Disclaimer: The Ronin Warriors (aka Yoroiden: Samurai Troopers) and all affiliated names and concepts do not belong to me. If you recognize the character, he/she is not mine. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.

"Battle Invalid"
By DragonDancer5150

Chapter 2 - A Fine Imagination

Cye tentatively opened the door, looking down the hall. The house was silent. Apparently he was the first one up, as usual. No, maybe not - Jag's bedroom door was open. He glanced in on his way by to the bathroom and saw that her bed was empty. He took care of morning toiletries and headed downstairs, listening with amusement to the meowing of several cats somewhere below.

Jag stood at one of the counters in the kitchen, her back to Cye. Six crying felines had her surrounded. "Yes, guys, I know," she chuckled in a whisper. "I'm almost done." One of the cats – Cye recognized Cheetos – stood on his hind legs, pawing at the back of her knee. "OK! OK!" She turned and set two plates on the floor, each with three separate piles of wet cat food. The felines attacked the plates as if they had not eaten in days. With a soft laugh, Jag straightened up and spotted Cye watching her. "Oh! Good morning. Or should I say - ohayou."

Cye grinned. "Ohayou gozaimasu. You speak Japanese?"

"Nah. I wish. I've learned a few things from Sage, though. Hungry?"

"Hai!"

"Hello to you, too. Are you hungry?"

"Oh." Cye looked a little embarrassed. "Ah – hai means 'yes'."

Jag grinned. "Actually, I did know that. I was just teasing. Sorry."

"Oh. That's all right. So – " He indicated the cats at their feet. Only one had reacted to his appearance more than looking up for an instant. It was a little black one, which had backed away and was staring up at him warily. "Who is everyone?"

"Well, for starters – " Jag picked up the little black cat. " – this is Angel. Don't let her name fool you, though. She can be a bit of a bitch. It takes her a while to get used to strangers." As if to prove the point, Angel laid back her ears and hissed at Cye. "Oh, you!" Jag stepped past him and set the cat down at the door of the kitchen. Angel shot around the corner and disappeared from sight. Jag only rolled her eyes. "Let's see. You've met Cheetos. That's Fuzzy, the one that met us at the door yesterday. The fluffy, light grey cat is Misty. She and Skitters are the only ones allowed outside, just so you know. Skitters is the dark smoke-grey one over there. And the mid-grey short-hair is Addie, the one with the white socks. While I'm thinking of it, let me introduce you to Tamarack and Celine, too."

She led Cye into the dining room and to the sliding glass door. Pulling it open, she called softly, "Tam! Cece! Come here, guys." Two very large canines cantered into sight from around the side of the house. Cye took a step back. The smaller one - if "small" was a word one could attribute to it - was pitch black, the larger a silvery grey. They noticed Cye and the big silver one began to make a sound low in his throat. "Tamarack, stop that," Jag admonished sternly, stepping out onto the patio. "Sit." Both dogs obeyed. She knelt in front of them, petting and scratching them. "Good boy. Good girl. I've got someone I wan'cha to meet. Cye, come here." She looked back and noted his hesitation. "It's OK. They won't bite." She stood as Cye stepped tentatively to her side. "Put your hand out, palm down, like this. Let them get to know your scent." They sniffed at him. Then, Tamarack stood on his hind legs, planting his forepaws on Cye's shoulders.

"Woah, hey!" Cye yelped, backpedaling before the dog could knock him over.

"Tamarack, down!" Jag commanded, her voice sharp. She grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, straddled him, and pushed him down onto the concrete, her other hand over his muzzle. The dog's legs folded without a struggle. "No! Bad dog. You know better than that." She looked up at Cye. "Sorry about that. Tam has a bad habit of testing strangers. If he ever does that again, either smack his nose or hold him down like I'm doing. All right, I'm going to let you back up now. Are you going to behave?" She paused, then stood, releasing her hold. "Now apologize. Cye, hold out your hand again." This time, Tam licked his fingertips.

"You don't seem like you're much used to dogs, are you?" Jag commented as they returned to the kitchen. By this time, the two plates on the floor were licked clean and the cats had all dispersed.

"Um, no, actually. What did you do when you pushed him to the ground?"

"In a wolf pack, when one wolf is exerting dominance over another, he'll do what I did - grab him by the scruff and force him to the ground. That tactic is something they teach at dog obedience schools, too - it works the same on any dog - but it's even more effective with part-wolves like Tam and Cece." This information seemed to be new to Cye so she continued. "Dogs and wolves are social creatures, pack creatures. Domestic dogs see their families as packs so you have to deal with them with that in mind. There's a pecking order. My dad is the Alpha male of the pack. My step-mom, Linda, is Alpha female. Alex and I are seen as siblings but we rank higher in the pecking order. Strangers are outsiders to the pack and therefore trespassers in their territory. That's why I have to introduce each of you to them. Tam knew you were nervous so he tried to dominate you."

"I wasn't nervous," Cye argued. Just then, Ryo and Alex appeared at the kitchen door.

"Nervous about what?" Ryo wanted to know.

"Hey, isn't breakfast ready yet?" Alex teased.

"What do I look like, Mary Maid Service? Jeesh."

"You sound like Kento," Sage commented at the same time, stepping up behind Alex.

"Jag, would you like some help with breakfast?" Cye offered as she opened the refrigerator.

"Sage tells me you're a damn good cook," she responded, glancing at her cousin.

"He is!" Ryo was quick to reply. Cye blushed at the compliments. "In fact, when we get together back home, he does most of the cooking."

"Well, you don't have to here. You're on vacation, remember? But sure. Who am I to turn down such an excellent cook? Alex, I've already introduced Cye to the dogs. Why don't you take Ryo and Sage out while we get things going in here?"

No sooner had the smell of bacon and ham begun to waft out of the kitchen than Kento came barreling downstairs. "Oooh! I smell food!"

"So very perceptive of you!" Sage called through the screen door. "Come on outside. We're on the back patio."

The six soon sat down at the dining table and Sage turned to Alex. "Now that everyone's awake, when did you want to leave for the beach?"

Alex looked at him quizzically. "But everyone's not up. What about . . . uh, Blue-Hair." He frowned in apology that he could not remember the name.

Kento rolled his eyes. "Rowen. Nah, he won't be up for hours yet. If we wait for him, we won't be out of here until afternoon."

"Yeah, he knew he might lose out if he sleeps in," Ryo told them.

"You guys go ahead," Jag suggested. "I'll wait for him and we can meet you later. I've got things I can do until he's out of bed."

Ryo frowned. "Are you sure you don't mind?"

"Not at all. I have some drawings I'm working on. I should have a few of them finished by the time he's up. I'll show them to you guys later if you'd like."

Sage seriously considered the offer. "Yes. I'd like to see them."

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

Rowen rolled over into sunlight in his face. Groan . . .

The house was strangely silent. I don't hear Kento? Shouldn't he be in the kitchen making a ruckus with Cye? Ryo? Sage? He forced one eye open, then the other, and looked around the room. Panic gripped him for just an instant before he recognized his surroundings. He rolled over again, looking at the bed beside his. Ryo was already up. No surprise there. He wondered if the group had left for the beach without him like Sage and Ryo had threatened if he overslept.

After toiletries, he wandered downstairs, hearing low music playing. He thought it might be Celtic. Cye owned a few Celtic CD's and Rowen thought this sounded like the same style. He found Jag at the dining room table with art supplies scattered all about. "Good morning."

Jag had already begun to stand. "Oh, hey! You're up earlier than I thought."

He glanced at the clock on the wall and grinned. "It's nearly noon. What time were you thinking?"

"Well, from the way Kento was talking, it almost sounded like two or three. How are you feeling? Did you sleep okay?"

"I think the saying is 'like a baby,' though I've heard that babies don't always sleep all that well."

"True that. Listen, I'll be right back. I was, ah . . . just heading for the bathroom, actually. I saved you some breakfast. It's the covered plate on the second shelf in the fridge. Thirty seconds to a minute in the microwave should about do it."

She left and Rowen started into the kitchen but curiosity got the better of him and he approached the table instead. The drawing that she had been working on stopped him dead in his tracks.

It was a Japanese-style armor, like the samurais used to wear but made of solid sections rather than do-maru, the traditional overlapping lacquer plates. It was a deep mid-night blue with a tall, conical helm sporting twin yellow horns. The trim of the armor was also yellow. A tall folding bow stood beside it. Various notes were written here and there all over the page. "Face guard retracts." "Quiver of endless arrows." "Symbol only on one shoulder guard." Rowen's hand was grasping the sphere in his pocket even before he was conscious of the act.

He was still staring when Jag returned. "Wha'cha looking at? Oh, that. That's just something I'm working on for a game I'm running."

He could scarcely believe her dismissive tone. He found his voice, asking in as nonchalant a tone as he could manage, "What is it?"

"You look like you've never seen a suit of Japanese armor before," she commented with a wry chuckle, misreading the look on his face. "It's one of a set of nine that I've been designing for my game. Do you know what a role-playing game is?" He nodded, being vaguely familiar with the term. "I'm running a campaign that has the players collecting these magical armors against a coming threat, though I haven't worked out exactly what that is yet. European armors are a little overdone in RPG's so I decided to make mine Japanese. They're designed after the elements and the seasons. Western science only counts four elements but Eastern science believes in five . . . Um, sorry. You already know that, I guess."

Do I ever! Rowen thought. How much does she know? And HOW does she know? Did Sage tell her? No, he wouldn't have - and she's talking like she made them up. "So . . . which one is this one?"

"This one represents Air. It also draws the strongest on life energy. The arrows are made of pure energy, though they're physical enough when they hit. They do a lot more damage than normal arrows, too. The armor's name is Strata after the stratosphere."

Tenku, Rowen nodded mentally. In English, that would translate as firmament - or it could mean stratosphere. Do the others know? If Sage knew, he would have told us . . . wouldn't he? Rowen paused for a moment, honestly not knowing how to respond. "Do you have any others drawn?"

"Yeah. Most of them, actually." She sat down and flipped the pad back a few pages, then forward again slowly. "This one is Earth . . . Spring . . . Winter . . . Water . . . and Fire."

The sketches were in various states of completion, with a few discrepancies here and there, but there was no mistaking it. They were drawings of the Ronin Armors. I need to talk to the guys. "Did the others leave for the beach already?"

"Yeah. I told them you and I would meet them there if you still wanted to go, too."

Rowen nodded. "Let me get my – " All of a sudden, he could not remember the proper words in English. Shock over seeing your own Armor in someone else's drawing book, he thought sardonically. " – water shorts."

Jag laughed. "Swim trunks. Sorry, I don't mean to laugh. That was rude. Hey, before you disappear back upstairs, let me introduce you to the dogs before I forget. They've already met the others."

On the patio, as the dogs sniffed him over, Rowen asked, "Did either of them knock Cye down?"

"Tam tried to. Why?"

Rowen grinned, shaking his head. "He seems to have that affect. It's not that dogs don't like him –"

" – they just think they can overpower him?"

"Yeah, something like that. He's not accustomed to dogs."

"I kinda got that impression."

Rowen looked out over the backyard. The landscaping was beautiful – a flower garden, an herb garden, a pond, lots of grass, a small shed painted to look like a little house. In the back corner stood a pair of wooden frames. "What are those?"

"They're for setting up archery targets."

He looked at her in surprise. "You shoot archery? Oh, yeah. Sage did tell me that."

"I can set up and we can shoot a few rounds if you'd like. I have a 35-pound recurve and a 30-pound English longbow," she offered. "Or, well, you probably want to get to the beach with your friends."

As much as he would love to see her bows and her skill, he remembered the drawings on the table. "Yeah, they're probably wondering where we are as it is."

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

Alex and Kento crossed the sand up from the water, carrying their boards back to the spot where they had left their belongings. Ryo and Sage were gone. Kento scanned the crowds and spotted them at the street edge, admiring a motorcycle. Kento grinned. He knew exactly what had happened. Ryo saw the owner park and dragged Sage over with him to chat and check out the hot ride.

"So, Kento, how long have you been surfing?" Alex asked as he dropped onto one of the towels spread out on the sand.

"Hm? Oh. Cye taught me about two, two-and-a-half years ago. Tell your friend, Tom, thanks for letting me use his board, by the way."

"No problem. You're pretty good," Alex grinned as Kento plopped himself next to him.

"I had a good teacher." Kento turned to look for his best friend among the scores of surfers.

Alex followed his gaze. He shook his head and gave a low whistle as they watched Cye disappear behind a falling wall of water. He shot out the side of the curl, still on his feet. "Damn, he's good. Giving all the California boys a run for their money, isn't he? Sure kicked my butt!"

Kento laughed. "His mom used to joke that he was born on a surfboard."

Alex looked at him sidelong. "Used to?" he ventured.

Kento heaved a deep sigh and stared out at his childhood friend. "Her health was never good for at least as long as I've known him. She had a bad heart and a few other problems. She died only about a year ago."

"Hm. I'm sorry to hear that. Does he have any other family?"

"Well, he's got mine," Kento joked, "but yeah – he has an older sister named Sayoko. She lives in Hagi in Yamaguchi, continuing her mom's pottery business with her husband. Cye has an apartment in Tokyo. He comes over sometimes and helps Mama and Papa at our restaurant in Yokohama. Mama's always worrying that he doesn't eat enough." He rolled his eyes. "I think my kid sister, Chun Fa, has a crush on him."

"How old is she?"

"Eight."

"And she's already interested in boys? Sounds like Big Brother's got his work cut out for him. How old are you? Eighteen? Nineteen?"

"Nineteen."

"So that's – what – eleven years in between? Wow, that's quite a spread."

"Not really. There's another sister and two brothers in between us. Don't worry. Anyone lays a finger on any of them and they'll have ol' Kento to deal with!" He flexed his muscular arms in emphasis.

"Showing off for the girls?" Sage teased knowingly as he and Ryo approached, pointing at a pair of bikini-clad women passing by just a few yards away.

"Huh? What? Hey, no! That's not what we were talking about!" Kento argued, turning a shade of red that made him look already sunburned.

"Oh? Then what were you talking about?" Ryo queried, sounding like he and Sage already had him pegged.

"No! We were talking about my family. Hey, come on, Alex. Help me out here."

Alex let out the laugh he'd been trying to hold back. "Actually, you were looking in their direction at the time."

"Aw, what is this, Pick-on-Kento Day?"

"Well," Ryo reasoned, "Rowen's not here yet and Cye's still out in the water – big surprise." Just then, a sudden anxiety tickled at the back of his mind. He glanced at Kento and Sage but neither seemed to have felt it. He sat down on his towel, then dropped onto his back. "Man, the sun feels good," he commented sleepily, folding his arms behind his head. He closed his eyes, satisfied that his ruse would buy a moment's peace. His yoroi crystal was in an outer pocket of his backpack just next to his head. Mentally, he reached out for it, then through it searched out the source of the disturbance. Something made him think that it had to do with Rowen but, as hard as he tried, Ryo could not find him. The Warrior of Air was just too far away, even for the psychic link afforded them by their Armors.

-Ryo, is something wrong? Feels like you're looking for someone. Rowen?-

Ryo allowed a small smile. Trust the Warrior of Light, of Spirit, to sense him doing something psionic. -I thought I felt something just now. I want to say it was Rowen but he's too far away to be sure.-

-Do you think there's something wrong?- Sage asked.

Ryo gave a mental shrug. -Dunno. I didn't feel like there was any danger but something sure got his attention.-

-Maybe he caught Jag in her underwear or something.-

-KENTO!- Both Ryo and Sage shot him glares. Kento only snickered.

Alex, who had been checking out a group of cute girls not far from them, turned at the sound. "What's so funny?"

"Huh? Oh! Uh, nothing," Kento replied a little too quickly.

"Someone just wiped out pretty badly," Sage lied, pointing at the surfers. -Nice going.-

Behind Alex's back, Kento out stuck his tongue at Sage.

An hour later, Jag and Rowen arrived with picnic supplies for a late lunch. Alex followed Jag back to the car and Ryo seized the opportunity to talk to Rowen. Rowen, however, was a step ahead of him.

"/Guys, we need to talk,/" he told them without preface, switching to Japanese.

"/Are you okay?/" Ryo wanted to know.

"/Yeah. Why?/"

"/I thought I got a flash of something . . . urgent from you about an hour ago./"

"/That's what I need to talk to you about – /"

"Hey, what's the conspiracy?" Jag joked as she passed with a case of sodas. Alex carried a portable grill.

-We'll have to talk later,- Sage commented. -Or can't it wait?-

-Ask Jag about the drawings she's been working on,- Rowen suggested meaningfully, then would not say more.

As the group set up for a barbeque, several of Alex's old high school buddies spotted them and came over. The gathering turned into an impromptu beach party. Ryo and the others enjoyed the next several hours of food, joking, loud music, and fellowship but were at the same time frustrated at the inability to talk in private, finally resigning to leave the matter until they got home that night.

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

"Boy, I'm beat!" Jag announced as the group arrived home. Alex had dropped off his four passengers, then left again to return and hang out with his friends a while longer. The guys were helping Jag unload her car. "Just leave everything in the kitchen. I'll clean it up in the morning." She heaved the picnic basket up onto a counter and deposited it with a groan.

"Are you sure? We could take care of it," Sage offered.

A huge yawn overtook Jag before she could respond. "Nah, don't worry about it. I'll see you guys in the morning. G'night."

"/So, Rowen, what's up?/" Ryo asked once Jag was upstairs and safely out of earshot. He reverted to Japanese out of habit.

Rowen looked at Jag's backpack, which she had dropped by the front door. After a brief hesitation, he crossed to it, pulled open the zipper and lifted a sketchbook. "/This./" He found the drawings of the Armors, showing them to the guys.

Stunned silence dominated the room for the span of several heartbeats. "/Jag drew these?/" Ryo asked at length, staring at the unfinished drawing of the Armor of Wildfire.

Rowen nodded. "/She was working on mine when I got up this morning./"

"/What . . . what could this mean?/" Cye breathed.

"/Did anyone else feel something funny for just a second when we got off the airplane yesterday?/" Kento ventured.

Sage stood with his arms folded, eyes closed in thought. Only he did not seem surprised by the drawings. "/The two may or may not be related. I don't think they are./"

"/Oh? Well, how do you figure that?/" challenged Kento.

Sage paused, then opened his eyes, looking at his friends with a sigh. "/Because Jag started telling me almost a year ago about some neat armors she was 'creating' for her game./"

"/What?/" Ryo nearly shouted. He caught himself with a glance upstairs, not wanting to bring their hostess into this conversation, at least not yet.

Kento gripped the front of Sage's shirt. He was not so quiet. "/You knew about this? How could you not tell us?/"

Sage slapped his hand away. "/Keep your voice down./" They could hear the shower running but he did not want to take any chances. He sighed again, running his fingers through his hair. "/What was I supposed to tell you? That my cousin is psychic or something? That she somehow knows about our Armors? And not just ours but the Seasonals' too? I was hoping to find out a little more before I said anything./"

Rowen returned the book to the backpack, closing and shifting it back into the position Jag had left it. "/How much does she know?/"

"/A lot. She knows they were all created from the same source and that they were initially meant to combat a great evil. She doesn't seem to know about Arago specifically, though. She doesn't seem to know about the Dynasty, about Kayura, about the Seasonals - the guys, I mean. Her knowledge seems confined to the Armors themselves. For instance, she's told me all about the Armor of Halo but never seemed to think I had any connection to it. I don't think she has any clue that they're real. She talks like she's making them up, working out all the details on her own. She does have an incredible imagination, always has since we were kids - but I don't know what to make of this./"

An uncomfortable silence fell over the room as each pondered the revelation. At length, Ryo let out a deep sigh of his own. "/There's nothing we can do about it tonight. Maybe it's time we turn in./"

"/Do you . . . do you think we should still go to the Wild Animal Park tomorrow like we'd been talking?/" Kento asked.

Ryo looked at him sharply, at first thinking the question inappropriate, but the look on Kento's face made him wonder. "/What makes you ask?/"

"/Well, maybe we should stick around Jag, find out what's going on./"

Rowen shook his head. "/I don't think so. We came here to sightsee and have fun. If we change that all of a sudden, especially since we just got here, I think it would look too suspicious. Jag seems like a smart girl. If there's something going on that she's involved in, we don't want to raise an alarm – /"

Sage startled at that. "/Hey, wait a minute! Are you suggesting – /"

Rowen put up his hands in a placating gesture. "/I'm not suggesting anything, but we have to keep our eyes open. Let me finish!/" he insisted when Sage began to argue again. "/Even if it's not Jag, there may still be something going on and we shouldn't let anyone know there's something wrong. We should act like we don't know anything. Agreed?/" After some hesitation, each nodded in turn. "/All right. Then I think Ryo's onto something. Time for bed./"

"/Even you?/" Cye teased, eyeing him. Rowen only rolled his eyes and did not bother to respond.

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

"Kento, hurry up! Alex will be here any time!" Sage called into the tiki-style restroom. Cye and Rowen stood with him at the edge of the walkway. Ryo sat on a park bench off to the side. He did not seem aware of the fact that he was petting the stuffed animal in his lap as he watched the people passing by.

Cye snickered. "Hey, Ryo, already attached to your little Byakko-chan?"

Ryo straightened and looked at him, then down at the white tiger toy that was the size of a small dog. Cye and Kento had bought it for him when they were in the "Himalayan" area of the park. "Do I have to carry this thing around?" he complained, trying to deny the fact that he liked it.

Sage shrugged, unable to completely suppress his grin. "Hey, you're the one who said you were missing Byakuen already."

"What? Don't like Byakko-chan?" Kento asked as he emerged from the restroom, giving a mock pout. All four laughed at the face Ryo made in response.

Outside the exit gate, the group found the white Windstar waiting for them with Jag in the driver's seat. As they climbed in, Sage asked, "Where's Alex?"

"At home. He forgot about having some friends over this evening. You guys'll like them. They're in a live-roleplay group called MFCO. The Medieval Fantasy Combat Organization."

"That's the foam-weapon group Sage was telling us about?" Ryo asked eagerly.

"Yep."

"Yeah. I've been wondering how that works," Cye put in. "How can you have weapons made of foam? Wouldn't they just sort of flop around?"

"There's a plastic pipe for the core like they use in plumbing. Foam insulation is wrapped around it and sealed with duct tape. That's the basic shape for like swords and daggers and stuff. Things like axes and clubs are built with more foam over that. Edges like on swords are denoted by different colored strips of tape."

"Sounds like fun! D'ya think they'll let us play?"

Jag glanced back at Kento through the rear-view mirror and grinned. "Sure. Actually, they've been wanting to meet you guys."

8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 8

Foam-covered objects of all descriptions littered the backyard as Jag led the group around from the side gate to the bap-bap-bap! sound of weapons striking. Two combatants, Alex and a teenaged girl, faced off while several others watched. The girl noted their arrival and flashed a quick grin. "Hey, Jag!" Just then, Alex struck her sword arm, then her back. "Whoa! Okay, okay! Dead."

Alex grinned at her mischievously. "Never let your guard down."

"Yeah, Amber!" one of the onlookers laughed. "Especially against Drow!"

"Hey, Jag, brought us some newbies?" another asked. "Oh, no, wait – these're your friends from Japan, right?" He stood and offered his hand. "Name's Matt but I'm known here as Long-Arm."

Ryo took his hand, noting his height and slim build. "I can see why. I'm Ryo."

The rest of the group was quickly introduced. Besides Amber and "Long-Arm", the guys met Lisa, Neal, Tom, Brett, "Kender" whose real name was also Alex, and Rick. "Drow," they learned, was the nickname by which Jag's stepbrother was known.

"Do you guys fight at all?" Neal wanted to know.

Ryo laughed. "Yeah, you can say that."

"Cool! Pick up a weapon, then. What do you prefer – sword and shield? Staff?"

"What's this?" Cye wondered, picking up a five-foot weapon, sheathed from end to end in thin foam with a thicker foam "head" at one end sporting a red strip of tape along one edge.

"Polearm." Rick picked up another built just like it. "Do you use polearms?"

Cye swung the weapon a few times, testing the weight. He grinned. "It's not a yari, but it will do."

Rick chuckled. "A 'who-ee'?"

Brett rolled his eyes. "Yari. It's a type of Japanese polearm. You don't expect that he fights with a French halberd, do you?"

"OK, Mr. Weapons Know-It-All," Lisa chided, giving him a playful punch in the arm. She picked up two "swords," swinging them expertly. "Anyone fight florentine?"

"Um," Kento ventured, "isn't that a food dish? Something to do with broccoli?"

That elicited laughs from all around. Lisa shook her head. "No. Well, yeah, except that's spinach, not broccoli. It's also a fighting style where you use two weapons."

Ryo picked out two more "swords" from the pile. "I'll take you up on that." Sage took on Alex in "great swords" and Neal faced Kento with another pair of polearms. Rowen and Jag sat back with the rest and watched the four pairs square off as the basic rules were laid down. No head or groin shots were permitted. Thrusts were allowed only if the weapon had a thick enough tip to be safe. "Hold" was the safety word to stop a fight. One strike to the arm lost the use of that limb. A second strike "carried through" to the body and was considered a kill. Any strike to the torso was an automatic "kill." A strike to the leg lost the use of that leg and movement could only be done by hopping or limping. A second strike to the same leg "carried through" to the other leg. Loss of both legs required the combatant to fall to his knees but was not a "kill" and the combat could continue.

"Where are the dogs?" Rowen wanted to know as combat began.

"In the garage," Kender replied. "They'd get under foot otherwise - unless we used them for mounted combat! They're damn near the size of horses!"

Rowen nodded, then laughed as Cye was knocked off his feet by a sweep from Rick. "Hey, watch it, buddy! Don't let that guy get the better of ya!"

Cye huffed, accepting Rick's hand to help him up. "You think I'm letting him? The weight of this thing's all wrong! I'm not used to it yet."

"Excuses, excuses!" Kento laughed. He and Neal appeared to be evenly matched, as were Ryo and Lisa.

Alex was not faring nearly as well against Sage. "Damn! Where'd you learn to fight like this?"

You mean besides having to fight for my life on several occasions? Sage mused. "My family owns a dojo. I've been studying kendo ever since I could hold a sword."

"Shit," Alex grinned. "That's right. Jag told me you're a kendo champion. I shoulda known better. Ah!" He hit the ground for the third time, narrowly missing the pond, as Sage forced him to overbalance and he tripped on a dog toy.

"Hey, Drow! You let your guard down!" Amber teased.

"Actually, you're doing very well," Sage complimented as he helped Alex to his feet.

"Better!" Alex laughed as he took the opportunity to strike Sage with a wrapshot to the back. "Dead!"

"Hey!" Sage looked at him in mock irritation. "That was a cheap shot."

"Yeah, it was. Only way I'd score a hit, though."

Jag chuckled and leaned in close to Rowen. "Speaking of cheap shot, I've got an idea. C'm here." Curious at the look of pure mischief on her face, he obeyed.

A moment later, Rick's concentration was broken long enough for Cye to score a kill even before Cye's mind deciphered what had hit his opponent in the back of the shoulder. Lisa squawked in indignation as a missile struck the back of her thigh. "Jag!" she cried, whirling around. Jag and Rowen stood at the edge of the grass, each with a bow in hand and a foam-tipped arrow nocked and ready.

Tom fell out of his chair laughing at the look on his girlfriend's face. "Ooh, you two are in so much trouble! Lisa hates archers."

"Yeah, I know," Jag smirked. "We're on the field, though, so get used to it, Lady Mayhem."

"Lady . . . ?" Rowen wondered.

"Mayhem," Jag finished for him. "That's her character's name."

"Yeah," Lisa growled, feigning haughty annoyance, "and if DragonDancer doesn't find herself a new target, this dark elf sorceress's gonna be practicing her spellcraft on ya!"

"Hafta hit me first!"

Lisa stuffed her hand into a pouch on her belt and pulled out a tennis ball with a yellow ribbon tied to it. "Lightening bolt!" she cried as she threw the ball at Jag.

Jag shook her head and batted away the ball with her hand. "You keep forgetting – dragon spell resistance. Lightening bolt isn't high enough level to hurt me."

"What on earth are you talking about?" Rowen wanted to know, looking back and forth between the girls.

Jag laughed. "MFCO. The 'f' for fantasy refers to the fact that it's a role-playing game as well as live combat. Lisa's character is a dark elf magic user. I play a half-dragon archer. Matt's a dwarf fighter. Neal and Amber are both a human fighter-mages. Tom plays an ogre. Rick's an elven ranger. Brett's an elven archer. Kender plays a halfling rogue. And Alex – Drow – is a dark elf fighter."

"Hey, speaking of gaming," Tom put in, "are you still running the usual Friday Rifts game tomorrow since you have company?"

Jag looked at Rowen. "Well, if you guys don't mind - "

Cye shook his head. "We're the ones intruding, remember? Don't let us mess up your schedule."

"Nah! You're not intruding. Far from."

Rowen thought for a moment. "Is that the game you created those armors for? The ones in the drawings you were showing me yesterday?" He made sure to say it loud enough to catch the others' attention. It did.

Amber squeaked in delight. "Oh! You promised to show them to us when you were done. Do you have mine drawn yet?"

"Earth? Yeah, actually I did finish that one. I've also got Air, Water, and Spring almost done. Oh, and Fire but you guys can't see that one since you haven't found it yet."

"Rock on!" Tom crowed.

"Cool!" Neal agreed.

Kento reacted in confusion. "Earth? Your armor? What do you - ?" He stopped when Ryo shifted close enough to bat the back of his leg in warning with one of the foam swords.

"Would you guys be interested in playing?" Jag asked. "I have a few characters you could run."

"'Run'?" Sage echoed.

"Oh, sorry - play. You could play them. We call it 'running' a character. RPG lingo, I guess."

Sage exchanged meaningful looks with his friends. "We'd love to, Jag."


Author's Notes: Please be sure to check my bio page for any updates, etc. Thanks!