Urban Legend: The Sequel

Chapter Two

"And you're sure it came to you in a dream? You didn't just happen to dream about the Strata armor?" Mia asked.

"No, I don't think so," Regan insisted. "I felt a presence, an extra energy that wasn't mine. I don't know how to better describe it, but there's definitely a difference between having someone in your dreams and just dreaming about someone."

Currently, the two women were walking down the nearly empty walkway at the university where Mia worked. It was a glass bridge located one story above ground level, connecting one building to another. The two women could feel the January chill from outside trying to get through the glass as they went.

"I see," Mia said thoughtfully. When Regan asked if she was free to talk and offer some advice, Mia was quite elated. In truth, she felt a little left out sometimes. Robyn and Regan were so close and she was left on the outskirts. She and Robyn had practically nothing in common aside from the boys, but Regan and Mia were finding more and more common ground as they got to know each other. Mia welcomed the new friendship.

"Did the presence of the armor scare you?"

"No, nothing like that. It felt peaceful, safe." Regan thought back to her dream. How, when she saw it, she had a need to address it as if it were a person. "It's just that before today, I thought I understood what the armors are, but now I'm not sure. When I saw it in my dreams, it's like it had a consciousness and it was trying to communicate with me. I thought since you're married to one of them, you might know what I'm talking about. Have you ever felt like Torrent has its own...I don't know...cognizance?"

Mia took a moment to think about it. "I would have to say there is a certain consciousness to the armors. I'd even go so far as to say each armor has a different personality. And, come to think of it, each armor bearer has a different relationship with their armors."

By then, the two women had made it to the parking garage and were approaching Mia's car where they were going out to lunch.

"They have different relationships?" Regan asked in confusion. "Can you give me an example?"

After starting the car, Mia turned down the radio so they could continue their conversation while she drove. "Sage has a very tremulous relationship with Halo. I think he trusted it when he was younger, but in his older teens, there was an incident that really shattered that trust for him. I think there was a point where he may have even hated it. These days, while he's more accepting of Halo, I think he still lives with a careful regard for it."

"What happened?" Regan asked, intrigued.

"I'm afraid that's something you would have to get from Sage. I don't think he would like me going into details. It was a very traumatic and personal experience for him."

Regan nodded in understanding.

"Kento's a bit of the same. During the battle with Talpa, all the boys and myself learned so much about the armors. Kento found out that they had been used by evil men before to kill. The armors had a lot of blood in their history. This was really a shock, especially for Kento. He had a hard time accepting that the armors had killed in the past. For a while, Kento was afraid that the very nature of the Hardrock armor especially was evil and it might overtake him and use him to take innocent lives."

"Which isn't true, right?"

Mia gave a quick glance to Regan's concerned face and smiled. "No. The armors are influenced by the intentions of the wearer, not the other way around. As long as good people wear the armors, the armors themselves seem to be good.

"Kento really likes Hardrock now, but he's still wary about its power. Hardrock is easily the most destructive of the armors. The surekill tears up everything around it. It's not an attack he uses unless he absolutely has to."

Regan remained quiet, worrying her lip as she mulled over this new information. The armors were capable of evil if worn by evil people? She hadn't even considered that a possibility, but it made sense. Cognizant or no, they were still armors, and the will and intent of the wearer would probably be stronger—even if that wearer wanted to do evil things. Could such a person take Strata from Rowen and turn it against him?

"Now, Cye," Mia then said, derailing Regan's train of thought, "he has quite a healthy relationship with Torrent. It's been a good armor to him. He told me he always felt he and Torrent worked as one in battle and they were unstoppable in the water. But by the time the black Inferno armor appeared, he was emotionally worn from the fighting. A part of him wanted to blame it all on Torrent and he tried to push the armor away, even banish it from himself—"

"I'm sorry, can we back up?" Regan interrupted. "What is the black Inferno armor?"

"Rowen didn't tell you about that? It was about five years after Talpa."

"No, I guess he didn't get to that."

"Most likely not on purpose. There is a lot of history to go through. You'll catch up eventually. I'm sure Rowen will be happy to tell you everything. Maybe even more than you ever wanted to know."

Mia's teasing tone was not reflected in Regan, who stared at the dashboard as a sobering thought occurred to her.

"It will never be over, will it? There is always going to be something the guys will have to fight. What happened last summer, that wasn't some isolated incident, it was just the next evil power that was drawn to them; or them to it. Eventually, something else will come along. Maybe something even more dangerous."

"Maybe," Mia agreed in a soft voice. "Unfortunately, that's the way it is. And marrying any one of them is putting yourself in that danger. It kills the guys inside to know that having a partner means that their world is now our world. Cye has told me it's kept him awake many a night.

"But ultimately it's up to us to decide. I'm glad you understand this, Regan, before you marry Rowen. Even though we love them so much, this is something that is worth careful consideration. And if someone decides the risk isn't worth it, I don't know if I can blame them."

"Do you think the risk is worth it?"

Mia smiled; she practically glowed. "Every day. I will never have any regrets about Cye, no matter what happens in the future."

Regan felt no reservations toward her upcoming wedding as well. In a way, she always understood the danger of getting involved with this man the moment she became aware of the armors. Their history would not change her mind. In fact, it just made her want to know more. It thrilled her to think she would soon have a lifetime with Rowen to learn everything there was to know.

"Would you like to hear about how Cye and I started dating?" Mia asked.

Regan suddenly lit up.

When both she and the ronins had grown into adulthood and had more stability in their lives and professional careers, Mia turned her attentions not only to researching the past yore of the armors, but adding her own discoveries to their history. She wanted to complete the research on the armors and be able to bring a wealth of information to the next bearers so they could learn from the current ronin's stumbles.

Part of her research plan included both interviewing the armor bearers and an actual physical study of the armors themselves. Unfortunately, the ronins turned out to be very reluctant and uncooperative in this venture. Suddenly, the guys who were always happy to spend time with her were now strangely busy and evasive.

Rowen, since they worked at the same school, was the most available to her, but he soon began to actively avoid her. The times she did manage to corner him, he would quickly become irritated at the prodding questions of the more intimate aspects of his experience with the armor. Just like the others, he was uncomfortable with the request of coming to the mansion so she could physically inspect and manhandle the armors.

Mia recalled a near shouting match she had with Ryo over the phone about this. She kept demanding of him what was the big deal about her request and why he was getting so bent out of shape about it. Ryo's responses were vague and flustered before he hung up on her.

Turning to Cye was somewhat of a last resort. Mia wasn't as close to him as she was with Ryo or Rowen, but she knew Cye was the least combative of the five. She wore him down with the promise of only a quick inspection of the armor, and then they could spend the day baking and cooking together.

Cye reluctantly arrived to the mansion one rainy weekend. Mia feared he would use the weather as an excuse not to come, but he was true to his word.

"Nasty out there," Cye said as he fought the battering wind to get into the house. His jacket was peppered with rain spots.

"Yes, thanks for coming," Mia greeted. "I know I've been a pain to you. To all of you."

Cye gave her an amused smile. "I am definitely taking one for the team here. The others are hoping you'll let this go after today."

Mia frowned a little. That was definitely not her plan. Cye was just the first of five boxes she planned on checking off.

"I honestly don't understand why you guys are fighting me so hard on this. Why shouldn't we strive to learn as much as we can about the armors? All we've ever seen of them is battle. Isn't there something to be learned from studying them when we aren't fighting for our lives?"

"I don't disagree with any of that. But you also have to understand, Mia, that you are prodding at something that is both deeply personal to us and is also connected to a lot of painful and difficult memories. You're roughly picking at old scabs we don't want you to touch and you are demanding we get over it in a timely manner because it is more convenient for you."

Mia took a moment to chew on that new information. Looking back, she could now tell that this is what Ryo had been trying to explain to her. Unfortunately, Wildfire had always been terrible at expressing himself. Her inability to understand his frustration just made him lose his temper even faster.

"Can you explain it to me?" she asked Cye. "Tell me what you felt when I asked this of you."

Cye breathed out loudly through his nose. Mia knew she was still being a bit irritating, but she wanted so badly to understand.

"The first thing I felt was panic," he admitted. "Any mention of putting on the armor is synonymous with danger in my brain. The suggestion of calling forth the armor for no reason but to look at it feels... unnatural. The armor comes out to fight; that's what it was made for. It feels as if just manifesting the armor is calling the next battle to us. I know it sounds improbable, but that's the fear that gripped me when you asked to see the armor."

"I didn't think about it like that. So, you don't want to call the armor because you feel like you would be putting us in danger?"

"I'm sure most of it is my own paranoia. But there's also that deeply personal aspect I mentioned earlier. You're wanting to prod into our relationships with our armors which is, frankly Mia, none of your business. There is something almost... intimate about the armors that I have trouble putting into words. I feel weirdly exposed by the idea of just standing here in full armor while you inspect every inch of it."

There was a span of silence between them. Cye breathed out loudly and added, "But I understand where you are coming from and your curiosity comes from a place of love. I am willing to go out of my comfort zone for you today."

A bit stunned by his words, Mia looked him in the face, into his expressive stormy green eyes. "Thank you. I understand better now. Thank you for explaining and for doing this for me."

He gave her a gracious nod in response.

Mia glanced at the window where the rain was still pelting the glass. "Now I feel even guiltier asking you out in the rain again to summon Torrent."

"I think I can do it inside with minimal drama. Not that Torrent minds the rain. It's really the wind I'd like to avoid."

"You sure you can do it safely inside?"

"Pretty sure." He grinned. "Today is the day for experimentation, right?"

Mia thought about it and then picked up a particular vase from the nearby bookshelf and held it in her arms.

"Okay, ready."

Cye nodded to her with confidence and then closed his eyes. Within moments, Mia could feel the energy gather in the room. It crackled like static and for a moment she worried it would get to strong, but then she felt Torrent with them. The energy ebbed and flowed like a gentle tide and then Cye's body was engulfed in a white light. When it died down, the full Torrent armor was there, Cye inside. He removed the helmet and set it in Mia's arms as she gaped.

Admittedly, it took her a few moments to get over such an amazing experience. In the heat of battle, when the armors were called, there was always so much power and danger. It wasn't safe to get near that when it was happening. This was the first time she felt the power of Torrent around her as a friendly, calm energy. Almost as if it were greeting her as it manifested itself.

After she recovered her wits, Mia set to work. With the helmet, she studied its form, took pictures of it, and weighed it. She attempted to scrape a piece of it off for analysis, but the armor broke any instrument she used.

Next came the body of the armor. Cye was sweetly patient as Mia inspected it and him all over. She took note of the form front to back and all its tiny details. Cye remained still as her nimble fingers poked in every crevice, inspecting the joints and appraising the craftsmanship. Mia was very much zoned in at this time, learning every curve of the armor with her fingers. There was a current that flowed from the mystical metal that was warm and comforting. She just couldn't stop putting her hands all over it. Only several minutes later did Mia finally notice that Cye's breathing had gotten a little shaky.

Glancing up at him, he was trying to keep a neutral face, but his cheeks were flushed. The two locked eyes for a moment and Mia let her hands roam over the armor again. She wasn't sure what possessed her to keep going, but now the touches were different. Gone was the sterile scientific prodding. Now her touch was loving, worshipful. Her palms skimmed up the arms and over the chest of the armor with appreciation. She felt her own face grow warm as she was aware of Cye watching her every move. Why was this suddenly so sensual? And why was she now under its spell and happy to be so.

She heard Cye part his lips and let out a shaky breath. The sound made her whole body grow warm in response. Then BOOM! She jumped at the sound of heavy thunder as the power went out, plunging them into an inky shadow. Cye's arms went around her, pulling her against the armored chest and she felt comforted, protected.

Cye's husky voice rasped in her ear. "Since the power's out. How about you let me take you to dinner?"

"And the rest is history," Mia said.

"That is super cute," Regan grinned in response. "Sounds like it was just meant to be. Maybe Torrent knew that before you two did."

"Maybe. It certainly felt like something changed that night, something for the better. I understand what you are trying to say about the armors. I don't think I've ever felt like Torrent was trying to give me a particular message, but I've felt its power and influence when Cye and I are together. It feels like warmth and love." Mia pulled into a parking spot outside their restaurant of choice.

"All because you felt up his armor," Regan said with an amused tone. Suddenly, she wanted to see Strata. She wanted to touch it all over, as well; to know it better.

"Oh yeah," Mia agreed. "And later, he let me handle his yari, too."

Regan stared at her. Did she just mean...?

Mia cackled wickedly at her double meaning and they both busted up with laughter.

It was a rare day off of work for Ryo and he was making the time count by shopping for some much needed groceries. As he stocked his nearly empty fridge, his phone pinged a new text message. Upon checking it, he found a text from his grandmother: 'Robyn is over at the house. We are baking if you would like to join us.'

Ryo thought about it. If it had been Rowen attempting another sad cooking experiment, he would have said he was busy. But two of his favorite girls along with some good food was something he wasn't about to pass up. He let his grandmother know he would swing by soon.

'Bring eggs,' her text had responded and Ryo grabbed his newly purchased eggs and headed out for the truck.

There was an unfamiliar blue car parked outside when Ryo pulled up to his grandmother's house. Strange, his grandmother didn't drive any more. Maybe Robyn purchased a new car? She usually just took public transportation everywhere. Perhaps she decided to buy one. Her job was paying quite well. Ryo would have to congratulate her on the purchase.

Ryo stepped into the house without knocking. "It's just me," he called inside as he removed his boots and jacket by the door.

"We're in the kitchen," Robyn's happy voice called back.

The sound of her made him smile. All the way to the kitchen where he heard a male voice seconds before Ryo saw him. Jude was there, in his grandmother's kitchen. Ryo's smile instantly dropped.

"There's my always-busy grandson," his grandmother greeted with a kiss on the cheek. "Come sit down and talk with us."

With a neutral expression, Ryo sat himself on one of the bar stools at the counter.

Robyn instantly slid a plate of cookies in his direction. "Try one."

Ryo took a bite and instantly made a sound of approval at the warm softness of the freshly baked cookie.

"Snickerdoodles," she informed him.

"Jude made them," his grandmother added. Ryo instantly stopped chewing. "He's been teaching me to bake western style goodies."

"And you are a natural at it," Jude complimented with a gorgeous smile and a wink. "I barely need to help you with anything. I just sit back and let you do your magic."

Ryo's grandmother laughed, her face a little flushed. Was this son of a bitch flirting with her? Ryo couldn't taste the cookie anymore. He suddenly had the urge to spit it out. Forcing himself to swallow it, he set the rest of the cookie back on the plate.

"We're making pumpkin rolls," Jude then explained. "A little late in the season, but everyone needs a little cream cheese frosting in their lives."

"Agreed," Robyn chirped. "We'll make you one to take home, Ryo."

Jude walked up behind the redhead, incredibly close, and wiped some flour off her face with his thumb. Ryo suddenly felt he was in some sort of strange nightmare.

"I tried to teach my grandson how to cook, but he never had a knack for it," Ryo's traitorous, sweet grandmother told the interloper in his grandmother's kitchen. "Did you learn from your mother?"

"My father, actually, and my grandmother. My sister and I used to spend summers with our grandmother in India, and we learned to cook some traditional food and desserts. Our dad had a sweet tooth, so we'd experiment on the weekends."

"How nice!"

"It was always nicer when he stress baked," Robyn teased.

Ryo's grandmother chuckled. "Now, I have to hear the story behind this."

Ryo's teeth ground together. Jude abruptly looked up, and it was almost like he knew that Wildfire wanted to grind him up into a paste. The smile he aimed at Ryo was subtly mocking and amused, his green eyes twinkling. Then he shifted his gaze to the little old Japanese lady next to him, and his eyes warmed. He leaned down so he was eye level with her and got companionably close.

He told a funny little anecdote about his father telling him to take out his stress and anger on dough instead of someone else, so at least something good and delicious came out of it. Ryo hated the story and the way Robyn and his grandmother "aww"d at it. "So now, anytime school or work stresses me out, I stay up and bake. My last semester of finals, I stayed up the weekend before, and Robyn and my sister had like three pies, two sweet breads, and enough cookies to put the Girl Scouts to shame to enjoy."

"It was a great week," Robyn grinned.

"You make your own bread?" Grandma Sanada asked.

"I have. I'm particularly fond of homemade ciabatta. Do you?"

"Not as often as I'd like. Homemade bread is divine." She patted Jude on the cheek. "My dear, you will make some young woman a happy woman indeed."

"You are too kind, Mrs. Sanada. You're not seeing anyone seriously, are you?"

Grandma Sanada laughed and playfully swatted Jude on the shoulder with a dish rag. "Oh go on, you rascal."

Ryo was in his own personal hell.

Who was this motherfucker? Why did Robyn look at him like that? Why did she laugh and blush whenever Jude teased her, and why did her eyes follow him as he worked and flirted with his grandmother, his grandmother, and why did she seem so comfortable when he touched her? On her shoulder. On her arm. On her waist. Robyn had never been comfortable with displays of affection like that, not even within the last year. But she let his arm or his hand linger, as if she felt…safe with him.


Robyn's soft voice cut through his loud, angry, bitter thoughts. He found her watching him with an air of concern, along with his grandmother. Jude wasn't looking at him, but Ryo knew that bastard was paying close attention.

He let out a long breath. "Yeah?"

"Rough day?" Her eyes were kind and sympathetic, her whole demeanor suggesting she was oblivious to anything wrong with this dude's behavior. As if there was nothing wrong with it at all.

So why did this cut his heart in two?

"Yeah," he muttered, looking down at the counter. Her pale, slender arm came into view, holding a cookie.

"Have another cookie," she suggested.

He took it so as not to seem rude, as his grandmother clucked with disapproval. "That job of yours is too demanding," she told her grandson. "Eighteen hour days, no regular schedule, constant stress."

Ryo went tense. It wasn't something he hadn't already heard a dozen times, but having Jude there to hear the critique of his chosen career rankled. "No job is without stressors, Grandma."

"Isn't that the truth," Jude murmured.

He looked up and stared at the man suspiciously.

Jude wasn't paying him any attention. "Mrs. Sanada, these are about ready to go in the oven."

"Oh honey, you can just call me Grandma."

Ryo seethed.

"Snickerdoodles!" Ryo barked in frustration.

Kento just blinked at him. "What are snickerdoodles?"

"I believe they're a type of cookie," Cye said. Both of them were watching Ryo slowly unravel with a calm detachment. They weren't used to seeing him this bent out of shape, but they also didn't understand what exactly the problem was.

"Are they good?" Kento wondered.

"Goddamnit, they're amazing!" Ryo shot back. "He bakes like Cye, the bastard."

"Regan's brother?" Cye asked.

"Yes," Ryo hissed.


Kento looked at Cye. "What did that mean? What's his problem and why did your "ah" agree? Jude seems pretty cool."

"And pretty comfortable with Robyn," Cye clarified.

"Exactly," Ryo growled.

Kento thought back to how Robyn and Jude interacted the single time he saw them together. "They're friends, it's not really that different from how I act with her."

"What? No. You don't act like that around her. It's not the same," Ryo insisted.

"How is it not the same?"

"Were you not at dinner?" Ryo wondered.

"From what I've heard, Regan's brother is something of a…well, he's very comfortable with women," Cye said. "And very experienced."

"I'd say so, he's a good looking dude." Kento slapped his hand against his cheek. Damn it, why did that shit keep slipping out of his mouth? He huffed at himself, then added, "I'm experienced with women. Rob's one of my favorite people, I spend time with her, and no one's pissed at me. And do you think she's not allowed to have made friends when she lived in the states? He's Regan's brother, for crying out loud. They were roommates."

"He doesn't want to just be friends," Ryo said darkly.

"Or he does but he's leading her on," Cye corrected.

"Whoa whoa whoa, Rob's into this guy?" Kento demanded, suddenly realizing where this was going.

"She's never acted like this around any other guys," Ryo said, increasing the look of alarm and surprise on Kento's face. "And he just eggs her on and makes it worse, and he can't possibly be serious about it. He lives in Oregon. It's not right."

"Well, hold on." Kento crossed his arms and put on his thinking expression. "He's just here for the wedding. This could be how they are around each other. Dude, she's been around this guy for six years. They could just be close."

"It doesn't excuse his behavior!"

"Well…" Cye sighed. "He hasn't done anything inappropriate, we have to admit that. I'm a little uncomfortable with how familiar he acts with Robyn, but I don't believe he means any harm. And she doesn't seem to mind it."

Ryo growled low in his throat, and Kento raised an eyebrow at him.

"Or rather," Cye continued, "maybe he's not aware he's leading Robyn on, if she's actually interested." He made a face at himself. "That doesn't feel right. Bottom line, I don't like the bloke, but we may be blowing this out of proportion. Kento's right. He's just here for the wedding."

"But what if he comes back?" Even as he said it, Ryo could feel himself getting worked up all over again. "Regan lives here now. He could very well decide to move here, too."

Kento shrugged. "Then he moves here."

"You're not helping," Ryo growled.

Cye was beginning to look at his leader speculatively. "What is it that's bothering you, Ryo? Is it that they're close, that Robyn might be interested in him, or that he could be leading her on?"

All of it, Ryo thought, feeling his blood boil and a boulder sink in his stomach.

Torrent and Hardrock looked at each other, and Ryo belatedly realized that he said it out loud.

"…are you interested in Robyn?" Cye asked point-blank.

Wildfire's mouth opened, and then closed. Opened and then closed. "No, I…I'm just concerned for her."

"Bro, it's turning into a sauna in here," Kento said. The living room of the Koji-Mouri house was large and high-ceilinged, so it was always a little bit cool—but now it was like a roaring fireplace had been on for hours.

Ryo dragged a hand through his hair and muttered an expletive that neither had ever heard come out of his mouth outside of battle. He paced and looked down at the floor, fingers clenched in fists. Both warriors braced themselves for a potential blow out of some kind. When Ryo's emotions were high and he couldn't articulate them the way he wanted to, he flared hot and fast like a firecracker.

"Last year, Robyn and I had…" he stopped, collected his thoughts, and huffed. "I've been so messed up over Natsuki breaking up with me that I just…couldn't think of anything or anyone else because I couldn't understand why it had to end." He paused, breathed out loudly through his nose. "I know why, but I had a hard time accepting it. And last year, when all that garbage was going on with those creatures, I didn't even notice that Robyn had developed a…a crush on me. Until she told me."

Both men blinked at him. "Say what?" Kento asked.

Ryo's shoulders slumped. "She asked me out, and I turned her down." Cye frowned at him, and the disappointment on his face was the worst. "I didn't know how I felt," Ryo defended. "I still wasn't over Natsuki. I wasn't interested in Robyn like that and I didn't want to lead her on, but now…hell, I don't know. I just can't stand the thought of Regan's brother doing the same." And touching her like that, and smiling at her like that, and her smiling right back at him.

Cye thought back to Robyn and Ryo's interactions late last year and since she came back. They seemed okay. Normal. It hurt his heart that Robyn had been let down by Ryo, but if Ryo hadn't felt the same at the time, he did the right thing. "You both seem all right now."

Ryo nodded. "Yeah, we—"

"Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?"

Torrent and Wildfire blinked. Hardrock's face was a mixture of bewilderment and anger. "You turned down Robyn?"

"Kento, we didn't feel the same about each other. I couldn't do that to her."

"Did you even try? Did you even give her a chance?"

"Look, it wasn't the best timing, either—"

"So how would you know? You're still pining over a girl who skipped out on you and won't even return your calls, and you shut down the girl who's been there every step of the way? Who stayed up with you all night after the worst mindfuck of our lives?"

Ryo stared at him. Kento looked ready to shake him. He was starting to feel the same mixture of guilt and panic he felt when Regan read him the riot act over it.

"Kento, he was honest with her. You can't do any more than that," Cye interjected, his tone softer and more reasonable. "It's difficult to approach someone when your heart's not ready."

Kento shot an unfriendly look to his best friend, then sighed with aggravation. He jabbed a finger at Ryo. "You're an idiot!"

Ryo's vaguely guilty expression hardened and he took a step forward. Cye rolled his eyes. "Guys, please, this is ridiculous. Robyn is fine. Her personal relationships aren't always our business and I think you're both blowing things out of proportion."

Hardrock and Wildfire stared at each other, and both deflated at the same time. Ryo stuck his hand out first, and Kento took it with a firm, but quick shake after a moment's hesitation.

"I've got work," Ryo announced. And he did; this was most certainly not a retreat out of an uncomfortable conversation. He had no reason to feel guilty. He and Robyn were on good terms, and they were friends, and he was just looking out for her. That was all. "Thanks for listening to me complain."

"I'm sure it's not over," Cye joked. "Lord knows how they'll be at the wedding."

Ryo huffed at that as he grabbed his light jacket to head out the door. He flat out ignored Cye's parting, "And get that Snickerdoodle recipe from him!"

When Ryo left, Cye and Kento remained in the living room, the latter's face still dark and unhappy.

Cye looked thoughtfully at him, then said quietly, "That night at the hotel, Robyn didn't just stay up with Ryo. She was there with you, too."

Kento gave his best friend a side glance at the accusation, but didn't say a thing.

The next day, Ryo was back at the mansion, and the other ronins expected to arrive as well. They all agreed that January was making them stir crazy. The overcast skies and the cold air made them feel a little claustrophobic. They were to meet at the mansion that afternoon and go into the snowy woods with their armors for a cathartic sparring session. Currently, most of them had arrived and were just waiting at the house for Rowen, who said he was running late because he was assisting a student.

The others waited with only minimal patience. The armors knew they would be coming out soon and energy stirred in the main room. Sage paced a little by the window, Ryo sat on the couch, one leg bouncing. Kento leaned against the wall, arms folded, one finger tapping. He paused when he heard his cell phone ping and retrieved it from his pocket.

"Holy shit." Upon looking at the screen, the words tumbled out of his mouth.

"What?" Cye asked, one brow raised in question.

"Nothing," Kento insisted, though his eyes were wider than normal.

"That's the most guilty "nothing" I've ever seen," Sage accused.

"It's just that... Fumi texted me. I didn't expect to ever hear from her."

The team was about to let it go, except it looked like Kento was texting her back.

"What are you doing?" Cye said. "Just ignore her."

The non-verbal response Kento gave was a shake of his head. His wide eyes screamed "there is no ignoring this."

"What did she send you?" Ryo asked curiously.

Kento glanced to the side, but had no response. Cye was next to him faster than Kento realized and immediately made a face at the screen. "Oh, Kento, no. Please tell me you're not thinking about responding to this."

"What?" Ryo asked.

At the same time, Rowen stepped through the front door and announced, "I'm here! What'd I miss?"

"Fumi sent Kento nudes," Cye said simply.

There was a moment of silence in the house.

"Like good ones or nasty ones?" Rowen asked.

"Does it matter? Most importantly, Kento isn't going to respond to such a blatant tactic to get his attention. Are you?"

Kento looked guilty once more.

"Kento, no," Sage ordered. "Don't give her an excuse to get her hooks in you again."

He glanced back down at his phone.

Ryo was standing now. "Remember how miserable she made you, how miserable she made all of us. Don't do it."

"But she's so hot," Kento sighed. "You're not looking at what I'm looking at."

"She's also crazy. Don't forget the crazy," Rowen said as he moved in. The entire room was tense now. Trying to talk Kento down from this unexpected booty call felt akin to deactivating a bomb.

"But hot and crazy in bed is mind-blowing. It will just be this one time."

"No!" Ryo ordered, trying to snatch the phone away. The two fumbled for it and it fell on the hardwood floor and slid a few yards from them. The two glanced at each other and then Kento lurched forward. "Kento!" Ryo tackled him to the ground as they wrestled for the phone.

When it was clear that Kento's superior strength was winning, Cye jumped on him as well. "Kento, stop. Think about this. She made all of us suffer."

Rowen knew he could stop this right now by just walking ahead and picking up the phone. But this was quite fascinating. "How is he dragging you guys? Can't you two stop him?"

Ryo practically had Kento in a choke hold trying to slow him down. "He's...too strong," he growled as Kento pulled both Wildfire and Torrent a bit closer to the phone.

Rowen couldn't handle the failure anymore and jumped on the pile, certain he could be the one to stop Kento's progress. One more long pull of his arms and Kento's finger tips were within touching distance of the phone. Rowen swatted it further away.

"Come on Kento, you're better than this. Don't go crawling back to her, that's pathetic."

"Screw you guys, this is none of your business," Hardrock growled back, and dragged now three ronins with him as he inched closer to his phone.

"Kento, you know tons of girls, call someone else," Cye suggested while he attempted to stop Kento's arm from moving.

"Maybe we can call—jeez he's strong—a service for you," Rowen grunted as he too tried and failed to hold Hardrock back.

"What? No," Ryo objected. "Kento's too good-looking to pay for sex."

"I'm not talking hookers. More like, you know, a high-end escort service."

"Kento, seriously, just call someone else," Cye said. "No one's going to say no to you. Girls oogle you all day. Sage, can't you go get that phone while we hold him down?"

"Seriously, if Kento's hard up to get laid, what's the hope for the rest of you?" Rowen asked. "At least, those of you still single."

"Funny," Ryo growled.

"Get off me! You guys are creeping me out!" Kento barked.

Sage stood over them, hands on his hips. He considered getting the phone himself as Kento was near to it once more, despite three grown men on top of him. Instead of removing the carrot before the horse, Sage grabbed Kento's ankles, confident one more ronin would finally hold back the mighty Hardrock.

Halo gave a startled cry as Kento suddenly pulled forward, yanking them all with him.

Regan frowned as she glanced down at her phone again. No answer from Rowen and she had texted him several times in the past fifteen minutes.

"Darn him," she hissed. "Not only is he not tasting cakes with me, he won't even put in his two cents over the phone."

"Now you know what I've had to deal with while you were gone," Robyn said as she took a fork full of the next cake sample and put it in her mouth. Currently, the two were sitting at a table in a small, but adorable bakery, slices of several different cakes set out before them. Jude was there as well, but was currently checking out the fancy and detailed arrangement of pastries behind the glass counter. "They're doing important armor... team stuff. He'll text you back when they're finished. Besides, Rowen doesn't like a lot of sweets and sugar. It's a Japanese culture thing. It's considered feminine to have a sweet tooth."

"I have to disagree with that," Jude said as he returned to the table, catching the tail end of the conversation. "Cake is for everyone."

"Well, at least you can have whatever cake you want, Regan, you don't have to compromise. Plus, this was the one thing I was dying to do with you. You can force Rowen to help you with everything else."

Robyn took a bite of another cake and made a pleased noise. That sound caused Jude to want to try it as well. The redhead's phone pinged and she checked it with a slight snort. "Apparently, Kento's ex just tried to get back with him and Kento's cracking. Rowen wants to pimp me out so he can continue to break that habit."

"You certainly could do worse," Regan mused. "That boy is built like—wait. Did one of the other guys tell you Rowen said that, or is Rowen texting you?"

Robyn stayed quiet.

"That little turkey."

The redhead grinned. "Rowen is a seasoned pro at avoiding things he doesn't want to do. That's what you're marrying. Better get used to it."

"Is this the one with the crazy ex Regan told me about?" Jude mused.

Robyn glanced at Regan. Sometimes the fact that Regan told everything to her twin irritated her. That was not Jude's business.

Regan ignored it. "Poor guy. Kento hasn't really dated anyone else since, right? I think he's just lonely, and it's driving him to make bad decisions."

"I know that feel," Jude said.

"Of course you do," both girls chimed.

"He just needs to get laid." Regan dug her elbow into his side with a "shhh" when one of the bakery attendants looked their way. "Sorry," he added, then sent another apology in Japanese and a quick bow the attendant's way, in case she spoke enough English to understand how crass the comment was.

"It's still true," he continued, despite the exasperated looks his sister and Robyn threw him. "He's defaulting to what he knows and what's familiar, doesn't matter how bad it was. Better that than taking a risk with someone new."

"And what happens when someone takes a risk on someone new?" Regan's voice was quieter as she looked up at her brother.

"It depends on what they do after, and what their reasons are for doing it." Since they were low key talking about it, Jude didn't bother to hide his bewilderment and frustration. "If you rush into something because they're filling a need and the infatuation stage is still going strong and you're lonely, then it can lead to a world of regret." It didn't make him feel good to say that to her, and she tried to take it without getting upset, but he could see the hurt and indignation in her eyes. It hurt him, too, to add softly, "But I've seen you bounce back from far worse. I know you could handle it if it doesn't work out the way you want. I just wish I could spare you that."

Regan swallowed against the aching lump in her throat. "I just wish you could trust me," she whispered.

"It's not you I don't trust."

Robyn saw the flare of temper in Regan's eyes at the slight against Rowen, and intervened by squeezing between them and hugging them both around the waist. "Hey, so why don't we decide on a yummy cake and then go check out some thrift stores before dinner?"

Regan visibly collected herself, then said neutrally, "Yes, that sounds great. I'm going to use the restroom, excuse me." She walked off towards the back. Robyn turned to Jude.

"Give this a chance," she said in a low voice.

"I have perfectly reasonable concerns," he countered in the same tone.

"I know you do. I do, too, because I don't like to see any of my friends rush into things. But they're both very capable people who can handle any road bumps that come up. And there are layers to their relationship that you don't understand."

"Then explain it."

"I can't. You just have to trust me. And stop irritating my friends, they're not too happy with you either, you know."

Jude's serious face lightened with a faint smile. "Oh I'm sorry, do they have a problem with me showing you the affection you deserve?"

Robyn felt heat rush to her cheeks. "You're being a little too obvious with that, Mr. Handsy Pants."

"It's not any different from back home." Jude tucked a few red strands of hair behind Robyn's ear. "We all had great lives. We looked out for each other. I love taking care of you, of Rae. But that doesn't have to change. You can still come back with me; I still have the spare bedroom. Do they even check in on you here? Do you see your favorite guy friends from high school as much as you'd like?"

Robyn shrugged his hand off, feeling her own defensiveness over the guys rise, even as she briefly mourned her life in Oregon for a painful flash of a second. "Of course they do. But they have their own lives, too. All relationships take work, Jude, and you know that. So who's really afraid to put in that kind of work, huh? Because I don't think it's your sister."

The redhead jabbed her fork into another square of cake and chewed angrily, refusing to look at him. Jude looked down at his own slice, unable to quickly recover from that well-aimed jab.

"I would for you," he murmured as he toyed with the cake. "If you wanted me to."

Robyn's smile was brief and fond. "No you wouldn't, Judy. But that's sweet."

Jude raised an eyebrow at her, then watched her as he took another bite of cake. "Offer's still on the table."

She laughed at him. "And it can stay on the table."

"If none of those insanely attractive friends of yours are smart enough to scoop you up, you know I would take care of you."

"Stop it," she hissed, blushing as she eyed the nearby attendant who was distracted by a phone order. Thankfully, Regan came back from the restroom, and Robyn could forget that Jude all but propositioned her in broad daylight, in a bakery.

"Do you know which cake you like?" Robyn asked desperately.

Dinner was at a trendy restaurant in downtown Toyama that Sage recommended and they all had agreed to meet together for dinner. It took a while to be seated with the amount of people they brought. Their group was getting bigger. The seats were low and plush, the lights dim, and the music soft enough so as not to distract from conversation. A posh bar took up the far end of the open room, and glass windows on the other side displayed a picture perfect winter's night, with snow heavy on the tree limbs and blanketing the ground.

"This is incredible," Jude admitted.

"Toyama has its moments," Rowen said. "Did you get settled into your new place all right?"

"Yeah, it was a breeze. They're off to enjoy an extended vacation in Australia, and I look after their cat." Jude had snagged the perfect Airbnb opportunity, and thankfully had an apartment to himself so he didn't have to worry about getting a little too up close and personal with his sister's love life. The few days he'd stayed with them had made him more appreciative of what Rae had to put up with whenever he'd brought a girlfriend home.

And because he couldn't help himself, Jude glanced over at Robyn and added, "You owe me a visit, by the way."

She finished a spoonful of soup before saying, "I already saw where you're staying."

"You stayed for like five minutes."

"I stayed longer. I had to play with the cat."

They bantered back and forth, and Cye watched both them and Ryo. Wildfire tried to ignore it and focus on his meal, or just stare at the surroundings of a place nicer than he'd ever voluntarily step foot in.

Kento was looking equally uncomfortable, albeit for entirely different reasons. The sparring session had done them all some good, had helped him channel the sexual frustration. But he was still irritated with his friends.

"Doing all right, Kento?" Cye asked nonchalantly.

Hardrock gave him a sour look. "I'm just great, Cye. Peachy."

"It was for your own good," Sage commented mildly as he sipped his tea.

Hardrock then glared at Halo next.

"Did you all really have to take his phone?" Robyn asked, a bit irritated for him as well.

"When Kento commits to any course of action, even a terrible one, he commits," Sage replied. "He'll get it back in a few days once he's had time to think about the consequences."

"He isn't called Hardrock for nothing," Rowen added.

Mia choked on her drink. After a beat in the dead silence following Rowen's comment, the table erupted into laughter.

"What does that mean?" Jude asked curiously.

Both Ryo and Sage shot Rowen a meaningful look, and the blue-haired Ronin finally realized his slip.

"It's a nickname," Robyn recovered. "It has to do with, with…"

"You aren't the only one who has a way with the ladies, Jude," Regan helped. Her brother snorted. "After all, Fumi was convinced both me and Robyn were dating him at one point."

"And I've been single for too damn long," Kento muttered. "I'm not used to it."

"It is unnatural for you," Cye said. "I don't remember the last time you were unattached for this long."

"Seriously, why don't you just get another girlfriend?" Rowen asked.

"Every woman in Toyama must be blind," Ryo said. "Look at him." The table cracked up again, and Ryo looked at them, startled. "What?"

"You want to share something with the table, Ryo?" Cye teased.

"I'm not saying anything we don't already know."

"What the hell are you all going on about?" Kento asked.

"You're too attractive and amazing to be single, my friend," Regan explained. She playfully ruffled Robyn's hair and added, "Robyn agrees, she's just too shy to say it out loud."

The redhead gasped, then flushed all the way up to her ears.

"I'm not too shy to say it," Mia said with a smirk that Cye matched.

"So can we all acknowledge that everyone at this table has low key harbored a crush on Kento and thinks he's too hot to be single?" Rowen asked. Kento sputtered when everyone at the table raised their hands, even though half of them were grinning with amusement.

"Even you, Sage?" he asked. Sage shrugged unapologetically and said nothing.

Kento sighed, still feeling twitchy and uncomfortable from a day of high emotions and frustration. "Totally isn't helping, guys." He gestured to the three women at the table—all his friends, and all damn adorable, cutely dressed, and smelling amazing. "Especially you three. Not helping." And especially not when Robyn and Regan carried on with the casual affection they showed each other. Laughing at each other's jokes, Regan making Robyn blush, combing their fingers through their hair, being feminine, reminding him of everything he used to have and didn't anymore because Fumi was a terrible person. Why couldn't he find that with someone normal? Why did he get screwed over and he was left miserable and sexually frustrated and alone?

And damn it, Rowen's fiancée knew what his problem was and had no problem teasing him by fawning over Robyn even more. "We have no idea what you mean," she said innocently as she wrapped an arm around Robyn's shoulders and gathered her closer.

Kento growled, the wood table groaning in protest when he grabbed it too hard.

Rowen put a hand on Regan's wrist, his tone low. "Baby, no, don't tease. I seriously cannot protect you from him."

Regan glanced at him, surprised that he wasn't joking. She was not aware of what they had all witnessed of Hardrock's strength earlier that day.

"So, we tried a bunch of cakes today," Robyn blurted, trying to change the subject. And the subject was allowed to be changed. Soon all of them were talking and laughing about more mundane things and personal problems were forgotten for a while.

When the table ran out of drinks and the waitress looked a little too busy with dinner rush hour in her section, Kento offered to grab another round straight from the bar for them. He hauled up from the table, took more of the good-natured ribbing from his teammates and the girls, and saddled up to the side of the bar. He couldn't squeeze in between seats because his frame was too wide, but a young woman graciously moved her chair to make room for him.

"Thank you," he said with a slight nod.

She gave him a bright smile. "You're welcome."

He hung out next to her while he ordered the drinks…and couldn't help but taken a second and third look. She was damn cute. Long black hair with bangs, big brown eyes, a heart-shaped face. It looked like she was enjoying some sushi and a few cocktails with a friend—good for her.

"Can you carry all those back yourself?" she suddenly asked as the drinks began to show up in front of him while the bartender completed them.

He winked at her. "I'm more than capable."

Both women giggled, and it made him feel good. When the bartender tallied the total for him, Kento handed him yen for the others and his own card, and said, "Add their next two drinks on my tab."

The doe-eyed young woman and her friend "aww"ed and thanked him. His entire arm tingled when the former quickly and lightly squeezed his arm. "That is so nice, you're such a gentleman." Her touched lingered. She clearly enjoyed the muscles under her fingers.

"Anytime." Then, he used his skills as a waiter to easily scoop up the drinks, and as he turned to leave, told them, "Enjoy your evening, ladies."

"Those girls seemed to like you," Mia asked as Kento sat back down. She didn't see Kento in action that often, but the guy was smooth as butter.

Kento just shrugged and took a drink of his beer.

"She's still looking over here," Regan said from her vantage point. "I think you left quite an impression. You should go back and talk to her."

"Get her number," Jude agreed.

Kento frowned. It wasn't any of Jude's business, but the other guys were giving him encouragement to go. Confronted with the prospect of actually talking to someone other than Fumi—talking to them and maybe taking them home—was suddenly a little intimidating. "I don't know."

"I'm sorry, did we not just have to tackle you to the ground to keep you from making the worst decision of your life just a few hours ago?" Cye said with judgmental brows.

Kento glanced around the table. His eyes fell on Robyn who gave him an encouraging two thumbs up. Goddamn, why was she so cute? He had to get out of here. He glanced behind him, and clashed gazes with the woman at the bar. She smiled at him and held up her drink, and his heart beat a little faster as he smiled back.

Why shouldn't he?

"Come on Kento," Ryo encouraged. "If you don't, you might regret it and you'll never see her again."

They finished dinner, Kento's solid hint that she was interested came when her friend left…and she didn't. When dinner was over and the check was paid, Kento rose from the table to get her number. Everyone quietly cheered him on, especially when he came back and put on his coat.

"Robyn, do you mind catching a ride home with Ryo?" He grinned a little. "I got me a date."

"Of course I don't!" Robyn was happy to see Kento looking a little happier. "Have fun!"

They'd grabbed another drink at a different bar, talked, flirted. She casually touched him often and even brushed her boot against his leg. Kento did not decline when she invited him back to her place. It was the size of a shoebox, but Kento didn't care—it was a hell of a lot better than taking her back to his apartment above his parent's restaurant. It smelled like her, a mixture of gardenias and cherry blossoms.

She was small and petite like Fumi, but her touch was gentler, and her enthusiasm was hot and flattering. Kento enjoyed the noises she made when he kissed down her neck and found her sensitive spots. God, he missed this. He missed having a woman in his arms, the way it felt to be undressed and touched with those smaller, eager hands. There was just one problem.

His arousal faded when she kissed him. Their mouths met and there was nothing. The taste of her cooled his blood, something that had never happened to him before. He tried to stay in the mood, tried to focus on all the great things she was doing to him: scraping her fingers through his hair, rubbing her body against his. She wanted this, too; a hot, cathartic round in the sheets. Maybe they would see each other again after this, maybe they wouldn't. Kento was all sorts of down for this.

But his body was not responding at all. With a growl at himself, he hoisted her in his lap (to her surprise and delight), and his grip grew a little more forceful as they ground against each other. She was having the time of her life, running her hands all over him, and he couldn't get his body to react the way it damn well should have.

When she went for his jeans, he had to push her hands away to avoid embarrassing them both for what she wouldn't find. "I have a better idea," he murmured. He prayed that she thought the sweat on his brow was from exertion, when he wasn't even close to exerting himself.

He made sure she had a good night, even while his heart raced as he tried to figure out what the fuck was wrong with him. He did all the work while she reaped all the pleasure and was soon crying out while Kento was still fully dressed. When she tried to remove his shirt for a second round, he cajoled her with kisses and a "maybe some other time". He murmured it was late and they were both too drunk and he had work in the morning.

"Hey, I didn't get your number," he heard her call as he walked out the door. He shut it behind him, got into his vehicle and didn't look back.

Confusion and frustration roiled through him as he drove home. What his body had clamored for all god damn day, all week, all month, he apparently couldn't get from her. What the fuck was wrong with him?

Kento slept like shit.