By Jeff Skagen and Max Fauth

There were many bars and clubs located in the Zero Zone's Entertainment District. A few, like the 93 Underground, were reputable and well-run places; clean, comfortable, and reasonably safe to be in. Others were not so pleasant, and some were downright dangerous. But one place in particular was notable for being the worst of the worst. The Pit.

What you drank at the Pit depended on what they'd managed to recently bootleg. If you were lucky, it was real booze stolen from somewhere else. If you weren't, you got a possibly toxic glass of someone's homebrew. Loud generators, pumping their noxious exhaust fumes right into the interior of the club, powered the minimal lighting. Attempting to drown out the generators was the even louder music, if that term could be applied to the squeals, squawks and screeches coming through the badly over-amped speakers.

As usual, the foul air and too-loud music had given Shoko a headache within minutes of her arrival. As she strutted and whirled nakedly about the stage in synch with the Puma Sisters, she tried to imagine why they kept returning to perform here. The act was popular enough that the Twins could pick and choose which clubs they wanted to perform at, yet for some reason they kept regularly returning to dance here. She couldn't imagine why. Even the tips sucked. No rich corpers here to toss money at them, just genuine bottom-of-the-barrel zoners who didn't let anything they had go easily.

And with that thought, Shoko decided that if she ever wanted to be able to buy Uni a new pulse rifle, she'd better start working the crowd a little more aggressively. Finishing a spin on the pole, Shoko moved near the front of the stage, and turned around while gracefully lowering herself to all fours. Arching her back, she dropped her face and chest to the stage, and spread her legs as wide as she could while still keeping her ass elevated.

It would have been a rather explicit pose, except that she allowed her tail to drop between her legs and cover herself. She looked over her shoulder at the eager, leering faces near the stage, smiled, and began slowly swishing her tail back and forth a bit, teasing them but not giving them the full show. The implication was obvious, and a flurry of coins, bills, and small barterable trinkets was soon being tossed onto the stage. In return for this largesse, Shoko finally raised her tail and let them have a good look, which resulted in a flurry of cheers and catcalls, as well as yet another round of tips landing on the stage.

Finally springing upright, she saw that the Twins had used the distraction she'd created to grab the pair of handcuffs and can of whipped cream they'd placed against the back of the stage before the act started, and were now strutting toward her with matching wanton smiles on their faces. Looks like they'd decided to jump the gun a bit on the next, raunchier part of the act...

No matter what, no matter what name she went by, no matter what she looked like, Aoi always found herself returning to the same place; the Pit. Even tonight, as she walked towards the decrepit old warehouse, she questioned what it meant. Was it a bad sign that the only place she fit in was the Pit? Did it mean she was brave, or just abnormal? Whatever the case, she kept approaching.

Up ahead, she saw four figures emerge from the darkness within. She stepped up to the shorter of them, a bald, tattooed man in torn cammo fatigues. He was dwarfed by his massive companion, an almost inhuman wall of muscle wearing a thick face mask who carried a poorly-dressed ruffian neatly tucked under each arm.

"Evening Thrash," Aoi said with a smile, watching as the giant next to him roughly tossed away the thugs. "Got some new help?"

He seemed to ignore her, watching the monster in action. "Left over synth," he said in a rough voice. "Old one, Man-Friday model. I call 'im Jeeves." He turned to face her at last, looking her up and down and giving her an appreciative whistle.

She had changed a lot since her last visit to the Pit. Her synth-leather pants and jacket were long gone, replaced with a finely tailored pantsuit and white blouse. Likewise, her rough, short hair was now long, smooth and tied into a loose bun, held back with a single long hairpin. She wore a single pearl stud in her right ear, and five silver rings in her left.

"Been a while, Thrash. Things change," she said.

"Not this place," he said, pointing his thumb back into the darkness. "'Course, tonight isn't a fight night."

"So what is on?" she asked. Thrash's only reply was a throaty chuckle as he and Jeeves turned back inside. She shrugged and followed the pair. Inside, the thronging crowd was illuminated by multi-coloured lights raking across them from above. The stage was the only well-lit place inside, clearly illuminating tonight's act.

"A strip act?" Aoi mused to herself as she pushed through the throng. Strip acts weren't unknown in the Pit; it was just hard to find strippers brave enough to work there more than once. Just one glance told her these weren't the usual strippers; the two standing would have towered over her, and she caught a glimpse of furry cat ears among their thick blonde manes. The third one was bending over, back towards her obscured only by her furry red tail.

Hold on. Tail? "Shoko?" she suddenly yelled out.

On stage, the tailed Puma's ears pricked up and her head turned toward the audience. Aoi saw that she'd been right; it was Shoko. She also realized that Shoko couldn't easily see her past the glare of the stage lights.

After a few moments, Shoko returned most of her attention to the act, having failed to spot her. But even as the other two Pumas began handcuffing her to the center pole, her eyes continued to glance toward the crowd and her ears twitched, trying to sort through the cacophony, listening to see if her name would be called again.

Aoi cursed under her breath and started shoving her way through to the stage, elbowing people out of the way. "Shoko!" she yelled out again as she neared the stage. What the hell was she doing up here? And with those two? Deep down she kicked herself for not checking up on her friend after they had been chased and hunted through the Zone. Maybe she could have...

But it was too late for maybes now. The least she could do was try to spare her friend any more humiliation. She was now up to the stage, looking straight up at Shoko. She cupped her hands and bellowed out the Puma's name, hoping to be noticed.

Shoko started as her name was loudly yelled again, this time from right in front of the stage. Even the Twins stopped licking at her and turned to look. This close to the stage, the reflected light allowed her to see that it was a girl—not Ayane, thank it all!—who had yelled. It took her a moment to recognize her with the longer hair and in such different clothes.


"What the hell are you doing?" Aoi yelled, pushing to keep her place at the foot of the stage.


"Get off there!" Aoi yelled out as she started to climb onto the stage. "You don't know what you're-" she cut off when a man in the crowd grabbed her from behind.

"Hey! Quit wreckin' the show!" he yelled out as he tried to drag her back into the crowd.

Shoko watched in alarm as Gem began trying to fight the man off. She nearly succeeded, but others joined in to pull her back off the stage, and Shoko realized her friend would be mobbed in a moment. She tugged at the cuffs that were keeping her chained to the pole, then looked to the Twins. "Well help her!" she insisted.

"Us?" one of them—she certainly couldn't tell them apart naked—replied. "No way!"

"Yeah, she's getting what she deserves!" added the other.

"Dammit!" yelled Shoko, frustrated. She heard a cry of pain from Gem as the mob of angry men began openly attacking her. Fed up, she pulled as hard as she could at the restraints until finally one of the links in the chain slowly stretched and snapped, leaving the cuffs dangling around her wrists like bracelets.

Free, she turned back to face the swarming mob and screamed "Leave her alone, assholes!" before leaping naked into the fray, bowling several of them over.

With the pressure relieved, Aoi surged up amongst the crowd, pushing them away. Acting on instinct, she lashed out with her fist catching one man in the face, before backing off towards Shoko. "Thanks for the help!" she called back as she dodged an attacker's clumsy swing.

"No problem," said Shoko. Another man came at them with a yell. It wasn't even clear which of them he thought he was attacking, but Shoko kicked him in the gut on general principle, leaving him rolling on the floor, curled up and moaning. Looking around, she saw the fight rapidly spreading to encompass the entire establishment, and moved back to back with Gem. "So, what the hell were you doing anyway, climbing up on stage like that?"

Aoi elbowed another man in the face while stepping away, trying to circle away from the stage. "I was trying to get you off it!" she replied. Another attacker swung at her, but she easily ducked his blow and kneed him in the gut.

Shoko blocked a man who apparently thought a knife was all he needed to attack a Puma, and then grabbed his arm and tossed him across the bar, to land in the midst of another group of brawlers. "Gem, the handcuffs didn't mean I was up there against my will! They're just part of the act."

"That's not what I meant!" she yelled back as she grabbed a man around his neck. She held him in front of her, letting him take a couple of blows. "You don't know how dangerous that job is!" Aoi released the man and shoved him forwards with a kick to his back, knocking over another brawler in front of her.

"Dangerous!" exclaimed Shoko, dodging a swing from a man wearing brass knuckles. Distracted by her bare breasts suddenly bouncing in front of him, he never even saw the return punch that broke his nose. "Gem, the most dangerous thing that ever happened to me as a stripper is this fight, and you started that! Do you really think I can't take care of myself?"

"Trust me," Aoi replied, kicking backwards and taking out a man approaching Shoko from the side, "You have no idea what you're getting into."

Shoko caught a chair thrown from somewhere, and tossed it back in the general direction it had come from. "You sound just like Ayane. Tonight's not my first night, y'know. I've been doing this for a couple of months now. What do you think I could get into that I don't already know about?"

Aoi groaned to herself as she mashed another patron's face. She'd had this argument before with Kami. Just like Kami, Shoko had it lucky so far. But she knew it couldn't last. "You think-" She grunted as she kneed a man in the gut. "That a fight-" She kneed him again, pouring her frustrations into her blows. "Is all you have to worry about?" She stood the man up and drew back her fist ready to strike. He simply collapsed in front of her.

Shoko yelped as a man with a heavy cyberarm connected painfully with her side. Thankful he didn't have any razorclaws, she returned the favor with a kidney punch that laid him low and finished him off with an uppercut that took out teeth. "Well no. Apparently I have to worry about you and Ayane ganging up on me as well!"

"Why doesn't anyone believe me?" She yelled at the man in front of her. Startled, he shrugged in confusion and Aoi took the opportunity to jab him in the face, breaking his nose. "You ever think it's for your own good?" She yelled back to Shoko while knocking him down with a side kick. "I know what I'm talking about!"

"Well how can I possibly tell, since you have yet to tell me what you're talking about!" A burly, bearded man rushed at Shoko, and she happily used his own momentum to throw him across the floor. "All you've said so far is that I've gotta quit or I'll get in trouble. If you know something tell me! Would you just accept 'trust me, it's for your own good'?"

Gem turned to face Shoko, furious at her. "I know because I've done it before, alright?" With her back turned, someone took the opportunity to smash a bottle over her head, leaving her momentarily dazed.

"You drek!" yelled Shoko, and pushed past Gem to attack the bottle wielder with a flurry of angry punches that quickly left him on the ground with a broken nose and a dislocated jaw. "Next time, pick on someone facing you!" Turning back to protect Gem, she was relieved to see that she seemed to be mostly steady on her feet again. "You okay?"

"Uh... Will be..." she said, shaking out her head. Looking past Shoko, she could see Jeeves wading through the crowd from the front door, heading in their direction. "We'd better run!" she suddenly yelled to Shoko.

"What? Why?" asked Shoko, looking behind her, then "Oh shit!" as she saw the massive combat synth coming determinedly toward her. A pure, unadulterated combat machine, she knew she couldn't last long against him in a straight-up fight. Turning back, she saw Gem's back as she starting to push away through the mob and, deciding she had the right idea, quickly followed.

"C'mon, move it!" Aoi called back to her. She barged her way through a couple of brawlers, glad at least that the attention was finally off the pair of them. She glanced back, both to check that Shoko was keeping up and to keep tabs on the approaching bouncers. Jeeves at least had slowed down, and was busy throwing patrons out of his way. However she couldn't catch sight of Thrash in the crowd. "Shoko, can you see the bouncer anywhere?" she yelled to her taller companion while slipping through the crowd.

"The big one? Yeah, he's slowed down a bit but still coming!" she answered after glancing back. "Why the hell's he after me? I'm one of the performers, he's supposed to help protect—oh right. Guess I shouldn't have fought alongside the person who started this mess, huh?"

"Look, I'm sorry, alright?" Aoi yelled back. A man lunged at her and she lashed out with her elbow, catching him in the chest and sending him staggering back. "You didn't have to help me, you know?"

"Sure I did, you're my friend! Even if you did screw up the show, which we can talk about later." Shoko glanced back again, then added "But right now, I suggest we concentrate on moving a little faster. Mister Massive there is still coming after us!" Pushing past Gem, she started using her greater mass and strength to clear a path through the riot.

"Later, sure," Gem replied, almost laughing to herself. She could see the back exit up ahead. The crowd was thinner here, further from the bar and the stage, and few people were interested in taking them on. In the Pit, it didn't matter who you hit if there was a fight going on. "We're almost there," she said to Shoko, and made a dash for the exit.

"Right behind you!" One last glance back revealed that Jeeves was still following, though Shoko hoped he'd quit once they got outside the club.

The pair of them broke for the exit and squeezed through the ramshackle back door. Outside, the night air was chilly but fresh; a stark contrast to the stuffy heat inside the pit. They could still hear the sounds of fighting and arguing coming from inside. "Maybe we should get a bit more distance," Aoi said as they paused by the door.

"Good idea!" answered Shoko. "I don't think he's supposed to come after us once we're out of the club, but you never know. Some of those gladiator types tend to fixate on an opponent, I think. Uh, which way?"

"Away is the only direction I care about," Aoi replied. She nodded down the street, heading back towards the Entertainment district and the "nicer" parts of the Zone. "C'mon."

"Fair 'nough," said Shoko. "Lead on."

It was a simple enough for them to make their way through the Zone. Few people were ready to bother a Puma, even a stark naked one. Aoi quickly made her way to an old semi-intact shop where they could sit down for a while. It was far from comfortable, but it had most of its roof and the boarded-up windows provided a measure of privacy.

Aoi had rummaged around in the cupboards for a while and produced a miraculously intact bottle of whiskey. She set it down on the cleared patch of floor in front of Shoko, then sat down opposite her. "Here," she said, indicating to the whiskey. "To make amends."

"Thanks. That's quite a find," said Shoko, picking up the bottle. She opened it, took a good swallow, then coughed. "Wow, never tasted whiskey before...didn't think it would be that strong. Good, though." She handed the bottle back to Gem. "Here, your turn."

Aoi nodded and took a swig as well, swallowing hard. She put the bottle back down between them and pushed it to Shoko. "I stashed it here some years back. This was my favorite bolt-hole when I got in trouble." She sniggered. "Actually, it's kinda funny what happened today."

Shoko paused, bottle raised halfway to her lips, and raised an eyebrow. Then she suddenly chuckled too. "Yeah, I guess it was kinda funny, wasn't it? I'm not sure why, considering I lost my clothes, my costume, and my share of the tips, but it is." She took a swig on the bottle, and handed it back to Gem once more. "And I can't wait to try to explain to the crew back at Bell's why I'm coming home stark naked."

Aoi took another swig, larger than before. "Alright, I didn't mean it like that. It's just..." She waved around the bottle for a second, then sighed. "Ah, forget it. Here," she added, passing it back to Shoko.

"Hey, I wasn't being sarcastic, at least not entirely. I'm sure I really will look back on this and laugh. Just probably not tonight." Shoko took another gulp from the bottle. "So, um, what was that you said back at the club about having been a stripper yourself?"

"Oh, boy." Aoi sighed. "Fact is, yes, I was a stripper some years back. Yes, I even worked the Pit. So I know what I'm talking about when I say it's more dangerous than you expect."

"Okaaaay." Shoko gave the now half-full bottle back to Aoi. "Sorry, it's kinda hard to imagine you ever...uh...so anyway, just what do you think is so dangerous about it? I mean, I guess I'm really asking what happened to you?"

Before answering, Aoi took a long, hard pull from the bottle. "I don't blame you, y'know." She laughed to herself. "I don't exactly look the type, right?" She placed the bottle down between them again, and sighed. "And it didn't happen to me, but almost, y'know? You're up there and you attract attention... The wrong kind of attention." She shook her head sadly. "People think they're safe working clubs and such in the Zone. But there's nothing to protect them once they step out that door."

Shoko was starting to get a bad feeling about where this was going. "Gem?" she said softly, watching her friend carefully. "Gem, what happened? Did somebody...attack you? Outside the club?"

"Somebody tried," she said and fell silent again. She seized the bottle and took another long pull from it.

"Do you...do you think you can you talk about it now? Will you tell me happened?"

"It didn't go anywhere... Fortunately, my sister was looking out for me." She shook her head. "Stupid me didn't take the hint, and kept on doing it."

Shoko blinked. "But then...Gem, I'm still confused. What finally happened? Why do hate stripping so much now?"

"Because I finally grew up and realized just how much of an idiot I'd been." She took a third pull from the bottle and finally set it down again. "I mean, heck, I didn't need the money... I thought it was fun." She hung her head. "I'm just glad my sister had more sense than I did."

Shoko reached for the bottle and took another drink. It burned like liquid fire in her throat. "Well, I do need the money, at least for a while. And I'm sorry, but I still don't understand how your sister fits into all this."

Aoi shook her head. "Sorry, it's just... She was always watching out for me. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's a lot more dangerous than you expect."

Shoko took another slow sip from the bottle, then silently regarded Gem for long seconds. "Maybe, but I am a security synth; I can handle most fights. And danger comes with living in the Zone. Gem, why do I still feel there's something you haven't told me?"

She shook her head. "Don't know what you mean," she said, and reached for the bottle again.

Shoko let out a slow sigh. "Well, okay then. I guess I have to accept that for now. But that being the case, you haven't given me enough reason to quit doing this. At least not until I've paid off a debt. After that, well...truthfully, I've gone from not being able to find a job, to being overworked with three jobs. If I agree to quit stripping once I don't need the money anymore, will you promise not to crash the stage again in the meantime?"

"Well, if I find you another job, will you take that up instead?" Aoi gave Shoko a stern look. "Then I'll promise."

"Another job?" Shoko shook her head. "Gem, my debt is to the Twins; stripping with them is part of how I agreed to pay it off. So no, I can't really trade that for another job. I'm sorry. But I will agree to quit just as soon as the debt is paid off. Think you can you live with that?"

She let out a long, deep sigh. "You know, it really is none of my business what you do." She took a swig from the bottle and continued. "And I really shouldn't be pushing you like this. I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well, you're right. But I don't mind so much, 'cause also shows you care, and that means a lot to me. Synths like me don't often meet people who care much about us." Shoko shook her head sadly. "Y'know, it's funny. The Zone is supposed to be one of the most uncivilized places left on earth, yet the best people I've ever met are all here. What's that say about civilization, anyway?"

Aoi couldn't help but giggle. "It means life is a funny thing you can't make sense of. But thanks." She nodded, swallowing hard to keep back her tears. "It means a lot to hear you say that, too."

Impulsively, Shoko reached out and gather her friend into her arms in a tight hug, fighting to keep back her own tears. Aoi suddenly gasped at Shoko's crushing grip. Unable to breathe, she let out a little squeak and began thumping on Shoko's back.

"Oh!" said Shoko, releasing her friend as she realized what she'd done. "Gem, I'm sorry! Are you okay? I forgot my own strength there for a moment."

Aoi waved her hands in front of her and finally she gasped out "Don't worry." She paused to catch her breath, and added, "Anyway, call me Aoi. It's my real name."

Shoko cocked her head the side and looked at her. "Aoi? Not Gem? What, was Gem like a nickname or something?"

Aoi held up her hands, as if to ward off further questions. "Long story. I was trying to hide... Didn't want people to know who I was, so I used that name..." She trailed off, waving her hands. "But it's all over now."

Shoko shrugged her shoulders, and then rubbed her arms as she shivered. "Okay, Aoi it is. You can tell the long story another time, when you're ready to. Truthfully, even with the whisky to help warm me up, it's getting pretty cold for bare skin. Winter nights aren't the time to pad around Neo York bare naked, I think."

Aoi nodded, looking over her companion. "Good point. Have you got some clothes stashed somewhere, or do we need to go back there and apologize?"

Shoko's ears drooped a bit. "No, all my other clothes are all at Bell's. Going there naked would be embarrassing, but I suppose I'd survive." She grimaced, then reluctantly continued, "Unfortunately...I think we really should go back to the club anyway. My costume was lying on the stage, so I'm sure that's long gone. But my regular clothes should still be backstage, and I'd really like to get those back if I can; the pants and jacket are armorcloth lined. I'm already gonna have to buy a new costume, I really don't want to have to pay for new armorcloth too."

"Good point. C'mon." Aoi stood and dusted herself off. She glanced in the direction of the Pit, then turned back to Shoko and smiled. "Really, I'm sure they don't mind. I hear they're proud of their brawls there."

"I hope so," said Shoko, as they left the shop and started walking. "I sure hope so."

It had been far easier to recover Shoko's gear than they thought. Thrash had been in surprisingly good humor about the incident, stating, "The show was gettin' borin' anyway." He'd let them around the side to Shoko's changing room while avoiding the crowds. The fact that a stark naked Puma was walking the streets didn't seem to faze him at all. From there, the two had decided that what they really needed was a few more drinks, so they made their way to the Underground.

It was a fairly busy night, but the two managed to find themselves a booth tucked away in one corner. Aoi had referred to it as her "usual table." Even in here, Shoko elicited a few surprised stares. The place was quiet, apparently between acts.

"You can at least let me pay for these," Aoi said, setting their drinks down on the table. "After all the trouble I've caused tonight."

"No, I couldn't let you..." Shoko started to demure, then stopped and chuckled. "What am I saying? Sure, you can pay."

Aoi chuckled back. "You could try harder, you know," she said. She glanced at the stage, and muttered "I wonder what's on tonight?"

Shoko sipped her drink—better than average for a UNA beer, though it still wasn't as good as a Victoria Bitter—and then replied, "Should be music tonight. I guess whatever band they got hasn't set up yet."

"I hope. I couldn't stand another strip show tonight." She looked back to Shoko, and started to giggle.

Shoko chuckled in reply, then said, "Oh, I don't know. If the band doesn't show up soon, maybe I'll volunteer to take the stage. Better yet, we could do a duo act. You could come out of retirement to do one last performance! Whaddya say?" She tried to keep a straight face, but snorted and broke up after only a few moments.

For a second, Aoi's face froze in a mixture of horror and anger. Then a smile slowly spread across her face. She began to chuckle, and soon joined Shoko in a bout of hysterical laughter.

It took several seconds and a good gulp of beer for Shoko to regain her composure. "Sorry, I just couldn't resist." She paused to take another sip. "Seriously, though. I know it's not really my business if you want to keep it a secret, but you think you might tell me a little more about yourself if I get you drunk enough? I feel like I know who you are now, but every time your past comes up, it's like peeling an onion—one layer after another."

"Umm... What's there to say?" Aoi shrugged. "I grew up in the Zone, so I'm really rough around the edges. I used to be..." She looked around the room, searching for the right words. "Well, a lot less mature. But I'm over that." She turned back to Shoko. "And that's it, really."

"You grew up in the Zone? Really?" Shoko shook her head. "See how little I know about you? I figured you'd grown up in a corporate arcology, or at least outside the Zone. I don't see you as 'rough around the edges'. Just the opposite, to me you seem...well, not exactly refined, but...I dunno. I can't find the word I want. But remember the first time we met? I thought your were a corper playing at being a zoner? Not sure why, but to my eyes, you just seem like someone who grew up outside the Zone."

"You serious?" Aoi was obviously surprised. She scratched her head and muttered, "That's just because you don't know me. I've been living more and more in the city of late and maybe it's started to rub off on me. I just can't tell." She paused to sample her drink. "'Course, if you saw me in private, that would be a different matter."

Shoko sipped her drink and thought about that a moment. "Well, maybe you're right. We got all kinds in the Zone, after all. But at least some of the city is rubbing off on you—your fashion sense is way above average for a Zone resident."

"This?" She said, indicating to her suit. "I call this look 'I have the clothes on my back and nothing else.' I hear it's very popular around here."

Shoko chuckled and raised her bottle, "Oh, it is. Take it from the naked Puma, it is."

Aoi laughed out loud and knocked her glass against Shoko's. She took a long pull from it, then gave her friend a serious look. "So what about you? I take it you're not the run-of-the-mill runaway Puma then?"

"Not exactly." Shoko hesitated. "Damn. I guess I have no business pressing you about your past if I'm not willing to talk, huh? Fine, I, um...I'm not actually a Puma mod at all. I just find it convenient to let people assume that. Actually, I'm a Fox-class synthetic. No, don't try to recall, you've never heard of us. I was one of ten prototypes; we never went into production. When Mitsumi found out that a small corp was gonna market a better security synthetic, they responded with a hostile takeover. A very hostile takeover, if you know what I mean. The short story is that I escaped in the confusion, lived in Australia for two years and then, um...well, then I came here."

Aoi sat still, her glass held up to her lips staring at Shoko in amazement. "That's..." She trailed off, gently placing her glass back on the table as if it would break at the slightest touch. "Um... I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked," she finally said.

Shoko smiled at her, a bit sadly. "Just do me a favor and don't spread it around, okay? As far as anyone else is concerned, I'm just customized Puma that ran away."

"That's a promise," Aoi said. She sat in silence for a while, tapping her nails on the table. "Say, if you've got some time to spare..."


"Well, I'm holding a party for my... friend," Aoi said, just a touch too quickly, "And I though you might to come along." She shrugged. "It's a smallish birthday bash. Just thought you might... y'know."

Shoko thought about it a moment as she sipper her beer. "You sure they won't mind?"

Aoi chuckled for a second. "To be honest, I think you'd fit right in."

Shoko ears perked up a bit. "Well then, maybe I can make some new friends. When and where is it? Your place? I don't know where you live."

"No... I don't have a place." She sighed. "But my friend's hosting it. She lives..." Aoi trailed off and bit her lip. "Ah. Problem. It's in the city."

"Uh, yeah. That is a problem." Shoko swirled the remaining beer in her bottle as she thought. Finally, she looked up. "I got an idea! If it's in town, you must have the necessary ID's and whatnot to cross the bridge, right? So, you just claim to be my owner when we cross."

"Of course. Simple." Aoi shook her head, smiling in amusement. "I should have thought of that. So, are you up for it?"

"Yeah, I think so," said Shoko tentatively. "Unless...I'm not going to have to pretend you're my owner all night, am I? I mean, you're sure nobody who'll be there will be the type to, um...oh, never mind." She suddenly shook her and sounded chagrined. "You wouldn't have invited me if those sorts of people would be present. I'm sorry. Yeah, count me in."

"They're not, trust me." She ran her fingers idly over the table while smiling to herself. "In fact, I think you'll find most of them like me. Strange as that seems," she finished, laughing to herself.

"Then they definitely sound like people I'd like to meet," said Shoko brightly. "Thanks, Gem—uh, Aoi. So, when do we have to head out? Do we have time to swing by the garage before we go?"

Aoi shook her head. "It's not for a few days yet. It still needs organizing. And believe me, it's going to take a lot of organizing." She sighed. "But I'm glad you can make it."

Shoko blushed. "Sorry, my mistake. I thought you meant it was tonight. But that's good, actually," chuckling, she held up her hands, clearly displaying the handcuff loops still dangling around her wrists. "It means I don't have to run back to the garage tonight to ask Ken to cut these off. Somehow I don't think even NYPD Inc. would have let me past the checkpoint while I was still wearing 'em."

Aoi couldn't help but laugh in response. It was a good example of just how absurd their night had been so far. "I just need to drag you off and get a photo somewhere, in case they actually bother asking for ID or license papers. Otherwise, we'd be sunk."

"No problem," Shoko assured her. "I assume you know a fixer who can handle that or something? When do you want to do it?"

Aoi downed her drink and stood from her seat. "Right now. Ready?"

"You bet!" said Shoko, quickly downing the last of her beer. "Let's go!"

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