Raven sat back in the mall bench, sipped her soft drink, and listened to the music. It wasn't the usual electronic drivel that was fashionable nowadays, or even worse the canned muzak that usually reigned in the mall. No, it was true, timeless classical music, played on a real piano with real strings. She wished she knew who the composer was.
She looked ahead at the music shop. "Luthman's Nook," it was called; a small place that couldn't possibly be seeing a lot of business. All it sold were musical instruments and old-fashioned ones at that: pianos and violins and tubas, none of them with any sort of electronic component. You could do moving music with computers, of course, but "unplugged" instrument had a quality, a je-ne-sais-quoi that was just... different.
The player was a customer; a pale blond woman, her hair hanging down just past her waist wearing a light blue tunic design blouse tucked into a blue-jean miniskirt. Light stockings covered her legs, and light blue pumps adorned her feet. The owner of the store, an older man in an old, but lovingly kept suit, watched her play with a smile on his wrinkled face. Somehow he was different from all the suited men Raven saw daily. He seemed more weathered and more candid at the same time. Next to him, a much younger man in a much newer suit stood listening as well; Raven thought it must be his son or grandson, for he had that very same smile on his face. As she watched the two walked away to unpack a newly arrived box; they grinned like children at Christmas as they pulled out the small instruments the box contained.
Raven smiled as well. A family business, then. A place with a soul nestled in a corporate mall. She was drawn to them like moth to a flame. Idly she wondered how the store survived; no doubt a labor of love, perhaps there were enough in the arcologies that enjoyed old-fashioned music enough to make space in their schedules to learn to play. There couldn't be very many; the business must be struggling.
Raven stood and tossed her empty paper glass in the trash can next to the bench. She was about to walk away but just then the musician started on another piece; she looked longingly at her, then in surprise realized she recognized her. Lora, the cyborg from Paolo's clinic! Quietly she came to stand behind Lora, watching her, unwilling to disturb her while her fingers wove such magic.
/* Enya "Miss Claire Remembers" Watermark*/
Lora seemed not to notice her, wrapped up as she was in her music. A measured, winding melody that seemed to evoke walking through a house of memories, some pleasant, some bittersweet, but all of them valuable. Melancholy but not sad - a life well lived, looking back with nostalgia at home, not so much as a specific place, but a home of the heart, of family, of belonging.
She finished the last, haunting notes one by one, then sat there with her hands on the keys unmoving, serene, for a long drawn out moment.
At length, Lora smiled a little and without turning her head, said "Hello Raven." Then she turned around to meet Raven's gaze. She took her in at a glance, from her plaid skirt and summer blouse to the handmade locket glittering at her neck. "I didn't expect to meet you here."
"Hello, Lora. I didn't know you played so well. That was beautiful "
Lora, feeling slightly embarrassed all of a sudden, though she couldn't say exactly why, ducked her eyes for a moment, looking at the floor, then looked back up, saying, "That's..." she gestured vaguely at the piano, "... something my... my mom used to like."
"I'm sorry," Raven said quietly. "She had very good taste in music."
Lora nodded, "Mm-hmm. So what are you up to?"
Raven, noting the obvious change of subject, went along agreeably. "Just shopping," she said. She shrugged and added, "Passing time, really. I've been bored, lately."
The cyborg girl stood up from the piano stool, "It's been that kind of week. I was wanting to do something different myself. Want some company?"
Raven smiled. "I'd be delighted!" she said brightly. "Not that I have much excitement to offer. All I've done today is sit around in different places."
"Well okay then! How much excitement can two special operatives of Shiroko-Tsuhi get into?" She grinned and said quickly, "Don't answer that."
Raven laughed. "Okay." She pointedly knocked on the piano's wooden side.
"Right. Anyway, if you're hungry, my boyfriend introduced me to this place in Chinatown called Happy Seven. Tackiest decor I've ever seen, but the dim sum is great!"
"Sounds like a plan," Raven agreed. "We can figure out what's next from there. Do you have your car? Mine's parked underground somewhere. Hope I can track it down." She began to walk out of the shop with Lora, who replied, "Mine's in the garage too. I'm parked on Level 16, Block A. Which one do you think is closer?"
In the end they wound up taking Lora's Kage. They parked in the street around the block as there was no parking on the street in front of the restaurant itself, at least none that wouldn't get the car towed in under 5 minutes. The sort walk wasn't unpleasant though. They were in the shade of one of the massive arcologies that dotted downtown Manhattan, so the June heat wasn't too oppressive.
The restaurant was everything Lora had said it was. Happy Seven had the kitschiest decor Raven had ever seen. The restaurant was fairly small and narrow, with room for two rows of round tables with an aisle in between leading back to the kitchen and restrooms. The walls were covered with pinkish-orange wallpaper and, over that, various bright prints with large Chinese characters and stylized images of people eating. The ceiling was festooned with brightly colored plastic light fixtures that were garish replicas of Chinese paper lanterns. There was a fat, smug-looking lucky cat statue on the little counter next to the cash register in front, and several equally fat and smug-looking plastic Buddha scattered here and there in niches and on pedestals throughout the dining room. The tables had pink plastic tablecloths, and the napkins were folded into little tulip shapes and stuffed into the empty water glasses.
"Oh my..." Raven said as they crossed the threshold.
"Hi, how you?" asked the smiling hostess. "Two? This way please."
Raven followed Lora and their guide to a table festooned with one of the smiling Buddha in the middle. This one doubled as a holder for the menus and condiments.
Lora grinned at Raven looking around the restaurant, she murmured, sotto voice, "Makes your eyes hurt, doesn't it? Don't worry. The food more than makes up for it."
Raven shook her head, grinning, "I guess so."
They chose from the menu, then as the waiter left their table, Raven looked over to Lora and said, "So, what was this about a boyfriend?"
"Ah." Lora replied. "His name is Matthew, I met him a few months back. He works over at Mitsumi."
Raven smiled. "Mitsumi, eh? I bet neither of your bosses like that very much. Well, don't leave me hanging! Tell me about him... What's he like?"
Lora smiled unconsciously and thought a moment. Then she said, "He's very nice. He's very cute. Good sense of humor. Very patient - He'd have to be dealing with Pumas all day long - he's got dark blond hair, very cute. Good hands."
"Ooooh," Raven said, "he sounds just perfect! That was quite a find, Lora. How did you two meet up?"
"Well, I have to admit it was kind of strange how we first met. You see, he was personally delivering a new escort synthetic to one of the S-T execs..." She recounted the story of their initial meeting in the elevator. When Lora got to the description of Shion-Hime, Raven interrupted.
"Shion-Hime?" When Lora nodded, Raven continued. "Small world. She turned up in Lydia's clinic a couple months ago, in really bad shape. I had to bring her back to the arcology to save her life." Venom crept into her voice. "Looks like Mr. Case got his toy broken trying to save his life, and left it lying in the mud."
Lora shook her head in disgust, "Ah hell... Damn him anyway! Ein was fr Schei§ekopf! I knew that was going to happen!" She sighed heavily. "Matthew won't be happy to hear about that either. He hates it when synths are made to cater specifically to someone's pet fetish - says it always winds up going bad for the synth when they don't live up to the fantasy in some way."
"At least this one's going to be all right," Raven said. "I go see her at the clinic every week. They just took her off the sedatives yesterday, so she should be out soon. I'm not too sure what I'm going to with her when she comes out, but it'll be a damn sight better than being Case's toy." She sighed. "She'll need a new haircut, a new hair color, a new name... I don't want Shion to kill her if she drops by."
Lora looked quite taken aback, "Eh?? How could she... Why would Shion kill her? Waitasec..." she stopped, picking up the other meaning of the statement. "Drop by?? You can't mean the clinic... You mean... You mean to tell me that Shion Nys, the Empress, might unexpectedly "drop by" your place?"
At Raven's nod, Lora's looked incredulous. "How often does that happen??"
"Too often," Raven said, smiling faintly at Lora's reaction. "Let's see, it's been two, three times so far? Last time was pretty embarrassing too. And since we're good friends now, well, you never know..." She stopped and bit her lip, remembering that ten-feet distance between Shion and the world, and how outrageous this must sound to Lora. "Well, she is a colleague after all," she said, rather lamely.
Lora just looked at her.
After a moment, she collected herself and said, "O---kay... Right... But would Shion really just kill this Puma outright just for looking like her? I mean, I've heard that the Empress is pretty ruthless, but still...
"She has quite a temper," Raven said. "She'd probably take Shion-Hime as an insult. And I don't think she'd see her as a person."
"And you're actually friends with this woman?"
"Yes, I am," Raven said, almost defiantly.
Lora waved her hands in a 'backing off' gesture, "Whoa, whoa! I don't mean to criticize your choice of friends! That came out wrong. Sorry. I meant that given the temperament you mentioned, it seems surprising that you could get close enough to even be her friend. I have to admit, I was under the impression that the Empress... sorry... that Shion... didn't have friends."
"It was a lot of work getting Shion to open up," Raven admitted.
Lora nodded, "But you have to admit, you've basically said that you think she'd kill Shion-Hime just for existing. I mean, isn't that pretty over the top, to say the least?"
"She'd have a pretty extreme reaction, but how would you feel if someone made a replicant who looked exactly like you? It's already pretty creepy when it's one of your friends, trust me. I don't want that hair job just for Shion's sake."
Lora stopped and frowned thoughtfully, "Huh... I guess I'd be pretty pissed about it. Especially if it was someone like Case and he did it for the sole purpose of... eeugh... I'm not even going there." She shuddered.
"You see what I mean. Shion's got a bigger ego than most, but nobody'd like something like that."
"Still, I think I'd be far more pissed at the people who created the replicant than the replicant herself. I'd want to kill them rather than her."
"Oh, I'm quite sure she'd kill Case if she found out about it," Raven said. "Another reason not to have a Shion look-alike in your home. I don't think she'd try to kill me, but it'd be very awkward, to say the least!"
"Uh-huh. As much as the bastard probably deserves it, Shion making a hit on him on S-T property would definitely be a bad thing."
"Yeah, it'd be a mess." Raven agreed. She fiddled with the white lock in her hair. "I wouldn't shed too many tears though. I've met Mr. Case, he's not really a pleasant fellow."
"I'll consider myself lucky. I've only heard about him and I... ah - here's the food."
The waiter set steaming plates down in front of each of them. The smell was wonderful.
"That looks promising," Raven smiled. She picked up the chopsticks and placed them in her left hand. She took an experimental bite. "Whoa, that's yummy! And they didn't skimp on the spice, either!"
Lora speared a piece of sesame chicken to start with. The two of them sat in companionable silence for a moment as they ate. As she was looking at Raven across the table as she chewed, something clicked in Lora's memory.
"Say..." she asked, after washing down another bit of chicken with some green tea, "...did you have that white streak in your hair the last time we met? It's very becoming."
"Thanks. Yes, it's new." Sadness passed on Raven's face for a moment, then it was gone. "I had it done in memory of a friend who had her hair like this, but I have to admit it also looks pretty good." She sipped at her tea. "Glad you like it too."
"I do. But I won't pry if you don't want to talk about it. Anything more cheerful going on?"
Raven shrugged. "I can't really say so. No disaster for the last little while, but except that bit with Shion, I've been bored witless. They haven't sent me on anything for a couple months now, my friend Tara's been away, and every time I meet someone nice..." she gave a long-suffering sigh, "I end up scaring them off."
"Because you're an esper?"
Raven nodded. "Guys get nervous around girls who can twist their heads off with their hands tied behind their back. In a way, I can't really blame them."
"I kind of know what you mean. I started being really careful to camouflage what I was after I met a few of the STArc kiddies after I got out of rehab. I thought I was going to make a few friends my own age, you know?" She sighed. "I should have kept my mouth shut when they asked what I did for the company. Once they found out what I was, they kept trying to treat me like some kind of really cool toy. 'Can you pop your claws?' 'Hey, pick up that car over there!' 'I thought you had to obey orders?' Christ, what a mess." Lora said. "I can look back on it and find it almost funny, really. But that sort of thing just kind of hurts when you don't have a good self image to start with."
Raven nodded and smiled. "I remember all the 'tricks' my friend Tara asked me to do when she found out I was an esper," she said. "Boy, did she think they were neat! It was the first time someone I could talk to someone my age without scaring them off, so I indulged her a lot. It still got tiresome after a while. Luckily she wised up." Raven frowned. "I think the big men in suits that just happen show up wherever I go also don't help."
Lora munched on some crab Rangoon for a moment, swallowed some tea, then added, "Well, you knew the job would be a pain in the butt when you took it." She grinned mirthlessly, "I consider myself somewhat lucky. When I'm not working directly for DFG, I answer to Sanato-san, not someone like Case. That would be hell. At least Sanato-san treats me with a degree of respect. He must be old fashioned that way."
Something occurred to Lora, "Say! You can get away from it all anytime you want to since you're a teleporter! "
"Yes, I can." Raven nodded, smiling proudly. "I can go pretty much wherever I want, as long as I know a landing spot. I was pretty impressed with myself when I did Australia-Neo York the first time."
"Wow..." Lora was slightly stunned. She'd known Raven was an Esper weapon and that she could teleport, but that level of power... She recovered and said, "Well, why not just fling yourself someplace that they can't find you easily if you want some privacy?"
"It's not that simple," Raven said. "First it tends to make Sanato on edge when I do that. Plus wherever I go, the guys in suits always show up. I could ditch the tracker, I suppose, but that'd earn me a royal chewing-out by Sanato."
"At least you can take yours off." Lora replied, an edge creeping into her voice. "I wouldn't be surprised a bit if I have one built in someplace inconvenient for me to access."
"It would make a sick kind of sense," Raven agreed. "But I wonder—that episode in Paolo's clinic might have happened very differently if they were constantly monitoring your movements."
"Mm-hmm..." Lora agreed.
Raven glanced to the door as a pair of black-suited men entered and were greeted by the hostess. "Here are my chaperones," she announced.
Lora watched them out of the corner of her eye as they took a seat a few tables over. They were trying to be unobtrusive, but they had that unmistakable "I don't really belong here" aura common to government and corporate spooks.
Lora smirked, "Y'know, I'm in security myself. I hope I don't come off as obvious as these guys." She paused, as another thought struck her. "Ah... But then, maybe being obvious is the whole idea in this case?"
Raven nodded. "'Don't get any ideas.' A message for anyone looking on, and in a way a message for me, too."
Lora *tsked* and said, "That has to be a crimp in the social life."
Raven sighed and nodded. "Oh yes. Whenever someone tries to approach me they give him the Look." She chuckled ruefully. "Sometimes that's not all bad, though. Lots of people I'm not too interested in talking to get put off as well."
"True." Lora said. "Ah well. Ignore them. That's what you're supposed to do anyway."
"That's what I try to do," Raven said.
Lora sipped at her tea quietly for a moment. Then said, "So... what do you do when you're not being an esper weapon? Got any hobbies? You can guess one of mine already." She smiled.
Raven smiled back. "Well I don't know any music. But I do some sculpture when I have some free time. See?" She pulled her locket out from around her neck and passed it on to Lora. It was an engraved Raven of the sort made to open up and contain a picture.
"Ooh! That's beautiful!" Lora said in awe. The engraving and detail were amazing. She zoomed her optics in to take a magnified look at it for a moment. There was crosshatching in some areas that must have taken a powerful magnifying glass to be able to work with. "How did you get that level of detail with this? I can't imagine how steady your hands would have to be to do something like this!"
"Um, Lora," Raven said with a smile, "who said I used my hands?"
Lora looked confused for a moment, then she figured it out and her jaw dropped. "You're kidding!"
She looked at Raven's expression... looked back at the locket...
"You're not kidding! Holy shit!"
"Pretty cool, isn't it?" Raven said proudly.
"I don't think I've ever heard of anyone using telekinesis like this before! I mean god! The control!"
"Trust me, Lora, that took a lot of practice." She chuckled. "Heck, you don't want to see the first few things I tried... well 'wrecked' is probably more accurate. But when you've got nothing better to do..."
"Nothing better to do? How long did this take to learn?"
"Years. I did this pretty much since my powers manifested. There isn't much to do in the Zone for a handicapped girl, even if she has psychokinesis." Seeing Lora's expression scrunch up in confusion, she said, "Sorry. Open up the locket, there's a picture of me inside, before I came to work for Shiroko-Tsuhi."
Lora popped the catch on the locket and looked inside at the photo. She looked at it for a moment, looked back up at Raven, then back down to the locket incredulously.
"That's you, isn't it?"
Raven nodded with an amused smile. She still got a kick out of people's reactions to her old pictures.
"That's... incredible. How is that possible?"
Raven quickly went through her usual explanation of phenotype reconstruction. "Cool, huh?" she concluded.
Lora shook her head. "That has to be the most amazing feeling in the world, to go from being a cripple to a perfect body."
"Oh, trust me, it was like a fantasy come true. Better. All I expected was to be able to walk. And then I had the nurses just staring... Oh, that made me blush..." She smiled. "I'm still enjoying it immensely."
Lora rested her chin in her hands and smiled almost wistfully. "I can imagine. Used to being the ugly duckling all your life and all of a sudden you're beautiful, just like that. That has to be an incredible boost to the ego."
"Definitely," Raven said. She looked at Lora's wistful expression and snorted. "Oh, come on. You're gorgeous. You don't need to be jealous." She rubbed her chin and asked, "I don't want to pry, but how was it like for you? Is this how you've always looked, or did they enhance things a bit?"
"I sometimes think it's hard to tell. That was nearly 5 years ago. When I was eighteen. And the most recent photograph they had of me at the time was from when I was... um... sixteen, I think? They got pretty close, all things considered. And I helped them tweak a few things later when I was able. But you're not fully grown, even at eighteen. And you have a sort of... idealized self image if you work only from memory, you know? I'm 23 now, and I can't be sure of what I would've looked like if I hadn't been turned into a cyborg. I guess the way I look now is kind of like... It's me, but airbrushed. If that makes any sense."
"I think I see what you mean." She smiled and sipped some tea. "You do look great, though. And so natural. There's no way I could have guessed about the conversion if I didn't know about it. Honestly," Raven leaned in a bit, "I'm a little jealous. I still feel a little awkward with my body sometimes."
Lora grinned, slightly embarrassed, "Thanks, but don't feel too bad. I was very clumsy for the first few months or so after the conversion. When you weigh as much as I do, that has consequences!" She chuckled.
"You know, we've been talking about getting new bodies, almost like we were talking about the weather." Raven sat back and put her chopsticks in her finished plate. "Guess that goes to show how weird our lives are, huh?"
With a faux TV announcer drone, Lora intoned, "Women who have exchanged their bodies for upgrades in service to the corporation and the men who love them! Today on Springer!"
Raven laughed. "We get men who love us? Boy, I missed out on that!"
"Well, maybe we can do something to change that?"
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