By Alex & Max Fauth, Jamie Jeans, Rob Rutherford, and Jeff Skagen

Note: This story occurs after Pit Strip

It was a lazy afternoon for Korey Winters, although to her it was early morning. Her schedule left her out of loop with everyone else—this particular afternoon saw her yawning and wandering to the kitchen, still in her bathrobe and fresh out of bed. Before she could reach her 'morning coffee,' she was interrupted by a short, sharp knock on the door. At least now she was fully awake.

Making sure her housecoat was on and the belt tied firmly, Korey approached the door, mindful of her recent injured ribs. "Coming!" She opened the door, and smiled at Aoi. "Hello Gem... please, do come in." She couldn't help but notice the change in the girl as she entered, both in poise and outfit. "You certainly look different... then again, the last I saw of you was when we were heading up the assault force." Korey motioned to herself. "Forgive me, but I had a late night and only just woke up."

Aoi nodded, smiling nervously as she stepped inside. "Life has been crazy lately. But it's finally settling down... Sort of.

"Good to know." Inwardly, Korey had to chuckle. Didn't her life seem like that, not too long ago, chaotic and crazy? "And what brings you by this time of day, Gem?"

She clasped her hands in front of her, grinning nervously. "The fact is, that I need to ask you a favor."

"Oh? No need to be so formal... Have you had breakfast yet? I can cook up some sausages if you like." Korey walked into the kitchen, motioning for Aoi to follow her.

Aoi shook her hands in front of her. "Oh no, I couldn't impose any-" Her denial was interrupted by a loud growl from her stomach. Her face flushed in response.

Korey merely chuckled as she entered the large kitchen and set about making them both a late afternoon breakfast. "It's no trouble at all, really." From the fridge she grabbed a fresh pack of pork sausages and placed them on a frying pan she retrieved from under the sink. "Now, you said something about a favor, hmm?"

Aoi couldn't help but stare hungrily at the grilling sausages as she spoke. "The thing is, it's Eve's birthday coming up soon. Her eighteenth, to be exact. And I really wanted to give her a big party because..." She shrugged, and continued. "Well, because I owe her a lot, and she deserves to celebrate."

Korey nodded, keeping her eyes on the sausages and her ears on Aoi. "Ahhh... and you would need a place to hold this party, yes?"

"That's the problem," Aoi replied. She was glad that she didn't have to phrase the question herself. "You see, I don't know anywhere good to hold one in the Zone, and there's only one place I can think of in the city."

"And you thought of here, naturally." A wush of flame spat up as Korey added in a dash of cooking oil, and she casually flipped the sausages about. "Whom do you plan on inviting?"

Aoi sighed in relief. "A few people, actually. Her housemates, some of her-" She paused to pointedly clear her throat, "Colleagues and Angel. Only a few."

"Colleagues... as in former lovers?" asked Korey, listening carefully for Aoi's response.

"As in... Current coworkers... Which probably means the same thing," she muttered, none too happy with what she was saying.

Korey nodded. "Very well, I see no problem in you holding your party here... although my other attendants may be... absent that night." She kept silent on what Sandra might say on the presence of a half dozen young women, none of who were straight, all gathered in one spot.

Aoi's face immediately brightened in relief. "I can't tell you how grateful I am."

"No doubt this place would be better suited for a party of friends and colleagues then the 93 Underground," Korey added.

"Well... That and I just wanted to get her out of the Zone for a while."

With a flourish, Korey spun around and tossed the sausages into the air, catching them easily on the plate. "And with that, breakfast is served..." The sausages were indeed cooked, albeit blackened a fair bit on all sides. "Enjoy."

Aoi nodded her thanks and immediately tucked into her sausages with gusto, her rough upbringing and lack of refinement showing through easily.

"Tell me, while I do not mind providing the place for you and your friends to party, who will be paying for the beer and alcohol? My stocks are rather low, I'm afraid." Biting her tongue to keep from hissing in pain, Korey wiped the hot fat from her hands before sitting down with her own sausages across the table from Aoi.

"I'm sure I could take care of that," Aoi replied, her speech muffled by a mouthful of sausage.

"Is there anything else I should be aware of before the party begins?" asked Korey before digging into her own belated breakfast.

"Oh yeah!" Aoi said, and gulped down her mouthful. "I wanted it to be a surprise party. Just because..." She shrugged. "Well, you know."

Korey frowned at Aoi's lack of table manners. "So no mentioning of this to Kami then... anything else?"

"Oh yeah..." Aoi bit her lip, pondering how to phrase her next question. "Would you have anything like a stage?"

"There is some clear space between the bar and the couch." Korey smirked a little, teasingly. "Why? You aren't going to hire the Puma Sisters for a private party strip tease, I hope."

Aoi giggled nervously. "Not... quite."

Angel sat at her kitchen table staring as the espresso dribbled slowly into her cup. Sure she could have gotten it in a self-heating can, but she liked it the old fashioned way and she liked waking up to the smell of brewing coffee. Today was different; it was one of those days where she woke up 15 minutes before her alarm and it was too much trouble to go back to sleep. So instead she sat there in her oversized fluffy terri cloth robe and watched her coffee brew.

'Ding-Ding-Ding' her door chimed. "Who could be calling at this time?" She pondered. "Miki perhaps?" She went to the door panel and checked the sensors outside her room. Three people stood outside—two armed guards, and one other unarmed. "Who is it?"

"Ms Angel, we have someone here who is demanding to see you. She says she's a friend of yours."

Right now she was really happy she was wearing her robe. Not that she had a problem with modesty she just didn't want these two to be ogling her at the moment. Especially since she hadn't had a shower yet. Angel brought up the visual to get a look at who it was. "Gem?" She muttered to herself. "Alright, just no comments or laughing, I haven't had my coffee yet!" She growled.

"Yes Ma'am!"

The door opened revealing Angel, her mass of red hair loosely braided, and wearing a white terry-cloth robe. "Hello." She said dryly.

Gem stepped through the door, briefly glancing at the security guards before turning back to Angel. "Hi," she said, a bit nervously. "You're looking..." She trailed off, biting her lip.

"I know, come on in." Angel said. Then looking at the guards, she added "Not you two. I'll take care of it from here."

As the door closed, Angel could almost hear them say, "How come she gets so much action?"

"Would you like a latte or something?" Angel asked, turning her back on the door.

"I would love one," she replied. "Sorry to drop in on you like this."

"That's okay." She began pouring the espresso, and pausing for a few seconds to frothing the milk for Gem latte. "You don't strike me as the kind of person to go banging on people's doors at o'dark a.m. if it wasn't important." She handed Gem her drink.

"It is and it isn't..." she sat at the kitchen table, mulling over what she was going to say. "First of all, I want to offer you an invitation."

"An invitation? What kind of invitation?" Angel found herself wondering who Gem wanted her to kill.

"Well, I'm not sure if you've been keeping up, but it's Evelyn's eighteenth in about a week. I'm throwing a surprise party for her, and I know she'd want you there."

Angel chuckled to herself. "Eighteen, its been that long..."

"Can I count you in?" Aoi asked cautiously.

"Of course, just be careful about surprising her." Angel leaned on the table, her robe loosening up revealing smooth bronze tanned skin.

"It'll be alright, I'm sure. Besides, it's all friends there."

"Its not that, its just that Kami tends to jump unpredictably when she's surprised." Angel snickered.

"Make sure you're there for the fun then," Aoi said with a grin.

"Of course," Angel replied. "You seem to be doing much better?"

"Gladly. I got over that little... Well." She stopped short, and studied her coffee closely.

"You don't have to talk about it. I don't want to bring back anything unpleasant."

Aoi nodded and quickly spoke up. "Anyway, there was another thing I wanted to ask about. A favor, in fact."

"What's that?" Angel sipped her espresso.

"Paperwork, actually. I need corporate IDs for her and her two roommates. Forged, if necessary."

"Eve wont be a problem," She said with a smile. "Which corporation?"

"Any will do." She sighed. "The third one is the big problem."

"The other two?" Angel quizzed, "I need serious details, and I can probably make the IDs legit."

She shook her head. "That's not it." She stood up, and started wandering around the room. "What I really need is slightly trickier. You see, what I'm really trying to do is get them out of the Zone. All of them."

Angel looked at Gem, "That is tough one." Angel leaned forward. "Have you started working on a plan of some sort?"

Aoi nodded. "It's mostly done. I've secured an apartment in the city. It's not mine yet, but I'm still sorting out the details." She paced some more, sorting her thoughts. "I'm going to propose it all to them after the party. The paperwork is crucial, to keep their families away from them once they come to the city." She sat down again opposite Angel. "And if that doesn't work, well..."

"Okay, you have the apartment, and the paperwork, how are you gonna convince Kami to relocate? It may seem weird, but she feels like the Zone is the only place where she fits in."

"I was hoping to convince the other two first, and see if they could help me. Beyond that..." She shrugged. "Your help would be appreciated."

"You're got it." Angel smiled, "I'm going to need to meet the other two and get to know them first."

Aoi smiled. "If you've got some free time, I'll drag you into the Zone to meet them."

"I can arrange to take some time off for a visit to the Zone."

"Trust me, I'd appreciate the help." She sighed and leaned back. "You know what it's like there."

"Yes I do. Perhaps the girls will be able to convince Kami to change her lifestyle."

Aoi let out a long sigh, and looked up to Angel. "If not?"

"Are you willing to move out of the Zone without her?"

"That's my plan," she said with a faint smile.

"I think that's be best weapon we have. Miki couldn't convince her, but you're from the Zone and if you can convince her that you can make it outside the Zone maybe she'll believe that she can as well."

"Well, then," she said and stood up. "Um... The party's at Korey's place, on her birthday, starting around 6 PM. Be there early, okay?"

"Sure." Angel stood up and smiled.

"I'd love to stay, but I've got a lot to sort out," Aoi said with a grimace. "You can't imagine."

"Well, you're gonna need an escort out." She had a wicked grin.

"Why don't I like the sound of that?" Aoi asked her.

"How interesting things are depends on you? I know what you were wanting the last time you were here."

She backed off, shaking her head. "No, sorry. I'm not like that any more."

Angel sighed, "In the long run that's probably a good thing, but it kinda messes with my morning."

"I'm sure April or Keiko would oblige," Aoi replied in a bitter tone.

"April and Keiko aren't banging on my door before my coffee finished brewing." Angel teased back.

Aoi rubbed her eyes. "What do you want?"

"Hrmm" Angel eyed Gem. "I'm know what I want, but I also see your new found hesitation. I wonder why that is?"

She looked Angel in the eye and answered in a firm voice. "Because Evelyn and I have made a commitment to each other."

"Interesting." Angel's robe shifted a bit revealing some cleavage. "That's doesn't sound much like her."

Aoi looked away. "I'm hoping she can stick to it," she said in a low voice.

Angel smiled knowingly. "You know that's going to me more difficult for her than staring down half a dozen angry Puma's?"

Aoi turned back to Angel and clasped her hands. "You know what? How about this. If she hasn't, I mean, if she broke our commitment..." She trailed off in thought. "You'll be the first to know."

"How so?"

"Trust me," she said with a smile. "After all, I won't be held to it then."

"Sounds interesting. What if she screws up? You know she's still friends with Miki. And my guess is she still feels guilty about what happened in the Zone with her. Kami doesn't slip often; but when she does, she remembers it."

"Well then... We'll see, won't we?"

Angel nodded. "To change the subject slightly, I know you've only met her once but what was your impression of Miki?"

Aoi pondered this for a second. "She seemed adventurous, but still stable. It's as if a bit of Silver had rubbed off on her."

"It might surprise you, but I think Silver is more Miki rubbing off on Kami."

Aoi chuckled to her self. "And here I thought Evelyn was the troublemaker of the two. There you go."

"That's what most people thought." Angel sighed, "But from what I understand Miki or Michelle depending on who you're talking to usually instigated stuff, and Eve was the one who followed through with it. Albeit, usually to an extreme and also usually too the blame for it and covered for Miki."

"Someone should tell her dad that," Aoi replied.

"I know what you mean. I really don't think that's an issue. From what Eve has said, it doesn't matter whether or not she was the instigator, she was still in on it." Angel replied, "How much about her past has she told you?"

"Bits and pieces," Aoi said, slowly taking her seat again. "I know she ran away from home after her father found out her and Miki, and I know she was trouble at home. But not a lot beyond that."

"Here's a little story." Angel paused. "Shortly after Eve got her upgrade, she was standing in line at a coffee shop. Some older students came in and started making what she considered rude comments and hitting on her. One of them grabber her rear and gave her what he considered friendly squeeze. She decked him."

"And broke his jaw, right? I remember hearing about this guy."

"That's part of it." Angel continued, "When Eve's father found out about it, she was in serious trouble and had to do several weeks of community service with the janitorial staff. Steve on the other hand was given apologies from the store manager, and a new car by his father."

"Why? Nobody believed he started it, right?"

"Why? Because as far as the powers that be were concerned, she was still wrong for hitting him, and especially hitting one of their star athletes hard enough to break his jaw. Hell, he probably could have raped her in school and only gotten a detention, provided it didn't interfere with his activities."

Aoi sniggered to herself. "Except she would have killed him first."

"Yeah, and it still would have been her fault." Angel muttered.

"So she runs."


"So why didn't Miki get into trouble?"

"Oh she did." Angel replied. "Her father decided that her and Eve were trouble together and sent Miki off to study abroad."

"Well, It's not like I'm asking her to move back in with her parents anyway."

"I don't think that's the issue."

"Then what is?" Aoi asked. This could be the end of her plans here and now, but she had to know.

"I think there's something she might be afraid of." Angel paused. Aoi waited, watching Angel oddly, trying to gauge her expression. "I think the one thing that she's afraid of is herself."

A smile slowly crept over Aoi's face. She stood and stretched out her arms, before finally answering Angel. "Then I've got nothing to fear."

"I hope so." Angel relaxed a bit, "She knows that in the Zone if somebody tries something and she kills them there isn't a problem. The city is another matter entirely."

"That's what I'm here for," she replied. "But I've really got to go now."

"Do you mind if I get my shower and get dressed first?"

Aoi suddenly remembered what Angel was wearing and blushed. "Er, sorry. Sure. Whenever you're ready."

Angel headed to the bathroom, "You still sure you don't want to join me?" She gave Aoi a grin and a wink; her long red hair drooping over her bright green eyes.

"I'll leave now," she said coldly.

Angel brushed her hair back, "You better be here when I get out."

Stepping back from the bar, Korey Winters wiped her hands on her faded jeans and gave the bar top a cursory glance. Her face smiled back at her in the shine of the polished treated wood, and she turned to look over the remainder of the basement. After all, this would be the first time she was hosting a party in her new home, one she had only been living in for the past three months or so, and it wouldn't do for it to be dirty.

The basement had been built with the idea of an open club in mind, according to the salesman. The previous owner had been a club manager in one of Neo York's better parts of town, and had decided his home should reflect his work. Starting from the stairs, the basement opened up into a wide area that branched off into two rooms, one beside the stairs, and two on the wall next to the stairs. The door beside the stairs leading down from the first floor lead to another set of stairs that lead down to what served as the laundry and storage room. THAT was currently in the process of being revamped into a weapons and equipment storage room. The other two doors lead to a spare bedroom and a luxurious hot tub, in that order, and would no doubt be used tonight, if the party guests were any indication.

As for the main room itself, a bar stretched alongside the entire wall opposite that of the hot tub room and spare bedroom, and was filled with Korey's meager selection of fine glasses, beers, liquors, alcohol, and mugs. A row of bar stools set on cement ran the length of the bar and there was even a miniature stage set up at the far end of the room across from the stairs. It was raised at least a foot off the floor, and made of a thick wood polished smooth and painted black. Set up against the wall between the bedroom and the hot tub room was an entertainment center that contained a sizable wide screen TV with all the fixings.

The carpet was nonexistent, and had been replaced some years ago with cement tiles, and, with the overhead hanging lights, truly gave the place the feeling of a club when it was closed. And, like an open club, Korey noted that the floor needed both a good sweeping and moping before it would shine as good as the bar top. Grabbing a broom, Korey set to work.

By the time she was done, lunchtime had rolled around, so Korey set the cleaning materials down in the basement and went upstairs. "You doing anything tonight, Sandra?" Korey asked as she stepped into the kitchen. The dark-hired mercenary was currently frolicking through the refrigerator.

"Wha?" Sandra said standing up while holding a plate stacked with several items. "Fridge is full at the moment... Good stuff too."

"The stuff in there is for a party I'm having tonight." Korey replied, still amazed at her guest's lack of manners. "I was wondering if you would be interested in coming."

"What's it about?" Sandra asked as she shut the fridge door.

"A colleague of mine's birthday." Korey replied.

"Well I wasn't doing anything." Sandra replied. "That requires money and a life, two things I lack." She began nibbling on what she guessed was party supplies. "So who's the friend?"

"A girl from the Zone called Silver," Korey replied. "She's coming over here with a few of her... friends."

"Uh friends?" Sandra said between mouthfuls. "What does 'friends' mean?"

Korey coughed politely into one hand. "She's... a stripper at the 93 Underground, and her friends are..."

Sandra finished her mouthful. "Assorted workmates. Other Zone people, right?"

"As well as her girlfriend." Korey said. "Well, several ex-girlfriends."

"I see." Sandra replied. "And how old is she?"

"She's turning eighteen." Korey answered.

"Right. So... you're inviting me to a party full of underaged lesbian strippers." She finished off the plate. "No offense Korey, but I just don't think it's my scene."

"Very well," Korey replied.

Leaving her plate on the table, Sandra went upstairs to her rented room. Despite the short period of time that she'd been there and what little she owned, the room was a mess. Her meager possessions, as well as the sheets from her bed were spread haphazardly across the floor. Searching under a pile of unwashed clothes, she found a pistol. "Ehh... good enough."

There was a polite knock on the door. Turning around, Sandra saw Ray standing by the door. "I'm sorry to interrupt, Ms. Blackmore. I was just wondering what you were doing."

"Uh... me? Nothing," Sandra replied. "I was just planning to go out a little later."

"Are you working again?" Ray asked. "When you go out late, it usually means that you're on some mission."

"Naw," Sandra replied. "I'm going out for fun this time. I was hoping to take in some of the colorful Neo-York nightlife that I've been missing out on for the last few years."

"Ms Winters said that she was hosting a party tonight," Ray continued. "Did you not wish to attend?"

Sandra sniggered. "Under aged strippers isn't my scene. I'd rather be elsewhere." She took a look at him. Dark, mysterious and handsome... probably completely lost on those girls. Sandra had visions of Ray being used as a towel boy. "Probably not your scene either."

"My scene?" Ray replied. "I don't understand."

"Ah," Sandra replied. "Let's just say that its, um..." She paused. How to say it? "It's a girl thing."

Ray seemed lost for a moment. "So why aren't you going to be there? You are, after all, a woman."

"Wow," Sandra thought. He really doesn't know about human interaction. "It's an age thing... they'd all be a lot younger then me."

"So you don't associate with them?" Ray asked, genuinely curious.

"They're not my kind of people," Sandra answered. "That's why I'm going out." She looked at him and sighed again. Poor sap. Locked in here with a bunch of underaged exhibitionists... she wondered what this "Silver" person had over Korey to get her to hold their party here. "Tell you what, Ray. As Korey's not doing anything tonight that she needs you for, want to go out with me for a while?"

Ray seemed to perk up a bit, his confusion over Sandra's choice of words falling to the side for later contemplation. "I... would be most delighted." He paused a moment. "That is the correct way to say it, yes? I have been watching old movies as a way of learning how to interact."

She suppressed a chuckle; Ray's choices of words were often, well, unusual. "It's good enough for me, Ray."

"Very well. Whither shall we go?" he asked.

Sandra was at a loss. She hadn't really thought this through. All she'd wanted to do was get away from the house. "I wasn't really planning anything, Ray," she said. "I was just thinking of going 'out' and seeing what we found.

Ray was silent for a moment before replying. "Ah. We shall head out and see what strikes our fancy, yes?" He smiled, hoping he'd said the right thing.

"...something like that, yes." Sandra replied. Inside, she was torn. Should she tell Ray how odd he sounded, or enjoy it? "So I'm ready whenever you are."

"As am I." He extended a hand to her. "Shall we?"

She took his hand. "Certainly, Ray."

He nodded and concentrated. His energies flowed up about them, ruffling their clothing and hair before they disappeared in the blink of an eye.

As the sky darkened the Williamsburg Bridge seemed only to grow longer and more inhospitable. Aoi pulled her jacket around her, shivering in the cool air and looked up at her companion. Shoko towered over her, and she could only imagine how cold she would be in her skimpy outfit. She turned back to the bridge. "Ready for this?" she asked calmly.

Shoko sighed nervously. "I guess. You got the hard part; I just mostly stay quiet and look protective of you."

"Very true," she said with a sigh. "I've never even considered owning a synth before. Oh well..." She straightened her jacket and started towards the bridge.

Shoko followed her friend, carefully staying two to three paces behind and slightly to her right. "Like a well heeled pet," she muttered under her breath.

"You know I don't mean it," Aoi hissed back as they approached the guard station. They were stopped by a police officer in riot gear.

"Hold it. Let's see your ID and license," he said in a clearly bored tone. Aoi pulled out her wallet for him. Shoko couldn't help but notice the other officers on duty giving rather over-appreciative looks and whispering lewd comments. She quickly plastered a false little smile across her face, and did her best to ignore them, keeping her attention on the officer talking to Aoi.

As the guard looked over Aoi's ID, she idly wondered what name was on it. Aoi? Gem? Something else? She noticed one of the others looking rather intently at her, and hoped it was just her bust size he was watching. She was all too aware of the old and worn state of her clothes, and hoped they didn't arouse any suspicion. Anyone who could afford a Puma should be able to dress it better, but she hoped they would just assume it was a particularly successful attempt to dress in Zone Chic style.

The officer looked Shoko up and down, then glanced back to Aoi. "Didn't see you come the other way," he said rather casually.

Aoi rolled her eyes. "Came through on an earlier shift," she said casually. "Are you done yet?"

"Just your, uh... Puma's a bit shabby-looking," he said, returning his gaze to Shoko's all-too-short t-shirt. Shoko blinked in dismay, and strained to keep a neutral expression on her face. She reminded herself that properly subservient synthetics did not react to comments made about them in their presence, even insulting ones.

Aoi gritted her teeth and fixed the officer with an intense stare. "One dresses one's Puma how one chooses," she said coldly as she snatched her wallet back. "The gate, if you please." Suitably chastened, the officer ducked out of their way and signaled for the gate. Within seconds, Aoi and Shoko's way was clear.

Shoko fought not to audibly sigh with relief, and followed Aoi and she started across the bridge. She reminded herself to stay appropriately behind her until they were out of sight of the checkpoint, but as soon as they were out of hearing range she quickly whispered "I didn't mean you, Aoi, when I made that crack about feeling like a trained dog. I was just mad at the situation."

Aoi doubled over in relief, almost laughing to herself. "Don't worry about it. I'm just glad we're through that," she said. "Just don't ask me to do that again, okay?" She said with a broad smile.

Shoko smiled in return. "Deal. Uh, well...except when we come back this way. But they shouldn't give a rip if we're going into the Zone." Shoko sighed heavily. "'Shabby-looking', he said. I'd be pissed if he weren't right. And the sad part is, these are the best clothes I have left anymore."

Aoi blushed slightly, looking down at her own well-cut suit. "Ouch. Well..." she glanced nervously into the city. "We've got a bit of time before we're due at Korey's. Did you want to get a new outfit?"

Shoko thought about this a moment. "Um...maybe," she finally answered. "What do new clothes cost in Neo York? I admit I'd like to show up in something nicer than this, but I don't know what I can afford."

"Ah..." Aoi said. "How about I shout you? Just this once," she added.

Shoko looked at Aoi a moment, then looked down at her feet. "Are you sure? I don't wanna be a leech, and I do have some money. I'm sure I can find something I can afford. I've just been trying not to spend much, I need to....uh, hmmm. Damn. Actually, you may need to shout me after all. I just realized I didn't bring much money with me, and it ain't like I got any credit."

"Don't worry about it... For now," she said with a grin. "I know how it is when you're scraping by, trust me." She stared up at the sky, looking for words.

Shoko hung her head a moment, then looked up and smiled softly at Aoi. "Well...okay then. Thank you." Switching to a mock-severe voice, she added, "But nothing expensive or fancy, just something nice enough to pass at the party. I want to be able to pay you back when I can."

"Done," Aoi said, copying Shoko's tone, before she broke down laughing.

Shoko burst out laughing as well. When she finally got her breath back—glad that they were out of sight of the checkpoint—she asked, "So, where do we go looking for clothes around here, anyway?"

"Ready?" Aoi asked Shoko as the walked up the path to Korey's house. She took in Shoko's new outfit—Black synthleather jacket, ash gray t-shirt and dark blue jeans—and just how casual the Puma looked now. It was quite a change from the faded and tattered outfit she had left the Zone in.

Shoko nodded her response and they stepped up to the door. Aoi raised her hand to knock, but stopped, and motioned to Shoko who rapped loudly on the door.

"Coming!" called out a muffled voice, followed shortly after by the door opening and Korey, dressed in a pair of black slacks, white long sleeved shirt, dark shoes, and bar apron of light gray color tied about her waist. "Good afternoon, Gem. Please, come in..." She noticed Shoko and smiled. "Since when have you owned a Puma, Gem?"

Shoko's tail stilled and the catlike ears atop her head flattened a bit. Reminding herself that it was a natural assumption outside the Zone, she smiled tightly and waited to see how Aoi would respond to Korey's inadvertent gaffe.

Aoi glanced nervously between the two and shrugged. "Korey, this is Shoko, one of my friends from the Zone. I invited her. She's more sort of her own Puma."

Korey chuckled softly and extended a hand towards Shoko. "Ah, my apologies Shoko. A misunderstanding, you could say."

Shoko smiled and shook Korey's hand. "I understand. It is the obvious thing to assume, here."

"Of course." Korey stepped aside. "Please, both of you, come in and make yourselves at home."

"Sorry if we're early," Aoi said, stepping inside. "I just wanted to make sure everything was ready." She chuckled nervously and added, "I've never done something like this before."

"It is no trouble, I assure you," Korey replied as she led the way into the kitchen.

Her ears twitched as Shoko listened for other voices in the house, but it seemed they were the first to arrive, even with the stop to buy her some new clothes. "So, what still needs doing? How can we help you set up?"

"Let's see..." Aoi looked around the house, noting Korey's work. "I ordered the drinks, I guess they arrived already, right? I've got my change of clothes handy... Everyone knows when to arrive..." She turned to Korey. "Did I miss anything?"

Korey was silent for a moment as she looked over the various foods and drinks gathered in the kitchen. "First, we need to get these drinks down into the bar so that they shall be chilled appropriately enough for the party." She turned to Shoko. "Would you mind lending a hand, please?" She motioned to several cases of beer and alcohol packed carefully away in large boxes.

"No problem," said Shoko, grabbing a box under each arm. She paused and looked around. "Um...where's the bar?"

"Straight down those stairs there," Korey pointed. "And you," she said turning to Aoi. "... Can work on helping me set up the food trays. I'm sure your friends will appreciate cheese and crackers, dip, and such..."

"Right. Back soon." Shoko repositioned her boxes one on top of the other and held them in front of her as she headed down the stairs in search of the bar.

"Yes, ma'am!" Aoi replied. "You're sure good at organizing things," she said to Korey as she headed for the kitchen.

"One of my many skills," said Korey, winking playfully at her friend as she began to take out various cold cuts and other foods from the fridge. "So, Gem, tell me, how did you come about to meet Shoko?"

"Long story," Aoi replied as she checked the cupboards for the biscuits. "We just kinda ran into each other one night, you know?"

"While in the midst of a gunfight, hmm?" Korey ventured, chuckling a little as she opened up a cupboard and got out the biscuits that Aoi had been looking for.

"Actually, yes," she replied. "Where did those dang things get to?"

"They were in the upper cupboard, Gem," said Korey as she handed her the biscuits.

"Thanks," she said. "Oh, and uh... Don't call me Gem anymore."

"Oh? Why is that? And if not Gem, then what shall I call you?"

"Call me Aoi," she said, smiling at Korey. "It's my real name."

Korey arched an eyebrow, smiling a little herself. "Ah... so it is, Aoi. So it is."

"What?" She asked nervously while fumbling with the box of crackers.

"Merely noticing the differences," Korey commented as she began to roll up the cold cuts and stick tooth picks into them. "Now, once you've finished with the cheese and crackers and I with the meat rolls, I shall show you how to make the chip dip. It's rather simple and easy to make... plus since it's fresh, it tastes much better."

"Thanks, Korey," Aoi said. Inwardly, she was relieved to abandon that topic. "Y'know... I'm working on getting a place of my own."

"Outside of the Zone?" asked Korey.

"Exactly," she replied. "And I'm hoping to convince Eve to move in with me."

"Ah." There was a slight pause. "Who is Eve? Another friend?"

Aoi stopped to stare at Korey. "Evelyn," she said abruptly. "Y'know, Kami."

"Ah hah, yes, Kami... Silver. My, but she has allot of names, doesn't she?" Rolling up a slice of pepperoni, Korey set it down on the platter dish, a large silver steel plate she had retrieved from the cupboards. "And what is a very nice gesture on your part. Have you any idea on where in Neo York you will be settling down in?"

"I've found a pretty nice place nearby, actually," Aoi replied. She took a block of cheese from Korey and whipped out a knife from her rack. "It's in an apartment block, sure, but it's got plenty of room. With land prices around here, I could never afford a real house."

"Indeed... this house was a steal in itself when I bought it." She patted Aoi on the shoulder. "I am happy for you, Aoi, not a lot of people are able to leave the Zone." Aoi didn't reply, but quietly sliced away the cheese. "You don't seem to be too excited over this," Korey ventured.

"I just have a horrible feeling she won't want to leave," Aoi replied slowly.

"Any particular reason why?" Korey asked, stopping in her meat rolling to turn her full attention to the young woman.

"It's fun, isn't it?" She said in an all-too-bitter tone. "No parents, no rules, no responsibility..." She trailed off.

This time when Korey placed her hand on Aoi's shoulder, it didn't leave. "You're afraid she won't want to give it up, aren't you."

She sighed. "Yeah... I may be asking her to change too much for me."

Korey was silent for a time before answering. "That is true, yes. After all, you know as well as I do the freedom that the Zero Zones enjoy, as compared to the rest of civilization. But, as she knows as well as we, there is almost constant danger interlaced with that freedom, a danger that she may wish to be relieved of one day."

"She doesn't see it, really." Aoi sighed and turned to face Korey. "Mostly she just laughs off danger. But some day..."

Korey nodded in understanding. "Yes, yes... it's frustrating, isn't it? To see loved ones laugh off danger when you wish they'd take it a little more seriously." Her own eyes looked a little troubled, something, which she quickly covered up. "But you simply can't force her to leave. That... would make your relationship something other then what it is."

"I know..." She looked down for a second before smiling. "But I can be very persuasive."

Korey laughed, glad to see a little humor return to the young woman. "And if not, then pay me and Ray, and we'll have her brought over and hog tied, as they say."

"Done," she replied, laughing with Korey.

"Hmmm, good, you're laughing again. We've all had hardships in our lives, so it's good to see a smile on your face again." Korey brushed a few bangs of hair from Aoi's face. "Now, lets see to the chip dip."

A moment later they heard Shoko's footsteps coming back up the stairs. "Okay," she said as she came into view, "I've got the drinks that would fit chilling in the fridge. The rest is stacked under the bar in front of the fridge, so you can transfer more in as the fridge empties. What next?"


It was already getting dark by the time Kami had reached Korey's house. She had been called here this evening by her sometimes friend to discuss a covert operation Korey thought she might be interested in. As she stepped out of her cab and looked down the path, she couldn't help but notice how dark it was inside. The porch light was off, as were all the lights in the front room. A quick check along the side revealed the backlights were on, so at least someone was home. She stepped cautiously down the path, keeping watch around her for anything amiss. It was oddly quiet, but there was no clue as to why.

She reached the front door and knocked softly. For an instant, she thought she heard whispers within, but if so, they were drowned out by Korey's voice saying "Come in." Kami carefully opened the door and stepped into the darkness within.


Before she could react, the lights came on. All around her, she could see her friends; Korey, April, Keiko, the Puma Shoko, Miki, and even Angel decked out in party gear.

Korey stepped forward and gently took Kami's hand in her own. "Now, if you could accompany us downstairs, there is something we wish to show you." Her smile was very much like that of the cat that had eaten the canary.

Before Kami could reply, Shoko suddenly pushed forward. "Silver!?!" she exclaimed loudly. "You're Kami? I had no idea—I only knew your stage name!" She shook her head in disbelief. "I had no idea this party was for somebody I actually knew. I guess it really is a small world." Kami blushed. While she was used to attention and gratitude, her last real party seemed like it was a world ago.

"Come now," Korey said, pulling gently on Kami's arm as she led her downstairs. "We've got a surprise for you."

"Eeeep?" Kami squeaked as Korey led her downstairs. She was ecstatic about the possibility of any surprise topping this one.

Korey lead her guests downstairs to the basement. The room was darkened, but Kami could barely make out a figure standing between the bar and the couch. Before she could react, Korey hushed her and pointed her to a seat. Within seconds a light came on, illuminating the figure, accompanied by cheers from the assembled girls, aside from Korey, who slipped quietly behind the bar.

She was a short, slim and somewhat under-endowed Japanese girl. She stood with her back to the party, wearing a black pantsuit and her black hair held in a loose bun by a single long hairpin. As the light came on, she whipped the hairpin out, letting her hair trail down her back to her waist. She spun to face the audience, an intense look on her face and lighting her brilliant green eyes from within. In a single movement, she stepped out into the middle of the room, discarding her jacket to reveal the sleeveless white blouse underneath. She looked around the room, taking in the guests seated all around her. She quickly fixed her gaze on Kami and gave a small, hungry smile.

From there she began to dance, weaving her body while running her hands up and down her chest. Soon the blouse came open and slid down her shoulders, letting her knead the small, firm breasts beneath. It slipped off, and soon enough one of her hands made its wait down to her waist. The belt came undone, and then her pants were open at the front, letting the audience see glimpses of a black g-string between her moving fingers.

She spun slowly on the spot, all the time working her body as the pants slowly slipped down to her ankles. From the she stepped out of them, fingers slipping under the G-String as she slowly made her way to Kami. She suddenly stepped over her, sitting on her lap and held her shoulders, smiling hungrily at her once more. Before Kami could speak, she put a finger on Kami's lips and began to dance once more, bumping herself against Kami's lap and running her hands down her victim's front. After a seeming eternity, she slumped forwards on the birthday girl and gave her a small peck on the cheek, before pulling back, winking at her, and walking to the spare bedroom.

With out saying a word to break the mood, Kami followed Aoi back to the bedroom.

"Well now," Korey said in the silence that followed. "Who would like a drink?"

"Uh...I would," said Shoko softly. She could hardly imagine that this performance had just come from the same, uptight girl that had nearly started a riot at the Pit by trying to stop her from stripping. Not to mention the fact that she hadn't even suspected that Aoi liked girls. Well, Kami anyway. She shook her head, realizing she still had a lot to learn about her new friend. "Gimme something strong, please."

"C'mon," said Korey, signaling for Shoko to follow her. She walked over to the bar and took up station behind it. "What will you have?"

"You look pretty well stocked. What's good?" asked Shoko.

Korey looked over the supply of alcohol and various other drinks in the small bar as she pondered silently to herself. "Hmmm... it all depends on what you like, Shoko. I've got beer from three different countries, some old stock, whiskey, gin, vodka..."

Shoko's ears popped up hopefully. "I know it's a long shot, but don't have any Aussie beers, do you? I'd kill for a Victoria Bitter."

Korey arched an eyebrow as she looked and pulled out a beer. "Indeed there is. Apparently Aoi knew you would appreciate some when she invited you to the party."

Shoko tail lashed in excitement as she picked up the can. "Aces! You really have it!" She popped the top and took a delicious sip. "Oh, that is so nice. I owe her some serious thanks. This stuff is just impossible to get in the Zone, and I haven't found any decent UNA-brewed beers yet...uh, no offense. You can't imagine how much I've missed this stuff. Thank you so much, Korey."

"Oh, really no need to thank me... all of this food was paid for by Aoi. I merely allowed her to hold the party here," Korey explained. "You're Australian, are you not?"

Shoko took another sip, swirling the beer in her mouth a few seconds to savor the taste before swallowing. "Well, not originally. But I spent two years there, about half my life really, and developed a taste for the beer, among other things. Only came here a few months ago, in fact."

Korey nodded silently as she watched the friends dance about to the music, their livelihood quite evident in how they danced. "Ah... yes, much the same as I. I moved here only a few months ago to set up shop, so to speak."

"Really?" asked Shoko, looking around. "You set this whole place up in just a few months? Nice job. Why'd you decide to put a full bar in your basement? Not a very conventional choice, you must admit. Or is that the point?"

"Oh, this? Actually, it was the previous owner's decision." Korey retrieved a light German beer for herself and opened it up. "As a club manager, he was most devoted to his work, and decided that his home should reflect this."

Shoko leaned back against the bar, and took another delightful swallow of her beer. "I see. Sound like he was maybe a little too into his job. Even so, I'm glad you kept it like this. It's a great place for a party." She paused to stretch her arms a moment. "So, where'd you come from, if I can ask?"

"From up North, Quebec to be exact." Korey laughed softly. "My family was one of the few English speaking families in that region, so it made for an interesting childhood."

"I guess so," said Shoko. "I don't know much about Quebec, but I've heard they're pretty fanatical about their language. I hope you spoke French too, at least."

"Some," Korey replied. "But since most of my dealings occur with people who speak languages other then French, my moderate fluency has dropped." The blue and white haired young woman watched the dancers move to the music. "Amazing, is it not?"

"What, the dancers?" asked Shoko, momentarily confused.

"Yes, sort of." Korey sipped her beer before continuing. "I was referring to how good friends can still gather together and cut loose such as this. In the corporate world, all is measured by your reactions, thus you have to carefully control how you act and what you say." She sighed. "Needless to say, it can become stifling at times."

"I suppose so," said Shoko thoughtfully. "I never spent much time in the corporate world myself. And frankly, I think that's one regard where synthetics like me have it easy. We're not players in that game. As long as we smile a lot and eagerly do what we're told, nobody gives us a second thought."

Korey nodded slowly. "Hmmm... Perhaps..."

Shoko took a large swallow of her drink. "No perhaps about it, though perhaps I shouldn't have said we have it easy. It's more that we have it hard in a different way. I guess we don't have to play the game, but that's because we don't have the freedom to be a threat."

"Oh, there is no doubt of that, I have to say. But what I meant to say was that I need someone of your stature for a job soon..." Korey started.

Shoko blinked in surprise. "Um...wait, are you saying you want to hire me for a job?"

"Perhaps... would you have the time to take such a job if offered?"

Shoko pondered this a moment. "Well, truthfully, my schedules pretty full right now. What kind of hours do you need me, and for how long?"

"It all depends... however, the best estimate I can give you is any time that you might be able to free up," Korey said. "Remember what you said about smiling a lot and doing as told? The job would be that, except you would look to be playing the part of additional security."

Shoko nodded her head and took another sip of her beer. "Sounds easy enough. I have some evenings free. I could also get a few afternoons free, if needed."

With that, Korey smiled. "Excellent. I greatly appreciate your not rejecting the offer, and you will be well paid for your time." She spotted Angel coming over from having a dance with Aoi and Kami, and finished off the remainder of her beer. "Now if you do not mind tending the bar, I believe Angel wants to request a dance."

Kami walked quietly into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. Ahead of her, Aoi was rummaging through a suitcase by the bed. She smiled at Aoi watching her intently. The girl straightened up, facing Kami with a small smile on her face. Without a word, she raised one hand and wagged a finger at Kami.

Kami walked slowly over to Aoi, swinging her hips gently as she moved. "Not yet," Aoi said, wagging her finger again. "We've got a party to attend."

"Shall we go back to the party?" Kami reached her hand out to Aoi.

"I've got to get dressed!" she replied between gasps of laughter.

"You look like you're dressed fine to me." Kami grinned.

She covered her face, blushing beneath her hands. "Please..." she muttered, then peeked through her fingers at Kami. Kami walked right up next to Aoi and put her hands on the Japanese girl's hips. "Really, I do need to put something on," she said nervously, looking away from Kami.

Kami wrapped her arms around Aoi's waist and the shorter girl turned around. "There's no reason to be embarrassed."

Aoi let out a gasp of laugher. "I'm standing naked in someone else's house, and you're asking me to spend the night with your best friends naked. Yes, yes there is." She turned in Kami's grasp back to face her. "Besides, it's a very nice dress."

Kami giggled. "I'm sure as the night goes on you're not going to be the only one undressed." Then kissing Aoi on the neck. "If it makes you feel better, let's have a look at it."

Aoi closed her eyes, savoring the moment. At length she said, "Then let me get to it."

"Let me help you get into it." Kami whispered and she nibbled at Aoi's earlobe.

"Just... Let me get to it, okay?"

"Mmm." Kami sighed, "Okay"

Aoi wriggled her way out of Kami's grasp before turning back to her suitcase. She bent over it, being sure to notice Kami's appreciative look, and pulled out her dress. She turned back to Kami, holding it in front of her. It was a black, sleeveless Chinese dress with gold edging and a dragon twined around the body embroidered in gold thread. "What do you think?" Aoi asked. "Of course, I've also got the stocking and heels for it."

"It's beautiful." Kami was thoroughly appreciative of it.

"So, if you'll let me, I'll change and join you back outside."

"I will, just one thing first." Kami said with an evil grin.

"No," she said, tapping Kami on the nose. "Later"

"Not even a kiss?" Kami gave Aoi a pouty look.

Aoi was torn. It had been so long since they were together... And yet, if she did, she knew Kami would take it further. "When I'm done. How about that?"

"Just a kiss?" Kami blinked her big amber eyes.

"Later!" Aoi replied once more.

"I'm gonna have to charge you interest in it then."

She sighed, looking around the room as if in annoyance, but with a broad smile. "Fine. Now will you let me get dressed?"

"Sure." Kami seemed actually a bit down and she headed for the door. Aoi couldn't help but smile as she watched Kami go. Kami opened the door slowly and closed it behind her, all without looking back. When she left, she shook her head and picked up her dress again.

Settling back behind the bar, Korey poured herself another beer from the tap when a figure sat down in front of her on a bar stool. Looking up, she smiled at Miki, the young blue eyed, blonde haired friend of Kami's who was currently attending high school at the DFP arcology. "Good evening, Miki. Enjoying the party?"

Miki giggled. "Best party I've been too, plenty of drinks, and no boys. "Could I get another Kahula and Cream?"

Korey gazed around at her various friends and associates dancing, drinking, and generally socializing to the sound of the music before working on the drink. "And no doubt different from the normal parties held in the DFP, I assume?" She ducked down behind the bar, searching for the alcohol and a clean drink mixer.

Miki eyed Korey. "Different in a good way," she said, leaning over the bar to get a better look at her.

If Korey took notice of the stare, she didn't give any indication of it. Instead, she stood up and began to mix the drink. "Good, good... I've been to a few corporate parties in my time. Quite dry, boring affairs, I have to say."

"The ones with the adult supervision are pretty bad." Miki glanced across the room at Kami. "So how did you meet her?"

Taking the cap off, Korey poured the Kahula and cream into a fresh glass for the young woman, pausing to laugh a moment. "I was hired to kidnap her, actually. However, the person whom had hired me was of not particularly good quality, so I decided to cancel my contract halfway through the job and give her my assistance."

Miki took a sip and snickered. "Kidnapping her sounds like a very dangerous job." She took another sip. "Hmm, good."

"It was, it was," Korey admitted. "Especially when I had used Aoi to get to her. Nonetheless, we resolved our differences, and she occasionally works for me when I need the extra hand."

"Kinda like Angel used to do?" she asked, although it appeared her mind was on something else when she said it.

"Yes, exactly." From one of the small fridges in the bar, Korey retrieved a beer for herself and opened it up. "And how about you? How did you come to know Angel?"

Miki blushed a little. "Well I went into the Zone to visit Eve. Anyway, things got messy, and Eve called my father to come pick me up. Angel was running the operation."

Korey arched an eyebrow. "So Angel was literally your knight in shining armor?"

"Not exactly. I got to learn why Eve calls herself Kami-sama in the Zone. Anyway, Angel made herself available after the incident, and we did a lot of talking."

Taking a mental note of it, Korey sipped her beer. "What about, if you do not mind my asking."

"We talked about life in the Zone, Kami, and other stuff. She told me a few interesting things about corporate life, things the execs don't want the public to know about." Miki snickered.

"And what are you doing now?" Korey kept her eyes on Miki, although a part of her mind wondered if it was the girl's idea to wear such a short skirt or someone else's...

"Well, now that Eve's involved in a rather monogamous relationship, I'm not sure." She made herself more comfortable on the barstool, allowing the skirt to ride further up on her legs.

Korey glanced over to Kami. "You and her...?" She trailed off, leaving the rest of the question up in the air.

"We were, Now we're just friends." Miki looked a bit down at the idea of being just friends.

"Oh," was all Korey had to say at first, the single word simple and insightful. Miki paused for a few moments as she stirred her drink. Then she leaned back and sipped it slowly. The white lycra skirt rode up even higher revealing bright red panties. Korey arched an eyebrow. "Let me guess... the skirt was your idea?"

Miki put the drink down, "Well, around home I have to maintain a certain level of discretion." She eyed Korey.

"Thus the need to cut loose," Korey observed, motioning to Miki's short skirt. "Well, better here then at a place like the 93 Underground. Even with the security and bouncers there, your outfit would no doubt be cause for trouble."

"It's more the unwanted attention then the trouble. There are plenty of girls with skirts like this in places like that. I just have trouble wearing it when I'm in the arcology."

"True enough." She finished off her beer and looked out over the various dancing people. "Would you like a refill, Miki?"

"Sure." She put her glass down on the bar. "So what do you think of my skirt?" She mused aloud to Korey.

The espionage agent laughed as she began to mix up a fresh drink for the high school student. "I think that you are trying to hit on me."

"Would it be bad if I were?"

"For some people, I suppose." Korey poured the Kahula and Cream into Miki's glass. "For me...? It's a tad... unexpected, to say the least."

"Unexpected?" Miki teased back. "You know about Eve preferences, shouldn't you expect her friends to have similar tendencies?" She seemed rather bemused at Korey's alleged surprise.

"Perhaps. Why? Are you interested in this old battle ax?" Korey exaggerated.

"Old battle ax? You can't be that much older than us," Miki shot back.

"Twenty seven," Korey said. It was a lie, but then again, Miki didn't know that. "So I am afraid I am a tad old to be with someone as young as you."

"Wow, you don't look like you're nearly 30!" Miki looked rather shocked.

"You live the corporate life, Miki, so you should know the measures that those with the money can take to look younger then their years," Korey pointed out. This was true, at the very least, even if it didn't apply to Korey directly.

"Yeah, I wonder how old Angel really is?" Miki glanced over at Angel who was over with the girls dancing. She looked back at Korey and thought, If Angel isn't too old, than Korey might not be, even at 27.

"Still thinking about it?" Korey asked.

"Yeah, I mean, it's not I'm like dating or taking you home to my parents or anything."

Korey sighed and gently directed the young girl back out into the dance floor. "My apologies, Miki..."

"You know lots of guys your age and older would kill for a shot at me." Miki sighed as she headed back to the other girls.

It wasn't too long after Kami returned that Aoi finally emerged from the spare bedroom. This time she was dressed in a tight-fighting black Chinese dress with gold edging, and a dragon coiled around the body picked out in gold thread. It was slit up the sides to show off her long legs, only covered with sheer stockings. Her hair was loose once more, trailing down her back.

Shoko blinked in surprise. It seemed that every time she saw Aoi, the girl looked different. With a shake of her head and a twitch of her tail, she moved to intercept her friend before anyone else did.

Aoi bowed slightly as Shoko approached. She couldn't help but notice Aoi's cheeks reddening slightly. "Hello again," she said as she stepped up to Shoko. "Sorry for the surprise."

Shoko chuckled. "Surprise indeed, but nothing to be sorry about. I just...well, truthfully, I'd thought you a little to...well, uptight, I guess, for that sort of performance. Sorry."

She giggled nervously in response. "It's... You know, private party... Among friends... Not like it meant anything..."

Shoko smiled gently. "Maybe, but it still surprised the heck out of me. And so does that dress! Not something I would have ever imagined you in, though it looks great on you."

"Stop it already," she replied, shying away from Shoko. "But you see what I mean about the act, not the figure."

Shoko cocked her head slightly to one side. "Well...I guess. But...well, maybe I shouldn't ask this, but is it really that they are all friends that made it okay, or was it that you just felt safer performing for them 'cause they're all women?"

"Friends," she said after a moment's thought. "And I know what you're thinking about Kami and I."

"Really?" asked Shoko. "Then you're one up on me. I mean, yeah, I think you and Kami seem to be a couple, but I wasn't thinking much beyond that."

"Well, yeah we are, in a very loose sense. What about you?" she asked suddenly.

"Me?" asked Shoko, sounding confused. "I'm...uh, not sure what you mean. I'm not a couple with anyone. I don't have a boyfriend—or girlfriend—if that's what you're asking. I sometimes play with the Twins, but that's strictly recreational...and mostly instigated by them, come to think of it."

"What I meant was, besides on stage... Well..." She paused to think of the words. "Suffice to say, is this your scene, or would you rather have some guys here?"

"Ah, I see," Shoko nodded with understanding. "You gotta understand, Aoi, my preferences came kinda built in, and they don't usually make synths with any hang-ups or inhibitions, y'know? I can go either way, really, but I guess in general I prefer men a bit more. Maybe just 'cause I've been with them more often. The Twins are the only girls I've known that way, and they're pretty intense. I'm afraid anyone else might be a bit of a letdown after them, y'know? Does that make sense?"

"It does," she replied. "It's about what I expected." She looked up at Shoko with a smile. "And no, that doesn't mean I was cracking onto you."

Shoko laughed as she shook her head. "Don't worry, didn't think you were. Glad we cleared the air, though."

"Yeah. I could have invited the Puma Sisters if you wanted," she said.

Shoko almost shuddered. "No thank you! As fun as they can be, I dread to imagine what they might do with a crowd like this. Especially after they got drunk!"

She elbowed Shoko in the ribs. "Joking. Of course."

Shoko rolled her eyes theatrically. "Thank heavens."

"Enjoying yourself?" Aoi asked gently.

"Yeah," answered Shoko, nodding. "I just wish I knew more of the people here. But they all seem friendly enough, and I'm sure I'll mingle with most of them as the night goes on."

"Friendly, well..." Aoi trailed off. "They are. Some after a fashion. Angel can be rather hard to get on with."

"Uh...which one's Angel?" asked Shoko, glancing around.

"Redhead. I think Korey's dancing with her," she said, craning her neck to see.

With her head a good foot higher than Aoi's, Shoko had no trouble seeing the woman in question. "Oh, her. I haven't talked to her yet. Hard to get on with, you said? Should I just avoid her?"

Aoi pondered for a second. "She's a bit of an odd person. Your call."

Shoko pondered this a moment, then shrugged. "I guess I'll just wait and see if our paths cross later." Aoi nodded her response.

A brief silence fell, and Shoko looked around. "So...wanna dance? Or would Kami mistake that for something it's not?"

"Would you mind if I got a drink first?"

"No problem," Shoko replied. "I could use one too."

Suppressing a laugh, Korey walked back behind the bar and smiled at Gem as she walked over. "Now, Gem, how is everything?" she asked.

"Good, good," she said as she approached Korey. "Thanks for letting me... Um," she trailed off, blushing rather heavily.

Korey laughed lightly and shook it off. "Oh, think nothing of it. After all, you both looked as though you enjoyed it." She winked playfully at the young woman. "Now, what may I get you?"

"Something light," she replied. "I need to keep my head tonight."

Nodding, Korey ducked down behind the bar and came up with a light draft beer of a local crew. "One beer. Anything else?"

"Maybe my head examined?" she replied, laughing.

"Too late to pull out now, dear," Korey said, grabbing herself a beer and opening it. "Why? Having second thoughts?"

She shook her head. "I just wonder how I wound up with a crowd like this. No offense," she added hastily.

"None taken," Korey said. "After all, I am not a young woman without any sexual scruples. But I can see your point. Hard to imagine one could have so many friends, hmmm?" She turned silent for a moment, her eyes lost in memory.

"Yeah..." Aoi said faintly.

"Well, you have them and they're here and they're real. That's more then enough to be thankful for. Although..." Korey leaned in closer to the young woman. "You'd like something more, hmm?" Her eyes flicked to Kami and then back to Gem.

"I've got enough of that," she replied, smiling. "How about you?" she asked, glancing over to Angel.

"Oh really now, we're simply business partners... and tonight, a friends of sort," Korey explained. Aoi's smile broadened as she leaned back from Korey, waiting for her to continue. "Oh really now, such tactics won't work on me, Aoi," Korey countered. "So you best not try them at all." She took a sip of her beer.

"But seriously. You'd be the only one of us here not-" She suddenly cut off. "Let me rephrase that."

Korey chuckled. "Think nothing of it. And seriously, are you enjoying yourself? Are you really having fun?"

"I am," she said. "I haven't had a party like this since... Well, ever really."

"Good, then that is all that's important." Korey held up her can of beer. "Cheers?"

Aoi raised knocked hers against Korey's and took a swig. "You?" she asked abruptly.

"Cheers... to good friends and further good times with said good friends," Korey said.

"I'll drink to that any day," she replied.

Smiling, Korey tipped back her can and drained the contents in a single sustained gulp.

"Wow," Aoi said, clearly surprised.

"Something which I will-" She belched loudly. "-pay for later, no doubt."

Aoi grimaced in response. "I think you are already," she said and gently put her beer down.

And so the night had dragged on. One way or another, everyone had seemingly wound down and spread her out. As the night had progressed, Aoi and Kami found themselves increasingly pushed together until they'd finally taken the hint and retired to the hot tub. Despite Kami's wishes, Aoi was far more nervous about undressing this time.

"Y'know," Aoi said as she leaned back in the hot tub, looking over at Kami. "I never did give you your birthday present."

"No you didn't." Kami leaned back in the tub waiting.

"Hold out your hand," she said. Without a word Kami held out her hand. Aoi gently slipped a paper envelope into her hand, and leant back again. Kami looked down at the envelope and carefully opened it. Inside were three ID cards, one each for her, April and Keiko, along with a pair of official-looking documents.

Kami practically jumped across the pool and into Aoi's lap and kissed her. "Alright, alright!" she blurted out. "Back off, already."

"Okay." Kami settled herself across Aoi's lap.

"The documents are the important part," she said, pointing out the envelope. "They basically make you the legal guardian of both April and Keiko." She paused to let it sink in, then continued. "So when you all move out, they're safe from their families."

Kami gazed deeply into Aoi's eyes. "I'm not sure what to say."

"Depends. Do you want to hear the best bit?"

"There's more?"

Aoi nodded. "I think I've found us a place in the city."

Kami hesitated. "Okay..." She said cautiously.

"For all of us. You, me, and the girls."

"I've thought about leaving the Zone, I'm just not sure what to do once I leave."

"As I see it, out is the important part," Aoi replied softly.

"I gotcha." Kami replied with a hint of worry in her voice.

"Please?" Aoi asked, reaching up to stroke Kami's chin. "We can make it work."

"It's not the us I'm worried about." Kami sighed.

"That's what I'm here for," Aoi replied softly.

"I'm just worried that one day some guy like Steve is gonna make me mad and I'm gonna accidentally kill him or something."

Aoi sighed and looked away. "If you try, I know you can control yourself. I can."

Kami thought about is for a few moments. She thought about how long she had worked at the 93 U, and the fact that she had never killed anybody in or around the club. "I guess you're right." She smiled at Aoi then cuddled next to her.

Aoi wrapped her arms around Kami and held her close.

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