like a child! She needed to stop thinking about these feelings, to stop getting so flustered. Change the topic, already. "So where are we headed?"

"You'll like it," Theresa said, indicating to a squat, circular corner building. "I figured you weren't much for dancing, so I picked out a gaming-sports-bar-kinda-place." She took in Aoi's doubtful expression and grinned in a less than reassuring fashion. "You'll like it."

Aoi blinked. "What the hell," she said, as much to herself as her partner. Nodding her approval, Theresa lead as much as dragged Aoi across the street and inside.

The gaming-bar-place (Aoi didn't catch the name in all the noise) composed of a single large bowl-like room. Several circular tiers of tables lead down to an open section in the centre, strangely unobscured by customers. Around the outer walls were booths, the bar and a variety of screens showing what looked like betting odds. The patrons all seemed fixed on displays on their own tables, or watching the empty central area with clear anticipation.

"What is this place?" Aoi asked. Any reply was cut off by a booming announcer's voice and the crowd's cheers. Theresa guided Aoi to an isolated booth where they both crammed in.

"Just watch," Theresa eventually said in reply. Two figures formed in the centre, clearly holographic projections. Aoi whistled appreciatively at the sheer scale of the setup, as the two began circling each other throughout the entire chamber. A loud claxon signalled a sudden conflict, and they rushed at each other.

"Whole place is set up around a video game," Theresa all but yelled over the cheering crowd. "The patrons can buy in, customize their playing pieces and beat the crap out of each other without leaving their tables."

Aoi watched in awe for a moment as the two clashed. A spiky mass of muscle, human in only the most generous terms, was keeping the pressure on a figure that closely resembled a popular musician. As she watched, the musician was thrown across the room, soaring right in front of her to be followed by the muscled mass cruising over her table.

She turned back to Theresa and nodded happily. "How do we get in?"

Theresa shot back a cocky grin that seemed remarkably familiar. "I set up a couple of accounts and characters ahead of time. I somehow figured you'd want to beat the tar out of a badly designed meat slab." She leaned over and pointed at the screen. "All the options are there, and you can control it with the console or by DNI."

At Theresa's direction, she scrolled through the options and waivers to get started. The account was waiting for her, with one pre-made character, a bundle of moves bound to a 3D model, customized by her date. Aoi selected to preview it-

And stared herself in the face. Her other self, her earlier self. Green eyes met green, glanced over ratty blonde hair, tied in a high tail. The outfit was black combat leathers, strategically shredded for show. It was all too real, too accurate. She felt herself drawn to the image, the perfect replica, as if she was looking back through the years.

How? Why? Was this even possible? She felt her body shake, gripped in fear. Memories came flooding back, feelings of perverse elation at the fury she inspired in others. Untouchable, unstoppable. Free! The Zone was her chew toy, all there for her to hurt, just because it was fun. And nobody could lay a hand on her, no matter what she did. Because there would always be...

She tore herself away from the image, gasping like a diver surfacing mere seconds from a watery end. Sensations came flooding in once more; the light of the holoprojectors; the booming of the announcer over the growl of the crowd; the look on Theresa's face...

It was haunting. Lips frozen, slightly parted, mid-gasp. Her cheeks, flushed ever so slightly with desire. And her eyes, deep and dark and wide, bottomless voids that seemed eager to eat her up. What had Theresa seen that had brought her to this state of chilling ecstasy?

Aoi blinked. Time returned in a rush, the events pressing in around her. Theresa's hand on her arm, concern on her face, her eyes bright and alive. Had she imagined it?

"What's wrong?" Two simple words from Theresa managed to revive her.

"That character... Where, how did you...?"

Theresa looked down at the screen, puzzled. "Her? Hmmm..." Her eyes scrunched up and she twisted a finger against her brow. She suddenly looked up, joy spreading across her face. "Yeah! I saw her out one night with this other blonde, about... Hrm, late last year? I remembered thinking she'd make a cool action girl, so here she is. Whaddya think?"

Late last year was when she had 'reverted.' And she had even gone on a date with Kami before returning to being Aoi. Theresa must have seen them together. She breathed a sigh of relief, glad that Theresa hadn't recognized Kami. Surely, she couldn't think Aoi and Rachel were the same person? No, that was preposterous. She had nothing to go on.

"You're up!"

Aoi blinked again. Her screen had lit up, showing the game commands and moves the character had been loaded with. Already the muscled mass from before had materialized in the centre of the chamber. Theresa leaned over and started punching on commands, then extracted a cable for her.

"I queued you up while you were checking out the character," she explained. "Of course, your opponent is the reigning champion...”

"Right," was all Aoi could say. She hesitantly plugged the cable into her datajack. The room swam and refocused. Now she was floating above the crowd, opposite the monstrous opponent. Statistics floated at the edge of her vision - health, energy, time remaining and so forth. The room around her was rendered in photorealistic detail; with a glance, she spotted her own body bearing a distinct vacant expression, common on those jacked into computer systems. And looking down she saw her own, old form, lovingly rendered. A lock of blonde hair flicked past her vision. It was weird, to be separated now physically as well as emotionally from her old self; now more than ever she was two different people.

A booming voice brought her back to the fray at hand. The announcer - a curious figure in a crimson suit with an eyepatch - had already barked out the character's names. She tensed, ready for action. She had no idea what to do, but decided with a smile that she would throw down and try it anyway.

"Let's get things started!" The announcer bellowed, whipping off his jacket in a dramatic gesture. "Fighters all set! Ready, go!"

Everything happened at once. The roar of the crowd drowned out the announcer's call, over which the bell could only barely be heard. Up! She thought and her figure, Rachel, followed suit just as the opponent made a ponderous fist-first charge. She 'thought' different directions, letting her figure flit back, down and to the sides to avoid follow-up rushes from her foe. Movement seemed easy enough, so she tried other mental commands. An order - Block! - brought up Rachel's arms as the next charge landed. She was thrown back by the force of the blow, even if the damage was minimal.

Already her passive tactics had the crowd jeering, and from her current position she could see Theresa pouting in disappointment. Even as she worked on deflecting an assault from her foe, she accessed a list of moves. Images of her different attacks downloaded into her mind. They were wild, varied and generally flashy. Just how she used to fight.

A wide left hook swung at her, but she was ready. Rachel ducked under the swing, driving an elbow into the foe's abdomen. A follow-up punch was blocked in good time, leaving her open. Her seized her outstretched arm and flicked her half-way across the chamber. She vaulted in mid-air, coming upright in time to flit aside from a powerful charge. Again he swung at her; this time she surged back to see his free arm come down in a hasty block. She crashed into his chest heel-first, connecting over his guard and following with a quick kick to the head. He spun with the blow, turning it into a powerful backhand that sent her reeling.

He's got all power moves, and he's using them in a set chain. It flowed just like the previous fight she'd seen; an unending assault, inevitably beating down the foe. Charge, hook, block and spin again, but this time she focused on defence, parrying blow after blow in his sequence until a two-fisted thrust struck her guard and shoved her back once more.

He's fighting from a game guide, she thought. Someone decided the best moves for him, and he's just rattling them off. Below her, she spotted a dark-skinned man with his hair trimmed into brightly coloured rows, showing the exact same blank expression she was. Break his routine, force him to improvise and he'll be lost.

A crooked grin crept across her face. He charged yet again, only to be met by her own elbow thrust. The hulking form staggered, wide open. She dropped and spun, foot striking shoulder as she lunged downwards. By the time he had recovered to make his left hook, she was beneath him. A circular sweep to the back of his knees left him tumbling in the air, unable to respond. A flying side kick, shooting up at his exposed back, sent him hurtling away to rebound off the wall.

This was the feeling she longed for! The rush of power, outthinking, outfighting some fool, crushing him, grinding him beneath her heel. To know that she was smarter, to see that she was faster, to feel that she was stronger. She evaded and countered his predictable pattern of blows one after the other, her comparatively dainty form dancing around his. The crowd roared their approval of her, their acknowledgement of her superiority, their praise for her skill. He was nothing, a platform on which she demonstrated her prowess again and again.

He swung wild, left and right, pattern abandoned to lash out desperately as his life slipped away. Left and right she weaved, then surged up and over, one hand on his domed brow as she came down behind him. She made a show of wrapping her long sculpted legs around his throat, reaching gently forwards to embrace his head from behind... And with a resounding snap and a fierce cackle, wrench his head aside. The bell rang, the announcer proclaimed victory, the hulking figure faded away. She was left to flit about the room, an acrobatic victory lap tracing back to her table.

Where Aoi awaited.

She snapped back, perceptions twisting and reasserting themselves. Her skin was darker now, her hair jet black. She was seated - wasn't she flying? Impressions flooded her and she shook. Aoi. I'm Aoi.

"Niiice," Theresa purred in her ear. Her arms reached over, gently draped across her from behind. She felt the warmth of Theresa's body against hers, so close as to be intoxicating. A deep shuddering breath brought her Theresa's rich, musky scent full of promise and temptation. She shook her head and pulled forwards, out of her grasp. Not here. Control yourself.

"How was it?" Theresa asked, unperturbed.

"Intense." Truthfully, it was. She withdrew the cable, and let it reel automatically back into the socket at the table. Seeing Theresa eagerly looking for more, she continued. "It all felt so real, like I was, well..."

Theresa peered at her curiously, her eyes intense, burning into her. "Like you were...?"

"A different person," Aoi whispered.

Silence hung between them for aching seconds. Aoi turned, her gaze locked with Theresa's. What was that spark, that glimmer she saw in the other woman's eyes? What did this mean to her?

Theresa waved her hand dismissively. "Naw, that's just silly."

Aoi blinked as her date chuckled. She quickly joined in, flooded with relief. "Yeah, what was I thinking?" she asked herself as much as her companion. Theresa didn't suspect a thing. How could she? Aoi couldn't deny the feelings her fight had invoked, but they had passed. She was in control once more.

Enough worrying. She leaned back, looking around to take in her surroundings once more. Her opponent, half-way across the chamber, fumed as he was swamped with newly confident challengers. Aoi smiled as life flowed back into the club. Tonight was for enjoying.

The night air bit hard as they stepped out of the bar. Aoi shivered, envying Theresa’s frock coat and wishing she'd thought ahead to bring a jacket of her own. Theresa paused in her recount of her own victories and threw an arm across Aoi's shoulder. "Cold?"

Aoi nodded. "Didn't think we'd be out this long."

"Suuure," Theresa replied with a playful smile.

Aoi stepped up to the curb and looked out over the crossroad. Traffic was still steady, even at such a late hour, and available taxis seemed few and far between. Seeing one, she stretched out an arm, only to be distracted by a low whistle from Theresa.

"What is it?" Aoi asked, turning.

"I finally made that out," Theresa replied. She ran a perfectly sculpted nail down Aoi's arm, tracing the lines of the shirt's pattern and sending a chill up her spine. "A phoenix?"

Aoi nodded. She'd chosen this design for Eve, for what it meant between them. But she realized how its meaning could reflect on Theresa as well.

"There was a fire..." Aoi began as she turned back to Theresa. The other woman's smile had vanished, her face serious, her eyes stern. "I trapped an old friend, someone I thought had turned on me. I tried to burn her, but..." Aoi swallowed hard, shivering in fear at the recollection.

"What happened?" Theresa asked gravely.

"I died."

Theresa blinked, taken aback. She spluttered out a "What?" at Aoi's statement.

"I almost died," Aoi said. "Eve was there. She saved me, you know. Called me her phoenix."


Aoi cut her off. "I turned on everyone, but because they were my friends, they saved me. I realized then that I had to be responsible, both to them and myself." She took a deep breath, steeling herself for the hardest part of her night. "So do you."

"Me?" Theresa blinked, genuinely shocked. Aoi leant forwards and took her hand.

"When I look at you, I see all the mistakes I made, everything that lead me to that fire. And I know that if you keep acting the same, that you'll wind up running out of chances. I don't want to see that happen to you." She took a step closer, all but pressing against the taller woman. Their eyes met. "Theresa, I-"

Whatever she had to say was cut off by a sharp blow. A bottle shattered across the back of her head, spraying the area with glass shards and stale beer. Aoi collapsed forwards, blood already welling in her hair as she fell against Theresa. Just as suddenly, they were torn apart. Through her stunned haze, Aoi could barely make out dark skin and brightly coloured hair. Her opponent from the first match! Even as the thought registered, he struck. His fist impacted with her jaw and she fell back, rebounding off the side of a parked car before falling to the ground in a heap.

His voice boomed loud and angry through her stunned haze. Sounds rang in her ear as he ranted and railed against her victory. Tall shadows surrounded them, his friends, a gang... For now, she couldn't tell. A splash of white in amongst the haze must have been Theresa's blouse, but it vanished between the figures. She tried to rise, only to feel a hard blow to her back. Her assailant had literally stepped on her, and leaned in to keep her pressed to the pavement.

She shook her head, trying to clear it. She had been blindsided, caught unprepared. Details swam into focus. He had a switchblade in hand, waving it dangerously as he boasted of beating her down. Her cane lay close by, just within reach. Looking up, a pair had seized Theresa by her arms and were dragging her off, despite her struggles. She tried to rise, pushing up, only to have him stomp down again, flattening her to the pavement.

"Aoi!" Theresa shouted out. She was in trouble! The world came into sharp focus once more. Aoi snatched up her cane and swept back, connecting with her assailant's knee. He gave out a yelp of pain and hopped back, freeing her. She moved quickly, rolling forwards and sweeping the came in an arc, rattling against his allies' legs. They stepped, stumbled and sprung back, breaking ranks and leaving a wide opening.

Behind the mob was Theresa, pressed against a wall by two more assailants. Aoi flicked out her arm, sending the cane soaring into one's back. He staggered away, the cane rebounding into the air. The other screamed and fell, flailing at his ruined face. Freed, Theresa's grin was bloodied.

They surged back in, and Aoi leapt. She kicked off one man's chest and bounded sideways, seizing the cane as it fell and landing in a crouch. Beside her, Theresa had drawn Mine and had it raised. The pair stood in frozen tableau for a second; Aoi low, the cane held in both hands by her side with the tiniest sliver of blade revealed. Theresa had her knife before her on a reverse grip, her other arm low and ready.

"You alright?" Aoi asked quickly.

"You?" Theresa returned.

Aoi smiled an honest, open and eager smile. "Brilliant."

Behind the pack, their leader shouted an order. The hangers surged forwards, various weapons in hand. Theresa and Aoi split, each striking out. Aoi blocked a truncheon with her cane, forced his arm aside and drew, blade flashing in and out of the wooden sheath with remarkable speed. He staggered back, arm slashed open, as another jabbed forward with a huge, serrated knife. Aoi weaved back then to the side, his follow-up narrowly scraping her side. He slashed again, aiming high. Aoi ducked down, pivoting on her back foot and sweeping his legs out from beneath him. As she stood, a hard blow to her shoulder signalled the return of her first assailant. She barely deflected a second blow with her cane, but caught a hard kick in her side. She yelped in pain and backed away, only to find herself pressed against the wall.

They moved together, moving as one. Aoi surged to the left, parrying the baton while the knife skidded against the wall behind her. With a twist of her cane she bound her assailant's arm, abruptly wrenching it up and deflecting a knife-thrust with his own baton. She then spun around, thrusting one assailant into the other and slamming a spinning kick into the back of his head. Their heads met each other and the brickwork, and the pair slumped to the ground.

She spun around to find Theresa in the midst of the others, grinning madly as she fought. Her blows seemed purely random, lashing out left and right with foot, knee, elbow and knife any way that caught her fancy, even as she wove between their blows. But there was always something to connect with; a foot to stomp, a nose to shatter or hip to break. It was wild and deadly, precise and efficient even as it was chaotic. Their numbers only seemed to heighten her skill, providing her with more targets, more way for them to interfere with each others' strikes.

It was fascinating, exciting and undeniably beautiful. She had only caught glimpses of Theresa fighting before, but now she could appreciate the ease of her movements and speed of her responses. It seemed so simple, so pure, and for Aoi it was a joy to watch. She stood for long seconds, delighted, mesmerised and undeniably excited.

Their eyes met, and Theresa blurred out "Behind!" Acting on instinct, Aoi spun to her left, too slow to avoid a gash just above her hip. She cried out clutching the wound even as she raised her cane in the other hand. A second stab was clumsily knocked aside. She pulled away her bloodied hand to grip her cane, and backed up to draw a bead on her opponent.

It was the gang's leader, switchblade in hand, still favouring one leg after the crack it had received from her cane. He muttered obscenities under his breath as he weaved the blade back and forth. Aoi lowered her stance, hands on the cane gripping both hilt and scabbard, ready to draw.

He lunged, blade thrusting straight at her. She stepped back as he moved, rising and turning, drawing the blade to describe a bright crescent, arcing across his chest and over. Standing straight, back turned, she quickly slid the blade back into its wooden disguise. A soft rustle behind her signalled his collapse.

"Niiice," Theresa purred. The footpath was still, those few Theresa had left able to having fled. Aoi seemed to fold up, hunching over and clutching her still-bleeding side.

"C'mon," Theresa offered, supporting her with one arm. "Let's clear out and get you patched up."

It's been a productive night, Theresa thought as she swung open the door and escorted Aoi inside. The cab driver and the street doc had both been very helpful, especially in their lack of questions. Aoi was in one piece again, and remarkably bright after their run-in with basic nastiness. She had even suggested, after such a fun-filled time of it, that they retire somewhere private. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

And so they had finally arrived at Theresa's apartment. She beamed at Aoi as it lay spread before them. The place was one single room, a lazy, oversized studio stretching from fully stocked bar to a low, broad, one-piece mattress bed. The walls and shelves were cluttered with memorabilia of a bygone era, all monuments to musical glory some fifty years hence. A balcony and bathroom were the only separate sections; everything else from state-of-the-art trivid system to fridge and wardrobe, curiously side-by-side, lay within the one plush chamber.

"Wow," was all Aoi could say for a moment. Theresa watched her as she stepped inside and examined the room. "This is quite a collection. Old rock?" she inquired, turning back to Theresa.

"Yupyup," she beamed. "I bought it fully furnished from a has-been who finally admitted the eighties weren't coming back." Well, close enough.

Aoi gave a quiet chuckle. "Mind if I freshen up?"

"You've earned it," Theresa replied. She pointed out the bathroom door, discretely nestled between the memorabilia. "Take your time. I'll have your drink ready when you are."

"Bloody Mary, thanks." Theresa nodded her approval, and Aoi slipped through the bathroom door, closing it with a gentle click.

As soon as the door was shut, Theresa let out a contented sigh. What a success tonight had been! First, all the juicy information she had gotten from Kami's zombies. That made her little visual trap in the game saloon all the more impressive, and gave her an excuse for seeing Rachel before. And what a success it was! Aoi had been petrified at the sight of Rachel, rendered in miniature before her. And when she'd returned from the fight, for the briefest of seconds she had a look of pure malice on her.

Theresa longed for that look. That expression of malign intent, that joy in the downfall of others. Aoi again and again revealed herself as weak and sentimental, but even she couldn't hide her real nature. Her love of fighting that she had admitted to was the key. Somehow.

She hung her frock coat in the expansive wardrobe and checked herself in the mirror up the back. Not too bad, given the night's action. She flicked dust off her collar, straightened her string tie, touched up her lipstick and downed some ecstasy. That'll come in handy.

All prepped, she swung around behind the bar. She briefly pondered on her own drink, then chose to simply copy Aoi's. Tomato juice, vodka, huh. She set the drinks out and leaned on the bar, surveying her home with pride. Her eyes fell on the oh-so-comfortable lounge bed, and she smiled.

They'd be fucking soon. She knew it. Eve knew it. April and Keiko knew it. Random strangers they had passed on the street knew it, she was sure. And although she was in auto-denial mode, Aoi sure as hell knew it. Rainbows were straighter than that girl, yet she seemed so reluctant to enjoy herself with another woman.

For a moment, she understood Eve's frustrations, trying to get along with such a repressed partner. But whereas Eve wanted to make her a demure whore, Theresa wanted to bring back the real, wild, carefree, reckless Rachel. And fuck her.

"It's for her own good, really," she mused, cradling her drink.

You don't do anything for anyone's good.

"True enough. But this is different."

Oh yes. We like her.

The door swing open and Aoi stepped out, rolling her bruised shoulder. "Thanks for waiting," she said as she made her way to the bar. Theresa was leaning over the drinks, her starched blouse and nearly trimmed hair making her look like a particularly classy barmaid.

"My pleasure. Enjoy."

Aoi sat on a stool just opposite her and sipped from her drink. She gave a contented sigh, and nodded her thanks. "I feel like I should leave a tip," she joked, smiling.

Theresa opened out her palm and cocked an eyebrow. Aoi responded with a gentle chuckle and delicately placed a smooth finger on Theresa's hand. With deliberate slowness, Theresa wrapped her fingers around Aoi's, gently stroking it with her thumb. Aoi's smile faded under Theresa's warm, intense gaze, and she felt her cheeks reddening.

"Uh, anyway..." Aoi slid her finger from Theresa's grasp and turned away, intently fidgeting over her drink.

"How are you feeling?"

Aoi's hand went to her side. She could feel the adhesive patch under the cut in her shirt. "Not too bad," she replied at length. "Doc said it might leave a scar, but that's business, right?"

"Excited?" Theresa abruptly asked. Aoi turned back to her, brow furrowed in confusion. "The fight," she explained. "You said you enjoy a bit of a scuffle now and then."

Aoi shook her head. "Not really like that. I enjoy the challenge more than anything, you know? Squaring off against someone skilled, the back and forth testing, outmanoeuvring each other..." She smiled as she gestured, her hands moving back and forth like two fighters in the midst of a scuffle. "Those guys were just punks, with no discipline and no restraint."

"Oh, come on..." Theresa leaned in, running her fingers up Aoi's bare arm. "That's the fun of it. Stomping down some weakling, the look of panic that he's out of his league..." Aoi shook her head all too quickly, but Theresa continued unabated. "The rush of power. Toying with them, breaking them with ease." Her eyes glittered with delight as Aoi squirmed. "Being... Unstoppable. Don't you long for that feeling?"

I love it.

"No, not at all."

Theresa blinked. There! She could swear she had seen it, Aoi's face shifting for a split second. The slightest twitch of a lopsided grin, the barest slant of a malicious glare. Had she imagined it? Was that really Rachel?

"No, not at all."

Theresa knew that moment. The slightest distance in the eyes, the faintest hollow in the voice. The words spoken for one extra listener, that inner voice that spoke true feelings. Aoi had answered herself! She knew that look, that voice, that particular reply, every time she looked in the mirror.

Aoi was indeed just like her. And Rachel was just below the surface.

She wanted to bring her out now! Desire overcame her, the need for verification, to confirm her belief, to finally meet Rachel unhindered, unmired by doubt or guilt or manners or humility or restraint. It was right before her!

Theresa lunged, seizing Aoi's face, sealing their lips together. Her eyes closed as the other girl's widened. She held tight, leaning over the bar, pushing ever closer together as she drank deeply from Aoi. Stunned, then shocked, then exasperated, Aoi fought back, pushing hard on Theresa. She was forced back, breaking the seal, letting Aoi gasp for breath.

"What are you-" Aoi began indignantly, but was cut off. Theresa's hand swept in, a harsh slap turning Aoi's head and ringing out through the room. They stood frozen for long seconds, Theresa's arm held out, Aoi turned away. Finally, with painful slowness, she turned back to face Theresa.

Gone was the narrowed, suspicious gaze, the faint frown, the slightest hunch at the weight of expectations on her shoulders. Instead her brows slanted, eyes seeming to light up with glee. A cocky half grin twisted her features into a look of malicious joy. Although she sat straight, her head was tilted slightly, showing the world her slanted view. When she spoke, the slight Japanese accent was replaced with a slow, husky purr.

"I thought you'd never ask," said Rachel.

They lay, twisted and entwined, breathing together on Theresa's bed. Aoi's long hair fell over both of them in sweat-soaked tangles. Theresa's arms wrapped around her lover's bare body, feeling the taut muscles under the fresh scratches. Even now she could feel the choir of small pains, bruises, scrapes and scratches they had inflicted on each other. The room bore similar scars; it seemed no surface had escaped their violent, brutal foreplay. Clothes lay scattered across the room, save Aoi's phoenix shirt, now torn to rags. The girl's leather cuff, the only scrap of clothing left on either of them, grated against a fresh scrape on her shoulder blade. It was a good feeling.

Theresa slowly, achingly drew one arm up Aoi's body and tenderly stroked her cheek where it lay, nestled at Theresa's throat. "Wow," she said at length, breaking their long, mutual silence. "I haven't been fucked like that since grade school."

Aoi shifted in her arms, looking up at her. There was worry etched on her face, and she simply muttered "Sorry."

Theresa sighed. Her partner had fled, it seemed, leaving the shell behind. Strangely, she didn't seem to mind. Aoi seemed cuter, somehow, and was probably better to cuddle.

"Don't be," she replied, running her fingers through Aoi's spread out hair. "They were right, though. You really can be wild."

The girl in her arms rolled over, pulling away and holding her back against Theresa. She responded by curling herself up around Aoi, drawing her in closer and sharing their warmth.

"Sometimes... I lose control. I try to be a better person, but I go off the rails a bit." Theresa nodded her understanding. "I don't mean to." She stifled a dainty yawn, her eyes gently fluttering closed. "Sometimes... It's like I'm..." She drifted off, her petite frame slowly rising and falling in Theresa's arms.

"A different person," she finished, delicately brushing Aoi's cheek with her lips. She lay against her lover in silence for a while, contentedly listening to her breathing.

Her beliefs had been vindicated, her suspicions proven. Even now, Theresa could see the telltale marks. Her skin was unblemished; no scars, moles or freckles to chart its history. Nor was there a trace of hair below the neck, or any sign that it still grew. Her skin had been treated wholesale to change its very colour, damaging it the process. It would be slightly unresponsive, not wrinkling in water. The final, undeniable evidence that Aoi was, had been, and still remained Rachel.

And now too Theresa understood why this tiny bundle of neuroses had saved her life. They were alike, and deep down Rachel had recognized it too. She had seen the chance to be recognized, to be drawn back to the fore. It had been a cry for help, and Theresa was obliged to answer.

She would save Rachel from Aoi. Save her from mediocrity. Save her from doubt and manners. Save her from Kami, crushing, moulding Rachel, near-dead from that great fire, imprisoning her in an unfamiliar body and twisting her into something to be used.

Really, it was for her own good.

Soon she would take action. The first step would require careful homing, but she could arrange it. Things were in motion already. Beyond that...

Naw. Tonight wasn't for planning. She rested her chin on Aoi's head and smiled. Tonight was for indulging.

The light in Eve's room brightened and she sat up, laying the magazine she had been browsing on the bed table. She saw a trace of dark hair beyond the door and smiled. She settled back against her pillows, still seated, and gently parted her hospital gown for display.

Aoi stepped through the door, a nervous smile on her face. Eve gave her a delicate wave, welcoming and beckoning her over. Without a word, her visitor stepped over and bowed by the bed. They shared a long and quiet kiss before Aoi took her seat.

"How have you been?" Aoi asked.

"Oh, managing. Surgery's all done, they just want to keep me overnight. And who wouldn't?"

Aoi shook her head slightly. "When are you being released?"

"Should be out by noon tomorrow, barring complications." She looked into Aoi's eyes and added "I'll be glad to be somewhere friendly again," with a warm smile.

Aoi quickly averted her eyes, casting them down at the bed sheet. She soon felt Eve's hand on hers, and looked up once more. The blonde was examining her thoughtfully. "What's wrong?" she eventually asked.

Aoi felt her cheeks reddening once more. "It's... I, while you were... We..." Again she faltered, dropping into an uncomfortable silence. She thought she was ready to confess, but she was still so nervous. She felt like a hypocrite. For all her fears of Eve's faithfulness, she had been the one to fool around this time.

"You slept with Theresa."

Aoi blinked in shock. She was so calm, stating it as if it were old news. Was she really not concerned?

"It's alright," Eve said, as if reading her thoughts. "Theresa and I discussed this. It's what we both wanted for you."

And Eve had encouraged her too. She hadn't given it much thought at the time, but the two never had seen eye to eye on matters of commitment. "It's just... I made a big deal of being faithful, of not wanting you to stray. And then I go against every word I said..."

"It's alright. It's natural," Eve added with a reassuring squeeze.

"But for my nature..." Aoi let the statement and its implications hang in the air for long moments.

"Aoi, you don't have to be afraid. You can relax, have fun and still be yourself." Her hand gently stroked Aoi's as her amber eyes bored into her partner's green. "Was it good for you?"

As much as she hated to, Aoi nodded.  "We really connected. I think... It meant a lot to her."

"Do you love her too?"

"What?" Aoi was taken aback. What kind of a question was that? Certainly, there was an attraction, but it was solely physical. Theresa was exciting to be with. That was it. Right?

"It's like you and April." Eve held her hand softly as she explained. "You're both so different. April is light and freewheeling, so bold and forwards. She can brighten up anything. You are so intense and focused. You're dedicated and so thoughtful. We have a connection, you and I. But April and I have our own connection too." She gently brushed Aoi's cheek with her free hand. "And I'm sure that you and Theresa share a connection of your own. You don't need to deny that connection. You can love both of us."

Was it real? Did Evelyn still feel the same about April after their time together? Aoi thought they understood each other, having gone through so much together. Was all that meaningless? Or did Eve really hold April in the same value as her? Had she been biding her time to tell Aoi this?

Admit it. She wants you both in the sack, and Theresa's her way in.

"No!" Aoi shouted, abruptly springing to her feet. "I thought I was special to you!"

"You are," Eve said calmly. "Like April is special to me. Like Theresa is special to you."

And there it was again. How could she deny Eve without knowing how she felt for Theresa? It was impossible.

"I need to think about this," Aoi muttered. It sounded pathetic, but she knew she couldn't solve anything here. "You..." She looked into Eve's amber eyes, feeling... How did she feel? Was Eve even who Aoi thought she was? Could she even love Aoi at all?

"I'll see you at home," Aoi said weakly, and fled.

Today was the day. The day it all came together. She had been in touch with Kami's pets and gotten a run-down on the schedule. April would be bringing Kami back to the apartment sometime around one, where Aoi and Keiko would have the place ready. Only Aoi hadn't been much talking to anyone.

Theresa smiled, ruby-red lips curling in the mirror before her. Seems she and Kami had some kind of fight, as April had been all too happy to relate. Still, Aoi was shopping for a generous lunch for the five of them, which gave her the opportunity she needed to make the final move.

She closed her pill box and tucked it away in her coat. Hands in pockets, she looked up and around. Their apartment building stood before her. Aoi was out, Keiko was in, April was just leaving. A good window.

She lit a cigarette and idly puffed, letting minutes tick by until the time was right. It was strange to see such a plan all the way through; stranger still for Theresa to have such a plan. She wasn't a long term person. It had been weird, being so unusually focused on one person, one goal. She had researched her target, insinuated herself into her life, discovered the gaps in the enemy's formation and prepared her strategy. She had even had a special something made for tying up loose ends, a neat little conclusion that would be oh-so-satisfying.

And with this move, it was almost over. Her obsession come to fruition, evil vanquished and good prevailing. That last thought sent a girlish giggle through her. Well, maybe not so good.

April should be gone by now. She dropped her smoke and ground it beneath her heel. It had been fun, this fixation of hers. She would have to do it again some time.

The elevator hummed quietly to itself, whisking Aoi onwards and upwards. The closer she got to home, the closer to Eve's return, the more nervous she became. 'Be honest,' Shion had told her. But how could she without even knowing her own feelings?

Did she love Theresa? Did Eve ever love her? For the battering her emotions had taken in the last few days, did she even feel anything for Eve anymore? Even at her warmest, her most open and honest, she still felt cold and mechanical. Was she so good at controlling her feelings, or didn't she have them to start with?

A soft ping signalled her arrival. Aoi sighed and hefted the shopping bags. Too late to worry about it. If she didn't have an answer by now, she never would. She fumbled with the key, swung through the door, and heaved the bags onto the counter. But first things first.

As she stepped into the kitchenette she spotted Keiko, emerging from the hallway. Her skirt and blouse are simple, and about as formal as she had ever seen on the girl. Keiko gave a shy smile and said "Welcome back."

"Thanks. How's things here?" Aoi asked.

"All set and ready. I've spent the morning cleaning and setting up for you," she said as she approached.

"Thanks," Aoi said as she pulled down a glass. There was something different about Keiko, something unusual. She seemed excited and eager to help, but surely that was just to see Eve again. Was that all?

"Oh, Theresa wanted me to tell you she'd be a bit late, but we should get started without her."

"Uh-huh," Aoi muttered distractedly. She nodded as she drew out a bottle. Unseen, Keiko drew closer, watching her nervously.

"She also told me... About you and her."

Aoi froze, half-way out of the fridge, tomato juice in hand. She turned her full attention to the girl. Keiko had come around the counter and was now standing in the kitchenette, blocking Aoi's exit. Her hands were clasped behind her back and, although she was smiling, she was also trembling ever so slightly.

"Keiko..." Aoi trailed off, uncertain of what to say. Memories came to her of the last time they had been alone together, when Aoi had nearly lost control. She hadn't shown it much, but Aoi could tell the girl was afraid of her. So what had emboldened her now?

"It's alright. I've been thinking about it too." Her gaze was earnest, sincere. Aoi couldn't meet it; instead she focused on mixing her drink. "We... Well, I've watched you grow a lot, I think. I know I can trust you now."

Aoi sighed and turned back to the girl. "Keiko, back then I was being rash. I didn't want to ruin what Eve and I had, and I shouldn't have even... Well, started."

"But it's different now. You're different." Keiko fidgeted a little, eventually placing her hands over her heart. "You always scared me and excited me. I never came forward since then, but now I know how much you've changed-"


"I still want you." She flushed as she spoke, turning away in embarrassment.

What could she say? What did she feel? How now did Keiko fit into things? Had it meant anything, that one night more than a year ago when they first met? Aoi shook her head in confusion. It would be impossible to disentangle herself at this rate. She took a drink while she thought about-

She blinked. Her eyes hurt. Sunlight streamed in between the curtains, too warm, too bright. Daytime? Around noon? Had she passed out, and for how long?

Senses returned to her. Silk at her arms, bed sheets. Warmth beneath her. A body? She was lying on someone. She turned her head, ignoring its protesting ache. Dark hair crossed her vision, too long to be Theresa's. No... She didn't...

She pulled back in a start, sitting up on the bed, still straddling her partner. She was in April and Keiko's room, mounted on their all-too-luxurious bed. She realized how little she had seen of it until now. Soft colours dominated, from the peach curtains to the pastel yellow sheets. The bed took up the centre of the room, with two small computer desks sitting either side of a generous wardrobe. Clothes were scattered everywhere, and the walls were intermittently spaced with posters and art prints. Her dumbfounded gaze swept the room, then finally settled on the form beneath hers.

Keiko lay lifeless between her legs. The girl had been roughly stripped - her skirt and panties were discarded, her blouse opened but still caught on her arms, and her bra lay pulled in half beside her. Her body was scratched and cut, with obvious bite marks on her breasts and large bruises on her thighs and wrists. Her neck showed the worst signs, with clear impressions of hands circling it. Her mouth was agape, and her eyes stared blankly up at the ceiling.

With a yelp of alarm, Aoi rolled off the bed and came crashing to the floor. She scampered away from the horrific sight, panting and gasping in shock, trying to control herself, trying to make sense of the horrific vision she had seen, trying not to reach the only possible, terrifying conclusion.

She sat, huddled against one wall for long minutes, trying to clear her head. At length she realized her own state of undress; her jeans undone, panties absent, and completely topless. There was no doubt left as to what had happened. With her cybernetically enhanced strength, it would have been easy to restrain while she- While-

"No!" She shouted, shaking her head vigorously. "Pull yourself together. Get up, get up," she repeated as she crawled towards the bed. "I'm seeing things. It's not real. I can't have..." She pulled herself up, peering over the edge of the bed to confirm her worst fears.

"You've really done it now." The cocky voice could have only been one person. Rachel pulled herself to her full height on the other side of the bed. Her ragged blond hair was pulled into a high ponytail, leaving haphazard strands to dangle across her face. Blazing green eyes stared down at her with contempt. A shredded black singlet barely covered her sizeable breasts, letting them shake as her body rocked with a screeching, piercing laugh.

Aoi staggered to her feet, shaking her head. "No, I can't have..." she began, but trailed off as she caught sight of Keiko's desecrated body. The extent of the abuse was staggering, and there was no doubt as to how much she would have suffered before dying.

"Can and did and was it fun, 'cause it sure looks it." Rachel sashayed her way around the bed, eyes locked on Aoi as she approached.

Aoi shook her head in denial. "No way. This is you. This is..." She backed away from Rachel as she approached, nearly stumbling over a bedside table. "I've changed. I'm different, I'm in control."

"Like you were that night with Theresa?" She halted, hands on her hips, seemingly towering over Aoi. "Face it. I was, you are, we always will be a monster."

Aoi tore her gaze away from Rachel and once again found her eyes on Keiko's lifeless body. If there were one clue, one sign that she was wrong, that she hadn't...

"Oh, now what was the other thing?" Rachel asked herself. "You made Silver promise that if you ever lost it again..."

"She's to stop me." Aoi looked back up at Rachel on horror. Eve was due back with April any minute! "What do I do?"

In the distance the apartment door shut loudly, just as Rachel winked. "Think fast. Run," she said. Aoi glanced to the bedroom door and back, but Rachel had vanished.

Aoi could hear voices from the room beyond, April and Eve. Too muffled to make out for now, but it would only be a matter of time before they noticed her and Keiko's absence.

Think fast. There was no way she could hide what had happened, and no way she could explain or excuse it. She glanced around the room for her things, redoing her jeans at the same time. There! She scurried around the bed and scooped up her armoured jacket. She felt the comforting weight of her pistol nestled inside it, even as it rubbed against her otherwise bare skin.

"Yoo-hoo, Keiko," April called out, accompanied by Eve's giggle. They were close! She had to escape, and fast. She rounded the bed, threw apart the curtains and parted the glass doors leading out to the balcony.

April's voice sounded off once more. "Now what have you two been-" It cut off with a blood-curdling shriek as the door opened. April recoiled in terror, leaving Eve framed by the doorway, looking across at her.

Their eyes met. Aoi knew exactly how the scene appeared: fleeing from the gruesome murder. Even so, she wasn't ready for the speed of Eve's response. The blonde sprang over the bed, lunging at Aoi. Before she could react, Eve had seized her arm and was twisting around, levering Aoi down. She sprung forwards, rolling inside Eve's grip and emerging on the narrow balcony. Eve's grip on her arm remained tight, even though Aoi had gained as much distance between them as possible.

"Eve, stop!" she cried out. But her partner seemed to be beyond words. She shot a snap kick at Aoi's head, blocked by the other's free arm. Her leg lashed out again, striking Aoi's shin. She grimaced at the blow, stumbling slightly. Eve took the opportunity to yank on her arm, pulling her off balance. She stepped and twisted, bringing herself behind Aoi's back and wrenching the bound arm painfully.

Aoi had seen Eve fight this way before. Matched with the cold glare on her face, she knew Eve's free arm would be around her throat in a second. Aoi pushed back, ramming them both against the balcony door. Eve gasped out in pain, her grip loosening. Aoi then pitched forwards, tumbling them both over and sending them sprawling, separated across the balcony floor.

"Please, stop!" Aoi pleaded as they sprang to their feet. "It wasn't me, I- I couldn't-" She cut off, raising her hands to deflect a flurry of jabs, and found herself backed into a corner. Another low kick shot at her shin; this time Aoi was ready and leapt, all but diving into Eve. The pair stumbled back, Eve trying to seize hold of Aoi, who used their shared momentum to tumble past her. She darted along the balcony and threw open the door to the living room.

Eve lunged again, a side kick coming in at Aoi's back. She spun and blocked it clumsily, but the force of the blow left her staggering inside. Eve was quick to follow, breaking contact for a second to place herself between Aoi and the door.

"Eve..." No. "Kami, please. Listen to me."

"I'm sorry," the blonde finally said, her voice betraying no regret. "I can't let you go."

"You know I don't want to hurt any of you."

"I know. And Keiko is still dead."

The accusation pierced straight through her, hurting all the more that she couldn't deny it. That Eve's face remained impassive only cut deeper. Aoi had seen this resolve from her before, and knew that she couldn't be talked down.

A shuddering sob shook Aoi, loosing tears to roll down her face. She relaxed her stance, adopting the loose, flexible profile that had served her so well. It was unavoidable, then. The only way she could escape was through Kami.

In unspoken agreement they both advanced. Kami's jab was blocked, returned as a backhand, skilfully evaded. A low kick blocked with a raised leg, a second lashing at Aoi's waist turned aside. This left Eve off balance, prompting Aoi to surge in, striking her chest with a trio of forearm blows. The third was caught and Eve turned, hauling Aoi over her shoulder. She tumbled as she landed, spinning around to add momentum and yanked her arm from Eve's vice-like grip. The blonde lunged immediately, a low punch driving into Aoi's gut. With her winded, it was an east matter for Eve to seize her shoulders and haul back, dropping to the ground and flipping over, propelling Aoi to crash into a low table.

Aoi staggered to her feet, but Eve was already upon her. She seized the same arm and wrenched, the force and pain levering Aoi onto her knees. Standing behind and to her side, she raised her leg to drive into Aoi's head. Seeing her chance, Aoi swept out behind with her free hand. She caught Eve in the back of her knee, taking it out from under her and toppling her to the floor. Her hold dragged Aoi down, all but collapsing on top of her. Aoi rolled over, kneeling over Eve's prone form. She raised her fist, intent on a quick knockout, but hesitated when their eyes met.

Eve took the opportunity to reach up with her legs, scissoring Aoi's waist and squeezing. Aoi gasped out in pain, then cried out as Eve hauled her over, bringing them both down on the carpet. Legs still wrapped around Aoi, she quickly reached around Aoi's neck. Before she could lock in her hold, Aoi flicked her head backwards, connecting with Eve's face. There was a splintering crack and a howl of pain. Aoi found Eve's grip loosened, so she quickly rolled to her feet. Eve was on the floor, clutching her face with both hands.

Aoi stepped back, agape at what she had done. Blood flowed freely from under Eve's fingers, across her trembling lips and splattering on the carpet. She was afraid! Aoi had never seen her shake with fear like this before. What had she done?

She glanced up at a noise, to see April entering the room. The girl gasped at the sight and staggered back, shaking her head in denial. Somehow April's terror brought home the true impact of what had just happened. Aoi crossed the room in swift strides, scooped up her cane and was gone without a word.

Theresa lay perfectly still. It was hard to express what she was feeling, hard to express anything at this point. She had taken a little something to calm her down after the day's operation, afraid that she might blow everything in her excitement. But the thought drifted through her gently numb mind that she may have gone too far.

The strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony suddenly shook her head, the choir shouting for joy in rich and boisterous German. Why was she hallucinating classical? It was a very unusual theme for her. And yet the sound was so clear, so crisp and precise. That can't be me, can it?

She willed herself to move, shaking off the millions of years of strata that pressed her into the earth's crust, tearing apart continents with the weight of her arms, reshaping the world beneath her as she reached over and answered her phone.

"Theresa?" the other end asked. Did she always leave it on speaker?

With great consideration and intellect, she answered "Mnuuu?"

"It's Kami."

Oooh! Of course! That thing with the girls and... She sat bolt-upright, the day's events (enacted and planned) rushing back to the fore. "Did I miss the... Thing?"

"Aoi's snapped. She killed Keiko."

A wicked grin split her face wide. "Oh Eve... No, she... Oh no..." Truthfully, she couldn't imagine what to say.

"She's on the run and very dangerous. She's likely to come to you." Theresa pulled her dressing gown on as she listened, covering the red lace she had prepared for just such a possibility. "Do not go near her. Let me know the moment you see or hear from her."

"Gotcha. Eve..." She paused for a second. The temptation to tip her hand was overwhelming. But no, she'd have to see Eve's reaction - if any - in person. "How did this happen?" she asked quietly.

"I'll fill you in when it's over." Business mode, alright. "I'll check in soon." With that, the line went dead.

Theresa stared at her phone and muttered "Polite." She shrugged nonchalantly. From what she heard, she shouldn't have to worry much more about Eve in the scheme of things. At least, not until the end.

That brought a wicked smile to her face. She knew that in order to finalise matters she'd have to finish off Eve. And after long hours of planning - well, too much to drink and a crime drama - she'd come up with the perfect method to do it.

But enough of daydreaming. She hauled herself to her feet and looked around. It was late in the afternoon - Already! - and the apartment was spotless. It had been a lot if work fixing it up after their rough-and-tumble a few nights ago, but nothing less than perfect would do for the scene she had set. All she needed was the lead...

The room echoed with a rapid pounding on the door. Willing her most innocent expression into place, she hustled over and pulled it open. Aoi stood before her, head hung. The girl was sobbing noisily, her body shaking with irregular shudders. Theresa rested her hands on Aoi's shoulders, gently asking "What's wrong?"

She looked up. Theresa's face fell as their eyes met. Hers were reddened, her face streaked with tears. Her jaw quivered as she held her silence between agonizing sobs. Then it was if a dam had burst. She threw herself into Theresa's arms, wailing loudly. Theresa wrapped her up in a warm embrace and shuffled them both inside, quietly closing the door.

And so they had made love. Theresa had fucked, shagged, screwed, rooted and so forth, but could not have described their slow, smouldering passion any other way. In her arms, Aoi had been a needy child, desperate for some measure of comfort from another and affirmation from her partner’s pleasure. Truly, Theresa had slept with two different people in this one small body.

In the end, she had cried herself to sleep in Theresa's arms. They lay once more, naked and entangled in one another with Aoi curled up asleep, nestled against Theresa's front.

It wasn't what she had expected. In truth, she hadn't known what to expect, but it certainly wasn't a lovesick wreck. Had she been wrong? Had there been real feelings between them? What exactly had happened in that apartment? She would have to find out in the morning.

Aoi shook in her arms, muttering incomprehensibly. Theresa gently stroked her, calming her down almost instantly. "There there," she softly cooed. "I'm here. You've got nothing to fear anymore."

She smiled to herself. "I've already saved you."

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