By Jeff Skagen and Michael Surbrook

January 2039, right after Veteran of the Psychic Wars

If asked to sum up her impression of Azumi's shrine Vivian was fairly sure words would fail her. At the moment the best she could come up with was "peaceful," which really didn't impart the sense of serenity and calm that imbued the place. The timeless nature of the shrine helped, there was little to tell her she was in the twenty-first century—no bright fluorescents, chrome fixtures, computer interfaces, or plastics—in fact, most of the shrine dated back several hundred years, and looked it. The shrine itself seemed to be all heavy wood timbers, papers walls, and grass mats, a sharp contrast to the ultramodern apartment she shared with Raven back in Hong Kong.

Still, there were drawbacks. There were no beds, for example, just thick mattresses laid on the floor covered by piles of quilts. The floor, raised as it was off the ground, was a touch chilly, and while there were electric lights, there were also dark corners in the upper rafters where she was sure spiders nested. The bathroom also took some getting used to, being just a hole in the floor (apparently the concept of the flush toilet took a long time to catch on in cleanliness sensitive Japan), but still, the bath itself was amazing. Built with cedar planking, it combined a tub with several benches arranged around a central drain. One soaped up and rinsed off on a bench, and then soaked for a while in the tub. The water was hot and the room held in the steam, meaning that on a cold January day like today, it was utterly delightful.

As she made her way down the corridor that led to the bath, slippered feet slapping on the wooden planking, Vivian felt an inkling of pressure in her mind. She paused, hands full of folded towels and a basket of toiletries, and ran through a quick list in her mind. Allen had left already, Raven was back in their room, so if someone was in the bath it was either Azumi or... Shion?

Walking carefully up to the doorway to the bath, Vivian peeked around the corner. Azumi was still tidying up after the meeting, wasn't she? So this meant the person using the bath was probably....


She was kneeling in the open space between the benches, pouring water from a basin over her head and shoulders, soapy water sluicing down her body and into the drain. Her white water-soaked hair clung tightly to her naturally tanned skin, matching her full curves. Vivian's eye's widened as Shion lifted the basin over her head, revealing full, firm, pink-tipped breasts. Unconsciously she pressed one hand to her own chest, feelings of resentment and despair causing her shoulders to slump. She'd thought Raven was physical perfection embodied, but Shion rivaled her adopted sister and perhaps even out did her.

She considered sneaking back to her room and coming back later, after Shion was gone, but what would she tell Raven? "Uhm... the bath was occupied"? Besides, the other esper had undoubtedly sensed her presence as readily as she had sensed Shion, and in a moment would begin wondering why she was lurking about outside her bath.

With a gulp, Vivian forced herself to march into the bath. "Hello, Shion. Mind if I join you?"

"No... I don't mind," Shion said, filling the basin from the tub. "There's more than enough room, and..." she paused to pour more water over her head and shoulders, running the fingers of one hand through her long tresses, combing out tangles and knots. "it is open to us all. Will Raven be joining us?"

"I doubt it," answered Vivian, stepping into the small space that served as a changing room. "She was sounding pretty tired, so I think she's gonna hit the sack straight away. Besides, she prefers to bathe in the morning. So do I normally, but after everything we talked about this evening, I kinda wanted to stay up a while to mull it over and let things sink in, y'know?"

Shion nodded as she set the basin aside. "A perfectly sensible plan. After all, it is not every day one is part of a plan designed to change the world."

After removing her robe and depositing it in one of the cubbyholes provided for that purpose, Vivian reluctantly stepped naked into the bathing area. Setting her towels and toiletries aside, she perched herself on the cedar-plank bench, trying to remember the Japanese bathing etiquette Raven had briefly explained to her.

"So...I sit right here to soap up and rinse off, like you're doing, before I climb into the tub. Is that right?"

"Yes." Shion gestured to one side of the bath, "Draw water from there, wet yourself down, and then add soap. Rinse off and repeat if you wish. Afterwards you can soak in this tub to relax." She paused and glanced around the room with a wry smile. "If this was a true onsen, we'd have pools fed by hot springs and a platter of saké."

Standing up, apparently unconcerned with her present nudity, Shion gave Vivian a short nod. "I'll leave you to get started," she stated as she lowered herself into the steaming waters of the tub with a low sigh.

As Shion did so, Vivian was struck by the extreme physical differences between them—they were nearly perfect opposites! She barely topped five feet, with short, close-cropped dark hair and slender, tomboyish build, while Shion was at least a full six feet tall, with long, flowing white locks that nearly reached the floor and large breasts that--

Vivian quickly looked away and began wetting herself down and lathering up as directed, using the activity as an excuse to avoid glancing further at Shion. It wasn't their nudity that embarrassed her—she'd grown up the Neo York Zero Zone, where shortages of clean water meant baths were often shared—but looking at Shion's buxom and perfectly sculpted physique left her feeling more ashamed than ever of her own flat-chested, scrawny figure.

"How long have you known Raven?"

Vivian paused, surprised by the question. Shion already knows the answer to that, doesn't she? "Uh...well, I've known her since she helped rescue me from Jinsei during Zone invasion. So five years or so, I guess. Actually, I suppose you could say that I knew of her before that. I think most of us in the Zone knew that the Clark Street Devils had an esper in their ranks, but it was sometime before I learned she was that esper."

Shion nodded, almost absently, making Vivian wonder if she was really listening. She seemed almost asleep, since her eyes were nearly closed. Hard to tell, exactly, what with the steam.

"I presume she has been training you?"

"That's right," answered Vivian. "Raven trained all of us, actually, but I'm the only one she's still working with now." She hesitated, before reluctantly continuing. "As you might have gathered earlier, I'm sort of the problem child of the pack. I'm plenty powerful, but my control is, well, still a bit spotty at times. I'm afraid I'm not exactly her star pupil."

A faint smile graced Shion's lips. "When I first started training Raven she tripped over her own feet constantly. Control will come, you just need to work at it."

Vivian shrugged. "I hope so. My control improved a lot at first, but for a while now I seem to have been kinda stuck where I am. Raven doesn't say anything, but I know my lack of recent progress must be frustrating her. That's why what you said about how learning martial arts and the like might help espers improve their self-control really struck a nerve with me. I'm hoping that training with Azumi will shake me out of my rut. And even if it doesn't, well, at least I'll be learning some useful new skills."

"There is no guarantee your control will ever be perfect. I know of only one person with utterly perfect control of their powers..." Shion paused and glanced at the other side of the bathhouse. "And she's dead."

"Oh...I'm sorry." Picking up the basin of rinse water, she upended it over herself, sluicing the suds off her body while wondering what else she should say. "I, um...I hope I haven't brought up any unhappy memories."

"No..." Shion paused again, as if considering her words carefully, "You didn't. Besides, Raven knew her better than I, if I recall." Shion settled herself a little deeper in the tub. "I wonder if Azumi has any saké."

"I bet she does," Vivian replied, tacitly agreeing to the change of subject. She began rinsing herself off a second time. "It is the traditional Japanese drink, and Azumi seems very to be a very traditional woman."

"And I'm not about to get out of this tub to ask her." Shion sighed, "Someone needs to build an onsen in Neo-York."

Vivian chuckled. "Well, you're filthy rich. Why don't you build it?"

"There's an idea," Shion smiled. "I need to diversify my financial holdings anyway."

A long moment of silence followed as Shion apparently contemplated the idea of having an onsen built in Neo York and Vivian moved over and began gingerly lowering herself into the soaking tub.

"Do you think it will work?" the white-haired esper asked abruptly.

Vivian paused, halfway into the piping-hot water, considering. "As a business? I honestly don't know," she answered as she lowered herself the rest of the way into the tub. "That's the kind of question you need to ask... a marketing expert or some such, I guess. But does it really matter? You want an onsen in Neo York. You can easily afford to build one. So build it. If it makes money, then great. And if it doesn't, then at least you have an onsen available for your pleasure in Neo York, and isn't that what you really wanted?"

There was another moment of silence as Shion stared across the bath, apparently ignoring Vivian. "I meant our plan to make things better for espers," she said finally.

"Oh." The young esper flushed with embarrassment, wishing that she could just sink entirely below the surface of the water and vanish. "I'm sorry. But my answer is still 'I honestly don't know'." She raised her hand out of the water and began a careful examination of her own fingernails to avoid meeting Shion's eyes. "For what it's worth, I'm pretty sure it will help any young espers to get better control of their powers, and will give us a chance to at least put them on their guard where the megacorps are concerned. But if it's really going to make a difference, we'll eventually have to become too big an organization not to be noticed. We'll have to go public at some point, and I have absolutely no idea how people might react to that. How could I? I was born and raised in the Zero Zone, and later in a household full of young espers in the middle of nowhere. I've never lived among normal, ordinary people, so how could I possibly think to guess how they'll see us?"

"As a threat. We will always be a threat, because we are something they don't understand and can't easily control." Shion turned to look at Vivian. "Does this bother you?"

"I don't know." Vivian finally glanced at Shion, but upon finding herself at eye-level with the Empress' breasts, quickly looked away again. "I, um... I guess I'd rather they feel sympathy for us. I want people to like me, not fear me."

"I don't need their sympathy. I want their... acceptence." Shion pushed long strands of white hair out of her face, her expression thoughtful. "When I was younger I wanted them to fear me. It made my reputation that much better. But Raven... Raven showed me my reputation could work too well." She paused and looked away. "It can be lonely at the top."

Vivian hesitated, uncertain how to respond to the sadness in Shion's voice. "Well...if everyone fears you, you'll certainly end up lonely, and you do have a rather fearsome reputation. But the good thing about reputations is that they can, with time and effort, be changed." She brushed her damp bangs back out of her eyes. "In a way, I think your situation almost mirrors the problem our group faces. If the public comes to fear us, we'll end up standing isolated and alone. But if we can get them to have... perhaps I should have said empathy instead of sympathy... for us, then they might accept us, and we'll have a chance." She thought about what she'd said for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. "Or then again, maybe I'm just talking out of my ass."

"No..." Shion shook her head, still looking thoughtful. "What you say makes sense. We need to project a less frightening image if we want to change the way the world views us."

Vivian nodded. "The problem, of course, is just how do we do that? Especially when many of us are employed, either on our own or by the corporations, as...well, as esper weapons."

“As was said... we need a face... a sympathetic face to represent the idea of an esper, not a weapon.”

"You're saying we need a poster child," said Vivian. It wasn't quite a question.

“You could call it that.”

"A poster child..." Vivian pursed her lips in thought. "That's not a bad idea. But how would we find someone suitable? I don’t imagine we can hold a casting call."

"You'd be surprised," Shion replied. "The most obvious place to look is among your fellow espers Raven rescued from the Zone. We'd need someone who was young and innocent, someone who didn't look threatening, someone people could feel sympathetic about."

Vivian nodded, her expression thoughtful. "Well, those criteria leave a lot of the boys out...hmmm...except maybe for Johan. He's intelligent and soft-spoken. Not terribly innocent, though. Actually, Eliza would be the perfect one, except I think she's trying to put the whole captured-by-Jinsei thing behind her, so I'm not sure she'd do it. Maybe Hime or San though?" Finally she shrugged. "Well, there are certainly some possibilities there. Perhaps Raven and I should call and feel out some of the more likely candidates?"

Shion nodded, "You know them best." The tall esper paused for a moment and then gave Vivian a quizzical glance. "Of course, you fit the bill as well."

The young esper blinked. "Me?" She stared intently at Shion for a few moments, as if trying to decide if she were serious or not. "Well yes, I guess I'm young and...well, naïve, at least, if not exactly innocent. But the spokesperson should also be articulate and not have stage fright, and I, uh...I'm not sure. Do you really think I could do it?"

“Possibly.” Shion shrugged, giving her bare breasts a distracting bounce. “I’d expect the first wave of propaganda to still images anyway. The stage-fright we can work on.” She paused and then gave Vivian a wry grin. “Besides, you're sitting naked in the same tub as the Empress... how bad can public speaking be?”

Vivian returned the grin. "You might not ask me that if you knew how much of my courage it took just to climb in here. Or how intimidated I still am by your...figure."

“I see.” Shion chuckled. “I suppose the old public speaking trick of imagining your audience naked wouldn’t work, would it?”

Vivian chuckled as well and shook of her head. "No. Definitely no. I'd find it much more comforting to imagine them all bundled up like Eskimos."

“Well... no matter. If the need comes, we’ll see about some training and practice in speaking to large crowds before asking you to do so.”

Vivian nodded thoughtfully. "Well, okay then. I'd feel pretty lame if I didn’t do all I could to help my fellow espers. If you want me, I'll be your poster child."

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