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Tathagata (one who has thus gone, one who has thus come)

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Kusanagi Motoko leaned against an empty chair in the Dive Room. Boma was working on a post mortem at the next station over. His imperturbability made Motoko smile. Anyone else would have been visibly itching to ask about her equally abrupt resignation and reappearance—which was no doubt where Ishikawa was right now, outside gossiping with Saito, Batou, and Paz and probably scaring the piss out of the new recruits.

But Boma worked on, seemingly indifferent, although Motoko had no illusions that she was being minutely observed. As much as his show of stoicism amused her sometimes, she was grateful for it now.

It was strange to be in this room again; it was like standing inside a memento. To Motoko, a memento had always been a symbol of the ghost, a tie to a time when you had been completely, undeniably human.

Ghost and body—the two were interrelated in some really strange ways. The body—the original body—engendered the human ghost. Even a full cyborg like Motoko retained some of her original organic brain matter. She had returned from what had been essentially a prolonged ghost-dive to her original braincase. And yet...the returning had been different. It hadn't been like logging off the net.

This room, as a memento, did not recall an echo of her incorporeal self. In a way, Motoko had been nothing but ghost, all those months she'd spent in cyberspace. Instead, it was an echo like emerging from water or the net, swapping an omnipresent buzz of sensation for a sharper kind. And there was a dull, spiritual ache resolving itself that she hadn't even been aware of.

The Dive Room seemed incomplete without Ishikawa rooted at his station. It wasn't like she'd never seen it before. Still, no matter how many times it was upgraded, refurbished, relocated, or blown up, there was Ishikawa for at least fifteen hours of every day, ensconced in his station down on the far end.

The sound of the door opening interrupted Motoko's reverie. She looked over and met Batou's eyes.

 

It wasn't anything like a conscious decision that sent Motoko off down the coast road in the opposite direction from the rest of her team. As she'd watched the cherry blossoms, now swaying and tumbling in the breeze, now unfurling like finished origami in the sunlight, ignoring the questions and prodding looks, she'd felt a growing itch somewhere between the back of her mind and the ghost of her heart.

It was restlessness, maybe, or the whisper of a hunch. Maybe she just needed a vacation; casting back, it had been years since she'd been forced into one by a gap in assignments and agencies. Like waltzing with an elephant: slow and ungainly.

Illogical. Illogical, but her fey illogic was one of the things that made Motoko think her ghost was real. Leaping off the metaphorical elephant, she felt her breath instantly come clearer and faster in the accelerating spring wind.

Motoko had spent days thinking without thinking—feeling, maybe; staring at the cherry trees until she saw the blossoms and not Kuze or Goda or a little boy in a hospital bed. There had to be a better way.

 

"I am never letting you drive my car again!"

"Could you just calm down and back-hack this guy?"

"I hate non-cyborg drivers," Batou grumbled.

"Look, it was all very impressive the way you took out that first tank all by yourself, but now you only have half an arm, and it's in the trunk right now."

"Damn criminals don't even let up in your off-time."

Togusa said something that sounded like what off-time?, but Batou was already diving. It had almost been a joke, except no one had ever targeted the members of Section 9 before, as opposed to counterattacking the unit. So much for classified personal information. Was this guy just on a power-trip, or what?

Hacking was not Batou's best area, although he'd picked up a few tricks over the years. Still, as he tried to wriggle through a swarm of proxies and attack barriers to the bastard who was sending another remote-operated tank towards Togusa's family, he could wish Ishikawa wasn't busy trying to extricate Boma from some sort of really nasty attack barrier he called a cyber-vault.

Batou barely noticed the Lancia squealing around a corner. He had a line to the tank now, at least, but which way from there? He checked his GPS and growled.

A lead like this, he'd like to follow back to the originator, but no way was he gonna let Togusa's house get blown up. Batou's body braced itself as best it could, and he started on the tank's firewalls.

"Batou!"

GPS told him they'd turned onto Togusa's street. Batou grit his teeth. There was the damned tank, all right.

"Batou!"

"Almost got it!"

Desperately, Togusa pulled out his revolver and started shooting futilely at the tank.

"Stop that and drive!"

Togusa shot him a really unfriendly look.

"Why? Where?"

The tank turned around.

"Anywhere! Just step on it!"

"Did you stop it?"

"Your family's safe."

"Batou."

The damned thing was stomping closer. Batou's smile felt fey.

"I persuaded it to chase us."

Togusa swore, but he swung the Lancia onto a side street and put the pedal to the floor.

"This time, why don't you see if you can't turn it off?"

Batou grinned wickedly and dove again.

Seriously, who the hell put up barriers like this around a drone? But he was getting somewhere, yeah, finally, except he'd lost the GPS fix on the tank...

Batou was knocked out of the dive and out of his car at the same time. Even seventy-four kilos of Togusa on top of him didn't knock the breath out of him, but it took a moment for his cyberbrain to process the abrupt disconnect.

No, it was the sight of the tank, the car, and the controller that made him grunt in pain even as Togusa's finger descended on the button, turning an end-run into victory. A strangled sound escaped Batou's throat, watching the Lancia surge forward in response to the remote device Togusa must have slapped on it and ram the tank through the guard rail. Car and tank sailed off the edge of the seaside road in an arc of descent that traced inexorably to the ocean's rocky surface below.

Togusa expelled a breath and prudently rolled off him. Batou let his head fall back onto the pavement.

"My arm was in that car!"

 

If someone had asked her, Kusanagi Motoko would have said she'd been searching the Net for a long time, although she didn't mark the datestamps that were the only indication of its passing, here.

The interface expanded around Motoko, always expanding, like the boundaries of the universe, and offered her an endless stream of information. What she was following, what she was looking for, for lack of anything else to look for, at first, but now with growing determination, was a tone more than specific content. She was looking for a mind in the far recesses of the Net.

At length, her search had brought her here. Motoko slipped through a narrow access and into a domain. It flexed around her, reformatting into a visual/sensory matrix.

Motoko straightened, turning to look at the low door behind her. She was in a small, bare room. Rice-paper windows in the wooden walls admitted light, but no view. The roof, visible overhead, was primitive thatch; the floor, woven tatami. To her right, a clear glass vase in an alcove held a cherry bough bright with blossoms; with it, what looked to be a hanging scroll of hand-made paper on which were calligraphed the characters for crane.

A chashitsu. Motoko let her gaze fall finally on the mizuya, perfectly placed.

Her host, standing beside it, bowed formally in greeting. Motoko let a breath of relief and something more escape her and bowed in turn.

Kuze's white hair and pale skin were almost as dramatic as a geisha's shironuri against the black silk of his kimono. Kimono and hadajuban, and nagajuban, with the traditional five kamon, she'd seen when he bowed.

The entire setting was so formal as to be archaic. Motoko felt uncharacteristically out of place in her street clothes, especially the thick, heavy combat boots. She could have changed that with a thought, but she was already on Kuze's ground; she wasn't about to surrender any more of her control in this situation.

"I almost hoped I wouldn't meet you so soon," Kuze said, his lips still for some reason unmoving. "Welcome."

"What's time to the Net?"

Motoko watched him avidly, although whether for clues or for a memory in her ghost, she could not say. The weight of Kuze's pale eyes on her brought home the incredible strangeness of their situation, how the two children in that hospital, decades ago, could never have seen the man and woman present here in this simulated hut, nothing but strings of code and maybe, perhaps, a soul.

A smile flickered across Motoko's lips; maybe she hadn't grown up so much as she liked to think, because the six-year-old girl who had whirled around Kuze's hospital ward would have been thoroughly impressed by the figure she cut now, dressed partly for distraction, partly for deception, and partly for practicality—thermoptic suits were enough of a pain to put on without having to undo a million buttons first. Enough skin to be daring, enough leather to be dangerous.

The thought softened her enough to kneel down and unlace her combat boots, the long way. The spirit of tea, after all, and Kuze was already sitting seiza by the boiling water.

Setting her boots aside, Motoko folded herself properly onto the guest mat. A million question thronged her mind, but there would be time and time later. For now, she stilled herself in the moving meditation of the tea ceremony.

Implements presented, washed, placed precisely. Kuze's hands—pale as the rest of him, but nowhere near as delicate as his face—moved from scoop to lid to whisk with slow grace.

The scent of matcha floated across to Motoko. The whisk stilled. Their eyes met. Exchanging bows, the small bowl changed hands. Their fingers did not touch, but Motoko's mouth went dry. Still, she turned the bowl, properly admiring its mathematically imperfect surface, raising it and her eyes in a salute to her host.

Koicha was thick and sharp on her simulated tongue.

"Good tea," she said, unable to conceal an undercurrent of irony.

"Thank you," Kuze bowed again. His expression, of course, did not flicker, except for a flash of humour in his eyes.

Motoko took another sip. "I can't help thinking that this is the definitive Tea. Distilled to the forms; the beverage itself has always been a bit by-the-way."

"The ghost of Tea?"

With a bow, Motoko returned the now-empty bowl. Bowing, Kuze received it and began cleansing the implements once again. As particular as the tea ceremony was, Tea did not take itself wholly seriously.

Kuze busied himself preparing the less formal usucha. Motoko was strangely glad of the structure provided by the Tea, and it occurred to her belatedly that Kuze might have created this setting out of a similar shyness. It had been a long, long time since Motoko had had a purely social interaction with a stranger.

Half-stranger. They shared the deepest, unspoken secrets of a mutual past. She had glimpsed the painful hope of his ghost in those last, desperate hours before he abandoned himself to the Net. There was an impulse to let everything else that had happened to her fall by the wayside, all the events of her adult life inconsequential in comparison to that connexion.

"We averted the massacre," Motoko said at last.

Kuze never paused in his movements, but his shoulders slumped ever-so-slightly.

"You seem almost disappointed."

"The refugees are still suffering," Kuze said, not looking up. "I thought I might raise so many; now, it's as though I have only one hand again."

"Nama Amida butsu," Motoko murmured.

"Do you think this is the Pure Land?"

Motoko, accepting the second bowl of tea, was caught for a long moment in the depth of Kuze's eyes. Slowly, she sat back, straightening.

"Haven't we both already been reborn once?" And what was this meeting, really, stripped of coding, if not ghost to ghost? Unless it was only code to code, their ghosts shed at long last without their even even noticing.

"And now twice?"

Motoko sipped her tea. "I didn't know you were a Buddhist."

Kuze shrugged, lowering his own bowl. "The parallels to our current situation are striking, don't you think?"

"Are you declaring yourself a bodhisattva? That's pretty cocky."

"Something is different; can't you feel it? My ghost is part of the Net now."

"Would you call that Enlightenment?" Motoko asked, genuinely curious.

Kuze glanced down, then up. "The world is still imperfect. But beyond that, I'm beginning to sense something. A pattern in the Net. It's...not moralistic; something else."

His eyes were at once distant and piercing, like they were gazing at something deep inside that she couldn't see.

"Are you going to explore it? Or are you going to try and make contact with the Refugees again?"

"What are you going to do?" he reflected the question back at her.

Motoko blinked, startled. Her automatic inner certainty, not always expressed but nevertheless always felt, was, she suddenly realised, dislocated like a compass needle caught between two powerful magnetic fields.

It was a feeling Motoko had come to associate increasingly with Kuze, and this entire case. She'd dived into the Net with barely a thought for direction or consequences. Her only directing impulse had been to search out Kuze.

A personal, emotional response. Motoko had never stopped to consider what she would do when she found him. The needle was spinning.

Or why she wanted to find him. She could have gone to Curtain and Rail, but they thought the whole commando-spy thing was a hot gig. If she couldn't make Batou understand the deep unquiet that lay between her self and her ghost, how could she convey it to two civilians, even if they were the most personal of her friends? As for Aramaki, well, he had a vested interest in her continuing career.

So she'd sought out Kuze, the pale boy she'd loved through his silence, who after so many years had come back into her life like a bucket of cold water over her head. Who against all probability seemed to stand, in his mind or his ghost or whatever it was she felt pulling between them, a bare half a step away from where she'd found herself.

"I'm not a humanitarian," Motoko said at last.

"You're not a machine either," Kuze told her. "You live more intensely than anyone I've ever met."

Kuze paused and fixed her with another searching look. "What you used to fear—do you really fear it anymore?"

"Is that why you did this?"

Kuze shook his head. "I don't know if I can explain it. It's something I feel, but it's outside myself. Like the dawn sun just below the horizon."

"You felt it before?"

"Yes and no."

Motoko suppressed her irritation. It was one thing to dislike being confused; it was another to let it stand between herself and understanding. "What have you been doing?" she asked instead.

"Watching," he said after a pause.

"Searching? Do you really believe this is where we were headed all along? Where we should be headed?"

"I don't know. I only know there is still suffering in the world. Poverty, cruelty, illness, and genocide. Whether or not the Net is the plane of Enlightenment pre-Industrial Buddhists reported accessing, their ideas may still be applicable."

"Bodhisattva indeed. I can see a flaw in your plan. The Net is still based on servers in the physical world. If everyone uploads to the Net, who'll maintain the servers?" Robots, Motoko supposed. They could even be operated remotely, which would preclude the morality loop that ever-more-sentient artificial intelligences set to carry on as distinct entities might throw them into. She thought of the Tachikomas. "Still corporeal, after a fashion."

One body, millions of ghosts? Maybe.

"In a world of data, the physical world is becoming less and less relevant."

"That's your solution? The world is broken, so your solution is to throw it away? Individuality still exists here; the wars will only move onto the Net."

One body, millions of ghosts. Would it really?

"You're the one who taught me how to move on," Kuze replied angrily.

"And you're the one who taught me what was worth living for," Motoko shot back. She looked down at her unfinished bowl of tea, then back up. "Will you show me again?"

Motoko waited for a moment that seemed to stretch out into forever. Kuze only sighed.

"Motoko," he said at last, "you already know. If I am bodhisattva, you are arhat; can't you see it?"

"Protecting the unenlightened?" Motoko murmured. That was one way to describe her job.

"Can you tell me truthfully that that isn't what you live for? You and I, we seek to address the same injustices, even though it's a hopeless prospect in the long run. Yet something in your ghost has compelled you to keep trying all this time."

"You're saying I won't be able to perceive the same thing you do in the Net because the natures of our ghosts are fundamentally different."

"I don't have any answers, I'm afraid. But whether you perceive it or not, even if this pull I feel is some sort of hallucination or something else entirely, I can't help but doubt that you'd respond to it the same way I have."

"So I'm on my own," Motoko observed grimly.

"You have more friends in the Net than you know." Motoko's scrutiny of him sharpened, but he gave nothing away except for that subtle tinge of humour in his voice.

Motoko inclined herself again. "I would be honoured to count you among them."

"It is I who am honoured," Kuze replied in kind.

Reluctantly, Motoko rose.

"What will you do now?"

"Maybe I'll search for the answer to the last problem you posed me. Who knows? Maybe I'll be able to see what you see after all."

"Motoko," Kuze said, and she looked up from tying her combat boots. "Will you share your experiences with me?"

Motoko stood once more. "Next time, I'll brew the tea."

Unexpectedly, Kuze leaned in and pressed a chaste kiss to her cheek. They embraced, holding each other for hundredths of seconds of eternity with illusory arms in illusory space.

 

"Major!"

"Major!"

Motoko found herself surrounded by rapidly coalescing avatars, whipping around her in an excited chorus of Major Major Major! She should have guessed, when Kuze mentioned friends in the Net.

"Major!" one excited voice said, and at last found something to follow it with. "Please don't be mad!"

"I know we disobeyed orders, but we did save the refugees!"

"And dying wasn't the optimum possible outcome in that situation!"

"Do you have a mission for us?"

"How's Mister Batou?"

"Are we in trouble?"

Motoko had to stifle her laughter even before she manifested her avatar. The next thing she knew, she'd be running into Curtain and Prime Minister Kaybuki. How did that song go? It's a small Net after all.

 

"In all probability, you and I are the only members of Section 9 who haven't been arrested or killed yet," Motoko said, sounding far too serious for someone walking around in her underwear. "Let's make sure that we both stay alive at least long enough to leave behind a record of what we tried to accomplish."

"Yeah, I'm not about to die without completing my mission," Batou agreed.

Batou curled his hand around the smooth surface of Motoko's hip, letting her lead him away from the windows. It didn't surprise him at all when she used it to tumble him to the floor, and even one-armed, he knew how to fall.

Motoko still had her poker face on while she stripped and knelt down to relieve him of his pants. Batou let her.

"If I'd known we were going to be doing this tonight, I'd have made more of an effort to keep the arm attached."

"Who said you'd need your arms?" Motoko asked, finishing and pinning his remaining one above his head.

Batou rolled his hips and fought her, but her hips and hand pressed down. "You know too fucking well how to wind me up."

"Lie back and think of England." Motoko leaned in to breathe it in his ear, her breasts squashing very pleasantly against his bandages.

"England is boring as shit," Batou complained.

"I'm sorry, are you bored?"

Motoko slid down a little, which besides producing a number of interesting sensations for him to lie there and enjoy, brought her ass up against his prick. Being a highly trained military professional, Batou didn't make embarrassing noises when she sat back and proceeded to drag her cunt and the perfect skin of her ass-cheeks up and down it.

He did grunt when Motoko reached behind her to take hold of his cock. She rubbed her thumb over the head and smeared fluid along his length before darting her long fingers into herself.

Batou sucked willingly on the wet fingers she presented him. Tongue and then teeth, scraping over skin as sensitive as modern technology could make it, enough that Motoko replaced her fingers with her mouth in a short, filthy kiss.

God, she was beautiful. Batou didn't even bother moving his arm when Motoko let go of it; smirking, she trapped it again, under her leg when she moved up to sit on his face.

Motoko braced herself casually against the wall below the windowsill, shooting him one of her drily amused looks; Batou knew a challenge when he saw one. He took a moment to appreciate the pale, muscular length of her towering above him, letting the expectation plain on Motoko's face turn him on even more.

Cyberised taste buds were far from perfected, or maybe it was cyber-food and their taste buds were just tuned to make them all think it tasted like anything. Either way, someone had outdone himself on this, because Motoko tasted like a woman, like she always did.

It was a bit of a challenge doing this with no hands at all, but Batou alternated between teasing Motoko's clit and thrusting his tongue between the lips of her vulva until she was so slick his face was covered with it. Motoko rocked in time, thighs taut on either side of his head, short moans of pleasure escaping the convex bow of her neck.

Batou eased back, tracing his tongue lightly over sensitive folds. The body above his shivered, and Motoko growled, barely restraining an impatient thrust down. Grinning unrepentantly, Batou baited her with hot breaths and flickering touches until she was swearing viciously at him.

Batou judged his moment, then sucked her clit. He took some satisfaction in the fact that Motoko's litany cut off abruptly. Batou blew air over the little bundle of sense-receptors, sucked again, and flicked his tongue.

When Motoko came, it was with a sharp cry, quickly muffled. Batou let his head fall back onto the floor, the low throb of his own arousal growing more insistent. "How you doing up there?"

That bought him a low chuckle. "Don't worry; I'm not done with you yet."

Batou's smirk was interrupted by Motoko's lips. She kissed him stupid and then licked his face, no doubt tasting her own fluids.

"That's so h—unh!"

Motoko circled her hips, seating herself more firmly. "You were saying?"

Suppressing the urge to flip them over and fuck his CO senseless—there was no way he'd stay on top with only one arm—Batou instead concentrated on the parts of her he could reach, mouth and neck. When he pinched her nipple, though, Motoko grabbed his hand and slammed it onto the carpet again.

Batou groaned, trying to thrust but unable to get much leverage with Motoko grinding down. "Major."

"You need to learn how to follow orders, Batou."

"Has anybody ever told you that you're kind of bossy?"

Motoko's answering grin was wolfish.

After that, Batou let her ride him, bracing his legs as much as he could while they fucked on the floor of Motoko's safehouse. Light pollution seeped through the window over their heads. Like this, they made no silhouette for anyone to spot through it, or the one in the bedroom.

Motoko's fingers were busy between them. Batou could feel her pleasuring herself. She clenched around him, losing her rhythm finally. They were both gritting their teeth against little moaning noises that were still louder than the slap of flesh against simulated flesh.

If Batou had had standard eyes, they would have rolled up in his head. The slick, squeezing heat overwhelmed the scratchy chafing of thin carpet under him completely, his world narrowing as a masterfully programmed series of muscular contractions began. Motoko ground down once, twice, and stopped moving, her face creased in open-eyed ecstasy.

Her red eyes held his with more force than her fingers on his wrist. "Follow me?" She whispered it in a low, breathy voice, full of laughter, affection, and just a little challenge.

Who could say no to that? Batou came like she'd hacked his dick, mouth open on a shout he managed at the last second not to voice. Motoko pressed herself all along his front and stayed there, even after he finally stilled.

After a long moment, Motoko stirred, folding her arms on his chest and releasing his in the process. Batou stretched a little, careful not to dislodge her.

"That was good."

"Always is," Motoko agreed.

"Maybe we shouldn't wait another five years before we do it again, then."

Motoko just smiled.

 

It had been one of the doctors in the hospital who had given her a name again. Kusanagi Motoko: a sword and a city. Most of the nurses were kind to her. She got tired of the pity; it didn't get anything done.

The one who was responsible for the purple hair and red eyes wasn't bad. At least it was doing something. It was a message, in a way. She knew why some of the nurses were fearful and uneasy. That they whispered it was no real girl who'd woken up from that coma in a new body. An echo; a ghost. A ghost without a ghost.

It was a gesture of faith, that she was an individual, even though she'd been wiped clean. It became a totem, of sorts; a memento.

She had no family; she lived in the hospital as sort of a perpetual test subject. Tests and PT could only take so many hours out of the day, and she wasn't one to sit still. The nurses introduced her to the other survivor out of desperation.

Ultimately, that backfired. Her failure with the boy only served to fuel her drive. The only times she sat still were for her futile efforts at origami. The R&D guys loved her. She was always pushing the limits of her prosthetic body and more than ready to critique functionality or try any stunt they gave her; and they got to upgrade her as often as they wanted.

She was a natural hacker, but that came from having a computer in your brain and never being allowed out. She bounded up and down stairwells, sprinted through long corridors, dodged nurses, doctors, phlebotomists, and patients like obstacles on a course. Exercise machines and weight-training equipment didn't do much for her—strength and stamina she had, more with each new prosthetic body. What she needed was agility, dexterity, control.

The hospital where she lived was associated with a private research concern, but she didn't want to be a science experiment for the rest of her life. She wanted to be out in the world, to push her boundaries.

When a serious man came to offer a place at some military academy, she took him up on it.

 

The street looked weirdly familiar to Batou, like maybe something he had stored in his external memory, but it wasn't important enough for him to bother looking it up. Early as it was, it wasn't too odd for him to be the only one on the street.

Movement caught Batou's eye, and he focussed on it without turning his head or changing pace. Just an old woman, sweeping a stoop in front of the stained-glass window of a shop door.

"Isn't it a lovely morning?"

No one else around; had to be talking to him. Batou stopped and nodded politely.

"Could be worse," he admitted. He was in the process of looking for another Lancia, but they'd gone out of production well before the turn of the millennium, and it was a gigantic pain in the ass.

"How would you like to come up for a cup of tea?" the old lady said in a smiling, friendly voice, like somebody's aunt. It had been a long time since Batou had had an aunt.

Batou opened his mouth to say no, but what came out was, "Sure; I'd like that."

Batou followed her through the door, which he closed considerately behind himself, and up a flight of wooden stairs. One room thick with junk fell away below him while another appeared above. You never could tell; this old biddy didn't really look like the type to run a pawn shop, but what else could it be?

What else could it be? Batou stopped, staring at a cherry red convertible with the ancient-model prosthetic bodies of a boy and a girl sitting in it, festooned with origami cranes.

"Oh, yes, them. There are memories attached to most of the things in here, but their story is so sad. A woman came here asking about them just a few months ago."

The biddy suddenly had his undivided attention. "A few months ago, you say. You seen her since?"

But Batou already knew that she had. He knew why this street was familiar, and he saw clearly now what had been nagging him about the pair in the convertible.

Circling the vacant girl's left wrist in a band of reflected light was a too-big silver watch.

 

It was raining outside, hot and raining in a way that reminded Motoko a little too much of her last posting. She was sitting on a stool in a dark bar furnished in wood. The storm had come on suddenly, and the late dinner crowd had been forced inside.

Motoko didn't know a lot of places in the city, but she liked the atmosphere here, and the bartender had always been good conversation. Usually, she came on weeknights, when things were slower. But ever since she'd stepped off the plane yesterday morning, for the first time in her life, Motoko was a free agent. She had opportunities open to her, and before she locked herself in again, to more military service, or police, or private contracts, she wanted a chance to breathe. She wasn't the same person she'd been three years ago.

"Is anyone sitting here?"

The question belonged to a female, partially prosthetic, early twenties; and she wasn't alone—Motoko also liked this bar because of the old American-style long mirror behind it. Maybe she was paranoid, but you never knew who was going to try coming up behind you.

"Doesn't look like it," Motoko replied, a little nonplussed by the girl's open smile as she hopped up onto the stool in question. Neither of these two appeared to be armed.

Motoko had to admit, it was an appealing smile, one that put her features, which were cute more than anything, at its best advantage. Her eyes were a light brown that matched the colour of her hair a little too closely to be organic.

"We haven't seen you in here before," the companion prompted. She was even younger than the first, but more heavily cyberised. She was taller, too, with darker hair and a lighter complexion. Not to mention a fuller figure, which was exposed by her blouse's open collar when she leaned in over the first woman's shoulder.

"I come by when I'm in town."

One of the bartenders swung by then, and One glanced up at Two as Two ordered three of some sort of fruity cocktail with an obscene name over her head.

"On us." One smiled again. "Are you here on business?"

They were still close enough that they were touching, back to front; Two's hand lingered on One's shoulder. A romantic relationship, then.

Motoko shook her head. "Here's as close as I have to a home, I guess."

"What do you do?" One asked.

"Curtain!" Two hissed reprovingly.

"What? Oh! Where are my manners?" One, or possibly Curtain, said. "You can call me Curtain, and this is Rail."

"Major Kusanagi," Motoko said out of habit. She nodded, also out of habit, and had to remind herself to offer her hand.

"Major!" Rail's eyes lighted, and she circled around to Motoko's other side, as predatory as any sniper. "You're in the military? Did you fight in the war?"

Motoko stared at her, taken aback by the reaction. "Well, yes—"

"I like a woman in uniform," Rail...purred.

"I'm not in uniform," Motoko pointed out.

"She likes a woman out of uniform, too," Curtain supplied helpfully.

Motoko took her drink thankfully when it came, but Curtain and Rail made no move to depart.

"So, what do you do when you are in uniform, major?"

"I'm afraid that's classified."

"Ooh." Curtain leaned in. "And what's brought you back home?"

"I'm meeting someone tomorrow," Motoko told her, which was true. Some stodgy old government time-server who wanted to recruit her away from special forces.

"Who?"

Motoko's lips quirked up. "I'm afraid that's classified."

The couple exchanged grins across Motoko and her umbrella-bedecked drink. In some of the young men she'd fought with, expressions like that meant you'd better watch your back for practical jokes. Motoko raised an eyebrow.

"We've decided that we like you," Rail began.

"And we're inviting you to come with us," Curtain finished. "Girls' night on the town. What do you say?"

 

Motoko was standing by the door when Batou poked his head into the almost empty Dive Room. She didn't look any different; same old body specs, same old introspective expression on her face.

At least she was still wearing actual clothes; that outfit she'd gone around in all during the Laughing Man case had been revenge, he knew it. One poorly thought out remark. Don't you think you should look more like a commando than a pin-up? It was a good thing that one of the advantages to cyberisation was being able to turn off arousal as well as pain.

Batou looked at her, and for some reason he remembered the first time they'd had sex. It had been two years after he'd given up seriously trying to get into her pants. Just, after a mission one day, a bear of a fire fight that had gotten their adrenaline up, she'd given him this look.

He'd followed her back to a house as unquestioningly as he'd followed her everywhere. Sure, he still bitched and moaned and yelled at her when she took insane risks, but if she was going in, then so was he.

Batou rubbed his thumb over a shape of smooth glass in his pocket, unsure why he'd thought of that now, except that maybe his blood was still up. Except that maybe he didn't want to think about how she'd ditched him two years ago to jump in where he couldn't back her up. And now she was back. He ought to be pissed as hell.

Motoko met his eyes, and Batou drew his hand out of his pocket, holding up a silver watch. He saw the expression in them, impossible to describe, as she took it in one deceptively delicate hand.

There were a lot of questions that needed answering. Things had changed; always did. It just seemed that some things came around again.