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Consumed by Shadow, Liberated by Light

Chapter Text


A surprisingly powerful roar erupted from the lithe and thrashing form of a young woman. Blue eyes flashed with feral intensity, and she elbowed viciously at the nondescript man that had her pinned against the rough cement floor. He held her down with one forearm and punched repeatedly against her sides.

“Don’t think... I can’t... take it!” she growled laboriously and, inch by inch, regained her footing, grappling and pushing back against her opponent until she was standing equal with him once more.

With a second mighty roar and a flourish of her arms she flung him backward to the ground. He tumbled over his shoulder into a tense crouch — poised like a viper about to uncoil into a strike.

For a moment there was nothing but him and her, the surrounding distractions disintegrating into dust around her. Only he remained against the gray-black canvas of her focus. She fell into a lazy stance, arms hanging limply in front of her, and her chest heaved with each breath. Her eyes locked with his, unblinking.

He sprang into motion and came at her with his fist drawn back. She slid her foot around to reinforce her position and raised her hands into tight fists. The man grunted as he threw his punch squarely into the young woman’s face. She teetered, stumbling back half a step and swallowing the pain before she could succumb to screaming it out. Her vision flickered to black before returning in the form of a kaleidoscopic blur.

“I told ya’,” she said through gritted teeth. As her balance returned she pulled back her own fist. She didn’t need any extra momentum. “I... can...” she delivered the punch right back to the startled man, “take IT!!!” His nose made a sickening crunch, and he went sailing in the opposite direction.

He slammed into the cement, flat on his back, and curled into a ball to cradle his face. He did not try to get back up.

Suddenly, the whole world came rushing back to her senses. Fresh, warm blood trickled down her face over crusty, blackened blood and she could feel bruises blooming over her eye and across her cheeks. Her dark hair was plastered with sweat against her forehead, and her sports bra was soaked through. Perspiration ran along her bare back, leaving trails through dirt as it dribbled. The ring of people surrounding her and her knocked out opponent were cheering unintelligibly as money was exchanged.

As she pushed past the throngs of people and jeering faces she felt someone clap her on the back.

“Hey, Ryuuko! Well done in there,” he said jovially, but in such a way that it lacked sincerity. “You sure know how to take a punch.”

“Yeah, yeah. Where’s my money?” Ryuuko asked, her vision blurry and head throbbing.

The stout man ran his hand through greasy hair. He wore gentlemen’s clothing in an attempt to come across as suave. The flamboyant, purple vest was ill fitting over his bulky frame and bulging belly. His white collared shirt beneath was crumpled and dark stains of sweat collected at the pits of his arms. Ronnie Conrad seemed to be the man running the show here, organizing the fights, and distributing the wealth. But little was as it seemed in the shadows and she suspected he was merely a puppet playing the part for a far more capable and formidable Mr. Johnson.

“About that, Ryuuko.”

Ryuuko stepped in and grabbed him by the shirt collar, pulling him close. “You better have it.”

“Of course, of course,” he stammered. “I’ve got the sticks in my office.”

‘The office’ was actually a dingy storage closet built into dilapidated remains of the parking garage the fights were hosted in. It was well within one of the many degenerate urban sprawls; often overlooked by the authorities, and kept a safe distance from by the more savory folks. But Ryuuko had no issues traveling between the shadowy ghetto sprawls and the high-class corporate zones.

A fussy, flickering lightbulb hung above their heads in the cramped storage room, harshly illuminating a rusty metal desk. Ronnie made his way around the desk and unlocked the topmost right drawer with a subtle motion of his hand. An implant in his wrist, no doubt. Credsticks jostled and clattered against each other.

Ronnie moved slowly and methodically as he loaded each credstick and repeatedly checked numbers against his commlink, muttering to himself all the while. Finally, he looked up and gazed past Ryuuko at the open doorway. “Sorry about this.”

“Sorry…?” She spun around to face the doorway where a shadowy figure stood, blocking the entrance. “What’re you doing here?”

An electric current surged through her and she convulsed until Ronnie pulled his taser away from the back of her neck. Her vision went dark and she collapsed into the strong arms of the newcomer.

“Thank you,” the mysterious man said in a rough, deep voice. He hoisted Ryuuko over one shoulder and deposited a single credstick onto the desk.

Ronnie snatched up the stick and scanned the balance with his commlink. “Of course, Mr. Johnson. But please… She is one of my best fighters. I hope you will not harm… or maim… her.” He licked his lips nervously. Business was business and questions were best left unasked.

The tall middle-aged man stared silently through Ronnie, before turning and exiting the storage unit.

Ryuuko’s eyes struggled to open against a heavy haze. They fluttered, the blue hues muddled and cloudy from sleepiness. Or was it weariness? Had she been drugged? She shot up into a sitting position and grimaced. Everything hurt. Literally. Everything. Her head exploded in pain, every discernible muscle ached, and her stomach burned. Even her bones, if that was even possible, were sore.

“Ouch ouch ouch,” she grumbled and realized the makeshift pallet bed she woke up on was not one she recognized.

It was obvious to her that she was squatting somewhere in the slums, judging by the creaky, rotting attic she found herself in. A single broken window — barred from the outside — revealed it was still nighttime, but the warm misty air was not as pleasant as she recalled it being earlier. Neon glows of red, blue, and green seeped into the room and she heard the general bustle of busy streets below.

What a beating I took, Ryuuko thought as she stood weakly, nearly bumping her head on the slanted ceiling. Her nose crinkled at the musty environment. Dust floated around her, clogging the small space. She sat once more on the wooden frame. What… happened?

“I kicked his ass,” she murmured, mentally reliving the knockout punch she’d delivered to her opponent earlier in the night. And then… It came back to her and she bobbed her head in a nod. Ronnie had paid her and she fainted on her way out of the parking garage arena. Exhausted after a long night of competing with her fists.

Ryuuko got to her feet again and drunkenly staggered towards the only door in the attic. She gripped the broken and splintery handrail, supporting herself against it as she tripped her way down the stairs. An audible click sounded at the bottom, where a heavy door stood between her and the outside. The click, she knew, was the locking mechanism unbolting itself at her approach. Some kind of motion sensor, if she had to guess. She shoved her shoulder against the door and it swung open.

Intense street lights and neon billboards slammed against her sensitive vision. She lifted an arm against the invasion. Ryuuko’s head was buzzing with pain at the sights and sounds that overwhelmed her senses. There were few powered vehicles due to the poorly kept roads here, but plenty of people trod about on foot, and some pushed carts along the narrow street to sell the wares they had to offer. The clinking, clattering, and indistinct hum of chatter was maddening. A whiff of urine and spicy street food filled her nostrils and she braced herself against the building — retching and dry heaving onto the dirty wall. There was nothing for her to expel but stomach acid and bile.

From the outside, it became clear her shelter was sandwiched between two and three story buildings on a narrow street — alive with nightlife and shady dealings. Every which way she looked the bright signs advertised bars and strip clubs. The door she had come from had slammed shut and was barricaded with rebar. Upon inspection, she realized that there was no apparent handle for reentry. It was oddly out of place and reinforced for such a tiny, slanted wooden building that leaned so heavily against its brick neighbors.

The waves of staggering nausea ebbed as Ryuuko became adjusted to the stark lighting and city sounds. She regained her bearings slowly. This particular sprawl she didn’t recognize exactly, but it had a vibe that was familiar to her and she intuitively knew that many black market dealers called it home.

With a groan she pushed off and joined the crowds. She assimilated seamlessly, no one paying her any heed. Discarded takeout containers and faded papers littered the streets. A common sight in most of the sprawls she’d been through. Alright. Where am I? She reached into the pocket of her jeans for her commlink and instead found nothing.

“Urgh…” she growled, having frantically patted at and reached into each one of her pockets and came up empty.

Without her commlink, she was essentially nothing. It contained her identification, money, and means of navigation. She didn’t even have a credstick with her to scrape by on. “Shit."

Of course. Who wouldn’t rob a passed out young woman in the slums? But then… Where did this jacket come from? And why put me up in a safe house? Had Ronnie been decent enough to stow her in one his places? But enough of a slimeball to rob her blind?

The sudden flood of lucidity and impossible to answer questions dizzied Ryuuko. As she examined the sleeves of her mysterious new white and black bomber jacket she noticed, quite belatedly, something unusual about her hands. Coming to a halt among the milling people she lifted her hands to eye level and was simultaneously shocked and impressed by how immaculate they were. She curled her fingers tentatively. Once, twice, three times — as if to make sure the way they felt matched the way they looked.

They should be bruised and scraped after tonight. Broken, even.

They were perfect. Her nails had a healthy shine and were clipped neatly. Hah!

Ryuuko touched one hand to the side of her face, braced for the tender soreness and a jolt of pain. A good beatdown always stung afterward and the resulting bruising and swelling were none too pretty. Her nose had been broken so many times she had eventually stopped getting it cosmetically repaired to save the nuyen it cost. But now, instead of pain and swelling, she felt smooth skin beneath her fingertips and a straightened nose.

Ryuuko snagged the arm of the nearest passerby and brought the woman to a sudden stop. “‘Ey. What’s the time?”

Bewilderment was written plainly across the lady’s face. Although Ryuuko couldn’t tell if it was the unwarranted physical contact or the unusual need to be told the time. Everyone was connected to the system in some form or another, constantly brushing against the Matrix and intermingling with AR.

“Eleven twenty-seven,” she said curtly, knowing simply by virtue of being connected to her commlink, and continued hurriedly away.

Ryuuko stuffed her hands into the pockets of her jacket and studied the poorly paved street as she meandered along aimlessly. In that case, her fights had been last night. She had been out cold nearly a whole day.

As she planned her next move a faint nagging sensation quietly chewed at the back of her mind. Nothing felt right. Especially her stomach, which was churning and growling aggressively in hungry protest. Nausea rolled over her in waves and she thought she might be sick again. The overwhelming scents had slowly dissipated around her until she could just barely catch the delicious aroma of street taco here and a hint of tare yakitori there. Almost single-mindedly she became fixated on her need to acquire and devour food.

Without any nuyen the ways to obtain food became significantly more limited. Ronnie you good for nothin’ two faced bastard. I’ll kill ya’, she grumbled as she passed by yet another questionable alleyway. Stealing was always an option, albeit a risky one. Bartering was the more noble approach but few in the sprawls were willing to part with their goods or services for anything less than money.

This was adequately made clear after being dismissed from the fourth food stand with no food given. “Sir,” she had politely begun. “I lost my commlink and can’t pay. Could I trade work for—”

The broad, towering man had grunted and folded his arms across his chest.

“I’ll help clean up, wash dishes. Leftovers are fine, doesn’t have to be fresh, ya’ know.” Ryuuko bargained.

His response had merely been to level a large butcher knife at her and grunt again.

Dejectedly she slumped against the grimy wall of an alley and wrapped her arms around her aching abdomen. Never before had she felt this kind of hunger, especially not after a mere single day of hibernating.

“Young miss…” A weak old voice came from beside her.

Some distant part of Ryuuko had noticed his approach. Heard his shuffling steps, smelt his thick body odor, and detected his wheezing breathing. She was not surprised when he appeared from the shadows of the alley next to her.

He held out a gelatinous blob of half-eaten soy product. Most food shared a base of soy and could be shaped and seasoned convincingly into just about anything. But this was akin to plain tofu, soy product in its most basic and unpalatable form. His gnarled hands were layered with dirt, disgusting palms offering the pitiful morsel of food, which had absorbed some of the dirt and was now discolored.

Ryuuko eyed the morsel hungrily before flickering strong blue eyes to his pale, faded gaze. Behind the oppression, she saw the slightest spark of vitality. That brightness behind his eyes, she knew, was what drove him to part with what she suspected was the only food he’d had in a long while. His gaunt and frail figure confirmed as much.

“Please,” he insisted and thrust the soy cube closer. “I saw you looking for food. Take it.”

Ryuuko’s lips twitched into a vague smile and she shook her head, sending her night-sky hair swishing around her perfect face. She was not above eating the dirty leftovers of a beggar. Yet… the maddening hunger that gnawed viciously at her subsided ever so slightly at the sight of this hunched over old man. She reached out and curled her pristine fingers over his, closing his hand around the food.

“I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me, old man,” she said, the smile blossoming into a crooked grin. “I’ve hardly had to skip a meal in all my life. I’ll live through this.”

He seemed disheartened by her refusal. Ryuuko knew this kindness was rare.

“Wait,” Ryuuko called as he turned to shuffle his way back down the alley. Presumably to the poor excuse of a shelter he called home. She knew that, beyond the name he called himself, he had no identity. To the rest of the world and the system, he was literally no one. He didn’t exist. “Could you tell me where this is?” she asked with a broad gesture around them.

The old man faced her once more and beheld her with a look of pity. Was she also no one? Yet so young, it would be a shame for her to be blank. “This is Eastpointe. Are you lost, young miss?” he asked.

“Ah...haha,” Ryuuko rubbed the back of her neck and gave a disarming smile. “A bit. Do you know the way to Brightmoor neighborhood?”

He nodded slowly and provided her the clearest directions he could muster from his aging memory. “It’s not what it used to be, you know,” he said, rapping his knuckles against the side of his head. His patchy, gray hair did little to cover up the dark liver spots that blotched his skin.

“Thanks,” she said and pushed off from the wall she’d been leaning against.

The old man hesitated as if thinking something over carefully. Or perhaps simply trying to recall words that evaded his tired mind. “Miss. It’s an awful long way to go on an empty stomach,” he started. “I suggest… if you won’t take free food… going to a vendor I know. They… well, they’re willing to take services in exchange for goods.” The old man paused and added knowingly, “they even deal in credsticks. That’ll get you a bus fare.”

With sincere thanks given she was on her way. Ryuuko wove through the labyrinth of streets, each one just as filthy as the last and poorly lit with the occasional flickering street lamp or the harsh splash of neon signs. Together the streets formed a network of tightly packed and rundown neighborhoods composed haphazardly of stone, rotting wood, and rusty wrought iron.

Instinctively she avoided the worst parts, where the shadows were dense and intimidating. In Detroit, the shadows concealed the back room deals and criminal underworld that lurked within. She was no stranger to these parts, yet she was in no shape now to get caught off guard lingering. Ryuuko was cranky from an empty stomach, baffled by her predicament, and without any weapons to fight with or funds to bargain with.

Fortunately, it wasn’t very long before she came to the neighborhood the old man had directed her to. Almost immediately, as she slid inconspicuously through the crowds, she perceived the change in atmosphere. Her attention focused on a small group of people chatting urgently within their clique, then shifted to a young man busily tapping away at his commlink with purpose, before observing a pair who were directly exchanging goods outside of an exceptionally loud club. The booming vibrations that shuddered from it seeped into Ryuuko and she flinched, repulsed by the racket. The heavy black door and dark tinted windows kept only the goings-on out of sight, but the music’s bass blasted through without regard. She quickened her pace and moved along without a second glance at the two who were handling affairs nearby.

Altogether, she realized, this neighborhood seemed alive. There was something fundamentally different here from the other slums she’d been through. It was subtle, yet obvious to her keen observations. Perhaps, she mused, because this sprawl was just on the outskirts of a thriving corporate zone.

Ryuuko stood within the confines of a cramped back alley, hands stuffed into the pockets of her jacket, her eyes easily adjusting to the muted lighting. The fact it was lit at all was peculiar and the source even more so. A giant, crooked neon sign hung over a disproportionately small shack. The shack was propped against the interior corner of the alley where two multi-story brick buildings joined.

“Back Alley Trade Company,” Ryuuko read out loud with more than a hint of skepticism.

She picked her way through the heaps of junk that were scattered around the shop and nudged the door open with the sole of her raised foot, hands still comfortably tucked away. “Oi!” Ryuuko called. “Anyone here?”

The merchandise inside the store had only slightly more order than the junk outside of it. Gadgets and gizmos and derelict tech lay strewn about. Dull yellow light washed over the room from bulbs that hung from the ceiling by bare wiring.

“Ooooo! A customer!” a disembodied and cheerful voice came from somewhere within the stacks of… stuff .

Ryuuko stood on her tippy-toes, peering about for the mysterious voice. “Uhm, yeah. Kinda.”

“What can I get for ya’?!” the voice exclaimed.

“Where are you?” Ryuuko asked, stepping further into the shack.

The voice came again, alarmingly close, and sickly sweet in tone. “Behind you, silly!”

Ryuuko spun around, her senses sharpening, and just as her combat instincts came alive they were simultaneously quelled by the sight of a short young woman setting down a box of machine parts that were stacked higher than she was tall. She stepped around it and put her hands on her hips.

“The name’s Mako! Welcome to the Back Alley Trade Company. Would you be interested in a micro-transceiver? Oooorrr, maybe a holo projector?” She shuffled various parts procured from her box and showed them off.

“Uh, no, actually…” She started to say but found herself quickly stepping out of Mako’s way as she dragged her box towards the back. Ryuuko nearly crashed into another stack of memorabilia, barely managing to steady it and catching the dislodged… thing… that dropped from it.

As she set the part back onto its precarious home she regarded the shop owner wearily. This Mako wore a black newsboy cap with a crescent moon pendant pinned to it. Beneath it, her messy brown hair framed her gentle, childish face. Her look was decisively casual with a sleeveless hoodie layered over a v-neck shirt and paired with faded dark jeans. Three leather bands studded with red spikes encircled her left wrist. Draped across her waist was a functional utility belt laden with small hand tools and pouches concealing who knew what.

Ryuuko quickly assessed that Mako wasn’t a physical threat and couldn’t detect any notable weapons on her person unless pliers and screwdrivers counted. “I heard you’re willing to barter with customers?”

“Sure! Sometimes,” Mako said, leaning her entire upper body into a crate, feet dangling above the ground, as she rummaged around.

“I have nuyen, honest, but I lost my commlink. If you give me a burner I can pay you for it after and buy goods.”

Mako stood and leaned forward to peer closely at her patron. “So you want me to give you a commlink before you pay for it?”

“Well… yes,” Ryuuko said hopelessly. No one was generous enough to do—

“Okay!” Mako beamed.

Within a few minutes Mako had produced a cheap burner commlink from her inventory and handed it to Ryuuko. “Wow. Thanks! Just give me a sec here and I’ll get my SIN loaded up to pay ya’.”

“Mmhmm,” Mako agreed, idly juggling electronic components.

Ryuuko entered one of her throwaway identities she had been holding onto for such an occasion as this, but the commlink’s indicator flashed red and it made an unhappy beeping sound at her. Sometimes cheap SINs weren’t credible, so she wasn’t exactly surprised it had been flagged as invalid.

“Alright, maybe this one.” Ryuuko tried her trusty day-to-day fake SIN. It was an expensive and pristine identity she used for all of her simple legal dealings and purchases. While not her real SIN issued at birth, it was nearly as good.

Beeeeep. The commlink flashed red again, rejecting her SIN.

“Ya’ gotta be kiddin’ me…”

Ryuuko re-entered the same SIN twice more before giving up on it. She reluctantly input her true SIN. This was the system identification number that legitimately made her a citizen and it was reserved for only the most official of business.

Her heart hitched as the commlink beeped and flashed red once more.

“What the hell. This thing doesn’t even work. Cheap crap,” She thrust it towards Mako in aggravation. No way.

Mako took the device and lightning fast input a valid SIN, causing it to flash green and bring her to the default home screen. “Sure it does!” she chimed and held the commlink up for Ryuuko to see.

Ryuuko’s eyes went wide. “That date… isn’t right, is it?”

“Sure is!” Mako confirmed. “Why, what’s wrong?” Her brow knitted in concern at the expression that her customer wore.

“It’s been a month,” she said softly. “Yesterday was May 3rd. Today is June 5th.”

I’ve been out… for a month? And my SINs are gone. Erased.

“Yesterday was June 4th,” Mako clarified, frowning at Ryuuko. She could sense the sudden distress rolling off of her. Glancing down she fidgeted with the activated commlink before pushing it towards the downtrodden patron. “Here. It’s a throwaway SIN.”

Ryuuko eyed the gift suspiciously. “You’re giving it to me?”

Mako scoffed. “Of course not, silly! I’m trading it to you.”

“For what? I have nothing.” Literally nothing save for the clothes on her back. Clothes she didn't even recognize! Even her identity, her true identity, had been stripped away from her so suddenly. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. She still had her hideouts and some stashed credsticks. She just needed the means to get there.

“Well… you seeeee,” Mako said jubilantly. “I kinda maybe made some people upset and they’re-on-their-way-here-now,” she said, words pouring out increasingly quickly as she showed Ryuuko the security feed on her personal commlink. “Could you deal with them, please?”

Sure enough, she watched as three figures stalked through the connecting alleyway, each one carrying an improvised weapon of some sort and looking pretty peeved.

“I’ll need a weapon,” Ryuuko assessed, accepting the burner commlink and casting about for something to fight with.

“This!” Mako dug into a pile without even having to look and out came a stun baton that appeared to be two models behind the latest release. Clearly confiscated or looted from a government official. She didn’t want to know how Mako came into possession of it.

“They’re here,” Mako squeaked.

“MANKANSHOKU!” A deep man’s voice growled from outside. There was a crash of parts being kicked over. Metal clanged and scraped against the cement.

Ryuuko ground her teeth together. “Stay hidden.”

It didn’t matter who these guys were, what they wanted, or what Mako did to piss them off. Ryuuko wasn’t about to lose an in with the only person willing to help someone broke and SINless. She knew these blokes wouldn’t be so charitable even if she helped them get to Mako.

A surge of adrenaline rushed through Ryuuko and she barrelled out of the shack with her stun baton brandished. She glided effortlessly across the distance between her and the man kicking at piles of merchandise. The baton rapped against his ribs and he shook with a violent jolt of electricity that dropped him among the scattered parts.

“Who the hell?” The second thug tensed into a defensive pose, raising his heavy lead pipe.

The third goon came to his side, lowering the spiked bat from her shoulder to point it directly at Ryuuko. “Where’s the Mankanshoku girl? We’ve some business to settle!”

Ryuuko didn’t answer or even pause to give them an opening. Something within her ate the information her senses passed to her brain, parsed through it swiftly, and sent her whirling into motion. She flung herself forward with surprising force and ducked under the raised bat, connecting her baton with the outstretched arm of the woman. There was a vicious crack on contact. The bat clattered to the ground and the woman yelped in literal shock.

The hefty whoosh of the lead pipe swinging through the air alerted Ryuuko of its approach. She pivoted and leapt back out of range of the strike. He followed up immediately with an overhead chop and Ryuuko blocked it with her upstretched right arm. The metal rang loudly, bent at the place of impact, and sent spikes of pain through her. She dropped the baton from her right hand, caught it in her left, and pushed through the hurt. Using the surprise of her opponent as an opening she thrust her stun baton into his abdomen. He writhed on the cement, lead pipe discarded and misshapen.

Duck. An unfamiliar sense told Ryuuko, even though she had no visual cues. She obeyed her instincts just as the spiked bat swung across the space where her head had been mere seconds ago. Spinning around Ryuuko faced the remaining woman, who now wielded her bat left handed. The adversary opened her mouth to say something snarky but in the same moment Ryuuko threw the baton and nailed the woman in her face. She crumpled and convulsed before going still like the other two.

The rush left her system and everything slowed, including Ryuuko’s heartbeat. She flexed the fingers on her right hand and tested the pain that shot up and down her bruised arm. The bones should have been shattered from the force of the pipe, she knew. Yet pain was the only price paid and it was only a distant, dull pulse.

“Wow, you sure took care of them!” Mako cheered, coming out of the shack and stepping nimbly over the unconscious assailants. “I knew you could do it, uh... erm… I don’t actually know your name?”

There was a moment of contemplative silence as Ryuuko considered that question. Yesterday I was Matoi Ryuuko. But today… I am no one. She buried that thought and scratched the back of her head, giving a lopsided grin. “I’m Ryuuko.”

Chapter Text

“I’ve located the target,” Ryuuko said quietly over her commlink.

The night shrouded her comfortably, and her crouched form was just another shadow among the rooftops. She surveyed the river port below from her perch on a squat warehouse. The hood of her jacket was pulled up over her hair, and she wore a dark scarf to conceal part of her face. It was a primitive method of protecting her identity, and not one she put much faith into.

The cheerful voice of Mako came crisply, and loudly, over Ryuuko’s earpiece. “Good! Secure the package and bring it to the drop-off point. No peeking!” 

Right. No peeking, Ryuuko thought glumly. She was paying off the tremendous debt she owed to Mako by running some of her errands — which turned out to be top secret. The Novatech Airwave commlink, disposable SINs, and sheer amount of calories she consumed each night had racked her up quite the bill. The voracious appetite she suddenly possessed astonished her. On the first night, she’d nearly cleaned Mako out of all of her rice and gobbled up a number of mysterious, homemade soy croquettes. After three days of miscellaneous errands, this was her last payment against her debt to Mankanshoku. It turned out the innocuous young woman was involved in some shady business and had need for a shadowrunner; a need Ryuuko was eager to meet. She thrived in the shadows. 

“Got it,” Ryuuko agreed. “Although you still haven’t told me the drop-off point.”

“You’ll know when you need to,” Mako said, the sound of food crunching over the link. 

Through the darkness, Ryuuko was able to pick out five dock hands unloading inventory from a shipping container. The only identifying mark on the container was a serial number in large, white lettering. Despite the distance, she could discern the cargo was stacks of black boxes, each smaller than a briefcase.

Resolute in her mission, she scrambled down the side of the warehouse to the pavement below; her body intuitively knew how to use every hand and foothold to her advantage. Stealthily, she crept towards the unloading zone where the shipping crate loomed.

Well. I sure as hell ain’t going in guns blazin’.

Taking on all five of the heavily armed workers simply wasn’t an option. If there were more mercenaries hiding in reserve she wouldn’t have a prayer of making it out alive. Whatever they were moving was very important to someone, given that the river — a popular 24-hour trade route — was unusually clear of moored boats for miles. Even for the dead of night it was eerily quiet.

Crouched behind a large stack of storage boxes, she reviewed the 3D model displayed on her commlink. The standard-issue combat armor had multiple weak points if you knew just where to poke. She studied the information and touched her hand to the stun baton at her hip. Mako had refused to arm her with anything lethal, but this time she had been graciously given the latest model of expandable stun baton. She must want me to die.

“Here we go,” Ryuuko whispered, tapping at her commlink’s display. Edge, be with me. She’d need all the luck she could get.

From one end of the dock, the sound of gunfire and frenzied shouting reverberated. On the opposite end, a small explosion erupted. Both were diversions she’d planted earlier in the night; one was a simple gizmo triggered to play a convincing audio clip, and the other a relatively harmless explosion that had a much bigger bark than bite.

There was a flurry of commotion as the overseeing worker barked his commands. “Benson, Grey – to the east. Go! Striker, guard the cargo. Smith, keep unloading to the truck. I’m checking the explosion to the west.”

The team broke apart, each of the patrolling units with their FN HAR assault rifles at the ready. The one called Striker remained stoically at the cargo container’s opening, while his partner moved stacks of the cases to a trailer truck no more than ten meters away.

Not good. I just need to get one out of there, Ryuuko thought. Piece of cake. Without dying. She was also supposed to destroy as much cargo as possible. That part of the mission briefing had brought a smile all the way to her eyes.

Ryuuko adjusted the satchel strapped to her back and made a wide approach toward the target. She stole across the paved grounds until she was at the closed end of the container. The thumping in her chest was oddly steady for such risky business. Her nerves were steeled. She tugged at her gloves and in two swift motions had scampered up the back of the container to the top of it — an easy 2.5 meters. Ryuuko crawled forward on all fours and peered over the lip of the open end. Striker stood below, armored head swiveling side to side but never behind and up. She could hear and see Smith inside the trailer truck, arranging the goods.

With a deep breath, Ryuuko languidly stood. She flipped off of the cargo container, stun baton extending mid-air, and smashed herself against Striker feet first. She thrust the baton against the nape of his neck, where the helmet and gorget left just enough of a gap. It was as if time had slowed during her descent to give her the focus required for such a stunt. The moment she connected with him she was compressing, changing her direction, and launching herself off of him, crashing into the interior of the cargo container. Striker was thrown off balance and he slammed into the ground, stun baton left jutting from the crevice in his armor.

The bigger they are, she thought smugly.

Ryuuko had hardly landed before she ripped the satchel from her back, flung it deep into the cargo, and spun around to sprint away with a single case in hand. Elegantly she leapt over the fallen form of Striker, collecting her baton as she went, and— She yelped mid-jump.

Striker had snatched her ankle from the air and pulled her down face first into the pavement, heaving himself up as he did so. With a single, disproportionately long arm he managed to lift Ryuuko into the air and dangle her by her foot as she flailed.

He was massive. troll? she wondered. Whoops.

“I don’t think so,” Striker snarled, immediately followed by an indignant oof.

Ryuuko had dented his armor at the sternum with a powerful kick of her free foot. “Get yer hands off!” She wriggled and kicked her way free, tumbling over herself on the pavement until she found her footing. The prized case was clutched tightly against her chest.

“Mak— er, they found me!” Ryuuko cried into her commlink. 

At the same time Striker was yelling into his own comms, “We’ve been compromised! One hostile.”

Gunfire exploded near Ryuuko as she scurried away with the goods. Bullets ricocheted around her. Shit, shit, shit!

“Mako, delivery point?!” she demanded. 

“I’m pinging the location to your commlink now,” Mako said hastily. “Don’t die!” 

Ryuuko growled, “Just give the fastest route out of here!” 

“Uhm, uhm, uhm,” Mako stammered.

Smith rushed from the trailer truck in an attempt to flank Ryuuko. His FN HAR was trained on her and she just knew that Striker was about to send a second burst of bullets her way, too. 

It seemed to her that the pain came before the sound of the gunshots. Ryuuko screamed at the searing heat of two bullets passing through her left shoulder. Blood sprayed onto the pavement in front of her and she stumbled. Wet warmth trickled down her arm and chest. Her focus wavered for a moment at the sharp pain, but she regained her wits as the sting in her shoulder soon dissipated into nothingness. 

Thumpthumpthumpthump— her heart raced, and both Smith and Striker slowed, each motion painstakingly methodical to Ryuuko’s eyes. 

The truck. A thought came, bubbling up from some distant part of her mind.

Ryuuko sprinted full force toward the partially loaded truck. She flung the door open and hauled herself into the driver’s seat. Whatever her plan had been, it slipped away when she realized she didn’t have the required key to start the vehicle.

There was a spark in the back of her mind. Abruptly she was ripping away at the panel beneath the steering wheel, adrenaline coursing through her, yet her hands were steady as she plugged her commlink into a bundle of complicated wires. In the span of a few short seconds the truck was roaring to life. Ryuuko stared blankly at her now trembling hands, unsure what had happened.

Bullets hailed against the truck and pierced the door. Ryuuko cursed in pain as her legs and abdomen were grazed by the projectiles. Again, her hands were ahead of her, operating the truck before she even realized she knew how. Within moments she was speeding along the river port, swerving around obstacles and fishtailing wildly. 

“Ryuuko, tell me you did NOT just steal that truck?!” Mako shrieked over the comms.

“And if I did?” Ryuuko challenged.

“That’s so cool!” Mako said. “But the mission was to steal only one and—”

“Oh yeah,” Ryuuko mumbled and pressed the detonate command on her commlink. A huge explosion came from behind the truck where the cargo container sat. Her satchel full of explosives did its job and then some. “Better?”

Ryuuko could hear Mako’s pout over the commlink. “Yes, but… you can’t bring that truck here. Ditch it!”

“What about the rest of the cargo?” Ryuuko asked.

There was a sigh. “Ryuuko, silly. I told you. Only one!” Mako chided.

“Aye aye.”

She accelerated hard and barreled a long way down the docks. Something stirred in her.

I do not recommend following through with this plan. The thought came calmly, both within and outside of her psyche. 

Ryuuko ignored the strange thought and angled the vehicle on a path toward the river beyond the dock. She lifted her foot from the electric pedal and, with an incredible surge of strength, slammed down against it. The pedal made a hideous scraping sound as it became lodged in the mechanical inner workings beneath the floorboard. The truck, and she along with it, were now on a direct course for a watery demise.

Sitting in the frame of the driver’s side window, she used her feet to keep the steering wheel on track, right until the last moment.

Time to go.

Ryuuko hoisted herself up and out of the window, clambering onto the roof of the vehicle. Unsteadily she gained her footing, glanced over her shoulder at the rapidly approaching river, and made a mad dash for the back end of the truck. In one hand she held tightly the little black case.

It was a short distance to cover and she planted her feet at the end of the stretch, pushing off mightily and propelling herself onto the dock, just as the truck went careening wildly into the river. She rolled over her shoulder, tumbling into what started as a graceful somersault and ending in a splayed mess on the wooden planks of the pier.

“—you okay?!” Suddenly there was yelling over her commlink. In fact, there had been a lot of chatter that she’d merely filtered out until now.

“What?” Ryuuko asked as she sat up and rubbed the back of her aching head.  

There was a frantic inhale. “Are you okay? What did you just do?!” Mako cried.

Ryuuko stood up slowly, picking up the case as she did so. “Ah. I may have driven the truck into the river.” 

Mako was prattling on about how awesome and irresponsible that was while Ryuuko counted slowly to herself. Five… Four.

She turned and started walking away from the river. Two…

The smooth, dark surface of the river gurgled and bubbled before erupting into a fountain of water that shot into the air and rained back down to make thousands of ripples. She couldn’t help it. At the last moment, Ryuuko peeked over her shoulder at the explosion and smirked contentedly.

“I’ve destroyed the truck with light explosives. Hopefully, the cargo is unsalvageable now.”



By the time Ryuuko reached the drop-off point her adrenaline had long since faded. She was an aching and bloody mess. Her shirt was stained red and soaked through with sweat. She hobbled, relying heavily on the leg that hadn’t been grazed by bullets. Her body was tired, yet her sense of pain was dulled to the point that she may have just been imagining the stinging in her left leg, rather than actually feeling it in her nerves. 

“Uhm…” Ryuuko looked sheepishly at the tall figure standing before her. His posture was impeccable, arms at his sides, back perfectly straight, chin up. His eyes drew her attention, unnervingly lifeless and black. But his face, slightly crinkled with age, was somehow friendly despite the hard, expressionless line his lips formed. His gray hair was slicked back immaculately, and he dressed in a classically dapper sort of way.   

“The password,” Mako whispered into Ryuuko’s comm.

Right. Ryuuko glanced around the dark alley. “Er.” It was so silly. “Win with… friendship?” she said hesitantly.

The man’s face softened slightly and he reached out to take the case from her. He bowed deeply and as he straightened procured a small wooden box from within his tailored tuxedo jacket. He slid the flat, wooden top back along its track and held the box out to Ryuuko, bent forward ever so slightly in a servile manner.

No words were exchanged, but Ryuuko realized he meant for her to take from the box. She plucked out a small, rectangular packet and scrutinized the gift, too curious to contain herself. Ryuuko gasped as she read the text on the packet. Ryokucha. Authentic Japanese green tea. Not the imitation crap that saturated the market. Ryuuko had never seen such a luxury.

“Than—” She looked up from the packet to express her gratitude, but the man was gone.

Chapter Text

“Well, that’s over with,” Ryuuko said under her breath. She reviewed her financial standings via commlink, bobbing subtly with the jarring of the bus as it chugged along over deteriorated roads.

Ryuuko had a clean conscience knowing her debt to Mankanshoku was paid in full. Thanks to Mako, she now had a couple proper SINs to work with. Not only that, but there was enough nuyen in her account for public transport and food. Mako had even let her keep the Novatech Airwave commlink. Everything was just peachy, and soon she’d be back in the comfort of her own apartment, swimming in stashed credsticks.

Gazing out the window, she watched the dull gray buildings zoom by. The sky stretched on, a pale mid-morning blue dotted with tufts of clouds. But soon the buildings, growing ever taller and denser, blocked out her view of the sky as she approached the heart of Detroit.

Before parting ways, Mako had insisted on taking Ryuuko to her father for medical treatment. She’d learned he was a former Doc Wagon EMT who had relegated himself to serving clientele in the sprawls. By the time she had arrived, her wounds were already clotting and healing. He had sterilized the bullet holes in her left shoulder and injected them with a gel that would speed recovery and repair damaged flesh.

Less than twelve hours later and her arm felt good as new. In fact, the only remaining evidence of her wounds were the two holes in her jacket. Lifting her hand, Ryuuko ran fingers over the torn fabric. The bomber jacket, while just her style, was a reminder of her strange predicament. I’ll get to the bottom of this soon.

In the distance, Ryuuko could easily spot the familiar headquarters of Ares Macrotechnology, reaching skyward with some sixty stories, and reminding Michigan just how powerful they were. She sneered at the iconic building. Ares was one of the Big Ten megacorporations that just about ran the world.

Yet, it was dwarfed by the megatall skyscraper that dominated downtown Detroit. Revoke Enterprises. They were a relatively new contender that had been climbing the ranks in the past fifteen years, and recently claimed a place among the Big Ten.     

From the bus stop, Ryuuko walked to her apartment building. It was clean here. Healthy. No one was starving on the streets. Those kind of people were quickly and quietly dealt with, moved to the sprawls or barrens. That could have been me… Ryuuko thought soberly. There were sections of Detroit that were considered ritzy neighborhoods, intended for the corporate overlords to live apart from the ragtag civilians. This part of downtown Detroit was merely for the wealthy common people, and not many honest folks could afford to live here. Ryuuko’s apartment was her pride and joy as a successful runner. She wasn’t exactly one of the “honest folk,” though.

Getting into the building without her old SIN was tricky, but she managed to fool the security system with a spoofed SIN from her commlink. Ryuuko took the elevator to the 23rd floor and found her apartment door, number 23-16.

She allowed the retina scan to read her eye. The indicator flashed red once. The door remained locked.

Ryuuko staggered back, brow furrowing. No, no, no. I was three months ahead on rent, she assured herself, they wouldn’t have locked me out.

With a precursory exhale, she entered her 16-digit key code on the security pad. The door unlocked, and she entered with a relieved smile.

The smile broke, giving way to a grimace. God damn it, ya’ gotta be kidding me. Her heart sank into her stomach, as if she’d just been dropped from the highest floor of Revoke and left free falling.  

“I just can’t catch a break, can I?” she grumbled. 

Ryuuko stepped over shattered glass and surveyed the mess that had once been her studio flat. What little furniture she owned was now scorched, tossed about, and smashed to bits. There were slashes and words carved into the walls.  

She dropped into a defensive stance, prowling forward to investigate. 

Whoever had done this was long gone. 

The restroom was a disaster. Stagnant water pooled on the floor, fecal matter had been spread to unlikely surfaces, and the bathtub was smeared with— was that blood? What happened here? Fragments of the mirror were scattered about the floor. The sink, Ryuuko observed with plain bewilderment, must have had a terrible encounter with a sledgehammer. She backed away from the bathroom door, not caring to linger.  

Throughout the apartment, Ryuuko read threatening messages. One wall had “DIE” cut into it; another, “WE’LL FIND YOU.”

Profanities. “CUNT” and “BITCH” and “RYUUKO MATOI ROT IN HELL.”

And finally: “WE’RE WATCHING YOU.”

Were there cameras planted? Her heart thumped into adrenaline fueled action. “I can’t be here,” she realized.

Urgently, Ryuuko checked the nooks and crannies where she had stored emergency funds. All that remained were a handful of sticks and a single throwaway commlink, loaded with an equally discardable SIN. She stowed these in her pack and made a swift exit, checking every corner and scrutinizing every shadow along the way. The elevator walls closed in on her.

Ever alert, she picked her way across multiple city blocks and boarded a bus headed away from downtown. Naturally, she paid in credstick, instead of her newly opened bank account tied to her SIN. Every transaction could be logged and traced; that was Shadowrunner 101.

Calm down. You’re okay, a gentle, reasonable part of her mind said.

The driver was eying her, probably wondering if she had accidentally let a maniac chiphead onto the bus. Ryuuko settled in and flashed a gentle smile, angling herself to look out the window once more. She wasn’t some simsense junkie having a nervous breakdown and didn’t want to be mistaken for one.

Using the GPS built into her commlink she charted routes to her two other hideouts. Surely one was still intact and safe, despite their questionable locations in the sprawls.


As it turned out, nowhere was safe. Ryuuko sat in a very public, very busy Nukit Burgers with a greasy pile of food in front of her. She had strategically positioned herself in a back corner, next to a window, from where she kept one eye on everything and everyone.

Outside, the street lamps started to flicker on as the sunlight faded. She picked at her fries. Both of her hideouts in the sprawls had been ransacked and destroyed in similar fashion to her apartment. Her valuables stolen, and everything else trashed.

Between the three locations, she had just barely managed to secure enough loaded credsticks to survive on for months — if she were careful.

But everything she knew, everything she had worked toward, was gone . Erased. Just like that.

What is happening? Who is after me? She scowled at her food.

The first question had come to her often since she’d woken up in that safehouse, less than a week ago. This new question, though, left her further perplexed. She had few enemies, and most of them merely wanted to beat her bloody and steal some of her nuyen. Ryuuko had done well to avoid making the kinds of enemies that would stalk her, destroy her home, and probably kill her if given the opportunity.

“Or… so I thought,” she mumbled. Hmph. Ryuuko took a huge bite out of her soy burger, chewing aggressively.  

Ronnie was the last person I saw before I woke up at the safe house, she mused, trying to retrace everything that had happened. I was out cold for an entire month. Ryuuko frowned. And I haven’t felt quite right since.

She grabbed her jacket, slipping it on over her black tank-top, and left her plate of crumbs behind. Time to pay Ronnie a visit.

Technically, it had been over a month since she’d last visited the street fighting garage. To her brain, it had only been a few days. Yet, it felt as if ages had passed. While she was intimately familiar with the garage and neighboring sprawl, it now seemed hostile and cold. Ryuuko took the stairs slowly, meandering up multiple levels, observing her surroundings vigilantly. Every shadow had the potential to conceal some street samurai waiting to jump her for their Mr. Johnson.

Who would waste the resources on me? she wondered. How much nuyen am I worth? That was both an intriguing and unsettling thought.

The rust-mottled door to Ronnie’s office was open, hanging from the frame by a single hinge. Ryuuko peered into the room carefully, using the glow of her commlink to better illuminate the space. A rotten malodour worked its way into her nostrils and she lifted her jacket collar over her nose. As she entered, her eyes widened at the horrible scene. Each step forward revealed more horrors beneath the soft light of her commlink.

There were char marks on the walls and sticky, dried blood splatters on nearly every surface. Ronnie’s desk was overturned, the drawers pulled out. Empty credsticks lay strewn across the office, as if someone had been searching for something. The floor was crusty with even more blood. Ryuuko stepped into a crimson-black pool that was still wet — thick and goopy from sitting for so long. Her stomach churned, barely holding back her supper, as sickness knotted in her gut.

Ryuuko flinched, stepping back at the sight of burned and dismembered body parts scattered across the office. He had been disemboweled, tangled intestines discarded on the floor. What kind of monster… she started, but couldn’t even complete her thought. She stood stunned, staring at a barely identifiable severed head lying on the concrete, the skull half crushed. The eyes were hollow, empty sockets, long since invaded by maggots and evacuated by happily gorged flies.

The scent of death and decay became overwhelming to her unnecessarily heightened sense of smell. Whatever background process had been filtering her senses suddenly shut itself off, just like when she’d first emerged from the safehouse; the glow of her commlink was too bright, the smells around her too strong, and her fight-or-flight instincts raged.

Pull it together, Ryuuko, the gentle part of her brain came once more, soothing her.

The horror turned into boiling anger. “Bastards,” she managed between gritted teeth, her fists clenched.

Ronnie had been scummy, but among the other monsters lurking in the shadows, he had at least been the decent kind of scum.

“BASTARDS!” Ryuuko screamed, seething.

Somehow, she just knew that whoever did this was connected to her trashed apartment and hideouts. For the first time all week she let the emotional weight hit her. The culmination of her erased identity, destroyed hard work, foggy memories, and the gruesome murder before her now— it all came crashing down. A tsunami of pent up frustrations. It came, and it went.

I’m going to find these assholes. I will kill them.

Ryuuko stood from where had been crouching over Ronnie’s remains, wiping at half-formed tears born of resentment, and strode out of the office with a dark gleam in her eyes. She lost track of time as she collected trash and abandoned items, consumed by her task until she had enough fuel for a reasonably hot fire. It was the best she could do in a hurry to ‘cremate’ the corpse.

She knew others from the fighting ring had certainly come looking for him and found his body. Just as well, she knew no one was going to risk exposing themselves by reporting the incident. People living in the shadows, drifting from SIN to SIN, weren’t worth investigating or pursuing justice for. So long as the perpetrator didn’t start murdering more valuable citizens or leaving their kills in more reputable neighborhoods.

The sprawls were shit.

Everyone is shit, Ryuuko thought bitterly as she left the garage. The crackling pops of fire trailed after her.

Except… for one person.

Reluctantly, Ryuuko opened a line on her commlink and pinged Mako. It was late, but she had a feeling that Mako wouldn’t refuse her call.

“Ryuuuuko! Hiya!” the hyper voice sounded across the link.

A hint of a smile tugged at Ryuuko’s mouth. “‘Ey, Mako. Uhm… could I stay and work for you? Just for awhile.” She took a deep breath and continued quickly. “Things are kinda bad for me right now, ya’ know, and—”

Mako cut in excitedly, “Of-course-you-can-I’d-love-that! I definitely need some help with an upcoming mission, and you’re just the crazy lady for the job!” Without a pause to breathe, “and-there’s-leftover-croquettes-and-stew-and-we-can-stay-up-watching—” Mako continued over the ‘link.


Steam puffed from the tea as it poured into a delicate, porcelain cup. Soroi pulled the teapot back with practiced precision and bowed his head to the lady he served. He regarded the woman with soft admiration. She was tall and slender with a disciplined posture and brooding expression. As always, her power suit was almost militant in its neatness — strikingly white, accented with dark trim, and tastefully ornamented by a golden epaulette on the right shoulder. It was a deliberate fashion statement, he knew.

“Thank you,” Satsuki said coolly, and Soroi stepped back to pour five more cups of tea.

A black case lay open upon the table that Satsuki, and her executive board, were gathered around. She stood looming over the contents. Eight identical computer chips, each enclosed by a metal chassis, were nestled in the foam interior of the case. A serial and model number were engraved on them, just above the Revoke Enterprise logo.   

“Iori, I want a complete analysis on these implants. Do a full tear down and spare no detail,” Satsuki commanded as she inspected one of the chips between her thumb and a slender, elegant index finger. “Report your findings to Inumuta.”

The young man sitting at the far corner looked up to meet Satsuki’s eyes. “Yes, ma’am,” Shirou Iori said confidently, relishing the challenge. He returned his attention to the chips, his cybernetic left eye whirling and calculating. The entire left side of his face was integrated with cyberware — metal and wires adorning him in a way that was both practical and aesthetically intriguing. His short ponytail kept blond strands out of his face, the left side of his skull shaved to accommodate his enhancements.   

“So,” came the voice of Uzu Sanageyama, who appeared exceptionally thuggish in contrast to the other attendees. He plucked one of chips from the case and propped his feet on the conference desk. “This is the latest and greatest implantable commlink from Revoke?” He did not sound impressed.

Houka Inumuta paused his typing and glanced up from his tablet-sized commlink. His eyes were concealed by sleek, dark eyewear, illuminated with blue LED accents that nearly matched the shade of his hair. “The specs are unlike any implantable currently on the market. The reputable market, at least. Unprecedented processing power, ample RAM, and more bells and whistles than you’d find on even the 8,000 nuyen Caliban model.” He made a couple gestures on his ‘link. “The leaked MSRP is a mere 200 nuyen.”

Satsuki took her seat at the head of the conference table and laced her fingers into a bridge, elbows resting comfortably. “I suspect this is only the first iteration — a prototype, perhaps.”

Uzu raised an eyebrow. “That was a big shipment we took out. This prototype is going to market?”

“How better to test a product than in the field?” Satsuki asked. “It was a large shipment, but I’m afraid only the first. There will be more soon enough.”   

Nonon Jakuzure went from idly conducting the air with her finger to snatching the chip from Uzu’s hand. “Quit fiddling with it, monkey.” She returned the device to its case. “Honestly, I’m surprised that bumbling brat managed to pull this off.”

“Bumbling she may be... but resourceful,” Satsuki said, simply as a matter of fact.

Nonon pouted. “Would we not have been more suited to the task, Lady Satsuki?” She looked to their CEO with dazzling, vibrant pink eyes. It was one of the few cosmetic enhancements she’d indulged in. Little remained from her punk rock career, but the dyed hair, enhanced eyes, and her overwhelming spunk were permanently part of Nonon. Her short, dwarven build meant having to stand out in other ways — and stand out she most certainly did.

“Hardly. Your roles are far too important to be out making mischief over something so trivial. There is much left to be done and no time for games,” Satsuki said, lifting her teacup to her lips and savoring a sip.  

“M’lady,” Ira Gamagoori said as he stepped forward from behind Satsuki’s chair. “I have received word from patrol that Revoke’s COO Harime has returned from business.” He bowed slightly to reduce his enormous stature. Next to Satsuki he was a behemoth of thick hide, strong muscle, and formidable horns. As a troll, his dark skin and bone structure were naturally durable. Despite that, he still wore custom tailored combat armor. Ira was, after all, the Chief of Security and Satsuki’s personal bodyguard; he had to look the part.  

Her face was a hard mask. “Back so soon. I must pay my mother a visit and check in on Revoke’s latest dealings.”

“I will gladly accompany you, lady Satsuki,” Gamagoori offered, his voice deep voice full of heartfelt fealty.

Nonon lilted, “We all will.”

Satsuki shook her head, and her shoulder length hair followed the motions, intermittently revealing pointed elven ears. “Not yet. We must remain in the shadows, for now. Sanageyama, I trust recruitment is going well?”

Uzu leaned further back in his chair and folded his arms. “We are still plateauing, unfortunately. We have nearly exhausted the sprawls that Honnouji absorbed.” 

“Increase the radius of Honnou Town and provide greater compensation,” she instructed.

“Of course, Lady Satsuki. Are— are we to be honest with the newest recruits?” Uzu asked.

Satsuki studied the calm surface of her tea for a moment, blue eyes sharply focused. “Do no more than express the risk. Their service is more important than the cost.”

The board meeting was shortly wrapped up. Houka finished by sending meeting minutes and action items. Iori left with the case of commlink implants. The executive board dispersed.

“Soroi, a refill please,” Satsuki requested softly, rubbing her temples. He was immediately at her side, refreshing her cup. “Thank you — be ready to depart in twenty minutes. Arrange for a car.”

 Soroi bowed, “Yes, my lady.”

We will bring Detroit back from the shadows . Her thick eyebrows knitted together fiercely. Even if it means working from within them.

Chapter Text

Time slowed. They slowed. Ryuuko slowed. Everything slowed to a crawl amid the mayhem.

Ryuuko inhaled steadily, blinked, and the commotion resumed at normal speed.

A spark in her brain — intuition, perhaps — made Ryuuko leap over the katana that threatened to shorten her at the knees. Fwish. The blade cleaved through the air beneath her feet.

Offense! Unrelenting! urged her survival instinct.

She landed, leapt forward to roll over her shoulder, and sprang after the backpedaling thug into a vicious uppercut. Mae ukemi, her brain informed her.

The street samurai yowled, lifting off of his feet and landing on his back with a bloodied face. His sword clattered into a puddle on the concrete. Raindrops followed, splashing and rippling within the puddles dotting the active alley.   

Go! the instinct yelled.

Ryuuko dashed forward. She had to get out of this cramped space. Which, of course, meant going through a half-dozen thugs. It’s never easy, she thought.

The street samurai directly in her path threw a brass knuckle-gilded punch. With a subtle shift of her hips Ryuuko avoided the strike, took the woman’s arm, and fluidly turned her assailant’s momentum against her with a defensive throw. She went tumbling past Ryuuko. Munetsuki kokyunage, Ryuuko knew.

Except she didn’t know. Her body was acting and reacting with a more refined and graceful fighting style than she’d ever had.

No time to doubt yourself, she was reminded.

“Mako, if you can hear me— it was an ambush!” Ryuuko said into her comms. But the connection was dead, as it had been for the last twenty or so minutes. Damn it!

Pumping her legs, Ryuuko built up her speed as she made her way down the narrow alley. She charged past a mercenary trying to grapple her, shrugging him off as she went, and kong-jumped over a pile of steel crates blocking her path. Unfortunately, those weren’t the biggest thing impeding her progress.

Dead end, she thought, and laughed at that realization. Dead end, indeed. Still, she ran toward the wall that would have her trapped in this blind alley.

Pling, pling… pling. Bullets zoomed by, chipping away at brick and pavement.

Her mind started helpfully, Legs—     

Ryuuko wasn’t having it. Oh, shut up already!

Ryuuko, use your legs! it persisted.

She rolled her eyes. I bloody am! I’m running, ain’t I?

Jump, her brain whispered gently. Look up, and jump.

Ryuuko saw what it meant. It — whatever it was. There was a fire escape at the dead end. An end she’d nearly reached. I can’t jump that high!   

You can, the voice encouraged.

NO, I most certainly cannot. Why was she even arguing with herself like this?

Her inner-voice went on stubbornly, Ryuuko, you can. Trust me. Jump. Now!

Should she trust the crazy in her head? There was no time left to debate, either way. It was jump or run headlong into a brick wall. She replayed in her mind the leap she had made from runaway truck to pier. Fine.

Ryuuko grunted, took her last step, crouched, and launched herself into the air. Cool rain pelted her as she rose higher. She made unintelligible noises of delight and panic, trying to control her trajectory, and doing so poorly. The first level of the firescape passed by quickly and she smacked into the railing of the second level. Air whooshed out of her lungs and she flipped over the rail, falling onto her back on the grated metal of the landing.

Don’t stop. The voice was unyielding.

The stun from impact soon faded, and she was on her feet again. Bullets sprayed steadily now, two street samurai opening fire with machine pistols. She wasn’t surprised they both missed every shot. The auto fire of a Steyr TMP was atrocious practically impossible to control at any distance. Chumps.

Ryuuko bounded up the stairs, taking them two and three steps at a time. One of the attackers was in pursuit. He’d pulled a similar maneuver at the fire escape, leaping nearly as high as she had, but with much more finesse.

At the top of the building, Ryuuko paused to reflect on how exactly this had been a good idea. The only way to go was down to the street, fifteen stories below, with no safe way to go about it. She could hear the street samurai quickly reaching the top, behind her.

Not down. Across, her internal guide offered.

Skeptically, she approached the edge of the roof and sized up the gap between her and the next building, across an alley wider than the one she’d just escaped.

You can make that jump.

Ryuuko nodded. I know.

She started a few steps backward but heard the street samurai gaining on her. Calmly, she pirouetted away from his punch, knocking his hand aside. “I’m really tired of everyone trying to kill me lately.” Ryuuko grumbled, “Life used to be simple.”  

The opponent brandished a knife and moved to strike, no hesitation.

Ryuuko’s instinct flared. But her resident crazy didn’t have to spell out what to do next.

Aiming for her gut, he thrust the knife forward. As he did she twirled to his side to match his movement, grabbing his arm as it passed by. She led him around by the arm, twisting his wrist and redirecting his momentum until he was laid out flat on the roof. In a second, Ryuuko had gone from being a target to standing where her attacker had begun. Kote-gaeshi, her mind said.

Stop that, Ryuuko ordered.

That wasn’t me, her guide answered.

She drew in an aggravated breath. Just how many voices do I have?! she demanded.

The answer was silence. “Oh, ha-ha. Now no one is talking.”

While the street samurai recovered his senses, Ryuuko sprinted for the edge of the building and threw herself across the gap with a strong lift-off. She led with her right arm, adapting her earlier “mae ukemi” tumble, and seamlessly blended from a roll into another sprint. The next gap between roofs was smaller and she cleared it easily, landing in a crouch on the other side.

Who— what, are you? Ryuuko asked, no longer able to ignore the sentience in her mind that was not altogether her own.

The voice that answered was gentle, yet eager. “You may call me Senketsu.”

Ryuuko frowned, one eyebrow arched. Gesundheit?

“I’m glad you are having fun, Ryuuko. But you should focus on getting out of here,” he suggested definitely a he, she decided.  

“I’m working on it,” she said aloud and scrambled down a nearby fire escape. And I’m not having fun, she asserted.

“Are you not? I must be mistaken — your vitals and chemical fluctuations suggest you are enjoying yourself.” His analysis was calm and calculated.

Ryuuko snorted and continued down the long alley that would lead her to a well-lit street. That’s adrenaline. Fight or flight, a way for my body to instinctively protect itself, she explained. 

Senketsu was quiet for a moment before stating matter-of-factly, “But you are not afraid.” 

Of course I am, Ryuuko said across their strange mental bond. I could have died!

“You do not experience fear the same way others do in combat,” he answered gently. “And, to be honest, the chances of you dying back there were extremely low.”

But there were like… ten of them! And with guns! she insisted.

Thirteen, actually,” Senketsu corrected.

Relief washed over Ryuuko as she came out of the alley and merged with the busy nightlife. The street was lit softly by the glow of paper lanterns lining either side. It might have even been festive here on a night unhampered by the pitter-patter of rain. Shop doors were shut tightly against the drizzle and unseasonably cool evening air. Patrons sat at noodle counters, safely beneath the protection of awnings, as they enjoyed the warm broth from their bowls. Ryuuko gazed enviously as she passed by. 

The familiar sights and sounds of Peterboro Street and Cass Avenue were comforting. It had a distinctly oriental aesthetic and atmosphere, in tribute to the Chinatown that had thrived here a century ago. Yet, the customers and surrounding population were a myriad of ethnically diverse humans and metatypes. Restaurants of all cultures and cuisines lined the street, interspersed with gift shops and apothecaries.

Ryuuko was contemplating stopping for ramen when she caught a glimpse of shifting shadows in her peripheral vision. She paused, taking a couple steps back to peer down the narrow alley she had just passed. Her sharp eyes searched the darkness, catching again the retreat of shadows down a connecting alley. A dark, humanoid figure.   

Taking her hands out of her pockets, she padded quickly and quietly between the two buildings, giving chase. 

“Ryuuko, what is it?” Senketsu asked quietly in her mind.

Hush, she ordered, just as she turned the corner.

The alley was short, terminated abruptly by a high wall, but Ryuuko looked up in time to see a shadowy form turn its back to her and flee along the rooftop. 

“I don’t think so,” she snarled. 

Ryuuko did a couple quick squats, testing her legs. However this had worked before, she was going to make it happen again. She tensed into a crouch and sprang into the air, this time with more control. Grabbing hold of the fire escapes’ railing she planted her feet against the outside of its frame and flung herself higher, cresting the top of the roof and landing gently. 

There was no trace of the shadowy person. The roof was quiet and desolate.

“This is fear,” Senketsu observed. He could feel her distress and read the spikes in her vitals. Ryuuko was truly scared.

Someone’s been following me. I’m willing to bet they mean me harm, she explained, exhaling deeply and clenching her trembling hands. 

Senketsu sent a soothing pulse through their connection. “You think it is someone that was in your apartment?” 

Ryuuko’s face twisted in confusion. You saw that? 

Softly the voice spoke, “Yes, Ryuuko. I have been here, with you, since you woke up in that safehouse. But I could not reach you. You have kept yourself closed to me.”

“Oh…” she exhaled the word, just as deeply as she had before. I didn’t realize I was crazy until just tonight, my bad. 

There was something akin to a laugh from Senketsu, “You are not crazy. I am not a figment of your imagination or a voice in your head,” he reassured. “I am an Advanced AI implanted in your brain and I am very much removed from your individual identity.”

It was as if she had just been sucker punched in the gut. 


In my… 


She swayed, before dropping into a cross-legged sitting position on the roof. A barrage of questions assaulted her mind. Who had placed the implant? Why? What else had they done to her? Were they the one following and threatening her? What in the hell was going on?!

I need a minute, Senketsu.

The answering silence made it clear he understood. The connection was still there, ever present, but quiet now. 

“First thing’s first, Ryuuko,” she told herself, calming slightly. “Mako needs to explain why I keep nearly dying.” 

Which reminded her… Ryuuko opened her channel with Mako once more and was relieved to find it working again. Whatever had been jamming the signal was no longer in effect. “Mako?” she tested.

There was a brief pause before Mako came yelling over the ‘link, “Ohymygod! Ryuuko, you’re alive! Right, you’re not dead? Please don’t be dead.”

Ryuuko’s mouth shifted into a slanted frown, “Somehow, I’m not dead. But we really need to talk, Mako.”

“Sure, Ryuuko! I’m all ears!” Mako offered. 

“In person,” Ryuuko pressed. 

“Okay, I’ll be here!” Mako said cheerfully. She added in a more subdued tone, “Are you mad, Ryuuko?”

The worry in Mankanshoku’s voice blunted Ryuuko’s edge. “No. Well, yes. I mean… no. I don’t know! It’s just, I had to fight off thirteen street samurai just now and I don’t even know why. What’s going on?!”           

Mako ventured slowly, “So you’re saying... the weapons trade didn’t actually happen?”

“No. It was an ambush,” Ryuuko explained. “They led me into the warehouse to finalize the deal, then the comms cut out, and the bastards they jumped me! I had to do a whole lot of running and jumping and flailing to get away.” She pouted at the rooftop.

A giggle came over the ‘link. “You’re so cool, Ryuuko! I’m glad you’re safe. Come home soon, and then we’ll talk.” 

Chapter Text

“Leave us.”

The words were stern, but built with a foundation of grace, wrapped in silken tones, and laced with a poisonous edge. A delicate hand with slender fingers rose to wave dismissively at Soroi, who stood nearby with a tray of tea in hand.

Bowing deeply, Soroi hazarded a searching glance at Satsuki. He perceived the slightest dip of her jaw and a hard flash in her eyes. “As you wish, Lady Ragyou.” He backed toward the exit, leaving them to their morning tea alone. His stomach twisted as he shut the door behind him.

The room was still, almost unsettlingly so if either occupant had the capacity to be so easily unsettled. What had once been an office space was now converted into a lavish lounge. Cozy, for the square footage was somewhat lacking, and the seating was plush. Satsuki felt the pull of its comfort, enticing her to loosen her shoulders and sink into the luxurious chair, but her poise endured. With back straight, shoulders strong, chin high, and legs crossed, she carefully regarded the monster her mother had become. Her face would have been unrecognizable to the Satsuki of the past — a cold revision of the gentle smile and bright eyes that were no more than hazy memories to her daughter now.

“Satsuki darling,” Ragyou began. Less stern now, and more velvety poison. “Must you really leave so soon? I hardly see you now. Always so busy with that little… startup of yours.”

The verbal jab glanced off Satsuki harmlessly. “My apologies, Mother. I’ve been away too long and can’t miss today’s board meeting.”

Ragyou sighed softly, quite nearly an exhale of defeat. Her expression was hard to read beneath the layers of cyber enhancements that were embedded in her face. “I miss you.”

Satsuki noted the sweet, poisonless tone and became reflexively tense. She held tightly to the chains that kept her emotions in check, as fear and panic reared their heads and gnashed wildly within. They were useless to her, and she would not allow rampant emotions to drive her actions. Her lips shifted into a faint, soft smile, as steel eyes watched Ragyou stand from her already too-close chair and approach.

She tilted her head back ever so slightly to look up at Ragyou, now towering before her. Her mother was tall and slender, dressed in the latest fashion, and wore her hair freely over her elven ears and down her back. Today the fiber optic strands were a familiar blonde. Sometimes they burned a fiery red. And occasionally Ragyou’s fiber hair shone with every color of the rainbow.

“My poor, ugly, beautiful daughter,” Ragyou said, conflicted in her sense of pride and disdain, fingers reaching out to brush gently over Satsuki’s cheek and push back a lock of hair. Her daughter, so strong and willful, was among her most precious things. Yet… her eyes narrowed contemptuously.

So hideo—

The thought was severed and discarded before Ragyou could manifest the feeling into concrete words.

So beautiful, my daughter.

Satsuki sat calmly, unmoving. She was paralyzed and withdrawn, becoming an observer from within herself. It was not out of terror, but of discipline that she remained still. Nothing Ragyou did or said could touch her anymore. Every vile caress, every sharp word, and every invasion of her body were simply actions performed against armor and would not reach her .

Fingers skimmed along her exposed neck to the nape, and burrowed into Satsuki’s hair at the back of her head. Ragyou tightened her grip and leaned down close to her daughter’s face, drawing her near by the handful of hair. She whispered, a distinct poison in her tone. “I’ve missed you so mu

Abruptly, Ragyou ceased moving. Rigidly she withdrew from Satsuki, her every motion jarring. Her fingers pried themselves free of tangled hair, and with lips still parted mid-sentence she stood straight once more. Ragyou blinked as if to clear her vision and refocused her gaze upon her daughter.

Carefully Satsuki returned her mother’s stare, concealing a rebellious spark behind artful subservience. Relief tentatively reached out, gently washing over her. This had not been Ragyou’s first attempt to accost Satsuki during her weeklong retreat to Revoke Headquarters. Each advance had been botched for reasons she could not begin to explain. I have never seen her like this… Her face remained a mask as the thought worried her.

“Satsuki,” Ragyou began, with all of her grace and command promptly restored. “I have a matter to discuss with you.” She returned to her seat and took up the cup of tea Soroi had left. “The official launch of Revoke’s Sentinel Commlink line must be flawless.”

She acts as if nothing transpired.

“You suspect the saboteurs will strike further,” Satsuki stated, temporarily abandoning her introspection. “My people are looking into that matter. Just yesterday evening I was given this report.” She set her commlink on the ornate coffee table, and a hologram burst forth.

Ragyou leaned forward, her sleek dress shifting and shimmering as she did so, revealing her bosom. “These are the people responsible for my destroyed shipments?” she asked.

Manipulating the 3D imagery, Satsuki pulled up images of various men and women. “We are still confirming the details, but I believe this to be the root of your problem. They comprise a movement by the name of Naturalist Battalion. On principle, they reject cybernetic implants.”  

Ragyou jeered, “My, you’d fit right in.”

“Please,” she rebutted calmly. “I do not stoop to acts of terrorism over petty naturalist ideals.”

“You know what needs to be done, don’t you?” Ragyou asked. “The launch date approaches, and I expect you will ensure nothing goes awry. Supposing you want to keep your sole investor happy.” Her smile was nearly lost beneath cyber modifications.

“Of course, Mother. Anything for you.” As the words passed her lips she could feel the shadows writhing in her mouth, like hideous worms that would have sickened one less fortified and resolved than Kiryuuin Satsuki. “Naturalist Battalion will be dealt with in a manner befitting roaches in the sprawls.”

It was common knowledge roaches could survive anything.

It was late. Or was it early now? Ryuuko didn’t care if it was dinner or breakfast; she was famished and the croquettes were hot and fresh. She shovelled two into her mouth, cheeks expanding like a chipmunk’s. With expert chopstick handling she emptied a bowl of rice into her face before serving herself a second helping from the pot. Her eyes briefly met Mako’s. The other woman merely sat across from her on the floor, watching. “Uhm…” Ryuuko smiled sheepishly, carefully taking a third croquette and eating it in multiple bites.

“You really like my croquettes, don’t you Ryuuko?” Mako asked excitedly.

Blue eyes lit up and then softened as she stared at the pile of food. “Of course!” She beamed. “You’re the first person to ever make me a homemade meal. That makes it taste even better!”

Mako bounced where she sat. “Awh, Ryuuko-chan! It’s my mom’s recipe. She’d be happy I’m putting it to goooood use!”

An eyebrow quirked and Ryuuko paused at the familiarity that Mako used. “-chan?” She set her bowl down and leaned back, propped up with her hands against the bare flooring. Her Japanese heritage was so far behind her that it was unusual to hear the endearing honorific. In fact, her newfound skill with chopsticks came as quite the surprise. A couple weeks ago she would have been fumbling with her food.

“Hey, just wait a second!” Ryuuko said, leaping to her feet and pointing her pair of chopsticks at Mako. “Don’t you think for a minute that tasty food and flattery is going to make me forget what happened tonight! Yer gonna tell me what’s going on here.” She glared down at her host with playful ferocity.

“Rude! Where are your table manners?” Mako chided, pouting. She sprang up and jabbed a finger across the low table. “Now look here, Ryuuko- chan , don’t think for a minute I’d try to platelet you with food!” She tipped her head, planted hands against her hips, and leaned across the table in a bold challenge.

“Pla ” Ryuuko started laughing, dropping the chopsticks as she shook. “Platelet ?”

Drawing back, Mako frowned. “Yeah, like when you

Placate,” Ryuuko offered helpfully.

“That’s what I saoooohhh. Yes, that! I would never do that to you, Ryuuko!” Mako said, waving her arms.

They laughed.

Ryuuko nearly cried.

She didn’t hear the voice of Senketsu, but felt a ping across their line and knew what he meant. “ You are happy” is how she interpreted the feeling he’d sent. Why was that so significant to him? He had been silent since she had asked to be alone, mere hours ago.   

The sleepover giggles dissipated and Ryuuko folded her arms across her chest. “What’s going on, Mako?” she asked seriously. “Why does a secondhand shop need crates of state of the art weaponry? And why, for Edge’s sake, do I always get into a scrap running your missions?”

Mako sighed. “I guess I should tell you, huh?”

“Yes,” she said blandly.

“Let’s go downstairs,” said Mako.

Ryuuko snatched a few croquettes on the way out. The alley below was home to Mako’s storefront. By the time they reached the slanted shack Ryuuko had already consumed to-go snack. A slight hunger still nibbled at her belly, as it often did even after a full meal, and an altogether different sensation gnawed at the back of her mind ever present.

Stop it, she commanded to the stowaway persona lodged in her brain. But Senketsu did not respond and the hum in her brain remained.

“Back here,” Mako instructed, leading Ryuuko into the Back Alley Trade Company . She pulled a string and a light bulb clicked on above them.

They weaved through stacks of merchandise toward the very back of the shop. Ryuuko had never ventured far into the place. A curtain ran along the length of the back wall. Mako pulled it aside, revealing the brick of the building her shop was propped haphazardly against. The positioning of the shack was concealing a thick metal door set into the building.

Mako held up a key. The old-fashioned kind. “Ryuuko,” she started nervously. “Can I trust you?” It was naive to ask, but it made her feel better.

Whatever this is, it must be big.

“You can trust I won’t tell anyone about this or hurt you.” That was the best she could do while being honest. Mako was the kindest person she’d ever met, but trust didn’t come easily in the shadows.

The door unlocked and Mako entered the dark room beyond. Lights automatically turned on at the motion. Rows and rows of overhead lights. She pressed her right palm against a pedestal at the entrance.

A robotic voice spoke from hidden speakers. “Identified. Mako Mankanshoku. Permitted.”

Ryuuko’s eyes were wide and she whistled.

The stark white environment was harsh against her vision. Crates, shelves, and racks of weapons and gear were neatly organized as far as she could see.

Behind them, the door shut and locked automatically.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Ryuuko growled. “You gave me a shitty stun baton when you have all of THIS?!” she cried.

Mako looked apologetically at her companion. “These are my Ms. Johnson’s. I can’t give them oh no. Woops.”

Ryuuko tipped her head to the side. “Mako… It’s always Mister Johnson for a reason.”

She shuffled shamefully. “I know, I know! I didn’t mean to. She’s just so cool. You should meet her!”

Slowly, indulgently, Ryuuko meandered through the racks of weaponry. Top of the line. High tech. Expensive. It was paradise. “Mr. Johnson is supposed to be kept confidential. You don’t just introduce people to them. How do you even know your Mr. Johnson?”

Only the small fries met with their runners in person. Anyone who could afford this kind of operation would have a middle-man go between the Mr. Johnson and his, or her , hired help.

“So… what is this?” Ryuuko asked. “Your shop is a front for something much bigger. What’ve you gotten into, Mako?” She felt suddenly worried for her friend. One wrong move in this kind of climate and she could get killed.

Ryuuko shivered.

What if they kill Mako for showing me?

There was enough equipment for at least a few hundred people of various metatypes. Crates of explosives. So that’s where she got the bag of boom from, Ryuuko mused, peeking into a box. Grenades. Scope attachments for rifles. Riot shields. She turned to Mako expectantly.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Mako reminded her.

Ryuuko gave a series of short nods. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll be dead before I can try.”

Mako laughed. “Don’t be so dramatic, silly!” She bit her lip and peered up at Ryuuko from under her newsboy cap. “I work for a suuuuuper secret rebellion. Honnou Town doesn’t show up on any map, but this is the heart of it. We’re going to make history! Or… something like that.”

“Hmm…” She leaned against a stack of containers. “You’re telling me that some rebel group in the sprawls stockpiled all of this? No way. What for?”

“This isn’t the sprawls anymore. We get housing and yummy food and a paycheck. The more we give to the cause, the further we get from the slums.” Mako straightened up, “Ryuuko, you may think it sounds stupid, but we’re gonna change this place! No one should live like this. Don’t we deserve better than to be SINless and dying in the streets?!” She sniffled and her lips quivered. “No one should have to live like I did. And she’s going to change that!”

Ryuuko put a hand on Mako’s shoulder. She was skeptical. More than skeptical. It was insane. She didn’t even need to know the plan in detail. It was doomed to fail.

“With that attitude it most certainly will fail,” came the gentle snark of Senketsu. She felt his presence kindling and growing within her mindspace. He refused to be left out of such an exciting discovery. A huge cache of weapons! A rebellion! The link became flooded with intrigue.

Squeezing Mako’s shoulder, she smiled wolfishly. “Do you seriously believe in this cause, Mako?” she asked, sincerity inflected in her tone.

Mako snuffled at Ryuuko, using the sleeve of her friend’s jacket to wipe at her leaky eyes. “Yes, Ryuuko-chan. I believe my Ms. Johnson can change Detroit. I… I shouldn’t tell you this. But, Ryuuko, this is only one warehouse of many. I don’t know where they are, but I know there’s more.” She gazed at Ryuuko and excitedly continued, “I am just one agent. There are more! And I’m the lowest ranking! Can you believe that?”

“Ah,” Ryuuko wasn’t sure how to answer that confession, so she moved right along. “If this means that much to you, then I’ll keep helping you until I get my life sorted out. I’ll be your runner. I’ll get shot at for you on a daily basis if it means croquettes and a place to sleep.”

There was a gasp as Mako’s face grew brighter with delight. “Ryuuko-chan! You’re the best, I love you!” She flung herself at Ryuuko, throwing arms and legs around the surprised girl. Full body hugs were the best hugs, after all.

“But,” Ryuuko started, supporting Mako’s weight almost effortlessly. “From now on you need to be honest with me about every mission. Okay?”

Mako pulled her head back and nodded. “Yes ma’am, I will be! We’re partners for real now! You’re a rebel, too.”

Senketsu sent a worried buzz. “I didn’t mean jump headlong into a revolt, Ryuuko.”

It’s not like I have anything better to do. Well, aside from dealing with her stalkers and figuring out why she had a sentient tagalong.

“How did you even survive these operations before I came along?” Ryuuko asked as she pried Mako free and set her down.

An indignant look crossed Mako’s face. “Hey. I’m not as frail as I look, thank you!”

Part of Ryuuko saw it coming and knew she could have dodged away from it. But she was too impressed to bother with moving in time. Within a heartbeat, she went from standing before Mako to laying on her back beneath the young woman’s knee, a handgun held to her face. She coughed, gasping for the air that had just evacuated her lungs.

“See?” The pride in Mako’s eyes shone clearly. “It’s empty, don’t worry. I wouldn’t do that to you!” Quick, practiced motions had Mako ejecting an empty clip from the gun and showing an equally empty chamber.

“Okay, okay. I get it,” Ryuuko huffed and swiped the hat off Mako’s head.

At that moment Mako’s commlink erupted into an alarm of beeping. She fumbled to check it, still kneeling on top of the other, and her brow became increasingly furrowed as she read through a message Ryuuko craned unsuccessfully to see.

Ryuuko asked curiously, “What’s going on?”

“There’s a mandatory meeting at Honnouji Square in thirty minutes.” Mako frowned, hopping to her feet and flailing her arms. “I can’t be late, Ryuuko! They’ll kick me out if I’m late! What am I gonna do?!”

“Honnouji where now?” One month and she didn’t even know the neighborhoods anymore. Slowly Ryuuko stood, dusting herself off and adjusting her jacket. She bonked Mako on the head and gave her hair a hearty ruffle. “Here.” She placed the hat back where it belonged. “You better get going, then!”

Mako froze and stared wide-eyed at Ryuuko. “You have to come with me, Ryuuko-chan!”

Tilting her head back Ryuuko quirked an eyebrow skeptically. “Is that a good idea? I’m not actually a part of your secret club, remember?”

“You have to come! You’ll get to meet Ms. Johnson!” Mako insisted. “I know once you meet her you’ll definitely join the cause!”

And with that Ryuuko found herself being dragged along, exhausted and without sleep, to an early morning meeting she hadn’t signed up for. There was a feeling she couldn’t place, the feeling that had been following her unrelentingly, and it couldn’t be named so easily with ‘anxiety’ or ‘unease.’ Ryuuko wanted nothing more than to scratch at it and relieve the sensation within. To rip it from herself and discard it by the curb. But she couldn’t reach it, only feel it growing with each step toward their rendezvous point at Honnouji Square.