Ling Ling had gone all out; not only had she picked one of the finest Chinese restaurants in all of Hong Kong, but she had even reserved a private back room for their small party to use. The room's decoration was artfully muted, consisting mainly of several landscape paintings that meshed well with the earth tones of the room. Adding color, a large, expensive-looking porcelain vase was found in each corner. The mahogany chairs were cushioned with burgundy cloth; the table, also made from dark mahogany, was round and sported a rotating plate in the middle, cut from ebony and varnished to bring out the grain of the wood.
Raven, somewhat recovered from her earlier excitement, was wearing a simple, but daringly cut gown in cream white; taking the form of a sleeveless blouse worn over a skirt, it displayed a generous amount of cleavage and clung snugly to her lower body and legs. She was chatting in low tones with Johnny, who wore a fine Italian silk suit with as much discomfort if it had spines in the inside. The mechanic hadn't completely lost the bewildered look in his eyes. Raven sighed. "It's going to be fine, Johnny," she said comfortingly, for what seemed the hundredth time. "It's just a meal between friends. Don't worry about Shion—she'll just ignore you." He's totally freaking out and it's my fault—I wish I had been a bit more sensitive earlier. My life is full of weird and extraordinary stuff, and I forgot how jarring all that would be to a a working stiff like grease-monkey.
Lora, having changing her skin color back to normal from the darker tone she had disguised herself with on the trip over, was clad in the same outfit that she had worn a few months back during a function at Shiroko-Tsuhi. It was a sleeveless Chinese dress, with a high, Mandarin-styled notch collar in a deep blue that matched her eyes with pale gold trimming. The dress hugged her curves closely, leaving almost nothing to the imagination with the skirt slit up to her hip on the left. When she walked, the white silk lining was revealed. A dragon in gold and silver trim wrapped its way around from back to front with the head of the dragon up high between her breasts. A pair of low open heeled pumps with wrap around straps in white adorned her feet. She wore her hair loose and unbound, and light make-up and silver earrings completed the look. Her hair was still black, and it made for an interesting contrast with her normal, pale skin tone and the dress.
She sympathized with Johnny, and could understand his trepidation to a degree. "And hey, there's always Raven and me to talk to. You know we don't bite," she said in a casual fashion. "Just relax. Here, have an appetizer."
"Yeah, well..." he took an chicken wing from the plate in front of him. "Thanks for the reassuring, Miss Doubet, but ya know, this still isn't a place for a mechanic."
"Well," Raven said, "that's because you don't know what you're missing. Just relax a bit, will you?"
"...seafood. Lots of seafood." Marta's voice preceded her entrance through the circular doorway. "And Peking duck." Catching sight of Raven she smiled and gave a wave, before pirouetting in a tight circle. "Well? What do you think? Is it me?"
Raven had almost expected yet another variation on the formfitting black jumpsuit. Marta did wear an endless variety of them after all. Instead, she had on a strapless Chinese-styled sheath dress, which displayed a wealth of d colletage, a view highlighted by a silver chain dipping into the narrow valley between her breasts. Much like Lora's own dress, it was cut up over the hip on each side. Over this went a short-sleeved jacket that fell to just past her lower ribs. The entire ensemble was black, with a white border and gold claps on the jacket. Black stockings and matching black high-heels completed the outfit.
"Let's see. Black, lots of skin, clings to you like it's painted on..." Raven counted on her fingers with a mischievous grin. "Yep. Definitely screams 'Marta' to me."
"I knew you'd like it." Bowing from the waist, Marta gestured to the entrance way. "And now my better half."
Every time Raven had seen Ling Ling she'd been wearing traditional Chinese clothing. Granted, it was often more the clothing of the upper-classes, but it was distinctly Chinese. Now apparently, she'd decided to try something different. Instead of her usual under layer of tunic and trousers she had on a black bodystocking that covered her legs and lower torso. Over that went a stylized cheongsam in dark red with gold trim. The garment was certainly eye-catching, especially considering Ling Ling's well-endowed figure, as it had virtually no sides. Instead, several thin straps connected the front to the back. The outfit also left her shoulders bare, consisting as it did of just a collar that linked to the dress at the base of the neck, while the sleeves were attached at the sides under the arm.
Blushing just ever so faintly, Ling Ling smiled and nodded to Raven. "Marta suggested we try changing our look a little."
"Like when we went to the Zone that one time," her bodyguard/lover added. "That's always fun," Raven put in, glancing over at Lora with a wink. "The more daring the better."
Ling Ling glanced down at her dress. "Well... maybe a little too daring..."
"better half?" Johnny whispered to Lora.
"Got me," the cyborg replied.
She was about to add a further comment when the sensation hit her. A faint but sharp "buzzing" deep in her mind. A small point of pressure that grew and grew. It wasn't painful, but it was distracting, and it meant only one thing. As esper was coming. A powerful esper. Not even Raven, who was supposed to be a world-class esper herself, had a signature like that. At rest anyway. She glanced at Raven, who was busy introducing Johnny to Ling Ling and Marta, to see if she felt it. Had she felt it? She must have. But she didn't seem to be worried about it. So she must be expecting this signature. Which meant it was...
"ooh boy..." Lora muttered under her breath, "the Empress has entered the building."
The pressure grew oh-so-subtly until Lora knew its source was standing right outside the door. Waiting. For what?
She glanced over to Raven to mention this fact, only to hear her friend ask Marta "Where's your sister?"
"Being fashionably late. You know how she is."
Once again Lora was glad for her cyborg body. Otherwise she probably would have had to pick her jaw up off of the floor. One did not often equate the Empress with a real person, regardless what Raven had told her from time to time. World-class esper weapons didn't go hand-in-hand with things like sisters, parents, or even childhood. They just were.
"And how am I?" The voice was deep and husky contralto that made everyone look up.
Apparently deciding to dress contrary to everyone else's decision to expose vast amounts of cleavage and legs, Shion was fully covered from ankle to wrist to neck. Granted, "fully-covered" for the Empress meant more than a simple burlap sack. Instead, she had on an ankle-length dress of dark blue, belted at the waist, with a white blouse and a scarlet ascot. Over this went a knee-length coat the same shade as the dress, cut wide in the front, with an separate inner layer in white. An elbow-length mantle covered her shoulders and was edged with a fringe of gold and white tassels.
"Beautiful," Marta answered without missing a beat.
Lora could only agree. Part of her wondered who she paid to come up with such a truly unique and striking outfit. Or did she do her own shopping? She tried picturing Shion in anything approaching a normal clothiers and failed utterly.
Another part of her marveled at the situation. She realized she'd been putting off or avoiding thinking about the surreal nature of the coming moment. And now it was here. My best friend and I have just won our freedom from the corporation - and I'm about to have dinner with Shion Nys, the freaking Empress herself... I wonder if I should feel more stunned about this? Or maybe I'm in shock and don't realize it yet?
"Not enough skin," quipped Raven, the mischievous smile still on her lips as she teased the Empress. "You just don't fit in."
"Which is exactly my intent," Shion replied with perfect aplomb.
"Anything to stand out, huh, Shion?" An obvious wink stole any sting from Raven's words. "C'mon, let's sit down. I'm getting hungry."
With an almost imperious air, Shion settled herself down next to Raven, with Marta, and then Ling Ling sitting beside her.
Lora looked at her menu, scanning it quickly and decided on Sesame Chicken—one of her favorites—as the main course, with some Crab Rangoon as appetizers and some wonton soup on the side and green tea. She laid her menu down and looked around.
"I should do introductions," Raven said. She nodded towards Johnny. "This is Johnny the Wrench, my old friend from the Zero Zone. We go way back, he built all my wheelchairs."
"Uh, hi," said Johnny, looking too horribly awkward to even notice he was seated with five gorgeous women.
"Lora Doubet, my dear friend from Neo York, to whom I'm eternally grateful for her help in my leave-taking from my employers—especially since it involved leaving her own situation."
"Glad to be out of there myself." Lora nodded.
Shion didn't even so much as blink in reply Johnny's greeting, while Lora was lucky to get an appraising glance. Marta, on the other hand, waved hello to the pair, an infectious good-natured grin on her a face. Ling Ling simply nodded.
"I don't think the Empress needs much in the way of introduction. Neither does her sister Marta, street samurai extraordinaire, for that matter. And Ling Ling, mysterious and inscrutable go-between is, as mentioned, Marta's better half."
"Ah... " Lora said, as she remembered a comment from Raven during their training. "I assume that means what I think it means?" She said, as she gestured to the two of them.
"Well, they're together." Raven's eyes narrowed and she looked intently at Marta. "Unless there's something I don't know about?"
"Well..." Marta started slowly, glancing from Ling Ling (who gave a slight nod) to her sister, who was currently sipping at her water glass. "We plan on getting married in a few weeks."
There was a small, slight squeak from Shion. The room fell silent, and all eyes fell on her as she slowly placed her glass back on the table. Her own eyes were fixed straight ahead, and grew larger as she tried to swallow. Finally she exhaled in a single wheezing cough.
"...ice cube..." she finally managed.
Marta's amused smirk vanished quickly, replaced by a look of pure innocence. "Ahhh, okay... you had me worried there for a minute."
Lora and Raven had also reacted with expressions of surprise and amusement at both Marta's announcement and Shion's predicament. Johnny was still in seeming shock.
Stifling giggles, Lora said brightly, "Well! I guess congratulations are in order for the two of you, then."
Raven smiled sunnily. "Yeah! Congratulations to both of you!" She giggled. "But that's gonna make the bachelorette party difficult."
"Oh?" Marta asked as she sipped at her water glass. "How so?"
"You can't have a bachelorette party with the fiancee around, of course!" Raven said as if it was bleeding obvious. "It's just not done. The point is to not go with them!"
"Actually," Ling Ling replied in a soft tone, "We weren't planning on anything elaborate. Not even a ceremony. Just a legal signing."
Lora replied, "Oh well, but that sort of takes the romantic angle out of it, doesn't it? I mean, if you don't want the hassle of a ceremony of some kind, I can understand. But if it were me, I think I'd want at least a minimal little get-together with my friends and all." She shrugged. "I'm just saying, you know?"
"Hmm..." Marta mused. "We could have some sort of dinner afterwards..." She glanced at Ling Ling studiously ignoring her old sister, "What do you think?"
"Chinese weddings usually do have a feast afterwards..." Ling Ling agreed.
"A feast sounds nice," Raven said gleefully. "Which will make up for the absence of bridesmaids. But who'll throw the bouquet?"
"More to th'point," Johnny unexpectedly put in, "who's gonna pull the garter off with their teeth?"
There was a sudden silence as everyone else looked at him incredulously. Then Lora snickered, Raven and Marta joined in, and then the floodgates opened.
To her credit as the "Empress" Shion didn't so much as twitch at the comment, preferring to take another drink of water and do her best to ignore the ruckus around her.
Raven stopped laughing long enough to playfully punch Shion in the shoulder—a gesture few would dare. "C'm'on, that was funny. You're going to pop a vein if you always keep it in."
Setting her glass of water down, Shion gave Raven a slight nod. "The answer seems obvious to me," she stated. "Knowing my sister's tastes, she would do it."
Raven put a hand to her mouth in mock horror and looked at Marta. "You wouldn't!"
Marta and Ling Ling glanced at each other. "She would," Ling Ling replied as Marta threw up her hands in mock surrender.
"You would?" Raven put a hand to her heart. "I am shocked! Shocked, I tell you!"
Lora, who had been working to recover her composure up to this point, completely lost it. Clapping her hands over her mouth, she giggled helplessly into them. The look Shion gave her at that point only served to drive her further into oxygen debt.
"Suuuure you are," Marta replied with a grin. "Big sister's told me about you."
"Uh-huh," Raven said. "And exactly what did she tell you?"
"Nothing," Shion said suddenly.
"So Raven really didn't walk around naked just to give her minders fits?"
Johnnie, who was taking a cup of tea, sputtered loudly at that. Lora's laughter went so high pitched that she was now wheezing silently with tears streaming from her eyes.
Ling Ling gave just the slightest of smiles, saying, "We seem to have broken your friend, Raven."
Raven laughed. "Well, I guess I'm going to need to get her fixed, or get another one... but by the way..." Her eyes bored into Shion. "Exactly how do you know that, huh?"
There was a long moment of silence as Shion took her time to compose her answer. "I heard some rumors. After I met with you New Years Eve I did some asking around, trying to find out what people were saying and what they knew." She turned from Raven to glare at her sister. "And that's the last time I discuss anything with you over drinks. I don't recall telling you that."
"That's 'cause you were good and drunk," Marta said with a shrug, apparently immune to the effects of her sister's gaze.
"Well," Lora said, having mastered her giggles with an effort, "It was true, really. Raven explained it to me. They had cameras everywhere in that place. And I mean—everywhere. No privacy at all for anything. That'd drive me nuts after a while."
"Apparently," Raven quipped, "it did drive me nuts."
"Hey, it's okay," Lora returned, "That you're even as sane as you are is quite an accomplishment, all things considered."
Shion opened her hand, examining the spoon she'd bent over double with great interest, apparently trying to tune out the discussion around her. "I did train her," she said abruptly.
Lora winced. She'd felt the power spike from the white-haired esper. What the hell? Then she paid closer attention to Shion's expression. Mouth set in a deliberate straight line. Not exactly frowning. More like trying to hide a scowl. Right... change the subject...let's get her to talk about herself.
"You mean that you trained Raven in how to use her esper abilities, right? I've been meaning to say that was really good of you to do that. What was it like?"
Shion shrugged. "It certainly didn't involve nudity."
Raven chuckled at that. "That's odd. I seem to remember a beach in Australia..."
There was a pause while Shion digested that comment. "So do I." She sighed and casually folded a second spoon she'd been rotating distractedly between her fingers into a shapeless lump.
Lora suppressed another wince, Shion was still "loud" to her sixth sense. She could tell that Shion's physical strength was augmented by her Power. But that alone wouldn't account for spike in power level she was broadcasting. It was like a small tornado in a bottle. The bottle was Shion's self-control, and there were cracks in the glass. What in the world is upsetting her so much? And why isn't Raven noticing this? In fact, it's like she's exacerbating the problem without knowing it.
"A beach in Australia." Lora sighed in obvious envy, "I wish I could go swimming. But I'm too heavy. If I wade out from shore I just sink to the bottom. At least the sound of the waves is nice. And the sun." She hoped Shion would forget whatever was making her mad and just converse naturally.
"You and me both," Marta interjected suddenly. "My weight's and density's a bit to high to let me really float. If I want to go swimming I need a buoyancy harness." She jerked a thumb at Shion. "Unlike big sister here, who I've seen walk on water."
Lora couldn't help but grin at Marta's poke at her sister, which seemed so at odds with her former image of Shion. The fact that the Empress had a sister who not only wasn't awed by her but actually made sisterly jibes at her made her more "real" somehow.
"That'd be a neat trick to see, actually," Lora said. "But seriously, the only swimming I've done is in virtual reality. I haven't been swimming for real in..." She paused to think. "Six... Seven years?"
"That's rough," Raven said. She glanced at Johnnie, who'd scrambled back into his chair when Shion had started bending spoons, and sighed inwardly. The famed Empress needed to develop a thicker skin, or a better sense of humor where it came to teasing. She turned to Lora again. "Can't you wear some sort of floating device so you can swim?"
"Oh sure I could. But I'd have to be wearing a flotation suit that looks like a full coverage wetsuit. That's nice for scuba-diving I suppose. But not for just playing around on a beach or in a swimming pool. Blegh... No thanks."
"I don't need to go that far," Marta replied. "I just need to wear a vest. Just enough to give me neutral buoyancy."
"Since I can fly, walking on water isn't a big deal." Shion nodded over at Raven. "I see no reason why she can't do it."
"I could." Raven shrugged. "Just never bothered to try."
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