by Logan Darklighter, Mathieu Roi, Michael Surbrook and Mike Schiedel

Raven stifled a yawn and hoped the food would be worth this. There had been a bit of conversation before the speeches, but now the stage was occupied by a Jinsei executive who was giving the inaugural address... And a particularly long-winded one. To his credit, the speaker was rather engaging and made valiant efforts to retain interest by interspacing a joke or anecdote in his text. A great performance, except for its lack of brevity. Add to that the fact that he was speaking of corporate alliances and technology advances and other things Raven had little knowledge of... and it was a struggle to stay awake.

She speared one of the hors-d'oeuvres with a miniature sword and brought it to her mouth. At least the food was good. She looked around the room to see if anyone was having the same problems as she was.

The guests were divided up in tables of six spread around the room. Raven's group also included Shion, Sanato, Adam, and two middle-ranking Shiroko-Tsuhi execs. Of them all, only Sanato was listening to the proceedings with anything resembling interest. The mild-mannered Japanese man watched the speaker intently, as if filing away his every word for analysis. He showed no signs of boredom; Raven thought that was an impressive feat in itself.

Shion was certainly acting like she thought the whole deal a colossal waste of time, and she filled it by drinking Sapporo at a rate that made Raven shudder. She was the only woman in a kimono of all the guests, but she did not look out of place. A bored empress holding court did not look out of place in her throne room.

The two other execs certainly weren't complaining about her choice of clothing. They spread their time between staring at Shion and staring at Raven. The looks they gave the Empress were entranced, the kind of look a man might give a dream. The looks they gave the younger teek were much more down-to-earth. Maybe they figured she was more accessible. One of them was very tall, and used it to peek down her neckline every time he thought she wasn't looking. The other didn't even try to pretend being subtle. He divided his attention between Shion's breasts and Raven's. What was it with men and breasts, anyway?

The pair was mildly annoying, but Raven didn't let it get to her. Maybe Adam's presence helped. He seemed to be listening vaguely to the speech, but his attention was clearly on Raven, if entirely different from the two others. Raven sipped at her drink, finishing it. Adam immediately poured her another with a solicitous smile. She smiled back.

"Training sessions don't prepare you for the sheer tedium of these things," Adam said in a low tone meant for Raven's ears alone. "If that man gets any more tedious he'll qualify as an esper weapon."

Raven giggled. "At least he's making a valiant effort," she replied in the same low voice.

"That's what I was afraid of," he said dolefully. "I was hoping he was at least doing this out of indifference." His eyes flicked briefly towards Shion. "Look at your teacher, he said conspiratorially. "I wonder if she's trying to teach by example on how to handle these situations, hmm?" He waggled his eyebrows.

"Maybe," Raven said, quite seriously. "She doesn't give a hoot about these people, and told me as such. And she doesn't see why I should care, either."

Adam pursed his lips. "Perhaps, but I don't think that conspicuous consumption is the best idea in your case." Glancing about, he tapped a finger against his lips and tilted his head slightly towards the speaker. After a moment a roguish look crossed his face, and his eyes flicked to the obvious ogler to draw Raven's attention to him. Then he began to subtly, but noticeably, check him out in kind.

Raven stifled a giggle and watched if the man would notice, and how he'd react if he did.

There was a moment of pure comedy as one of Raven's not-so-secret admirers suddenly started and looked over at Adam. Flushing slightly, he hastily took a drink, glared at the synthetic and turned to look up at the front of the room, studiously ignoring the rest of the table.

Adam made a moue, then glanced sidelong at the tall one speculatively.

The other man simply returned Adam's look, almost inviting a staring contest. He sipped his drink with total aplomb, and dividing his glances between Shion, Raven and Adam.

Raven waited until he looked at Shion, then bent towards Adam and said quietly, "Well, that didn't work."

Without looking over Adam replied in a like tone. "At least he's being reasonably polite about it."

"As polite as peeking down my dress can be," Raven replied. Then she abruptly turned around, alerted by a significant PK presence behind her. She spotted the source—a young woman with long sun-bleached blonde hair, dressed in a men's black suit. However, the worn cowboy boots she had on clashed significantly with her formal choice of dress. Whoever she was, she was positively glaring at Raven. The young telekinetic shuddered; the unknown woman's eyes seemed to be red, even from this distance. Raven glanced at Shion to see if she was showing any reaction, then to Sanato, hoping to catch his attention. Perhaps he might identify the unknown PK.

Shion being interested in little except her latest drink, Raven waited for a lull in the speech and politely tapped Sanato's arm.

"Yes, Ms Clark?"

Raven gestured behind herself with her chin. "Do you know who is sitting behind me?"

"Hmm?" Sanato glanced in that direction. "I believe that is Ms. Laurs."


"Ms Paula Laurs, another one of our esper agents."

Raven nodded thoughtfully. She hadn't known the corporation had other esper agents. "You'll have to introduce her to me." She smiled pleasantly; hopefully she would be able to dispel Ms. Laurs' apparent hostility.

"I can do that... in fact, I think you two will be working together soon. Once you've finished your training with Miss Nys."

Raven nodded. "Very well."

"Do you wish to meet her after the speeches are finished?"

"Yes, that would be great."

"As you wish."

Once Raven had concluded her conversation with Sanato, Adam leaned over and spoke to her in a low voice.

"Looks like you may have usurped someone's place as big teek on campus. Watch yourself with her, Raven."

At long last the speaker told his last joke and left the stage, leaving the waiters free to begin serving dinner. The appetizer was a seafood platter in a delicate sauce that Raven found delicious; she quickly finished her plate. She was idly picking up the last remnants of sauce with a bit of bread when Sanato finished his own plate. He gestured slightly and stood. Raven and Adam imitated him.

Most of the guests had finished the appetizer by now and were mingling while waiting for the next service. Sanato approached Ms. Laurs and greeted her.

"Ah, Ms Laurs," Sanato said smoothly, "may I introduce our newest esper operative, Ms Raven Clark? Ms. Clark, meet Ms. Paula Laurs."

For a moment Paula Laurs didn't bother to speak, but simply looked Raven up and down. "Enh," she finally opinioned, "Don't look like much do she?" Standing, Paula adjusted her suit, looking down at Raven from under her blonde bangs. "Why I gotta be partnered with you is beyond me." Raven noted that the other esper spoke with a distinct Southern drawl that she couldn't quite place.

Now, now, Ms Laurs," Sanato said in a soothing tone. "There is no need for such vitriol, we are all working for the same ends are we not? And besides, Raven has shown herself to be quite skilled in her recent training sessions, and I think you two will complement each other's abilities quite nicely."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Ms. Laurs," Raven said, bowing slightly but not extending her hand; that'd only give the other telekinetic the occasion to ignore it.

Paula glared at Raven for a moment, before turning back to Sanatos. "Don't tell me I gotta be her nursemaid now?"

"Nursemaid? What nursemaid?" Raven asked puzzled.

Paula pointed across the room to where Shion sat, Sapporo in hand, watching the confrontation. "That nursemaid."

Raven blinked at her for a moment, then she laughed. "Shion a nursemaid? Good thing she didn't hear that one!"

"Why?" Paula glanced at Sanato, Raven and then over at Shion's table. "At least I can take care of myself."

"Please, please," Sanato, said quickly, "I don't think this is needed. Perhaps we can work this out later?"

Raven nodded thoughtfully. "Good idea." *Jealous? Trying for dominance? What is she after?*

"Right then, Mr. Sanato," replied Paula quickly, "I'll show you that I'm all you need."

"I'm sure Mr. Sanato has uses for all of us," Raven said. *I don't like the sound of that. Working with her won't be fun.*

"And my use is not being a babysitter," Paula sniffed.

"I'll take care of myself," Raven countered calmly.

Paula smirked. "We'll see."

Raven nodded and turned to Sanato. "I think they're going to serve the next dish," she said.

"Yes, yes," Sanato said, with a touch of haste, "Let us get back to our table for now."

Adam had said nothing throughout the tension-filled exchange, remaining as unobtrusively in the background as one of his kind can. Perhaps he had nothing to add, or perhaps he was prudently not interposing himself between two alpha bitches in a dominance struggle. "A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Laurs," he now said distantly, a faint smile on his face, before offering his arm to Raven.

They returned just in time for the main dish—a choice of either chicken or lamb served on rice with vegetables. Raven went for the chicken and ate thoughtfully, musing about Paula and how she might ease the relationship between herself and this colleague of hers. Shion picked lamb and washed it down with generous helpings of Sapporo. Sanato chose chicken, but barely touched it; he seemed preoccupied, a rare mood for him.

There was a free seat at the table now—the first target of Adam's attention had found a less risky place to be. The second ate his lamb as if he had another lamb on his mind—and he was looking directly at Raven. The young teek didn't pay him any heed, worrying about how Paula's hostility could come to a head. She knew it must, eventually.

Lora Doubet was sitting at a table, keeping an eye out for any possible threats while her charge, the "Lace & Steel" gladiator Beiko, enjoyed the dinner, when she finally spotted the person that was causing her PK sense to itch. Or rather, the three people, which had no doubt fooled her sense a little. It had been bothering her slightly all evening, something powerful in the back of her mind, like the distant sound of thunder. She only realized that there were three when one of the PKs, a beautiful raven-haired young woman, walked with an Oriental executive and an escort synthetic to another of the telekinetics, a blonde woman in a men's suit. The third signature, the most powerful of the lot, remained at the black-haired woman's table, and it belonged to...

Startled, Lora thought, *Shion. That has to be Shion with the white hair. But I don't know the others. So, what the heck is The Empress doing here?!*

Lora ate quietly watching the three telekinetics like an hawk. After the main course and as dessert was served, the blond woman approached Shion's table, her boots clicking audibly on the floor. She seemed like she might be drunk, although the hand she pointed at the black-haired woman was steady enough. Lora strained to listen.

"Mr Sanato," the blonde said loudly, "I don't know why you need any other esper besides me, especially one that needs her hand held all the time."

Suddenly the room was quiet as if sensing the impeding confrontation. "Oh Christ... now what?" mumbled Beiko in the sudden silence.

Shion looked curiously at the black-haired woman. "Is this a friend of yours?" she asked in a detached tone.

"A colleague. I just met her."

Over at her table, Lora automatically looked around for the exit, offhandedly noting how many people were looking in the direction of the confrontation, running up contingincy plans to get Beiko out of here... or at least interpose herself, should the worst happen. Thinking to herself that she wished it could have been appropriate to wear ballistic cloth rather than the strapless black evening dress she had on.

And the worst just might happen; Paula was probably drunk, and based on the number of Sapporo cans in front of Shion, she had been drinking heavily as well. It made for an explosive combination.

Shion turned to face the Oriental executive. "So, Mr Sanato, this is an employee of Shiroko-Tsuhi?"

"Yes," confirmed the executive, "this is Paula Laurs. Ms Laurs, this is Shion Nys, Ms Clark's instructor for these past few weeks."

"Interesting," Lora mused quietly. Wondering at the implications. How much had the corporation paid her? How much would it cost to offset Shion's known arrogence in dealing with other espers? Much less train a potential enemy? And how valuable an asset was the black-haired girl to warrant all of that?

"Hey, Lora, how many espers they have in this company anyway?" asked Beiko in a whisper.

Lora said, just as quietly, "I thought just the one. I guess they have at least one other. No way is Shion on their permanent payroll." Beiko nodded agreement.

Paula was going on as if Shion had never spoken. "And I don't need no partner. And I can prove it."

"Uh oh," said Lora. From the looks of it, Ms. Clark was having the same thought, and her yummy-looking escort seated beside her had noticibly tensed.

"Well, if Shion gets mad, you know there's no point in running, right?" Beiko stated more than asked.

"I think, as long as we don't get in the way, we could be okay," replied Lora. "I'm hoping this doesn't get any uglier than it already is."

"Yeah, right..." Beiko added without much conviction.

At the other table, Sanato brought an end to his thoughtful pause with the question, "What are you saying?"

Paula pointed at Raven. "C'mon, right now! Let's go! One-on-one!"

Lora cringed. "It just got uglier."

"This suit cost me a good thousand nuyen, I'm not letting it get ruined," Beiko stated in an agreeing tone.

Lora wondered at her charge's priorities for a moment, before realizing that Beiko was making an attempt at gallows humor. She thinly smiled back, "We'll do our best to see that it the suit and you are safe, Miss Beiko," said Lora. Then she looked sharply down.

The dishes were rattling.

Ms. Clark was looking at Sanato with a dismayed expression as Paula tried to plant another barb. "Or are you going to hide behind your 'instructor'?"

"Paula, this is neither the time nor place." Ms. Clark kept her voice calm, in an obvious attempt to soothe the drunken telekinetic. Not that it was very effective.

"Then name the place!"

"Lora... this isn't good.," said Beiko at the cyborg's shoulder.

Lora stood up and looked over at Beiko, "I think it's time to seriously think about getting out of here."

Shion stood up as well. "Australia," she let fall.

Sanato seemed to find his voice. "Please?"

Ms. Clark looked up at Shion. "You can't mean now?"

"And why not?"

The black-haired telekinetic looked nervously around at all the people staring. "This is NOT how I was planning to spend my evening," she said to no one in particular. Then she sighed resignedly.

Lora put a hand on the rattling dishes and said, quietly but firmly, "If you want the suit, and you, to be in one piece when you leave Beiko, get up now." Beiko obliged quickly and the pair began to slip away.

Shion grinned and looked at Paula, who glared back. "As you are an ST employee, it would invalidate my contract to kill you..." the Empress stated in a flat tone of voice that made Sanato and the escort synthetic pale. Ms Clark even shuddered visibly. Shion then reached out, her hands a blur, and caught the other two espers by their arms. Ms Clark yelped, while Paula managed a "Let go..." before she was cut off. Lora spun Beiko away from the espers as fast as she could, putting herself between her charge and the danger even as the blonde man lunged up from the table with a move that spoke of being wired.


A sudden blinding headache forced Lora to catch herself from falling down. *At least nosebleeds are a thing of the past* she thought amid the haze.

The telekinetics were gone.

Too late for whatever he had been planning, Adam stumbled through the now-empty space. Catching himself on a still-upright table he swiftly remedied the situation by smashing the table to the floor with a growl and one blow of his fist. Calming himself, he turned back to Sanato and, after briefly meeting the man's eyes, dropped his ashamedly.

"Oh, my God..." Sanato breathed in the sudden quiet.

"Good lord... they just vanished." Beiko whispered and then looked over in concern, "uhm... Lora, you all right?"

"I... I'll be alright...." Belying her words, she nearly fell, caught at the last moment by Beiko. The Lace and Steel fighter was obviously no weakling and hefted the cyborg's 300 plus pounds easily. Lora straightened back up and with a calm, but pained look said, "I'm fine, Miss Beiko... a bit of a headache. Are you all right?"

"Yes. I suppose ST is going to have one less esper, ne?"

Lora thought for a moment, "I think not. Shion said she wouldn't kill her. Of course, Shion was drunk, so...." She shrugged, then winced, putting a hand to her forehead. "Ow."

"I think I'd like to go back to my room, now, Lora."

"Right. Let's go." She started leading Beiko through the crowd. She noticed that they were the only one's moving so far, most everyone else was still stunned, looking at the spot where the telekinetics had disappeared.

Despite the headache, she couldn't help it, her sense of humor dredged up the line, which she muttered quietly, "The Empress has left the building... The Empress has left the building..."

With no great surprise, Raven found herself in her own training ground—the scrap yard in the Australian Outback. It was summer and it was day, a stark contrast with Neo York's late winter night. Hardly a place to be wearing a cream evening gown. She staggered back a step; she was still dizzy, but she was the least shaken of the three. Shion turned her head and spat a mouthful of fluid on the ground. Paula was even worse off—she staggered away from Shion and vomited into the sand and dust.

Shion wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and let out a curse in some language that sounded like German. She then took off her obi and kimono and handed the two peices of clothing to Raven. "Hold this."

Raven took the proffered garment; the multilayered fabric was surprisingly heavy. Shion kicked off her shoes, and stood there on stockinged feet in her yukata—a thin kimono-like under-robe—and nothing else. Her hair, once carefully arranged, was a mess.

Paula finished spewing her alcohol and slowly straightened up. "Well?" she rasped at Raven.

The black-haired girl sighed and started looking for someplace to set down her armful of clothing.

"What are you doing?" Shion interrupted her.

"Looks like Paula wants to fight me," said Raven resignedly.

"Oh, I see. Well, I can't allow you to be injured, it's in my contract." Turning, she glided over to Paula and backhanded her. Hard.

Paula hit the sand a good ten to twelve feet away. She rolled upright and spat blood.

"How about the two of us go at it, eh? You're obviously tougher than Raven is, so perhaps you're good enough to give me a workout."

Raven winced, wondering if this was a jab at her or a barb aimed at Paula. Or both. As a barb, it worked perfectly.

"Fuck you!" screamed Paula. "I'm taking you down hard!"

Shion vanished and reappeared further out. "I'm waiting."

Paula looked at Raven and sniffed. Blood oozed down the side of her chin. Raven just shrugged. Paula turned away and strode across the sand coming to a halt facing Shion's tall figure.

Paula then exploded.

There was an eruption of sand around her, and a moment later, the ground around Shion blasted outward, arcing around her formerly invisible barrier. Paula then ran across the sand fast, hurling another bolt that ripped up the ground, which caused another explosion around Shion. The Empress just stood there. To Raven she looked bored.

Paula leapt in the air in a high arc and brought her fist down. Shion stepped back with contemptuous ease; Raven thought she might have dropped her shields, adding insult to injury. Paula cratered the ground with most impressive force. Shion then blinked in next to her and backhanded her across the face again.

Raven almost snorted. *I think I did better than that. Of course, Shion wasn't mad at me.*

Shion hadn't stopped; she put her palm on Paula's chest. Raven winced at the sudden surge in PK power coming from the white-haired esper. Paula herself hit the ground some 75 feet away. Shion surged again, stronger, and a kinetic bolt tore the ground between her and Paula, sending the hapless blonde sprawling.

Shion vanished and appeared standing over Paula's supine form. Now truly concerned for Paula, Raven concentrated and *moved*, bringing herself about forty feet from the pair.

Paula looked like a mess; she was dirty, her clothing torn and ragged and bood streamed from her nose and across her chin. She was on her hand and knees, whimpering, "please no more..."

"Shion, stop it." Raven's voice was as calm as she could make it through her concern and anger—and she even somehow managed to make it determined.

The ground around Shion exploded in a pressure wave of power. "Make me." The voice was cold as an arctic blast.

Raven manifested a kinetic barrier, as strong as she could possibly make it, and dropped it between the two combatants. Large chunks of earth were ripped up in its wake, and it sent dust and debris flying. "You'll void your contract if you kill her," she pointed out.

"I won't kill her," said Shion, and she hurled her blast.

Dust obscured everything as Shion's bolt impacted Raven's barrier with unimaginable force. The detonation made Raven's ears ring even as she blinked away tears from the pain caused by the backlash. There was a long silence as the dust settled.

Raven wobbled unsteadily, her nose dripping blood. Paula was vomiting again. Shion staggered and sort of collapsed on the ground. "So... Raven... you did stop me... well done. But, I think it shall be different next time."

Raven shook her head to clear out the lights before her eyes. She bent, leaning her hands on her knees, and panted. "Are we done now?"

"can... can I please go home?" moaned Paula, who looked really sick.

"Are we Raven?" Shion asked, ignoring her.

Raven wiped her nose with the back of her hand. "I sure hope so."

"Perhaps you should take us home."

Raven boggled at the request. "Me?" *Sydney to Neo York? That's clean across the world!*

"Unable? Unwilling?" asked Shion.

"If you think I can," Raven said, "I'll try."

Shion shrugged unconcernedly. "Take us to Sydney, then. I know you can do that."

Paula coughed. "It hurts to breathe..."

"Shut up," Shion commanded imperiously.

Raven seemed intrigued. *She wouldn't have suggested it if she didn't think it was possible.* "What happens if I try for Neo York and fail?"

"A good question. Some epsers have merged with solid objects... it is never pretty."

Raven swallowed. *But then... You certainly wouldn't have suggested it if you weren't sure it would work. The Empress is not one to risk her life on an experiment.* "I'll try for Neo York."

Shion lifted Paula by her shirt. "Come on."

"Shion, I think you've made your point," Raven said, preparing herself mentally.

"She should be dead."

"No, she shouldn't." And with that Raven *moved*...

The shockwave as the trio returned was deafening. Raven hadn't given too much thought as to their specific destination and had pictured the place they'd come from—the dining room. As a result, they now stood among the wreckage of tables and chairs and startled, stunned, well-dressed corporate executives.

Raven let herself fall sitting on the ground, looking split between dismay, disbelief, and euphoria. "I fragging did it..."

Shion simply stared at the crowd, as if daring them to comment on her current condition. She was dressed in a thin yukata, stained with sweat and dust, and it was quite clear she was not wearing a bra. Long tresses of hair fell down into her face, and in the low lighting of the dining room, Raven felt she looked truly evil. Shion looked over at Sanato. "I shall be in my quarters. Have that cleaned," she commanded pointing to her kimono. She then strode out of the room, head held high, leaving a speechless Sanato behind her.

Paula, who was missing her coat, and was covered in dirt, blood and vomit, took two steps and collapsed onto the ground, coughing and wincing. "Mr Sanato... help me..." she gasped wetly.

Raven looked at the kimono, and laid it on the ground. "I fragging did it..." she mumbled as Adam helped her up.

The synthetic looked concerned, but in control of himself. "The next time you decide to leave, Ms. Clark," he said as he helped her to her feet, "please make an effort to bring me along. I can't do my job if I'm not around."

"I'll try, but you've got to understand, I hadn't planned on a trip to Australia tonight."

Adam's eyebrows seemed to try to climb into his hairline, but he said nothing further.

Raven noticed Paula and walked to her, extending a hand to help her up.

"I can't...," Paula protested weakly. "It hurts to breathe, I think something's broken..."

"Okay, Paula," Raven said gently. "I'll 'port you to the hospital ward."

"S'not fair... I was supposed to win..." the blonde telekinetic whimpered.

"Hey, she whipped me too, Paula." She reached for Adam. "Care for a lift, Mr. Sanato?"

"Enh? I... uh... you go on ahead, I'll meet you at the ward in a moment." The unflappable man seemed flustered for once.

Raven prepared to teleport to the hospital ward—a trifle compared to her recent feat. She looked down at Paula as she reached to touch her. Her life had suddenly gotten more interesting—and for once, she thought giddily, it didn't seem like such a bad thing. "Come, Paula. Let's get you fixed up." Her arm was still in Adam's grip, and he squeezed it gently in a reminder. She closed her eyes, concentrated, and *moved*.

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