Disclaimer: No. If the situation changes I'll let the fans know. Nor do I own any songs, brands, or anything else in this.

Um, so…modern AU. No swords, no magic, none of that. Based on my musing about what it might have been like if the story took place in our relatively normal modern world. Well, save for the fact that they're all cats and/or decrepit beings. Give it a chance, it's not nearly so dull as it sounds. Or at least, I don't think so. It started out a tiny drabble, shifted to a short story, into a monstrous forty pages, and then bounded into the monster you shall see before you after a few chapters. I finally decided to break it into a few chapters, and it will be finished soon. I'm also eight pages into the next chapter of 'Where the Roads Intersect,' if you want to know.

Warnings: Lion-OxCheetara, one-sided TygraxCheetara and some other surprises. Kissing scenes. Character death. That's about it.

Oh, Pumyra and Bengali will feature. I don't know what their personalities will be like in the new show, so I'm going to approximate. Well, unless you'd prefer I don't post the story until they show up in the new series, which we know Pumyra will…

This will not be purely fluffy. There will be emotional highs and misery. As in the show, certain characters are occasionally dealing with inferiority complexes. If you have the emotional range of a thimble or think that people or characters that have such complexes are just whiny, you're welcome to leave.

Lion-OxCheetara…I like it. Sorry Tygra, but I've favored my OTP since the old series reruns on Boomerang. The creators can play up the "crush since adolescence" card all they want. Sheesh, if I ended up with who I had a crush on as a kid…whew, not pretty. I have other reasons as well, but that's not the point of this little story. Or is it?

To rather more gung-ho TygraxCheetara fans, please don't send in notes accusing me of being an idiot for not liking the pairing. This is not meant for all of you, only a select few I've seen around on the web. Thank you.

Happy Thanksgiving, y'all.

Filling the Footsteps

"Oh, let the rain keep falling down. Cause it won't stop me from getting where I'm bound. Maybe I'm crazy, maybe it's too late. But I'm gonna make it; don't care what the skies say. So oh, let it rain…let it rain."

Let It Rain, Kris Allen

It surprised everybody when he graduated midterm with a 3.9 at seventeen.

Anybody who knew Lion-O knew that while he was smart enough, it was Tygra who was the over-achiever who had graduated valedictorian three years ago. At sixteen. Being the Student Council President. With a full ride to college.

Oh yes, Tygra was the talented one. Skipping grades was normal, winning the debates in speech class was ordinary. Oh, not to mention having so many girls sending him candy grams on Valentine's Day that he probably could have fed a neighborhood at Halloween. He was intelligent, confident, and attractive. Voted most likely to succeed in middle school and everything.

Lion-O had won nicest smile when his time came around. About the same time that his brother had been glancing over prestigious universities. Dad had given him an approving look before leaving for his flight to the next meeting. Thunder Enterprises couldn't run itself, and several other companies – namely Lizard Co. – had been trying to get some deals under the table to increase production for half the cost.

Nobody beat Thunder Enterprises when it came to putting out the best gadgets and computers. Not when his dad was around. He was a huge lion, and looked totally out of place in a suit; a wrestling ring might have been a more fitting place. He snapped his fingers and people heeled.

And of course, Tygra was his pride and joy. Never had there been a dad prouder of his son, and never had there been a son so pleased to earn his paternal figure's praise.

Lion-O…well, Dad loved him. Went to ball games for him. Made it through his kindergarten graduation ceremony. He loved him plenty. But that didn't mean he praised him much.

He loved Tygra more.

Not that Lion-O ever said anything like that; it was just impossible not to notice that, at the very least, he was far prouder of his adopted son. But Lion-O had never been the type to be all, "pity me with my daddy problems." Tygra always told him he'd never earned a thing.

Well, he couldn't say that now.

The streets were dirty and he felt very small on the sidewalk. Aside from his luggage case, backpack and the little brief case in his left paw, he was all alone on the pavement. Unless you counted the dozens of strangers giving him weird looks.

He glanced to his left and to his right. Buildings streamed from the east to the west. Aside from a little sandwich vendor and newspaper stand on the street, nothing seemed very interesting or out of place. Well, there was a bar, but he was underage and didn't drink anyway. And there was a bum on the street who was begging for loose change. He felt a little bad for him but tried not to let that softer side of him win out. This city was supposed to be brutal, and any detected weakness would result in being torn apart and devoured. Not literally, though that wasn't impossible…

Somebody rudely shoved against his back and he instinctively clutched his luggage closer, against the shelter of the paper stand. In retrospect, coming to Tretierra City without calling Tygra to pick him up probably hadn't been the brightest thing he'd ever done.

But wasn't that the point of this lunatic venture? Proving he could do this? Proving he could be just as good as his prodigy brother?

Another person bumped against him, and he flinched – unless he was very much mistaken, they'd just run their claw creepily along his back. It was impossible to tell who it had been, but suddenly he wished his blue turtleneck was a little bit thicker. They had gone, and he was very glad he'd elected to keep his wallet inside his shirt – in a little pocket he'd sewn on the inside just for this occasion – rather than in his jean pocket.

He'd done it on the quiet; application after application, part-time job after part-time job, he'd made it. Afraid his dad and brother would try to dissuade him, he hadn't mentioned leaving until two nights ago. There, in the middle of dinner, while passing Dad another bread roll, he'd dropped the bomb.

"I'm leaving for Tretierra. I've been accepted to Ome North University into their business program."

Nobody had said a word for thirty seconds. Tygra was home for the week, so it had been hard to avoid looking at him across the table. Even harder was simply looking at his dinner plate as if he'd just mentioned the weather. He picked at the potatoes and focused in on the while tablecloth.

"You're kidding, right? I mean, graduating salutatorian was great, but…" Tygra said slowly, as if probing to see if he was really being serious. Lion-O let his eyes flicker toward him.

"I got the acceptance letter yesterday. They're even letting me transfer some advanced placement credits over so I can skip some gen ed courses." The temptation to look over his dad was huge, but he didn't dare, nibbling at a piece of lettuce from his salad.

He felt them exchange glances. "Ome N. is a pretty expensive school, Lion-O. I'm proud that you managed to earn a place there-"

Price would have been no object for a good education, but Lion-O knew what his father was dancing around saying; if he ended up cracking under pressure and leaving the university, it would be a waste of tuition. He swallowed the bite of lettuce. "They awarded me a scholarship because I graduated salutatorian so early. The tuition for the first two years is paid for by the scholarship, along with a dorm, and they've guaranteed me a job at the campus bookstore because I'll be moving away and applied so early. I've saved up enough to live on for five months so far."

Again they exchanged glances, this time looking stunned. He had given up not looking at them, glancing between them, checking for their responses. "How long have you been planning this?" Dad asked, eyes piercingly bright.

"For a few months. It's a pretty prestigious place, and I figured if any place can help me get the skills I need to run a business when I'm older, Ome N. is it." His brother's face was unreadable, and his dad put his chin on his paws, interlocking his fingers.

The fact that the company was always handed down through the family had been a thing of much controversy for generations. Even back in the eighteen-hundreds when it had only been putting out things like furniture and machine parts, the founder Leo had passed the small company on to his firstborn son, who had passed it on to his son, and so on until it had been passed to Claudus. And Lion-O knew that nobody thought that tradition ought to be adhered to any longer, save his dad. He would never break the line.

But Tygra was already well into his studies, and everybody knew how brilliant he was. Employees muttered and other executives plotted; if Tygra, against all odds, took over when Claudus stepped down, they would have competition indeed. But the lion cub, well. They would snort with relief. He was all daydreams and flights of fancy.

He had ideas. Big ones, about better technology. Stuff that pushed computers to their limits; hover technology, virtual systems. Things that only a decade ago were considered impossible. He wanted to do things differently. And everybody thought he was an immature kook for it.

He wasn't going to be the Hobson's choice. Not this time.

It wasn't that he didn't want Tygra to be successful; he did. It was just...he wanted to be the best option for once. The one his dad would actively pick because he was the best cat for the job. Or at least equally as good as his brother.

Just once. Just once.

"Are you sure about this, son?" Claudus had looked worried, and Tygra had looked calculating, searching his eyes in silence.

Lion-O took a breath and let it go. "I'm sure. I pack tomorrow morning and leave late tomorrow night on a plane."

"Aw, come on! Please?"

He was jolted out of his reverie by a loud, plaintive wail. Hunkered beside the newsstand, he could smell the sandwiches the vendor was selling, and wince; they smelled greasy, and the vendor was a squat, sour-looking tabby. The cries were coming from a kitten in front of the counter, about eight years old, with tawny eyes and a bushy tail. His t-shirt and shorts were a bit ratty, flapping around his arms and knees as he meowed. "Old Jorma always gave us a sandwich to split!"

"Little urchin, if you don't leave now, I'm calling the authorities. Jorma's headed south, and I'm in charge of the stall now. And I can't just give away food to any brat that asks." The sheer meanness in his voice made Lion-O stare.

"Please? Just one?" A girl kitten had appeared beside the boy, her ears bound back in a ponytail and her tail sinking lower every second. "We've got a dime and a quarter. Can we pay you back tomorrow?"

The tabby shook his head. "Why aren't you two in the foster system? You can't have parents that let you run around like this, begging." The two mouths grew thin and tight, and they gazed pleadingly upward.

Lion-O scanned the prices. Two dollars per sandwich. Four dollars…he had that much to spare. Even if he hadn't, the hungry, pinched faces made him feel a little sick. Keeping a careful eye on his luggage, with nimble fingers he managed to slip a five out of his wallet by reaching into his shirt. Without ever removing his wallet, he pulled his paw back out surreptitiously. Dragging his case, he stopped before the vendor, feeling a little self-conscious. "Here. What kind do you want?"

If he'd felt self-conscious before, he felt outright embarrassed when the vendor gave him a look that obviously indicated he thought he was an idiot. The kittens were giving him weird looks too, as if trying to judge whether he was playing a joke on them, or worse, some kind of horrible person. His stomach curled; was an expression of generosity so rare here? Maybe it was the turtleneck. It was kind of a fashion faux pas anymore(1). "Seriously." He handed the tabby the five. The clever eyes met once, somehow seeming almost telepathic for a moment.

"Um…just two of the chicken." It took about a minute to prepare the sandwiches, which was enough time for Lion-O to realize people were staring at him. Ten minutes in Tretierra and everyone already thought he was nuts. Not the best start in the world. When the tabby handed over the sandwiches to the kids, he put the change in Lion-O's paw without a word. Lion-O in turn just handed the quarters and nickels to the girl kitten.

"Here." With that – and feeling entirely too many pairs of eyes on him and feeling awkward for it – he hefted the pack on his back and dragged his luggage along behind him, suitcase in his left paw. People drifted to each side, parting for him like the Red Sea along the sidewalk.

He was in a strange, dirty city utterly unlike his home town of Pantherle. People looked at him like he was crazy for buying kids food. The streets all looked the same, and he was lost.

At least he'd helped some kids out. That was something. Even though he'd tried to convince himself being too nice would be really bad.

Well, whiskers.

Something nudged his arm. "Thanks for the food, mister. Nobody ever does that on this side of town." Lion-O glanced down; the boy kitten was chewing on the thick sandwich, keeping a careful grip on the foil that held it. Trotting along beside him, the girl was also munching on her sandwich. "What's with the packs?"

Lion-O debated answering them honestly. Deciding finally that they were harmless kids – and he had to talk to somebody for directions – he said, "I moved here. I had to pack my clothes in something."

"Why did you move to Tretierra? Most nice cats don't live here." The girl spoke now, darting easily in and out of the people as he forged through.

"I'm going to school here."


"Because the schools here are supposed to be really good."

She nibbled on the sandwich a little more. "Are you lost?"

He didn't reply, and she glanced around him to look at the boy kitten. "I'm Wilykit, and this is my brother, Wilykat. We're twins."

"Yeah, I can see that." Should he tell them his name? He didn't want to think it of them, but he'd heard of pickpocket kids being hired by criminals to steal from tourists who came to big cities. Shoot, he needed to remember this stuff if he was going to live here.

"We know somebody who can help you get settled in, if you want. They'll tell you about town. It's the least we can do to say thank you. They're nice, like you. They look after us whenever we go ask for help." She held onto his arm and tugged gently on it. He slowed to a stop, examining her face for any sign of dishonesty.

"If there are people who look after you, why are you begging for food?"

"Because we don't officially live with them. We'd have to get into the foster care system for that, and we won't risk getting separated. The system here sucks really bad. And they don't have much room; they run a veterinary clinic, and it's always packed with animals. So we don't like to ask them for help all the time." Wilykat was hanging on to his other arm now. Lion-O looked from twin to twin, uncertainty growing.

"Thanks for the offer, but…"

"Come on! Pleeease? They're really nice, scout's honor!" Kat paused. "Well, okay, I'm not a Cub Scout. But I always wanted to be. They'll help you out."

Perhaps it wasn't wise, but he let them lead him several blocks, trying to memorize the route they took and keep an eye out for any suspicious activity. The sounds and smells of the city – car horns, shouts, claws clicking against the pavement – were distracting, so it was hard to figure out where he was going. It was in front of a pale, small, relatively neat little building that the kittens stopped. "In here." Both pelted for the door, and Kat held it open for his sister, and then looked at Lion-O.

Going into a strange building following kids he didn't know. Well…it was well lit, and he had a decent right hook. Feeling incredibly stupid and a little fascinated, Lion-O stepped past the glass door and looked toward Kit, who was talking to somebody sitting across the room at a desk with files in front of them. The person looked at him, and he felt the bottom of his stomach drop out as his paws instantly got sweaty.

She was frankly the most gorgeous cat he'd ever seen. Lean and older than him by probably two years, she had blond hair that swept neatly over her back, spots marking her arms over golden fur. Her pale face was exotic, and she had rosy markings around her eyes. Beautifully feminine, she wore a brown blouse and black dress slacks that accentuated her hips neatly.

Oh, whiskers. His mouth had dropped open. Lion-O shut it instantly, pretending to look at anything and everything except this jaw-droppingly beautiful lady. Suddenly he felt dorkier than ever in his blue turtleneck and ripped-up-knee jeans. "He got us some sandwiches. Jorma's not running the stand anymore, and the new guy apparently hasn't heard of generosity."

"I've told you to come here whenever you need money, guys. Why you don't just live here I don't understand." She examined him again. "You say this guy got you something to eat? Did you say thank you?"

"Yeah. He's new here, and he's really nice. Isn't he cute?" Kit said baldly. Lion-O tried to keep himself from turning red when the cheetah smiled at her indulgently.

"Does this friend have a name?"

"We didn't ask. Hey, what's your name?" Kat asked, popping up beside him.

"Oh. Uh. Lion-O. Lion-O Rey. And you are?" he asked. She stood up and he noticed that she was a couple inches taller than he. Stepping out from behind the desk, she shifted her weight gracefully as she trotted toward him.

"Cheetara Clera. Co-owner of this establishment." Cheetara smiled and he hoped she couldn't see him sweat. Girls had never been his forte as he'd always been a little too geeky for them. That and any girl he'd ever met had been swooning for his brother. It didn't help that this was the most gorgeous girl he'd ever seen in his short life. No, take that back; this wasn't a high school girl. This was an adult, a woman, and she made him feel like a freshman in high school all over again. "Kit says you're new around here?"

"Yeah. The kids were trying to help me get some information about the city. Sorry to bother you," he said, twitching when he heard a loud yowl coming from the hall beyond the desk. Cheetara glanced back, exasperated.

"Not at all; hang on, let me just check on something." She darted back, toward the doorway into the back of the building. "Jaga! You okay!"

"I got Snarf's claws and fur trimmed, and he's finally clean. Keep him at the front desk with you for a bit." The old, slow voice seemed to excite the children, who dashed after Cheetara, leaving Lion-O quite alone in the room.

"Old man Jaga! Hey! Come meet Lion-O!"

"Who?" The cat shuffled out from the corridor, fixing his pale gaze on Lion-O. He was wearing a clean white smock with a black sweater under it, and a red creature was held firmly by his right arm. His hair and beard were pure white, but there was something clever about his face. He seemed surprised. "A lion? Hm. That's not something you see every day."

Cheetara drifted after him, taking the wriggling red beast from him. It seemed to calm marginally in her arms. "His name is Lion-O Rey. Don't you know somebody by that name?"

The old man's face lit up and he strode forward until he was nearly nose to nose with Lion-O, who twitched backwards. "Good grief. If you don't have your mother's face and your dad's eyes, I'm a leopard. You're Claudus' boy, aren't you?"

Surprise and relief battled inside him, and Lion-O set down his suitcase slowly. "You know my dad?"

"Certainly; we've been friends for years. I'm not surprised you don't recognize me. The last time I saw you was when I was visiting him fourteen years ago. You know."

When Mom died. Lion-O remembered the date but not the funeral. It was nothing more than the sense of being confused when Dad started crying when he asked why Mommy wouldn't be around anymore. And being lifted up so he could give her a kiss in the casket, wondering why she was sleeping in a big box.

"Right. Sorry, I don't remember much from that day." Jaga nodded knowingly.

"I suppose not. Well, you've grown into a strapping cat. How's that brother of yours? And Claudus?"

Lion-O realized the kittens were listening, and he had to fight to keep himself from glancing at Cheetara repeatedly. "Tygra's good. Studying at Tygus University. And Dad's the same as ever."

Jaga eyed him. "That university isn't too far away. Is he coming to the city to pick you up?"

"No. I…kind of wanted to get the feel of the city myself." He hoped the stiffness in his spine wasn't too noticeable. The jaguar's gaze was probing, entirely too knowing. "I sort of know where the campus dorms are."

"Did you say 'Tygra?'" Cheetara spoke, and Lion-O felt his heart start sinking into his stomach. "I know him. I met him at the public library a few months ago. He's your brother?"

Lion-O smiled. It hurt. "Yeah. Adopted, obviously, but we've grown up together. What was he doing?"

"Studying for his English 400 course exam. I couldn't believe he was already so far into his schooling. He's only nineteen, right?" He'd just met this girl; why was he so disappointed that she'd already met his brother?

"Yeah. He's the smart one." She tilted her head, eying him, and Lion-O felt her gaze like a laser.

"But you're a couple years younger than he is. You're already in college? And Ome N., at that?" Lion-O blinked a couple times at the slightly impressed way she spoke. She lowered the beast – Snarf? – to the ground to let it roam.

"Uh. Yeah, I graduated midterm to come here."

"Nice. You must be pretty smart too, then." The pleasure at being complimented in the same breath as Tygra was a surprise. More of a surprise was the warm, rubbing sensation along his calf. He glanced down to see Snarf winding around his ankles, meowing. Cheetara and Jaga exchanged glances when he hesitantly stooped to pet it.

"What is this thing?" he asked. It wound its tail around his leg and reared up to put his front paws in Lion-O's paw, as if greeting him.

"No idea. Somebody brought it in because it was begging around the neighborhood. It hasn't stopped squalling since then. We've been calling it 'Snarf' because that's what it seems to be saying." It most certainly wasn't squalling now. "It likes you." Cheetara suddenly sounded a lot closer, and Lion-O looked up, nearly knocking their heads together. Trying not to blush, as that would have been high on the list of embarrassing things he'd done in his life, he averted his gaze again. She was looking down at the creature, who keened happily when Lion-O scratched under his furry chin.

"Huh. That's weird. I've never had a pet before."

"You want him? He's a pest when he won't stop yowling, and this is the first time he's been quiet in two weeks." Jaga's voice was not unkind, but he seemed very fed up with the creature. It hissed at him and purred into Lion-O's ankle.

"Well…I mean…I…"

"Please. I'll even give you a bag of kibble. Free checkups when he needs them." Jaga paused and added lightly, "It'd give you a good excuse to come see my granddaughter Cheetara."

"Huh!" Oh shoot, he felt the blood rushing to his ears. That was the problem of having pale fur on your face, everybody could see when you were embarrassed. "I-I don't, er, I mean-!"

Cheetara was smiling. "You've embarrassed him, Jaga." The old cat shrugged, and Wilykit giggled and made kissing noises. Snarf scowled. "Really, you don't have to if you don't want to. I don't know if the dorms permit pets anyway."

Was that a little disappointment in her eyes? Snarf let out a wail of despair. Lion-O thought about for about three seconds before saying, "Is he house trained?"

The admiring glow and way her mouth curved in pleasant surprise was something he never could forget.

"So, these deluxe accommodations are, according to Jaga, as old as he is. Not to say they haven't been fixed over the years, but…well, they're not exactly homey. They put freshman through the worst dorms, and they'll let you upgrade if you keep in with good grades."

Lion-O tried not to brush against her as he opened the window. Well, the view of the windows next door were lovely. He could see straight into the building beside his. And…were the people over there smoking something that looked suspiciously illegal(2)? He shut the blinds. "Well, that's interesting," he muttered to himself.

The room was small, more like a big cardboard box than a room. Of course, he'd expected that. He had not, however, expected it to smell like cardboard.

Old, dusty cardboard.

"It's not so bad," he said awkwardly, setting his case on the bed. It at least was clean. Snarf had clambered on to it, and settled himself down comfortably. "Thanks for showing me the way. Have you come here often?"

"Only because Jaga used to teach here. He used to bring me on the weekends because he was paranoid about sitters, and he had some Saturday classes. Then we used to eat in the cafeteria, and we'd feed the squirrels on campus. They're huge."

He'd seen one on the way in. It had been red, and so fat that he rather feared for Snarf's safety. Cheetara moved to glance out the window but he automatically put out a paw to stop her. "I don't think you want to do that."


"I'm not sure whatever they're doing is legal," he said finally. Confused, she peeped through the blinds before blinking.

"Ah. Well. At least it'll be interesting, living here."

"Yeah." He realized that he'd taken hold of her paw to stop her, and he let go quickly when he saw her glance at their paws. From above, the sound of somebody singing off-key suddenly came through, loud and wailing. They both looked up, and Lion-O felt one eye twitch incredulously. "Is that N'SYNC?"

"No, that's Backstreet Boys. 'Quit Playing Games With My Heart,' if I'm not mistaken," she said mildly. They looked at each other and Lion-O laughed once, shaking his head.

"Questionable substances and Backstreet songs. At least I'll never get bored." She'd laughed too, and the sound made that crumbly, stale little room seem a little better.

He had repeatedly said that Cheetara didn't have to help him find his dorm. She had repeatedly – and subtly – ignored him. As it turned out, a ten minute bus ride was all that separated the vet clinic and his campus, which he was secretly pleased about. What he wasn't quite so pleased about was the fact that she was helping him unpack and had a way of helping without listening to his half-hearted protests. It was really nice of her, but…well…he had personal things in there.

And she'd just found one from the looks of things. "Aw, what's this?" She withdrew a brown bear, a little tattered and missing a button eye. "He's so cute. An old toy?" He took it carefully, blushing furiously as he set it gently on the tiny bedside desk.

"Yeah. Doofle. He was the last toy my mom gave me. I like to keep him around."

She didn't snort or laugh. "I have a Barbie my parents bought me for my fifth birthday. She's missing most of her hair, and she's got blue crayon lipstick, but other than that she's in good condition." Lion-O chewed his lip and removed a couple of shirts from his luggage case, debating on asking certain questions.

In the end, he decided to. "So…Jaga's your grandpa?"

"Adopted. Mom and Dad died when I was six, and he was a friend of the family, so I went to live with him." The mild, almost conversational way she said it made him blink, and he fought to keep his ears from dipping in mortification.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to pry."

"You weren't prying. You were perfectly courteous in asking." Other than perturbing him in her simple way of seeing through his attempts at learning about her, she also made perturbed by going back to his suitcase. "Superman fan, huh?" Oh dear, he'd forgotten those comics.

Lion-O felt like he was about to die of embarrassment. "Just a couple of the first issues. Um, I really appreciate the help, but-"

"I could unpack your underwear, if that would embarrass you less." The very thought made him look away.

"Are girls even allowed in the boys' dorms?" It had quite surprised him when Jaga had permitted Cheetara to show him around the dorms and campus. True, she wasn't a delicate woman – she had the physique of a sprinter and even through her skirt he could see the delicate, precise muscles in her calves – but he wasn't exactly a complete pushover. Even if he was Claudus' son, the trust Jaga had shown was almost silly.

Maybe his slightly awed admiration for her was making him too obvious. He tried not to stare at her. Lion-O had the strangest sense she knew what he was thinking, and knew that he didn't quite have what it took to be rude and tell her to leave.

If he was honest with him, he didn't want her to go. But he did want her to quit unpacking his things before she found anything else embarrassing.

"Sure. And vice versa. They won't risk losing tuition by forbidding illicit nighttime activities and expelling the kids who partake in them." Wry and little annoyed, she continued shifting through the items. "Wow. What are these?"

He caught sight of them and broke out in a shocked sweat. "That's nothing." He snatched the papers and diagrams as politely as he could from her paws and slid them under his bed. "Just, uh, ideas. About stuff."

"Ideas about stuff," Cheetara repeated. "That's specific."

He paused on the ground, fingers still touching the papers. Meeting her gaze, and feeling nervous, he looked back at the pages before saying, "You won't laugh at them, will you?"

Curious, Cheetara sat down beside him. Snarf peeked over the edge of the bed, tail swaying. "No, I won't. What is it?"

Knowing full well that this would push him well and truly into cuckoo territory as it had so many times before, Lion-O pulled them back out and prayed that she would be different. That she wouldn't give him the glance out of the corner of her eyes. Or worse, the, "I'm-going-to-smile-and-nod-and-twirl-a-finger-next-to-my-head-the-instant-I-think-you-can't-see-me-even-though-you-have-two-eyes-that-work-perfectly-well," response syndrome.

It had happened three times before. The first was his brother. The second was a girl he'd liked who had agreed to be his partner for a science project. The third had been a waitress who had asked him why he was playing tic-tac-toe with himself on a napkin with a bunch of weird letters. He'd tried to explain some of it, and she'd given him the formulated response. Lion-O didn't really want Cheetara to do the same thing, not when he had already started to like her like the doofus he was.

"They're ideas for technology. Gadgets. Utilizing Thundrillium." He unfurled them in front of her, and saw her irises flow along his chicken scratch handwriting and precise diagrams and sketches.

"Thundrillium? You mean that new element they discovered three years ago? How do you figure that? I haven't heard of any uses for it."

"I know. I'm kind of hoping to find people who know more about it while I study here since I barely know much about it myself. But from what research I've done, it sounds like there are all sorts of things we could use it for. Clean energy, for example; the stuff forms very quickly, and it doesn't let off pollution when it's burned. If we can make technology that can break it down into energy, think about the possibilities." He pointed to one of his more finished drawings. "Hover technology, for example. They've been working on it for years, but they've never found anything that has enough power to keep anything heavy in the air. Thundrillium has tons of energy in it from what I've studied, only it can't be harnessed as it is. But imagine what that could do! I mean, more efficient transportation, cleaner energy, a renewable source…if only we can make it work! And if one machine can run off it, I'm sure it'd be possible to construct more. Nobody is bothering about Thundrillium because it's so new, and nobody really cares about using it yet, but if somebody decides to start examining it-!"

Lion-O stopped. He'd been babbling nearly nonstop with his words coming faster and faster like a nerd enthused about his favorite comic. In the silence he turned his head just a smidge and gave Cheetara a small, somewhat forced smile. "…You think I'm crazy, don't you(3)?"

With a vaguely bemused expression she simply said, "I think you're…different." 'Different.' 'Different' wasn't 'loony bin, idiot, nut job or dreamer.' And the fact that she didn't look completely creeped out by his interest made his liking of her increase by several notches. "It's funny," she said suddenly. "Most guys your age are hiding dirty magazines. You're hiding ideas for things that can make the world better. It's a little sad." Under those long, exotic lashes, she met his gaze and he felt like he'd been pinned in place under a microscope. "Have people said they're stupid or something?"

"Well, not stupid, per se. Loony, maybe. A waste of time. 'Stupid' is more implied than anything." With that he carefully folded the papers again and slid them under his bed again. "I'm used to it, though."

"Well you know what they say; plenty of great discoverers and thinkers were called crazy at first." There was nothing deceitful or mocking in the way she said that. Only a serene, honest gentleness. Searching her face for a sign of incredulity, Lion-O found none.

His heart beat a little faster, even though he tried to quash the blooming warmth in his chest. She didn't think he was nuts.

Snarf mewled, thumping his tail and ruining the moment as he climbed into Lion-O's suitcase. "Snarf, get out of there." Snarf obeyed and Lion-O cringed; he'd forgotten he'd packed his extra boxers in there, and Snarf was carrying a pair of them in his mouth. "Snarf!"

Cheetara laughed outright and took them from the creature. "He's a troublemaker. Are you sure about keeping him?"

Snarf snorted derisively and hopped into Lion-O's lap, purring and rubbing his side against his owner's front. "I'll take care of him. Though he needs to stay out of my laundry." In spite of himself, Lion-O stroked along Snarf's spine. "Do you think he understands us?"

"Search me. He's smart, and not in a good way. He'll get into boxes and containers of food if you're not careful. He can even unscrew lids. He ate all the maraschino cherries in the fridge one day," she added pointedly. Snarf had the presence to look abashed. "Are you sure you don't want me to stick around and help you unpack?"

He'd brought his pajama t-shirt. It had Transformers on it. It was buried somewhere in his packs. "I'm sure. Thank you, though." As if she'd read his mind and knew exactly what he was thinking, she gave him a friendly pat on the arm.

"Okay then. I need to get back, anyway. You know, just because these kids are at a prestigious university doesn't mean they're sweethearts like you. If anything weird goes on, or somebody's having a wild party, you can come to the clinic for the night. We have a sofa, and some extra rooms in the back where we live since we're trying to keep Kit and Kat out of trouble. It's the least we can do for you, since Jaga knows your family and you helped the kids and all."

"Thank you. Is the foster system in Tretierra really so bad that you can't adopt them officially, if you want them to stay with you?" he asked, ignoring the way his heart throbbed when she called him a 'sweetheart.'

"Unfortunately. And nobody comes looking for them – too many problems in the city. They're paranoid about being separated, and told us flat out that if we try to get them in the system to adopt them, they'll run away." Speechless, Lion-O blinked and lowered his head a little. "They've lost their parents, and they're not willing to lose each other."

"I see." She gave Snarf a small pat on the head, and turned to leave. "Um – hang on, I'll go with you."

Cheetara glanced at him over her shoulder, bemused once more. "I can get back on my own. I'm a tough girl."

"I know. I just…well, if this city is like everyone says, I want to make sure you get home okay." He watched her for signs of offense; perhaps it was old-fashioned, but the idea of her getting on the bus and heading home on her own in this grimy, creepy city where strangers randomly poked you or worse made him nervous. "Besides, then I'll be sure I remember the way there and back on my own."

And, he admitted inwardly, he wanted to spend a little bit more time with her.

"If you say so. Better bring Snarf so he doesn't mess anything up while you're gone." He obeyed, picking up the beast as he trotted after her, Snarf growling in protest.

1 – Anybody else like Lion-O's kinda turtle-neck type of collar? Because I think it's cute. Then again, I wear turtlenecks sometimes, so that might account for it.

2 – Don't do drugs, kids. Particularly not illegal ones. Or if you do, don't get offended by this note.

3 – First episode reference, anyone?

Also, before it comes up, in my high school salutatorian and valedictorian were decided after seven semesters. So Lion-O graduating midterm wouldn't have any effect on it, depending on the school. Hence, he's starting up college in January rather than August or September.