By Bernardo Sanguinetti, Max Fauth, Rob Rutherford, and Michael Surbrook

(Early 2034)

The party was set for Jeremy's mansion. The place was a grand home with huge grounds. The staff had gone to great pains to set up and decorate for the party. The festivities centered around the garden, with many tables and chairs for guests to make themselves comfortable. There were waiters wandering the grounds to serve drinks, a live band playing for the guests and even a dancing area for those who wanted to relax.

Jeremy nodded to one of his many security guards as he wandered towards the gate. Everything was going as planned. Only one person seemed to be missing: Kami. He glanced over at the driveway to see a black Porsche pulling in. The car seemed to whine as it arrived; as if it didn't like to be restrained to simple city driving. No doubt that suited its occupants.

First Kami stepped out of the passenger side. She hair was down and she was wearing a very short, transparent black, dress that left little to the imagination. She looked more like a bodysculpted supermodel than a bodyguard.

>From the drivers side stepped a beautiful redhead. She was very tall; well over six feet in her heels. She too was wearing a black transparent dress, but hers was long, slinky and slit up the side to her hips. She stepped aside for the valet, and joined Kami to escort her into the party.

Jeremy approached the pair, wondering to herself why Kami would bring a friend rather than a date. She was sure a beautiful woman like her would bring a man along.

Kami spotted him approaching and nodded. "Mr. Luckhestein, please allows me to introduce you to my friend," She said in a warm and friendly tone. "This is Angel. Angel, this is my new boss."

"Good evening, Kami. Good evening Angel, it is a pleasure to have you here," he said, smiling to each in turn.

"It's a pleasure to meet you too." Angel smiled as she held out her hand.

He seemed to ignore her hand. "Please enjoy the party."

"Thank you, we will," Angel replied.

Kami glanced around the garden, as if to look for someone. "Did she make it?"

"Sorry?" asked Jeremy, not understanding the comment.

"Did Shion make it?" The question took Angel off guard, and she shot Kami a quick look.

"Yes, any problem?" he asked with curiosity in his eyes behind the glasses

"No, just curious, that's all." Kami giggled a little.

"Feel free to join the party," he said, smiling. "Please excuse me, I need to greet the other arrivals." He nodded to the pair and left.

"Certainly." Kami and Angel headed in house to mingle and enjoy the party.

A sleek silver luxury car pulled into the driveway, instantly identifiable as a Mercedes 2028s. Even amid the scattering of Mitsubishi Nightskys, Lincoln Transcontinentals, and Toyota Elites, this in itself was enough to draw the attention of nearby partygoers. Then driver's door opened and Aoi stepped out, dressed in a high-collared white shirt, dark waistcoat and sleek black pants. She quickly, yet smartly, stepped around to the passenger's side of the car. As she opened the door, the onlookers craned their heads to see Shion step out. The tall esper was dressed in a shimmering and formfitting sleeveless white gown and matching opera gloves. Not one to do anything by halves, Shion's gown sported a narrow plunging neckline, giving a tasteful display of cleavage, and a low-slung belt that accentuated her waist and hips. Scanning the crowd with an imperious air she walked towards the entrance, Aoi closing the car's door and fell into step behind her.

Turning to pass her slim handbag to Aoi, Shion glanced at the assembled partygoers. "Keep your eyes and ears open, Aoi. I'm interested in who is here, who they are talking to, and what they are talking about. Also, I might need you to intercept anyone I don't want to deal with."

"Anyone in particular I should look out for?" She asked quietly. She briefly scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces but finding none.

Shion gave a slight smile. "I'm not exactly sure. I'd like to see if Jason Stone will be here, along with anyone from SynTech. I doubt they are too happy with me for wrecking their cyberdroid project." She paused for a moment, "Oh, and lookout for anyone who's allowed an excess of drink to override their common sense."

Aoi couldn't help but smile. "In other words, anyone I recognize, right?"

"You could say that."

Jeremy noticed that Shion Nys had arrived, and went straight to meet her at the entrance. He politely left the couple with which he was talking, and walked slowly towards Shion with a smile in his face. He waited for her to cross the mansion's front gate and leave her invitation with the guards.

"Ms Nys, it is a pleasure to have you at this party." He gestured for her to keep walking with his arm as he took a quick glance at Aoi.

Aoi bowed slightly to him, but remained silent behind Shion.

"Good evening, Mr. Luckhestein." Shion extended one gloved hand. "It is a pleasure to be here."

Jeremy nodded to Aoi and looked back at Shion with a smile. "I didn't expect that the Empress was like this, no offense," he laughed a bit. "It is just that I expected something different." He picked two flutes of champagne from the nearest waiter that came to serve him and offered one to Shion.

"Different, you say?" Shion politely sipped at the champagne. "In what way?"

Jeremy smiled and replied to her question in the most natural way he could. "You seem to be a nice person, beautiful. Not what I expected from the name Empress. I believed you were someone that I would fear." He adjusted his glasses as looked at her politely.

Aoi blinked in surprised. She had to admit that Jeremy Luckhestein wasn't what she had expected either. He was young, very handsome, and over all a far cry from her image of an aging executive. Above all else, he seemed to be utterly fearless. She held her breath, waiting for Shion's reply.

"Looks can be deceiving, Mr. Luckhestein."

"Agreed," he smiled and sipped at the champagne. "But if looks can be deceiving, why would you be deceiving me?" He extended his arm to pick up an appetizer at the approaching waiter that stopped and served them.

"Am I?" Shion sipped at her own champagne. "Would you have preferred me to arrive in full combat dress?"

Jeremy laughed a bit at her question, "Of course, I was just trying to understand why you said that."

This is going well, Aoi thought to herself. She scanned the crowd again; half looking for familiar faces, half searching for an opportunity to leave those two at it. Seeing none, she ruefully returned her attention to the verbal sparring in progress.

"So Ms Nys, what have you been doing lately?"

Killing people, Shion was very tempted to say, if only to see Jeremy Luckhestein's reaction. Instead she inwardly sighed, kept her best corporate face in place, and smiled at Jeremy. "Keeping busy," she replied, answering as vaguely as possible.

Jeremy could only smile at her answer. He knew that when you don't want to say anything important you just say you were busy. Having nothing better to do at his own party he decided to invite Shion for a dance. "Ms Nys, would you give me the pleasure of a dance?"

For an instant Shion seemed a bit taken back by the question. "At this very moment, Mr. Luckhestein? I've only just arrived."

Jeremy smiled, recognizing he'd made a simple mistake. Obviously he would need try to repair it. "Well, I know that, and I would be helping you to avoid these business men that put a bit of poison in every word they say." He glanced around and sipped from the champagne. "But I will let you free to enjoy the party, if you excuse me." He smiled and walked away.

Shion watched him go. "I'm not sure I trust him," she remarked to Aoi. "He smiles far to much."

"That's his job," she replied with a slight shrug. "Just wants to make a good impression."

"Hmm..." Shion muttered noncommittally. "My impression is of a man who knows more than he's letting on, and isn't afraid to tell you so."

The esper was a beautiful young woman with shoulder length red hair, green eyes and was as tall as the Empress herself. She was wearing a black transparent designer evening gown that showed off her perfect, but out of season tan.

She was with a shorter girl, with long, silver hair and amber eyes. She could almost pass for an escort or a pleasure synthetic. She was wearing another similarly immodest dress, but hers was very short.

"Hmm..." Shion mused. "Now who do think you that is," she asked out loud.

"Who is?" Aoi asked in turn.

"Those two," Shion replied.

Aoi turned slowly to glance in the direction Shion indicated. Her gaze locked on the pair and she was still for a second. A panicked look spread across Aoi's face, and she quickly turned her back on the pair. She looked up at Shion and seemed to regain her composure. "Her name is Angel and she works for DFP. She's... Sort of an agent for their security. I'm not sure exactly what she does there." She gave a nervous glance back to the pair, hoping they wouldn't approach.

Shion cocked an eyebrow at her shorter companion. "That had been a rhetorical question, you know. I didn't expect you to actually know who they are."

Aoi blinked a couple of times. Realization dawned on her face, accompanied by a pained expression. She sighed, but otherwise remained silent.

"Is this Angel supposed to be some form of esper weapon?"

"Why do you say that?" Aoi asked, clearly confused.

Shion nodded at the pair. "She has a detectable signature. Not a significantly powerful one, but it is there."

"I never..." She turned back to look at Angel. "But they don't treat her like one."

Glancing down at Aoi, Shion gave her a quizzical look. "You never what? And how do you know those two anyway?""

Aoi shook her head. "I just had no idea she was an esper. We met... Well, sort of on business. It's a long story."

"I see." Shion gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. "Not matter. Her signature isn't anything to worry about."

Aoi gave a quiet sigh. "Good," she said. "I'd rather not be recognized, actually."

"Why? Afraid to be seen with me?"

"Not with you," Aoi replied. "Just here."

Shion glanced around the room, "I'd ask you if you want to leave for another part of the party, but I think it's already too late."


"They're coming over here."

Angel remained ice cold as she watched the Empress. She had been aware of her presence for what seemed like an eternity before she entered the room. Because she tended to be rather sensitive, she was used to biting her tongue when other espers were present, and letting them recognize her first. This time was no exception. "Kami dear, why don't you take a drink."

Kami looked at Angel sideways and had a drink of her champagne.

While Kami sipped her drink, "Just so you resist the urge to look, but the Empress just showed up with your girlfriend."

Kami was quite happy her drink was very dry. She savored the drink in her mouth and slowly glanced around the room as she swallowed. "Interesting, when Aoi said she had got called in for work, I didn't realize that the Empress was actually planning on showing up here."

"Interesting," Angel replied. "Shall we go over and pay our respects?"

Kami giggled at the idea.

Aoi saw the pair make their way through the crowd. They're coming here, she thought to herself. She glanced around nervously, then quietly stepped aside, almost to hide behind Shion.

Angel smiled graciously as she approached the Empress. "Good evening," Angel said warmly while taking advantage of her height to make eye contact without looking up or down. "Please allow me to introduce myself, I am Angel and this is Kami."

Kami perked up, "Nice to meet you." She grinned like a high school girl, but there was a disturbing look in her eyes, the kind that few people other than the Empress would notice.

"Nys. Shion Nys," Shion replied, sipping from her glass. "And this is my assistant Aoi." She gestured to her shorter companion with a lazy wave of the hand, watching the pair carefully.

Angel nodded graciously to Aoi, "Hello Aoi, nice to see you again."

"Hiya," Kami piped in. Her voice was certainly friendly enough, though the expression in her eyes remained unsettling.

Angel turned her attention back to the Empress. "So Miss Nys, what do you think of our host's hospitality?" With that she raised her glass and took a sip, revealing a smartgun-link on her hand.

"It would seem he is going out of his way to impress his guests," Shion raised her own glass and took a drink as well. "Everything has been carefully calculated to be luxurious, without being overly ostentatious."

Angel made a quick glance around the room to validate the Empress's opinion. "Hrmm, interesting description. I'm not sure I would look to whoever decorated this place for advice in decorating my place."

Kami let her attention wander from Shion to her companion. She wanted to say something like, "Let's let the adults talk and go have some fun." But she bit her tongue, kept her ice-cold mindset, and shoved her Silver mindset aside.

"Tell me, Aoi," Shion said, taking a step away from the shorter woman. "What do you think? Surly you have an opinion on the matter?"

Aoi looked around the party, carefully avoiding Angel and Kami's gazes. "I can't really say I'm too familiar with these kinds of parties. But the place looks good, that's for sure." She glanced nervously at Shion, then turned her head down.

Kami exchanged glances with Angel. She knew Aoi hadn't been around this kind of stuff, except with Zenshou. "Why don't we head for someplace a little less crowded and have a seat to talk." She looked over at Aoi as her icy gaze softened.

Aoi glanced nodded to Kami, then turned to Shion. "If it's alright?" she asked her employer.

"Perhaps," Shion mused. "There doesn't seem to be much happening here. Unless you were going to go by yourself."

Aoi nodded her thanks and looked around. She spotted a comfortable looking bench, off to the side of the main garden. She turned back to Kami and said "Alright."

Kami felt a bit uncomfortable about this. She was used to letting Angel handle this sort of business. That was a world away. First she looked at Shion, next at Aoi and smiled. "Let's go." With that she started towards the area of the garden. Aoi gave Shion a nervous glance, then followed her.

Angel watched silently to see the Empress's reaction.

Shion stood motionless, watching Aoi leave, and then turned and headed off back into the depths of the party, abandoning her champagne flute along the way.

Angel sighed to herself. Considering the fact the Ran was useless, the Empress was certainly the most powerful PK in the world. Her arrogance and pride were well known and expected, but her bad attitude and hostility were not only surprising, but dissappointing. Angel simple muttered, "Enjoy the party." as the Empress turned and left.

Kami gently lead Aoi to a secluded bench off to the side of the manor's garden. The pair quietly took a seat.

"I suppose I should apologize," Aoi muttered almost to herself.

Kami nodded, "I guess you have to keep the Empress appeased though". Aoi could still see the ice cold look in Kami's eyes, but other than that her expression was warm and friendly.

Aoi looked away from her, out at the garden. "I didn't mean to... Well, I know this was meant to be your- *our* special night."

Kami nodded, "Yeah, and I was kinda looking forward to shopping for an evening gown for you too".

"She called me for the 'job,' and I accepted before I knew it was for tonight."

"It happens, but it doesn't mean we have to enjoy it. Just deal with it long enough so that we can retire in the lifestyle of our choosing."

"Yeah..." she turned back, smiling. "I messed up."

"You did what you had to do." Kami replied in her cool business tone.

"Yup, I messed up," she replied, turning away again.

"How so?"

"You're using your 'Kami' voice on me. I know you're mad."

"True, but I'm only mad, its not like I'm gonna retaliate and threaten to kick you out of bed or something."

"That's a relief." Aoi thought for a second, then added "Hey, it's my bed, anyway!"

"That's not the point." Kami said flatly. Aoi simply sighed. "Besides what other voice you you expect me to use when dealing with the Empress?"

"She's not here, alright? It's my fault, so deal with me!" Aoi snapped back.

Kami remained calm, "I'm here with you right now, and I'm saying that your apology is appreciated, and while I'm hurt I'm not going to let myself get upset about it, especially here and now. Nor am I gonna say something like never let it happen again, because I expect it will, I'm just gonna deal with it."

Aoi's face flushed with embarrassment, and she remained silent. "You want to play with the big kids like the Empress we're gonna have to deal with a little of their crap. But it doesn't mean we have to like it."

"Yeah..." She muttered. "I shouldn't have snapped at you."

"I'm not surprised, you do tend to react that way when you're not happy."

"So now what?" Aoi asked.

"I dunno, I didn't come out here to argue."

"She'll want me back eventually.

"Of course, then let me go introduce you to a few of the other guests so you can be productive with your time."

Aoi nodded glumly. "Look, I don't know when I'll be back tonight. We may be here for ages."

"You'll be here until she get's bored." Kami had done this same kinds of stuff with Angel years ago. Except Angel sometimes liked to make it clear that Kami was her toy.

"Not too long then," she replied, with a hint of a smile.

"You'll probably get home before me." Kami snickered.

Aoi nodded her reply. "C'mon, let's make something of it."

"Hrmm?" Kami replied.

"Let's at least get a drink before I have to go back."

Kami had to laugh, "Sure."

"I can think of things I'd rather do, but not with the chance of your boss catching us."

"Very true," she replied and gave Kami a quick peck on the cheek.

Aoi found Shion sitting in a chair on the fringe of the party proper. Somewhere along the line she'd gained a glass of beer, and now looked to be either amused or bored... Aoi couldn't exactly tell which.

"Everything go well?" Shion asked.

"Let's say... Better than I expected." Aoi sighed and took a seat next to Shion. "Enjoying yourself?"

Shion shrugged. "Not really. But then, corporate parties usually aren't 'enjoyable', more like a necessary chore. You?"

"Frankly, I hate this scene," she replied. "It's all so stiff and artificial."

"It's a waste of time." Shion nodded in the general direction of Neo York's Zero Zone. "Right now things are happening. Big things, and all these people can talk about is who is screwing who in the office... both literally and figuratively. And no one is hiring right now."

"Yeah... Don't remind me." Aoi glanced at Shion, then gazed out towards the Zone. "I just moved out of there, you know."

Shion leaned forward, placing her chin in her hand, staring out at the mass of corporate elite doing what they usually did in a case like this—"networked." "Good for you." she said. "Aoi, its a nice place to visit, but I lived there once, and I never want to go back." Aoi gave her employer a look of surprise. Exactly how much alcohol had the Empress consumed while her back had been turned? "And why did Mr. Jeremy Luckhestein invite me here? So he could be seen talking to the Empress?" She shook her head and took a drink from her glass.

Aoi gently took the glass from her hand and set it down on the grass in front of them. "I think it's time you left," she said. "That's advice as your assistant, by the way."

Shaking her head, Shion gave Aoi a wry smile. "Afraid I'll create a scene?"

"Your assistant thinks you might." She returned the smile, and added "Your friend thinks you should go have some fun instead."

"My..." Shion glanced at Aoi. "I see," she said as she stood up and gestured towards the front doors. "By all means, let's go have some fun."

"C'mon then. I've got to find something can beat you at," she said with a smile as she fell in step behind Shion

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