It was raining inside the factory. The sprinkler systems had all switched on a few moments ago, and combined with the sirens and flashing lights it as enough to drive one mad.
"WHAT?" Moira asked.
Aoi sighed to herself, water dripping down into her eyes. "I said, 'I wish someone would shut off that damned alarm!'"
Aoi sighed again. She shouldn't have snapped at Moira. It was hard enough to hear one's self think, much less anyone else talk, what with all the racket.
A sudden tugging on her sleeve snapped her out of her fugue. Moira pointed off down a factory aisle, at a familiar shape slowly staggering its way up to them.
"Boss?" Aoi managed as Shion stepped out where she could see her. Moira simply stared openmouthed.
Shion's hair hung in water-soaked strings across her face and down her back, the dye starting to run and leaving her with streaks of gray and white. Once-white armor was blackened and cracked, while her black jumpsuit looked blistered and burned. Lubricant coated one arm with a slimy layer of white fluid, while other, unnamable liquids were splattered across her chest and face. Her face, the only place her skin was exposed, was a bright red, as if she was sunburned, while tears had left bright tracks in the grime. She winced with each step, and Aoi could tell she was favoring one of her legs.
"Boss?" she repeated, wondering what had happened. Especially since the Haloconnen was nowhere in sight.
"What," Shion croaked, making both Aoi and Moira jump.
Standing up straight, Shion gritted her teeth and ignored the pain in her body. "I'm fine. Let's get going."
"Uhm..." Aoi glanced at Moira, who shrugged in return. "Whatever you say."
The first thing Aoi saw when they reappeared was the conference room of Nabiki's safe-house. Then the follow-up pressure wave exploded around them, blasting chairs apart, hurling the long table into the far wall, and reducing the drop ceiling to a cloud of shredded fragments. Aoi glanced over to Moira, whose eyes bulged with amazement, then up to Shion. The tall esper's eyes slid shut as she gracefully toppled forwards.
Aoi sprung up and caught Shion in her arms, grimacing under the weight of the esper's armor and gear, before gently lowered her to the floor. She looked up at Moira, who was nervously hovering over them, then back down to her employer.
"Is she alright?" Moira nervously asked.
"I hope so..." Aoi gently shook Shion, calling her name. When there was no response, she struck Shion on the cheek, yelling "Get up!"
"What are you doing?" Moira asked in alarm.
Aoi shook her head. "She's not coming round. Moira, see if you can find someone. Quickly!"
Moira nodded and scurried out of the room. Aoi fumbled with the latches of Shion's clamshell armor and lifted it over her head. She then pulled off her gloves and tugged free her boots. Finally she loosened the collar of the underlying jumpsuit. Aoi then brushed Shion's hair out of her face and felt her forehead. The woman was burning up. She cursed under her breath and unzipped the jumpsuit as far as it would go.
Moira burst into the room, the blue-haired lynx following her. "I found help!" she yelled.
Temple glanced around at the devastation and asked "What happened here?"
"She was hurt, and 'ported back in here," Aoi replied. She looked up at Temple and added "Now we really, really need a room."
Temple nodded nervously and replied, "Follow me." Aoi stood behind her, lifting Shion in her arms.
The first sensation was of soft sheets and a cool bed. Then of cool air on her face and dampness on her forehead. Slowly opening her eyes, Shion beheld a mostly empty room, carefully decorated in a neutral style as possible. The lighting was turned down low, which was a benefit considering she still had a slight headache, and it the quiet was absolute, except for the sound of someone's regular breathing.
Turning her head, Shion winced at the pain it caused. Her face felt tender and hot, as if she'd been out in the sun too long. Her arms felt the same, with a faint prickling sensation down their length. From what she could see, the skin was red, and she was willing to bet her face was worse. Whatever sort of heat weapon the cyborg had used on her, it probably involved microwaves, and had managed to cook her quite well, armor and esper fields not withstanding.
The damp sensation on her face turned out to be a folded towel, which was now mostly dry. The breathing belonged to Aoi, who was sitting fast asleep in a chair next to the bed.
"aoi?" she asked softly.
When the woman didn't stir, Shion decided to let her sleep for the moment. If she really needed anything she'd ring for room service and get Nabiki's Lynx to bring her something. Besides, right now laying down in the bed was a plan with a lot going for it. Except...
Lifting the sheet, Shion confirmed that yes, she was currently nude. Someone had stripped her of her armor, gear, and clothing—and had given her a bath as well. Apparently she'd been worse of than she'd thought.
Closing her eyes, Shion settled back amid the pillows. Aoi had the right idea. Although there still was one more active anti-esper cyborg out there that needed destroying, right now she needed her rest.
Again her eyes fluttered open. This time the lighting was marginally brighter and she could hear the soft rustle of clothing. Slowly turning her head, Shion took in a small table with the remains of a light breakfast. Aoi stood by it, her back turned and bare from the waist up. As her eyes focused, she could see her assistant's body was a mass of bruises. She watched the young woman flinch slightly as she pulled a plain gray t-shirt over her head.
"What happened to you?"
Aoi started and turned around, blinking in surprise at Shion. She then flushed red and pulled her shirt down over her chest. "Er... I met up with a pair of Lynxes..." She said as she self-consciously covered her front.
"Hmm..." Shion muttered noncommittally. "What happened to me?"
Aoi cautiously stepped up to her. "You passed out after teleporting us back to the safe house. I've done my best to look after you..." She trailed off.
Shion lay quiet for a moment. "How bad was it?"
Aoi sighed and sat by the bed. "Honestly, I don't know. You're a bit bruised, but that's nothing serious. I'm more worried by the roasting you received." She smiled a bit and added "Moira said you looked like a cooked lobster."
"I feel like it." Shion raised and arm and looked at the reddened skin. "Who ever armed those cyborgs knew what he was doing. Lasers and some sort of microwave weapon. Even I had trouble with them." Letting her arm drop back down to the bed, Shion glanced over at Aoi. "Speaking of Moira, has she found the other one yet?"
Aoi shrugged. "Maybe. She's sleeping it off. We had a rough night too, y'know," she said with a faint smile.
"Did you get what we need?"
Aoi nodded. "She'll sift through it all later. Right now, I think we all need a bit more rest."
"No." Shion tossed the covers aside with a sweeping gesture. "I need to get back to work." She twisted in her bed and swung her legs over the bed. "I..."
There was a long moment where Shion sat there on the edge of the bed, her head bowed, thick white tresses hiding her face. Aoi could see the damage the cyborg's weapons had wrought on her body quite clearly. Most of her skin was far redder than normal, despite the protection afforded by bodysuit, armor, and esper fields. Mottled marks of dark blue and purple were scattered across her stomach and hips, and one long line stretched across both thighs. Unseen from this angle was even more such marks across her back. Aoi wasn't certain what had happened in the depths of the factory but she know one thing: the Empress had been tested severely.
A sudden, hissing, intake of breath made Aoi glance at Shion in alarm. "Take it easy," Aoi said. "You're in no condition to get up."
"I need a bath..."
"What?" Aoi wasn't sure she'd heard her employer correctly.
"No... a long soak." Shion looked up and right at Aoi. "Go get that synthetic... what's her name?"
"Right. Go find Temple and have her call Nabiki. Tell her I want to rent an indoor onsen for an afternoon... maybe more. Understand?"
A warm smile broke across Aoi's face. "Sounds like the best idea yet. You stay, I'll sort it all out for you."
"And don't forget the sake!" Shion called as Aoi left.
"So," Aoi asked, as they sat in the limousine Nabiki had sent, "What exactly is an onsen? I mean, it's a bath thing, ain't it?"
"Not exactly," Shion replied, looking much better after a day's rest. "It's an outdoor hot springs."
"Ahh..." Aoi paused and looked puzzled for a moment. "But you asked for an indoor one."
"That's because the outdoors ones are up in the mountains." Shion gestured at the window. "But there are indoor onsen made to look like the real thing here in Mega-Tokyo."
"Now that's class," Aoi had to admit.
"Of course," Shion said in a smug tone of voice. "Nabiki knows I wouldn't accept anything less."
"Unhunh..." Aoi had to wonder how much Nabiki was going to charge for this little jaunt, then thought better of it. Besides, another question had just come to her. "So how does this work? Do we each get our own bathrooms?"
"No, one large pool." Shion paused and thought for a moment. "Actually... it might be broken up into smaller pools, but it will be a single room."
A single room? Aoi realized she was having trouble getting a handle on this whole "onsen" thing. "So we have to take turns?"
With an audible sigh, Shion turned from the window of the limousine to look at Aoi. "Do you remember my swimming pool?"
"How could I forget? You nearly drowned me in it."
Ignoring the sarcasm in her voice (and Moira's wide-eyed stare), Shion continued. "The onsen we are going to is as large or larger, than that."
Aoi blinked, trying to imagine a hot bath larger than Shion's private pool. "Um... That sounds a bit big... for even you."
Raising one eyebrow, Shion glanced over at Aoi. "It's meant to be used by a group."
A... group? Aoi felt like she'd been hit in the face with a dash of icy cold water. Shion was taking them to a hot bath so they could all get in it, "...at once?!?"
Now the Empress sounded annoyed. "Yes, all at once. Group bathing is common in Japan, although I intended this to be more of a group soak. You and I, at least, could use it."
Now Aoi tried to wrap her mind around *that* revelation. A group soak? All three of them? "Um... What about Moira? Isn't she a bit young for this?"
"Depends," Shion said with a shrug. "Do you think so?"
Now Shion actually looked cross. "Take her, leave her," she snapped glancing from Aoi to the silent Moira and back again. "I don't really care. No one here will think twice about it."
Aoi swallowed nervously. Now she'd done it. She'd made Shion mad. "I guess then... Um..."
Taking a deep breath, Shion visibly calmed herself. "You don't have to go. You can take Moira back to the hotel, or go visit the city for a few hours. It doesn't matter to me."
"No, no..." Aoi said hastily. "We'll come. It's just..."
"It's just... you're sort of... intimidating... naked."
Now it was Shion's turn to be rendered speechless. She stared at Aoi for a long moment before looking back out the window. "I don't see how. Right now I'm pretty banged up."
"Frankly, that won't make any difference," Aoi muttered, half to herself.
The onsen was exactly as Shion had described. A spacious room with wooden paneling and a wooden deck surrounding several steaming pools of water. Large rocks had been set long the edges of the pools, along with a layer of gravel and pebbles, and a thick profusion of plants. It looked like someone had transplanted a mountain hot spring into the room, which, of course, was the idea.
The pools were fairly shallow, no more than five feet deep at the center. Heated water was pumped in from the outside, and spilled over the rocks into the first, and largest pool. It then flowed from pool to pool, until it exited out the far side. All one had to do to control the temperature of the water was move up or down the line of pools. Simple really.
As the room itself was quite humid, with a faint steamy haze, they were first shown to a small changing room. Inside they found white terry cloth robes, sandals, and towels, as well as lockers, within which they were expected to leave their clothing.
Once changed, Shion led them into the onsen proper.
"Well?" she asked Aoi. "Now what do you think?"
Aoi let out a low whistle. "It's beautiful..." She said, trailing off as she took in the room.
As Aoi watched, Shion removed her robe and set it on one of the benches that ran around the edges of the room. Although her body still bore the bruises from the fight at the factory, many of them had faded, showing Shion was recovering from her injuries with almost frightening speed. Folding up her towel, Shion placed it atop her head, much to Aoi's surprise, and then stepped into the largest (and hottest) pool.
Aoi shook her head. It was amazing just how comfortable Shion was with two people watching her nude body. Now more than ever, she felt awkward in Gem's body. Shion hadn't seen her naked before, and she was more than a little nervous about disrobing in front of her. What was the worst she could do? Aoi thought, trying to reassure herself. Laugh, came the cocky voice from inside.
Getting ready to take off her robe, Aoi felt Moira tug on her sleeve. "Yes?" she asked the young cyborg.
"Uhmm... Aoi?" Moira actually looked a bit embarrassed. "Do you think Dad will let me have a body like that when I get older?"
Okay... that wasn't exactly what she'd expected. Still... Glancing over her shoulder, Aoi looked at where Shion sat immersed in the steaming water, looking quite content as she sipped at a small cup of what she presumed to be sake. "No one should have a body like that."
That took Moira by surprise. "Why not? What's wrong with it?"
What's wrong with it? Nothing. That's what's wrong with it. Aoi decided not to voice her opinions out loud, and tried a different tact. "It's a bit... Well, it's rather..." Great, she wasn't going to get anywhere at this rate. "I mean, look at her next to me," she finished lamely.
Moira did, glancing at the pool and then back at Aoi. "Well, she is a lot bigger than you, that's for sure."
Aoi winced slightly at the remark. She thought she was used to the odd girl by now, but Moira still managed to surprise her. "Thanks," she replied wryly. "Look, it's just that Shion's... well... overdeveloped."
Moira digested that while she removed her robe, revealing her own picture-perfect body, courtesy of her cybergraft upgrade. Of course, since she was only thirteen or so, that wasn't saying much. "I guess its her long legs." she said pragmatically. "I wish I had long legs."
Aoi shook her head. "Legs are fine. I mean, mine virtually go up to my armpits. But she's just so... Well, huge all over."
"Huge?" Moira folded up her towel and placed it on top of her head. "Just because her breasts are a lot larger than yours I wouldn't call her huge."
Aoi felt a nervous tic starting to develop in her left cheek. Here she was getting her self-esteem vaporized by a teenager... This she certainly didn't need. "Yeah, Moira, Huge." Aoi thought about Shion. Her long legs, broad shoulders, wide hips, and well-endowed torso. "Most people don't look like her."
"Temple does," Moira not-so-helpfully pointed out.
Here it comes. "Temple is a synth. She's not meant to look normal."
"Oh yeah?" Moira pointed a finger at her chest. "How about me? I mean, I can have any kind of cyber-body I want. So why can't I look like that?"
Good question. "You'd stand out too much. Everyone would look at you."
Ah. There's the big one, Aoi thought. She looked down at Shion again, remembering just how comfortable the Empress was exposing herself in front of them. "Most people don't want to stand out like that. They want to look like normal people," she finished, turning back to Moira.
Hands on hips, Moira gave her an amused look. "I'm not most people, Gem," she said, then turned and slid into the third pool.
That went well, Aoi thought to herself. She stepped up to the hot pool and gently slid out of her robe. Her face flushed, half with the heat and half with the embarrassment, she stepped cautiously in. The effect was immediate. Tension seemed to pour out of her body, leaving her relaxed and calm. She closed her eyes, leaned back and found herself a spot against the wall next to Shion.
Her eyes snapped open and she looked at Shion. She smiled warmly and held out her hand, saying "I thought you'd never ask."
Handing over one of the small cups, Shion filled it with clear liquid. "Drink it slowly," she recommended.
Aoi nodded softly and took a gentle sip from her cup. "That feels good..." she muttered to herself.
Refilling her own cup, Shion replaced the bottle of sake on a small wooden platter floating on the surface of the pool. "Do you still fill intimidated?" she asked in a deceptively casual tone.
"Next to most women, I look like a man." She drank heavily from her cup and continued. "Next to you, I look like a little boy. So yes, I do feel intimidated. I think I've got a right to," she finished, with a wry smile.
Shion shook her head, her face echoing Aoi's smile. "Good thing my sister and Ling Ling aren't here then. You might die of shame."
Aoi frowned at her, but was otherwise silent.
Catching the expression on her face, Shion's smile vanished. "I'm sorry," she said. "That was uncalled for."
Aoi sighed and leaned back. She then turned back to Shion with an amused smile. "You know, that's the first time I've heard you apologize for anything," she said.
Sipping from her cup, Shion shrugged. "Very few people are worthy of one."
"I'm honored," Aoi muttered and turned back to her cup.
"I'd also like to thank you," Shion continued as Aoi glanced back in confusion. "For what you did earlier."
"What I... You mean at the safe house?"
"Yes." Shion reached over and refilled Aoi's sake cup.
She shrugged. "Just my job, I guess. I mean, it's nothing I hadn't done before."
"Well, I'd like to thank you anyway. And speaking of 'your job,' we need to discuss how we are going to tackle the last target." Shion took a drink of sake. "And we need to work fast, since by now, they must know something is up."
Aoi sighed. "And I was hoping to relax some more. Moira's got all the info on her laptop. I can check it when we're done here."
Taking another drink of sake, Shion nodded. "I think relaxing is a good idea. I don't think I'll be ready to go back out for another few days, anyway."
Aoi leaned back again, content to relax. But one nagging thought remained in her mind. She suddenly turned back to Shion and asked her "So why me?"
"What do you mean, 'why you?'"
"I mean... Why did you choose me for this job? Why bring me along? It's not like you asked for my qualifications or anything. Heck, I'm probably lousy at this whole assistant job. So basically..." She shrugged. "Why me?"
"Punishment." Shion drank down the last of her sake and refilled the cup. "You broke into my home, so instead of killing you, I decided to make your life miserable." The tall woman gave Aoi a wry smile. "Besides, since you were tough enough to stand up to me, I figured you could handle it."
Aoi looked Shion in the eye, her face a portrait of disgust. Then she did the one thing that Shion would never have expected.
Shion said nothing for moment, but simply sipped at her cup. Finally, in a quiet voice, she asked, "Are you through?"
Aoi nodded, still smiling broadly. "Guess I've been punished enough."
Ignoring the comment, Shion took a drink from her cup. "You asked me how you could pay me back for sparing your life. *That* is why I asked Jason Stone to send you with me."
Aoi thought for a moment, emptying her own cup. "I guess not many people are that brave around you," she said at length.
"People fear me," Shion said after a few moments of silence. "I'm the Empress, the world's most powerful esper. I'm not a person, I'm a living weapon."
"Well," said Aoi, her smile returning, "For a weapon, you have very good taste in bath houses."
Shion glanced questioningly at Aoi's sake cup. "How much of that have you had?"
"Not enough," she replied. "Not nearly enough to agree that you-" she poked Shion in the shoulder "Are just some weapon."
"Right." Shion glanced at her own cup. "Obviously we need more sake."
"If that's what it takes," Aoi replied. She glanced around, only to find a pale, purple-haired synth standing behind them.
"How may I be of service?" she asked in a soft voice.
That was quick, Aoi thought to herself. "More sake, please." The synth took their empty bottle and vanished as fast as she had appeared.
"I was serious, by the way." Shion glanced over at Aoi, her expression somber. "You wanted to know how you could pay me back? Well, here you are." She then glanced at their surroundings. "Of course, that would have sounded better back at the manufacturing center we hit..."
"I get your meaning, though." She thought for a second, then asked "So we're square?"
Shion shrugged. "I guess so. Or, we will be once this contact is completed."
Aoi nodded and leaned back. "I expect then you usually work alone, huh?" she said, almost to herself.
Aoi turned back and looked long and hard at Shion, studying her face intently.
"Yeah," she said at length. "I get pretty lonely too."
"I never said I was lonely."
Aoi shook her head. "You didn't need to. Honestly, you really didn't need to drag me along at all. But I think you like the company." She smiled and added "Am I right?"
Now it was Shion's turn to be silent. "Maybe."
"Here is your drink," came a soft voice behind them. Aoi looked up to see the purple-haired synth had reappeared holding a fresh bottle. Aoi quietly took the bottle, and watched as the synth vanished into the steam again. She shook her head in wonderment and offered a drink to Shion.
"Thank you." Shion sipped at her saki and looked out into the wispy steam over the pools. "Too bad this won't last."
"We could do it again sometime," Aoi said casually. She turned back to Shion with a gentle smile. "I mean, unless you're sick of me already."
"Perhaps..." Shion took another sip of sake. "But to be honest, I don't like to make long term plans. To much can change in a short time."
"I'll take that as a yes." Aoi rose from the pool and gently stepped out. "To hot for me," she commented, and strolled to a cooler pool.
Closing her eyes, Shion settled herself in the warm water of the onsen. She'd be back in battle soon enough, but for now she was content to simply soak.
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