Blinking awake, Aoi rolled over, feeling the soft mattress beneath her. It was nice, she thought, to wake up in such a comfortable bed for a change. Through her waking haze she wondered briefly where she was. Yesterday morning she had found herself in the penthouse of the infamous Empress, Shion Nys. But this morning...
Her eyes shot open as she sat up in bed. She was in an outrageously comfortable full-sized bed, in an expensively furnished bedroom with its own television and speakers. It was neat and well-kept, except for her crumpled clothes lying scattered across the floor. Once again, she had found herself in one of the Empress' guest rooms.
She clutched her head, memories flooding back to her. Memories of her mission from Spycorp. Of breaking into Shion's penthouse and being caught. Of their bizarre night out together, and finally returning to Shion's home. But if anything, yesterday had been even stranger.
It had started with her and Shion heading to Spycorp's warehouse office. She had sat in bemused silence as Jason Stone had hired Shion to destroy his old company and its creations. But even more bizarre, she had been hired as part of the deal as Shion's personal assistant. But she quickly realized that her duties were a lot more than described.
She rolled out of bed and started pacing around the modest room. It was hard to believe just how Shion had acted; both towards her and in preparing for the mission. Her first duty as Shion's new "personal assistant" had been to chauffeur Shion back to her home. Upon leaving Stone's "offices" (in reality a converted warehouse), Shion had stopped next to her car and produced a set of keys from a belt pouch.
"Can you drive this?" she'd asked.
"Yes," Aoi replied, knowing what was to come next.
"Good." Shion had handed her the keys. "I need to get online and start making arraignments."
Online. Of course. Shion owned a Mercedes 2028s, one of the most expensive cars made. A massive turbocharged V-12 capable of over 200 miles-per-hour. An armored body capable of stopping most small arms. Satellite link up for the on-board computer. Full entertainment suite, environmental controls, and knowing Shion, wetbar. The inside of the typical 2028s made many high-ranking corporate apartments pale by comparison.
Aoi bet it was one hell of a ride.
On the drive back, while Aoi tried to contain her desire to let the fettered power of the car loose, Shion had looked over the information available on their targets. Sitting in the back of the car, she'd been busy, sending a few e-mails, calling a contact in Mega-Tokyo, and casually informing Aoi that she should be ready to travel a lot over the next few days. She also stated they had a lot of preparations to make, and Aoi sniggered to herself as she thought about Shion sitting back in the car, making of her initial preparations by casually placing calls to sell her stock in the target companies.
After that... Shion had given her some time to sort out whatever matters she needed to attend. There was only one thing that Aoi could do. With her upfront pay for the job—ten percent of Shion's ten percent, coming to a third of a million dollars—she had a debt to pay off. From there... She rubbed her head, recalling in unpleasant detail her stop at a cheap bar. And finally back to Shion's penthouse again.
She rubbed her eyes one last time and gathered up her clothes. In lieu of proper bedwear, she pulled on her panties and loosely buttoned her shirt. It would have to do until she whipped up a pot of coffee. She padded softly out of the guest room, making her way to the stairs while rubbing her forehead, trying to relieve her growing headache. Somewhere through the haze she heard an odd, rhythmic noise. Curious, she stopped at its source—Shion's so-called "fitness center."
She pushed on the already open door to peer inside. Within was several sets of weight-training equipment, a treadmill, rowing machine, and at the far end of the room, a series of practice mats. Shion stood at one end of the mats, dressed in a traditional kimono and hakama, with the sleeves bound back by a length of cord. In her hands she held a long wooden sword, straight, not curved, and to Aoi's eye quite heavy.
With her gaze focused ahead of her, Shion stepped, and the sword cut the air. A second step and the sword came back up—into a block—before Shion stepped to one side and then cut again. She paused and remained still, staring at her invisible foe.
"Can you use a sword, Aoi?"
Aoi started out of her bemused stare. "Um, me? Yeah..." she said cautiously, unsure of what to expect next. She stepped into the room fully and closed the door behind her. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to snoop," she said, bowing her head.
"The door was open." The end of the sword flicked over to point at a rack on the wall. "Take one, if you want. A little practice might do us some good."
Aoi nodded and stepped up to the rack. She studied it for a second, noting the small variety of wooden implements available as well as a steel sword on the top slot. She eventually selected a lighter, curved sword. She gave it a couple of experimental swings, then nodded to Shion. "How do we want to do this?" she asked nervously.
"You can try to hit me." Shion raised her sword. "And I'll defend."
Aoi nodded as she stepped up to the mat. "Alright... If that's what you want..."
As Aoi stepped onto the mats Shion took a circular step backwards, the point of her sword level with her eyes. Aoi found herself wondering what, if any, style Shion knew, and where she had learned it. She also had to wonder exactly what the fabled Empress was capable of. Midori, her old boss, could see the future (sometimes), heal wounds (both her own and those suffered by others), and could teleport. And Midori said Shion was far more powerful than she was. The thought was a touch unsettling.
Raising her sword, Aoi stepped forward and cut straight down. It was a simple strike, known as "The Blow That Must Be Answered," since if Shion did nothing to block it, Aoi would end up hitting her square in the forehead.
Taking another circling step, Shion moved to one side and caught Aoi's attack on the edge of her sword. There was a loud CLACK as the two weapons met.
Taking a shallow breath over gritted teeth, Aoi now had some idea of what Shion was capable of. She'd expected some give when their swords had met, but her blade had stopped dead on Shion's weapon. If nothing else, the woman was damned strong.
Another step forward and another cut. Once again Shion took a circle step to one side and blocked. A third step and the pattern repeated itself. Then Aoi tried a feint and a strike, only to have Shion catch the tip of her sword with her own, and with a circular twist of her wrists, deflect Aoi's blade to one side.
Aikido. That was it. The Empress had been trained in Aikido at some point. Her foot movements and manner of deflecting rather than outright blocking was unmistakable. Aoi raised her sword , then cut low, stepping to one side as she did. Shion herself took a step back, her own sword snapping down to smack Aoi's sword into the mats. Aoi went with the blow, her boosted reflexes allowing her to bring the sword up and inside Shion's guard in an instant.
Only to meet another deflecting parry.
Aoi had to pause, taking a step back and letting out a low whistle in respect. Espers, she knew, didn't take kindly to cybernetics. It messed with their ability to manipulate their powers. Which meant that Shion was naturally as fast her own augmented self. Just what was she fully capable of?
It was not a comforting thought.
"Aoi, have you ever been to Japan?"
The question startled Aoi. She hadn't expected Shion to talk. In fact, she wasn't sure what she'd expected from the woman, expect some sort of arrogant status-defining "object lesson."
"No, actually," she said, feinting forwards and having her blade gently batted away. "But I've always wanted too."
"Do you have a valid passport?" The question seemed casual enough, but Shion stepped to one side as she said it, the tip of her sword still level with her eyes, her body still both ready and relaxed at the same time.
"I had one made up a while back," she replied. She stepped around slowly, keeping her eyes on Shion's blade. For now, she waited to see what her employer would do.
"Good." Shion stood still, not moving a muscle. "I'll need you to make flight arraignments for Mega-Tokyo."
So that's how it is, Aoi thought, watching Shion. "When are we leaving?" she asked, coming to a stop in front of Shion.
Another half-step. "Soon. The tickets will be in your name. As will the hotel reservations. And we need to get you properly equipped before we leave." The sword came up. Just slightly.
Aoi immediately sprung forwards, swinging low at Shion's waist. Her sweep was immediately deflected and she stepped back, bringing her sword close to prepare for a counterattack. None came.
She relaxed a little, watching Shion again. "Why under my name?" she finally asked.
"Because people track my movements. My purchases. Where I go. Who I see. What I do."
Feint. Swat. "Figures," she replied with a sigh. "And uh, what equipment were you thinking of?"
Shion's sword dropped—just a bit. She shifted her feet and widened her grip. "You need some clothing. Preferably protective. And, perhaps, a sidearm. You are my personal valet for the next few weeks. You have become a target."
"Well, my suit's armored—lightly, though—and I've got a good pistol already. I just need to fetch it."
Shion was silent for a moment. "Your choice then. I will not force you to wear or use anything you don't want to. On the other hand, I need some equipment of my own."
Aoi nodded and lowered her sword to the ground. "What about the suit? I mean, is this-" She stopped and glanced down at her loose blouse and bare legs, then rolled her eyes. "Well, the whole thing - does that look okay?"
Stepping back, Shion whirled her own sword in tight circle, before jamming the tip into the mat. "Good enough. But you might want more than one. This will be a business trip, you need to look the part."
"Oh, boy..." she said, scratching her head. "Well, I know where to go, at least." She stepped back slightly, then suddenly sprung forwards, sweeping her sword up straight at Shion's chest.
Shion raised her hand, stopping the blade an inch from her open palm. Aoi pressed against her invisible barrier with all her strength, but found no gain. After a few seconds, she relaxed her grip and stepped back, letting the sword drop to the mat.
"Hey... No fair cheating," she said with an easy smile.
"I never said how I would defend, now did I?"
"Hey, use what you've got, that's how I grew up." Aoi took up her sword again and returned it to the rack.
"Sounds sensible." Shion placed her sword in the rack as well. "By the way, Aoi, can you cook?"
She turned back to Shion, a concerned look on her face. "Well, I can try..."
"Well, here goes..." Aoi said. She stepped up to the breakfast table carrying a pair of trays. "I wasn't sure quite what to go for, so I tried a few things I've seen around..."
She put one of the trays on the table in front of Shion, and the other by her chair. "Okay... I'm not too sure about the sausages, since I cooked them with the bacon and eggs, so it may not be quite right. The bacon's in the croissants with the cheese... I threw them under the grill to melt the cheese, but they're a bit... er, brown. The coffee's okay, though," Aoi said, taking a sip from her mug.
Shion sampled a forkful of eggs. "Not bad," she replied.
Aoi blinked a few times. "It isn't?"
"Better than I can do." Shion shrugged. "I don't cook much, and most of what I do is pre-packed meals."
"Really?" Aoi sat at the other end of the table and took up her fork. "I thought you could do anything."
Waving her fork in the air, Shion took a bite of grilled cheese croissant. "I like it if people think so."
Aoi examined Shion for a while. "You know, I'm being to realize I've got a pretty privileged view here."
"What? That you get to see behind the curtain?"
"Basically." She took a bite from her croissant. Instantly her face screwed up and she delicately returned it to its plate.
Finishing her croissant, Shion sipped at her coffee. "Don't worry, we'll eat out in Mega-Tokyo."
"I don't know... I could do with the practice."
"You can try dinner then. I'll need to make some calls, and as soon as you reserve the tickets, let me know." Helping herself to another bite of eggs, Shion nodded at Aoi. "We will need to move quickly."
"There's that hacker Jason recommended us to," Aoi added as she poked her eggs with her fork. "I can take care of that."
"Speaking of which, do you know anything about this person?"
Aoi shook her head. "Only the handle 'Witchcraft.' Female, I assume. Works for Spycorp, and has Jason's top recommendation." She shrugged. "For what it's worth."
"Right." Shion nodded. "Look into it. I'm going to make arrangements for our Mega-Tokyo visit. Do you know the name Nabiki Tendo?"
Aoi shook her head. "I've never really worked outside Neo York or the Zero Zone."
"She's a major fixer over on the Pacific Rim." Shion sipped at her coffee. "We'll land at Narita Airport and be picked up by one of Nabiki's agents. A woman named Katherine Ramis. She'll take us to our hotel, and later that night, Nabiki will meet with us to find out what we need."
"Alright," Aoi replied with a nod. "Anything I need to sort out apart from the tickets?"
"Hotel reservations. For three, if this hacker is coming with us."
"In Mega-Tokyo?" she asked. "Which one?"
"The Hilton. Executive suite."
"Naturally," she muttered to herself.
"Single suite for the three of us." Shion paused and sipped at her coffee. "Aoi?"
"Yes?" she said cautiously, wondering what she had done wrong.
"Should I make an effort to disguise myself?"
Aoi looked at Shion for a second. "I think the only thing that could disguise you is dyeing that hair of yours. I'm not sure just how important it is, though. Do you think your arrival in Mega-Tokyo will tip off our target?"
"I'm not sure." Shion finished her coffee and set the cup down. "I just don't want anyone putting any of the pieces together before we strike."
"I'd say so, then. Better safe than sure." Aoi drained her cup and stood. "I'll pick up some hair dye while I'm out."
"I was afraid of that. Anything else?"
"Nothing I can think of."
"You mentioned getting some equipment. Anything I can pick up?" Aoi asked casually.
"As I said, some heavier protective gear for yourself and your pistol. The rest we get in Mega-Tokyo."
"Done." She picked up the trays and wandered back into the kitchen. "New suit, hair dye, make bookings..." she muttered to herself.
Shion sat at the table, toying with her napkin, but whether from nerves or excitement it was impossible to tell.
Jason's instructions were simple. The hacker they'd be working with would be waiting on a street corner in Neo York for them. She'd be dressed in a long coat, and visibly carrying her computer. Aoi was personally glad to have an excuse to wander such an upmarket district of Neo York, although she did find it a bit odd that the hacker would be waiting so close to a private school. Aoi had already taken care of most of her tasks for the day - the tickets were booked, the hotel was holding their suite and she had her "groceries" for Shion, including her hair dye.
She approached the corner in question and checked her watch. Right time, right place, but there was no sign of the hacker. There were a few people going about their day-to day business and some girls from the nearby school, no doubt heading for the nearby shopping center. She sighed, slung her shopping bag over her shoulder and checked her watch again. Either she's late, Aoi thought, or...
"Isn't this great?" said an oddly familiar voice from her left. "You an' me, going against the evil corper empire? It's gonna be just like when we played that game, huh Gem?"
Aoi suddenly turned to face the speaker. She immediately recognized the blonde girl in front of her, although a full head taller than when she'd last seen her. "Moira?" she asked. "What are you doing here?"
She lifted her brief case. "Have laptop, will travel!" she announced with a grin. Anyway, your s'posed to call me Witchcraft when we are on a job. That's my code name."
Aoi stood still, deathly silent for a second as she came to terms with this surprise. "Wait a sec..." she finally croaked out, "You're Witchcraft? Our hacker?" She shook her head. "He recommended his own daughter to us?"
The girl played with the handle of her briefcase. "Uhm... Well, Daddy doesn't know. I hacked his system." She looked pleadingly at her friend. "Please don't tell, please Gem?"
She searched her mind for something to bargain with. "Look, I know the systems you need to get into. I broke into it when Daddy still worked there and I've got a back door..."
"Moira..." Aoi started, but trailed off. How could she explain it? "Do you have any idea what we're going into? We'll be dragging you straight into a potentially lethal infiltration mission. This isn't like the game. I mean..." She sighed. "Really, have you ever done anything like this? At all?"
"Well I'm not a fighter. But you guys don't need a fighter. You need a hacker and I can do that, see? Besides, I'm the best that SpyCorp's got. How long do you think it will take another hacker to get into the system without a back door? Besides. I'm also a cyborg. You'd have to mess up big time to really hurt me.
Inwardly, Aoi had to smile at her eagerness. But she still wouldn't relent. "You still didn't answer my question, Moira. Do you have any experience with these sorts of missions?"
"No. But..." Desperately, she sought some advantage. Then it occurred to her. "But Gem, remember that time in Hong Kong you snuck out and left Midori to go do secret stuff? And you asked me not to tell? I didn't because I trusted you. I'm asking you to trust me, now."
Aoi bit her lip, silently cursing her stupidity. Of course, she couldn't forget what Moira had done for her. But taking her into a mission? She looked the girl up and down again.
The girl posing as "Witchcraft" wore an armored longcoat, apparently tailored to fit her. It was gray and did not attract attention. The pretty teenager was also wearing makeup—for apparently no reason other than she was a teenager and that's what teens do. Fortunately, she hadn't gone overboard with that, indicating Midori may have had some influence in teaching her how to apply it. The briefcase in her hand, being a steel one, gave her the appearance of a determined, but very young, businesswoman.
"Alright," she said eventually. "But if my boss disagrees, you have to accept that. Done?"
Moira nodded. "Okay. Thanks, Gem." She stepped forward and gave her friend a happy hug.
"Whoah, hey..." Aoi cautiously patted her on the back. "Now stop that, alright? C'mon, we've got to meet the boss." She stepped back out of the hug and looked at Moira. "Oh, and call me Aoi, alright?"
Moira let go. "Aoi? Okay... How come?"
Aoi sighed. She'd told this lie too many times already. But one more wouldn't hurt. "It's my real name. Y'know, like you're not really Witchcraft." She smiled warmly. "At least, I hope your teachers don't call you that."
"Oh," Moira said hesitantly. "Okay... Aoi." She smiled, excited to go on a real, live mission with her hero.
"C'mon then," she said and held out her hand to Moira. "Now you've got to meet the boss"
"Follow me," Aoi whispered to Moira. "And don't touch anything."
Shion's voice had come from the dining room. Aoi led her young charge through the foyer and past the breakfast nook, trying to remain as calm as possible. She was fairly sure that if Shion did get angry, she wouldn't blow up her own home, so at least that possibility could be ruled out.
"Boss, I brought..." Aoi's greeting died as she got a good look at Shion. "What did you do?"
"I decided to change my look." Shion slowly stood up, her hands behind her back. "How did I do?"
Apparently Shion had had her hair done while Aoi had been out. It was straighter than before, and was now parted in the middle, falling down either side of her face and over her shoulders. The rest of it went down her back, and was gathered at the waist with a narrow band of ribbon, before resuming it's knee-length fall. For clothing Shion had opted for a dark blue pants suit, with a knee-length jacket, white blouse and a bright blue silk cravat, held in place with a simple stick pin. Over that she had an ankle-length gray top coat. And as a final touch she had on...
"Glasses?" Aoi shook her head. "You wear glasses?"
Moira peered curiously around from behind Aoi. "Ooohh," she whispered to Aoi. "Wow, she doesn't look anything like in the pictures, Ge-- Aoi. She's pretty!"
Aoi rubbed the bridge of her nose and sighed. It was enough she had one kid to take care of, now she had two. "Shion, this is Moira Stone, alias Witchcraft... Our hacker, as recommended by Spycorp."
It was as if someone had thrown a switch. Aoi's skin prickled as Shion took two steps forward. Was it possible for her to feel Shion's esper powers activate? Would that help any?
"Stone... As in Jason Stone?" Her previous pleasant tone had vanished. Now she was the same woman who had gone to see Jason Stone. Now she was The Empress.
Moira stepped on Aoi's toe. "Tsk, Aoi! You didn't have to say that." She swallowed nervously. "Spycorp doesn't know my real identity, Ms. Nys." She glared angrily at Aoi. "Not even my father. So my selection as the best hacker for for this job doesn't have anything to do with who my father is. He doesn't know." Gem, she thought crossly, if you just blew it for me, every cell phone you own for the next year is going to go off every ten minutes!
Aoi grinned nervously. It was possible she'd been in worse situations before, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember immediately. "Shion, please," she began nervously. "I know Jason. He wouldn't risk sending Moira in if he knew it was her." She then turned to Moira. "And I'm sorry, but she has to know who you are."
"Why?" asked Moira. "You don't let people know who you are."
"So..." Shion said slowly, "Your father has no idea you are here?"
"Um, no." Moira did what she always did when she was worried or excited. She spoke in a torrent of words that seemed to come out all at once. "But-but-but, he wouldn't have let me come if I told him! And also, I have all the passwords and a backdoor into Project Forge and I'm good, really I am, I can do this and so please, please don't make me go home 'cause I want to help too! And plus, I'm tough, too, and good at staying out of the way and.... Please?"
Aoi swallowed nervously and waited, enduring Shion's glare. Then the Empress did the last thing she would have expected.
Aoi stood still blinking in confusion. What was so funny? She'd thought up until now that Shion didn't have a sense of humor. "So..." she said at length. "Is she hired?"
"Of course," Shion managed as she paused to take a breath. "And I just wish I was there to see Jason Stone's face when he finds out what has happened."
If Moira could have blushed, she would have. Instead she fidgeted, still not quite understanding how angry he would be if her father found out. She nibbled a lip as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "Uhmm..." Seeing her father's face should he find out about this—and if she was reading Shion right, that was really a "when," not an "if"—was not something she looked forward to.
Aoi glanced between Moira and Shion. She could tell just how worried Moira must be now. She turned back to Shion, and firmly stated "She was hoping not to let him know. I mean, if he found out..." She trailed off, leaving the consequences to Shion's imagination.
"It is not my problem if Mr. Stone finds out," Shion replied with a shrug. "But we have work to do, and I have better things to occupy my time with then informing Mr. Stone of his daughter's whereabouts." Removing her top coat, she laid it over a dining room chair. "For example, we should get my hair done."
Moira blinked, looked from Gem (Aoi would always really be Gem to her) to Shion, and then went to a couch. She sat, tucking her legs under her to sit cross-legged style and placed her briefcase across them. After opening it, she flipped open the computer inside and plugged a bright orange-colored cable form the computer into the back of her neck.
"Yeah..." Aoi replied, somewhat distracted by Moira. "I picked up the cheapest I could find so, well it'll wash out easily when your done." She shook her head and turned her attention back to Shion. "I'll help you wash it in."
The name "Mitsubishi Nightsky" brought forth images of the corporate elite sipping champagne as they were shuttled to the latest Broadway show. It certainly wasn't a car Aoi had ever expected to see up close, much less ride in. And she'd never, ever, had expected to ever be called on to rent one.
Which is exactly what Shion had requested she do. After dyeing the tall esperweapons's hair a basic black, Shion had informed Aoi the three of them were to be leaving the next morning, and she was to see to Moira's (actually... "Miss Craft's") room. Then came the car rental. The price had been staggering enough, but even more so was Shion's request to Moira to hide the transfer of matching funds from Shion's account to her own.
The next morning had seen then pack up and prepare to leave for Mega-Tokyo. As they waited in the lobby, Shion had stood absolutely still, reminding Aoi of how she had looked before they had gone to meet Jason Stone. Except this time she had stood with her hands clasped behind her back, and her eyes unreadable behind the tinted lenses of her glasses (which were simple glass and only for show—she'd asked). Dressed as she was, with Aoi in her own suit, and Moira in her armored long coat, they three looked like a trio of... something. She wasn't sure what. Off hand, what with Shion calling Moira "Miss Craft" and herself "Miss Aoi," she felt that Shion had fallen into a bodyguard role, with Moira the client and herself as backup.
And now they were in the spacious rear seating area of the Nightsky. The car was everything Aoi had heard it was (which was plenty). Like Shion's Mercedes, was Nightsky was one of those cars that didn't really have a price tag, although she knew base models went for around a quarter million. And like Shion's car, the Nightsky was armored, and heavily, which was one reason it had a six-wheeled chassis. It also had all the comforts of home, provided you were Jason Stone or Shion Nys. But best of all, it was soundproofed and allowed Moira and herself to sit across from Shion, as the older woman laid out her plan for battle.
"Miss Craft," Shion began, "Yours is, in some ways, the most important job of all. I want you to constantly hide our movements. To do this you need to erase evidence of our passage, by deleting or altering credit transactions."
"Gotcha!" Moira said enthusiastically, giving the "thumbs up" sign. She looked at the Shion's serious face and corrected herself more soberly. "I mean, yes Ms. Nys."
"Good." Shion nodded. "Miss Aoi, you will be working with me, doing what you have been doing, which is making travel arraignments and the like. You will also be Miss Craft's minder, and work with her on concealing our trail."
Aoi spared Moira a glance and sighed. This was going to be a long, long trip. "Yes, ma'am," she said quietly.
"As for myself," she continued, "I will be purchasing some needed equipment in Mega-Tokyo. If either of you need anything, let me know before hand. Any questions?"
Moira shook her head. "No, I don't think so. I sorta raided what I needed from Spycorp already."
"I've sorted out all I need," Aoi added.
"We will arrive in Mega-Tokyo in about three hours, maybe four." Shion produced a map of Narita Airport and Mega-Tokyo on a nearby display. "We will be met by a woman named Katherine Ramis. She will take us to the Mega-Tokyo Hilton, where we will be sharing an executive suite. There I will call my contact, a woman named Nabiki Tendo, who in turn will give me a time and place to meet her." Shion paused and turned to look at Aoi and Moira. "Any more questions?"
"How long do we expect to be there? I mean, in MT," Aoi asked.
"Hopefully only a few days." Shion tapped the display screen. "Anything Nabiki doesn't have on had will be shipped to Neo York for pick up on our return."
As their transorbital scramjet flight had descended over Mega-Tokyo, Aoi's first thought was at just how big the city looked from the air. Not only did it sprawl out to cover all the land within sight, but its multitude of arcologies towering over the city made it the tallest city she'd ever seen as well. She was amazed by how packed in the city was, especially over Tokyo bay, which was jammed with artificial islands. Despite the rapid climb to the edge of the atmosphere and equally rapid descent, Aoi thought this view had to be the most amazing part of their brief flight.
On the ground, however, it was far less glamorous. Shion had taken the lead out of the terminal with Moira keeping pace. Without a word, Aoi knew it was her job to collect the trio's luggage. She watched the pair in front of her as she took up her unglamorous role. Moira was a bundle of energy, and had been gasping in awe and amazement throughout the flight. Shion however had been subdued and quiet, even moreso than Aoi had come to expect. She had the impression that Shion was distracted somehow, and could only hope it wasn't serious.
The three of them made their way through the gate and into the massive arrivals area. It was incredibly crowded, almost shoulder to shoulder with travelers of all kind. She could barely make out the others in front of her, let alone their contact. Resigning herself, she tucked her head in, picked up her pace, and trusted in Shion to find Nabiki's agent.
Aoi hadn't been sure what to expect Nabiki's agent to look like, although with a name like Katherine Ramis, she was fairly sure it would be a woman, albeit an occidental one. In fact, Katherine was just that, her dark skin and straight black hair a marked contrast to most everyone around her. She stood near a wall, dressed in a long, knee-length dark blue coat, white boots, a white dress shirt and a red tie, a sign reading "CRAFT" held in one hand. Shion had spotted her first, nudging Moira and pointing the woman out with a nod of her head. Aoi noted that Katherine didn't move a muscle as they approached, standing so still as to not even appear to be breathing. Aoi raised an eyebrow, but decided to reserve judgment until later.
"Miss Craft?" Katherine asked as Moira stepped up to her. "I am Katherine Ramis. Welcome to Mega-Tokyo."
"Hi, um, Ms. Ramis," replied a somewhat distracted Moira. There was so much that was new to her here, she kept looking around at people, buildings, and various pieces of art and advertisement present in and around the airport. "Thank you."
"Please," Katherine said as she folded the sign and placed it in her pocket. "Come with me, I'll take you to the car."
Moira nodded, looking once more for Aoi's reassuring presence, then followed Katherine.
Aoi nodded to her from behind the trolley, and gave her a quick thumbs-up before returning to her duty.
The Mega-Tokyo Hilton. It just sounded expensive. The actual building was a towering edifice, reaching well over 90 stories into the air. Vaguely cone-shaped, it glittered in the sun, innumerable windows creating a solid sheen of silver from the outside.
Standing on the sidewalk, Aoi wondered at the inside. The executive sweet was at least halfway up the building and spacious enough satisfy Shion's sense of privacy. At the moment however, she was still concerned with getting in the building. At the moment, however, she had little to do. Katherine was unloading their bags from the car (an Isuzu Warrior of all things... a far cry from Mercedes 2028s's or Mitsubishi Nightskys) and placing them on a cart, which was held by a smiling young man who was doing his best to not stare at any of the three older women. Aoi thought she'd detected the faint outline of a holster under Katherine's jacket, she wondered if the bellhop had as well.
While she stood and watched, Shion shadowed Moira, continuing to play her part as bodyguard to the rich and famous (well, just rich in Moira's case). The young hacker was doing her best to drink everything in, and might just be suffering a bit of information overload in the process. After a moment the bellhop rolled the cart past and Aoi followed. Shion, interestingly enough, stayed behind for a moment, speaking in a low voice to Katherine.
If the outside of the Hilton was be described as "towering," the inside was "cavernous." The ceiling went up and up, forming a vast open space over looked by balconies formed from the upper floors. Here at ground level, the lobby was made to look like a traditional Japanese garden, with plenty of pine trees and shrubs edging the walk ways, which were of wood over a pond stocked with koi. Aoi decided that Shion's apartment had nothing on this place.
She wandered ahead a few steps, lost staring up at the ceiling. It was almost too much to take in at once. Looking down, she found Moira right in front of her. She gave the younger girl an uneasy smile and muttered "Heck of a first impression, huh?"
"Wow, isn't this cool?" Moira was drawn to the pond, unable to resist watching the handsome, sleek forms of the fish. "Are those natural? Or genetically engineered, Aoi?"
She stepped up to the pond and watched the beautiful, shimmering fish as they flitted around the pool. "Knowing this place, probably engineered," she replied. She looked up at the towering trees again and mused, "Nature just isn't good enough."
The executive suite. 63rd floor. A large "living room" with two bedrooms, two baths, and a small kitchenette off to one side. Two couches set in an "L" shape in front of a large entertainment center. Computer station. Communications linkup. Combination dining and conference table. Wetbar. Everything an upper-echelon business executive would need while on the road.
"This," Shion announced as soon as the door to the outside world had shut, "will be my room."
Aoi gave the tall esper weapon a glance. Shion was standing in the doorway to the executive bedroom—the one with the attached bath. It figured. The woman hadn't said more than a dozen words on the way over here, but the moment the outside world was not longer a concern, she'd dropped her bodyguard act instantly. And, Aoi had to admit, the moment she went back outside it would be back in place.
"Moira," Shion gestured to the other bedroom, "set yourself up in there. Start hiding everything we do here. Aoi..." A pause. "Make yourself at home."
"Okay, ma'am," said Moira with semi-formality. She was still excited and, since this was the first time she had ever gone halfway across the globe without her family, a little scared at the same time. But she dutifully headed straight into the bedroom, tossed her case on the bed and began plugging small devices into outlets, scanning around the room with a handheld radio-frequency something-or-other, and generally performing the geeky little techie role.
Aoi glanced between Shion and Moira's doorway, before returning her attention to Shion. "Are there two beds in there?" she asked, pointing to Moira's room. "Or by 'make yourself at home,' did you mean..."
Shion glanced at the indicated door and shrugged. "I have no idea. If there are not, these couches will fold out to form a bed."
"Thanks," she muttered under her breath and followed Moira into the second bedroom. A few seconds later she returned, throwing her jacket on the couch. "Looks comfortable," she added.
"I'm sure it is." Aoi had a sneaking suspicion Shion even meant it. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but slowly closed it again, clearly thinking better of it.
It was a little over six hours since they'd arrived in Mega-Tokyo. Moira had remained in her room, jacked into the net, where she swept cyberspace clean of any traces of their passage, looked for more clues as to the whereabouts of the anti-esper 'borgs, and sent Aoi some free room service—or so she claimed. Aoi didn't mind, she'd been hungry. She was also a trifle bored. Japanese television was apparently nonstop CGI features, and there was only so of much scantily-clad pink-haired schoolgirls piloting giant robots she could take.
As for Shion... The world's most powerful esper weapon had remained in her room, sleeping, with the door slightly open. It had actually been peaceful, in its own way, which was probably why Aoi hadn't been able to relax one bit.
And now Shion was standing in the doorway to her room, dressed to go out. A black suit, the trousers tucked into boots. White gloves, red tie, and a long red coat. She still had her glasses on, and oddly enough, a matching broad-brimed hat. Aoi was convinced that on anyone else the outfit would have looked ridiculous. On Shion...
"Isn't the idea to not attract attention?' Aoi asked.
"Yes," Shion replied. "But dressed like this, no one will see me as the Empress, they will see me as someone tall, attractive, and mysterious looking. Escorting you two, and I become just another bodyguard with the flair for the exotic. By standing out, I misdirect attention."
"You couldn't-" Aoi stopped dead, considering her words again. She was beginning to think it was futile to reason with Shion, but she just had to try. "You couldn't dress plainly instead, could you? Not draw attention at all?"
"I'm six foot one inch tall with hair to my knees. How do I not draw attention to myself?"
Moira laughed impishly, "Well, I think you look great, Shion. Don't be such a worrywart, Aoi! You gotta lighten up a little, you know? It's a good plan." She grinned at Aoi with a confidence born of sheer youth.
Why do I bother? she asked herself silently. "Well, you're the boss after all." She switched off the TV, determined not to care whether Cherry Blossom Princess Sakura defeated the Myconoid Kingdom or not, and stood up. "I guess I'm ready."
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