DISCLAIMER: Nope. Not me. However, I DO own the three bad guys. THEY ARE MINE!

AUTHOR NOTE 1: This fic can be taken one of two ways: as STRONG FRIENDSHIP fic a Shounen ai fic between Sage and Ryo. Also there will also be loads of torture—mental and physical—and I recommend for those of you who have weak stomachs to LEAVE now. I'm not shy to blood and gore. And I don't want you to flame me for the later parts because they did not know about this stuff. For those of you who actually do enjoy torturing someone—mainly Ryo—enjoy.

AUTHOR NOTE 2: For those of you who don't know, RYO'S DAD IS STILL ALIVE! He NEVER died. Most information websites are WRONG. Most people just like the thought of Ryo being an orphan; it opens the door to so many different possibilities. I like the idea too, but it doesn't fit with how nobody, not even an orphanage, picked Ryo up; because if his dad did die, do you honestly think he would still live in a cabin, in the woods, and walk to school? It doesn't fit, so I had to go back and change my entire story because some parts just didn't make sense due to the fact that I did all the things said above.

AUTHOR NOTE 3: xyxyxyxy: beginning and ending of Story, stststst: Scene Breaks, xlxlxlxl and lxlxlxlx: beginning and ending of Flashbacks, zozozozo and ozozozoz: beginning and ending of Visions, and kjkjkjkj and jkjkjkjk: beginning and ending of Dreams. These "…" are for speaking, and these '…' are for thoughts. I DO NOT LIKE HAVING TO CHANGE MY SYMBOLS, BUT FFN WON'T SHOW THEM. SO PLEASE BEAR WITH ME.


The Test of Strength

Chapter 1: Home, Plans, and Surprises

The war with Talpa was finally over. The city was once again back to its original state. The Warlord's had returned to the Nether Realm to undo the damage that had been done to it. The Ronin Warriors, also decided to return to their homes. Then after a week with their families they would meet back at Mia's mansion…


Kento Rei Fuan entered a two-story Chinese restaurant. The second floor was where his family lived and the first was the actual restaurant. Kento went to the back door and walked up the stairs to their living area. Once inside, he sat his stuff down and looked around. He heard voices from almost everywhere in the house. He walked into the kitchen to find his mother putting away clean dishes. His baby sister, Chan Fa, was sitting in a high chair watching their mother.

"When's dinner?"

Mrs. Rei Fuan whirled around, dropping the plate she was holding onto the floor. Luckily, it didn't break.

"Keento!" Chan Fa exclaimed and stretched her arms out for him to pick her up. He did, and gave her a huge hug.

His mother left the plate and joined her children. "It's about time you returned home. How was your trip?" she asked.

"It was quite an experience," Kento laughed.

Everyone heard the plate fall and ran to the kitchen to see what was wrong. "Kento!" his siblings, Rinfi, Yun, and Mei Ryu, exclaimed as they ran to hug him. Kento handed Chan Fa to his mother and hugged his other sister and brothers. Then he hugged his father and granddad.

When he pulled away he looked back at his mother. "I'm starving. When's dinner?"


Sai Mouri entered the apartment quietly. He didn't want his mother to know he was home yet, hoping to surprise her. His home was only a few blocks from Kento's, so he had ridden with his friend in the cab. He heard the television in the living room, and peeked around the corner to see if she was there. His mother and older sister, Sayoko, were on the couch watching some nature special. Sai leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Mind if I join you?" he asked.

Both women jumped and jerked their heads towards his direction.

"Sai!" his mother shouted and stood. They walked to meet each other and embraced. Sayoko rose from the couch and waited for her turn to hug him. After they all hugged and greeted each other, they sat on the couch with Sai in the middle.

"So how did it go?" Sayoko asked.

"It was kinda rough, but we had fun," Sai replied. He knew their families didn't know about their armors. They didn't even remember the war that took place in the city. Nobody did. So he couldn't really say too much.

"Did Kento spend the whole time eating?" his mother joked.

"Most of it!"


Sage Date entered his families' dojo. He walked through the door that led to his house. He went up stairs to his room and put his things away. Then he went into the hall and stopped in front of a mirror to check his hair. 'Perfect,' he thought.

"It's about time you got home, Sage," a voice said behind him.

Sage turned on his heels to face the person who spoke. It was his older sister, Yayoi. She walked up to him, slug an arm over his shoulder, and guided him into the living room. His whole family was reading quietly in different areas of the room. His mother looked up when they came through the door.

"Sage!" she exclaimed and ran to hug her son. Satsuki, his younger sister, wasn't far behind. Both females clung to him, squeezing out all the air he had in his body. His father was the next in line, but his embrace wasn't as life threatening as the two women's had been. His grandfather remained sitting in his chair. He waited until Sage approach him and bowed before he stood to hug the young man.

"So what happened?" his father asked.

Sage turned to face him, gave a thoughtful smile, and replied, "Everything."


Rowen Hashiba unlocked the door to his apartment. He knew his father would be at the University, like he always was. He heard some noise from the kitchen and decided to investigate. His hopes grew, thinking it was his father, but then they were overwhelmed when he saw his mother cooking at the stove. "Mom!" he exclaimed. Even though his parents were divorced his mother continued to stay with them when she was in town. It wasn't very often but Rowen enjoyed her company.

His mother jumped and whirled around, still holding a spatula in her right hand. Once she saw Rowen her whole body relaxed. "Rowen!" she exclaimed and ran to give him a hug.

"When did ya get he'ah?" they both asked in unison. They looked at each other, laughed, and hugged each other again.

His mother went back to cooking while Rowen sat at the table.

"I got back early this morning," she said while setting a plate of food in front of Rowen and one down for herself. She didn't have his accent due to her traveling so much.

"Ah got back a few minutes ago," Rowen replied.

"Genichirou told me a few weeks ago that you went on a trip with three friends." It was more a question than a statement.

"Act'lly, fo'ah. We met Ryo in Toyoma befo'ah we really got started," Rowen corrected her.

"Ryo? Isn't he the boy whose dad is always gone and lives in that cabin?"

"Yeah. That's 'im." Rowen's mind automatically went into worry mode. 'Ryo's all alone and isolated. Ah should've asked 'im t' come home wif me,' he thought. 'Nah. He would've insisted that Ah try t' spen' time wif m' dad. Besides, Whiteblaze is wif 'im. Ryo's a big boy. He can handle 'imself. And Talpa's gone. So is the Dynasty.' Rowen dismissed his thoughts and continued to talk to his mother. "So, how was ya'ah last assignment?" he asked changing the subject.


In the airport stood one teenage female with long red hair that went passed her waist, and one teenage male with raven black hair that went to his mid-shoulder blade. The two stood in comfortable silence, waiting for the call to board the plane. Mia hadn't wanted to stand by herself, so she had asked Ryo to accompany her. She had planned to go back to France to visit her parents and pick up more things for the mansion.

Ryo wasn't in a hurry to get home like everyone else had been. He knew his father wasn't there. The man hardly ever came home anymore since Ryo was old enough to look after himself. He preferred to write a letter every month promising he was coming home and apologize for not making the previous date he had set. Ryo hadn't seen his father in three years. Ryo talked to him once a week on the phone when his father called to check up on him and to hear about school. The call was always less than thirty minutes, and the letters where usually one to two pages. Ryo understood that his father loved his work, and had to work to keep up the income, but he missed seeing his father. Letters and phone calls weren't enough. Since Ryo's mother died when he was four, he'd learned to depend on himself, for he hardly ever seen his father, but it was more frequent than now. At least then he saw the man every other month or less. His father never stayed home more than five days, though.

Mia was glad that Ryo decided to come with her. For some reason, he was more comfortable to be around then any of the other boys. If Rowen had been here he would have been so engrossed in a book that he would have made a fool of himself by running into things or people. Sage would have gone to talk to other girls and left Mia by herself anyway. Sai would have made useless small talk and try to carry out a conversation if neither of them had a single thing to say. And Kento…Well, Kento would have run to the snack bar, ordered tons of food, then proceed to shove it down his throat. Ryo was different. Just him being there was relaxing. No one had to say anything because it might break the serenity of the moment.

She knew very little about Ryo, though, compared to the others. Mia knew that his mother had died when he was young, his father was a wildlife photographer, and that Whiteblaze had come to live with him when he was ten. By the way the two acted, she would have thought that the boy and tiger had been together forever. Mia also knew that Ryo had to walk nine miles to get to school; and that he was active in sports. He loved soccer the most and was very good at it. He was also a loner even though he could adapt to being around others. He had a really bad temper when he was really upset by something. One moment he would be fine, but the next he could just explode.

Mia glanced over at the boy standing next to her. Ryo was looking out the window. His facial expression showed that he was in deep thought. His tiger blue eyes revealed that what ever it was, it was sad. His face was always an open book for anyone to read. Unlike Sage, Ryo couldn't hide what he was feeling. If he was upset, everyone knew it. They just respected his wishes to leave him alone until he decided he was ready to tell them what it was. But Mia wouldn't be herself if she didn't try.

"You okay, Ryo?"

Ryo came out of his thoughts about going back to the cabin. He stared at her for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. You?"

Mia smiled. "Of course. I love plane rides. They're really exciting."

Ryo just gave her a weak smile in return. He liked flying too. Probably not as much as Rowen, but he enjoyed it nonetheless.

Mia dropped her smile and said seriously, "Are you sure you'll be okay. I mean, you could come with me to France."

Ryo gently shook his head. "It's okay Mia. I'll be fine. Besides, my dad might call and I don't want to miss it. You guys should have time alone with your families, anyway. I don't want to impose on anyone."

Aside from his father and Whiteblaze, Ryo felt that the other Ronins, Mia, and Yuli were his family. They were like his very own brothers and sister. The guys more so then Mia or Yuli, but that was to be expected. He had a bond with them due to the armors.

Even though he wanted to be with them and not be left alone, Ryo realized he was being selfish. They had families to go home to. He didn't resent that; he just didn't like the feeling of loneliness returning after he got use to being with the guys. And when they came into the picture, he had to admit that there was never a dull moment. They were so different that they just seemed to fit together in a way that no one could explain.

He hated being a burden to anyone. He also hated it when others worried about him. Ryo wasn't use to it, aside from Whiteblaze. He would have died a long time ago if it hadn't been for the tiger. He would have died at the age of four, right after his mother had died and he went out into the woods alone and got lost. And even if Blaze hadn't stayed with him then, Ryo always felt that the tiger was watching over him. He would give anything in his power for the tiger.

When Ryo thought Whiteblaze had died for all eternity he almost fell apart. He wanted to run the Soul Sword through himself; just to stop the pain in his heart. Then Whiteblaze came back to life, which was confusing, but Ryo didn't care. His best friend was back and that was all that mattered.

It was that feeling Ryo dreaded more than anything. He loved Blaze so much. Then because he caused the tiger to get hurt, his friend had died. He had lost part of his family that way; and because of him, or the fact that he couldn't help, they had died. And Ryo didn't want to go through that pain again. He didn't want to add another name to the list. He was hesitant for them to get too close, yet he didn't want to be alone any longer either. Ryo was confused but pushed it aside for other things.

He only had to survive a week, then they would all be together again. And the feelings of loneliness and helplessness would vanish.

"Don't worry about me, Mia. I've been on my own before. Besides, Blaze will be with me. So stop worrying. Just relax and have fun," he insisted cheerfully.

"Okay, but if you need anything go to one of the guys. Please," she begged.

"Your plane's here," he said and nodded.

A person came over the intercom and called for the passengers to get ready for boarding. Mia turned and looked at Ryo who quietly stood by her side. "I'll miss you, Ryo," she said as she took him in an embrace.

Ryo was shocked momentarily, but quickly recovered and returned the hug. "I'll miss you, too."

"See you in a week?" she asked as she pulled away.

"Of course."

Mia turned and headed for her entrance ramp. She turned and waved goodbye as she entered. Ryo watched the plane take off, then lingered for a bit longer. He got into a cab and went back to Mia's to get Whiteblaze.

"Hey boy," Ryo said as he exited the vehicle and paid the driver. "You ready to go?"

Whiteblaze gave the closest thing to a purr the large feline could manage as he rubbed up against his charge's legs. The raven haired boy climbed onto his back and stroked his head.

"Then let's go home." And with that the tiger took off towards their home deep within the forest.


Their week was almost over before they knew it. They had one day left to go before they got together at Mia's. Kento was at the restaurant cleaning tables when Sai entered. The British boy smiled and approached his best friend.

"Hey, Kento," he replied cheerfully. "Having fun?"

Kento glared at him before returning the smile. "Hey, Sai. And no. My mom's been making me clean tables and wash dishes all week."

"Well, I've been helping my mom and sister at the pottery shop all week. So don't feel too bad, my friend."

"Yeah, but you don't have to clean up food that people drop on the floor or sneeze all over the tables," Kento replied with an edge. "Such a waste…"

"Good point," Sai agreed. Then he grabbed an apron and a few rags from behind the counter. He walked back over to Kento who just smiled and shook his head. The two went to work on cleaning the tables people weren't seated at.


Rowen sat quietly in the park, reading a book, and waiting for Sage to show up. The blond had called earlier and they decided to meet in the park for a game of chess. Ironically, it was Sage who had challenged the blue headed boy to the match. At first Rowen was shocked, but then agreed.

So here he was. Sitting in the park all by himself. But hey, he was used to it; besides, he had a book to keep him occupied.

"Don't you ever get tired of filling your head with information?" a voice asked from behind him.

Rowen knew who it was. "Don' ya ev'ah get tired of fixin' you'ah hair?"

"Good one," Sage said as he sat down across from the other boy. "And no, I don't."

"I figured as much," Rowen smiled. "Ready?"


Ryo had called the guys a few times over the week, but his loneliness had finally gotten the best of him. He wanted to check up on the others. So he got up and left Whiteblaze to lounge around outside for a few hours.

Ryo spent the whole trip into town thinking about his friends, the battles with the Dynasty, and recent nightmares that plagued his sleep. He couldn't really make anything out of them, but something didn't feel right. And he didn't want the others to worry if there was nothing to worry about. He just wanted to make sure they were safe.

He decided to check on Kento, who was probably at the restaurant, first. If he wasn't there, he would probably be with Sai. Ryo walked up to the front window and looked in. He smiled at the scene before him. Sai was helping Kento wash tables. He couldn't hear what they were saying, but Sai suddenly threw one of his rags at Kento; hitting him square in the face. The next thing Ryo knew, Kento was chasing Sai around all the tables. The few customers the restaurant had only laughed at the two.

Kento was gaining on the smaller boy, and Sai knew it. He ducked under a table to avoid the other. Kento jumped up on the table, which was unfortunately, one of the ones the two boys had washed. Kento slipped and slid into Sai who had just stood up; only to fall back to the floor with Kento sitting on him. They both burst out laughing, stood up as best they could, calmed down, then went back to work.

Ryo smiled and shook his head. 'No matter what happens those two will always find a way to have a good time,' he thought to himself. He resumed his walk, only this time heading for the dojo Sage's family owned, feeling good knowing that half of his team was okay.

He stopped in front of the dojo but didn't see Sage inside practicing. His heart felt a slight pinch. 'Where could he be?'

Ryo continued to look for his friend, letting his instincts guide him. When he came to the park, he went in and looked around for Sage. It didn't take long before he spotted the blond, who was with Rowen playing a game of chess. It was Sage's turn, but a girl with long black hair walked by and caught his eye. He followed her as she passed and starred as she continued to walk.

"Sage? Sage. Earth t' Sage Date!" Rowen shouted. "Come back, Sage!"

"Wh-What?" Sage asked as he turned back to Rowen. "You say something, Ro?"

"It's ya'ah move."

"I know. I was concentrating."

"Yeah, Ah know what ya we'ah 'concentratin'' on," Rowen laughed.

Sage blushed, then joined Rowen.

Again, Ryo shook his head and smiled. He left without saying a word to either of them. That was the whole point in this trip. To see them, but not the other way around. Ryo continued his walk to Yuli's. 'Might as well see what the little guys up to,' he thought. He stopped in front of the boy's house and saw Yuli sitting on the couch with a Game Boy in his hands. He heard the boy's mother call for him, and watched as Yuli paused his game and ran out of the room.

Suddenly, a memory of his mother flooded his mind.


"Ryo-san!" she called from the kitchen.

A chibi-Ryo ran into the room. "Hai, Mama?" he asked.

"Mama made cookies. Do you want one?"

Chibi-Ryo's eyes grew twice as large with excitement and both of his hands shout up with his finger stretched out. "Please!"

"Alright, but first…" she began. Ryo knew she was going to test his knowledge. She always did. And he always let her. "What is one plus two plus twelve?"

Chibi-Ryo thought for a minute. Actually, it seemed longer than a minute, but his mother was very patient. She watched as he tried to count on his fingers. From what she could see, she had no clue what he was doing; but since he was a three year old, who could?

"Fifteen," Chibi-Ryo answered.

His mother slowly shook her head and frowned. Chibi-Ryo got the impression he was wrong so he lowered his head in shame.

"I just don't know how you do it," she said. When her son looked up she smiled. "You're pretty smart for a three year old."

He took the cookie and smile mischievously.

"What?" his mother asked.

"You asked me that last time. I got it wrong and you told me the answer."

His mother had forgotten that. She hated to ask him the same question in a row. The look in her eye told the small boy to run; so he did. He ran out the door, but his mother grabbed him and began to tickle him. He squirmed and laughed uncontrollably.


Ryo snapped back into the present and decided to make his way home. It would be late by the time he got there anyway. And he didn't want to worry Whiteblaze.

On his way back, he thought that he should go and visit his mother. He had been avoiding it all week. He usually only made the trip on the day she died, sometimes on her birthday. Aside from that, he rarely went up the mountain. But now he felt that he needed to go. So tomorrow, before he had to be at Mia's, Ryo would go visit his mother.


Ryo's fist slammed down on his alarm clock at four-thirty in the morning. Releasing a soft groan, he turned over onto his stomach and stuck his head under his pillow. He pulled the covers closer and tried to catch a few more precious minutes of sleep. Whiteblaze wouldn't have any of this. If he was going to be wide-awake, then so would his charge.

The white tiger crouched down, preparing to pounce. Ryo never knew what happened. One minute he was falling back into a peaceful darkness, then the next he had a heavy weight pushing him into his mattress. The tiger then proceeded to push the pillow up and groom Ryo's hair while he had the opportunity.

"ACK! You stupid tiger! Quit! I'm up already! Get uffff. " Ryo was cut off when Whiteblaze gave him a final shove into the mattress before he leaped to the floor. The boy sat up, glaring at the cat, which looked back innocently. "Don't look at me like that. It was bad enough you had to jump on me, but did you really have to lick my hair?"

"Wwwwffff," Whiteblaze replied, nodding his once, and looking as if he were smiling.

Ryo got out of his bed and made his way to his bedroom door. However, when he opened the door he was knock down as a white blur ran passed. "You stupid tiger," Ryo laughed. He got up and let his friend outside. He watched as the tiger quickly disappeared into the forest. He shook his head as he shut the door, then made his way back to his room. Once there, he grabbed some clean clothes and made his way to the bathroom.

Ryo turned the water on, let it warm up, and then added some cold water to make sure it wouldn't burn his skin off. He got rid of the boxers and shirt he was wearing and threw them into the hamper. He stepped into the shower and lowered his head so the water could run down his back. Whatever sleepiness he had still felt fled when the water touched his skin. He remained that way for a few minutes then started to clean the tiger spit out of his hair.

Once he finished his shower and got dressed, Ryo brushed the tangles out of his hair and brushed his teeth. He cleaned up the bathroom the best he could, then walked around the cabin, grabbing a few things for his hike. As he walked out the door, he grabbed his jacket off its hook. He stopped at a rose bush, his mother loved when she was alive, and proceeded to cut two of them off the way she had taught him.

He put two fingers in his mouth and blew, causing a loud whistle to echo throughout the forest. Ryo heard his friend running towards him. When Whiteblaze appeared from behind the trees cover, Ryo smiled and walked over to him.

"Ready to go, Blaze?" Ryo asked.

Whiteblaze rubbed his head against Ryo's leg, and purred in his own way. It sounded weird coming from an animal that didn't have the ability to purr, but Ryo knew what he meant. The boy reached a hand up and scratched behind the tiger's left ear. He heard another soft rumble from the tiger throat and his smile grew wider.

They started their journey at five; a few hours before the sun's light would show its promise of a new day.


Kento's alarm went off at eight. His eyes fluttered open, and he slowly got out of bed. He reached for the phone by his bed and dialed Sai's number.

"Hello, Mouri residence," a cheerful voice said.

"Sai?" Kento asked.

"Hai. Kento?"

"How did you know?"

"You told me yesterday you were going to call, baka," Sai chuckled.

"Have you heard from the others?"

"Sage called last night. He said Rowen and he had met yesterday to play chess. I ran into Rowen the other day, but you were there. And I talked to Ryo over the phone a couple days ago. He said he was busy cleaning the cabin."

"Yeah, and he had to give Whiteblaze a bath. I don't know who to feel sorry for, Whiteblaze or Ryo."

"Ryo," Sai answered automatically. There was a silence over the phone for a few seconds. "Has he even come into town this week?"

"Don't worry, Sai. Ryo can take care of himself. You should know that by now. And if he did, it was probably to stock up the cabin again. Don't worry so much," Kento assured him.

"Yeah, I know. Anyway, I asked Sage who was going to go get Yuli-"

"I will," Kento cut him off. "I have to run some errands for my dad anyway. You guys go ahead and see if you can help Mia."

"Sounds like a plan. Did you talk with Rowen or something?" Sai joked.

"Hey! I can come up with good plans, too, ya know," Kento tried to defend himself.

"I know, Buddy. It's just doesn't happen too often, now does it?" Sai continued to laugh.

"No," Kento chuckled. "Well, I'm starving, so I'm gonna go grab some breakfast."

He heard Sai sigh on the other end.

"Okay, Kento. I'll see you at Mia's. And don't forget to bring extra clothes."

"Hai, Mother."


Sage woke up at eight-thirty, sleeping later than he had wanted, but knew it was okay. He pulled himself out from the warmth of his comforter, dragged himself across his room, grabbed some fresh clothes, then made his way to the bathroom. The next two hours was spent showering and grooming his hair. He exited the bathroom to come face-to-face with Yayoi.

"What took you so long? I had to use Mom and Dad's bathroom!"

"You're worse than Kento," Sage mumbled before he headed back to his room.

He really missed the others. That was why he had asked Rowen to play chess yesterday. He knew he would lose but he just wanted the company of his teammate. Sure his sisters were there, and he loved them, but they were so annoying most of the time. Part of him admired Rowen and Ryo. They didn't have any siblings; it was just them. They didn't have to worry about getting yelled at if they spent too much time in the bathroom. But the other part pitied them for the same reason. They didn't have someone to talk to if they didn't want to talk to their parents.

Then Sage thought about their parents. Rowen's were divorced, but he was still able to see both of them. And although his father was always at work, all Rowen had to do was to go to the University and visit him. His mother was always at their place when she was in town, and she spent most of her time talking with Rowen. Ryo, on the other hand, didn't have a mother, and his father was always out of the country. Ryo wasn't even allowed to call his dad, for the man might have been trying to take a picture at the moment; so Ryo had to wait until his father had the time to call him. Sage had never met the man, but he knew-due to Ryo standing by him 100 percent if the subject came up- that the man was just as much a workaholic as Rowen's father was. But that thought didn't make Sage feel any better with the situation.

Sage walked into the kitchen and sat his suitcase down. He had already told his family he was leaving for a while. When they had asked about it he just said he and the guys were staying at the Koji mansion with a friend. At first his parents refused, but Sage said that he was going because he had promised, they were like his brothers, and he missed them. So his parents finally agreed. After all, he was mature for his age and he could be trusted.

He grabbed some breakfast then said goodbye. He left his home, heading for Rowen's apartment. It was 11:45, so his friend should be awake. When he arrived he went on up to the fourth floor and knocked on the door.

"Comin'" he heard Rowen call from inside. Then he heard a crash. "AW HELL!" Rowen shouted.

"Rowen? Are you alright?"

The boy in question opened the door. He stood there in a pair of shorts, wet hair, no shirt, juice all over his chest, and a book in his left hand.

"What happened!" Sage asked already knowing the answer.

"Ah tripped ov'ah the lamp cord!" Rowen shouted. Then he thought about it. "Ah guess it is funny once ya think 'bout it. Come on in."

Sage walked into the apartment as Rowen stepped aside. After shutting the door, Rowen went to take another shower, while Sage straightened the living room and cleaned up the mess. A few minutes later the duo left Rowen's and headed for Sai's.


Sai left his apartment and decided to head for Rowen's. His blue-haired friend was probably just getting up.

"Rowen! Watch it!" a voice yelled.

Sai looked across the road, quickly spotting Sage, who was pulling Rowen away from a telephone pole. Rowen had his face in another book, as usual.

"Sage! Rowen!" Sai shouted and waved his arm.

His two friends looked around then noticed him across the street.

"Hey!" they both waved.

Sai looked both ways and crossed the road. "Kento's going to pick up Yuli. He said for us to go ahead and help Mia if she needs it," he said when he reached the safety of the sidewalk.

"Sounds good. I don't really feel like riding in his van again," Sage replied.

"Ah know. Last time Ah was in it, Ah found half a burg'ah, candy wrapp'ahs, and thousands of coke cans," Rowen agreed.

"Then let's find a cab and get going," Sai suggested.

The other two agreed.


Mai was three-fourths of the way through making their lunch when she heard a knock at the door. It was now 1:00, and she still wasn't finished. She left the kitchen and went to the front door. When she opened it, she was greeted with three yellow roses and three bowing boys.

"These are for you," Sage said.

"Fo'ah askin' us t' come back," Rowen added.

"And for making lunch," Sai smiled as he smelled something coming from the kitchen.

Mia took the roses, raising them to her nose so she could smell them. She stepped to the side, allowing them to enter.

"Make yourselves at home," she said as she headed for the kitchen.

Sai sat his bags down by the stairs, then followed her. "Need a hand?" he asked.

"Thanks. I want to be done before Kento gets here," Mia answered.

"He's picking up Yuli, so I'd say we have at least another half hour."

"That'll have to do. Have you heard from Ryo?"

"Yeah, he's called all of us over the week. We just talked for an hour or so. He seems to be okay, I guess."

"I hope so."

"I'm sure he is," Sai assured her, but he had a bad feeling in his gut.

"Check mate!" They heard Rowen shout from the other room.

"MAN! NOT AGAIN!" Sage whined in a very unlike Sage way. "One more time."

"Don't ya ev'ah learn?" Rowen teased.

"Shut-up and play," Sage demanded.

Raising an eyebrow, Mia looked over at Sai. The boy just shrugged and went back to cutting up lettuce.


Ryo arrived at the grave-sight at 6:30 am. The sun's light had just begun to show over the far mountain. It had taken him awhile to get there. He would've usually stayed the whole day, unless it was a school day. But luckily, the school had just let out for summer. The guys and he had got a head of everyone and were passed to the ninth grade for next year. So know they had the whole summer to relax and have nothing to worry about.

Ryo approached his mother's headstone and sat in front of it. He set the roses on the corners. One represented his mother, and the other was his little sister. 'She would be alive if it weren't for me. They both would be,' he thought, lowering his head in shame.

Whiteblaze watched his charge and friend a few feet away. Ryo always did this to himself; always beat himself up over their deaths even though he couldn't have done anything to prevent them. It wasn't his fault that their time was over. There was nothing Ryo could have done. It was out of his hands.

Ryo allowed tears to roll down his cheeks. He ran his fingers over his mother's name engraved in the stone. "Gomen. I shouldn't have put off coming to see you. This is the first thing I should have done," he whispered. He sat there awhile longer, just running his hand across her name. "You wouldn't believe what all has happened to me, Mama. The guys are the best friends I could ever have. They're like family, ya know? It feels good to know I can count on them when I need them. They give me strength to keep going. Especially during the fight with Talpa. I would've died if it weren't for them."

He looked up to see the sun was now peeking out over the mountain. To conform the time, Ryo looked at his watch, which said it was almost nine. He had been there for almost three hours. If he left now, he would make it to Mai's with time to spare. With that in mind, he stood and bowed.

"Speaking of the guys, they're waiting for me. I'll come back to see you soon. Ja'ne."

Whiteblaze walked over and rubbed against Ryo's leg. The boy absent-mindedly scratched him behind his ear. They started to walk away, but Ryo paused for one last look. The wind ruffled his hair and he whipped the tears away from his eyes. He gave a sad smile before he began to follow his friend.

Something, like a creature breathing, sounded behind him. Ryo's reflexes kicked in and he turned to see what it was. He was greeted by some kind of dust being blown into his face.



IT'S A CLIFF HANGER! Aren't I evil?…No? Well, wait until you read what I do to my favorite Ronin in red. Mwwwwwwwwaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!