By Logan Darklighter and Mike Surbrook

"Well"? Asked Matthew Shirow. "How do I look?"

Standing behind him, Mei looked over Shirow's shoulder and into the mirror. "I think you look just fine," she answered in her soft voice. A moment later she took a brush to the shoulders of his jacket. "There, that's fixed."

Staring into the mirror, Matthew let his gaze wander to the tall figure of Mei Puma, behind him. She was of average height for a Puma, with perfectly straight shoulder-length golden hair that was always falling down into her soft brown eyes. At the moment she was dressed in her medical uniform, which she wore constantly. As usual, the white jacket seemed to be straining at the seams, a sight Matthew sometimes had trouble taking his eyes away from. Mei was well endowed even by Puma standards.

For some reason, Matthew found that he truly enjoyed Mei's company. She seemed brighter than the average Puma, and totally lacking in whatever it was that enabled a Puma to enter combat with icewater for blood and coolly slaughter whomever the designated target of the day was. She'd been made one of the squad medics, a position she excelled at. Soft-spoken and gentle, Matthew had never seen her angry, or even upset, although there were times he was sure she seemed sad about something.

Glancing up at her face, and almost becoming lost in her eyes, Matthew managed a smile. "Wish me luck, Mei. I can't remember my last date."

"Good luck, commander."

Watching her commanding officer leave, Mei tried to blink away a tear, her ears twitching. She knew that this night out was important for him, but still, she wanted to be by his side, to protect him in case anything went wrong. Matthew may have liked his Squad Nurse, but Mei was sure she loved her commander, and given the chance or the need, she would eliminate any threat to his well being with all the cold efficiency of a surgeon's scalpel.

Lora sat in her car atop the parking garage, looking out at the Neo York skyline. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel unconsciously in time to the beat of a forgettable tune playing on the radio, trying to muster the courage to step out of the car and walk down to the restaurant.

A date? Am I actually going out on a date?

She had gotten the call from Matthew a couple of weeks after the incident with Shion-Hime. It surprised her. She never expected him to actually call her. In fact, she hadn't been entirely sure what had come over her in the elevator that day. Giving him her cell number? What was she thinking?

It's just that... He seemed so sad about what was happening to Shion-Hime. He didn't seem like a user, like so many others in the corps she'd met. He seemed to be... a really nice guy. Someone you might be able to trust. Like Kazuko.

He's not bad looking either, y'know, came the unbidden thought.

Lora rapped her knuckles lightly against the side of her head. What am I thinking? Am I nuts? This is just a date, nothing more, nothing less.

I get to get out and have fun with someone not part of anything related to S-T, Daitokuji, or any other corp. He and I both get to dump all that stuff behind us tonight and just have a good time. Kazuko would be telling me it's about damn time I got to know someone outside of work. Yeah, that's going to be nice, all right.

Hey, all of a sudden this doesn't scare me as much! Ha!

Lora opened the door and stepped out of the car, locking it behind her and setting the security before making her way over to the elevator to take her to street level.

Matthew sat in the bar of Antonio's in the lobby level of the Red Lion hotel. Nursing a beer, he checked his watch. It read 7:28 PM. He looked toward the doors on reflex. No sign of Lora yet.

Shrugging, he turned back to watching the Lace & Steel bout on the old TV up in the corner of the bar. That new champion, Mian Toris, was fighting the Silver Fox. He followed the fight with a practiced eye. The two were going at it fast and furious, sword vs. naginata, and neither one gaining any ground yet. The Fox had the reach, but Toris seemed to have a slight edge in speed. The analytical part of him admired the grace and artistry both of the combatants and the fight. Either one of them would have given any one of his Pumas a challenge. The Pumas might have more raw power and endurance, but these two were custom designed and "tuned," with heightened reflexes, better speed, and extensive training and experience.

He hoped he'd never have to watch an example of that kind of fight take place with any Puma under his care.

Through a slight lull in the noise of the restaurant, he thought he heard the door slide open and closed. He turned to look.

Lora was wearing a classic midnight blue short skirt, with a low neckline that showed off a hint of cleavage. Dark stockings left a handspan of thigh exposed between the top of the stockings and the bottom of the skirt, and emphasized her long legs. Low-heeled dress shoes covered her feet. Over this was a soft leather bolero styled jacket, with wide shoulders that accentuated her statuesque figure. Light make-up, a thin gold chain around her neck, and earrings accentuated her face and her light blonde hair, which was worn loose, as he had seen it in the elevator.

Matthew blinked, setting down his beer. Dressed as he was, in trousers, shirt and sport coat, he felt very much outclassed. Still, he wanted to make a good impression, so he stood up, and waved, his best and most honest smile fixed to his face.

Lora waved back and made her way over to the bar. Smiling, she said, "Hello, Matthew. I hope you weren't waiting too long." She hoped he couldn't tell how nervous she was.

"Ahh, not really." Matthew tried to keep his voice even and his hands from shaking, but at the moment, he was so nervous he felt it was a wonder that Lora wasn't wearing his beer.

"Let's get something to eat, okay? Did you have any ideas for the rest of the evening?" she asked as they made their way over to a table and sat down.

"Movie maybe? Anything that isn't related to my job is fine with me."

Lora chuckled lightly, "I know the feeling. I really do. A movie sounds good. Holo or flatscreen?"

"Oh anything." Matthew laughed, then clarified, "Anything as long as it isn't that 'Seven Samurai' remake. The crew saw that last week and have been dueling each other in the halls ever since."

Lora giggled, "Oh my! That sounds both scary and priceless!"

Their waiter showed up and handed them their menus and wine selections. Lora thumbed through the menu and tried to decide between Lasagna and a Fettuccini Alfredo with chicken. Hmmm. Heh. Good thing I can't get fat, she thought to herself with faint amusement.

Matthew flipped through the menu and tried to decide between a seafood dish - usually not a good idea - and something that was probably genetically modified to taste like chicken. The place had a human waiter, well, he figured it was a human, which meant that they were either too cheap to buy a few synths, wanted to project an air of 'class,' or were really expensive. He checked the menu. Option number three looked like a good guess. Perhaps French onion soup and salad would be a good idea.

"What do you recommend, Lora?"

"Uhm... Let's see. The lasagna is really good. So are the Fettuccini Alfredo and the traditional spaghetti dishes. I'm going to have..." She looked at the menu again, "...hmmm... I think I'm going with the Fettuccini myself."

"Lasagna..." Matthew nodded, "that sounds good."

"It really is. I think you'll like it." Lora said, closing her menu. As soon as Matthew set his on the table, it seemed, the waiter was back and taking their orders.

When he was gone, there was a short silence, then Lora and Matt both tried to speak at once.

"So, how do you..."

"What do you do for..."

They both stopped, laughed briefly, then Lora said, "Go ahead, you first."

"Okay..." Matthew paused and thought for a moment. "Well you know I work for Mitsumi."


"And you probably know that Mitsumi uses Pumas and Lynxes for all its in-house security needs."


"Well, I'm the guy whose job it is to watch the Puma squad. I give them their mission orders, take care of supply, ensure they are fed, things like that."

"What's it like working with them?"

"Crazy." Matthew shook his head and smiled. "They are like little children sometimes. A synthetic is force-grown in about six months, and instructed through various neural-induction techniques, but they have little practical experience with the real world. Everything they see is something new, something different, something... wonderful." He paused, "That is, if they aren't trying to kill it."

Lora nodded absently as she took that in. It was like when she had met him in the elevator. Matthew wasn't talking about his charges as property. He seemed to think of them as people. Lora didn't know for sure where her own opinion came down on that subject. She'd seen synthetics that seemed like pure robots, but there had been a few that she'd swear had a soul. They were all considered property though. But Matthew didn't seem to draw a distinction. Lora wondered what that said about him, and about her.

Matthew asked, "What about you?"

Lora gathered her thoughts, then said, "Well officially, I work for Daitokuji Financial Group as a 'Security Specialist'," She grinned. "A sort of an all-purpose trouble shooter. It seems I wind up doing a lot of bodyguard work. But they can call me up for other types of assignments as well. I used to work directly for Shiroko-Tsuhi in the beginning before Daitokuji bought a controlling interest. I still do work for S-T, but Daitokuji has me doing work for other companies as well. Ever watch Lace and Steel?"


"Well, you know about the Champion... er... former Champion, Beiko?"

"Uh huh."

"Well, I was doing bodyguard duty for her for a few months until recently."

"Yeah, I heard about what happened to her." Matthew winced at the thought.

"Yeah. Not much I could do about that. I could protect her outside the ring, but..." Lora shrugged.

"She going to be alright?"

"Yeah, but she's going to be in therapy for the rest of the year. Reconstructive thoracic surgery will do that to you."

"Oh..." Matthew looked out across the restaurant, "She's lucky... my Pumas usually end up getting recycled after a fight like that."

Lora's head snapped up. "What?! But that kind of damage can be easily repaired! Especially on a synthetic! I mean, they can heal so fast, why would they do that?

"No down time." Matthew said with a shrug. "It's easier for them to break out a new one than to wait for an injured one to get healed... if the injury is severe enough.

Lora looked non-plussed, "Oh. I see. But that's so... How do you handle that?"

"You... You have to get used to it. The Pumas may ask, but if you tell them to forget it, they do." Matthew took a drink of his beer, looking thoughtful, "I don't."

Lora looked down at the table, deep in thought for a moment. She took a sip of her wine, then turned her eyes back to Matthew. "You don't lie to them. They must trust you a great deal. And not just because they'd be programmed to."

"Ahh... yeah... I think they do." He smiled, "The higher ups say Puma performance is up, and they aren't sure why."

Lora looked into her drink, then back into his eyes, "Having one person to trust... a friend... can make all the difference sometimes, I think."

"Thanks." He saw a small smile at the corners of her mouth that mirrored his own.

After a quiet moment, she put her elbows on the table and rested her chin on her laced fingers, "So, where are you originally from, anyway? Neo York native or what?"

"Yep. Neo York born and bred. My family has lived here for... well... I'm not sure how long, since the early 20th Century at the least. I have an uncle who works for Mitsumi, which is how I got my current job. I think it was supposed to be a favor to me... a cushy job that wouldn't require a lot of effort for good pay... boy, were they wrong.

Lora chuckled at that and Matthew said, "So, where are you from?"

"Chicago originally, then Missouri, then Neo York. That's how I got that bland mid-western accent, y'know? I've been living back in San Francisco for the last year or so. But I've been doing a lot of traveling. Lately I've been sort of between major assignments. But they have me cooling my heels here in Manhattan for at least a couple more weeks."

"Oh," Matthew replied quietly. "Going back anytime soon?"

Lora shrugged, "Don't know. I guess I'll find out soon. So, do you stay pretty much in Neo York or do they have you travel as well?"

"A little. Mainly the New England area, since this is the district covered by Mitsumi Neo York."

"Ever been to MegaTokyo?"

"Once, when I visited Mitsumi's corporate headquarters."

"I've been there a couple of times. I got lucky the second time I was there and had a couple of days off. I got on the JR Keihin Tohoku Line and rode it all the way to the end of the line to Ofuna Station. I was really impressed by the scenery. There's also this huge white statue of the Goddess of Mercy right across from JR Ofuna Station. I think that if they ever station me in MT I'll see if they'll let me get an apartment out there and commute. I like visiting MegaTokyo. I think it can be a beautiful city sometimes, especially at night. But I don't think I'd want to live full time there."

"I can understand that," Matthew replied. "How do you like Neo York?"

Lora thought a moment, "I don't know. There are a lot of things to do here, if you know where to look. Uhm... It can be an exciting place... " She smiled to take the edge off the words, "Sorry, I guess I just haven't had as much in the way of positive experiences here. Excepting tonight... anyway..." She trailed off as she noticed something odd.

Specifically the bright little red dot that had winked into existence on Matthew's chest and had started quickly moving up toward his head.

Lora didn't think. Or to be more precise, realization instantly translated into trained instinct and motion. Glass and silverware flew as Lora slammed the table upwards and out of the way. Interposing herself between Matthew and the laser sight, felt a huge impact between her shoulder blades as the first round slammed into her... then another, and another. She shifted her stance and kept her feet under her as pain, then numbness flared across her back as the synthflesh covering her armored frame shredded under the impact. The distant sounds of breaking glass as the picture window at the front of the restaurant shattered sounded loud in her ears. The rifle shots themselves were silent other than the sounds of the bullets impacting, which added to the violently surreal moment.

For a half-second, there was silence, then pandemonium as the other patrons reacted. "Oh my God! Did you see...?" "Someone's shooting at us!" "A cyborg?! Here?!" "Let me outta here!" The patrons all scattered for the exits of the restaurant.

Lora looked down at Matthew, still sitting incongruously in his chair, beer mug still held in his hand. Matthew blinked, "I'll stay here, okay?"

"No," Lora tersely replied, "Move toward the back of the restaurant" stay between me and the window." There was a cold edge to her voice that Matthew hadn"t heard before. It helped his mind finally click into combat mode and look at the situation logically.

"Right. Gotcha." He nodded and turned sideways so as to provide less of a target to shoot at as Lora moved in close, keeping her body between the window and Matthew"s torso and head as he crouched down. A sniper wouldn"t bother with any part of his target"s body that wouldn"t provide an instant kill.

Lora looked around at her surroundings, calculating, then back at Matthew, "Ready to move?"

Matthew said, "I guess so. Break for the kitchen doors?"

"Something like that, yes"" She replied as she grabbed him in a bearhug, then she coiled her legs and leapt, carrying them both twenty feet to the kitchen doors, slamming them open to bang against the walls as they both tumbled through.

They both slid across the tile, coming to rest against one of the food preparation counters. Matthew knocked his head against something along the way and suffered from a brief moment of semi-consciousness as he tried to re-orient himself. Thankfully though, his head had landed on something soft instead of the hard, cold floor.

"AHEM!!" Lora"s voice was loud in Matthew"s ears. He realized that, somehow, he had come to rest on top of Lora with his face in her chest.

"I was hoping to save this for sometime later, you know." She sounded slightly exasperated.

"Sorry," Matthew apologized, his face red.

"C"mon. Let"s get out of here." She said as they both got up.

Scrambling to his feet, and ignoring the looks from the surprised kitchen crew, Matthew started as he caught sight of Lora's back. Three holes, closely spaced, were quite plainly visible in the leather of her jacket. Lora, Matthew quickly realized, was either more cybered than he originally thought, or was a full-body cyborg. It was a discovery that he'd worry about later, however, as right now he was more interesting in getting out of the restaurant in one piece.

They made their way through the back of the restaurant to the service hallways in the hotel proper, finding themselves eventually at the loading dock at the back of the building.

Lora said, "Look, stay back in the hallway out of sight while I bring my car around the back. okay?"

"Yes sir!" Matthew nodded, grinning despite his present situation.

A few minutes that stretched like hours passed, then Lora was back with their ride. As soon as he was safely in the passenger seat of the Kage and belted in, Lora pulled out and nearly pinned the accelerator to the floor, tearing down the alleyway and braking just enough to slide the car around the corner onto the street beyond. She drove in a seemingly random pattern, turning, going for a couple of blocks, turning again. Winding her way down side streets and in and out of traffic on major thoroughfares. Only when they were seemingly halfway across Manhatten did she seem to relax a bit.

Settled in the passenger seat, Matthew alternated between watching Lora drive, and the sight of the city flashing past outside the window. He had no idea why anyone would try, or even want, to put a hit on him. he was, as far as he was concerned, a fairly unimportant cog in the corporate machine. The only person he knew he possible held a grudge was Lee, who commanded the Lynxes, and he doubted he had the money or even the know-how to set up an assassination. What ever was the truth, he was glad of two things. That Lora had been there, and his Pumas hadn't. Lora was cool, calm, collected, and highly attractive; the Pumas would have leveled the hotel.

Finally, Lora took a long breath and let it out slowly, visibly trying to relax, then looked over at Matthew. Then looked slightly surprised. She reached over to the glove compartment and brought out some tissues, handing them to him and saying, "You"re bleeding." She pointed at his head.

"Oh?" He checked and found he seemed to have a slight cut that was bleeding slowly, and had trickled down the left side of his face. "I never noticed in all the excitement. Mei's going to have a fit."

"Who's Mei?" Lora asked.

"One of the squad medics. She... she's one of the non-violent ones. And, uhm... she's tall, with the saddest brown eyes, and... uhm..." Matthew realized that he was sounding like an idiot, but didn't know any other way to explain his relationship with the sweet-natured Puma. "And she does her best to look after me... I guess."

"Ah. Okay." Lora nodded. She seemed unusually quiet compared to the gregarious dinner (well almost dinner) companion of earlier.

Noticing her lack of response, Matthew glanced over at Lora. She seemed... sad? but he wasn't sure. Abruptly, he looked away. "I need to get out more," he muttered.


"I said I need to get out more." Matthew sighed. "You're rather quiet all of a sudden, so I was wondering if you were upset. I couldn't quite tell... so I looked over and realized I was staring at the top of your head."

Lora blinked. "Why?"

"To see if your ears were up or down."

Her eyes widened in a strangely thoughtful yet bewildered expression as she did a classic double-take. Matthew could swear he could hear the gears turning as she parsed the statement. It was actually quite comic. Finally after a moment she briefly burst out in laughter.

"Yeah," She chuckled, "I"d have to say that Pumas might be a little easier to "read" that way."

"Yeah," Matthew laughed, "Ears up, they're happy; ears down, they're sad... ears flat, look out, they're mad."

Lora's amused expression faltered, though, and she added, "Yes, I"m a little upset. Not at you, no." She sighed. "It"s just that I wanted this night to be special. I wanted to leave it all behind for awhile. The corporations, I mean. Anything having to do with my work. Okay, sure, we talked about our jobs a little. But that was just... a way to break the ice a little. We have to start somewhere, right?"

"I mean, is it too much to ask that I can have a nice, quiet evening out with a friend? But someone decides to ruin it for me by trying to kill my date! Do you realize that I went straight into "bodyguard" mode when you got shot at? I didn"t even think about it, that"s how wired I am to that sort of thing. Uhm... Not that that's a bad thing in this case, I guess."

"Err... no, I mean, I am rather attached to being alive." Matthew sighed, "And why would anyone want to shoot me anyway? I'm a nobody, really. It's not like I have any control of Mitsumi"s Puma production, or design, or anything."

"Maybe they mistook you for someone else? Or maybe someone just has it in for Mitsumi employees in general?" She paused, then shook her head. "Sheah, right... That's too convenient. Has to be something else."

"Great... this I don't need." Matthew dabbed at his forehead and winced. "Are we going anywhere in particular?"

"Not right now, we're not." Indeed, Lora realized she was just driving wherever the traffic would take her right now.

"Then lets go somewhere we can both get cleaned up."

Lora nodded, "The safest place for you right now is probably back at your place, Matthew. Mitsumi Arcology, right?"

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