The solemn sound of the gong echoed over the valley, and if possible, the lone falcon soaring in the sky seemed to follow its path over and beyond until it disappeared into the thick mass of trees that seemed to stretch from the horizon onto forever. As the dull sound faded into the air, the only sounds audible were the occasional high wind and then the falcon's triumphant call, giving voice to its visual sovereignty in the sky. The formidable hunter continued its majestic flight unhindered by anything with only the empty valley as witness.

Well, maybe not empty.

Unbeknownst to the bird of prey, its flight was being carefully monitored, reflected within deep hazel eyes, watching unblinkingly. Young Hayate watched with hawk-like gaze until the bird merged with the horizon, and contemplated the distance for still a while longer before his reverie was interrupted by a soft yet stern voice: "Hayate, come here."

Obediently, Hayate joined the older man's side in gazing down into the valley. He could still see nothing but trees, but his father continued to look confident and expectant. Quietly, Hayate ventured, "Are they really coming, Father?"

A stern look silenced any other doubts he would have cared to voice. "Never doubt the word of a shinobi," his father said. "The Hayabusa are a true clan of warriors. They will not break their word."

Hayate nodded dolefully and bit down on the remark that the shinobi code obviously did not include punctuality. He resisted the various urges to yawn, scratch the back of his legs, and sit down, for it wouldn't do for the heir apparent of the Mugen Tenshin clan to act irresponsibly. Heaven forbid he should actually act his age. The occasion was much too formal for that. It was, after all, a landmark date. For the first time in years, two of the greatest shinobi clans in all of Japan would break out of their self-enforced isolation, coming out of the natural seclusion these mountains offered and invite each other into the fold. Today, the heads of the Mugen Tenshin clan and the Hayabusa clan would be meeting for the first time, and for the first time, the Mugen Tenshin clan would invite the Hayabusa into their home.

Meaning the total disclosure of the location of their village to a rival clan.

It was a risky move, but necessary. It would be the only way to prove the complete good will of the Mugen Tenshin to the Hayabusa. If all went well today, the Hayabusa would reciprocate.

And absolute trust was needed in dangerous times like these.

Hayate bit back another yawn when he suddenly heard the rustle of in the trees before him. To the common ear it would've been barely perceptible, but to those trained from the arts from birth, it was a skill that could save your life. He instantly snapped awake, and unbidden a smile crept onto his face. "They're here," he whispered unnecessarily but unable to successfully keep the excitement bubbling up in his stomach down.

All his father's guard was instantly on alert, and though his father made no visible defenses, he did seem tense. And when the Hayabusa emerged from the thick undergrowth and started to approach up the hill in view, he understood why. Scores of men, moving with the natural cat-like grace of those well versed in stealth came steadily in a massive black wave. Though masks obscured most of their faces, the visible eyes that flashed intently bespoke of all the danger they were capable of. Their formidable armory and weapons added to their intimidating frames and yet they seemed not bothered by it in the least. Rather, they wore it like a second skin. Truly, this was the clan of the famed Super Ninja (AN: I know, I hate that name, too).

It was plain to see that the man approaching ahead of the others was the clan head. Though he wore no signifying marks, the determined look in his eyes mirrored his father's. Hayate's eyes passed uninterestedly along the others, formidable warriors in their own right, perhaps, but nothing that really sparked his interest.

Hayate snapped back to attention when he felt his father leave his place beside him and go a few steps forward to meet the other head. He watched the two men walk towards each other, stopping a respectable distance away from each other and address each other in clear, crisp tones that bespoke of no nonsense.

"The Mugen Tenshin greets the great Hayabusa clan and bids them welcome."

"The Hayabusa gratefully acknowledges and accepts the hospitality of the Mugen Tenshin."

Short bows were exchanged. And with formalities aside, small pleasantries, if they could really be called that, were exchanged. "I trust you had a good journey? No difficulties?"

The Hayabusa shook his head. "No. I do not believe we were followed."

A satisfied nod of the head. "Then. . .are the rumors true?"

"That is what we have come to verify." The Hayabusa cleared his throat and glanced meaningfully over his father's shoulder, back to where his father's guard and he stood. "Perhaps this were better discussed. . .in a more discreet location."

He got an amused chuckle in response. "Do not worry. My men can be trusted on their lives. And," he motioned to Hayate to come forward, who hastened to obey, "this is my son and heir of the Mugen Tenshin, Hayate." The Hayabusa's eyes flicked over to him, and their eyes met for an instant. Hayate stared unblinkingly back, not in the least intimidated by the glower in the man's eye. This seemed to please him, and the Hayabusa turned his attention back to Hayate's father and nodded his approval.

"Yes, it is important for the future of our clans towitness these events. I've also brought my son along. Ryu!" The Hayabusa moved to allow the figure through the crowd and join his father. Hayate was surprised to find that the heir to the Hayabusa was also a boy, no older than he. He carried the same serious, thoughtful look his father wore, and regarded Hayate during the introductions with a studiousness that was almost funny-like he was going to be tested on how the heir of the Mugen Tenshin looked or something. Hayate decided this boy was much too serious for his own good and gave him a friendly grin, and was immediately amused by the surprised, discomfited expression that flashed across the other's face. He was an interesting character to say the least.

At his father's signal, the two clans moved back toward the village temple where their meetings could be held uninterrupted. Those of his father's guards that were not sitting in on the meeting already stationed themselves outside the building while the others filed in. Just before his father joined the other men, he called over his shoulder and said in a voice that brooked no argument, "Hayate, why don't you take Ryu to the village and show him around?"

Hayate nodded and signaled Ryu to follow him. But the other boy hesitated, looking instead questioningly at his father, who looked equally puzzled. "I thought. . .they should be present to hear this," the elder Hayabusa said.

But on this point, the leader of the Mugen Tenshin stood firm. "These matters are too important, too serious to discuss openly with the information we have. If the rumors are true, then we must prepare. But if they are false, I won't shoulder children with more responsibility than they can handle unnecessarily." While the Hayabusa pondered this, to Hayate, his father said, "Go on."

With a light touch on Ryu's shoulder, Hayate motioned the boy to follow him. The walk down the hill was for the most part silent, each too preoccupied with a multitude of thoughts, mostly about what was passing in that temple room. Hayate sighed. He was sure his father had good reasons for what he did, but. . .

He glanced over to the other boy, Ryu, who was just as silent. This kid was probably confused at being shut out of Official Clan Business for the first time since he knew how to walk. He probably didn't know what to do with himself right now. "Hey," Hayate said, deciding if someone was going to break the silence, it'd have to be him. The kid looked sharply up at him, like he had forgotten that he wasn't alone. "You hungry?" Hayate asked. Ryu looked confused. "You know, food. You do eat where you come from, don't you?"

Now Ryu was annoyed. "I know what food is!"

Hayate blinked in surprise. "So you do talk! Good, I was beginning to think that maybe all your stealth training made you mute."

Ryu bristled. "Is the Mugen Tenshin always this rude?"

Hayate shrugged, not in the least affected. "Nope, just me. And only when Father isn't around. My sister, on the other hand, is sweet as pie."

"Sister?"

"Yeah, she's six years younger than I am, and a real twerp."

Twerp? Sweet? Ryu tried to bend his mind around these two images but couldn't reconcile them. He did manage to conjure up a ranting slice of apple pie when he realized the Mugen Tesnhin heir was asking him something. "Sorry, what?"

"I said, 'so are you'?"

"Am I what?"

"Hungry!"

"Oh! Uh, sure. I guess."

"All right. Let's go to my place. I've gotta make sure Kasumi gets lunch anyway."

Ryu followed Hayate through the village of the Mugen Tenshin clan, and was moderately surprised to find it similar to the Hayabusa's. There were small homes built in the traditional Japanese style, a large training dojo, various shops but also a plethora of items not native to these mountains which meant that they imported or traded, lots of gardens, and various work hands returning from what must be the clan's private rice fields. Everyone was busy and life was bustling. You would never guess that this was the home of the most dangerous assassin ninjutsu clan in all of Japan.

And apparently the heir to said clan was as gregarious as he made himself out to be. As they made their way through, he exchanged greetings with several townspeople, and Ryu noted the elders were particularly respectful towards him. Maybe this Hayate wasn't as big a goofball as he had originally thought. But still, he wasn't exactly what Ryu imagined the Mugen Tenshin heir to be like.

Their progress to wherever the hell this kid was taking him was interrupted when they heard scuffling and loud jeering voices off to the side. A young, pretty girl in a very plain kimono who had apparently had the water jug she was carrying knocked out of her hands was now glaring heatedly at the three offenders.

"What'sa matter?" one was jeering. "Drop something?"

"Let me pass," the girl said shortly.

"What's the hurry, Ayane?" another one joined in. "We never see you anymore."

"That's because she's not Ireally/I part of the Clan!" the last crowed.

The first clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. "Awww, that's okay. We'll play with you, won't we, guys? We'll play with Ayane the half-breed."

"Ayane the bastard child."

"Ayane the whore's child."

The girl was obviously trying to fight back tears, but she stalwartly assumed a fighting stance. The boys seemed genuinely amused. "Gonna fight us, half-breed?"

"Yeah! Let's spar. Hajin Mon versus Tenjin Mon! Show us what the school of the great Genra's dojo is made of!"

"Ha! No contest. It's as probably as easy as her mother!" one said, followed by another round of laughter.

Beside him, Ryu felt Hayate tense and go dangerously silent. "Excuse me," he said briefly to Ryu before striding up, quickly and soundlessly to where the commotion was going on. Ryu watched stunned for a few moments, before running to catch up. That look he had seen on Hayate's face was so unlike what he saw before. It changed him completely. It was dangerous, deadly. More like what he expected from a ninja assassin.

It was face of the man that Hayate would become.

Banishing such thoughts for the present (they gave him the heebie-jeebies), he ran to catch up.

"Is there a problem here?" Hayate barked as soon as he was within reach. The boys turned arrogantly but all pomp went out of their stance when they saw who had come to interrupt their fun.

"Ha-hayate-san!"

Hayate crossed his arms and gave them all glares that spoke volumes. "Mind explaining what's going on?" All he got were blank stares in answer. "Hayashi?"

The boy addressed, Hayashi, swallowed audibly and his face paled. "No- nothing much. We just wanted to spar a little bit."

"Three against one is slightly out of the bounds of fairness, don't you think? But if it's a sparring match you want, I'm sure Hayabusa-san here and myself wouldn't mind evening the odds." The boys were sweating visibly now. "That's right," Hayate said warmly, "I don't believe you met the heir to the Hayabusa clan. I was showing him around, but I never expected to show him such disgraceful conduct within our own clan members." He gave each a pointed look and his words came out with the force of bullets. "Tenjin Mon, Hajin Mon, they're Iall/Ischools of the Mugen Tenshin! And I won't tolerate such disrespect toward either. And if you ever disrespect any of my family again, I'll personally see to it that you pay. Now get out of here." That was all the encouragement they needed. Hayashi and Co. turned tail and took off.

Hayate didn't even break stance when they disappeared out of sight and continued to glare at where the offenders had been. Ryu shuffled uncomfortably and not knowing what else to do, picked up the water jug and handed it to the girl Ayane who thanked him all the while keeping her gaze upon Hayate's back. "Hayate. . .san?"

Her voice seemed to break him out of his stormy reverie and he turned back to face them, offering them a smile that was but a shadow of his former congeniality. "You okay, Ayane?" The girl nodded. His smile got a bit of warmth back. "Don't let them get to you. You're a great fighter. One of these days, you'll beat them all. Come on, Ryu, we better get going." To Ayane he said, "Give Genra-sama my regards. See you later." And the two boys moved off again, leaving Ayane watching them until they were out of sight. Then, clutching the water jug to her chest, she hurried back to the Hajin Mon dojo.

Genra heard the front door open and slam, and the quick, agitated steps of his adopted daughter scurry across the floor. "Ayane?"

"Hai! Tadaima."

He smiled. "Okaeri," he replied, and then noticed her flushed face and empty water jug. "What happened, child?"

He waited patiently while Ayane rushed to tell everything that had just happened outside and concluded with, "and Hayate-san sends his regards" before stopping to catch her breath.

"Hayate. . .is a good boy. You can trust him."

"Yes, Father."

*** "Who. . .was that?"

Hayate digested Ryu's innocent question and pondered how to answer it. His father's voice floated in his mind of what he had once said when they had been walking through the village and saw Ayane in the distance: IDo not look upon your mother's shame./I "She's. . .Genra's best student and daughter. Genra-sama owns the Hajin Mon dojo. It's another school of Mugen Tenshin but kind of new, so it isn't as widely used as Tenjin Mon Ninjutsu." He laughed nervously when he realized he was babbling. IAw, to hell with it./I "She's my sister."

"Sister. . .?" Ryu's eyes widened when the meaning of the words finally sunk in.

"A long time ago when my father was supposedly lost on an assignment, my mother decided to take her lonely nights elsewhere. Needless to say, when my Father returned, he found out her betrayal, disowned her, and she supposedly died of shame, the child abandoned until Genra adopted Ayane as his own."

"I. . ." Was it all right for him to hear all this? "I'm sorry."

"S'all right," Hayate said bitterly. "It's not your fault."

"I. . ." What could one say at a time like this?

Nothing. Nothing at all. Except. . .

"Thank you for trusting me enough to tell me."

At this Hayate grinned, a true grin. "Might as well. We're supposed to be working pretty closely now. And you seem pretty reliable. But if you go blabbing this to anyone, I'm going to slit your throat."

"I would never tell!" Ryu swore vehemently.

"Geez, I was just kidding. Lighten up a bit, Ryu."

But Ryu had meant every word he said. He would carry a secret like this entrusted to the grave. Whether they knew it or not, with that oath of fidelity came the beginning of deep friendship, a friendship more akin to brotherhood.

*** The house of the head of the Mugen Tenshin was, as expected, impressive with a fantastic courtyard in front of the main house lined with sakura trees that would look incredible when in full bloom.

Delicious smells were wafting through the air and Hayate went straight up to the front door and poked his head in. Sure enough, he could hear rattling coming from the kitchen. Dread started to trickle down his spine. "Kasumi!" he called as he disappeared into the direction of what Ryu could only guess was the kitchen, abandoning Ryu in the doorway.

A bright, cheery voice chirped a reply. "Oh, Nii-san, okaeri!"

"Tadaima," Hayate's voice said, relief obvious in his speech. Whatever he was worried about happening obviously didn't.

"Ne, nii-san, did you see the Hayabusa clan? Are they really as scary as everyone says they are?" Ryu nearly choked. IWe're/I scary? You're a bunch of assassins!

"They're a powerful clan," Hayate's voice corrected.

"Ayane says they wrestle with bears. Is that true?"

"WHAT?" Ryu heard his voice squawk before he could hold it in.

There was a sudden silence, and Ryu had the feeling that Hayate was trying to hold his laughter in. "Ni-nii-san," the voice of Kasumi ventured carefully, "is there someone here?"

"Come on in, Ryu! It's safe enough. There's no apocalypse today."

"Ojamashimasu." Kicking off his shoes, he followed the voices to the kitchen and came face to face with the brightest amber eyes he'd ever seen.

"Kasumi, this is Ryu Hayabusa of the Hayabusa clan. Ryu, this is my sister, Kasumi."

Kasumi's head quickly bobbed in a bow. "Ha-hajimemashite, Hayabusa-san."

Ryu snapped to and realized the polite thing would be to respond. "Yoroshiku, Kasumi."

"Well, what do you think, Kasumi?" Hayate asked. "Does he look like he wrestles bears?"

"Nii-san!" Kasumi protested, an embarrassed flush rising to her cheeks. Hayate ignored her and walked over to the counter where she had obviously been cooking. A roll of misshapen rice balls were lined up next to the rice pot, and a pot of what smelled like miso seemed to be warming up. Hayate uncovered the pot and took a taste.

"Not bad," he said and looked over at Kasumi with what could only be called pride. "You're getting better." And Kasumi looked pleased until he added, "At least you didn't burn anything this time. But that's the ugliest bunch of onigiri I've ever seen."

The shy smile creeping onto her small face quickly dissolved into an angry flush. "Mou!" Kasumi exclaimed exasperatedly. "I tried my best!"

Hayate laughed and stuck one in his mouth before turning to chop the tofu for the miso. "Why don't you go set the table," he said around bites. "Hayabusa-san is staying for lunch. I'll finish in here." Kasumi gave one more petulant pout before flipping her long braid over her shoulder and going into the next room.

That left Ryu standing in the doorway of the kitchen feeling rather useless. "Uh. . .need any help?"

Hayate regarded him critically. "Can you cook?"

"A little."

"Okay. Cut these up and add them to the soup," he said, gesturing to the green onion and the pot, and he moved over to the pot of rice. "I'm going to see if I can salvage these."

Ryu cast a glance at Kasumi's abandoned onigiri. "They don't look that bad," he ventured in her defense.

"Pfffft. They'll fall right apart." Picking up another dried plum center, Hayate molded the rice mixed with salmon roe around it. His skilled hands shaped them effortlessly into the perfect triangular shape. "I like mine grilled. How do you want yours?"

"Just plain is fine."

"Just like Kasumi. Do I have to make yours into rabbits, too?"

Ryu nearly dropped the ladle. "Huh?"

Hayate demonstrated: picking up a plain one, he took two plums and stuck them onto a corner forming two tiny eyes. Taking two strips of dried seaweed, he pressed them right above the plums. With a little bit of imagination, they could be ears.

Ryu frowned. "Of course not."

Hayate shrugged and continued to give several others the same treatment for Kasumi, leaving the rest as they were, half of which were eventually grilled. When everything was done, they carried the completed meal to the dining area where they found Kasumi had already set a place for everyone and was busily sulking while tossing fortune sticks onto the table top.

"For cryin' out loud, Kasumi. Not at the table." Sulking even more, she quietly put them away, but brightened as soon as she saw the rabbit rice balls and mentally decided to forgive her brother for being such a git, at least for the time being. Normal humor restored, she chatted merrily about her day, but it was obvious she was more interested in hearing what had happened to the boys.

"Oh!" she cried in dismay when she heard about Ayane (though Hayate had tactfully decided to leave some of the actual comments they said out). "That's so cruel! How dare they!" Her small fist tightened around her chopsticks at the injustice her sister suffered. "I hope you said something, Nii-san."

"Don't worry," Ryu said. "Your brother made sure it'll never happen again." I hope.

"Oh, good," she said, obviously relieved. Then her face suddenly flushed with embarrassment. Ryu, not for the first time that day, again thought about how positively mercurial Kasumi's face was, changing emotions in the blink of an eye. It was certainly fascinating to look at; and it made her as easy to read as an open book.

Kasumi fidgeted. She could feel Hayabusa-san staring at her, and she wondered why. Was there something on her face? As discreetly as she could, she wiped around the edges of her mouth, but felt nothing there. The intense stares continued and she wanted to know IwhatI/ he wanted or just say something, anything to make him Istop./I

"Um, Hayabusa-san? I. . .apologize about. . .earlier. . ."

He blinked in confusion. "Earlier?"

Kasumi squirmed uncomfortably. "About. . .you know. . ." Hayate caught on and snorted into his rice bowl. Kasumi steadfastly ignored him. She was going to do this Iproperly./I "I'm sorry about what I said about you and the bear!" she blurted bowing her head so low and quickly for a second Hayate was worried she'd bang her head against the table.

"Oh. Um." Again, Ryu found himself speechless. "That's okay," he finally offered.

"It's just that-I've never seen any other clans outside the Mugen Tenshin before and there were so many rumors of the famous Hayabusa clan who saved the Emperor's life so many times-and-and Ayane said-"

"Ayane was pulling your leg, like she always does," Hayate said slamming his chopsticks down onto the table, making Kasumi jump in surprise. "Stop being so gullible and you won't make a fool of yourself."

Kasumi lapsed into a hurt silence and Hayate gathered up the plates to carry them back to the kitchen. There was a brief uncomfortable silence before Ryu hurriedly got up to help, but before he followed, he gently touched Kasumi on the shoulder. "It's okay," he said again. "Really. I don't mind."

In the kitchen he dumped the rest of the plates in the tub where Hayate already started washing. "Did you have to be so hard on her?"

Hayate said nothing immediately but his eyes betrayed a reasonable amount of guilt. "It's just" he finally sighed, "Ayane keeps picking on her, and she just smiles like an idiot and takes it."

"It's just who she is."

"Oh?" he asked, somewhat annoyed. "What makes you think you know her so well already?"

Ryu shrugged. "I can tell."

When the last clean dish was put away, Ryu asked, "Now what?"

Hayate shrugged. "We can do anything we want, I guess. Wanna spar?"

Sparring! Now that was something Ryu related to! "Sure."

"Okay, lemme get Kasumi."

They convened in the courtyard with a resignedly quiet Kasumi in tow, looking for all purposes like a puppy kicked one too many times. She sat dejectedly down on a rock while the boys got into ready positions. Any light banter that had been exchanged before died to serious silence. They knew this was more than just a practice fight for their future training; it was a chance to size up the teachings of another school of ninjutsu-a truly rare opportunity outside of a real battle to the death.

"Ready?"

"Any time you are."

As Ryu expected, Hayate was quick to make the first move. Even if his attitude hadn't already given away the fact that such was his style, he knew Hayate was eager to work something out of his system right now. So he was prepared. What he wasn't prepared for, as his arm came up easily for the block, was the jarring force with which Hayate's fist made contact. Ryu thought, with a grimace, he felt something Icrunch/I and had to put everything into a defensive stance to prevent himself from falling backward completely. He winced in pain but didn't really get much between that before he quickly retreated from the barrage of furious punches and forceful kicks which Hayate's heavy stance afforded him.

He was good, very good, as was to be expected of the Mugen Tenshin and for the first time since he started learning ninjutsu, Ryu felt his blood pumping hotly with excitement at the danger of it all. He had never had a really sparred like this-his father's men had the same training, the same predictable moves. Suddenly, Ryu had a thirst to prove himself: to Hayate, to Kasumi, to his father, to the world!

But he wouldn't be able to if he backed into this wall behind him. He retreated far enough until he could spring back lightly, using the wall as a springboard to launch himself over Hayate's head and landing behind him. Not giving his opponent the chance to turn around, he aimed a swift kick for the back of Hayate's knees, brining him to the ground before throwing the rest of his weight onto his back and pinning him there.

Hayate grunted and picked his face off the ground. "All right, all right. Uncle, already!" he said, rolling the other shinobi off his back.

Ryu blinked.

He just won.

And it felt Igood/I.

"Good match," Hayate said, "but I guess that's to be expected of the Hayabusa."

"Yeah, well, you're not so bad yourself," Ryu returned a trifle smugly. He just won, so he felt like he deserved it. Then he winced and rubbed his sore arms. "Where'd you learn to punch like that?"

"Nii-san likes to hit hard things." Ryu looked at Kasumi in confusion. "He squeezes rocks," she clarified, "and has this metal pad thingy in his room he likes to punch."

"Quiet, twerp. You wanna give away all our trade secrets?" Kasumi sulked again. Oh. Right. She was mad at him. Whoops.

"You punch metal?" Ryu asked incredulously, biting down on the obvious Idoesn't that hurt?/I

Hayate shrugged. "No one will spar with me anymore." Ryu looked at the bruises already forming on his arms and could see why. "Except Kasumi."

Ryu choked. "Kasumi? Spars with Iyou/I? You'll kill her!"

Hayate chuckled. "Don't be fooled by her. She is kunoichi, you know."

"But-but-!"

"Kasumi, would you like to spar with Hayabusa-san?"

If at all possible, those amber eyes lit up even more. "Can I?"

Ryu waited as the Mugen Tenshin children changed places, and assumed a ready stance. As soon as she came within distance, Kasumi also got ready, and Ryu was again shocked to see the bright smile drop away completely. Her face, which up until now had been glowing, became hard, her eyes glittered not with carefree happiness, but deadly determination. It would be another striking but not altogether unwelcome aspect of Kasumi Ryu would puzzle over again and again.

He was surprised when he realized that she was waiting for him to make the first move. He shrugged and decided to acquiesce, launching a rather half- hearted jab at her shoulder.

Or at least where her shoulder Ishould/I have been.

His reaction time was quicker than Hayate's, and he turned just in time to block the flying kick that would have hit him square the in the small of the back. He made an attempt to use that block to push against her leg and hopefully knock her off balance, but she retreated back with a light jump, using the coltish grace that was naturally hers. He followed her retreat, this time going at her in earnest. He had obviously misjudged her, and he was determined to remedy that mistake. But he also didn't expect her to be that light and quick on her feet, either. Where as Hayate was as steadfast as a rock, she was as light as air, making it very easy for her to use him as a springboard, her hands only resting on his shoulders briefly, like a passing touch, before she was behind him and attacking again. She was so fast, that until he felt the shock in the back of his head and vaguely saw the ground rushing up, he didn't even realize he had been hit.

He was pretty sure there were voices saying something to him, but all the sounds were muddled and distant. He was more sure that someone was gently cradling his head, and before everything went black, Ryu thought about how pleasant the smell of strawberries was.

*** I--busa-san/I

IHayabusa-san!/I

He was dimly aware of something warm lightly hitting his face. Ryu groaned. He wished he could make his mouth work so whoever was yelling would please keep it down. He had a major headache.

"Hayabusa-san!"

Reality doused over him like a bucket of cold water, and he snapped awake, experiencing only minor confusion until his eyes focused onto Kasumi's over- bright eyes.

"Ka-kasumi?"

Relief flooded Kasumi's face as the tears spilled down her cheeks. "You're alive!"

Ryu grunted and sat up. It looked like he was lying on the deck. "What happened?"

"I'm so sorry!" she cried, bowing her head almost to the deck floor. "I hit your-that is, I didn't mean to-I'm sorry! I'm so, so sorry!" she managed before bursting into tears again.

Even though Ihe/I was the one who got knocked out, Ryu couldn't help but feel like somewhat of a jerk. "It's okay, Kasumi. Really." Her tearful expression didn't look convinced. Ryu gingerly rubbed the back of his head. Sore, but didn't look like any permanent damage was done. It looked like she just managed to stun him. He gave her what he hoped was an encouraging grin. "That was some kick."

"I-thank you," she said gratefully, trying to stifle back tears. "I'll get some ice for your head." And she hurried back inside without a further word.

Ryu lied back down gently to stop the world from spinning. "Go on," he said to the person he knew was there, "you're dying to say it, aren't you?"

"I told you so," came the unapologetic reply.

Ryu groaned.

"Hey, come on," Hayate said from wherever the hell his voice was coming from. "She didn't hurt you that bad."

"Just my pride," Ryu mumbled. Hayate laughed. "She's good," he admitted.

"See? But you made her cry, punk."

Ryu couldn't believe he just heard that, and stared unbelievingly up at Hayate's truly upset expression. "Uh, excuse me? I'm the one on the ground here."

"Kasumi has the skills," Hayate said seriously, "but she's not cut out for this kind of life." And Ryu understood.

He knew it. He knew it from the first time he saw her. An untapped innocence and a love and appreciation for life and all it had to offer. How could she become an instrument for its destruction? "But she's strong," he said, before he was aware that he even spoke.

"And stubborn," Hayate agreed, "and that's the worst kind." Suddenly, the boy seemed impossibly old.

"You're worried about her."

Hayate nodded. "This is going to turn out badly. I can feel it."

Before Ryu could reply, Hayate made a motion to keep quiet and Kasumi's light step could be heard again moments before her reappearance, ice pack in hand. She hurried to Ryu's side, and gently held it to the back of his head before allowing him to take over. Though she was no longer crying, it was obvious she still felt horrible about what she had done.

"Well, I think that's enough sparring today," Hayate said, his voice deliberately light. "I guess Kasumi's our winner."

"I don't want to win like that!" Kasumi cried heatedly. "It's not fair!"

"Sometimes," Ryu said, "you can't win all your fights fairly. Sometimes winning is more important than how you win."

"No!" Kasumi said emphatically, completely surprising the other shinobi. "There's always a way to win fair and square."

Before Ryu could answer back, Hayate interrupted, saying, "Well, you won fair and square today. Na, Ryu?" giving him a pointed look.

"Right. I enjoyed today's fight, Kasumi," he said sincerely. "I look forward to fighting you again. But next time, I won't lose."

Despite herself, Kasumi found herself smiling. "I won't either, Hayabusa- san."

Hayate cleared his throat. "Kasumi, why don't you go take a look in the ice box?" As soon as the kunoichi left, Hayate fixed Ryu with a Stare.

It was totally unnerving. "Wha-what?"

Hayate said nothing, but form the kitchen came the faint squeal of "Strawberry millefeuilles!" Hayate shrugged it off. "Never mind, we better go get some before she eats 'em all."

So the gang of three sat down to dessert and green tea. And Ryu was fairly surprised to hear the gong from the temple sound the end of the meeting- surprised, because he had forgotten all about it.

*** On the way back to their own village, the elder Hayabusa called his son to him and asked his impression of the Mugen Tenshin.

"The heirs think. . .differently from what I expected."

"Differently?"

"They're too. . .emotional, I guess. They let it affect their judgment too much."

"Are they valuable allies?"

On this point, he was sure. "Yes, Father. They seem to know what they're doing, and," he said, rubbing his injuries, "they're formidable warriors."

"Found that out first hand, did you?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good." Ryu was surprised to hear how grim his father sounded. "For all our sakes, I hope they are what you say they are."