Friendly Competition

A/N- Wow, do you believe it? I only now finished the SO3 game. I was sooooo excited to get the Cliff-Mirage ending. Best ending on the whole thing. Though at first, I was yelling at the TV that they stole my plot. I thought it was pretty creative to apply the fact that Cliff and Mirage went to the same dojo into a story, but I guess not. I had to look up everything in the all-wise dictionary –sniffle- Oh welll… at least now I know what I can add toward the end of this. I was unhappy about some aspects of the ending and will be changing it… Too bad I didn't get the Nel-Albel ending… Anyhow, Mirage was my highest level character (67), but she did around 15000 damage each hit. –sigh- I'm proud, but I'm kinda disappointed that Luther was so easy for my chars. I pride myself on severely under-leveling my characters and barely scraping through the final boss battle. I defeated Luther's second form in about two minutes, though. –sigh- I guess I'll just have to go challenge the 'real' boss of the game at this level. That should do for an adrenaline rush… -grins- I'm totally gonna die… heehee… Update: wtf? they want me to level up one hundred more times? Screw that, it took me long enough to get to 67. teehee…

I love my reviewers very much. You guys are splendid people that make me very happy. –glomps you all again- Look at the author's notes at the end for a special treat.

Chapter Three: I've Fallen (in Like) and I Can't Get Up

Meriya burst into Trillian's classroom one minute after seven o'clock. He looked from the girl to the clock and glared sternly up from the papers he was grading.

"You desperately need to work on punctuality, Miss Creighton." Master Trillian grunted, going back to his assignments.

Meriya tried to look abashed, but it only lasted for a few seconds. As he trifled with his papers, she found herself growing impatient. Finally the stress of the evening caught up with her and she burst out, annoyed.

"If we won't be doing anything this evening, can I just go back to my dorms and reschedule? As enthralling watching you work is, there's a bit of a crisis—"

Trillian peered at her over round glasses that perched low on his long crooked nose and scoffed.

"Impatient to be punished, are we?" Trillian smirked, "Well, luckily for you, we will be doing a few disciplinary exercises tonight to make up for all the times you've missed the beginning of class."

Meriya had to restrain herself from using a few choice words on his smug little face. Of course, it'd almost definitely mean another session with the slightly creepy martial arts scholar. Instead, she mustered as much charm as she could and rephrased her request.

"You see, my roommate has recently become… ill… and I need to stay with her as she recovers. I'd very much appreciate it if we could rearrange this meeting for a more opportune time." She managed in a strained tone.

Trillian looked disdainfully at her as one would look at the slow student who had tried to answer a question for the first time in class and gotten it completely wrong.

"I am aware of the situation with Mirage." he scoffed, "I took it into account when I scheduled this session. It's what your 'activities' will be about."

Meriya looked at him with interest for the first time in quite a long while.

"What do you mean?"

He stacked the sheets of paper neatly on his desk and paced across the room a few feet until he turned back to her. Her eyes were still fastened to him with a surprising intensity.

"I mean that we'll be investigating why a perfectly healthy girl would faint after a simple sparring match. That is, of course, unless you think the subject in question swooned from her partner's dreaminess." He said, sarcastically arching one bushy gray eyebrow.

Meriya knew she was being baited, but she couldn't resist taking the figurative lure.

"So you're saying that you'll help me figure out who did this to her this afternoon?" Meriya mused.

Trillian let out a low bark of a laugh, startling Meriya out of her thoughts.

"Not at all. I'm saying that you'll help me figure out what happened to her. Though it is intriguing that you think it was a someone to blame. Why is that?"

Meriya sighed and began. She knew, as any student who had been stuck with a term paper for Trillian did, that he was a stickler for details. It was likely she'd be in the office half the night answering questions.

"It's just that a lot of people—guys and girls— are jealous of Mirage's talent. Plus, there's all the attention that she gets from being both the daughter of Koas and the head student of the dojo. My guess is that someone wanted to bring her down a peg or two. I don't know how they went about it, though. It'd have to be both effective and unnoticeable." Meriya frowned thoughtfully.

Trillian guffawed loudly and clapped her on the shoulder.

"Could it be that Ms. Creighton has put her ample brain to use for once? But don't worry about the how yet. That would be my job, now wouldn't it? Now, if you could just answer a few more questions--"

Meriya sighed and settled in for a long night, though with much more interest than she had started out with.

Meanwhile, Cliff glanced at the clock. It had been an hour since Meriya left him to nanny the unconscious girl, and he was starting to get restlessly bored. Stretching his free arm a bit, he found that he could just reach the top drawer of the desk by Mirage's bed. He managed to open it a crack by straining his muscles a bit farther, then squeezed a groping hand into the opening. Almost immediately, his shoulder angel's voice popped into existence.

"Snooping in the personal possessions of a lady is not gentlemanly." the voice scolded.

Carefully ignoring his conscience, Cliff fumbled until he found a small paperback book wedged between two stacks of paper, which he carefully withdrew.

"I was just trying to find some reading material." Cliff grinned to himself, "Now… what do we have here? 'I've Fallen in Love and I Can't Get Up'? What the heck does this girl read? Geriatric love stories?"

He paged through the book until he realized what he was holding: the one thing most toxic yet intriguing to guys… the—

"Hm? A romance comic?" He smirked, "Go figure…"

Beside him, the vice-grip on his arm loosened and Mirage stirred, blinked wearily and trying to take in her surroundings.

One thought rang through Cliff's mind: Oh shit…

Like any sane man Cliff panicked and, not wanting to be caught with incriminating evidence of snooping, hurled the book behind the desk. Mirage tried to sit up in bed, but it turned out to be too much exertion and she ended up slumping back into her recumbent position.

Still groggy but aware, she realized that she was holding on to something like a drowsy toddler clings to its safety blanket.

Something that seemed to be in the shape of a muscular arm…

Which happened to be attached to—

"Cliff?" she puzzled blearily, "What are you doing here?"

"You need your rest." He intoned firmly, "Go back to sleep now. I'll explain later."

Her lips half-formed a protest, but her eyes drooped shut before she could really object.

Her grip on his arm was significantly lighter, but instead of disturbing her by breaking free, Cliff settled in for another few cramped hours. He did regret, however, that he'd thrown the book out of reach.

"So you saw Mirage just before the match and there wasn't anything wrong with her?" Trillian pried.

Meriya sighed. He'd been questioning her for the past half-hour and she was getting tired of not finding anything conclusive.

"Yes. Just before the match. Like I said." Meriya groaned.

"And you don't have any idea what could have happened to her between when you saw her and the fight."

"Not that I can think of. Last time I saw her, she was just going to the locker… oh…"

Trillian sat up straight and looked at her intensely. She squirmed a little, as if embarrassed, but Trillian took her arm seriously.

"What is it?"

'I can't believe I missed it…' she cursed to herself

"It might be nothing, but… just before she went in, I saw a group of girls leave. I assumed they were just picking something up."

"Assumption is the tool of fools."

Meriya glared at him stubbornly, then grudgingly deferred to his opinion.

"Yes, I know. But I think that if we can figure out what they did in there, we can figure out what's wrong with Mirage. If we go to the locker room, we might find some clues or something…"

"Brilliant." Trillian muttered sarcastically, "But I don't think we need to go through so much trouble. What's stored in a locker room?"

"Clothes…" Meriya sighed, grudging his sarcastic tone.

"Well, either we're completely off the real cause or we've just found it. Care to find out?"

Meriya eyed up the teacher warily and sighed. She was still having doubts about her guess, and the fact that he didn't was starting to annoy her.

"You can't be serious." She grimmaced, "What can someone do to training clothes that would be that harmful in that short of a time?"

He looked at her stonily, and when she glared back, his lips tightened into the closest thing to a grin she'd ever seen on him.

"That, my dear pupil, is what we're here to find out, in case you've forgotten."

With that, he strode across the room to the chair his coat had been perched on and shrugged into the jacket, not giving the irritated girl another glance until he'd reached the door.

"Well?" he drawled over his shoulder at her, "Will you be coming? I'd think it'd be rather awkward for me to attempt divesting the young lady—"

"Pervert…" Meriya grumbled under her breath.

Still… the opportunity to get out of the classroom was a welcome one, so she trailed behind him as he started out over the now-twilight grounds towards the dorms. The walk to the room took much less time than Meriya had anticipated, mainly because she was lost in thought. Though it had been her idea, she was reluctant to believe that one of her fellow classmates had been the culprit. None of them had reason to attack Mirage…besides jealousy, of course. And if someone had already gone this far because of it, it was a matter of time before worse things started happening.

"You go in." Trillian said wryly, "I'd rather not be charged with harassing a student, especially Koas' daughter. Remember to make note of anything unusual."

"Yes, I know." Meriya sighed, rolling her eyes, "Details, details. Can I go now?"

"By all means." Trillian smirked, gesturing grandiosely at the building.

Meriya entered Mirage's room timidly, noticing that the lights had been dimmed. She flipped the switch, and as soon as she did, someone let out a low groan. Meriya yelped and jumped a few feet into the air before turning a hard glare to the one who had startled her. They did the same to her, but it took a few moments to register who was keeping the bedside vigil.

"Cliff?" Meriya finally managed, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

"Yeah, none other. Why ya actin' so startled? I said I'd stay, didn't I?"

Shrugging as if to clear her head, she looked up at him with a puzzled glance.

"Well, yes… but you seemed so against it that I figured that you'd have left after I left."

Cliff looked rather annoyed as he held up the arm that Mirage was still firmly attached to for the girl's inspection. He looked even more annoyed when Meriya began giggling in disbelief.

"I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a weasel." he glared, "I keep my word."

"Oh, calm down. I didn't mean anything by it. It's just that I didn't have you pegged as the Prince Charming type."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Cliff sputtered, not sure if he should take the girl's wry comment as a compliment or insult.

"I guess I should have suspected it, though. You can't resist a pretty Sleeping Beauty, canya?" she smirked.

"Hey, now. It's not like that—"

"Riiight…" she grinned impishly, "Well, I guess I can't complain. I didn't think it'd be easy to do this alone. I mean, she looks petite, but she's solid muscle…"

Meriya crossed the room and pulled the bed's coverlet down, making Mirage mutter something unintelligible in her sleep. Cliff finally lost his patience and addressed Meriya shortly.

"What are ya babbling about?"

"Well, we have to get Mirage out of her training clothes, and I can't do it alone."

For once in his life, Cliff was utterly speechless, probably due mostly to the fact that his nose was practically hemorrhaging blood.

"Well?" Meriya said, relishing in his reaction, "Are you going to stand there bleeding all over everything or are you gonna help me get her undressed?"

Cliff blinked and took a few seconds to process what she'd just said, jaw hanging open.

"Two girls…I never thought I'd question something like this, but why? I mean, she's unconscious and all…"

"Get your mind out of the gutter." Meriya said hardly able to breath, let alone speak, through her laughter.

Cliff's face steadily turned a bright shade of red, only partially because of the nosebleed, as he glared at the hyperventilating girl.

"What's wrong with you? I gotta say that I don't get the joke…"

Meriya quieted her chuckles into silent shakes, and blinked up at Cliff innocently.

"Why, we think someone might've tampered with Mirage's training clothes to get her like this, so we have to study them. What didya think I meant?"

Instead of the abashed look she'd expected him to sport after she told him, a cloud of seriousness flitted over his features making him look pretty hard.

"So yer sayin' that you think someone did this to her? Who is it? I'll—"

Meriya noticed with apprehension how he was clenching one leather-clad hand menacingly.

'We don't know anything definitive right now, so don't go trying to hunt down every student on campus just yet.'

Cliff grumbled darkly, but quit clenching his hand.

'The best thing you can do for her right now is to help me sit her up in bed so I will be able to dress her. I wasn't kidding about how heavy she is. Let me get the shoes first. They're easiest."

Looking as startled as a deer caught in the headlights of a semi, Cliff looked Meriya incredulously as she worked on unlacing the training sandals.

"Whoa, there. You don"t mean that I should actually help you…"

"No. I just need you to do the one little thing I asked. I can take it from there." She said, flinging the shoes across the room.

Sagging in relief, Cliff positioned his hand behind Mirage's back and tried to work her into a sitting pose. However, as he tried to maneuver the surprisingly heavy Mirage his hand slipped below her waist. She let out a low groan, and before he knew what hit him, her fist did.

"Pervert. What the hell's going on?" Mirage moaned, sitting upright. "Were you trying to feel me up?"

Meriya blinked quietly and tried to keep from making eye contact with Cliff, who was nursing his purpling cheek sourly.

"Wow… so…you're awake, hm? Didn't expect that…" Meriya murmured.

"What happened? How long was I asleep?"

Mirage looked around startled until her gaze alighted on a rather sheepish-looking Cliff.

"Oh no…" she mumbled haltingly in a horror-stricken tone, "Don't tell that you've been here all night. I'm sorry if I was a burden—And about the punching…"

"Errr… don't mention it." Cliff said, feeling his face begin to heat.

"No, really. I'm very grateful, but it wasn't your fault and you still stayed. I feel like I owe you something."

A stony edge flashed in Cliff's cobalt eyes, making him look fiercer and more adamant than ever. Taking into account his normal expression, it was an unsettling sight to behold.

"I do things because they're what I wanna do, not so I'll get something in return. I chose to do you a favor. My decision, my prerogative. Don't sweat it."

Mirage was about to protest until she saw what an unyieldingly stubborn attitude he could project by a mere look. After all, it was senseless to argue over something so silly with someone who could end it without saying a word. It was then that Mirage saw the answer to a question that had been bothering her since Cliff had arrived. She'd been wondering how a person who seemed so inept at times could possibly hold a control position in whatever organization he was recruiting for. It was now clear that he had a strong skill for leadership… not to mention stubbornness.

As he turned to leave, she managed two quick words, ones she'd seldom had to use with such sincerity.

"Thank you." She said quietly.

He turned and raised an eyebrow at her before he turned the knob.

"When I say don't mention it, I mean it."

"I know..." Mirage smiled, "that's what I wanted to thank you for, Cliff."

For some inexplicable reason, Cliff felt a genuine smile wrestle itself past his defenses, though he turned his back before his two companions could see.

"Well, cya later. Get well soon and all that."

Still smiling, he left the room.

'I think she likes me—' he began to muse to himself, only to be interrupted by the cynical voice in his head that I so fondly refer to as his shoulder devil.

'Yeah, that's why she punched you in the face.' It gloated gleefully.

Not even mental abuse, however, could convince his brain to stop sending the synapses that were causing his slightly dazed grin.

'Well, at least she doesn't hate me anymore…'

'You're pathetic…' the voice said disgustedly before popping out of existence.

"That does it." Cliff blinked, "I think I need help…"

A/N- Kinda sappy, hm? Well, not counting the abuse… First of all, I want to say that I hate work and if any of you are considering getting a job at Hollywood Video, run away fast. Lol… errrr… now that that rant's over with, I have to rant about my keyboard, which still sucks. Anytime I press the A key, it puts in a euro sign or capitalizes it. –sigh- They're probably the two main reasons this took so long to get updated, but at least I finally did. –smiles- Which is why I'm announcing a new innovative change I'm working on to this story as a reward. Ever wish that fanfiction could have Private Actions like the SO games? Weeeelll, starting with a certain event in the next chapter or the one after, you guys get to vote on what happens in the story at certain points. If the vote is split, I'll even write two chapters. Ok, so it's kind of a review incentive, but I think it's original. Tell me what you think of my idea, ok? Now, go click the Periwinkle box or else a rampaging herd of Menodix will come for you and smash you into pulp. Also, go check out my other SO fics, too. I'll be updating soon. –smiles sweetly- Enough shameless plugging, tell me what you think of this chapter, okies? Also, if anyone feels like chatting, my sn is laceyk1717 on yahoo and AuthorBabe on AOL. Yes, both are crappy names, but feel free to IM any time you like. I'm a nice person, I promise. Lol… Well, until next time. –smiles-