After they arrived at the arcology complex, Matthew directed Lora to one of the company garages closest to his home and the Puma compound. Matthew's access card got them into the employee parking area. After parking the Kage, Matthew led Lora into the compound wing proper without incident.

Or, he would have if the guards hadn't noticed something.

"Excuse me, Mr. Shirow," the uniformed security officer in the booth next to the entrance said over the intercom, "but your friend is setting off the weight alarm. Were you aware that she appears to be a full-body cybergraft?"

Non-plussed, Matthew blinked and then shook his head, "Sort of."

"Here," Lora addressed the guard, stepping forward and taking out her SINcard to place in the safety box next the bulletproof window. The guard retrieved it and held it next to the scanner, then read what came up on his monitor.

The screen flashed to life, bringing up a profile that detailed almost every aspect of Lora's life. Her height, her weight, her age, her System Identification Number, her employer, basic medical history, so on and so forth. Of special interest was the section detailing her full-cybernetic body, as well as the legal permits that allowed her to walk around in said body. (What it didn't tell the security guard, and what Lora would never openly admit, was that Lora's body wasn't a simple combat cybergraft, as the card claimed, but that she possessed a military grade body.)

The guard stared at this data for some time, trying to figure out why Mitsumi's Puma wrangler was hanging around with a Daitokuji Financial Group cyborg. When he added Matthew's blood-stained face, as well as the pair's generally disheveled appearance to the equation, he had to seriously wonder about Matthew's sex life.

"Mr. Shirow, I'm not sure we can allow Miss Doubet her into our facility. This is a secure location."

Inwardly Matthew groaned. He had a headache, he was hungry, he wanted to lay down, and he was feeling dizzy. This he didn't need. "Look," he explained, "Lora's here to help out. I'm not feeling well, and I was hoping she'd escort me to the Puma barracks." Matthew paused, and then tried his ace card, "If that's unacceptable, can I call my squad and request an escort down here?"

Behind the armored glass, his face hidden by the monitor, the guard scowled. If there was one thing he didn't need to deal with right now was a bunch of Mitsumi's most famous product wandering around making a mess of things. If faced with the choice of allowing one cyborg into the facility, or letting Matthew call a half-dozen Pumas out... well, that wasn't much of a choice after all.

"All right." The guard cycled the SIN-card back through the drop-box. "I'm going to issue you a temporary ID badge, good for going from here to the Puma barracks. Any deviation from that course can and will be considered an act of industrial espionage, understood?"

Lora nodded, "I understand, no problem." She pocketed her SIN card and accepted the ID card with seeming nonchalance.

As they walked down the hallway toward the barracks, Matthew looked over at Lora as he heard her sigh. She met his gaze, saying, "Well, that was... embarrassing, I guess you could say. I was kind of hoping to tell you about that on my own terms. I really didn't mean to mislead you though."

"Well..." Matthew paused and shrugged, "Lora, the first time we met, you crushed a PDA in your bare hand. At the restaurant you tossed a table, a few chairs and me around with ease, and even took a few slugs in the back without flinching. I knew something was up, but... well... I work with six squads of synthetic humans day in and day out, a full-body cyborg seems almost normal by comparison."

Lora looked embarrassed, "I just realized how ridiculous that sounded. I guess I really didn't want to think about... about how you would react. You really don't have a problem with it?"

"Do you?"

"Well... Yes and no... I've personally gotten pretty used to it. I've got really good feedback so I feel mostly normal most of the time. But I get kind of worried about reactions from other people since I'm not obvious at first glance."

Matthew stopped walking and laid a hand on Lora's shoulder. "I there is one think I have learned working with the Pumas, its that what's on the outside isn't what matters. It's up here," and at that he touched her forehead, "that counts."

Lora looked at Matthew for a long moment, searching his eyes. The cynical side of her couldn't believe he was for real. But her heart felt light anyway. And he looked so sincere.

She turned and hooked her arm through his, to Matthew's apparent surprise. She wasn't ready to trust yet. Not completely. But she felt good.

"Shirow!?! You're ah... uh... a mess!"

Matthew and Lora turned to look at the source of the outburst. There, between four stoic, blank-faced Lynxes, stood a black-haired man of Asian descent, dressed in what Lora thought of as "corporate casual." Slacks, jacket, open-necked shirt, PDA and pager on the belt, cell phone in a coat pocket... all the trappings of a corporate executive on the go. The synthetics flanking the man were all dressed in spotless Mitsumi uniforms in two-tone blue. They were, predictably, female and universally attractive, their thick manes of hair a riot of colors never before found in nature.

"Ahem, well," the man stammered, "you are."

With a short sigh, Matthew indicated the man with a wave of his arm. "Lora, meet Lee, the Lynx Duty Officer. Lee, meet Lora."

Lora politely extended a hand, "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Lee." I feel like I've stepped into a private disagreement here between these two, somehow, she thought.

Stepping from between the impassive Lynxes, who looked as if they were carved from stone for all that they reacted to Lora's presence, Lee took the offered hand. "Pleased to meet you, Lora." Eventually he let go of her hand, and gave the two of them a careful once over. "Rough date?"

"You could say that, yes."

Leaning forward, Lee gave Matthew a leer and a nudge with his elbow. "Damn man, I didn't know you had it in you! Way to go! You gonna go Puma next?"

Lora was taken aback at Lee's comment, less because of the lewd insinuation—that hadn't really started filtering in yet—but by the fact that she palpably sensed that to Lee, she no longer "existed" as a person. the next realization followed immediately on the first - he thinks I'm a pleasure synth!!

A cold fire ignited in her gut as she felt her outrage blossom, but she held herself in check, remembering where she was, redirecting her anger into her words,

"Excuse me, 'Mr.' Lee."

"Quiet, doll, I'm not done talking."

She wanted so badly to slam his face into the wall. She could do it too, and take on the Lynxes and win. She knew it. That certain knowledge gave her a surprisingly heady rush, but she spurned it. She would not do that. Not here. It would cause an amazing amount of trouble. For her and Matthew both. Not to mention her own standing with S-T and Daitokuji. Stay in control, Lora, he's not worth it.

The tone of her voice was cold like the wind off of a glacier, "My name is Lora Doubet. I am a human combat cybergraft, not some love-doll. I am a security specialist with Shiroko-Tsuhi corporation." Her voice lowered into a growl, "And if you had made that comment outside this compound, I would dismantle you into your component organs. But since we are on Mitsumi property, I'll do your superiors the courtesy of not having to clean your entrails, or those of your Lynxes, off the floor."

Lee gaped for a moment, his mouth opening and closing in a wonderful imitation of a dying fish, while his escort of Lynxes went from stoic inaction to combat-ready tension...

Finally, he stood upright, adjusted his jacket, and settled his face into the corporate mask Lora was all too familiar with. "I see. Well, I have work to do. I will see you later, Shirow."

"Yeah," Matthew replied in an uncharacteristically caustic tone. "You do that."

When Lee was out of sight, Lora let out a long shuddering breath she hadn't realized she was holding.

"You alright?" Matthew asked with concern?

"I will be. Let's just go, okay?"

Minutes later, they were in the infirmary with Mei hovering over them.

"Commander! How did this ever happen?" Not bothering to wait for a response, Mei carefully dabbed at Matthew's face with a medicated pad. "There, there, that's better. You just sit still, this won't hurt a bit."

Lora watched in amazement, the contrast with Lee's Lynxes couldn't have been more pronounced. She looked at Mei fussing over Matthew and thought, this is a person, not a product.

After a few moments, Mei finished wrapping a bandage tight around her Commander's head. "There, all done." The tall Puma medic then turned to Lora. "Your turn."

She replied, "Uhm... got any synthflesh patches? Otherwise there's not much you can do for me."

"I'll be the judge of that." Before Lora could protest, Mei lifted her by the arms and set her on the examination bed. "Now lay down."

Lora, wide-eyed, could do nothing but obey, "O.. okay. Sure!" Taking off her coat, she briefly looked at the back of her jacket. Three closely spaced bullet holes punctured it neatly. She muttered, "I have got to stop ruining clothing like this." She lay on her stomach on the table.

Reaching over to a tray of instruments, Mei rooted around for a moment before selecting a pair of surgical scissors. Lora started at the sound of her shirt being cut open. "Hmm... you seem to have taken several shots to your back. I'll have to dig them out."

"Um, Lora?" Mathew asked, almost sheepishly. "Try and relax, Mei does know what she's doing."

The rattle of medical implements was Mei's response, as she produced a pair of long-nosed pliers. "This should work perfectly."

Lora, listening to the calm inflections on Mei's soft contralto voice, found it surprisingly easy to comply. Even though Mei was incredibly strong, Lora got no sense of threat from her whatsoever. Indeed, the soft-spoken Puma seemed the gentlest of souls. At least, until the probing tips of Mei's pliers encountered a spent slug imbedded in Lora's armor sheathing. At that point, Lora was sure she heard the mild-mannered medic swear slightly as she pulled the chunk of lead free with grunt. "There, that's one."

Matthew for his part, sat in a chair near the far wall, knowing that at the moment, the best way to help, was to stay out of the way.

Lora, for her part, couldn't feel much beyond the pressure of Mei tugging at the shells. The nerve receptors at the points of impact were destroyed along with the synthflesh covering her. Good thing my system cuts off pain signals shortly after I get damaged, or I'd be in a world of hurt right now, I bet. She thought.

"How bad is it, Mei?" Lora asked.

"I count three impact points," Mei replied, her ears flicking back and forth. "There is some surface damage... I recommend that you have some of the armor coat replaced and then get a new sheet of synthskin." There was a faint crunching noise and then a *ting* as a second round was dropped into a small metal bowl.

"Great... That's going to cost some." She muttered, thinking dark thoughts about the added credit to her debt with Shiroko-Tsuhi.

"What are they saying?"


"Hey! Erhalten Sie weg von mir!"

"Oof! Stop shoving!"

"Ow! You're stepping on my hand!"

Lora looked over at Matthew as Mei finished taping up the holes in her back, "Well, I guess I could look on the bright side. I have to admit it certainly hasn't been a boring evening."

No sooner had Lora spoke then . a sudden crash announced the door being violently thrown open, promptly followed by a confused tangle of limbs, all of which belonged to a pile of Pumas.

"Erhalten Sie weg von mir, Sie grosses dumkopf!"

"Darshu! Not now!"


As an amazed and speechless cyborg, medical tech, and Mitsumi official looked on, the heap of bodies quickly sorted itself into five sheepish-looking Pumas. Well... three sheepish-looking Pumas, one who glowered darkly, and a fifth who towered over the rest and seemed more curious than anything else.

Lora, who before had found most synthetics to be almost cookie-cutter duplicates of each other, quickly realized that these six each immediately stood out as individuals. The one on the far left bore a remarkable resemblance to Mei, especially in her face and well-endowed figure, except her brown hair fell well past her waist. Standing next to her was a male Puma, something Lora couldn't remember ever having seen before, with short, black hair and a fairly embarrassed expression. The third Puma, whose hair was purple of all colors, couldn't seem to decide if she was embarrassed or ready to start laughing. The fourth flicked his long pony-tail over one shoulder and did his best to assume a blank expression.

Behind him stood what had to be the tallest Puma Lora had ever seen. He easily topped six feet, six inches with a thick mane of white hair that reminded Lora of Shion. Instead of looking embarrassed, he seemed more interested in giving Lora a close visual examination. But it was the sixth Puma that caught Lora's attention. Strutting back and forth in front of the rest, she adjusted her jacket before starting into an impressive tirade.

"Was waren Sie die denkenden blinden? Wie trauen bringen Sie mich tisweise in Verlegenheit? Und vor unserem Kommandanten auch! Ich sollte Sie alles haben an gesetzt zu berichten! Sie sind eine Pregung zu unserem gesamten Squad! "

Without thinking about it, Lora replied, "Sorgen Sie nicht sich um das Schauen dumm. Sie werden gerade um Ihren Kommandanten, ja? Alles hat ganz Recht."

Still speechless, Matthew and Mei turned to look at Lora. "You speak German?" Matthew asked, instantly feeling like an idiot.

"Yes. And a couple of other languages, too." Grinning, she shrugged, "It's a gift."

Smiling happily, the red-head stepped forward. "Gutenabend! My name is Asuka. I... ah, hope you and the Kommandant had an excellent evening?"

"Well..." Lora said, determined to put a good face on things. "It certainly didn't go as planned. But it turned out okay. In fact, you could say that it was very enlightening."

Matthew didn't respond, but simply shuffled his feet. Out of the corner of her eye, Lora saw Mei take a step back, looking towards the ceiling. Remembering Matthew's words, she noted that all the Pumas' ears were up. They were happy, at least.

"Gut! Gut!" Asuka then motioned to the line of Pumas behind her. "This is Yuka, Shinji, Captain Misato, Duo, and Darshu."

"Pleased to meet you all. I'm Lora." She surprised herself with her own sincerity. There was something about the Pumas that resonated. When they were happy, it was infectious.

A chorus of "hellos" greeted her as the Pumas waved hello in return. The tallest one, Darshu, stepped forward and took her hand. "I am pleased to meet you as well."

Lora looked up, and up... at the tall, well muscled Puma. She thought, Oh my... he's like a Greek god... down girl, don't drool. It's impolite. "Oh, hi. Thank you very much."

"Darshu," Matthew warned, "Cool it."

To Lora's amazement, the towering Puma actually looked a bit shame-faced and took a step back. "Yes, Commander."

She shook her head slightly, trying to reconcile what she thought she knew about Pumas against what she was seeing. I keep wanting to think of them as individuals. As real as anyone else, and at the same exact time they're property with ingrained programmed responses. She remembered the cat-eared duplicate of Shion. As repulsed as Lora had been at the idea of such a creature being created solely for the benefit and pleasure of another, she still hadn't really seen Shion-hime as having her own distinct personality. But seeing these Pumas was a revelation. Could any synthetic have as much personality? Was it simply interacting with someone who treated them like real people? Or was it more than that? Whatever the case, she knew she'd never be able to look at this particular group as automatons, no matter how subservient they were.

"So... " she looked over at Matthew. "Do you live here in the barracks or do you have your own place?"

"Down the hall actually. I have a suite connected to my office. It's a fringe benefit of taking the job." Matthew stopped and looked a touch uncomfortable. "Did you want to see it?"

Lora stomped on her flinch reaction, but couldn't help but notice the Pumas looking at them, "Uh...surewhynot?"

As Matthew opened the door, Lora caught Asuka's smirk out of the corner of her eye. This was quickly followed by a nudge to Yuka and a murmured, "Des Kommandanten, der geht, einiges zu erhalten."

Lora called out, "Ich H…RTE den!"

"Aha! Busted!" Captain Misato shouted as the rest of the squad broke into gleeful laughter.

Closing the door in the noise, Mei gave Lora and Matthew a contemplative look. "Do you need anything else Commander?"

Lora and Matthew looked at each other. Now that they actually had the opportunity for privacy, each seemed unsure of how to proceed.

Matthew's stomach took that moment to rumble audibly, causing him to look sheepish. "Ah... heh."

Lora giggled briefly, "That's right! We never did get around to dinner!"

It was with some mild amusement that Lora looked around at the spacious Mitsumi cafeteria. It looked a lot like the one back at Daitokuji Financial Group building, except Mitsumi had gone for the polished chrome look, as opposed to Daitokuji's more traditional (albeit fake) wood paneling.

Even at nearly 1:00 am there were a number of people seated at the scattered tables. Most seemed to be security personnel and technicians working the night shift. The rest were probably getting a late-snack before retiring for the night. All of them were giving their table a wide berth.

Lora wasn't sure what it was that seemed to be scaring the everyone off. It might have been Matthew's bandaged head, her own ragged jacket, or Mei's six foot-plus frame, or a combination of all three. Which ever the reason, Matthew's fellow employees seemed content to scurry by, sparing them only the briefest of looks, except for those Lora tagged as security, who gave both Mei and herself a long stare before shoving off to whatever it was that human guards did at Mitsumi that synthetics didn't.

As for the synthetic in question, she sat quietly at one end of the table, slowly sipping at a large bowl of miso soup, her ears twitching nervously. Matthew had asked Mei to accompany them as "cover." If anyone asked, she was here to act as an escort to Lora, although Lora had to wonder how the Puma was supposed to prevent any trouble Lora might have felt like starting.

On the contrary—As Lora sat eating her sandwich, Mei's nervousness (Matthew was right, you really could tell what they were feeling from their ears) was making her feel very sympathetic towards the synthetic. Deciding to try and put the Puma at ease a bit, she asked, "So, Mei, how did you get to be a medic?"

Blinking with obvious surprise, Mei carefully put her spoon down and dabbed at her mouth with a napkin. She sat quietly for a moment, apparently trying to think up the correct answer. "I was told I was to be the Squad medic once I left the acclimation center. I... I was told I didn't have the temperament to be a combat trooper."

Lora nodded, "I can tell. You're much better off as a medic." She thought of Dr. Snakeye for a moment, and thought for a moment that Mei would have made a perfect nurse for him. But no, that would be impossible. Then, remembering something that Matthew had told her earlier in the evening, she said, "Was that a problem for them? Or is there a place for Puma medical technicians?"

"Oh, no." Mei replied. "There are two medics on the Squad at all times. I am one, Kayuga is the other."

"Ah, okay."

After a few moments more of quiet eating and looking around at the other employees, she looked over at Matthew. "It just occurred to me, but I bet, between my appearance and whatever your 'friend' Lee is going to say, that your reputation is going to get pretty... interesting around here."

Matthew sighed, holding his head in his hands. "I hadn't thought of that."

Lora replied, "I didn't either. I was just thinking your fellow employees might razz you about it. You don't think you're going to get into any actual trouble do you?"

"No... no I don't think so."

"Good. I'm glad. The last thing I want to be right now is more trouble for you."

With a yawn, Matthew nodded his head. "I'm tired," he announced to the table at large.

Mei stood immediately and took her Commander by the arm. "Here, let me get you to bed, you've had a busy night."

Lora got up, "Then I'll see you off, Matthew. Hey, maybe we can try this again soon?"

"Yes, I'd like that." Behind him, Mei smiled.

"It may not have been haute cuisine, but at least we did get dinner. And I can't say it was a boring evening," Lora grinned. "Next time, we could just have you come over to my place, since I've seen yours now."

Standing up, Matthew brushed off his shirt. "Sounds good... you think they'll let me in? I might be hiding a Puma in my back pocket."

Lora stifled a guffaw, caught her breath, and then said, in a comically husky tone, "Is that a Puma in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"

"Ahhh..." Matthew blushed slightly, while Mei's ears went flat. "Want to find out?"

If Lora could have blushed, she would have.

"Maaaybe... But not tonight, I don't think." She reached out and grabbed his hand as they walked out into the hallway toward the Puma quarters. In a quieter tone, she said. "I... like you a lot Matthew. You're very nice, and I am attracted to you. But... " She couldn't tell him, because I want to see if you'll wait for me. Or that she was scared, just a little. She hadn't been with anyone since before the cybergraft. But Matthew... he felt... right somehow. He accepts me as I am. He's not scared of me. And that means I can trust him.

As they stopped at the entrance to the Puma barracks, Matthew laid one hand along side of Lora's face and gave her a light kiss. "Until next time, then."

That had felt really good, but too short. Lora put her arms around him, "Yeah, till next time." Then she returned the kiss and held it a little longer.

Behind them Mei backed away from them quietly. Not wanting to intrude on the moment, but wanting to see what would happen. She tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, no easy task for a six-foot plus Puma, but they didn't seem to be focusing on her anyway. She gazed at the couple with a mixture of sadness and regret, combined with a feeling of vicarious joy for her Commander.

As they broke apart, Matthew reddened yet again. "I never did show you my quarters."

Lora looked at him, and he felt like he could lose himself in that gaze. After a long moment, she said softly, "Yeah, we never did get around to that, did we?"

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