From the air Hong Kong was a dark-packed mass of buildings. From Marta and Ling Ling's apartment it had been a forest of concrete towers and silver windows. From street level it was an impossibly crowded maze of streets and alleys, which led in haphazard directions.
If the confusing tangle of roads wasn't bad enough, one also had to deal with things in the roads, like cars and trucks, bicycles, rickshaws, motorcycles, and an infinite number of pedestrians. It was the latter that had initially attracted most of Raven's attention. The population was far more mixed then she'd expected, even considering her former life in the Zone. The were people from all over the planet here, as well as cyborgs, synthetics, and things she couldn't exactly explain, like the blue-skinned, blue-haired woman seen talking to an electronics dealer.
Having changed out of her more formal dress into jeans and a tank top, Raven followed behind Marta, who was now in a simple black body suit (did she wear any other color?), with a long black coat over that. Although it wasn't obvious now, Raven had seen Marta strap on a pair of pistols before donning the coat, a simple act that served to underscore the possibility of violence. Not exactly a comforting thought.
Trying not to stare, Raven realized she was hopelessly lost. They had left the major streets behind some time ago, and where now deep in the bowels of one of the older sections of Hong Kong, where small shops where packed in tight and daylight never seemed to fall. Marta, it seemed, had a destination in mind, and kept stopping in front of stores to peer though the windows at the simple displays.
For someone who could fly, or even return home with a moment's concentration, the idea of being hopelessly lost wasn't a particularly worrisome one, so Raven enjoyed the picturesque chaos of the market, with stalls and displays everywhere and haggling shoppers at every corner. She sidestepped an oncoming wolf-like dog and the tiny Chinese grandmother that held it on a leash, and hastened after Marta, who'd stopped in front of yet another display. Raven barely had time for a glance before Marta started again, leading her deeper into the press.
"Marta,"Raven asked at long last, "Where are we going?"
"Clothing stores," the black haired street sam replied. "The ones that specialize in knockoffs. You can get the best deals there."
"Okay... Is it very far?"
Marta stopped suddenly, and turned to shrug at Raven. "Depends on what day it is. They tend to move around sometimes. Why ask? You worried?"
Raven shrugged back. "Just wondering. I'm a little lost, that's all."
"Ahh..." Marta pointed back the way they'd come. "Don't worry, you just head down that street for long enough and you'll come back out in the open." Turning back around, she then pointed across the alley at what looked to be a pair of storefronts. "There. I think we want to try there."
Raven squinted at the unfamiliar neon Chinese characters gracing the storefronts. "If you say so. They look much the same to me."
"I don't know," Ling Ling said, plucking at her clothing. "I don't think this is... well, me."
"You look fine," Marta replied, taking her lover by the shoulders and turning her around to face Raven. "Don't you agree?"
Every other time Raven had seen Ling Ling, she'd been dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. This time, however, Marta had opted for Western dress. Ling Ling was dressed in a black three-piece suit, with a white shirt and a thin black tie. Her trousers were tucked into low boots, and Raven was positive the vest was lined with armor-cloth. The coat itself was cut long, and came to mid-thigh, it might have concealed a pistol, but Raven couldn't be sure. Combined with a pair of sunglasses and one of Ling Ling's omnipresent cigarettes, she no longer looked quite so "mysterious and inscrutable," she looked—in fact—like one of those Hong Kong Triad killers from the tri-vids, which probably had been Marta's intent all along.
"You look fine, Ling Ling." She paused. "Of course it's not you. That's the point. We're trying to go incognito."
"Mmm..." Ling Ling didn't exactly sound mollified.
"See? I told you you looked fine. Now please, relax." Marta gave Ling Ling a kiss on the cheek.
Marta herself was dressed in yet another body-hugging one-piece black bodysuit. It was armored, that was a given, but still managed to highlight every curve. What amazed Raven even more was the high-heeled boots Marta had added, they seemed very unlike her, and likely to cause problems in a fight. But, as Marta could obviously walk just fine in them, Raven decided not to worry. Aside from her paired gunbelts, Marta had added an ankle-length coat, with looked to be genuine leather, but was probably synthetic. Raven didn't see Marta spending twenty-five thousand on a coat. Her sister? Yes. Marta? No.
Speaking of which.
"Where's Shion?" Raven asked.
"Getting dressed," Marta replied. "She'll be a while, if I know my sister."
"Wrong, Marta. I'm finished."
"Amazing, and in under an hour to."
Stepping out of the hallway that led to the back bedroom, Shion glanced at her sister. "Unlike you, I don't wear the exact same outfit every time I go out."
"Same..." Marta fumed for a moment. "Look, dammit, I wear functional and practical clothing."
"But why?" Much to Raven's amazement, Shion played coy and innocent. "Aren't we meant to be dressing up and going out? Isn't that what you said?"
"..." Marta stopped dead, unable to think of a suitable reply.
Raven laughed at Marta's embarrassment. "She's got you there, Marta. You ought to wear something else... We wouldn't want people to recognize you, either!"
"Fine! I'll go change!" With that Marta turned and strode angrily down the hallway to the master bedroom.
Turning, with a smirk, Shion took a moment to present herself to the others. "Well?" she asked brusquely.
Raven paused before replying—she had partially suggested this whole stunt to begin with, and unlike Marta she wasn't about answer with some off-the-cuff and flippant remark. So she decided to give the Empress a careful once-over before submitting her opinion.
Shion still wore her black uniform boots and white pants, but had replaced her white shirt for a pale gray low-cut blouse. Over this she wore a long black coat, belted at the waist, which was so long, it actually trailed on the floor behind her. Black gloves added the final touch. When combined with her hair, which had been dyed a glossy black, the effect was quite stunning.
"Very fashionable," Raven commented. "I'd say people are unlikely to recognize you." Raven looked at Shion's hair and half-smiled. "And with that hair dye you fit right in with the rest of us." Raven herself had opted for snug-fitting leather pants, matching boots, a brief white tank top, and a denim jacket, one of several outfits Marta had goaded her into trying on. When she looked in the mirror she'd thought the result was very sexy (she was getting better at thinking of herself in those terms), and it fit with her three companions while remaining casual.
"Thank you." Shion almost sounded relived.
Looking down the hall, Ling Ling sighed. "I'd go and help her, but..."
Shion shrugged. "She's beyond help."
"I'm sure she can come up with something,"Raven chimed in. "Whether we'll want to be seen with her in it is another matter."
"True." Ling Ling shook her head. "I hope she won't be long."
"I wasn't," came Marta's voice from down the hall. She stepped out into the living room with a dramatic "ta-da."
Gone was the black bodysuit and boots, in it place Marta had on a short-sleeved black blouse that left her shoulders bare and exposed a great deal of cleavage. The blouse was trimmed in gold, and hung to just past her navel, which was left exposed by a convenient gap. A matching skirt fell to mid-thigh, and was cut far up on the sides, setting off the black thigh-high stockings and low black boots. For contrast, Marta had on a long white coat, which almost brushed the floor.
Apparently, Raven decided, getting Marta to wear anything but black was a lost cause. But, at least she'd changed out of her progression of virtually identical bodysuits. That was a start.
"So..." Marta said, glancing about the room, "How do we get to where we're going?"
"I presume you two will want a lift," Raven said.
With a groan, Ling Ling put her face in her hands. "I hate teleportation."
Hugging Ling Ling to her, Marta laughed, "Relax, this'll be fun."
"We don't want to be seen teleporting at the Edge of Night," Raven said. "That'd blow our anonymity right there." She looked at Shion. "But we can't go across the checkpoint without raising eyebrows, either. I know an alley a few streets down from the Edge, it should be deserted."
With an almost regal shrug of her shoulders, Shion gestured towards the door. "Then lead on."
The Edge of Night wasn't really a Zone Club. Oh, of course it was across the checkpoint that led into the Zero Zone; right across the checkpoint in fact, and reassuringly close. It was heavily policed by muscle-bound but discreet bouncers, their "STAFF"-emblazoned shirts standing out from the dramatic long coats and pseudo-ganger leather outfits that were the most common fashions inside the club. The clubgoers all tried to look dangerous, with varying degrees of success; some of the more outrageous outfits actually did resemble something one might see on the more eccentric visitors to the 93 Underground, but no matter how hard they tried to hide, everyone in the club was a paper tiger from the City.
Well, almost everyone. The Edge of Night was inside the Zero Zone, after all, and although the doormen performed checks that exceeded those of the NYPD Inc. checkpoint across the street, some of the Zoners had enough skill and money to slip through. Thankfully, they tended to be the more mature, more established people, who didn't normally start trouble. But if trouble found them... well, they ensured that the club's edgy, dangerous reputation was not entirely undeserved.
Less often, too, Cits that were more dangerous than they looked stepped inside the Edge of Night. "More dangerous than they looked,"however, was a gross understatement when applied to the four women that entered the club this night. Their arrival did not go unnoticed, of course, the four beautiful women finding much attention directed their way. But who would imagine that the women cutting through the press of leather-clad bodies, casual as you please, were Hong Kong's top fixer, her infamous street samurai bodyguard, a world-class corporate esper weapon, and the world's premier telekinetic mercenary?
"This incognito thing has its downsides,"Raven said just loudly enough for Shion to hear, which was rather loud given the constant blare of techno music; for all its faults, the Edge of Night did have an excellent musical selection. "People don't get out of your way."
Eventually Marta spotted an empty booth and quickly hustled the four there. They sat quietly for a moment, watching the dancers and drinkers in faux Zoner chic party on with none of the cautious, sometimes paranoid edge that was so common everywhere else in the bad side of town.
Here and there, Raven noticed a few who did not fit in. A man whose coat didn't hide his dirty cyberarm sitting next to a scantily-clad genetic upgrade sporting the latest designer hairdyes. A hard pair of eyes in a lined, scarred face, cautiously watching a trio of attractive young men busy finding women to flirt with. A hushed conversation in a darkened corner between two suited, Japanese gentlemen, one old and flanked by a briefcase and Lynx replicant, the other young and escorted by a pair of burly, tattooed bruisers.
But for the most part, the crowd was the usual mishmash of corporate young, all made attractive to some degree by the judicious application of biosculpting. Some sported strange hair colors and body piercings. Others tried to cut their carefully-groomed appearance, strictly enforced by unrelenting bosses or parents, under dirty, grungy clothes. Attractive waiters of both genders, recognizable by their comparatively clean-cut dress shirt and pants, worked the crowd with well-rehearsed efficiency.
As they arrived at the Edge of Night, Gem merely nodded and walked away from Zenshou, disappearing into the crowd. Zenshou took a deep breath and looked around her. The place had some of 93U's ambiance, but it was clearly faked - the pressing bodies were too clean, the walls were too solid and the ever-present security guards looked just that tiny bit too professional.
Zenshou remembered Gem's words. Be seen. Act obnoxious. Blend in. She felt uncomfortable and out-of-place, but realized the necessity of it all. Steeling herself, she made a beeline for the bar and barged in between two patrons.
"Barkeep! Scotch and soda," she hollered. The bartender patently ignored her, clearly dealing with another customer. Gem wants obnoxious, she thought to herself. "Now maybe?" she yelled to him. The drink was promptly placed in front of her. She turned around, leaning on the bar, and surveyed the scene. It certainly seemed calmer than 93U; she thought it a welcome change. Zenshou began to relax, and wondered how to attract the right attention.
Her plans were immediately shot when she felt a subtle pressure inside her head. It was clearly the signature of a telekinetic, either one too powerful to hide their signal or unconcerned with letting people know they were there. Zenshou checked her own powers, and "calmed" them down, hoping the approaching PK wouldn't notice her. As the signal got stronger, she could tell its source was still outside the club and approaching rapidly.
Just how powerful is this person, she thought. She watched the door as the signal drew ever nearer. Its source became apparent when four black-haired women entered. The pressure was almost pounding in her head, and she could clearly tell it was from the tallest of the quartet.
Zenshou's head raced with worries. Did they spot her? Did they know she was a PK? Were they after her? She left her drink on the bar and slipped into the crowd, hoping to avoid their notice.
Gem sat at her booth and scanned the crowded room, wondering where her contact had gone. She'd arranged to meet with Reno a good fifteen minutes ago. Knowing him, he'd have changed his look again. "Knowing him, he could be anyone in here," she muttered to himself. Reno had insisted on this location; he said it was "cozy," but she knew him for the wimp he was.
A thin, black man approached her table dressed in a loose-fitting suit and sunglasses. Gem glanced up at his broad grin. Anyone else would have been surprised by the minor details, such as the bright purple crewcut and the fact he was wearing a suit with no shirt, but Gem was used to his "taste." She looked nonplussed, and curled the corners of her mouth to suppress a smile.
"You Gem?" he asked in a surprisingly shrill voice. "Dat babe Rachel said I's to meet?"
"Yeah, Gem." She had a hard time suppressing a laugh as she spoke. "You'd be Reno then?"
"Woot, jeah," he screeched as he sidled into the booth. "So where's da babe?" Gem gaped at him. Admittedly, she had her jacket zipped up and didn't look exactly feminine, but that was still uncalled for. She crossed her arms and gave him a dirty look. "Kay, kay, sorry," he replied. "But jool do, nice an' healthy lookin'" he remarked.
"I'm just a go-between. Let's try to keep this professional," she said wondering why she chose Reno of all the team to contact.
"Sorry, sorry, sorry," he said waving his hand dismissively. He removed the sunglasses and tossed them casually on the table, revealing silvered cyber-eyes. His face turned suddenly serious. "So how's Rachel?"
"Messed up," Gem said. "She couldn't make it herself."
"Man, dat's a shame. Now you know, Rache an' me was real tight, see? We was like-"
"I don't need to know," Gem said, waving her hand and wincing slightly. Reno was a disgusting act to be sure. "I just- I was told to just lay down some ground rules."
"Ground rules? Hell, I don't work by rules. Why, she'd tell you dat-"
Gem cut in. "Rules that will get you a lot of money for some simple information now and then."
"I'm lisnin'," he said.
Gem smiled. She really new how to push his buttons. "One, keep it a secret. Far as I know, they all want Rachel dead, so none of the team can know she's still alive."
"Team? What joo know about da team?" he asked.
Gem gaped at him again. She wanted to hit him for being an idiot, but instead she gulped down her drink. "That you're part of a black ops team working for S-T that Rachel used to be with. Need any more?"
"Just checking, seein' dat joor kewl," he said, backing off and waving his hands in front of him.
"Right." Gem sighed. "Number two, you don't call us. Rachel will call you when she needs something."
"Huh, whatever," he said, obviously bored.
"Thirdly, we change meeting places each time. They might be..." Reno was gazing off into the crowds. "Are you listening to me?"
"Just checking the babes," he said, dropping his dialect for once.
Gem was disgusted. She knew how professional this man could be. She knew he was a computer specialist. She knew he could make a twenty-year old pile of hardware sing. She just didn't know he was this much of a jerk off-duty as well as on. She shook her head and glanced out into the crowd, trying to find who'd distracted him.
"Now I like that one over there," he said, pointing a girl out to Gem. Gem's eyes widened in surprise as she locked onto Raven Clark. She'd seen Raven in passing, and knew she worked for S-T; knew how valuable she was to them. A smile crept across her face, then she stood to leave.
"Hey, where joo goin'?" he asked.
"Other business. I'll be in touch," she said, and disappeared into the crowd.
"Jo bay-bee! Joo is look-en reel sweet!"
Raven looked at the speaker, a thin black man with a purple crewcut and a loose-fitting suit... minus the shirt. "Pardon?"
"Iz just zay-en dat joo is one reel sweet babe."
"Oh. Um... Look, my table is waiting for me with drinks..." Raven started to step away.
"Howz bout I buy joo one, sweet bay-bee?"
She sighed. "No, thanks, it's all right."
"Hey, wazza mattah?"
"Nothing... it's just..." Raven shook her head. "I have to go."
"Aw, dat's too bad. Me friend dere waz interested in joo too."
Raven blinked and glanced at the pretty oriental girl looking back at her. "I'm... not that kind of girl." She noticed that the oriental girl's look was... intent, but devoid of lust.
Reno grinned broadly. "Dat's what I'ze count-en on."
"Um, I really have to go..."
"Aw come on, shirley joo cen put it off? We'ze could have some fun."
"I'm afraid I can't... uh... my friends are waiting for me."
"Me-bee I can meet dem too?"
"I'm.... not sure it's a good idea."
"Why not?" He held up his hands. "Okay, I get it, I'm not jor type. But surely one o' dem's gots to appreciate my style."
Raven pictured Reno's "style" next to Shion, Marta, and Ling Ling, and didn't quite manage to stifle a giggle.
"See? Now I nose dell love me. So, who'z de lucky onez?"
"Actually... I don't think they will."
Reno crossed his arms, and his ever-present grin shrank a fraction. "How's about joo letz dem decide?"
"C'mon, it'll be fun."
"Fun" wasn't Raven's idea of what it'd be like. "I... don't think they're looking." That was an understatement, to say the least.
"Well dat's not much fair to me, iz it?"
"I suppose not... but it's true."
"Shoot.... Aw, it's driv-en me nutz!" Reno grabbed his hair and raised his voice, yelling above the crowds. "You'ze gotta letz me try, bay-bee! If any o' dem's near az sweet az joo, I'd be in heaven! Pleeze?" He clasped his hands under his chin.
Raven looked around at all the people looking on with amusement and blushed. "Oh, all right... Don't say I didn't warn you..."
Without warning, the oriental woman she'd spotted before was right next to Raven. "Raven Clark?" she asked.
"Uh, yeah." Raven hesitated, examining the woman. "Do I know you?"
Gem shook her head. "It's business."
"Okay, then. Sure." Raven paused expectantly.
"Outside," Gem replied.
"Er, I better tell my friends, first."
"Friends? Who are you here with?"
"Oh, just a few friends. You wouldn't know them."
Gem nodded. "I'll be waiting out the back for you."
Raven returned to her table, somewhat surprised that Reno was nowhere to be seen. She put the drinks on the table and leaned her hands against it. "I need to step outside. There's a woman who says she has business with me and wants to meet me outside. It's very odd."
"Are you sure about this? We are supposed to be here incognito," Shion said.
"She recognized me," Raven pointed out. "That kinda blows the whole 'incognito' part. I'll deal with this as quickly as possible then I'll come right back."
"Do you need back up?" Marta offered.
"That might not be a bad idea, actually," Raven said. "Stay close."
"Not a problem."
"But out of sight," Raven added. "If this is legitimate I don't want to spook them."
"You'll never see me," Marta replied cockily.
Marta hadn't lied; she vanished from Raven's sight as soon as the telekinetic reached the back door. Raven knew, however, that the street samurai was carefully watching her. Cautiously, Raven opened the door and slowly stepped outside. She narrowed her eyes to pierce the gloom and frowned—usually all entrances to 93 Underground were well-lit. This could only mean...
From the corner of her eye, she saw what she'd half-expected—the oriental girl rushing at her, leaping at the last moment for a flying kick. Raven snarled, and her shield went up, scarce moments before the girl's boot impacted it solidly. Raven staggered back a step, then stepped forward, clenching her fist in front of her face angrily. Her hair snaked in the after effects of her shield. "So who are you?" she demanded. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted Marta emerging from the shadows with gun drawn.
Gem swore under her breath and and broke to the side, dashing away from Raven. The telekinetic glared and lifted her hand, scooping the woman off the ground with her Power. Gem thrashed for a second in midair, then pulled her gun from her jacket. She sprayed shots wildly in Raven's direction, hoping to hit her.
"Do I have to crush you to get you to stop?" Raven called out, ignoring the bullets that buzzed around her like flies and sparked against her force field.
"Raven! Get out of my way!" Marta called out.
Raven calmly stepped to the side, out of Marta's line of fire, her eyes never leaving her helpless opponent. Gem, for her part, swore on seeing Raven had backup.
Marta pointed her gun at Gem and fired, slapping the girl's armor with a small-caliber round. Raven's head snapped to the side at the sound. "Marta, stop it!" Still holding Gem up, she looked at Marta. "I have her under control."
Marta dropped her gun, but whether it was because of Raven's words, or her cellphone's sudden ringing, the teek could not say. Raven went forward until she was almost directly under Gem, the two glaring daggers at each other.
"Raven!" Marta called out, covering the receiver on her phone.
"Yeah? I'm kinda busy, Marta."
"My sister is coming to see you!"
"Oh good. Fine." She retuned her gaze to Gem. "Drop that gun."
Gem released her gun in midair. Raven caught it and deposited it to the ground. The back door opened to reveal Shion, looking annoyed and dragging a rather ruffled Reno. Ling Ling followed, managing to maintain her inscrutability—but barely.
"Crap," Gem muttered as she saw Reno being dragged out by his ear.
Raven managed a chuckle and addressed Reno. "I told you they wouldn't like your 'style'." Reno glanced around and waved sheepishly to Raven.
Shion looked up at Gem. "Does he belong to you?"
"So much for incognito," Marta said in a low voice, drawing a helpless shrug from Raven.
"So like... Whazzup, bay-bee?" Reno grinned nervously. Behind him Ling Ling stood with her arms crossed over her chest, looking intimidating. Marta drew her second gun—the large-caliber one.
"Well?" said Shion.
"Don't know him," Gem muttered.
"Well he knows you," Raven pointed out.
Reno glanced up then back to Raven. He did a double-take, and stared up at Gem. "HEY! How joo doin' dat?"
Raven grinned wickedly. "Three guesses, the first two don't count."
Reno grinned "Heh, I gotz nutt-en to do wid dis, can I go now?"
"Yes." Shion twisted Reno's finger, drawing a sharp crack, a cry of pain from Reno, and a wince from both Raven and Marta.
"Shion..." Raven said soothingly.
Reno put on his best pained smile. "Thank you..." he said, and sauntered off with what little dignity remained.
Shion shoved him away. "What?"
"Never mind." Raven glared again "You still haven't told me who you are."
Shion shrugged to Gem, but the hovering woman did not respond. Raven threw Gem to the ground and kept her pressed there with an invisible hand. She approached the prone woman, fists clenched at her sides. "I asked you a question."
"Go to hell,"Gem snarled defiantly.
Marta went back besides Ling Ling, while her sister approached Raven, standing just behind her. "Shall I?" the Empress asked.
"Not yet." She crouched next to Gem and glared into her eyes. "Do I need to crush you?"
"Go ahead," Gem muttered.
Raven shrugged, then frowned, concentrating, pressing Gem against the ground. She relented quickly, and said. "Please, don't make me do it harder."
Gem gritted her teeth and let out a small yelp of pain, but tried not to give in. "Or what? You'll just kill me here and now?"
Watching the display with a critical expression, Shion commented, "I would have started with a a few limbs first, myself."
"Your sister looks angry," Ling Ling remarked.
"Really? I thought she seemed rather calm," Marta replied.
Ling Ling let out a small "... oh ..." and fell silent.
"If I knew what the hell you wanted," Raven said coolly, "I might know what to do with you."
"Fine then. I wanted to kill you because you're a little corporate whore. Happy?"
Raven frowned. "That's all? You wanted to kill me because I work for a corp?"
"Just the right corp."
"Oh, I see. A grudge against Shiroko-Tsuhi. It's got a few million employees worldwide. You gonna kill them all?"
Gem glared up at Raven. "Only the ones that make them hurt."
Shion arched an eyebrow. Raven frowned and asked, "Make who hurt?"
"The corp. Their expensive little pets like you. I can imagine Sanato would be pissed if you got wasted in a back alley."
"Probably, yeah." She straightened up and folded her arms. "Now what am I ever going to do with you."
"Whatever you damn well like. you're the fucking esper weapon, after all."
"I would kill her," Shion offered.
"I know, Shion," Raven said.
"But, of course, you are free to ignore my advice," Shion replied haughtily.
Raven looked down at Gem. "Got any good reason why I shouldn't do just what she says?"
"Who is that anyway? Your fan club?"
Raven glanced at Shion. The notion was so ludicrous that she actually giggled. "Hardly." She frowned again and looked back at Gem. "Quite the sense of humor, there."
Shion silently glared down at Gem, unamused.
"Well then, I'm at your mercy. What do you want from me? A song and dance?"
Shion glanced behind her to locate her sister and to see what the crowd was up to. Spotting Gem's pistol on the ground she gestured at it, snatching out of the air as it arrived. Turning back she carefully pulled it apart and dropped the pieces next to Gem. "Raven, for a short period of time, I was actually enjoying myself. I suggest you resolve this quickly."
"Sorry my life isn't as important as you're fun night out," Gem muttered.
"No... it isn't," Shion replied, at the same time Raven said," For her, it isn't."
"You're lucky Raven is so softhearted, if it had been me, you would be dead by now," Shion stated in a flat tone of voice.
"I'll keep that in mind next time I mug you in a dark alley," Gem replied defiantly.
"You can try, presuming you walk away from here." Shion paused and shook her head. "Enough of this, I've grown bored. Raven, I will meet you back inside."
"Sure," Raven said.
Shion turned and left, her long, long coat swirling around her.
Marta and Ling Ling approached Raven. "So, I take it you've never killed anyone?" Marta asked.
Raven glanced at Marta. "I have. Often. Doesn't mean I like it."
"Coulda fooled me," Marta replied.
Once the Empress was gone, Gem aped Shion's haughty tone. "It's not struggling anymore. It's not fun anymore. Just put it out of its misery."
"Okay." Marta's gun clicked ominously.
"Marta...," Ling Ling cautioned in a low voice.
Raven crouched next to Gem to look into her eyes. "Now what am I supposed to do with you? You admitted you were trying to kill me, and are going to want to kill other S-T people."
"Go back home and ask them why," said Gem. "Ask about Rachel."
"If your grudge is against one person, maybe you should consider leaving the rest of the million-employee corp alone. It's liable to get you hurt."
Marta looked at Raven. "Rachel?"
Raven shrugged. "Never heard of her."
"Oh, her story might sound familiar," Gem said. "Poor girl, grew up in the Zone? They recruited her and filled her life with luxuries."
Raven said nothing. Perhaps Gem was playing her like a fiddle... but she was striking very close to home.
"Guess what happens next?"
"She bought the company?" joked Marta.
"They killed her, because they found someone else," Gem added. Whispering, she finished, "And all she ever wanted was a better life than this."
Raven looked down quietly at Gem, unsure what to say.
"Kill her, or she'll never leave you alone," Marta advised Raven. "Works in HK, should work here."
Raven crouched again next to Gem. "Is she right?" she said softly, quietly. "If I let you go, will you leave me alone?"
"If you think about what I said. Otherwise, there's not much point."
Raven nodded. "Go away," she said, lifting Gem off the ground and throwing her towards the other end of the alley.
"Raven!" Marta cried out. "You..."
Gem immediately picked herself up and watched the others quietly.
"Marta, that's enough," Ling Ling cautioned.
Raven shrugged. "What's one more corp-hater?"
"What's one more corp whore?" Gem called back, earning an angry glare from Raven, who almost reconsidered her decision.
Marta's words headed off any action. "You should have killed her. She'll come back."
"No. No I won't," Gem said from the end of the alley.
"I believe you," Raven said, fists clenched so hard they trembled. "Now go."
"Why don't we go back inside?" Ling Ling said. "Come on, Raven, I'll buy a drink."
"Raven?" Marta looked at Ling Ling questioningly. "What about me?"
"You can buy your own drinks."
Raven nodded and followed the two others inside. As they went in, Marta asked, "So, Raven, will you buy me a drink?"
"Sure..." Raven replied. "Thanks for backing me up."
"No problem, it's my job. Still say you should've offed her. She's only going to be further trouble. But hey, you're a big girl. Still, if you ever need a bodyguard, just call."
"I'll keep you in mind." Raven said, smiling.
Zenshou massaged her forehead. She had felt some PK activity from outside, constant and fairly powerful. Then the sound of gunshots, then eventually another signal, brief but much stronger than the first. She knew it had to be the tall black-haired woman from earlier. At least they weren't after me, she ruefully thought.
The back door opened and the tall woman stormed back in, an angry look on her face. Zenshou held her breath as the woman approached her—and let out a sigh of relief as she passed by. Zenshou watched her return to her table. Within a minute, the rest of her party returned from the back, to find their tall companion already drinking heavily.
Zenshou stood off to one side, attempting to look casual while keeping an eye on the quartet. She tried to figure out if she recognized any of them...
Something clicked in Zenshou's head. No, it can't be, she thought. Shion Nys? What would she be doing here? Slumming? She looked at the woman again. It sure looks like her, but with black hair, and with that signature it sure couldn't be another replicant. Zenshou's eyes swept the club, looking for signs of trouble that might have followed the other telekinetic in. So who are those other women?
Zenshou frowned. And where the hell is Gem?
Zenshou stepped out the Edge of Night's back door, glancing over her shoulder. Much to her relief, her exit went unnoticed by Shion's table. She shut the door and turned to leave, but was stopped in her tracks by yet another surprise.
Gem, her strangely absent bodyguard was crouching in the back alley. She was scratching on the ground, pulling together her pistol with silent concentration.
Zenshou looked up and down the alley to see if they were being watched, then shifted her weight and leaned against the door frame, waiting for her normally observant bodyguard to notice her. What had happened here, she thought to herself. Was it that other esper, the one with Shion that did this? And what kind of grudge does Gem have against her?
Gem finished with her pistol. She stood up, glancing around. When she spotted Zenshou, she stepped back, gaping in surprise. A look of guilt swept across her face, and lowered her head.
"Care to tell me what you're doing out here, obviously having gotten yourself into trouble, putting your gun back together again, instead of what I hired you to do?"
"I..." Gem swallowed. "I got carried away. I spotted someone... and..."
"And..." Zenshou prompted. "What was so important that you would take off like that and abandon me like that?"
"My revenge." Gem sighed and looked up. "I wanted to hurt her, but I didn't think at all."
"Revenge? For whom or for what? Against the esper who passed me in the club?" Zenshou frowned. "Talk to me, Gem. You owe me an explanation."
"It's a long one." Gem sighed. "That esper's name is Raven Clark. She works for Shiroko Tsuhi. The company—No, her division murdered my closest friend."
"Those are serious charges," Zenshou replied. "Do you have any proof?"
Gem nodded gravely. "I was there when it happened. Her team was on a mission, and one of her..." She paused, almost choking on her words. "One of her troops turned on her."
"You mean to tell me that your friend worked for Shiroko-Tsuhi and one of her teammates betrayed her," Zenshou's frown deepened to anger. "And how was Raven involved?"
"She isn't. I just found that out." Gem looked down again. "I didn't think she was directly, but... I wanted to hurt the company, hurt the department..."
Zenshou shook her head and rubbed her forehead as if it she had a headache. "For someone who was only recently drilling me about the importance of caution when taking on a big enemy, you certainly acted foolishly." She sighed. "What am I supposed to do with you?"
"Well, I've learnt my lesson." Gem looked up at Zenshou. "I rushed headlong into this and nearly got killed. I let you down, and I don't know if you can trust me any more." She reached inside her shirt and pulled out a plain silver locket. "Here. Take this."
"What is it?" Zenshou asked as she looked at the locket.
"This is the only thing that's still valuable to me." She pulled the chain over her head and offered it to Zenshou. "I want you to keep it until you I've redeemed myself in your eyes."
"Gem, that was a rhetorical question. I'm not going to punish you, and you don't have to punish yourself unless you feel you have to." Zenshou shook her head. "But if you feel this is what you need to do, then that's what we'll do."
Zenshou paused for a moment before taking the necklace. "You work for me, not for a corp. I don't own you, nor will I pretend to, simply because I sign your paycheck."
Gem nodded, and stepped closer to her. "I'm doing this because I want to. Trust is sacred to me, and I've let you down. I know I did the wrong thing; I just think this will help remind me of that. Can you forgive me?"
"Of course I can," Zenshou replied. "You made a mistake, and no one got hurt - this time. Gem, you want revenge for what happened to your friend, right?"
"You're not going to get it by going off halfcocked and getting yourself killed." Zenshou ran her fingers through her hair then tucked a random curl behind her ear. "One person alone isn't enough to go after a corp like S-T." She paused for a moment. "Let me help you," she offered impulsively.
"Serious?" Gem looked at her hopefully.
"No Gem, I'm talking out my ear," Zenshou said. "Of course I'm serious. Don't you remember my telling you that my family has always considered the people who work for us to be cousins, part of our extended family? You know how important family is to me, and it's my duty as head of the family now to take care of everyone. Your friend is my friend, your enemy my enemy, Gem."
Gem was speechless. She simply nodded, and gave a small, shy smile. "What's this," Zenshou said, a hint of teasing in her voice. "My big bad street sam, tough as nails and eats them for breakfast, crying? Or is there just some dust in your eyes?" Zenshou pulled a puce handkerchief out of her pocket and handed it to Gem.
"So," Zenshou said finally. "Shall we go out on the town and have a bit of fun?" She waved her cred stick. "Daddy gave me my allowance and I'm buying," she said with stereotypical corper arrogance, failing to hide the grin covering her face.
Gem nodded, halfway between laughing and sobbing. "Thanks," she said as she wiped her eyes. She looked up at Zenshou, smiling, and handed back her handkerchief. "Let's go."
With a sigh Raven lowered herself into the warm water. A heated pool—it figured, anything else wouldn't have been good enough for the Empress—but, still the water was far too comfortable to complain about Shion's characteristic opulence now.
Shion sat at the bottom of the steps that led into the pool's shallow end. A platter resting on the edge of the surrounding decking contained what looked like crackers, cheese, and a glass that Raven doubted contained juice. Marta and Ling Ling were over towards the center in water shoulder deep, arms draped over each other's shoulders, their faces obscured by identical manes of glossy black hair. It didn't take a genius to figure out what they were up to. So much for Ling Ling's being mysterious and inscrutable, well, for the moment anyway.
Shion lay on her back, sprawled across the great expanse of her waterbed. At the moment she was content. The silk sheets felt smooth against her bare skin, the thick pillows were soft and supportive, and the blankets made her most comfortably warm. Eyes closed, she wandered in and out of sleep, always hovering on the edge of deep slumber, barely aware of her surroundings. She was in her penthouse apartment, and felt secure, far more secure than if she was spending time in some corporate arcology.
It wasn't like she was alone. Raven was currently borrowing one of the spare bedrooms, while Marta and Ling Ling were in another. Shion had a vague hope that what ever those two were up to, it wouldn't damage anything. But at the moment, it didn't matter. She had had a full last couple of days. Drinking herself into oblivion at 93 Underground, spending the night at Raven's, lunch in Hong Kong, attending a nightclub in the Zone. She'd been all over the world in the past two days, and now was exhausted. All she wanted was rest.
"Oh my God! What a fabulous room! Are all these your clothes?"
The sound of her sister's voice snapped her out of her dozing state. She was awake instantly, although she didn't bother to react much beyond opening her eyes and staring at the ceiling.
She heard the door to her walk-in closet close (which, to be honest, was filled with more clothing than most people would ever need in their lifetime), and a series of soft footsteps make their way to the bathroom.
"This place is bigger than our whole apartment!"
The door to the bathroom opened.
"Oh wow, look at this tub! Say... want to take a baaath?"
"Marta," Shion asked of the ceiling. "What do you want?"
Footsteps and then the waterbed rocked from her sister's added weight.
"To see how you're doing. It's been ages since I last saw your place. I'd forgotten how big it was. I mean, you could fit two of our apartments on the bottom floor with room to spare."
Marta sighed. "Just commenting." She rocked up and down. "Damn, I do like these waterbeds. We've got to get one."
"Right..." Now it was Shion's turn to sigh. "I was sleeping you know."
"Marta..." Shion growled as she turned to look at her sister, who was currently dressed in a robe she'd borrowed from Shion's closet. Made from finely woven silk, the garment was far to big for her, and hung past her knees.
"'Marta' what? I thought you were going to lighten up?"
"If I do, will you stop annoying me?"
"Probably not." Pulling the covers away, Marta pushed at Shion's shoulder. "Now shove over."
Glancing at the amount of bed-space there was, Shion didn't move, but simply watched as Marta slipped into the bed.
"Damn! This is the life!" Marta stretched, arcing her back and twisting from side to side. Shion remained impassive, having seen such displays before. "Shee, you've got it made. You gotta get yourself some buff sexroids to help you break this bed in."
"Really?" Marta flipped over on her stomach and propped her chin up on her hands. "Tell me about it."
Rolling on her side, Shion leaned her head on one hand, regarding her sister with a cool gaze. "Why do you care about my sex life so much?"
Marta shrugged. "Just nosy I guess."
"Christ." Shion rolled on to her back and resumed her examination of the ceiling.
"Wanna hear what Ling Ling and I did?"
"Spoilsport." There was a rustling noise and then Marta's robe landed on Shion's face. "Ooohh... I like this even better."
With a moue of distaste, Shion plucked the garment off her face and tossed it away. "I'm so happy you approve."
There was a moment of silence. Shion debating trying to go back to sleep, while Marta wrested with a pillow, trying to twist it into a satisfactory shape. "So..." Marta finally broke in. "You never did answer my question."
"About taking a bath."
With a blink of surprise, Shion turned to look over at Marta. "What?'
"Don't 'what' me." Marta reached out and grabbed a handful of Shion's hair, which was currently inky black. "You've been out all night, and this has to get washed out sometime soon, y'know. It will go a lot faster with two."
Marta shrugged. "Sure, no one else is awake, so who's to know or care? Besides..." Marta gave an audible sniff. "I think we both could use it."
"Oh, thank you so very much."
"Don't blame the me, blame the Zone."
Like everything else in Shion's penthouse, the shower was opulent. It was, as Marta put it, big enough for a small party, with the typical triple-head arraignment. The main shower head was set into the ceiling, over the door, while two smaller heads ran on tracks on opposite walls. Waterproofed controls directed the temperature, intensity, and movement of the heads. It wasn't a shower, so much as a total water immersion. Marta, naturally, loved it.
With all three nozzles set to "spray," the shower was filled with a cloud of droplets that rendered the two sisters soaked in a matter of seconds. While Shion was content to stand in the middle of the room, and just let the water flow over her, Marta had to examine the room in detail before finally settling on the bench that ran along the back wall. Setting the bucket of shampoos and conditioners to one side, she gestured to Shion.
"C'mon, Shee, time to get your hair back to looking normal."
With a nod of agreement, Shion knelt regally on the floor of the shower, her back to Marta. For her part, Marta didn't give her sister's superbly proportioned body a second glance. The broad shoulders, full breasts, flat stomach, curved rear, long legs—she'd seen it all before. With another woman, it would have elicited a second, even a third look, but as far as her sister was concerned, it was nothing out of the ordinary.
Pouring out a sufficient quantity of shampoo, Marta buried her hands in her sister's incredibly thick head of hair. Almost immediately the foam turned an unpleasant grayish shade as the black hair dye was broken down. Working her fingers through the luxuriant mane of hair, Marta found herself speculating on exactly how much Shion must spend each month at the hairdressers. Probably about as much as she spent on ammunition.
"Are you through?"
"Are you kidding?" Marta reached for a brush. "You've only got about a mile of hair. It's going to take me all day to scrub this out." She paused, and then started the run the brush through the long strands of hair, sweeping masses of dirty foam to the smooth floor, to slowly make their way to the drain.
"Remember the old times?"
"Hmm?" Shion sounded distracted, almost as if she had been close to falling asleep again.
Marta went back to scrubbing at Shion's hair, generating another mass of soap bubbles. "How we used to take care of each other, wash each other, do each other's hair..."
"I miss those days." Shion paused and sighed. "Some days, when it gets really lonely, and I just can't bare to be drunk again, I think I'd give up all of this, just to be that carefree again."
"Carefree?" Marta laughed. "You call scrounging for food and shelter carefree? I mean, we were cold, hungry, and wet more often than not. I'll trade all that freedom for the ability to have a hot bath anytime I want."
"I was thinking more of how we lived our own lives freely, without anyone looking over our shoulders all the time."
"That's your life, Shee, not mine." Marta paused as she started to brush out Shion's long tresses. "No one looks over my shoulder and wonders what I'm up to. But you, you're the big bad Empress, everyone and their brother wants to know what you're up to and who's hired you."
"So how the hell do you avoid scrutiny? Just being my sister should be reason enough for everyone to follow you as well."
Marta shook her head. "The question is, why is everyone so fascinated with you? You made this image for yourself, Shee. Now, stand up and rinse."
With a sigh Shion rose and stood where the spray from the three shower heads intersected. Stained shampoo suds flowed down her body in thick streams, as she ran her fingers through her water-sodden tresses. Marta stepped up behind her with a hairbrush and started to pull it through the rest of Shion's hair.
"Shion," Marta said with a shake of her head, "this much hair would drive me insane."
Shion shrugged, and with a flick of one wrist snatched another brush from the bucket near the wall. "It is all part of my image. I couldn't cut it if I wanted to. Besides, I like it."
"Of course you do, 'cause it attracts attention." Marta tossed the brush away, to send it clattering into a corner. "Time to scrub. I do your back, you do mine."
Pulling her hair over her shoulders, Shion bared her back, her only comment a low sound of pleasure as Marta started rubbing up and down her spine with a soapy sponge. "Y'know," the younger Nys sister said with a grin, "If you were Ling Ling I'd soap up your front to."
Shion shook her head, smiling in return. "Only if you were a man, Marta."
Shion sighed in irritation. "Don't start that again, Marta."
The the next few minutes neither woman spoke. They scrubbed themselves and each other down with thick sponges, and then stood under the sprays of water to rinse. The uncomfortable silence continued until Shion turned the water off. "I think I needed that," she stated.
"I'm glad you feel better," Marta replied. "Now, where do you keep the towels?"
"Extras are in the closet."
Returning with an armload of thick cottony towels, Marta dropped them on the counter. "I help dry you, you help dry me?" she asked slyly.
"No. Give it a rest."
"Hmph..." Marta sat down in a huff, wrapping a towel about her head in an effort to get the water out of her hair. "We used to do everything together."
Shion continued to brush her hair, water falling from the ends to spatter across the floor. "We used to be a lot younger too. I'd like to think we are more self-sufficient these days."
"Still..." Marta glanced at her sister pointedly, "It was fun."
"Yes..." Shion responded slowly "It was."
"The Nys sisters against the world," Marta smiled. "Just the two of us."
"Life was simpler then. We needed food and shelter, that was it." Shion wrapped a towel around her hair and wrung it out. "Our enemies were easier to identify as well."
"Yeah, basically anyone who wasn't us."
Shion shrugged. "There was a war on. We did what we had to do."
"And it didn't hurt that my sister was a developing esper."
Tossing a towel aside, Marta stood and stretched. "Well, I feel better how about you?"
"Me?" Shion thought a moment and yawned. "I'm tired. I think I'll go back to bed."
"Cool, I'll join ya."
Laying in her bed, Shion started at the ceiling, trying to ignore her sister, who was obviously delighted by the sensation of laying on a waterbed. After a few moments of writhing around, Marta finally managed to get settled, only to immediately prod her sister's shoulder.
"Shee, I gotta ask... you've got more clothes than God. Do you actually wear all that stuff?"
Shion turned her head, to find Marta lying on her stomach, her chin propped on by both hands. "Yes," she replied in a tired tone of voice.
"Damn!" Marta looked around the room. "What's the most expensive outfit you own? That uniform you had on?"
Feeling slightly more energetic, Shion shook her head. "No, not that. I have a full-length formal kimono that was custom made for me. It cost around twenty thousand new yen."
"Christ!" Marta sat up. "That's more than I earn in... like... forever!"
"It is not!" Shion laughed despite her weariness. "I happen to know that Ling Ling pays you more than enough."
"And how do you know what Ling Ling pays me?"
"You told me. Right after you spent about an hour describing her breasts."
"Err..." Marta lay back down in the bed, grinning shamefacedly. "She did have an effect on me didn't she?"
"I'll say." Shion smiled back. "I used to think you started up with other girls just to annoy me, but now that you've met Ling Ling you've changed—and all for the better." With a sigh Shion settled back amid the pillows and resumed her contemplation of the ceiling. "When I see you two together, I realize how lucky you are, and how unlucky I am."
"You?" Marta sat up and glared over at her sister, gesturing angrily with one finger. "You're the unlucky one? Look at you! You're tall, you're beautiful, you're stacked, you're filthy rich, and you've got the world at your fuckin' feet! I'd kill to be where you are today!"
"Yeah?" Shion snapped back, her normally aristocratic manners gone in a flash of anger. "And who has a stable home with a woman who loves them, eh? Who is able to live a life free from constant scrutiny and corporate politics? Not me, that's for sure!"
"Hey! It's not my fault no man is good enough for you!"
"I don't need a man!"
"You sure need someone!"
The silence stretched for what could have been an eternity, but was probably only a minute. Finally Marta turned away and fell back down into the bed, making the mattress rock. "Screw this, I'm getting some sleep." she growled.
Shion stared at the back of Marta's head, her brows furrowed in anger. She debated physically throwing her sister out of her room, then decided that the resulting mess wouldn't be worth it. With a sniff of distaste she turned her back to Marta and lay down to go to sleep.
But sleep wouldn't come. She lay there, listening to the even breathing of her sister, who was asleep, and fumed. Once again her Marta had managed to push all the right buttons, and what had been a somewhat pleasant time had dissolved into another shouting match. At least this one was short. Rolling onto her back, Shion stared at the ceiling, ignoring her sister's faint mumble. She had been tired and quite willing to doze off for an extended nap, but now... she felt all tense inside and had a sour feeling in the pit of her stomach.
Closing her eyes and simply trying to relax wasn't working. She couldn't sleep... actually, she couldn't even relax. Her sister's words kept running through her head. 'You sure need someone.' But she didn't need anyone. She was Shion Nys, the "Empress," and she was above such petty concerns as dependency on others. She was strong enough to stand up on her own, she didn't need anyone to lean on for support. It was what she had tried to tell Raven that one time. She was the Empress, she didn't need friends. No matter how hard Raven tried to be hers...
Thinking of Raven brought to mind the memory of when the two of them had first met. She hadn't been very impressed by the slender girl with the long black hair, but now... even she had to admit that the girl had grown in both power and maturity. She's wasn't the naive innocent from the Zone anymore, she was as much as player in the world of high-end esper weapons as Shion was.
And still she wanted to be Shion's friend.
Blinking, Shion touched the fingers of her left hand to her face and was surprised to find tears. She was crying? What did she have to cry about?
Wiping a hand across her eyes, Shion then got out of bed, pulling on a sheer nightgown and then heading downstairs. She needed something to help her sleep. A drink maybe... a drink might be just what she needed.
Stepping out into the hall, Shion realized exactly how quiet her penthouse was. It was nearly 3:00 AM, and everything was silent. The doors to the two spare bedrooms were closed, both Raven and Ling Ling were fast asleep. She walked down the stairs slowly, silent herself as she padded barefoot across the carpeted floor, illuminated by the scattering of lights that gleamed faintly though floor-to-ceiling windows.
Glancing around, Shion remembered Raven's first reaction to seeing her home. 'What do you do with all that space?' she had asked. What did she do with all of this space? Not a whole lot really. Yes it was furnished, but not to the point of being cluttered. The high ceilings gave it an airy feel... when it was bright and sunny out. Now it felt... cold, empty, and hollow. Just like her life at the moment.
The kitchen floor was cold on her bare feet, and Shion shivered slightly. She opened a cabinet door and found a large, heavy thick-walled glass. Setting it on the counter she went searching for something to put in it.
Returning with a bottle of bourbon, Shion twisted the cap off and poured a small amount into the glass. She stared at the dark liquid which filled the bottom. Her stomach suddenly knotted, apparently in reaction to the idea of drinking any more alcohol. Ignoring her rumbling gut, Shion picked up the glass, and was about to drink down the contents when the whiff of liquor made her wrinkle her nose in disgust and gag slightly. A moment later the glass was skittering across the tiled floor, leaving a trail of dark fluid. Brow furrowed, Shion strode out of the kitchen and made her way back up the spiraled stairs.
At the top of the stairs, she paused yet again. She was facing a closed bedroom door, behind which she could feel Raven's slight signature. Hesitantly she reached for the door handle and then drew back. With a muttered "fuck it, it's my house" she opened the door, and then walked quietly into Raven's temporary room, closing the door and standing silently by the bed. Raven was sound asleep, and unlike herself at the moment, looked calm and peaceful. Shion almost hated her.
"Raven?" she whispered.
Raven slowly opened her eyes, her eyes out of focus for a moment before she recognized the Empress. "Oh, Shion." She sat up in bed and rubbed her eyes sleepily. "Ouch. We've had a busy night."
"Yes, some more than others." Shion sat on the edge of the bed, and looked down at Raven.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Sure, go ahead." She happened to see the clock and winced. "Ouch."
"Why do you go out of your way to be my friend?"
"Hmm." Raven let herself fall on her bed and looked at the ceiling for a moment, thinking on this. "I haven't really thought about it, honestly. It's kind of an instinctive thing, I guess. But if you want a reason, here's one: I think you and I both need at least a few friends who are in the same circle as we are and have the same kinds of concerns." She looked up at Shion's eyes. "And you and I, we're in a very, very small circle. How many esper weapons in our class are there, anyway?"
"Maybe a dozen." Shion sounded tired, and Raven could see circles under her eyes.
"So that's why you need to make friends inside your circle when you can," Raven said. "Because there's only so many people in it."
"But why me? What makes me so special to you?"
"Well..." Raven paused, as if she didn't know how to articulate her answer in words. "I guess you looked to me like you were lonely, and needed a friend. Seeing as you had none." She looked up to Shion again. "And I needed a friend too."
"My sister just told me I need someone. A friend, a lover, I don't know which." Shion's words came out strained, as if it hurt the tall woman to speak.
Raven stayed quiet for a moment, then said, "I don't think it matters which. I think she just meant you needed someone."
Raven shrugged. "Maybe. That's up to you." She shifted until she lay on her side, set her chin in her hand, and looked up at Shion. "But you can't go through life entirely alone."
Shion looked down at Raven, and the younger woman was surprised to see tears in the normally unflappable Empress's eyes. "No... I don't think I can."
Raven sat up, and hugged Shion, an instinctive gesture brought about by the Empress's visible pain. She felt Shion stiffen, and then, slowly relax, before returning the hug.
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