A/N: Really, the last few chapters have been about character and plot machinations on my part. ((wipes forehead in relief)) At least I have the groundwork down now. Between the Ormicon investigation, RAPT goings on and fleshing out my side characters (Amy, Sei, Takane), you gotta wonder if I've up and forgotten about Jo. But that's really what I get for not outlining my plot and major goals properly, and remembering that I have a plot to adhere to.

Apologies for the delay on the update of this chapter (it's been sitting at around 85 percent since my LAST update), which has been caused by a few things. For starters, my laptop got a rogue program and crashed, so that took around 3 weeks to fix. Between university, the release of Final Fantasy XIII (I'm a nut with that, and am totally shipping Light/Fang) and being on the biggest Gurren Lagann kick ever (do yourself a favour. Watch it. I did, and am planning a fic for it).

So, yeah. Rather late coming, haha.

Apologies for any drops in quality, life is seriously hectic for me with university right now. I've managed to grab the hour I needed to get the rest of this done. I just wanted this damn chapter out already.

Edit 9th May - For meta discussions, updates and previews, visit my LJ. The link's on my profile!

Chapter Eleven: White Is Black

"So," Amy said, with the air of a great announcement. The effect was slightly spoiled by the fact her mouth was full of rice and curry. "Here's a real noodle-scratcher. My current project! Do androids dream of electric sheep?"

The dinner hall was quieter than usual, what with half the agents off on missions, and the other half home with their families. For Sei's original cell, the Elizabeth was their home, and the people on board, their family. Amy supposed that there were worse people to be stuck with, normally. Then again, Sei normally didn't look so troubled, nor Meg so hung over and miserable. What had she said, before? About angst dragging the mood of the whole of the airship down? Oh yeah, dead on. There was definitely a Nobel Prize in it, for the first person who could explain that annoying phenomenon.

Time to get back to the original question.

"Chew with your mouth shut," Meg growled, shovelling another chopstick-load of rice into her mouth. "And don't talk with your mouth full."

"You are such a hypocrite," Amy said with a sniff, crossing her arms across her chest. "Besides, it's a serious question. It'd help Nana and Hachi reach a whole new level of functionality-"

"Enough, Amy." Sei was scanning a report in one hand, eating with the other. Amy could remember that once, they'd eaten dinner together, and that nobody brought reports or Bai-Lan missions to the table. Well, that was definitely a long time ago. It was sad.

Meg finished her mouthful, pointing her chopsticks at Amy suddenly. "I don't really see how making Nana and Hachi dream about sheep is gonna help them."

"Well, that just shows how much of a failure you are at robotics-"

"Meg! Amy! Please. Can you please just eat dinner, without resorting to insults and nagging?" Sei gave the two of them the gimlet eye, setting down her report. Finally given up on doing work at the table, had she? Well, it was about time. Gawd, she'd been waiting for that for twenty minutes, now. It never usually took Sei this long to work out that Amy wouldn't stand for work at the dinner table.

Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Meg rolling her eyes. Amy snorted to herself, and then pushed her half-finished plate of food away.

"It's just not the same," she said tragically, dumping her disposable chopsticks on top of the remains of the curry. The starving mercenary across from her was still devouring food as if it were going out of style, all the while glowering at her suspiciously; on the other hand, Sei just raised an eyebrow

"And what would that be, Amy?" Sei paused in her meal, folding her hands in front of her face and giving Amy a very serious look. Why did she always have to take things so damn hard?

"I miss Kyohei's curries. His were the best." Amy cocked her head, grinning slyly at the two of them and grabbing the instant pudding to her left.

Meg chewed for a moment, frowning. From time to time, Amy had wondered about that. Thinking always seemed to be painful for Meg, especially given that dead serious frown and the grimace that usually came to her face. Finally, she nodded, smiling at Amy.

"Yeah, I kinda agree," Meg said, moving around the rice on her plate, sighing. "If there was anything that wimp was good at, it was making food."

Amy's smug smile changed to one of remembered bliss, as she cracked open the pudding. "Remember his awesome cookies?"

The woman across the table sniffed, in a very unladylike fashion. "How can I remember? You always gobbled them all up, before I ever got a chance to taste them."

"That's just how awesome I am. You would have put on twenty pounds, had I not taken the bullet for you. You can thank me any time you like," Amy replied airily, waving the spoon around in a mockery of waving to cheering fans.

Before Meg could formulate a stinging retort, Sei seized the lull in conversation to steer it towards less touchy topics.

"Kyohei was certainly good at what he did," Sei said, her tone mild as she took up her own pudding. Sei, Don of the Laoban clan, She Who Smites RAPT, scourge of the Kokuren clan, was eating pre-packaged pudding like some no-name agent. Suddenly, that seemed incredibly funny to Amy.

"I'm glad that he managed to get to France," she finished, as Amy sniggered to herself quietly.

"Yeah… He did pretty good." Meg smiled then, leaning on an elbow as she stared at her empty plate, her eyes suddenly very distant. She was remembering other times, 'better' times, Amy realized with a sinking heart. For all Amy's efforts to lift the mood of their broken circle, she'd made things worse?

How to address this failure in my plans? Another flurry of insults? Nonsensical questions? Food fight?

"How are your studies going, Amy? Do I need to hire a tutor to cover the next subjects and exams?" Sei cut across her thoughts smoothly, almost as if she'd known that Amy had been plotting trouble, chaos and food-slinging madness.

Amy waved a hand, the picture of outraged elitism. "Psh. I could probably outsmart most of those 'tutors' you keep saddling me with. Honestly, Sei, when I know more about calculus than those idiots, you know you're being fleeced for cash."

"She wouldn't have had to 'saddle you with them', if you hadn't failed that test last year," Meg pointed out as she started on her own pudding. Amy turned a winning smile onto the naysayer – who looked wary.

"Says the one who dropped out of high school at fourteen."

Meg rolled her eyes again, and Amy laughed evilly. If Meg didn't want Amy using that particular confession as ammunition, she never should have told a blackmailer like Amy. Really, it was Meg's own fault. There was a long moment of silence, and Meg began to fiddle with her spoon. The plastic cup of pudding was left forgotten, off to the side.

Uh oh. Here it comes. Amy's stomach sank.

"So… Amy…" Meg's blue eyes stared determinedly at the metallic surface of the table, her voice feigned to sound light, uncaring. It was a lie, and all three of them at the table knew it. "How goes the RAPT case? You said you might be able to use the info."

Gawd. Me and my big mouth. Amy regretted saying anything at all, now. She'd been caught up in the moment, in making Meg as uncomfortable as possible. But with info as vague as 'A-12', just what was she supposed to do with it?

She couldn't bring herself to say this, though. Not when Meg was so damn volatile.

Instead, she said, "It's kinda hard to say. I've hit a dead end with all information. I've run the gamut of every database and every system, and nothing… I'm starting to think that it might be a RAPT categorization only… I'm sorry Meg. I'll keep looking, but I can't really promise anything at this stage."

"I see," Meg forced out, feeling as if she'd been sucker-punched by Kruegar. Yet another useless lead, while Maria held Jo at her mercy and tortured her within an inch of her life, time and time again. Her stomach roiled, and she suddenly couldn't bear the pity in Amy's eyes. The less charitable part of her mind was noting that if Amy had time to be fooling around with her food, then she had time to be tracking RAPT. The rest of her mind felt numb.

Abruptly, she pushed her chair back, letting her bangs hide her eyes as she stood.

"Meg-" Amy began, but Sei held up a hand to stall the hacker. Meg was grateful for that much – she wasn't sure she could handle hearing Amy's reasons, not now, not even if they'd probably make sense. Some things were just too much to bear.

The halls of the Elizabeth were quiet as she made her way through them, only the sound of her boots striking the smooth floors. It seemed to echo in the disturbing quietness.

Meg made it back to her room just in time, for her anger reached boiling point as soon as the door slid closed behind her. She whirled and slammed her fist into the reinforced metal of her walls, feeling pain bloom through the knuckles of her right fist as she smashed her left into the spot next to it. Meg pounded her fists on the wall, again and again, over and over. The skin on her knuckles tore and broke, until finally, she collapsed against it, helpless tears of agony and regrets streaming down her face.

Useless, her mind hissed to her, strangely menacing. You're nothing but a useless hanger-on who dragged Jo down, and only decided to change when you realized that it had been your fault she'd died.

Meg slid down the wall, exhausted and sobbing, staring at the blood smeared on her knuckles.

It wasn't fair. Things always worked out for them before, even when they had next to zero chance of succeeding. She supposed that the difference was that Jo had been extraordinary. Meg was barely competent. Wiping away her tears with her fingers, Meg dragged herself over to her bed, taking the scarf sprawled over it in a vice-like grip.

"Why am I such a failure, Jo?" she whispered, burying her face into its softness. It had long since lost the scent of its previous owner, but old habits died hard. "I can't even get simple information from Yoko."

Another point in her long list of failures, she noted grimly. While Yoko had warmed up to her, Meg had been unable to find out anything more. Maybe it was just a coincidence, that RAPT's old projects and Ormicon's were so highly correlated. She lay on her back, staring at the darkened roof of her room as she tried to steady herself.

And Yoko wants to meet me, again. Even now, even five years later, anything with a connection to that Academy brings back nightmares.

She still wasn't entirely sure what had happened, when she'd been drugged. Only that one moment she'd been forced to consume the hallucinogen, and the next thing she knew Jo had come for her. Sometimes, when she slept, she could almost remember – her mind shied away from the memories.

Now was not the time to scratch open old wounds, she reminded herself forcefully. Locating RAPT was depending on how well she could get information from Yoko. She didn't need half-baked ideas about that Academy muddying the water right now.

She sighed, the tears drying on her cheeks as she fruitlessly sought sleep.

Takane was eyeing Kirk Wilder as they loaded the last of the mutated bodies into the Initiative-marked van. The backup hadn't taken long to arrive, and she'd immediately put half of them to create a large perimeter around the old Katazuki armoury. Preferably, one so large that the passersby and reporters wouldn't be able to see them extract monsters and god only knew what else from the basement of the abandoned building.

They'd done that well – one of the more creative officers had retrieved some riot-class barricades from the TOHPI storage rooms and they'd set those up to reinforce the perimeter.

At this rate, that kid'll have a promotion in no time flat, she'd noted with satisfaction as she'd watched them scramble about to fill her orders. Maybe the Initiative wasn't such an idiot idea after all.

Takane's satisfaction had dimmed, when she'd turned her attention back to the bodies they'd located in the basement. Many of them had been badly decomposed, and the more bodies they extracted, the less human they were becoming. By the final few corpses, Takane wasn't even sure that they'd ever been human at all. Maybe a distant relative of the Japanese Spider Crab, but human? She might have scoffed once, but she'd seen the slow transition backwards.

Whatever RAPT was doing, it wasn't breeding monsters. Or, not monsters in their usual sense. No, the bodies were getting decidedly more human. More and more, though, she was starting to recognize some key traits in all the human bodies. Silver hair, for one; mutated tattoos, for another. Oh, that was familiar all right…

All up, though, Takane had counted fifty-three bodies, and she'd made sure she'd examined every one of those bodies before it had been loaded into the van. That way, if something happened to the van en route to the TOHPI labs, they'd at least have her observations to work from.

She still watched Wilder, though, the pit of her stomach sinking in distrust as took in every detail about him. The way he didn't seem to be surprised by the sheer number of bodies they'd found, nor of the decidedly non-human characteristics they had. Like how he'd tried to convince her to stop searching the old building.

Wilder was wiping his forehead with his sleeve, looking exhausted. From a hard day's work, or from the stress of keeping up his cover? She couldn't be sure.

"Damn RAPT's got some nerve," he told her as he closed the back doors to the van, bolting them shut. "I was planning on getting away from the station early for a change."

Like how he doesn't even care that we've found bodies at all.

Takane rounded the side of the van, coming up onto the driver's side. Wilder was sticking to her side like a burr – it was near stifling. But what was the alternative? Letting him out of her sight, to do god only knew how much damage to the operation? She didn't let her irritation show on her face as she slapped the driver's door to get his attention.

"All right, Vicks. I want you to take this lot straight for the TOHPI labs, and let me make this clear to you. Do not stop for anything. I don't care if you piss your pants, old man, but I'll have you shoved in prison for the rest of your life if you disobey this order." Takane was laying it on thick with a loyal man like Vicks; she knew that. Right now, she just didn't care.

The driver scowled at her, the engine of the truck roaring to a start as he began to make his way to the TOHPI labs. Takane watched the truck exit the barricade, accompanied by a couple of Kanbaku bikers that Takane had been able to call in. They formed a protective escort around the truck. Her stomach felt like it had been torn out and replaced with writhing snakes of apprehension – she cursed to herself. She hoped that they'd make it to the labs.

Breathing out sharply, Takane rounded on Wilder in a whirl of skirt and trenchcoat, her bokken whipping out from the ties on her back as she levelled it at him. She'd been stung by Iriki Azuma's betrayal, been oblivious to the obvious in spite of it being her job. Damnit, she wasn't going to get caught flat-footed again. You had to trust your gut in Tokyo.

"Now, you'd better damn well explain yourself," she ground out, through clenched teeth. A couple of the newer Initiative officers, who were manning the perimeter, looked aghast at her actions as she circled the man. They didn't move to defend Wilder, though. Her eyes flickered back to him, narrowing as he smiled at her.

"Katsu, what's the meaning of this?" he asked, that mocking not reaching his eyes. Wilder spread his hands, almost as if to pacify her. "If you have something to say, say it."

"Fine. Maybe I will," she spat, not bothering to lower her bokken. "Tell me. Why did you seek to circumvent police investigation into the Katazuki armoury?"

Wilder didn't move from where he stood, but he laughed. "That's what this is about? I thought it was a waste of the Initiative's resources to chase up an unimaginative prank call."

"That's bullshit," Takane snarled. There was no way that it would be as simple as that. Not when her gut instinct was screaming that this man was her enemy.

Trust your gut instinct, trust your gut instinct –

But it would just be so easy to let this slide, just this once. She didn't lower the bokken, but her grip slackened.

"That's the truth," the burly policeman corrected, knocking aside Takane's bokken with a negligent hand. "Was that everything, Katsu? Or did you want to ask how I supposedly got all these bodies here? If you're trying to set me up for these bodies, at least have a little proof."

Takane watched him climb into the front seat of his car, her stomach roiling. Of course, it had been a bad idea to confront Wilder in public, with so little to back her up. Her father had always berated her hot-headed and impulsive nature.

But damnit all, she wasn't going to let this situation devolve into another Iriki Azuma fiasco.

"Next time," she muttered, sliding the bokken back into place on her back, "I'll have all the evidence I need. Don't you worry 'bout that."

It didn't take a genius of Amy's level to work out that Meg was upset, and that her lack of progress on the RAPT front was to blame. After finishing her food in the mess hall, she'd excused herself from Sei's company and made her way down the empty Elizabeth halls, making a beeline for where she knew Meg would be going. So, she just stood there now, hovering apprehensively outside Meg's closed door, listening to the pounding of Meg's fists against unforgiving steel, grimacing at the sound and the violence behind the strikes. Amy's eyes were fixed on the ground, and she cursed herself harshly.

Meg had been relying on her to use the information, and to locate RAPT. Amy didn't want to say that Meg's faith in her skills had been misplaced, but it was definitely looking like it, right now.

Amy lifted her gaze, leaning her head back against the metal door and closing her eyes. Maybe she was losing her touch. Maybe, she was spending too much time worrying about the mental conditions of Sei and Meg, when she should have been doing her job.

From the other side of the door, the slamming of fists against metal slowed, and Amy gave a shaky sigh. Pushing herself off the door, she headed to her room, grabbing her coat and bag. Seriously, she didn't think she could stand being on the ship right now, not like this. She quickly exited down the Elizabeth's boarding ramps, breathing in the cold night air.

Smells like freedom, Amy thought wryly, digging her hands deeply into her pockets as she set a brisk pace. The computer district wasn't located all that far from the docks the Elizabeth was at, so it wasn't like she'd be walking all that long. Sei and Meg probably wouldn't even miss her, or just assume she was buried in programming in her room.

Things have changed in Bai-Lan, Amy decided, waiting at a set of lights for the signal to change. Back before Jo was gone, Sei used to pay attention, Meg used to hang around with me, and Kyohei was always easy pickings when I wanted food. And Jo was there, which meant that Sei and Meg were happy. I was happy.

The signal changed, and Amy moved with the crowds, shivering slightly. In spite of the coat, the night's chill was getting into her skin.

But then Bai-Lan allied itself with RAPT. In retaliation, Sei attacked RAPT, and we all helped her take them down. She was hurt because of that, and Jo was taken. Things started to change then, even though I didn't exactly notice it at the time. Sei was grimmer because of her injuries, and Meg…

Meg had become virtually unresponsive. She slept, she ate little. Nothing but a hollow shell of the vibrant friend that Amy used to hang around with. A few months later, and suddenly the redhead changed again. Instead of being buried in mourning, Meg went out to the firing range and practiced with her gun. Things were different, but not so much that it was weird. Jo was gone, Sei was in rehabilitation and Meg was driven to better herself, but there was still a sense of familiarity to everything.

And then Sei's grandfather died. That was when things really changed, Amy decided, staring at the open door to the internet café, Golbat's Café, she could usually find her friends at. She should go in, but her feet seemed frozen to the ground. She was being stupid – maybe her friends would be able to come up with some angle that Amy had neglected to search properly. Looking up at the darkened sky, far above the neon lights of Tokyo, she sighed.

People talk of change like it's always a good thing. But I'd give anything, anything at all, to go back to that one carefree year, as a Bai-Lan cell.

"Amy! You've finally come back!" a dark-haired boy, half Amy's age, squealed as he launched himself at her. Trying not to let a resigned sigh slip, Amy patiently used the boy's momentum, swinging the boy around her body as she deflected the attempted glomp. Saji was the son of the café's owner, and was an avid gamer in his own right. Amy had stopped attempting to play games with him a long time ago – getting a new asshole ripped every single time she played the boy was a bit too much for her dignity to bear.

Amy set the boy down, nodding.

"Are you going to play Super Worm Wars with me again? I've missed playing you, and Koji's not really hard to beat," the boy complained, pouting up at her. Koji, the boy's older brother, gave a long-suffering sigh from where he sat at a computer terminal. Around Amy's age, he didn't share his brother's freakish ability at games, but was more inclined to hack the game codes to give himself a fighting chance.

"Er, maybe next time, Saji," Amy forced out, wondering just why Saji thought she'd be any harder to defeat than Koji. Maybe he didn't remember her last stinging defeat. It had taken them several hours, but in the end he'd won. Oh, her wounded pride…

She straightened, walking over to where Koji was sitting and leaning on the desk.

"Amy," he said, not looking up from the screen as he typed something rapidly in computer code.

"Koji," she sniffed in reply, crossing her arms over her chest. "I was hoping that a few of the others would be here tonight, but I guess not."

"It's a school night, what do you expect?" Koji asked, adjusting his heavy-rimmed glasses as he looked up at her. He was a scrawny boy, but not exactly bad-looking. More of a decent average, she decided, but not really Amy's type.

"Pft, school night. There's a dumb excuse, if I've ever heard one," she said airily, craning over his shoulder to examine the code he was working on. "Homeschooling and tutors for the epic win."

"Not everyone has tutors, Amy," he told her, his voice sounding a little bit miffed at her comments as he deleted the last section of code. "In fact, not everyone is progressing at such a phenomenal rate like you. You might be ready to finish school, Amy, but please spare a thought for us 'lower peons'."

"You're only a peon because you think like that," she said, grinning to take the edge off her words. "Anyway, I came here for a reason, not just to get on your nerves."

"Woopdedoo," he muttered dryly, but for once, he didn't tell her to get lost. She considered that a point in her favour.

"I've been working on a, uh, pro-bono case for Bai-Lan in the past few weeks," she began, unsure of how much to tell him. She trusted Koji, but hell, it was Bai-Lan business. If he carelessly blogged about this, Sei would wring her neck, not to mention what would happen if RAPT got wind of the information.

"So that's why you haven't been hanging around. Skye and Light were wondering just last week, about where you'd gotten off to. Saji's theory was that the Elizabeth's super computer finally devoured your consciousness and soul."

"Ha, freakin' ha. You lot are such cards."

Koji smiled at the vehemence in her tone. "We do try."

"Whatever," Amy said, waving her hand to get him to shut his damn mouth. For a computer nerd, he sure flapped his gums at lot. "Either way, the only lead I have on this job is 'A-12'. Do you have any idea of how frustrating that is?"

"It's both very specific, and very vague," Koji agreed, pushing his glasses up his nose, his eyes speculative. "Context?"

"I'm thinking location. That was what our source said, but I'm not sure how reliable that guy is. Drug-addled street thugs aren't always that awesome to work with."

Koji chewed on his lower lip, his eyes thoughtful. "Have you looked at maps? Different measures of lines of latitude and longitude? Inverse?"

She gave him a flat look.

"Okay, okay. How about something post codes? Building permit numbers that begin with that number? Licence numbers, coding?"

"Koji, what do you take me for? I have picked my brain over this, and I can't come up with anything. I was hoping you might come up with something new, but I can see now that your imagination has been spoiled by online porn sites."

He spluttered for a moment, drawing himself up to his whole, unimpressive height.

"Still, thanks for playing," Amy added, then sighed, looking around the busy café. Busier than normal for a week night, she noted. There was only one reason that could be, so she grinned at him. "So, you guys got that neurotech gear in?"

Koji, still looking like he wanted to take her to task over her comment, nodded at the mention of the café's new 'babies'. After a year of petitioning and saving, Golbat's Café had finally gotten the top of the line neurotech equipment in, for their gaming customers. No longer did they have to stare at a flat screen for their virtual kicks and shootouts – now, the games took place before their eyes. Using a specially-developed full-body suit, the gear simulated battle situations and the electrodes in the helmet fooled the brain into thinking that the game was actually happening.

Amy had been waiting for a chance to fool around with military-grade neurotech for ages. The half-baked stuff at the arcades just wasn't the same; not only was it glitchy at the best of times, it was severely limited and clunky to boot.

She'd contributed no small amount of her pay to getting this thing off the ground.

"Word still hasn't gotten around, yet, but we're confident things will start heating up soon. So if you want a long session of Beast Commanders, I suggest you do so, before then." Koji leaned back, somewhat satisfied with the neurotech's success. Amy considered it for a moment.

"You got Beast Commanders in, you say? Maybe, since you're about as helpful as hole in the head," she said, then paused. She was positive that Meg, and maybe even Sei, would enjoy a round with some high-quality neurotech. Give them a bit of time to work out their frustrations… Maybe a bit of gaming would take her mind off her troubles.

"Yeah," Amy decided, firmly. "I think I will give it a whirl."

Beth's eyes were sandy, and she stifled a yawn as she made her way back to the rat-infested apartment that she called home. Twenty-four hours a computer terminal, looking at grainy feed the whole time, was enough to effect even someone like her. Her backpack, slung carelessly over one shoulder, thudded rhythmically against her side as she limped down the long, dark alleyway.

The sturdy walking stick was the only quarter Beth gave herself in regards to her destroyed knee – she limped along determinedly in the dark, listening to the traffic roar by on the major roads, not a block over. She refused to become an invalid, not now and not ever. So she continued doggedly onwards, in spite of the sharp pain knifing down the back of her thigh and into the damaged joint. Just keep going, don't show pain and don't show fear, she reminded herself. It took more and more effort, these days, to recall her training.

Unlike many of her RAPT colleagues, Beth had refused the supplied quarters for their personnel, instead keeping her small apartment she rented. There'd be too many questions asked, she'd told her employers when she was asked about it. Too obvious to move.

Of course, it wasn't because she had too much to hide from RAPT. Not at all.

She limped along in the dark alleys, quickly checking her digital watch. 2:45am – she felt a twinge of annoyance. Her next shift would start in six hours, and she'd not caught a single glance of her target that night. Where the hell was RAPT hiding Jo? She'd been certain that Jo would be there tonight. No such luck – just more of the usual specimens.

Still, if she didn't get home soon, she'd regret it. Even she needed sleep.

Unfortunately, it seemed that an uneventful journey home wasn't to be. There was the scuff of boots on concrete to her right, and Beth's eyes slid over to identify the source.

How many? And how well trained? Have RAPT finally become suspicious of me?

"Hello, hello there," a voice cracked from the shadows, a man slithering out from the shadows. "What do we have here, boys?"

As if to answer his question, five other men emerged from the shadows to follow him – some armed with bats, some with chains and knuckle dusters. Beth sighed. Just her luck – a gang of professional muggers, if that wasn't an oxymoron in itself. At least her first instinct had been incorrect, and for that she was grateful. She wasn't sure that she could keep up with a RAPT assassin, not with her knee the way it was.

"So what's a pretty woman like you doing out on the streets, so late?" one asked her, cracking his knuckles and limbering up his arms by swinging his dented bat. Beth kept an eye on him – she could see blood splatters near the handle. So a gang of thugs with teeth…

"A cripple, no less. Thought you'd know better by now," another laughed. "So what've you got in that backpack?"

She didn't have time to deal with this, she thought tiredly as they approached her, slinking in the dark shadows of the alleyway. They didn't even have the balls to attack her in the open light, only cowered in the dark like frightened little boys. They were a mockery, and she wasn't going to stand for this. Still, she should give them a chance to turn around and flee.

"I'm going to give you fools to the count of three to get out of here," Beth told them, letting her voice relax into a menacing tone. "One."

A chorus of laughter from the thugs.

"You really think you can order us around?!" the first demanded, spitting to the side. "You're a self-righteous bitch, aren't you?"

"Two," she whispered harshly, loosening her grip on her walking stick. It seemed like they really wanted to dance – she hadn't had a chance to in a while. Her right arm itched.

"We'll show you what we do with uppity whores, around here!" One of the men lunged for her, his hands closing about her throat, before falling away. The man screamed as his severed arms fell to the filthy Tokyo ground, and Beth lashed out with the hollow sheath of her cane, smashing him in the side of the head and felling him in one stroke.

"Three." Her voice was deadly quiet, and the sounds of sirens sounded in the distance. She flicked the blood from the thin katana she had concealed in her walking stick, moving smoothly into stance, her blade ready but her knee screaming in agony.

The leader's mouth worked furiously, and he watched his man writhe on the ground with a mix of horror and rage. With nerves of steel, she watched him make his decision. A part of her wanted him to pull back, but the larger, blood-lust tainted side that was now awake, howled for violence.


Amy checked her watch again as she sprinted through the neon-lit Tokyo streets, cursing herself out under her ragged breath.

You stupid idiot, Sei's gonna kill you! 2:50am?! She's gonna skitz at me. She's gonna boil my liver and eat it with lima beans! How could I have lost so much time in a game?! Ugh!

Continuing to berate herself silently, Amy took a sharp turn left, skidding around the corner as she pounded down one of the darker, shortcut alleyways she normally took when she spent way too much time hanging out at Golbat's Café. Back before the Initiative had taken charge, she might have been a little hesitant about taking a shortcut down a dark lane, but most thugs never showed their faces outside of Shibuya, not unless they really wanted to annoy the cops.

She picked up the pace. Maybe if she made it home by three o'clock, Sei wouldn't notice, Sei wouldn't ground her as hard.

Oh, keep up with the futile, wishful thinking, she told herself. Sei's probably waiting up for you, as we speak.

No matter how busy Sei was with Bai-Lan business, she always had time to act like a pseudo-mother to Amy. No matter how little Amy appreciated it-

Amy's headlong run through the murky darkness slammed into something – or someone – that had no damn right to be as solid as they seemed to be. She staggered, her boots slipping in something wet and she fell with a strangled curse. Pain exploded in her skull as it bounced painfully against the cement, and she thought she saw something metallic gleam off the dim light shed by the comm. link on her wrist.

Groaning, Amy rubbed the back of her head, noting how her fingers were coming away sticky, how her hair was covered in something warm. Had she split the skin back there? She lifted her gaze from her fingers as she heard the scuff of old boots on concrete, watched as the owner limped towards her.

Amy craned her neck further up, to try to identify whoever she'd just knocked into. She couldn't make out any features in the shadows, even when she lifted her comm. link's light to try to get a better look. The woman – Amy was certain she was female, going by what she could make out – stopped next to her, leaning heavily on a sturdy, wooden cane.

The shadowy woman's lack of pain from the impact, and total lack of apology infuriated Amy – the woman just stared stoically down at her. Amy was certain she was, even if she couldn't make out any eyes.

"What the hell is your problem?!" Amy exploded, surging to her feet, her feet slipping on the wet ground. She ignored the inconvenient fact that she had been the one to run into the woman. God, Sei was going to murder her once over for every second she was delayed-

The woman snorted softly, breaking Amy's internal rant.

"Of all the people to run into…" the woman muttered, her voice low, running a stained hand through dark hair. Amy tilted her head, trying to place the voice. It sounded a little familiar, but-

"What do you mean?" Amy prodded, dusting herself off, before raising the dim light to look at the woman's face. She went cold. "Wait, is that blo-"

"I care not for your late night activities in Tokyo, brat. Nor should you care for mine," the woman cut in harshly, and Amy backed away a few steps. It was blood.

This is not good. This is not good – and the wetness on the ground is blood. Of course. How did I not see…? She took a shaky breath, forcing herself to meet the woman's eyes. She almost immediately regretted it as the woman smirked at her, teeth white against dark blood and black bangs.

"Now you understand. So, Amy of Bai-Lan, you will listen to me. You will not waste any more time, or you will end up like the gentlemen I just stuffed into the sewer." It was so cold, so dismissive, that Amy did not doubt the woman's ability to do just as threatened.

Amy drew another trembling breath, trying to steady her hands by burying them in the deep pockets of her jackets. She tried to act casual, she really did.

"What, exactly, is it you want me to do?"

"Focus. Between Meg, between Katsu, between Sei and yourself, you can stop RAPT before it's too late, before they make their move. Whatever it is they're planning… it's going to be huge. And she's the key."

Amy squeezed her eyes shut, her mind racing, making connections and associations at incredible speeds. She opened her eyes, exhaling sharply.

Jo. Of course, it always comes back to Jo.

"I see. Then you're that source, the one that gave Meg those stills. The one that started all of this. You're from RAPT."

"Correct." The woman leaned heavily on her cane, grinning at Amy's deductions.

"Your questionable motivations aside, you expect me to believe you're here to help us? After all of these wild goose chases, all of these damn red herrings, you're just going to spell it out? After all that shit about 'protecting' yourself?!" Amy's eyes hardened. "Sounds a little fishy, to me."

The woman laughed, a cold, harsh sound.

"I no longer have that luxury. We're out of time." Amy watched the woman turn her back, and begin to limp away from her. "So I'm going to just come out and say it. I'd visit one Takane Katsu, tomorrow. I hope, by then, she might have some information for you by then. The bodies near the docks… That should be your first port of call. And hurry."