Author's notes: cultural notes: the age of consent in Japan is still 14, I think. Violetta is the protagonist of Verdi's opera La Traviatta. "-Dono" is a address that was used by samurai in ancient times to refer to their lords. I thnk the modern equivalent would be "-sama" in terms of politeness, but I figured that ninja could go ahead and use an archaic term. It just sounds stronger and more respectful, to me. "-Kun" is often attached to names of people in one's peer group, often boys.

Standard disclaimers apply.

"Come in," she said when she heard the knock on her door. The invitation had been given absently, but had she known who it was, she would have been less generous in her welcome.

The polite smile on Helena's face melted off the instant she saw her visitor. Ignoring the respectful bow given, she turned back to her armoire and continued to dress herself. Her guest waited patiently by the door where she had come in, until Helena in a fit of impatience glared at the reflection in the mirror and finally said, "What do you want?"

Christy's face remained unperturbed as she said in her crisp and professional tone, "Your father sends his apologies for his absence tonight. He has extremely pressing business that could not otherwise be avoided, and has asked me to inform you that he is truly, very sorry."

Frankly, Helena wasn't surprised. "You may tell that man that no apologies are necessary," she said to the stoic reflection in the mirror. "His presence was not expected nor would it have been welcomed." In the mirror, she eyed the bouquet in Christy's arms. "Those, I suppose, are from him?"

"Yes, Miss Helena. Where shall I leave them?"

"You may take them back with you. I thank you for your pains, Christy, but you'll have to excuse me. I have a performance to ready for." She didn't turn around again until she heard the door shut, signaling Christy's departure.

Even alone, Helena tried to maintain her stony countenance. But after a few minutes, her posture slowly sank into a slouch, and she buried her face in the crook of her arms in silence. When she regained her composure, she hurriedly straightened her appearance and gathering her skirts about her started to flounce to the door, but drew up to a sudden stop when she saw a bouquet—the same one that she had demanded Christy take back with her—on the side table near the door. Huffing exasperatedly, Helena picked them up. A dozen red roses. How perfectly typical of him. Refined, to be sure, but disinterested and "all-purpose."

She was starting to hate roses.

As she inspected the flowers, her hand grazed against the edge of a paper card tucked between the stems. Pulling it out, she saw the words on the cover written in fancy script: "To my daughter, Helena." Pursing her lips, she opened it up and read its contents, eyes scanning the words on the page quickly and critically. As she neared the end, she heard a familiar, gentle knock at the door. Quickly crumbling the paper up in the fist of one hand, she said, sweetly, "Come in."

"Helena, dear? It's—oh! What lovely flowers!"

"Oh! Yes, thank you, mamán. Actually, they're for you."

The older woman blinked in surprise. "For me?"

"Yes, of course. From…Father." Helena tried (and succeeded) at not choking on the word. The other woman, however, probably wouldn't have noticed anyway, she thought ruefully. At the mere mention of Fame Douglas' name, Helena's mother almost reverently took the roses into her arms and inhaled their scent, her eyes showing she was blissfully in another world.

Suddenly, Helena wished that Fame Douglas had come. Then she could kick that bastard where it counted.

-

The words were out before he even looked up. It was so well ingrained in his system now. If you hear the tinkle of the bell that hangs above the door, you say: "Irrashaimase."

Of course, the contemptuous snort he received in response made him pause in what he was doing—namely wiping the countertop—and look up. Hayate stood in the doorway, dressed in a long gray overcoat, black slacks, and sporting a pair of shades. Not your typical ninja attire.

"And I thought you were kidding," was his friend's greeting.

"About what? That I was working in Mifune-jii-san's shop?"

"Well, yeah," his friend returned, as though it should've been painfully obvious. "It's not exactly standard practice for shinobi to part-time on the side." Hayate pulled off his glasses and took a cursory glance around the tiny store. "Geez, what a dump."

"Hey," Ryu said, a touch defensively, "what's wrong with it?"

"I don't know. You tell me," Hayate said, picking up an antique from a nearby shelf that turned out to be more dust than clock. After several bouts of violent sneezing, Hayate managed to wheeze, "Does anyone actually buy this junk?"

Ryu plucked the clock from Hayate's grip. "Don't knock the merchandise. This," indicating the timepiece by waving it in front of Hayate's face, "used to be precious to someone."

"Little wonder that they could part with it," Hayate muttered under his breath. "What the hell are you doing in a place like this? Is this some kind of bizarre assignment?"

"N-no. It's not like that. I," Ryu took a deep breath, "I want the money."

Hayate's forehead nearly connected with the countertop when he heard that. Which, Ryu mused, would have really sucked. It was a glass counter. "Are you out of your mind?" Hayate yelled. "I know for a fact that the Dragon clan is not exactly on the breadline, and I also happen to know that you rake in most of it!"

Ryu sighed. "I don't keep any of that."

Now, this was news to Hayate. "What?"

"I give that money back to the clan elders."

"Whaaaat? Why?" Somewhere in the back of his mind, Hayate swore he could hear the flutter of bills flying away.

"It's just something I realized. You wouldn't understand."

"Oh yeah? Try me."

Ryu eyed his friend critically, as though sizing him up to see if he could really take him seriously. Finally, he said, "Hayate, you know what we do, right?"

"Yeah…"

"We fight. We steal. Sometimes we even kill. No, sometimes we murder. Wait," he said, raising his hand when he saw the protests spring to his friend's lips, "I know why we do it. It's important and it's our duty. I know that, too. Really, I do. But still…it's work where someone usually ends up getting hurt. It's dirty money, Hayate. And I don't want to any of that."

Hayate gave him a skeptical look but didn't pursue that vein. Instead, he just sighed and said, "So, that's why you're here, huh?" He gave a self-deprecating bark of laughter. "Never knew you felt that way before."

"It's just something I've thought a lot about recently," Ryu said. "You know, sometimes I wonder what I would've done if it weren't for the clan and stuff. What it would be like, what I would do for a living, all that."

"And you decided that you would sell curios," Hayate supplied, bemusedly examining another nearby clock.

The answer surprised him. "Yeah," Ryu said, honestly, "or something like it. This," he said, gesturing around the shop, "this is decent. It's humble, but it's straight. It's…enough, you know? Come on, you of all people should know what I'm talking about."

"I guess," Hayate said, shaking his head. "But it feels like you've been demoted or something."

"I like to think of it more as being reasonable."

"Yeah? Do you reasonably think you'll be able to live like this?" Hayate shot back.

Ryu shrugged. "Who knows? The boss does say I have a certain knack for business."

Hayate grinned good-naturedly. "Yeah, who knows? When the old man's ready to retire, he might leave you this hole."

Ryu couldn't help but grin back. "So, what brings you to my shop, valued customer? I take it you're not interested in a new clock."

In response, Hayate just tossed a rolled up newspaper onto the countertop. It landed with a heavy thud. Ryu practically dove at it. "Hey! I just cleaned that!"

"Just read it, Ryu."

A little hesitant to be dawdling away his work hours, but curious nonetheless, Ryu obediently opened the paper to the front headlines. What he read there made the collective ticking of all the store's clocks seem to slow to a dull roar. Riveted, his eyes couldn't even move past the headline. He licked his suddenly dry lips. "Fa—fame Douglas? Here?" He looked up to meet Hayate's smirk.

"Interested?"

"Hell, yeah!" Quickly, Ryu scanned the rest of the paper, looking for more details—anything, really—that related to this grand gala DOATEC had graciously dropped in what was practically their own backyard. Odaiba was not that far, if one tried hard enough to get there. And with such a delicious keynote speaker as the one illustrious Fame Douglas, well, this was surely an evening not to miss out on. "I don't believe it," Ryu breathed. "After so long of trying to track down anything on these bastards!"

"I know," Hayate chortled. "It's perfect. They're coming to us. And we can't very well afford to miss such a golden opportunity, now, can we?"

"No, we couldn't," Ryu agreed, never taking his eyes off the paper. But towards the end of the article, he came to something that made his brow furrow in consternation. "Attendance by invitation only, though. Strictly VIPs."

Hayate made a noise of contempt. "Like that's going to stop us."

Intrigued, Ryu appraised Hayate with a raised brow. "You've got a plan?"

"Don't I always?" Hayate grinned. "Come by the hold after you get off. Unless…you'd rather sell some more curios?"

This time, it was Ryu's turn to scoff. "If you even think about doing this without me, I'm going to hunt you down and kill you myself. And then cut up your remains. And then I'm going to scatter all the little pieces. Or worse, I'll make you buy a clock."

"Ugh. Anything but that." When threatened with another dusty timepiece, Hayate backed away. "All right, all right! Sheesh. Just don't be late. The party starts at eight, so no later than five, got it?"

"You just make sure this plan of yours works," Ryu retorted. But, true to the shinobi code of silence, the shop was already empty.

-

Ryu landed lightly on the roof of the house just as the sun was starting to set. Now that he thought about it, he'd been gone all day. His clan was probably starting to notice his absence right about now. He hadn't even bothered going home after work, the anticipation of events underfoot pumping his blood full of adrenaline that sped him straight through the thick woods and through the dark alleyways of the Mugen Tenshin hold. He made it to the roof of Hayate's home shortly thereafter, and was wondering if the coast was clear when he heard someone trying to catch his attention from below.

"Hayabusa-san!"

He knew that voice. Quickly looking over the edge, he saw Kasumi in the courtyard waving up at him. She clearly had been expecting him. In spite of him self, Ryu smiled under his mask, and returned the wave.

She waited until he landed on the ground next to her before saying, "Nii-san told me you were coming. He said to tell you he might be late coming back, and that there might be a problem."

A problem? That didn't bode too well. Ryu's worry must have shown on his face, because Kasumi suddenly looked concerned. "Excuse me…Hayabusa-san? Can you tell me what this is all about?"

It figured that Hayate wouldn't tell Kasumi anything. He wondered how much she knew even about Fame Douglas and DOATEC. "It's…a little complicated, Kasumi."

The reaction he got was not one he had been expecting. Kasumi's expression became very cross. "That means it's dangerous, doesn't it?" she said, flatly. "You think this…whatever it is you're hiding is too dangerous for me." Her eyes flashed angrily. "You think I can't handle it?"

Ryu fumbled for words. "What? No! I mean…"

"I'm not a child anymore," Kasumi exclaimed exasperatedly. "I might have expected this kind of behavior from Nii-san, Hayabusa-san, but not from you."

"Kasumi, that's not—it's not like that."

Her voice was defiant. "Then tell me what it is you and Nii-san are planning."

Ryu was at a loss. A rational voice in the back of his mind told him that having Kasumi as an ally could be helpful—useful, even. But…it was a small voice. Because on the other hand…on the other…. He took a deep breath. "Kasumi, I—"

"Ryu!" Neither had noticed Hayate's arrival until he called out. His expression, as he came to join them, was grim. "We need to talk," he told him, seriously. "Alone," he added, giving his sister a pointed look. Kasumi glared, but Hayate remained inflexible. With a huff, Kasumi spun on her heel and stalked off.

As soon as she was gone, Hayate ushered them indoors. "I don't have long," he said hurriedly as he led the way to his room. He was quick to come to the point: "I can't come with you."

"What?" Ryu protested. "You can't be serious!"

But Hayate's face showed that he was indeed dead serious. "As it is, I'm only supposed to be here to pick up equipment, and then I have to leave for a mission."

"So, get out of it!"

"That's not so easy, anymore, Ryu," Hayate muttered. When his friend gave him a puzzled look, Hayate wordlessly held up the sheathed sword he had been carrying. Ryu hadn't noticed anything special about it before; his mind had otherwise been preoccupied. But now that he got a closer look at it, he could see the intricate markings on the hilt.

"You've been promoted?"

"Kinda seems weird if a squad leaves without their captain, doesn't it?" Hayate muttered dismally.

"So," Ryu said slowly, "this is the problem you've been talking about."

Hayate shook his head. "No, it gets worse. Listen, Ryu, no matter what happens, you have got to be at DOATEC tonight. I was made captain this afternoon—it's why I was late. I've only got half an hour before I leave on my first mission. And what's more, my squad's not the only one going out tonight—almost ten squads have missions."

Ryu was visibly stunned. "Ten?"

Hayate nodded. "This can't be a coincidence. DOATEC here, and nearly the entire Mugen Tenshin clan on the move. Ryu, you have to get in there no matter what."

Ryu swallowed but nodded. "What do I have to do?"

Hayate began rummaging through his closet. As he did, he said, "DOATEC is interested in fighters of all kinds. Pretend you're a practitioner of karate studying under Master Kuroda at his dojo. You're familiar with his fighting style?" Ryu made a noise in the affirmative. Kuroda's name was familiar in a few martial arts circles, and his dojo had a very good reputation, but it was still small enough to not have attracted any gratuitous attention. "Good," Hayate continued. "Tell them Master Kuroda invited you go in his stead."

"And what if Master Kuroda himself shows up? Won't I have a hard time explaining how he doesn't recognize his own student?"

"Master Kuroda doesn't even know he's been invited," Hayate scoffed while tossing a white envelope towards him. Ryu caught it and opened it up.

"You stole his mail?" Ryu was aghast.

"Now is not the time to be arguing about that," Hayate said impatiently. "Here," he said, shoving some clothes at him, "these should fit you. Black-tie only, remember? You need that invitation to get in, so don't lose it. And also think of a fake name before you get there." Ryu nodded, already mentally going over one that would be easy to remember.

"And remember, Ryu," Hayate added, turning to face his friend. "This place will be full of God knows what. Remember to watch your back."

Before Ryu could make some kind of reply, the door to Hayate's room suddenly flew open and a voice rang out: "No. He won't have to because I shall watch it for him." Kasumi stood in the doorway, hand on hips, eyes bold with determination.

"Kasumi! What the hell are you doing here?"

The forthcoming answer was obvious. "I heard everything, Nii-san. I'm going, too."

"No, you're not," Hayate snapped. "You're going to pretend you heard nothing and you're going to stay here."

"Hayabusa-san is going to need the help," she retorted. "He won't be able to concentrate on spying if he has to keep looking over his shoulder. And, he'll stand out too much if he shows up to that place alone."

That was about the stupidest and most irrelevant thing Hayate ever heard. "No, he won't."

Kasumi rolled her eyes. Honestly, sometimes her brother just knew nothing about high society. "Yes, he will," she insisted. "What kind of VIP shows up to one of these things without an escort?"

"That sort of thing doesn't matter! You're staying here, and that's final!"

"I'm going, and you can't stop me."

Hayate let out a roar of frustration. "Why are you being so difficult about this?"

Kasumi coolly returned his glare. "Nii-san. If you don't get ready for your mission, you're going to be late."

From the look on his friend's face, Ryu decided he'd better intervene before Hayate inflicted bodily harm upon his sister. "Hayate," he ventured, "maybe she had better come." The expression Kasumi gave him glowed with gratitude, but Hayate looked as though he'd just been stabbed in the back. "The two of us could cover more ground," Ryu reasoned. "And infiltration always works better with a team." Hayate was quiet. Ryu could tell he was still inwardly fuming but was beginning to see he was fighting a losing battle. Ryu wished there was a way he could reassure him somehow. So, he added, "Don't worry. I'll make sure nothing happens to her. I swear it."

There was no immediate response. Kasumi and Ryu waited expectantly watching Hayate's unfeeling expression, his jaw silently moving in some sort of unvoiced reproach.

"…All right," Hayate said instead when he finally spoke, his voice uncharacteristically dull.

-

While Hayate left to gather equipment for his own mission, Ryu hurriedly changed out of his gi into the borrowed clothes. Opening the door, he stepped out into the hallway to find Hayate before he left. As he walked, he passed by a storage room more akin to a walk-in closet. A large wooden dresser decorated with intricate carvings stood off to the side. Smaller shelves with brass accents stood about it filled with lacquered boxes and mirrors. The room smelled of age and disuse of careful preservation. As he passed by, he heard a voice hail him from this room.

"Hayabusa-san."

Ryu stopped mid-stride to face Kasumi standing in front of the large wardrobe dressed in a red evening gown that came down to her ankles. She was currently fumbling with the ends of the halter bodice that tied off around the back of her neck. Kasumi gave him a pleading look. "Do you think you could…?"

Ryu swallowed audibly, but he took the few hesitant steps needed to make it to Kasumi's side. He regarded the tiny clasp before him and wondered why the hell he was so damn nervous—just hook that clasp onto the chain, Ryu, no problem. But he couldn't quite keep the shake out of his hands as he took them up.

Kasumi stiffened at the light touch on the back of her neck as Ryu's fingertips grazed her skin. Though expected, their rough and unfamiliar texture surprised her just the same. She resisted the urge to shiver as she felt his warm breath tickle the edge of her ear, and silently, if half-heartedly, she berated her self for getting into this position in the first place. She chewed on her lip. She should just break away. And yet, she wasn't able to move an inch. With the exception of the fluttering in her chest, she was absolutely cemented where she stood.

Ryu, on the other hand, was hell bent on concentrating on what should have been a simple and easy task. He missed several times before he managed to successfully attach the hook onto the chain. But after he was done, instead of simply letting go, his fingers started to slowly trace down the tail of the chain, feeling the smooth edge of each link one at a time. He watched like a man mesmerized as each round link left his fingers for the favor of Kasumi's back, creating a smooth line down the soft indent between her shoulders.

The loud, harsh sound of someone clearing his throat broke their reverie. Leaping forward away from those hands, Kasumi, face flushed, hurriedly thanked Hayabusa-san and skittered from the room while mumbling something about finishing getting ready. Ryu was left to face Hayate's hard stare alone. There was no doubt that he saw—that he knew.

"Ha—hayate…"

"Ryu," Hayate said, cutting into anything his friend might have said, "I've…been meaning to talk to you for a long time. About Kasumi." Inwardly, Ryu tried to quell that gaping feeling in the pit of his stomach. Oblivious to his friend's discomfort, Hayate continued:

"Listen, Ryu, if things weren't the way they were—if you weren't who you were, or if she wasn't who she was—things would be different. You're literally the best man I know, and there's no one I can think of who would deserve her more. Hell, I'd probably even encourage it.

"But," Hayate continued, taking a deep breath, "this is the Mugen Tenshin, and she's the clan head's daughter. Listen, I'm saying this because I know you. The clan doesn't look favorably on relations with outsiders in the first place. Marriage is even worse, even though there have been exceptions. But it's worse because it's not like you can just up and leave the Dragon clan. And she can't leave the Mugen Tenshin. It's our way. Do you understand, Ryu? This is not going towork. So, I'm asking you, as your friend, please…give this up. Walk away. Find someone else."

A million things ran through Ryu's mind as Hayate's words resounded inside his head like bullets. Calling himself all sorts of fools for even daring to feel that sense of vertigo he was now experiencing, he forced down all protests and replaced them with the words he had always knew to be true but hadn't wanted to face.

"I know," Ryu said at last. "I know. It's…it's nothing. It's nothing."

Hayate gave him an approving nod. "You better get going."

"…Right."

-

The cruise ship moored in the Odaiba dock glowed on the night sea. All the lights were lit, and its decks were strung with bright bulbs. From beside him, Ryu heard Kasumi give a gasp of appreciation at the impressive sight.

They made their way through the throng of people—men fidgeting with their ties and women with diamonds glittering around their necks. While most of them were elderly—investors, Ryu thought, or highly respected personages in martial arts—he was gratified to see that by no means were they the youngest guests in attendance. A few who couldn't be older than middle school students strutted about, eager to use this opportunity to make a name for themselves. Good. Their arrogance would help divert attention away from Kasumi and himself.

When it came to be their time to board, Ryu handed the porter the stolen invitation. "Ishida Kenji," he said, "introducing" himself, "studying under Master Kuroda. My master sends his regrets at being unable to attend, but asked me as one of his closest pupils to attend in his stead. This is Miss Ogawa Shizuko, my guest." The porter took a moment to verify the invitation, then gave a deep bow and waved them forward.

The instant they made it up the ramp onto the top deck, Kasumi let out the breath she had been holding in. "That went well," she said, relieved. Ryu had to agree. It was a bit unnerving how sneaky Hayate actually was, but for the time being, he figured it was to their advantage. "So now what?" Ryu glanced around at the assemblage, wondering the same thing. Where to start?

"Maybe it's better if we establish our presence a little bit," Kasumi suggested. "It might make it easier to blend in afterwards." Ryu could see no problem with that, and when he said as much, she then ventured, "A dance, first. Then when we go to get a drink, we'll be able to mingle without suspicion. What do you think, Hayabusa-san?"

Ryu nodded to show his approval. "Sounds like a plan." And to make it complete, he figured that they might as well give them a good show. Feeling bold, he offered his arm to her, which she graciously accepted with a smile. The pair made their way to the dance floor.

As they took their places, it occurred to Ryu that he had never danced before. Ever. Stalwartly he told himself that this was merely another challenge that he, as a shinobi, would have to overcome, and he tried to tell himself it was no big deal as he placed his hand around Kasumi's small waist. Fortunately, he found out fairly soon after the dance began that by copying the moves from the couples next to him he could fake it pretty well, but only by intense concentration. So, for a while they waltzed in silence, Ryu too busy focusing all his attention on keeping up with the steps to do anything else.

Kasumi's light voice eventually broke into his thoughts. "Ne, Hayabusa-san? This is your first time dancing, isn't it?"

Ryu came dangerously close to mashing Kasumi's toes on the next step. "What," he coughed, "makes you say that?"

Kasumi bit down on her lip to suppress the giggle that threatened to bubble forth. "Well," she said, "for one thing, in a dance, you're not really supposed to move like you're sparring."

Ryu reminded himself that there was no reason to be embarrassed during training. Mistakes were part of the lesson. "Was I being obvious?"

"Just a little."

Ryu almost sighed. "This stuff would probably be a lot easier if it were sparring."

"Just relax," Kasumi urged. "Your steps shouldn't be so heavy. It should be natural."

"I think part of the problem is that it doesn't really feel all that natural for me," Ryu admitted. "None of it does. It's…different from ninjutsu."

Kasumi appeared to consider his words for a moment. Then she shook her head. "Actually, I don't think it's all that different. Just follow the rhythm and you'll be fine." She paused for a moment, and then suddenly said: "How did you choose that name, Hayabusa-san?"

"Ishida Kenji?" Kasumi nodded. "I didn't really have a specific reason, I suppose. Ishida was just the first thing that came to mind. Kenji…I guess after my father."

"It's a strong name," Kasumi agreed. "I…hear Master Hayabusa is an amazing man. An amazing shinobi," she corrected.

"He is."

"You must be very proud of him," Kasumi said, her eyes getting a wistful look that puzzled him.

Ryu shrugged it off and nodded. "Ever since I was young, I remember wanting to be like him. He was the strongest shinobi I knew, and he had such strong principles. He never faltered in upholding what he truly believed in. It is my hope," he added, quietly, "that I'll be able to do the same."

"I know you can, Hayabusa-san."

Ryu gave her a lopsided half-grin. "All right, you made your point. I'm dancing just fine now, aren't I?" Kasumi just smiled innocently in response.

The obligatory dance done, the pair left the dance floor in favor of the refreshment table. Technically a minor (even though Hayabusa-san did swear he wouldn't tell anyone), Kasumi decided to forego the flutes of champagne and instead headed towards the strawberries. Ryu, on the other hand, not the least compelled, made a beeline for the spiked punch bowl. Sure, he was on a mission. But he needed a drink after this night. He had too much to think about.

Picking up a cup, he was reaching for the ladle when he felt a light touch at his elbow. He turned to face a stunning woman smiling—or perhaps smirking was a better word for it—up at him. Her air was confident, as was her pose, standing with one hand resting on her hip. "Would you be so kind as to fill one for me, too?" she asked, gesturing to the cups. Ryu hasted to comply.

"Thank you," she said, as she took the cup from him. She took a deep drink, closing her eyes as she did so. Her long lashes rested on her light skin in perfect continuity with the musky gradient of eye shadow on her lids. She sighed in contentment as she lowered her glass, and then she opened her eyes and looked back into Ryu's.

He was somewhat taken aback by the chill that shot right through him from that gaze. The icy clarity of those gray eyes held his reflection captive in what was an almost suffocating, even stare completely at odds with the warm smile that graced her lips.

"Ah, now that was refreshing," the lady murmured to him over the rim of the cup. "I must be getting old. It's so hard keeping up with these young men!"

Ryu eyed the woman skeptically. She couldn't be a year older than he was, and he said as much.

"Oh, you flatter me!" the woman said with a laugh. "But you can't fool me. I already saw your…prowess on the dance floor. But still," she said, eyeing him up and down, "gentlemen these days are such a rarity, so I thank you for trying to humor me."

"Actually," Ryu admitted, a tad sheepishly, "that was the first time I danced in my life."

The woman made a sound of surprise. "Impossible! You handled it like a pro!"

Ryu chuckled. "Now you're flattering me."

"I beg your pardon," the woman said quickly, "but it just comes as such a shock. I was so sure…but, ah yes, I see. Martial artists just must be naturally skilled when it comes to being graceful. You see," she confided with a saucy grin when she saw Ryu's look, "I can tell. The way you're so sure on your feet, you had to be."

Ryu pondered that. Surely this woman must know that most of the guests were related to the martial arts some way or another, so it wouldn't be a completely random deduction. "I suppose there is that way of looking at it…" he allowed.

"So, tell me, mister….?"

"Ishida Kenji."

"Mr. Ishida, then. Or would you mind terribly if I called you Kenji?"

"Not at all." It wasn't really his name anyway.

"Kenji." The woman made that same smile. "I do like the sound of that. What sort of form do you practice, Kenji?"

"Karate. Under Master Kuroda."

"Indeed?" The woman looked sufficiently impressed. "I've heard a little bit about his school. Tell me, Kenji, is he as strict as they say?"

"No more than one expects out of an excellent master," Ryu said. He figured that was a safe enough answer.

"Well, I'm sure you do your master and his school credit. I'll bet you're his best student."

"I try," Ryu rejoined. And then, to make sure that he wasn't the only one being interrogated asked: "Are you also a student of karate?"

The woman gave a short laugh. "Oh, no. I don't have nearly enough talent. I seem to lack the upper body strength," she said apologetically. "I'm more of an aficionado, if you will. When I heard about this gathering, I just simply had to come."

Ryu started. "But…I was under the impression that only invited guests were allowed to come."

"Of course," she answered flippantly. "I have many friends in these circles. Some of them are quite high-ranking, and they were able to get me into this event. If you'd like, I'd be happy to introduce you to them. I'll bet they'd love to meet you, too."

Ryu couldn't believe his luck. This was precisely the kind of opening he and Kasumi had been hoping for. And he eagerly began to respond when the band started to play again.

"Well!" the woman said. "This sounds like it's more my speed. So, what do you say, Kenji? How about one more turn before we go?"

"Well, I—"

His companion arched a brow in a way that clearly said this wasn't a favor. "Now, now, Kenji. A gentleman is suppose to acquiesce to his lady's request if he ever hopes to…curry her favor."

"Naturally, but I—should really tell my guest where I'll be…"

The woman sniffed, "Pish-posh. I won't keep you long." Her lips curled up in a sly grin. "You don't want me to stomp off in a huff, do you?"

Quickly, Ryu glanced around for Kasumi, but she was nowhere to be seen. Ryu sighed under his breath before offering his arm to his new dancing partner. "May I have this dance, Miss…?"

The lady waved the formality away with her hand. "Please," she said, "call me Christy."

-

Kasumi hadn't been alone long when she felt a presence behind her. She paused in the middle of reaching for another strawberry and turned around to see just whose eyes she felt burning into her back.

The man she faced gave her a polite bow and a look that she was familiar with by now but that still confused her. She furrowed her brow. Did she know this man?

The man approached her and, picking up a plate, also started to help himself to refreshments. During this time, Kasumi found it curious that she couldn't take her eyes off of him. There was something about him that monopolized her gaze, and the vague thought that she should really stop staring lest he find her doing so floated at the fringes of her mind. And, as though he caught wind of what was going through her head, he suddenly turned towards her and looked into her eyes. And then he smiled and asked, "All alone?"

Kasumi started out of her reverie at his voice. "I…I…" The man's courteous smile didn't waver, but his eyes remained cool and unimpressed. Kasumi scrambled to put her thoughts together. "Ah, no!" She winced as she felt her voice break awkwardly, and she quickly fought to bring it back under control. "No," she said, calmer this time. "I'm here as a guest of an attendee." And thinking that it was probably a good time to introduce herself, she added, "I'm Ogawa Shizuko."

This seemed to go over better with the man. He gave her a pleased smile. "Pleased to meet you, Miss Ogawa."

"No, no," Kasumi returned hastily, "the pleasure's all mine, mister…?"

"Just call me Vic," the man said amicably.

"Vic…" Kasumi said, slowly, trying it out. It felt weird.

"It's short for 'Victor'," he supplied, helpfully.

"That's a very strong sounding name," Kasumi said quickly, by way of apology.

"Yes," Victor agreed. And he went on to explain: "My father chose it. When I was little, he often said that he wished for me to become strong enough to conquer all my enemies."

Kasumi made a sound of understanding. "I see. So, American names have meanings, too."

"But Japanese names have meaning, too, don't they? So, what does 'Shizuko' mean?"

Kasumi quickly thought of a common understanding of the word. "It means, 'calm child'."

"Calm…child…"

"Yes, well, you see…Japanese girls often are given names that are soft and feminine. Not very strong sounding."

"No," Victor agreed. "Not strong at all. Which is kind of…disappointing. But," he said, "I can tell that your name is something of a misnomer. You're actually pretty strong, aren't you?"

Kasumi blinked. "What makes you say that?"

"Oh, well…just being here probably means you study martial arts, too, right?"

"A little," Kasumi said vaguely.

"You see?" Victor said, triumphantly. "And I bet you're pretty good at it, too, right?"

"Well, I wouldn't say 'good'…."

"Come now. Don't be modest. I've seen plenty of fighters in my line of work, and I can tell just by the look of people how strong they are. I can tell that you're one of the strongest fighters I've come across in a long time."

Kasumi's curiosity was piqued. "Oh? And what do you do for a living, Victor-san?"

"I'm Vice-Chairman for DOATEC, Inc," was the astonishing answer. Kasumi's breath hitched in her throat. Just the kind of person they were looking for! All she could do was gape, but, oblivious, her companion continued to speak: "I'm currently heading the coordination of DOATEC's latest project: a tournament fighting series. But," he added, his voice dropping to a low, conspiring whisper, "it's all very hush-hush for the moment. I suspect you'll hear the announcement later tonight."

"Then—then this party—"

"Another one of my pet projects," Victor said. "So, tell me. Is it to your liking?"

"Oh! Yes! Very much," she quickly assured him. "Thank you very much," she added, with a bow.

Victor chuckled and waved away her profuse expressions of gratitude. "It's my job, after all. And besides," he added, "these types of events allow me to meet beautiful girls like you. That's enough of a reward for me."

"But still! I had no idea I was talking to such an important person."

"Shizuko," Victor said, cutting her off, "I thought we were passed that. Why, we're practically friends now, aren't we?"

"I…I…"

"Tell you what. How would you like to meet some of the people from DOATEC?"

Score! "Oh, but I couldn't ask you to do something so troublesome…"

"It's no trouble at all," Victor assured her. "Besides…" he said with a drawl, "it's not like I'm not asking for anything in return."

At the leer that accompanied that rather ominous condition, Kasumi involuntarily shivered, but nevertheless asked, "And what's that?"

Victor offered his arm out to her. "You owe me the next dance."

Relieved, Kasumi let out her breath in a laugh. "You drive a hard bargain, sir."

Victor cocked a grin. "Don't I though. Shall we, then, mademoiselle?" Charmed, Kasumi accepted his arm and they gravitated towards the center of the dance floor.

No sooner had they gotten to their starting positions than when the band suddenly stopped playing, and the general lights dimmed. A spotlight shot out of the darkness and pointed to a spot on the stage in front of where the resting band still sat, and a man dressed in a suit accompanied by a mousy woman came forward and took the microphone from the waiting stand.

"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," he said in English and paused. At that time, the woman repeated his sentiments in Japanese. "On behalf of DOATEC, Inc. and the General Consulate of Japan, I would like to thank you all for attending."

As the man went through formalities, people began to fill-up the dance-floor space to hear the announcements better. As the space became tighter, Kasumi found her self pushed up against Victor, who in turn didn't seem to mind in the least. In fact, as the crowd grew larger, he put his arms around her waist and drew her tight up against him. He shrugged at her surprised expression and gestured with his head towards the crowd as explanation. Telling herself that it was just so they wouldn't get separated, she forced herself to calm down and turned her attention towards the stage.

"…and so," the Master of Ceremonies was saying, "it is my great privilege to introduce tonight's keynote speaker—DOATEC's chairman, Fame Douglas." Amidst polite applause from the audience, an elderly gentleman came up from the side and took the microphone offered out to him.

Kasumi hadn't known what to expect from Fame Douglas. She didn't even know of his existence, let alone importance, until this afternoon. Her first impression, though, was that he certainly didn't seem the type to stir up trouble. His poise was stately and professional, and his speech, although she didn't understand it until it was translated, carried a calm and down-to-earth quality to it. He could've been a priest, or a grandfather.

"…yes, it certainly has been a great year for DOATEC," he was saying. "But we here at DOATEC also strive to the future.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Fame Douglas said, "we live in uncertain times. With technology come great advances, but also great risk and responsibility. For every life that could potentially be saved, there's also the chance that another life will be taken through means of warfare or maliciousness. In our modern age, we are at risk of forgetting what it means to have all these advances. We take them for granted. We forget the sacrifices that go into them and remember only their convenience. And we forget the responsibility that comes with them and think of only how to press it to our advantage."

Here Fame Douglas paused. The audience, solemnly quiet, waited patiently for him to continue. At length, he said, "This is why I've called you all here tonight. You, martial artists, fighters, warriors—all. You have not forgotten what it means to have power with discipline. You have not forgotten the rhetoric of hard work. And most of all, you have not abandoned the principles of fighting with a code of honor." Here, there were murmurs of agreement and pride. "You are our hope," Douglas continued. "In these times of uncertainty, you must act as our pillars of strength, and our examples of virtue. People the world over must be allowed to see you and admire you. And that is why," he said, as a screen behind him lit up and a presentation began, "DOATEC is proud to sponsor the Dead or Alive tournament series."

Kasumi's eyes widened as she saw the words flash across the screen overhead. Suddenly her mouth felt very dry. "Dead or Alive…?" she whispered.

"The tournament series I told you about before, remember?"

"Don't be alarmed at its name," Douglas said with a chuckle. "It's merely to reflect the nature of the tournament, and not the practice. We hope to bring together hardcore fighting in a friendly, competitive environment. Fighters from all over the world will be allowed to compete against each other and showcase their great talents. In this way, we hope to foster friendships and mutual respect between individuals and also countries."

Douglas continued to talk, but Kasumi's concentration was interrupted by a nudge. "Hey, Shizuko," Victor whispered against her ear, "let's get some air. I can barely breathe."

"But…" Kasumi sent a reluctant look towards the stage.

"It's all right," Victor assured her. "I'll introduce you to the old man later. You can ask your questions up close and personal."

Mollified, Kasumi nodded. "All right," she whispered. With a tight grip on her hand, Victor led them through the thick throng of people outside into the open night sky on deck.

-

Maybe the break was a good idea, after all, Kasumi mused while watching the night sea. She hadn't realized how hot it had been below decks until she felt that first gush of ocean breeze on her arms. And it was refreshing getting away from the crowds. The only noise out here was the peaceful sound of waves lapping against the sides of the ship that lulled Kasumi into a sleepy repose.

She started only slightly at the cold touch on her cheek. Victor, holding a flute of champagne, grinned and held up his own glass in a mock toast. Kasumi took the proffered drink and looked at it doubtfully.

"I…I don't really drink," she confessed.

"Perhaps not on land," Victor said, "but out here is a different story." He gestured towards the vast empty blackness before them. "Sea. Stars. You can't deny a setting as perfect as this a toast. And," he said with a roguish wink, "you can't deny it when the company is this perfect, either."

Kasumi laughed, that tension that had begun to rise falling down again, and regarded the glass she held in her hands. Champagne, she thought, was really quite beautiful. The golden color practically glowed. And, the bubbles were cute, too. She had to admit, she was curious about the taste, as well. Mind made up, Kasumi grinned back. "I guess one drink won't hurt," she said.

"That's the spirit," said Victor, raising his cup. Kasumi did the same. "Here's to a beautiful night." They clinked glasses.

The bubbles tickled on her nose as she took her first sip. Finding it bitterer than she had expected, she nonetheless dutifully polished off the entire flute. She started to feel the effects as soon as she lowered her glass.

"Oh, my…" she said, holding her head. She felt Victor catch her as she unintentionally stumbled forward with the rocking of the ship. "I…must've drunk that too fast." Victor didn't answer, but Kasumi didn't notice as the ship started to suddenly whirl out of control. The glass slipped from her lax fingers, and her eyelids drooped closed as she fell into a deep sleep.

As soon as she stopped moving, Victor slid an arm behind her knees and lifted her into his arms. He carried the comatose body over to a nearby bench and laid her down. Then, he hurriedly rifled through his jacket pockets and pulled out the necessary materials. With practiced ease, he constructed the syringe and, quickly locating a suitable vein, began to fill it. No sooner had he finished than he heard the decisive footstep behind him. Without bothering to turn around, he said, "Has it started?" There was no response, but that told him all he needed to. Pulling out the needle and stopping off the sample, he tossed it to Christy and said, "Take care of this."

Catching it in one hand, Christy nodded and quickly slipped it into her bodice. "We must leave with the crowd, sir."

Victor nodded, but made no move to stand. Instead, he raised a hand to the side of the sleeping girl's face and languidly traced the edge of her cheek. "She's beautiful, isn't she?" Christy did not answer, but he wasn't really expecting one anyway. "And so young. Who knew that shinobi came in a package like this?"

Finally, Victor Donovan slowly rose and laughed derisively. "I guess we can't complain. Not when ninja do us a favor and come to us."

Spinning on his heel, Victor snapped his fingers. "Come on, Christy. We've still got some more work to do before the night is out."

-

It had happened too fast. Ryu was still coming to grips with what he just saw. One minute Fame Douglas was talking long-windedly about his ideals for a new future, and then his face suddenly contorted with perverse surprise before the front of his tux exploded in a burst of gruesome red.

Pandemonium was instantaneous. The air was pierced with several shrill screams, and the crowd that just seconds ago had been bunched up against the stage suddenly stampeded for the door in panic. Christy had disappeared.

Ryu spun around wildly, but the sea of faces threatened to overwhelm him. "Kasumi!" Desperately, he fought his way out an exit onto the deck, and immediately tried to pick Kasumi's face in the streaming masses. "Kasumi!" he tried again, aliases be damned.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of red. Instinctively, he ran towards it and found her sprawled out on a bench unconscious.

"Kasumi, wake up!" he shouted, giving her shoulders a shake. She didn't stir, but Ryu smelled the alcohol on her breath when she exhaled. "Is she drunk?" Deciding now was not the time to be worrying about that, he quickly gathered her up in his arms, and dashed after the evacuating crowd.

-

Kasumi came to when they were halfway back, and, while still hazy and out of it, was able to run somewhat unsteadily on her own as long as Ryu pulled her in the right direction. Her disorientation was great, and Ryu wasn't able to gather much out of what happened. Nor was he very successful in making her understand what happened on his end of things. Except for one important thing.

"Fame Douglas is dead?" she gasped.

"Murdered," Ryu corrected grimly, without slowing down. "Right in front of everyone."

"What—how—?"

"It was so sudden. None of the details are clear. At any rate, we had to get out of there before our identities were compromised."

All Kasumi could manage to show her agreement was a nod of the head, but he couldn't see it. So she squeezed his hand instead. There was a momentary pause. Then she felt the pressure returned.

-

The trip back to the Mugen Tenshin hold took them considerably longer than their journey from it since with all the commotion it was safer to avoid public transportation and main roads. They arrived when the full moon rose to its highest point in the sky. Its beams lighted their path with their ghostly pale light as they cut across the empty village grounds.

Ryu, still in the lead picking their way through the darkness, didn't slow down even when they made it into the courtyard of Kasumi's home. In the shadows of the deck, he saw the dull glint of moonlight off of Hayate's scabbard. "Hayate!" he shouted and made a beeline for him. "There's been trouble! It's—" Ryu's voice trailed off, and he stopped his mad dash abruptly, causing Kasumi to crash into his back. He didn't even notice. His attention was fixed on the other men that were standing next to Hayate, expressions grim.

"Ryu…" Hayate offered weakly, trying to muster an apologetic semblance of a smile and failing miserably. He looked exhausted.

"Hayabusa-san, what's going on?" Kasumi asked, rubbing her nose a bit before peeking around her protector to see what made him stop so abruptly. Her eyes widened in shock and dismay as she finally saw what he did. "Fa—father!"

The Mugen Tenshin leader's anger was palpable, and he descended upon his daughter with frightening ferocity. Kasumi cried out in surprise and pain as her arm was seized in a bruising grip, tripping over her tall shoes and falling against her father as she was pulled off balance.

"Did I not tell you that you were not to leave this village?" he thundered to her frightened face, giving her a brusque shake. Ignoring the pleas and excuses that bubbled frantically from her lips, he didn't wait for her to regain her balance and instead started to drag her towards the house.

Hayate immediately tried to intervene. "Father, stop! Wait! It's my fault! Stop!" The older man didn't pause, merely shaking off his son's grip, and continued into the house, Hayate fast on his heels. Soon Ryu was alone in the courtyard with the other man that had been there—the man that he hadn't been able to take his eyes off of since he saw him—his own father.

Nothing was said for many moments. Ryu's mind utterly failed him. He was unable to get past the somber eyes that glared at him, the grim mouth that frowned at him.

Finally, Ryu swallowed hard and broke the silence. "Father, I—"

He abruptly stopped when he saw his father stride forward purposefully, his eyes hard and determined, until he was directly in front of him. Then, Ken Hayabusa raised his fist and brought it down across Ryu's face.

Ryu staggered back a few steps from the force of the blow. His cheek throbbed with the type of pain that Ryu knew was bound to leave a bruise, but he couldn't even find the presence of mind to care. All he could do was stare back into those eyes burning with a swirl of chaotic emotions.

Ken Hayabusa still trembled with a force that went beyond that blow. Slowly, he lowered his fist to his side, and asked in a low voice, "Do you have any idea what went on tonight?" After a slight hesitation, his son shook his head. "Our clans have been compromised."

Ryu's face paled visibly. "What? That's not possible!"

"Half the forces from each clan were mobilized tonight," Ken Hayabusa continued in that same, muted voice, as though he hadn't heard the outburst. "You must have known. The disappearances…and Fame Douglas…yes, we suspected him, too. If he were the one behind it all, he was the largest threat of all."

Ryu swallowed and waited, hanging on each second the pause strung out, for his father to explain.

Suddenly, the dangerous, glittering spark returned to his father's eyes. "It was an ambush, Ryu. They were expecting us because they knew who we were."

Ryu suddenly found it hard to breathe. Dizzy from an abrupt wave of lightheadedness, he clutched his head and sat down on whatever rock was nearby. "That's not possible!" Ryu shouted, half to himself. He clenched his eyes shut. "Not possible…"

"Ryu," his father said sternly, "get up and pay attention." Ryu staggered to his feet. "A great deal of our shinobi were either killed or captured. We have no idea who we're fighting. But we do know one thing. Fame Douglas was—"

"Murdered," Ryu finished, his voice flat.

Ken Hayabusa's eyes narrowed. "How did you know that?"

"I was there when it happened."

"What?" His father's breath caught. "….Did you do it?"

Ryu snapped out of his stupor. "What?"

"I asked you a question. Answer it."

Ryu, blood boiling, raised his face to meet his father's. "I did not." He saw his father's eyes narrow in suspicion. "Do you doubt me?" Ryu found himself asking, his own voice starting to mirror his father's low, dangerous tone.

"Did you not hear what I said?" Ken Hayabusa countered. "I said we were betrayed!"

"It wasn't me! I would never sell out my own clan!"

"Not even for a Mugen Tenshin princess?" Ryu's eyes grew wide. "I'm not blind, Ryu," his father said. "I could see what was going on with my own son. And I indulged your habits because it was natural for a boy your age."

Ryu took a deep breath. "Father," he said quietly, "it was not me. Kasumi has nothing to do with this. I didn't do it."

His father was silent for a moment. Then, he sighed and the severity seemed to deflate out him. "I know, Ryu," he said. "But what has happened is beyond us. It's beyond anything our clan has ever encountered before. Fame Douglas was murdered with a ninja's weapon, and now the Japanese government is going to be asking for shinobi blood if they want to prevent an international incident."

Ryu swallowed. "So…what are we going to do?"

"We entered into this alliance with the Mugen Tenshin for a reason, my son. It has been decided that the Mugen Tenshin clan head will turn him self over to the Japanese government."

"Hayate's father? But—!"

"His execution will probably be assured." The older man sighed heavily. "It is…regrettable."

"Regrettable? Father, this is lunacy!"

"It was the terms of our agreement when we made this pact. In exchange for the Dragon clan's information network within the Japanese government, most of the grunt work would be left to the Mugen Tenshin. Ryu, our clan has protected this land and generations of emperors for centuries. It is better this way."

"Ridiculous!" Ryu's angry voice exploded across the empty courtyard. "You would give up a man's life to save face?"

"What would you have me do then? Hmm? What would you have me do, Ryu? We are fighting against an enemy that hides themselves well and overpowered us. With our clans like they are, there's no way for us to launch any kind of counter-offensive. And the politicians will be coming after us come daybreak. Do you suggest I take out the entire Japanese Parliament?"

"No! That's not…" Ryu's voice faltered. "That's not what I meant," he finished, weakly.

Ken Hayabusa watched the turmoil shift over his son's face and sighed. Placing a hand gently on his shoulder, he said, "Ryu, these are no longer the simple times where we could fight according to our code of honor. The world has become a complicated, dangerous place. And it is your duty now, as my son, to be prepared to face all those dangers when the time comes. Remember, Ryu, the path of the shinobi is a hard one."

Ryu bowed his head in resignation. "I understand," he said finally. "I…I just wish there were some other way."

"I do, too." The older man took in a deep breath and exhaled heavily. "It's been a long day. Why don't you head back and get some rest?"

Feeling numb inside and out, Ryu turned and walked out of the courtyard in the direction of home. He moved on auto-pilot, oblivious to his surroundings. It wasn't until he passed by the Hajin Mon dojo that the hitched sounds of quiet sobbing penetrated his mind.

The aura of the dojo was desolate and dark. A solitary light emitted from a room at one end of the quiet building, its glow dulled by the paper screens. Ryu hesitated a moment before moving slowly towards it. The flickering light made the shadow of the girl projected onto the screen door oscillate between sizes, but even with the movement, there was no mistaking the shuddering of her shoulders as she sat hunched over, a hand over her mouth to assumedly stop the violent sobs from escaping. There was also no mistaking who that was crying on the other side of the door.

"Ayane," Ryu called softly.

The shadow abruptly stopped shaking and sat up. "Who's there?" came the commanding though still shaky voice.

"It's me. May I come in?" Ryu asked.

There was a slight hesitation, but then the shadow stood and grew larger until the door slid open. Ayane stared back almost defiantly though her eyes still brimmed with unshed tears. Hurriedly, she scrubbed at them with her sleeve as she pivoted on her heel and disappeared back into the house, leaving the door open.

Ryu stepped inside, and glanced around uncertainly. Ayane soon reappeared with a cup of hot tea on a tray, and she motioned for him to sit down as she did the same. He obeyed, and she slid the steaming cup towards him.

Neither said anything at first, for it seemed that neither wanted to be the one to start. Ryu lifted the cup to his lips and took an obligatory sip. Ayane silently watched him drink.

Finally, Ryu sighed and set the cup down. "Ayane," he said gently, "do you think you can tell me what happened?"

Ayane's eyes flashed. "I'm sure you already know. As a squadron leader, you must be well informed."

Ryu didn't miss the insinuation. "Ayane," he said tiredly, "I know you're already familiar with the situation."

"Why did you abandon your post?" she demanded.

"I didn't abandon it." I didn't even know I had it, he wanted to add. But it sounded childish and defensive even to him self, and the words died on his lips. "Look," he finally said. "I won't try to justify my actions to you because…you're right." She shot him a look of surprise. "You're right," he repeated, half to himself. "It was my responsibility, and I failed." He closed his eyes and bowed his head towards her. "I'm sorry."

Ayane stared at him, and started in surprise at the hot tears that formed unbidden and slid down her cheeks. Belatedly, she tried to blink them away, but the torrent could not be stopped once started, and she began to cry freely in front of him.

"They were monsters," she heard her choked voice say. "They didn't fight like human beings. We were ambushed and completely overwhelmed. We didn't stand a chance. It was over so quickly…and Father…."

"Genra-san was taken?" Ryu said, putting the pieces of the puzzle together.

Ayane could only nod at the memory. With great effort, she choked down on the stream of sobs and managed in a somewhat intelligible voice, "The rest of the Hajin Mon were ordered back to protect the clan head." Ayane slammed her hands down on the tatami mat. "I should have stayed!"

"It wasn't your fault, Ayane," he said gently. "You were following orders, the way you should've been."

" 'Following orders'?" She gave a hysterical laugh. "And who are you to tell me that I'm supposed to follow orders?"

"A squadron leader and the successor to the Imperial Dragon Clan." The words left his mouth before he knew it, and Ayane stopped laughing. "You're right, Ayane," Ryu said again, but not as gently as he had the first time, and as he continued, his voice grew in speed and strength. "I lost sight of my responsibility. I failed you, I failed my father, and I failed both of our clans." Ryu closed his eyes. "What the hell is wrong with me?" he murmured, though it was meant for him self.

For a moment, Ayane was struck dumb at the sudden change that had come over him. Then, coming to her senses a bit, she hastily offered, "Forgive my impertinence, Ryu-dono."

Slowly, he shook his head. "It's all right." Suddenly, he furrowed his brows. "Ayane, why do you suppose Genra-san and the others were taken prisoner?"

Ayane blinked at the question. "I…I'm not sure. Prisoners of war, I guess."

"Something's not adding up." At the puzzled look on her face, he explained, "If they're as strong as you said, they could've easily wiped out half of our force, and then stormed the hold and taken over without any problems. But they didn't follow any of you, correct?" She nodded, still unclear as to what Ryu was hinting at. "And Fame Douglas was murdered tonight," Ryu murmured to himself. Ayane gasped, but Ryu didn't even hear her and continued to ruminate. "He wasn't murdered by one of ours, that much is clear. But he was killed by a ninja, or so it would seem." His eyes snapped up. "Tonight's objective was to take Fame Douglas down, right?"

"Yes," Ayane replied. "But we were explicitly told to bring him back alive."

Questions whirled in Ryu's head. A rival ninja clan? That seemed plausible. After all, they couldn't possibly be the only ones who heard the rumor and viewed DOATEC as a threat. But then, why go so far as to fight against them when they weren't working at cross-purposes? And even more so, the capture of Genra-san and the others would make even less sense. Initially, Ryu would've thought that perhaps the ambush had been to protect DOATEC, but that didn't explain Douglas' death. Unless…

Ryu started and sat up suddenly, unknowingly upsetting the teacup. Ayane hurriedly scrambled forward to clean up the mess. Dabbing at the wet mat with the edge of her skirt, she glanced up at Ryu, who turned pale and started sweating profusely. His breathing became labored, and his eyes looked far away. "Ryu-dono?"

Unless…capture was the objective…

Slowly, Ryu's eyes came back into focus. He slowly turned towards his companion and Ayane was surprised to see the utter suspicion that lurked there. "Ryu…dono…?"

"Ayane…"

"…yes?"

"Can I trust you?" She continued to look confused. "Answer me this question truthfully: do you swear the pledge of loyalty as the new head of Hajin Mon ninjutsu to the Tenjin Mon faction?" He ignored the flash of pain that went through her eyes at the question and waited expectantly for her answer.

Finally, she said in a low voice, "Yes."

"Are you sure?"

Ayane bristled. "It is what my father would have wanted. I will honor the tradition."

"Even if…" he asked, "even if the new head is Kasumi. Would you swear loyalty to Kasumi?"

Ayane reddened. "What are you trying to say?"

"Just answer my question." And then, as an afterthought, he added: "Please."

Her jaw clenched, but she finally said, "I would." It was obvious the answer cost her a lot to say.

"And one last question," Ryu said softly. "Do you trust me?"

Her answer was immediate. "Yes."

"Even though I'm not of this clan?"

"Hayate-sama trusts you." It was all the answer he needed.

Ryu stood up, causing Ayane to do the same. "Ayane, I'm going to ask you to keep what I told you tonight in confidence."

Ayane nodded and asked, "Ryu-dono, what's going on?"

Ryu shook his head. "I have a hunch, but I think I should talk this over with Hayate. Would you tell him I'll come by and see him tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"All right. I'll be going now. Thanks for the tea." And with that, he headed towards the door. But before he stepped out, he said over his shoulder to the person he knew was still there, "Ayane…you…this isn't Kasumi's fault…you know that, right?" There was no response. "I know I can't force you," he said, "but it would be nice if you and she could get along. You're sisters, after all. You should be there for each other."

"She doesn't know anything about me," came the bitter reply.

"Somehow I think that there's no one who'll understand you better," Ryu said quietly, and took his leave.

-

Victor Donovan was feeling pretty good. And with good reason, too. All his endeavors as of late had been going like clockwork.

He was only half paying attention to Christy's report while absently tapping his pen against the stack of papers in front of him. His thoughts were otherwise happily occupied with auspicious prospects.

"And now if you turn your report to page fifteen," she was saying. Donovan went through the motion to keep her happy, "you'll see the results from the lab on the Chimera Corps project. As you can see, there have been problems."

"Problems?"

"Yes, sir," Christy said patiently. "The gene alterations appear to be too unstable to support for long periods. Currently, about 80 of the chimeras created have shown signs of breaking down and becoming unusable."

This was the first bad news Donovan heard in days. "80?"

"Yes, sir."

He sighed tragically and leaned back heavily, causing his high-backed leather chair to squeak in protest. His dream of creating a super strong army was crashing into flames. "All that research money…wasted!"

Christy made no reply.

Donovan tiredly rubbed his temples. "Does that mean most of our test subjects are used up?"

She nodded. "We still have a few more left over from that skirmish the other day."

"Ah," he said. That day in question had certainly been memorable, and a fond smile bloomed on his face as he recollected. "Do we still have our big fish?"

"Yes, sir," she confirmed, checking her papers. "Subject 332 has been reserved for Project Omega."

"Excellent." Well, at least he had that. He'd have to console himself the best he could. "Keep me informed on its progress."

"Yes, sir." Christy paused and scratched a note on her copy of the report. Then she asked, "Sir, have you looked over the submitted proposal?"

"Proposal?" Donovan quickly sifted through the pile until he located the particular sheet of paper he was looking for. "Ah, yes. Project Epsilon, was it? You may tell Dr. Schreiner that I give him my approval." And to make good on his word, he stamped a bright red seal on it and slid it across the table. Accepting the form, Christy tucked it into her folder.

"Dr. Schreiner wants to know who he should use as a test subject."

Donovan smirked. "Tell the good doctor to be patient. I've had my eye on a suitable test subject for some time now, and I think he'll do just fine."

"Understood," she said, making another note.

"Now, then. Was there anything else, Christy?"

His aide quickly glanced through her report. "Ah, one more thing, sir."

"Yes?"

"The labs have informed me an hour ago that Project Eo has been completed."

Donovan's eyes lit up with what one could only call glee. "Very good. Let's go take a look, shall we?"

"Very well, sir." Taking out her cell phone, she called up the lab and ordered them to have Donovan's latest success ready for inspection. After holding the door open, she followed him out of the office before shutting it behind them. Their reflections in brass plate on the door reading: "Victor Donovan, Chief Executive Officer," shrank as they went down the hall.

Donovan fairly skipped all the way to Lab 65. Of all the projects he was looking forward to, this one was the one he was most excited about. Technicians dressed in sterile white body suits stood at attention as he entered. The head scientist on duty came forward, hand extended. Donovan was in a good enough mood, so he deigned a handshake before briskly getting down to business. "So, Professor, what have you got for me?"

"Oh, I think you'll be pleased," said Professor…what was his name again? Donovan couldn't remember. Ah, well. It wasn't really important. "It was a perfect result," the nameless professor was saying. "She's a thing of beauty."

"Yes, I know," Donovan returned. Both men shared a belly laugh. "Well?" Donovan said expectantly. "Show me the goods."

"This way, sir."

The scientist led Donovan to an ante-chamber where they suited up in protective gear before entering the inner laboratory chamber. There was precious little in this smaller space except for a large console monitoring the chrysalis chamber in front. The scientist went over to console and pushed a few buttons. There was a beeping sound followed by the chamber door opening with a hiss of steam. At first, all Donovan could see were the fumes exhaling out from the hollow. But eventually, as the smoke began to clear, he could make out the curve of a woman's leg, unsteady from disuse that nevertheless came into clearer view as it stepped out into the room closely followed by its twin. And then came the torso, the neck, the face, in all their naked glory of scientific perfection.

The scientist behind the console beamed proudly under his facemask. "A perfect reconstruction of the DNA sample you provided us," he said. "She retains the agility, speed, and form. And," he added, remembering the specific modifications requested, "she's completely loyal to you."

Donovan's breath caught in his throat. At first, the only reaction he could manage was to stare. At the scientist's urging, he took a tentative step forward. And then another, followed by another, until he was looking directly into those amber eyes. Reaching out with a trembling hand, he cupped it under an ample breast, its weight tangible even through the thickness of his glove.

"Well, sir," someone was saying in the background, "have we met your expectations?"

"Yes. Yes."

-

On the third day after the day things began to fall apart, Hayate was shaken awake in the early morning hours before sunrise. His father stood above him. The grave look on his face told Hayate that it was the day.

Hayate dressed quietly and slowly, though he knew that it wouldn't help in prolonging what was to come. He slipped out of his room quietly, so as not to disturb the house's only sleeping occupant and followed his father out of the courtyard.

Despite the hour, many Mugen Tenshin ninja were already lining the street. At seeing the father and son pair come down the street, they cupped their fists at the level of their brows and bowed their heads in solemn salute.

At the edge of town waited a loan shinobi dressed completely in black. This man was to accompany his father to the appointed place and bring back a message when…. Hayate turned his eyes away.

"Saitou-san," he said, his voice hoarse. "A moment please." The ninja in black nodded and moved off. Now alone, but Hayate continued to stare at the ground. He knew what he wanted to say. But the words wouldn't come.

His father's voice broke the silence, as steady and as calm as he had remembered it from childhood. "A shinobi does not fear death, Hayate. As you are my son, you must know this."

"I know." Finally, Hayate had the courage to look into the face of the man he had condemned. "Father, it should be me."

The older man simply shook his head. "I do not wish for that." He gave his son a guilty, half-embarrassed smile. "It is my weakness as a father."

"But it was all my fault! The whole thing was my idea. Everything is my fault!"

The fifteenth clan head of the Mugen Tenshin gently placed his hands on his son's shoulders. "Hayate, you will protect this clan in my stead. Live and fulfill the destiny you were meant to take on. For that, my blood will be well spent." He pulled out a sealed scroll and held it out. "These are the official orders ordaining you as the sixteenth leader of the Mugen Tenshin. I am entrusting the future of this clan to you. I know you'll make me proud."

Hayate miserably accepted it. "Yes, sir."

"Take care of Kasumi." And, in a rare instance of affection, he pulled his son into a quick embrace. Then, signaling to Saitou, the two men turned and started to walk away.

"Father!" The older man paused and turned his head. The emotions welled up in Hayate's chest. Say it. This is the last chance. "I'm sorry!" he cried, the desperation of the words not nearly enough to encompass what he wanted to say. "I'm sorry."

The older man gazed gently at him. Then he nodded his head and walked away.

Even hours later, as Hayate stood in the same spot, the scroll yet clutched in one hand, he was still praying that his father would know what he was apologizing for.

-

Ryu found Hayate that afternoon in the last place he expected to look for him—the Mugen Tenshin meeting hall. The grand hall was only reserved for official meetings of the elite ninja, and was otherwise empty save for the lone figure sitting at the head of the room. On any other day, Ryu might have greeted his friend with a jibe on the location, but considering the circumstances, it made perfect sense that he should come here.

Hayate didn't look up even though he heard the echoing footfalls come towards him. Instead, he continued to flip through the ancient pages before him. At the corner of the small table in front of him sat, untouched, the sealed scroll.

"Is that…?" Ryu asked.

"Yes."

Ryu lowered his eyes. "I'm sorry, Hayate."

His friend slowly shook his head. "It was his decision. I have no choice left but to honor it." Hayate gently reached out and touched the scroll. "As soon as we get word," he said softly, "I'm to give this to the elders and…." He released a shuddering breath. "You know, I knew this day was going to come someday. But I never imagined it was going to be like this."

Ryu didn't know what to say. Talk seemed cheap all of a sudden. He had meant to discuss business, but it hardly seemed the time and the place for that.

As though reading his mind, Hayate said, "I know why you're here, Ryu. But if you don't mind, let's hold off on it until later." He gave his friend a wry smile. "I'm technically not clan head yet, after all."

"Hayate…"

They were interrupted by the sound of footsteps running up the steps outside. A ninja in black burst into the room. "Hayate-dono."

Hayate stood up and addressed the ninja. "Saitou-san."

In response, Saitou got on his hands and knees, and bowed down until his head touched the floor.

"So it's done then," Hayate said without surprise.

"My Lord."

"Saitou." The man in question lifted his head. Hayate picked up the scroll and held it out to him. "Deliver this to the clan elders. They'll know what to do from there. And please, don't tell the village just yet. Give me some time…to tell my sister before…everyone knows."

Saitou came up and received the scroll with both hands. Then saluting once more, he disappeared to do as he was bidden.

Hayate waited until he was completely gone before giving an utterly defeated sigh. "Well," he said to no one in particular, "I guess I'd better…" His voice trailed off and abruptly he began walking out of the hall. Ryu, wondering if it was a good idea for Hayate to be left alone like this, followed.

They walked in silence and were almost home when they were stopped by someone running up to them with great haste and intent. "Hayate-dono!" Hayashi said, and greeted him with a proper bow. "And Ryu-dono," he added hastily, before turning back to Hayate. "Is it true, sir? About your father?"

Ryu started, but it was Hayate's stunned voice that managed first: "How do you know about that?"

"I'm sorry, sir," Hayashi said, quickly bobbing his head again, "but I overheard a few of the ninja talking about it."

"What?"

But Hayashi didn't stop to explain. Instead, he abruptly dropped down to his knees and bowed his head down to the ground. "Hayate-dono! Please give me give me permission to marry Kasumi-san!"

Ryu's jaw dropped. "You've got to be kidding!" he exploded. "Consider the situation!"

"It is because I'm considering the situation that I am making this request," Hayashi retorted. "The future of the Mugen Tenshin must be secured. If Hayate-dono becomes ordained, then there will be several reasons why it will be better for him if he has the assurance that Kasumi-san is provided for. Especially if he is going to avenge his father."

Ryu felt his blood chill. Unbidden, his father's words went through his mind with haunting clarity. Remember, Ryu, the path of the shinobi is a hard one. At this moment, he fully felt the weight of those words.

Hayate was silent but he took a staggering step backwards. The thoughts running through his head were starting to spin out of control. It was becoming too much. "I…" Try to focus! "I'll consider your proposal, Hayashi," he heard himself say.

"Hayate!"

Ignoring Ryu's protest, Hayate repeated, "I'll consider it." Then: "Excuse me, I need to inform my sister about…our father."

Hayashi stood up. "But, she already knows."

All the chaos in his mind screeched to a halt. "What?"

"Ayane-san already told her. I thought you knew. Was she not supposed to?" Without another word, Hayate broke into a run. "Hayate-dono!"

"Hayate!" Ryu started to run after his friend but was pulled back by Hayashi's grip on his arm. Ryu spun around and narrowed his eyes in a manner that promised great pain if Hayashi didn't release his hold.

"Forgive me, Ryu-dono," Hayashi said, with an equally steely look despite his deferential speech, "but this is a Mugen Tenshin affair. And you are an outsider."

Ryu shrugged his arm out of Hayashi's grasp. "You've got some nerve," he said in a low, warning voice before continuing on his way.

Ryu caught up just enough to see Hayate enter the courtyard of his home. He saw him jump up onto the deck and throw open the door, but he was too far to hear him call out the way he knew he must have. By the time Ryu himself entered the yard, Hayate had already disappeared inside, though the door was still open.

Ryu slowed his advance as he began to hear the weeping. Approaching the door hesitantly, he eventually saw the figure of Kasumi huddled on the floor, her body shaking as she sobbed unabashed and aloud with screams of anguish. He saw Hayate hesitate only momentarily, before silently going over to her and slowly sinking onto the ground beside her. He watched from the doorway as Kasumi reached out desperately and flung her arms around her brother, her sobs becoming muffled as she buried her face in his chest. Ryu saw Hayate hold her close and murmur something he couldn't hear into her hair.

Careful not to disturb them, Ryu slowly turned and walked towards home.

-

Ryu returned later that evening but had none of the leisure that he had in the afternoon. Accompanied by a full honor guard, he knelt before the Mugen Tenshin elders, in full view of the rest of the clan, as Ryu Hayabusa of the Dragon Clan paying homage to the previous Mugen Tenshin leader whom had honorably fallen in the name of their alliance. When his gesture was recognized, he and his guard fell back to the rear of the crowd where they were expected to bear silent witness to the proceedings.

In the setting sun, Hayate, dressed in full regalia, came forward when beckoned by the elders and accepted the ceremonial blade held out to him with both hands. He then faced the crowd, the sixteenth leader of the Mugen Tenshin.

Ryu watched as the others pledged their loyalty to the new leader. It was mostly ceremonial anyway, he thought, as he watched Ayane come forward and swear an oath of loyalty on behalf of all the school of Hajin Mon. Each and every one that came forward today had already felt it for a long time. After all, he thought as he came forward on his turn, it was true for him as well.

It was another sleepless night since his inauguration that found Hayate pouring over scrolls and documents long after everyone else had gone to bed. The Mugen Tenshin, he quickly discovered, was a very well oiled machine and he felt a bit wistful at his belated admiration for his father's efforts at keeping the clan running.

The problem lied in their reduced numbers. The thing was, even with their numbers this diminished, it actually wasn't something they couldn't manage, but a lot of their key players had been taken out of the ranks. Namely, the leadership.

Hayate sighed wearily. Okay, so maybe the Hajin Mon would be all right. They pretty much functioned without any help anyway, and he knew Ayane was more than capable of keeping the school alive. That left the Tenjin Mon…. They were going to have to lay low for a while, that much was certain. If any missions were done, the teams would have to be small or individual missions. Which, Hayate mused darkly, was fine, since assassinations were often done alone. Effective immediately, there would still have to be several promotions, and he would keep the clan activities low-key until the new captains gained enough experience. With quick flicks of his brush, Hayate changed a list here and there, and then picked up his seal and stamped several of them to be operational come sunrise. Which left him with one more problem.

Intellectually, he knew why Hayashi's proposal was a smart one. Hayashi was a promising ninja as long as one told him exactly what to do. He was level-headed, a skilled fighter, and came from a pure lineage of Mugen Tenshin nobility. On top of that, he adored Kasumi above all else, so at least he knew that advancement of his social position wasn't Hayashi's only objective.

…And then there was that little Ryu problem, as he liked to call it.

He was pretty sure the feeling was mutual between the two. Kasumi was as easy to read as an open book, but he hadn't really thought Ryu would indulge in such distractions. Oh, sure, he suspected. But he knew Ryu was no fool and had secretly been hoping his friend would realize its futility and find someone else. But, as they always say, there was nothing more unpredictable and nothing more powerful than the human heart. Hayashi's proposal would effectively solve all of that.

But could he really force Kasumi to marry someone she didn't love?

Already, Hayate could hear his father's voice in his head. Don't be a fool. Of course you should accept it! She's too young to make a decision like this for herself. It's for her own good. This shouldn't even be a question!

Hayate put his brush down and rubbed his temples. "Just leave me alone tonight, old man," he grumbled.

He paused sullenly. Then there was that final matter to take care of. A shinobi's filial code demanded that he seek retribution from the party responsible as his father's only son. Taking on the government would be ridiculous, and he already knew that their demands were merely political in nature to stop an international catastrophe. No, the real culprits were the ones who they fought that night. And if Ryu's theories were right, he was targeting DOATEC.

It was the same as issuing a death certificate.

But that brought his attention back to the previous quandary, and, he had to admit, it was the greatest factor tempting him into approving Hayashi's proposal. If Kasumi married, she would become part of Hayashi's family, and thus be free of having to avenge him when his inevitable death came. Her inheritance would not be affected, and hence the Mugen Tenshin would go on and she could live a happy, safe life.

But it was that theoretical 'happy' that was making him trip over his own thought processes. Would she really be happy? His gut feeling told him no.

As though in answer to his ruminations, the door slid open and revealed Kasumi with a tray bearing hot tea and some snacks. As though she was worried about interrupting him, she didn't say a word as she cleared away a corner of the table to set her tray down. Hayate thanked her and then deciding to use this opportunity, asked, "Kasumi, what do you think of Hayashi?"

Kasumi looked genuinely surprised. "Hayashi-kun? I don't understand."

"Just…what are your impressions of him in general?"

Kasumi remained unsure as to what these questions were directed toward, but she decided that honesty never hurt. "He's…a very promising fighter…" she ventured.

"I know that. What I meant was, as a person. Do you like him?"

Kasumi's face scrunched up before she even realized she did it. Flushing from embarrassment, she quickly smoothed it away and tried to say in a perfectly conversational tone of voice, "I don't hate him."

Her brother's reaction was unexpected. He sat back and laughed out loud. A real, honest laugh. "It's all right, Kasumi," he said still amused, after he calmed down. "I think your face told me all I needed to know."

Kasumi felt her ears go pink with warmth. "Nii-san…you smiled," she said, with a small one of her own.

Hayate grinned. "So, I did."

"It's just that…Hayashi-kun…well…." Kasumi paused trying to think of the right word she was looking for. "He's not very sincere," she finally said.

"Ah." Hayate cocked his head to the side for a moment, his expression telling her he was thinking very intently. At length he said, "It's late. Why don't you get some sleep?"

Kasumi nodded and stood to get up. "You should, too, Nii-san."

"Yeah, in a minute. Good-night."

"Good-night, Nii-san." The door slid shut behind her.

Hayate picked up his brush, dipped it in ink, and began to write.

-

Hayate made his wishes known at the next council, much to the elders' dismay. But the clan's code supported his decision, and there was no one there that could stop him. He prepared for his mission on and off between his other duties for the good part of a month. When he was finally ready, he timed his departure during one of Kasumi's missions.

He was kind of a coward that way.

By his orders, the only one to see him off that day was Ryu. His friend walked with him to the village gates, the trek there subdued and heavy.

Hayate cast a sideways glance at his friend. "You're quiet today," he said.

"This isn't the time to be making jokes, asshole," Ryu muttered softly, but without any real heat to his words. Both lapsed back into silence.

They didn't speak again until they reached their destination.

"Do me a favor, Ryu?" Ryu could only manage a nod. Hayate dug into his pack—packed light for a one-way trip—and pulled out a scroll which he held out to Ryu. "These are the official orders ordaining Kasumi as the seventeenth clan head. Could you deliver this to the elders before you leave?"

Ryu nodded and took the scroll. And then he waited silently, because it looked like his friend had something more to say.

Hayate looked hesitant for a moment, and then said, slowly, "There's a special stipulation on those orders that I added in. In them, I absolve her of any blood debt. She's…Kasumi's not to come after me or avenge me in any way." Ryu looked up, startled. Hayate took a deep breath. "If she does, she's to immediately be declared a runaway shinobi."

Ryu was stunned. "Hayate…"

"Listen, Ryu. You and I both know this is a suicide mission. I don't want her to throw her life away on something like this."

"I understand," Ryu said, gripping the scroll tightly in one hand. "Hayate, listen. You don't have to do this alone. Our clans are allies, remember? Even if you can't mobilize the Mugen Tenshin—"

"Ryu."

"Let us help you!"

"Ryu, I've already thought about it. But if I do that, I'll just be making more trouble for both of our clans. Besides," he said, "this is my responsibility. You of all people should understand that."

Unable to say otherwise, Ryu gave a defeated nod.

"Ryu…there's…one more thing…"

Like I could deny a dying man his last request, Ryu thought darkly. "What's that?"

"This might be asking too much," Hayate said, sounding more hesitant than he had throughout this entire day, "but…take care of Kasumi for me? It's…going to be really tough for her from here on out."

Ryu swallowed hard. "I will."

Hayate gave him a rueful smile. "Do I have your word on that?"

"I swear it," Ryu said, with the same intensity that he remembered from all those years ago.

Hayate breathed a sigh of relief and forced himself to grin. "Ryu, thanks…for everything," he said, holding out his hand. Ryu clasped it in a firm grip. And then they parted ways, and Hayate was gone.

-

Hayate landed on the roof of what was rumored to be DOATEC's Japanese branch around 3 a.m., judging by the position of the moon. The harbor it overlooked was predictably empty save for a few warehouse guards on the graveyard shift.

Pulling down the mask that covered the lower half of his face, he breathed in the cold night air, trying to calm down. There would be no real fighting tonight. The penetration of this building was for espionage purposes only, he chanted in his mind. After all, first he had to know who he was aiming to take down before he did it, since Fame Douglas was already dead. But for some reason, the nervous bubbling in his stomach didn't go away. Slapping his hands briskly to his face, he shook his head to clear it, and decided that the night wasn't going to stick around forever. He had better get to work.

Using a kunai to wrench a ventilation grate open, Hayate slipped inside the opening and crawled through the ducts until he came to another grid that led inside the building. Kicking it in, he jumped down from the duct and landed soundlessly on the catwalk hanging above what appeared to be a large shipping room. Considering the size of it, it must easily be the largest room in the entire building, which made Hayate frown. It made sense for DOATEC to have one, since they did much of their business through importing and exporting, but he had expected there to be…laboratories or something. But perhaps those were elsewhere.

He peered over the side of the rail, he saw the intimidating large gray box-like structures of what he assumed were the packing machines. Only…he squinted in the darkness. He couldn't be sure from his vantage point, but they didn't appear to be that old. Moonlight gleamed off the steel surface of the one closest to him. It was…huge. Were packing machines always this big?

A faint, echoing sound distracted him from his thoughts. Immediately, he ducked behind a stack of boxes on the opposite end of the catwalk. He had thought that the facilities would be empty by now, but if there were a few employees burning the midnight oil, he'd have to take care of them. Reaching into his pack slowly, he pulled out a long knife. He might even be able to use them for information.

He slowed his breathing to quiet the sound, and waited patiently for the light footfalls to get louder until they were close enough for him to make his move. At that point, he jumped out, intending to surprise his target.

Instead, he was the one surprised. Quickly jerking his arm to a halt in mid-swing, the blade stopped right against his victim's throat. Hayate blinked several times to make sure his eyes weren't deceiving him. "Kasumi? What the hell are you doing here?"

"Kasumi" didn't answer except for the heavy breathing of one surprised at having a sharp blade dangerously close to their throat. Hayate made a frustrated noise and angrily sheathed his blade. "Didn't I tell you not to come here?" he said furiously. "You could've been…" His voice trailed off as he finally got a good look just at whom he was yelling.

It was uncanny. They were practically identical, only Hayate had never heard of his mother giving birth to identical twins. Everything about her looked like Kasumi, except for that cruel smile that twisted on her lips. Hayate looked into her eyes, and a wave of chilling panic crashed over him. "Who—the hell are you?"

The girl didn't respond and instead lashed out with a strong kick aimed towards his head. Hayate quickly spun out of the way and jumped to a safe distance away. Okay, so it appeared that this Kasumi look-alike also knew her moves. Pulling out the knife once again, he charged.

The girl was quick. She dodged most of his attacks and wasn't afraid to counter-attack when she had the opportunity. The more Hayate fought with her, the more unnerved he got. Her moves were carbon copies of Kasumi's and so was her speed and agility. He grunted in pain as she kicked the knife out of his hand with a particularly swift kick to his wrist. The knife fell over the edge and made a huge clattering sound. Ignoring the pain, Hayate forced himself to recover fast and lunged in desperation for the open spot he saw, slamming his fist into her stomach.

The girl grunted in pain and staggered backwards into the railing behind her. Coughing fitfully, she looked up reproachfully at him. Hayate charged towards her and raised his fist until the girl rasped, "Nii-san!" Hayate stopped and hesitated, and that was all the girl needed to land a drop kick squarely on his chest, sending him tumbling over the edge of the rail and into the waiting void below.

His body slammed hard into the smooth floor, and for a moment, he was completely dazed by the impact, and so he didn't actually see the lights come on. Groaning in pain, he pushed himself up on sore arms until he was standing, every inch of his body screaming out from the throbbing. And that was when he realized that his sense of the room shrunk dramatically. "What the hell?"

He glanced around at the four metallic walls surrounding him. The floor appeared to be made out of a slightly different material. Gasping with a sudden burst of insight, Hayate quickly looked up just in time to see two mechanical panels come together and seal him in. Trying to move as quickly as he could with his injured body, he started to futilely bang against the sides, trying to find some structural weakness he could exploit. But as he did so, he heard a soft hissing sound and he realized with horror that he could see wisps of some discolored smoke seeping up from the floor.

With the air getting thin, Hayate doubled his efforts, but soon he was sliding down to his knees, coughing and clawing at his throat. His vision went blurry, and before long, he fell down flat, unmoving and unconscious.

He was unable to see the chamber open up again. Men with masks entered the chamber and came up to the prostrate body.

"Is this the one?" one of the men asked.

"How should I know?" his companion returned. "Our orders were just to get him to the barge. So let's do this so we can go home."

Hayate didn't feel it as his cheek made contact with the steel floor in the ship's hold. Nor did he hear the vessel blow its horn as it started to set sail.

-

At Kasumi's request, her ordainment was postponed for a fortnight to await any word from Hayate. That was a fortnight of looking over the horizon, of watching the sun rise and then later set, of her stomach tensing up with nervousness every waking moment.

On the thirteenth day, two Mugen Tenshin scouts brought back a familiar knife found in an abandoned building on the waterfront. No body was recovered.

That evening, Kasumi sat in her empty home with the knife on the low table in front of her. In the light of the setting sun, she watched the shadows grow and the reflection on the hilt turn a brilliant red before fading into a dimmer shade. She recognized this knife. Its range was shorter than the ceremonial sword he wore on his back, but longer than a kunai, and the blade was tailored to cut through flesh with ease. The hilt, which was long for better gripping, was embossed with twin golden dragons. It had been a gift from her father, passed down from his father and his father before that. Hayate had always carried it on him. He had been sentimental like that.

Kasumi shook her head violently, and she immediately felt horrible for thinking about him in the past tense. But…there was really no way around it, was there?

There was no corpse, so there could be no burial. She could still perform a memorial ceremony, but she wasn't sure she really wanted to. That would be like admitting there was no more hope.

Kasumi covered her eyes as the first of the tears came, and gritted her teeth even as the choking sound escaped. It wasn't long before the rest of the screams clawed their way up her throat, while her tears streamed down her cheeks and splashed onto the table. Her heart ached with despair, and she freely gave voice to her anguish in the only wretched way she knew how, inadequate though it was.

She stifled her sobs when she heard someone walking out on the deck. Reaching out, she slowly gripped the knife and drew it close to her. Not bothering to wipe away the wetness staining her face, she clutched the blade with two hands and, drawing it to her, waited for the intruder to show himself.

From outside, the voice of Ryu Hayabusa made his presence known. "Kasumi?" Receiving no response, he nonetheless slid the door open and invited himself in to see her in exactly the same position she had been before he announced himself.

At first he had been alarmed to see her holding the knife close to heart, but after realizing that she was not holding it with the intention of taking her life but for comfort, he relaxed. She didn't invite him to sit down, but he did anyway.

She started when she felt his fingers gently brush against her cheek, wiping away the moisture. Instinctively, she flinched away.

"I—I'm sorry," he said, drawing his hand back.

She made no reply and instead scrubbed them away furiously her self. The awkward silence that followed was punctuated only by Kasumi's heavy breathing.

"It was DOATEC, wasn't it?" she finally demanded, her voice still thick with emotion.

Ryu looked at her with alarm. "Kasumi, you can't be thinking—"

"I will avenge him," she said simply, cutting him off.

"You can't." When she looked at him sharply, he tried to explain in the most reasonable tone he could manage, "Listen, your brother died trying to take them down. What makes you think that you'll succeed where he failed?"

"I will not fail."

Ryu tried a different tactic. "Kasumi, Hayate wouldn't want you to do this. You need to honor his memory—"

"This goes beyond just my brother, Hayabusa-san. You should know that already."

"Kasumi—" Ryu stopped abruptly, but he already had her attention. Deciding to throw caution into the wind, he took a deep breath and said, "Hayate has already absolved you of any blood debt."

Kasumi's eyes went wide with shock. "What?"

"His final orders…written on that scroll, it says…that if you leave the clan with the intention of avenging him, you are to be declared a runaway shinobi and considered dead to the clan."

For a few moments, Kasumi was utterly stunned into silence. "How—how could he?" she whispered, still in shock. On the tabletop, she clenched her hands into fists. Ryu could see the whites of her knuckles brighten.

"He had no right," she said in a low voice. "He had no right to do that."

"He did it to protect you."

"He made me weak!" Kasumi's fists shook furiously. "That vengeance was mine and the only thing I had left of him!" The humiliating tears starting to come again. "How could he do this to me?"

Fighting against the feeling that welled up inside of him, Ryu closed his eyes. When he opened them, he was in control of him self again. "Kasumi, those are the direct orders of the Mugen Tenshin's former leader. As the newest head, you must obey them or you undermine your own position. Starting now, you must think of what's best for your clan, and put your selfish desires aside." But then he added in a gentler tone, like a kind of peace offering, "I know it's hard right now, but be strong…for the sake of your clan." Reaching out his hand before he knew what he was doing, he quickly came to and drew it back again hastily. Instead, he stood up and took his leave of her, saying he would come back tomorrow to see her ordained.

It was after he got outside and felt the cool air on his face that he finally allowed himself to actually feel the relief that had come from Kasumi's realization. Now, he thought, things would move forward.

The sharp cry of an hawk drew his attention to the sky above, and he saw the bird circle in its flight before taking off for the horizon.

Ryu bowed his head in a small prayer. I promise, Hayate. I'll take care of her.

-

On the morning of the day that Kasumi was to be declared seventeenth head of the Mugen Tenshin, she went downtown, wanting to get away from the village for a while.

Burying her hands further in the pockets of her jacket, she walked past the bakery without going in. She was walking by an electronics store and its large window with several televisions on display when something playing on the screens caught her attention.

There was a man standing behind a podium draped with a banner embossed with the letters: D.O.A.T.E.C. She gasped as she recognized Victor's face from that party so many nights ago amidst all the flashes of cameras and bright fore-lights.

Victor's voice, as smooth and confident as she remembered, flowed out of the store's speakers to the bustling street. "…it is because of it that I am dedicated to fulfilling my mentor's dream and plan to proceed with the Dead or Alive world battle championship tournament. I hope that the world will come together and help DOATEC to realize Fame Douglas' incredible legacy to the world of fighters…and at large. Thank you. I will now take a few questions."

Kasumi watched as the camera panned out to a reporter on the side, but what was being asked was completely lost as her brain stalled to a halt. The color completely drained from her face. It had only been a brief glimpse because the camera had moved too fast…but she could've sworn she saw…but that was insane, wasn't it? After all, she was standing right here, right now, and the words on the screen indicated this was a live broadcast. There was no way she could be two places at once!

She narrowed her eyes as things started coming together and her suspicions began to rise again. Spinning on her heel, she headed immediately for home.

-

Ryu watched anxiously as the sun set. He and everyone else had been waiting since the beginning of dusk and the protagonist for this evening still had yet to make her appearance. Eventually, someone was called on to go fetch her (Hayashi, Ryu noted with distaste, because he volunteered), and he could see Ayane at the front with her Hajin Mon school looking exceedingly exasperated.

Fear started to trickle down Ryu's spine when he saw Hayashi reappear in the distance, running and yelling something frantically, though he was still too far to be coherent. By the time he reached the elders, he was too out of breath to say anything, and he could only hold out the ceremonial sword she was supposed to have brought with her.

Immediately, there was chaos as the entire Mugen Tenshin was in an uproar. An equal number of shouts for mercy as there were for immediate action were lobbied back and forth in frenzy while the elders looked stunned. Eventually they motioned to gather for further deliberation.

Ryu signaled to his squad and turned, not bothering to stay and hear the verdict. He knew what they were going to say. Hayate's orders were very explicit.

He led his escort back to the Dragon clan hold in record time. He didn't have any to waste, after all. Dismissing them all, he ran back to his own quarters. He only had time to grab a few supplies and scribble out a note to his own father explaining his absence before disappearing into the night.

In his haste, Ryu failed to notice the shadowy figure crouched high above in the trees, watching him until he disappeared down the mountainside. As soon as Ryu was gone, the figure pulled out the walkie-talkie given to him and flicked it on. The static crinkled until he made a connection. "Yeah, it's me," he said. "The Dragon has left the nest."

"Understood," a voice responded. "Get yourself out of there. A helicopter will be waiting at the rendezvous point."

"Okay." The connection closed.

Akira Ryuuzaki put the communicator away and cast one last, languid look over at the unsuspecting village. Then, bidding it good riddance, he took off in the opposite direction that his former childhood friend had gone and vanished.

-

As the music rose, Helena closed her eyes and could feel her own emotions swelling up inside her until she thought she'd burst. Instead, she opened her mouth and her honeyed voice took over in conveying her feelings to the world. Or perhaps they were really Violetta's feelings.

Helena loved all types of music, but she lived for the arias. To her they were the most beautiful, and she took extra care when she sang them. All her concentration was focused on the words and the music—the stage, the audience, the world—it all disappeared for those brief minutes.

As the song sped towards the climax of the song, she got ready for her big finish. She hadn't been at all prepared for the sound of a gunshot ringing out and destroying the musical trance she worked herself into. And she certainly wasn't prepared to see her mother, a flurry of blinding white and golden blond, to be falling towards her, in slow-motion, an almost delicate trail of red in her wake.

With the gauzy, white folds of the costume and the shining tresses that glowed from the stage lights spreading out as though she were flying through the air, it was almost beautiful.

Like a swan.

A swan song.

A/N: Thanks for reading through this monstrosity. It clocked in at 34 pages on my laptop, single-spaced, so thanks for your patience. With this, we'll move into DOA one for the next chapter. As always, comments and constructive criticism are welcomed. Also, check out the revamp of my site, and don't forget to sign the gbookie v