By Max Fauth and Michael Surbrook

<<on line (11:39:22/02-20-34)>>

TO: Shion Nys (NA/UNA/NY (212)-891-9636, Nys, S)
FROM: Marta Nys-Li (PR/HK/HK (852)-0080-2414 5555, Nys-Li, M) 19-February-2034

Heya big sister! I know you've probably already gotten the invitation, but I thought I'd send this anyway. You (and one guest—ha, like that'll happen...) are invited to attend a dinner to celebrate Ling Ling and I getting married! So come on, get all dressed up in your finest (you going to wear the super-expensive kimono again? are ya? hunh? hunh?) and get over here to HK for the big feast. Ling Ling's promised there's going to be all kinds of food, and a lot of it will even use real meat! (imagine that...).


>>PRINT? (Y/N)
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<<off line (11:44:41/02-20-34)>>

Shion leaned back and pulled on the rowing machine cable. The flywheel rattled slightly as the cable let out and then hummed as she leaned forward, tension was relaxed, and it pulled up the slack. A moment's glance at the counter showed 136—at 200 she'd take a break.

Another pull, another rattle, and another hum. She let her mind wander, not thinking about what she was doing at the moment but what she needed to do later that day. Find Aoi for starters. Then arrange for tickets to Hong Kong. After that? Shopping. If not for clothing (she did own a "super-expensive" kimono after all), then at least for wedding gifts.

That was almost enough to give her pause. She pulled back on the cable, breathing in, her concentration now focused on the far wall. A wedding banquet. Who would have ever thought her sister would settle down and get married?

In truth she should have seen it coming. Marta had stuck with Ling Ling for far longer than any of her previous relationships. She was, in fact, utterly smitten with the woman, even after, what? five years? Amazing. Of course, for someone like Marta, Ling Ling had plenty to get smitten with. And not just her generous bustline either. She was smart, capable, financially solvent, and quite attractive. Almost too good for her younger sister, or so Shion thought at times.

Exhale. Pause. Pull. Breathe in.

Oh well. What was done was done. If her sister chose to get married then so be it. It wasn't like Shion was going to have any say in the matter (and she doubted Marta would have listened anyway). So she would go, valet Aoi in tow, and wear her finest, look her best, eat what promised to be an excellent meal (if she knew Ling Ling) and generally enjoy herself. Or so she hoped. One could never tell when one went to Hong Kong. Especially if her sister was involved.

Glancing down, Shion noted the counter read 211. Time to stop. Rising from the rowing machine she wrapped a towel around her shoulders. First and foremost she'd get a shower, get changed, and then find Aoi.

Once she was dressed, sounds of activity drew Shion back to her gym. Aoi was inside, facing the punching bag. As she watched, her assistant lashed out with her right leg, striking the bag repeatedly, each time wincing in apparent pain. Shion had noted Aoi's recent limp, particularly on that side. But now she was training up her injured leg again, fighting through the discomfort and pain it caused.

Stepping inside, Shion glided silently to mats and the hanging heavy bag. Aoi's breath hissed between gritted teeth as she lashed out with her leg, each slap of flesh on canvas marked by a sharp gasp of restrained pain. Finally, she reached out and dropped on hand on Aoi's shoulder.

"That's enough."

The younger woman looked up with a start, surging away from Shion for an instant before recognizing her. "Boss? What's up?" She asked, surprised at the interruption.

"Time to give your leg a rest. You're doing more harm than good." Shion gestured at the bag. "If you find you can't walk tomorrow morning, how useful will this have been?"

Aoi sighed and shook her head. "I've been favoring this one too long," she said, rubbing her injured leg. "I really need to bring it up to speed."

"Then you need to give it some extended low-impact exercise." Shion glanced at the ceiling and assumed a thoughtful look. "How does shopping sound?"

Aoi blinked in surprise. Shopping? What was going on here? She examined Shion's peculiar expression. The boss definitely had something on her mind, but Aoi couldn't figure it out. "What do you need?" she asked eventually.

"To look good for a wedding."

"Whose?" Aoi asked, brows furrowed in confusion.

"My sister's." Shion replied, her tone carefully neutral.

"Hang on, Marta?" Aoi blinked in surprise. "To who?"

"Li Ling Ling." There was a pause as Shion waited for Aoi to think it over.

Aoi blinked twice in surprise, then simply burst out with "What?" She had briefly met Marta's lover in Hong Kong, a rather over-endowed Chinese woman. Now the two of them were getting married... She covered her eyes, suddenly flushed with memories of herself and Kami at home. She hadn't even know it was possible, now two women were getting married. If they had gone that far... Her thoughts trailed off, and she shook her head to clear it.

"To be honest, it isn't so much as a wedding as a 'civil union,'" Shion continued, utterly unperturbed by Aoi's outburst. "And I, and a guest, have been invited to the reception. In Hong Kong."

"And a guest, huh?" Aoi asked. "Who'd that be?"

Shion gave Aoi a withering glance. "I thought you might like to go."

"Me?" Aoi blinked in surprise. She'd half expected Shion to drag along some toy-boy for the look of the thing. But this was her sister's wedding, after all. From what little she knew of the pair, Aoi had come to realize there was genuine affection between the sisters. Maybe this was Shion's way of being honest, by bringing not a trophy but—a friend?

Another thought struck Aoi. "Won't that look a little... odd?" She asked quietly.

"To who?" Shion shrugged and gestured. "Besides, who else should I bring? Some rented pleasure synth who will smile and nod at all the right places and times? I don't think so. This is my sister's wedding feast, not some boring corporate dinner."

Aoi nodded. "You're right, I'm sorry. And..." She looked up at the tall esper in front of her, her green eyes meeting the other's steely gaze. "Thank you, boss. I mean it."

Shion's expression softened. "Now get cleaned up and dressed. We have money to spend."

Aoi nodded eagerly, grabbed her towel and threw it over her shoulder. "Right, Boss."

"Hmm..." Shion glanced at the expansive contents of her walk-in clothes closet, her chin held in one hand, the other supporting her elbow. "What to wear?"

Standing in the doorway to the same closet, Aoi felt at a loss for words. Shion's closet alone was the size of some bedrooms in the Zone, and was packed from floor to ceiling with more outfits than anyone had a right to own. She had to wonder if Shion had really worn everything hung in there or if some of it had been bought simply because she "had to have it." It was surreal, really, to be standing in the Empress's boudoir. There were people, male and female, who'd kill to have a chance to be where she was right now, and here she was trying to advise Shion on fashion. Riiight. Next she'd be selling real estate in the Zone.

A shake of her head dispelled that image. First things first; get a good idea of what Shion had available. Stepping into the closet, she quickly skimmed over some of the outfits. They were literally in all styles and shapes, ranging from the most elaborate formal gowns to surprisingly plain and rugged "work gear" such as her famed combat suit. Aoi's eyes fell on one particular item, a finely crafted dress all in silk with white lace and gold thread. She shook her head and abandoned this route. Better to decide what Shion should wear, then find it.

"Should I wear this? Or get something new?"

"Hmm?" Aoi glanced up to see Shion holding out an elaborate blue and white kimono in her arms. "Wow... that's..." Aoi paused looking for the right word, "certainly formal enough for any wedding."

Shion gave her a slight smile and a nod. "Marta asked if I was planning on bringing it. She's seen me in it before."

"Oh?" Aoi looked at the kimono again with a critical eye. "You've worn it before then?"

"Occasionally. Usually to important corporate functions and the like. It's funny really, this kimono cost me around 25,000 and I hardly ever wear it."

That settled it. For something as important as her sister's wedding she'd need to show up in something completely new, not a dress she'd used before. "Then wear it somewhere else and soon." Aoi nodded to herself as she explained her line of thought. "But this is a special occasion. You need to go for new look and..." She blinked and stood there, mouth open, digesting what Shion had so casually stated. "Twenty-five grand?"

Setting the kimono back into its sealed case, Shion gave Aoi a quick glance. "You okay?"

"Fine..." She would never get used to this. Never. Shion lived in a world far above Aoi's own, no matter what original her roots had been. And the frightening part was that for all her money, there were others as equally far above the Empress as the Empress was above the typical wageslave on the street. Not many, granted, but they were there.

Taking a deep breath and muttering "25 grand" quietly, Aoi decided to try a different direction. "Boss? If I recommended a new dress to you that was in the same general price range as that kimono, would you pick it up?"

Placing the covered kimono back on the rail, Shion gave the question thought. "Depends on the dress," she replied, with a shrug.

"That's fair," Aoi nodded in agreement. "Besides, it wouldn't do for you to wear the same style as your date."

"Date?" Shion turned around at that one.

Allowing herself a smug smile—for once she'd surprised Shion—Aoi nodded. "Yes, a date. Isn't that what I am?"

"If you say so." Shion turned back around, pulling an outfit off of the rail apparently at random. Aoi got a glimpse of a white blouse and a swallow-tailed black coat with epaulets before the ensemble was hastily replaced. "So, you're going to wear a kimono?"

Aoi spent a brief moment trying to picture Shion wearing what she'd just seen and quickly gave up. "Well..." she replied, "I never actually have... so why not?

Shion's response was a simple shake of her head. "Anyway... what should I wear? Traditional or modern?"

Well, that was an easy one. "Traditional. This is an old-style wedding feast. It practically demands traditional."

Crossing her arms over her chest, Shion assumed a thoughtful pose. "Chinese?"

"I dunno..." Aoi had to think about that one. "A lot of guests will be wearing classic Chinese, I figure."

"My sister and Ling Ling certainly will," Shion agreed. "Some form of traditional wedding dress I presume. Japanese then? A kimono?" She glanced over at the hanging case. "A different kimono?"

"Wear something Western in style," Aoi replied. She rubbed her chin in thought. "You'd be the only one there."

"Don't be so sure of that."

Aoi could picture in her mind what she was thinking of, but couldn't describe it. Something exotic and old-fashioned, something unusual and distinctive, something like...

"What's this?" she asked herself reaching out to touch a white sleeve. It belonged to a long white split-tailed coat. A coat with epaulets in gold braid, a white baldric, a double row of buttons, and a high collar. Lifting it off the rail Aoi grunted in surprise. It was far heavier than it looked.

Once touch and her suspicions were confirmed. The coat was made with inner layers of armor cloth. There was an undershirt as well, and matching trousers. Sash, braid, and what looked like a sword belt.

"Almost," Aoi said to herself. She looked back up at Shion, hefting the outfit in her hands. "Almost like this. What's the style called?"

"Style?" Shion gave her a questioning glance. "It's... late Nineteenth Century. Victorian era I think. A faux military uniform. Made for a corporate trade show that wanted to project a sense of class. You like it?"

"I do. It's a touch stuffy for the wedding, but something like that." She held up the outfit and glanced between it and Shion. She gave a slight nod, and returned it to the clothes rack. "Do you have anything else like it?"

There was a long moment of silence as Shion mentally debated that question. Then she suddenly brightened and started pushing her way though the racked outfits. "Yes... yes I do. There was a dinner afterwards and I was supposed to wear something more civilian in nature... but just as formal."

A few more moments of digging later and Shion turned around with a long blue coat in her hands. "How's this?"

Aoi let out a low whistle as she stepped up to inspect the outfit. "That looks just right," she said. "Is there any more?"

"Is there any more?" turned out to be one of those questions better left unasked. The coat, made from blue velvet with white lining and trim was soon joined by matching trousers, a blouse with a front full of lace, long white gloves, knee-high boots, and a blue ascot. The entire ensemble looked to be the equal of Shion's formal kimono, and probably just as expensive.

"Forgot I had it. I've never worn it," Shion remarked as she arraigned the pieces on several nearby hooks.

Aoi blinked in surprise; half that such an elaborate costume could never be worn, and half that Shion could have forgotten about such an ornate - and no doubt expensive - piece. "That'll look great," she managed in a rather subdued tone.

"You think so?" Shion seemed pleased with Aoi's praise.

Aoi nodded, more confidently this time. "It will. It's formal, well made and would suit you wonderfully." And you don't have to spend a disgusting amount on a new one, she added mentally.

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