Disclaimer: I do not own s-CRY-ed and do not profit from the publication of this story. However, approval and other constructive contributions are accepted in the form of reviews, which to an author are just like pay checks (or candy or sex).

A/N: Sorry this took so long to post but I was fussing over it for longer than necessary- I've taken some liberties with the characterizations and I wanted them to be just right. The story structure is also purposefully vague and jumpy, but I also don't want to lose anyone. Please review and tell me what you think- whether it's too confusing or if it's working for you.

Ever yours, Mira

Casualties of War

Chapter 1- Battle Scars


Martin Jigmar

Often the most powerful men have the darkest secrets and the most disturbing nightmares…

---

The metal table beneath my bare back and legs is icy cold, the thick bands lashing me to it unforgivably tight. Wrists, ankles, waist, and neck locked in steel, because the leather ones had never held for long. Naked except for the scant dignity afforded by a pair of small boxers.

I hate this table and the people who are here when I wake up on it- cold, calculating eyes settled on top of blue masked faces. I vainly pray each time that this is the last; that it won't last so long or hurt so much this time. I'm always wrong.

They stand in front of me, talking like I can't hear them; calling me 'the subject' and proposing possible 'reactions' and 'side effects' in conversational tones. As if they are talking about the weather or what they had for breakfast.

I've given up on pleading with them- in the beginning they never so much as twitched at my begging, my screaming. They never noticed me until the pain started- until the button was pressed or the plunger was pushed. Since then they've grown weary of the extraneous noise and now my protests only earn me a mouth guard that always cuts up my tongue. So I keep quiet.

When I woke this time, though, I could feel the sharp plastic shoved between my teeth. At first I was confused because I hadn't so much as whimpered the last time. But then it dawns on me- they knew it was going to be bad, that I was going to scream. Terror shoots through me- would it really be that unbearable? My stomach lurches and I feel an overwhelming need to vomit. But I know I can't, so I swallow hard, shut my eyes, and disappear to someplace else.

Her voice. Her light angelic voice from long ago haunts me behind my closed eyes, fills the darkness in my head-

'You're a very special boy, Martin. Because you are the first of your kind. Did you know that? Do you know how important that makes you?'

Her beautiful features appear before my eyes as if they were open and gazing on her. A classic sort of beauty- long, shiny night-colored hair, small eyes of a smoky mahogany, smooth ceramic skin with a glow of blush. Features purely youthful and feminine, though she was fully grown.

'Yes, Martin, there are other children of the Lost Ground who are special like you. But you are unique. It's your birthday- it tells us that after the 'Great Uprising' you were the first child born who developed special abilities. And Martin, that truly makes you one of a kind.'

A maternal sort of beauty, though she was not my mother. She was more enchanting. A confusing sort of beauty, because she was older and married but still very attractive.

'You're very lucky, Martin. They want you to travel with them, to the Mainland. They want to understand your special abilities. You could help advance our knowledge of science. Perhaps help cure diseases. Perhaps lead to discoveries that could save other special children like you. Would you like that, Martin?'

Memories are interrupted by the sting of a sharp needle sliding into my arm. I flinch, but I'm held fast by my bonds. The tip of the needle begins to burn, as if its end was resting on a stove. Fire ants tunnel through my arm, coursing back to fill my hand and fingers, setting them on fire from the inside out. The burning- I can't hold back the screams any longer. Obtuse and strangled noises erupt from my throat only to slam against the plastic barrier between my teeth.

The fire spreads into my shoulder and spills into my chest. My lungs burn and I can't breathe. My heartbeat increases, pounding deafeningly loud in my head, drowning out the clicking and beeping of the machines and monitors around me. My heart pumps the scalding lava through my entire body and I writhe in agony against my restraints, slipping against the sweat pooling beneath me.

I'm dying. There has always been pain in the past, but this, this is unbearable. This is the edge of pain and I'm falling over it. I'm boiling alive. My mouth fills with the warm taste of copper and my eyes explode with bursts of white light. I pray for unconsciousness.

Voices cut through the edge of my awareness, voices of the men behind the masks, "Infusion is complete. Begin polarization of the ionic component- 300 volts."

I hear the metallic click of a switch being thrown and suddenly the liquid fire boils over. Shocks ricochet through my body, igniting the fire into an all-consuming inferno. Every threshold I've ever reached is climaxed. Pain no longer applies- this is the penultimate. My body spasms uncontrollably and my bladder empties. Warm wet blood drips from my nose and I vomit against the mouth guard.

The liquid fire coursing though me burns so hot it finally freezes; my whole body stiffens past shivering, like my organs have frozen into ice. I will never be warm again. I will never see my sixteenth birthday. All because of her.

----

Commander Martin Jigmar found himself sitting up in bed, screaming, before he even realized that he had awakened. His sheets and clothes were damp; his skin coated in a fine sheen of cold sweat. Another nightmare, another flashback.

Again in so many nights, after so much time had past. He hadn't been plagued by such nightmares in years. Once he had finally returned to the Lost Ground they had decreased in frequency until they had practically ceased. He had been able to forget about them, or at least put them out of his mind, in order to concentrate on the mission he'd been given. The bargain he'd struck for a ticket out of hell.

But the nightmares had returned. And he knew why.

It was her.

In some sick, twisted idea of torture they had sent her to him. He was to be responsible for her safety and had to report to them regularly of her progress. The news of her arrival was shocking enough, but he hadn't been prepared for the sight that showed up in his office that day.

Mimori Kiryu. The resemblance was uncanny. One look at her standing across his desk and he was 10 years old all over again. And immediately the nightmares resurfaced.

After that first night, after waking from the first in more than three years, he knew the reason. It was because she bore an unmistakable resemblance to her, to the woman who had stolen his youth with her lies.

The woman who had told him that everything was going to be alright and that he was special.

The woman who had tricked him with her beauty and had handed him over to the Mainland for their experiments.

The woman who had stolen his freedom and sold him into slavery.

Every time he saw Mimori Kiryu, he saw her mother. And ever day she remained at HOLY, she ushered in another nightmare.


Mimori

Don't think about it.

Exhausted to the core but still pushing forward. Every step requires reaching deeper and deeper in search of an energy that simply isn't there. Like an old junker running on fumes; should have collapsed long ago. Would have if I'd been thinking about it, but I wasn't. Wasn't thinking of anything.

Can't make myself think any further back than the airport. Watching my tall rescuer wink knowingly before disappearing into the crowd, heading back to his post. Watching the line of easygoing travelers file through the gate towards the plane, knowing in a few short hours they would be touching down on Mainland soil. Knowing that I didn't belong among them. Knowing that to follow would be a betrayal of some kind, though I'm not sure how.

I'm the only one. The only one who knows, the only one who can do something about it… Allowed my memory to flash backwards for a fleeting moment to the reasons I had walked into that man's office in the first place on that fateful day. Seven days ago- it had only been seven days. Remembered that I was fleeing now because the volatility of the information I had stumbled upon meant he couldn't risk my releasing it. The measures he had taken to ensure my silence revealed the significance of the secrets I was now privy to. I'm the only one.

And so I turned around; walked out of the terminal, out of the airport before my brain even registered where my legs were taking me. Waved every bit of cash I had at the cabby, telling him my destination was as far out of the city as that money would take me. Which unfortunately wasn't far enough in my mind. Stumbled out of the cab when he pulled over, proclaiming this was 'the end of the line'. Watched him speed off before I realized that he'd taken advantage- just like all the others.

Don't think about it.

I didn't care. Refused to let my brain work through my current predicament. Instead I sought more distance. With no coherent thought in my head my body pressed onward, legs carrying me carefully ahead, one foot in front of the other, again and again, until I wandered into even more unfamiliar territory.

The wasteland. Old financial district. Remnants of commercial office buildings demolished by the 'great uprising' that had never been repaired or excavated. Chunks scattered and strewn about like a child's toys destroyed in a fit of rage, tossed aside decades ago and never returned to.

Now weary but still treading cautiously, appraising every step before tentatively lowering a booted foot on each irregular surface. Shoes utterly impractical for the terrain, but literally all I have. Long tailored trench coat covering the remnants of my tattered uniform- a hasty disguise smuggled from my apartment by my would-be savior, who likely never dreamed that I'd forgo his escape plan and end up here. Not surprising, since he didn't understand where my journey had really begun. The irony was that I'd never dreamed of ending up in a place like this myself. The nightmares had driven me here. Nightmares that were very real- hiding just in the periphery- stalking, nipping at heels like rabid hellhounds.

Passing a stranger, I absentmindedly incline my head and bid a quiet 'good day'. In response skeptical eyes search mine, probing for evidence of harmful intentions and ulterior motives. People like me don't come here; people don't do that sort of thing around here. But I can't help it. Politeness and manners are reflexive- don't count for much here, but they're all I have left.

Everything else had slowly drained away, puddling and pooling until finally seeped into the cement of that lonely cell. Dark… Cruel… A place I would die before returning to…

Don't think about it.

I duck my head lower and press on, no knowledge of a clear destination, but absolutely certain that stopping is not an option. The need to continue is utterly illogical. Concentration an entirely foreign concept. Nothing else matters, nothing else exists other than the literal path in front of me. The next step that will carry me farther from the city.

That step instead drops me face first into the dirt. I catch myself, but somehow my heart hurts more than my jarred hands and knees. Tears of frustration sting at my eyes but I squeeze my lids shut tightly- I won't let them fall.

Suddenly a voice to the left raises the hairs at my nape, "Aw, poor thing."

My instantly dry eyes take in the site of three strangers hovering just yards away, closing in on me rapidly. I stand and back away reflexively, but a large man advances, cutting off my retreat. I hear the other two at my back.

"Hey, what're ya actin' so scared for, huh lady? Don't worry, we're not gonna hurt'cha."

"Yeah. We were just wonderin' if you were the type o'person who'd offer us some 'economic assistance', ya know?"

Alarms go off in my head and my pulse thunders up into my temple. I don't even realize I'm speaking, "Please… I-I don't… have any money…"

The three tighten their circumference around me and I try hard not to visibly shake. This isn't happening…

"Tsk, tsk. Now that's a real shame. We were really hopin' you'd be able t'help us out somehow. Y'sure y'ain't got nuthin' t'offer us?"

I turn around, searching for a way out. Seeing a possible exit, I try to hastily push between two of them, "I'm sorry. I really have to be goin-"

However, arms shoot out, blocking my path. A hand curls painfully around my wrist, snatching me back in the center of them, "Hey, where ya goin'?" A painful twist wrenches my arm behind my back and a large hand grabs hold of my shoulder, pulling me harshly against a giant torso. This isn't happening…

"No! Please!" but my pleading falls on deaf ears as they chuckle around me.

"Never thought we'd be pickin' up a little tidbit like this out here," his mouth is so close to my ear that his voice echoes in my head. His chest heaves against my back and his hot breath snakes down my neck.

One of the others grabs my chin and tilts my head up, "She's a nice piece of merchandise. Bet she can help us out after all." His eyes flash with a familiar emotion and bile rises to tickle the back of my throat. This isn't happening…

The large one holding me pushes himself against my back, "Piece of ass this sweet, make ya forget all your troubles."

The other one rakes his eyes down my body hungrily and I shudder against my captor, "Yeah, I haven't had a good tumble in a while. Wouldn't mind gettin' between a pair a legs that fine."

"Please, don't! Let me go!" This isn't happening, not after everything else…

Suddenly a familiar voice, rich and silk-fine, reaches out from a short distance off, "I don't think the lady likes your company." Wide stance, crossed arms, disproving frown, pink sunglasses and a mane of wild orange hair, "Better let her go."

Heart leaps out of my chest and relief floods through me. It's him. He's found me again and I vaguely wonder if perhaps I emit some sort of homing signal that only he can track. Struggle to free myself to run to him, but the large man holds me fast. "Who the hell are you?"

His every word ripples with a cool nonchalance, "You needn't concern yourself with my name. All you need to know is that I care very deeply for the girl you have there and I don't appreciate you rubbing your filthy, grubby hands on her."

"What the hell? Y'got some nerve, man! Nobody steps to us like that! You're dead!"

The new addition chuckles, "I sincerely doubt that, but go ahead and try. Or better yet, why waste time? I'll just take care of all three of you right now."

Before I can blink a whirlwind tumbles my hair into my face. Loud yelps and howls echo amidst cracks and thumps all around me, and when my hair settles back on my shoulders, I'm standing in the middle of three awkwardly sprawled figures. Just outside the ring of bodies bright armor shatters and vanishes off of my rescuer's legs and he relaxes back on his heels. Flips his shiny sunglasses up with one finger and outstretches his other palm to me expectantly.

For a moment I am frozen in awe. What just happened? How did he…? Finally remember myself and accept his hand. Warm fingers close around my cool skin as I slide my palm into his. An approving smile bows his lips and he pulls me gently out of the battlefield. However, my toe catches on one of the downed men's elbows and I stagger forward. I needn't worry; I've stumbled gently into his waiting arms. Still, I clutch at him reflexively, gathering handfuls of his smooth trench in my grasp, face buried between the coat's sharp lapels. Fresh tears spring to my eyes and an overwhelming need to hide them makes me burrow deeper into his chest.

It's foolish. It's irrational. It's highly inappropriate. But I don't care. Because it feels good to be so close to someone who doesn't want to hurt me, doesn't want anything from me. And because I just can't bear to look at him right now. If he sees my face he'll know. He'll know everything and I don't want to tell him, don't want to talk about it.

So I hold fast, even when his hands tug at my arms in a small effort to disengage me. I dig in, knowing the next attempt will be stronger and likely pull me from my hiding place. To my surprise he instead releases my arms and wraps his own around me in an embrace so comforting that it sends me over the edge of an unknown precipice. An emotional dam inside breaks and I fall apart against him, sobbing and shuddering within the fold of his solid form.

It's too much. Not just this, but everything. It's all raw and wounded and vulnerable. All jumbled and confusing and painful. I've lost control and understand with bitter clarity that I haven't the strength or the energy to get it back, to even attempt to reform it into something remotely resembling wholeness, even if only temporarily. It's finished- I'm finished.

And even amidst this revelation, even as the truth dawns harshly on my vulnerable senses, he still holds me. Shushes and soothes. Strokes and coos, as though quieting a startled pet or an anxious child. And it feels so good and the most naïve part of me vainly hopes he never stops.

Sooner than I expect my crying lessens and the embarrassing whimper that I now recognize as my own quiets. Head now sore and dizzy behind my closed eyes as I spiral down towards calm; nerves settle back within the confines of my skin.

Though still wrapped tightly within his strength and safety, his rich velvet voice reaches my ears, blanketing my senses in woolen warmth despite its subject, "We can stay like this as long as you need to. But eventually we're going to have to have a chat, my dear."

I sigh resignedly, not quite ready to give up my safe little nook but knowing that, if nothing else, I owe him an explanation. Even if I don't really know what it is.

---

Cougar

She's buried so deep into my chest I think she might melt into me. It's an amazing feeling- her small and feminine frame curled perfectly within my larger and much taller one- but I can't be distracted by unbidden desires (they rear their heads at such inopportune times). I need answers because the entire situation makes absolutely no sense.

Actually, it's really quite scary if you think about it. Because I stumbled back upon her on blind, dumb luck.

Just a couple of hours ago I had left her at the airport. Draped her in her most inconspicuous coat (a bit too high end but you work with what you have) and handed her a small bag from her apartment. After a chuckle and a handshake I left her at the gate with a clear understanding that she would be flying to the safety of the Mainland and her parents. I even watched the plane take off.

But apparently something happened between the terminal and here because one minute I'm running… um… errands outside the wall and the next thing I know I overhear some old lady talking to some old guy about a strange city girl wandering around out here. Well I'm nothing if not a Good Samaritan, so naturally I'm going to go check it out and make sure that said 'strange girl' is alright. And what do I find? None other than my dear little escapee back in trouble again! Maybe she has a gene that codes for flinging herself into dangerous situations.

And now here we are, only steps away from her attackers and she's latched onto me as if she might die a horrible and gruesome death if she lets go. And I'm not really sure what to do next. So I comfort her as best I can and gently remind her- gently because she's as fragile as I've ever seen her- that eventually I'll need to have some answers coming my way.

Why does she have to be so pretty and soft and delicate and…? It's taking every once of concentration to remind myself that she's been through a harrowing ordeal just now and that she's just reacting to trauma. Mind out of the gutter and not daring to hope for a thing. If any of those three punks gets up again I'm going to decapitate them and use their heads as dodge balls to knock over their pitiful corpses! Nobody should ever touch her. I shouldn't touch her. But what am I supposed to do, pry her off me? I left my crowbar in my other pants.

Eventually her shaking abates by degrees and the sobbing winds down to little whimpers and I'm praying that she stops altogether soon because my heart is breaking to see her this way. Or feel her, rather, because she refuses to look at me, instead choosing to tuck herself into a chest hollow that I didn't know I had. My shirt is so wet from her tears that it sticks to my skin and I have to wonder if maybe she isn't overreacting a bit.

Still clinging but silent now, she seems to have finally gained some control over herself. So I begin in a very soft and non-accusatory voice- because she's rather delicate just now, "Miss Minori..."

Her muffled reply vibrates off my torso before it reaches my ears, "It's… (sob, hick) Mimori…"

"Right, sorry. Um, why aren't you on the airplane? Actually, it should have landed over an hour ago so a better question is 'why aren't you in the Mainland in the safety of your parent's house?'"

I stare down expectantly at the top of her head while she contemplates an answer. After several long moments she gives me a less than satisfying, "I-I don't know…"

I mirror her empty reply, seeing if it sounds just as silly the second time aloud, "You don't know?"

"I-I just couldn't. I can't explain…"

It's a little infuriating because she's giving me nothing to work with and because, as I said before, the whole situation makes absolutely no sense. Still, for her I can be patient- I've got patience around here somewhere. "Alright, that's okay. Um, can you tell me why you came all the way out here?"

"I… (sniff) God, I don't know! I-I had to get away… (sniff) from the city… It was too much."

I wish she'd just look up at me. I'm confused as hell and it's finally dawning on me that she's not so much worrying about the three unconscious thugs on the ground but more likely the prison I'd just freed her from.

"Is… is this about last night? About last week?" And rather than a verbal response she nearly spills out of my grasp, knees buckling so fast that she's lucky I'm the master of Radical Good Speed.

I hold her up- very carefully because she's so fragile at this point- and try to get through to her once more. It's difficult because she's trying to cocoon back in on herself again. "Miss Minori, it's not safe around here for you. I can get you on another plane- when you're ready."

She vigorously shakes her head against my shirt and if it were any other situation I'd probably chuckle at the adorableness of it. "I can't go back! I can't… I know things… I'm the only one… who can do anything about it..."

And it finally happens. She looks up, turning those big, wet-brown eyes on me and I think I might join her in the wobbly knees category, but for an entirely different reason. She pleads with me with a desperation I've never seen in her before, "Cougar, listen to me. The things you've shown me… and the other things I've seen… I have to set it right. I can't just think of myself and ignore what my head and my heart are telling me. I can't deny the truth and just run off and hide behind my parents. Please don't ask me to leave. Not you, too. I just can't do it." Her voice and eyes drop a little and she almost appears to be talking to herself as she focuses on some point between my collar bones, "He has to be held accountable… has to pay for what he's done..."

Something in her tone makes my eyebrows huddle together suspiciously; she sounds wounded and sorrowful… almost… I could almost swear she shudders and then her eyes find mine once more and she fades back into that pleading, doe-eyed stare again, "Please, Cougar. I have no right to ask you- I can't even give you a proper explanation- but please don't try to send me back to the Mainland."

She locks me in a steadfast stare and I lose my grasp on any form or version of the word 'no'. How can I deny her anything? How can I parrot that prick who keeps trying to send her away? The guy who she crossed an ocean to be disappointed by? I'm better than that. And for her, I'll be better than him. Even if I can't be anything more than just a friend.

"Don't worry. I won't ask you leave."

And at these words a bit of light returns to her eyes and wells in the corners and I think she just might start crying again but for a different reason. In barely a whisper, "Thank you, Cougar. I knew you'd understand."

Actually, I really don't understand, but we can address that when she's not so emotional and I'm not so distracted with trying to make her smile at me one more time. And it finally dawns on me that she's right- she's the only one who knows everything. She's seen everything- I know she read every bit of every file she uncovered, and I know that in his sick twisted sense of justice he showed her everything before he locked her up. And I know that she's the only one who could actually do something about it. She's in danger because with one phone call, one interview she could turn all of HOLY on its ear. And I'm ashamed.

I know what she knows, for the most part. I've known for a long time, for longer than she's even been here. And I haven't done a damn thing about it except share it with her in what I now see was a desperate attempt to catch her attention and impress her. Because my one and only goal since first returning from my ordeal on the Mainland has been to watch out for number one. I've been analyzing and manipulating every situation so that I come out on top, the rest of the world be damned. And for the first time ever, I'm appalled by my selfishness. By some degree I'm responsible for her involvement in all of this- the catalyst that sparked her curiosity. A curiosity that almost got her killed.

"Cougar? Are… are you alright? You've gone pale just now."

Oh God, she's asking if I'm alright? Is she honestly worrying about the guy who walked her to the waterfall's edge and practically pushed her over? You're kidding me!

"I… uh… I'm fine. Just thinking…"

I can fix this. I can make this right. Whatever she wants, whatever she needs I can provide for her. I can hide her, shelter her. And if she doesn't want to leave, I can do it all here, right under the commander's nose because one good turn deserves another. I can protect her- be her champion.

"We need to leave. I need to hide you someplace safe- where they won't think to look for you, but where I'll have access to you. From now on you're under my protection. Things will be different here on out, but I promise, no one will ever harm you." And, by God, I mean every word. She gazes up at me with a look full of confusion and gratitude and disbelief and I almost think I'll have to repeat myself. But then fresh tears spill out of the corners of her eyes and she hugs me again, but in a whole different way.

After more squeezing and shushing and calming of raw nerves I manage to disentangle her and we finally ready ourselves to leave this God-awful place. And as I steer her towards the ruins' edge to my awaiting car, I wonder if either of us really knows what we've gotten the other one into.


The Hideout

Kunihiko Kimishima can tell that something very strange is going on.

He is standing in the doorway of an apartment that, though it's in the city, he is positive is not Straight Cougar's. Though he's never been to Cougar's place he knows for a fact that he lives on the other side of town, near the HOLD tower. In a much nicer neighborhood.

No way is this his place. And no way is he this… neat. Sure, he's an organized sort of guy. But this… it's so… clean, so… utterly spotless. But who gets a maid in this part of town?

And as he stands there in the doorway making small talk with the speedster, he could swear something smells like… what is that? Grilled fish and fresh-baked bread? Cougar can't cook for shit. And there's the hint of some kind of exotic flower wafting about now that he thinks about it.

He can't help himself, interrupting their veiled, discreet conversation to ask, "What smells so good? Hey, aren't you gonna invite me in for dinner?"

Cougar's eyes immediately darken and his eyebrows drop to frown at the boy in the doorway, "Sorry, I can't have company right now. Besides, it's just a frozen dinner."

Kimishima slaps his shoulder, assuming he's kidding, "Hey, no way man! I'm the king of nukin' grub and that's homemade! The nose knows. And something smells like flowers."

The taller man looks even more annoyed now, realizing he's practically been caught lying. "Some other time, man. I'm really busy right now."

Then it finally dawns on the young Inner- good food, fresh flowers, tidy apartment across town- he's stumbled upon Cougar's hidden love nest! Before he can even think to check himself, he blurts out "Hey man, you've got a chick coming over, don't you! Awe geez, why didn't you say so?"

The speedster blanches visibly, but keeps a cool set to his features. "Uh… I'd appreciate some discretion. No one can know about this place."

Kimishima nods conspiratorially, "I totally get it. Your secret's safe with me, you know that. So tell me, she's hot, right?"

The older man rolls his eyes, "Wouldn't you like to know," and just as he's about to usher the younger man out of his door a thump and a purely feminine 'oh!' can be heard from the bedroom down the hall.

In a loud whisper that's hardly fooling anyone, "Oh shit, man, she's here? Crap, I'm totally interrupting!"

"Yes you are. Now would you take the envelope and please get out? I need you to get that to Kazuya."

"Yeah, Kazuma. Okay man, no problem. I'm outa here…" but the young man lingers in the doorway, eyes trained down the hall, hoping to catch a glimpse of the mystery woman Cougar has hiding in the back.

The taller man sees exactly what's going on and pushes him out of the apartment with a hand square on his forehead, "Good, get going. I'll talk to you later," and before Kimishima can offer a 'bye' he is served up a hefty helping of freshly slammed door.

After several moments of long silence, an ebony head peeks around the doorframe down the hall, impish guilt coloring her soft features. "I'm sorry. I tripped over the box of books you brought with you. Did he hear me?"

Cougar shrugs indifferently and sinks into the small couch as she tentatively walks into the living room to join him, "It's alright. He thought you were some kind of female conquest of mine."

"Oh!" A cute little blush creeps into her cheeks and down her neck as she hovers just within the room. He has to bite his tongue to keep from laughing out loud at her embarrassment.

"I think it was the food on the stove and the apartment that gave you away. I'm guessing he knows I don't clean this much. Did you get bored?"

She looks down rather sheepishly at her sock feet and tangles her fingers nervously, "I, uh… I guess I clean when I'm anxious. And, um… I wanted to make it comfortable for you… since this isn't your real place and I've practically begged you to stay here with me…"

A sly grin falls on his lips, "Hence the home-cooked meal in the kitchen?"

Her blush deepens and she shifts from foot to foot, wandering further into the room, "I… just wanted to thank you somehow. You've done so much for me and, I don't know, I thought I could at least help you enjoy the time you have to spend here…"

He smiles widely at this, "Minori… ('Mimori') Right. You know, for a genius, you can be a real dummy." The shock on her face at this soon fades into a smile that mirrors his. "You should have figured out by now that I enjoy spending time with you. You don't have to bribe me to be here- I'm around for as long as you need me, no questions asked, no strings attached."

"Cougar, I… thanks." He loves it when she gives him a genuine smile like that.

"Well, I mean it, young lady! Keep thinking of yourself as some horrible ogre and I'll treat you like one. Hide you under a bridge. Feed you stray puppies…"

She balks at him, "Ew!"

"…and earth worms… make you wear burlap sacks and drink runoff from the sewer…"

"You're terrible!"

"…only let you out during Halloween so I can have the scariest monster in the neighborhood…"

"Okay, I get it!" Her laughter is calming and highly contagious.

"I'm just saying! We can go that route if you don't quit it. If anything I feel sorry for you- having to stay cooped up in this little place and only getting to see my ugly mug for the most part…"

She settles comfortably at the edge of the coffee table in front of him, "Nonsense. You're wonderful and you're all the company I need. I miss you when you're at work and I find myself bustling about waiting for you to get home, I mean, to get here."

Cougar's eyebrows skirt his hairline; he's more than a little surprised to hear her say this. A closer look at their perches shows him that she's sat herself right between his knees. He rewinds his memory of the last 2 minutes in search of the moment when he accidentally made a move on her, but realizes that she's to one who so nonchalantly rested her hand on his knee. And now he's staring like a dummy, trying to look cool as his heartbeat sprints in his chest. Down boy… She's being polite… really, really polite… and she's probably lonely- you've been gone all day… But come to think of it, why does she always smell like flowers when the only soap in the bathroom is mine…?

She interrupts his clamorous thoughts, "So are you hungry? I'm not a brilliant cook or anything, but I think you'll like the meal."

He lets out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding and answers back a little too eagerly, "I'm famished! I've worked up quite the appetite running around today and have I got a story for you!"

She beams at him, eager for some outside news, and grabs his hand off the nearby arm rest as she stands. "Great! Tell me about it over dinner," and she pulls him to his feet to lead him in the kitchen. As he follow her, hand in hand, Cougar dares to wonder if perhaps there isn't more in the air than just the enticing smell of delicious seafood, baked goods and exotic flora.


A/N: Paychecks… candy… sex… you remember. Push the button; you know you want to. Mira :)