This fic is a collaboration between Ghost of the Dawn and myself. It takes place approximately four months after Courting The Jester, and is an alternate continuation of the storyline six years after Demons in the Doorway. Therefore assume Guardian Souls never happened and this is a brand new story. However it will continue on with the CTJ plotline already written, and reading that story along with DitD is necessary for this one to make sense. We hope you enjoy our crossover.

The Blinding Mask

Chapter One

Life has a way of repeating itself. No matter how far you go and what you have done, you always find yourself right back where you started from. Yes, Rowen was back in that same coffee shop, watching with growing disgust as Sage lifted his tea to his lips, took one measured sip, swallowed slowly, and gently set the cup back down on the table. The same intervals, the same speeds, the same movements…Rowen wanted to jump up and grab him by the immaculately pressed collar and shake him. Maybe spill some of that tea on his bright white shirt, or heaven forbid, on his perfectly pleated pants. Could it be imagined? Sage. Pristine and flawless Sage, dirty? The horror! The despair! The absolute agony that such a walking ideal of absolute perfection could possibly succumb to the ultimate indignity of lowering himself to join the rest of the flawed and humbled world through such an unfortunate mishap of epic proportions---

"Rowen, quit it," Sage said calmly, picking up his tea cup and raising it to his lips. "Stop staring at me. You look like you want to throw my drink in my face."

Rowen's eyes widened and then narrowed.

"You're really creepy, you know that?" he muttered, slouching down in the booth and tapping his fingers impatiently against the tabletop. "And it wasn't your face, it was your pants."

Sage lifted one sculpted eyebrow at the comment, but kept his eyes on the newspaper he was reading.

"Rowen, haven't you learned anything?" Sage asked him, turning his attention back to his cup. "You will never be able to get involved in my pants. I just don't feel that way about you."

Rowen snorted at the comment, but kept one eye focused on his friend's face. It had been over three months since they had fought their way out of Damian's snares, and since then he had not seen a smile or heard a joke come from Sage's mouth even once. The fact that he was attempting now, even in such a blasé way, gave Rowen a small bit of hope. But then Rowen's face clouded over again as his original thought came back to mind.

"Sage? What are we doing here? Why do we come back to this same place all the time? Drinking this same garbage. Always sitting in the same booth. You always face the door and I always sit here and I'm forced to stare at the damn wall with the nasty nail sticking out of it. Why are we like this?"

Sage sipped his tea in the calm way that he knew annoyed his friend. It gave him a morbid pleasure for some reason.

"Because," he replied. "It's routine. And I believe it is good for us to get back into routine after being out of it for so long. "

"Why?" Rowen shot bitterly. "So we can forget what happened?"

Sage's eyebrow twitched behind his cup and Rowen wondered for a moment if he had over stepped with that comment. Not that he hadn't before. He had been less careful about speaking his mind to everyone the past several months. But in this, he knew he was hitting a painful cord in Sage--a pain he could only imagine. And he honestly did not want to tear that old wound open on his best friend if he could help it. Sage did not have to say anything. Rowen knew Sage didn't want to forget. And even if he could, he would never be able to.

"No," Sage replied quietly after a while. "It's so we can move on. Nothing good comes from dwelling on the past."

Now it was Rowen's turn to twitch. Sage was now taking a quiet jab at him for not being able to get over some of his own issues. Turnabout was fair play, but Rowen still frowned.

"Well can we at least try a different booth once in a while? I'm tired of this window seat. Nothing really ever--"

There was a tap on the glass from outside. Both young men looked out the window. A woman about their age was standing there. She had bright red hair that was cut shorter than they remembered it, to her shoulders, and she waved at them. Rowen and Sage stared at her stupidly, feeling as if they were looking at something too surreal to be true. The woman breathed on the glass, fogging it up. Then she drew a little heart with an arrow on it. When neither Rowen nor Sage made any motion to respond, she frowned and flipped her middle finger at them. It was then, Sage finally got out of his seat and headed for the door. Rowen stared a moment longer before following. The red head stayed by the window, hands on hips, as Sage came out the door.

"Reflex time is a little slow," Robyn commented with a smirk.

Sage said not a word as he closed the distance between them. Robyn was more than a bit surprised when he swept her up into a tight embrace.

"Robyn," he said quietly into her ear. "We missed you."

Now it was Robyn's turn to freeze for a moment. Such a physical display of affection from Sage was something she was unprepared for. It didn't seem like him. Not that Robyn minded. It had been years since they had seen each other. Sage was allowed to change between the time she had seen him last and this change seemed to be for the better so far.

"Oh, I missed you guys, too!" she said as she hugged him back. "It is so good to see you!" She laughed. "For a moment, I thought you didn't recognize me."

By then, Sage had put her down and was looking thoughtful. It was practically impossible to mistake that head of hair for anyone else in Japan.

"I think it was more like it was so unexpected to see you in the window, we weren't sure if it was real or not."

Robyn laughed again.

"No, I totally get it. If I was walking down the street back home and saw one of you guys across the way I probably would have stopped and starred for a good while, too." She paused and looked past Sage's frame to see Rowen coming out the door.

"Rowen! Hey!" Robyn called, jogging over to him. With Rowen being as tall as he was, Robyn had no hopes of hugging him around the neck. So she settled for throwing her arms around his torso instead. From where he was standing, Sage could see Rowen stiffen in her embrace. He saw the mixture of confusion and emotion that ran over Rowen's face as he wrestled with his inner feelings. Finally, he placed his hands awkwardly on Robyn's shoulders and that was all he did to return the embrace. Robyn didn't really seem to notice. She was too happy to see them.

"So how did you know we were here?" Sage asked as he came up behind her. Robyn turned to him and grinned.

"You know, I didn't. I just happened to be passing by. I almost missed you, but then I saw this." She gestured wildly like Rowen had been during his earlier tirade. Sage tried hard not to laugh while Rowen frowned. Then he cleared his throat.

"So what are you doing here, anyway?" Rowen asked.

Robyn tipped her head curiously at him. His tone sounded so accusing like she had done something wrong.

"What he means is," Sage stated, trying to fix Rowen's comment. "Is that none of us heard you were coming out here."

"Oh yeah, I didn't tell anyone about it," Robyn confirmed. "It was really last minute. I just got in yesterday, found my apartment, and then slept off the jet lag until this morning. I was going to call Cye and trying to get in touch with you guys later today."

"Yeah, Kento and Cye both are working today. You wouldn't be able to get a hold of them until tonight," Sage confirmed. "I think Ryo's out playing around somewhere. If you have time, we can go see if we can find him."

"That would be great!" Robyn beamed. "Yeah, I've got time. But don't let me put you guys out if you have other things to do."

Sage looked at Rowen who seemed indecisive about the whole thing. He wasn't prepared for this. Wounds were still healing. It was still too soon. He wasn't sure if he could take this on.

"I'm free," Sage offered. "I can take you. Rowen, if you have other things to do..." There, he did it, even though it was against his better judgment. Rowen needed a kick start back into the real world, but Sage gave him a window to escape anyway.

"No," Rowen said with a sigh in his voice. "I have time. Let's go."

Sage allowed himself a quiet smile. Maybe Rowen was ready to take a step in the right direction. But this time, Robyn did pick up on Rowen's mood.

"Rowen, are you okay? You're not looking very well. Do you feel alright?" She reached up to feel his forehead, but Rowen jerked away so she couldn't.

"I'm fine," he insisted. "Just..." He trailed off, mumbling something as he moved off to Sage's car.

Robyn looked to Sage for an explanation. The blonde just shrugged nonchalantly. To this, Robyn shrugged, too. Rowen was always a moody one when he didn't have his way. It could be any number of reasons he was acting like this. She could wait it out.

Ryo had stripped down to his waist, and his skin was slick with sweat as he moved across the basketball court behind his old high school, dodging an imaginary player as he dribbled. As he was weaving on the open court, Ryo narrated his own play.

"Sanada races up the court! He fakes to the left! Oh! No one can touch him! He's wide open! He shoots!" He jumped up and lobbed the worn basketball unerringly into the hoop.

"And he scores! The fans go wild! The girls go crazy!" He made up his own audience sound affects as he went to get the ball and go for another play.

"Yeah! Ryo's my hero! Kya! Kya!" called a high, girly voice.

Ryo paused mid-dribble and looked behind him, surprised at the voice. It was familiar, but impossible. And yet, as he looked over, there was Rowen and Sage with a shorter red haired figure between them just a few yards away.

"Ryo!" Robyn squeaked happily and she darted away from Sage and Rowen, throwing herself at him. She wrapped her arms around his neck exuberantly and hugged him hard.

"Robyn!" Ryo grinned back. "Wow! No way!" He dropped the basketball to hug her back, but then quickly pulled away, realizing the state he was in.

"Uh, sorry," he apologized, wiping his sweaty palms on his shorts. "I bet that was kind of gross."

"I don't care," Robyn shot back. "Feels like I haven't seen you in forever! I want a hug!"

Shrugging, Ryo did as she requested and wrapped his arms around her. Robyn returned the embrace, enjoying the fact that at least one of them was short enough for her to get her arms around his neck.

"So how have you been?" Robyn asked.

Ryo grinned awkwardly into her hair. He wasn't sure how to answer that question. They were all alive. How was that for an answer?

"I'm ...okay," he finally managed to get out.

She pulled back so she could look him in the eyes. "Just okay?"

He shrugged, smiling. Robyn decided she would accept that as an answer for now. There would be time to better hear the details later. Ryo held her at arms length and looked her over.

"You look good, Robyn," he said automatically. And it was true. She looked a lot healthier than she had when they had first met her. Color was in her face, her eyes were bright and she was putting on weight, curving where young women were supposed to curve and it was pleasing to Ryo's eyes. Surprised at the comment, Robyn smirked back at him.

"What about you? Look at those abs." She poked him in the stomach. "Who you trying to impress? Trying to get lucky with the ladies?" She gave a sensual growl and a not so serious wagging of her eye brows. Ryo's face instantly flushed bright red.

"No…I just..." he stammered, then flushed even more as he darted off to grab his shirt. Robyn chuckled as he left.

"Oh, he is so fun to tease. That boy's too innocent for his own good."

"Hey now, be nice to my friend," Sage chided playfully. "He does the best he can."

"Stop talking about me like I'm not here," Ryo responded with the same humor. Sage raised his hands to Ryo, who promptly passed him the ball. Sage dribbled in place for a moment, then cut to Ryo's left, by-passing his leader and doing a lay-up. It started a game and Robyn fell back with Rowen to make room.

"You guys want to play?" Ryo asked over Sage's shoulder.

"Naw," Rowen replied. "Weak ankles."

Ryo snorted and Sage rolled his eyes. Rowen looked over at Robyn and winked at her. She grinned back. This was more like the Rowen she knew. Maybe he was feeling better now.

"Well since most of you know I'm here, do you want to try to get together with Cye and Kento tonight?" Robyn asked.

The ball slipped away from Ryo and Sage and bounced in Rowen's direction. He bent down and picked it up, idly spinning it in his hands before turning towards the hoop and shooting it. It bounced off the edge and went flying the other way. Ryo gave Rowen an exasperated look as he dashed off the opposite direction to catch it.

"Gee, Rowen, are you sure you don't want to play? You're so good, you know," he said sarcastically.

Rowen grinned. "No thanks, Ryo. I have a class to get to. I'll leave you ladies to your fun."

That comment was deliberately ignored but Rowen still winked at Robyn again. She smiled at him, waiting for him to bust out some sort of flirtatious suggestion, and Rowen seemed like he was going to indulge himself in some perviness. But whatever came to his tongue died there, and he gave her a tight grin.

"See you later Robyn," he said. "Let me know if you guys are all going to get together later. I don't want to miss out."

"Um, sure," Robyn replied, confused once again by his response. She watched Rowen turn and walk away. It took about twenty feet before he retreated inside himself, his head bent over, and his eyes flickering over the ground, not seeing a thing. Ten more feet and she could tell by his expression he had forgotten her completely. It shouldn't hurt, Robyn told herself, but it kind of did. Yeah, she had been the one to leave, but she was back now. Rowen had always been the one Robyn fell back on when she wanted friendly companionship. The old Rowen would have ditched class to hang out with her, as if he needed to go very often anyway, or would have tried to drag her to class with him. This Rowen had withdrawn, and Robyn already could tell she didn't like it. The guys were allowed to change, everyone did, but not in ways that weren't good for them.

"Hey, earth to Robyn," Ryo said, tapping her shoulder. Robyn started, caught up in her thoughts about Rowen.

"Huh?" she wondered, turning around.

"Sage asked if you needed a ride anywhere," Ryo repeated.

"Oh um, I don't really have anywhere I need to be right now...You guys wanna come see my place?"

"Okay! I'll go," Ryo agreed. "How about you, Sage?"

The blonde nodded. He didn't have much to do that day either. And it made the other two happy since he would obviously be their ride. The three of them set out of Sage's car.

"And we're getting together tonight, right?" Robyn clarified. "No one answered me earlier."

"Sure are!" Ryo agreed again. Sage glanced at his watch.

"I think Cye gets off in a couple of hours and then we can just head down to Kento's family's restaurant. That's where he works."

"Sounds like a plan," Robyn nodded, as they all got in the car. "Um... is Rowen okay? He didn't really seem like himself today. I thought maybe he wasn't feeling well but now...I don't know."

Ryo, who was in the passenger seat, looked at Sage as he started the car, not sure of what to say.

"Ignore him," Sage said frankly as they drove off. "Rowen's in one of his self-involved funks. He'll get over it."

Robyn couldn't see it, but Ryo's face didn't look convinced. Rowen had been that way for a while now. It was possible he wasn't ever going to "get over it". But Robyn didn't know that and let it be. She turned her attention to giving Sage directions to her place.

Rowen's hands were buried in his pockets, head down and lost in thought as he walked across campus. The tall building that housed the science department loomed over him, half threatening to those who didn't like to work, half welcoming to those who did, and entirely unconcerned with the students that passed beneath its shadow. If there was one thing university life had taught Rowen, it was that the individuals who regularly roamed the halls, attending classes and stressing about final exams, they rarely mattered. They were a by-product of the campus, fleas clinging to a dog, fighting for what they needed to survive, then moving on, unnoticed and unacknowledged. Almost six years he had spent on his higher education, and he could count on one hand the differences he had made in the school. Rowen knew he was lucky. Most students couldn't even say they had accomplished that much.

Rowen barely raised his head as he entered the building, navigating the halls with an uncanny precision. He'd been asked before how it was that he could seem completely oblivious to where he was going and yet never run into people or lose his way. Rowen had always smiled and shrugged in reply. An actual answer would have required too much explanation and too private of information.

The truth of the matter was that Rowen could "feel" others in passing. It was so subtle it was almost an unconscious thing; someone would be approaching from the other direction and the air would shift, marking their passage. Rowen would instinctively feel the shift in his environment and adjust accordingly. It was a small thing, and Rowen had never really dwelled upon it. Rowen had never stopped to consider that it was an awareness brought on by his armor, and that if asked, the others would have no idea what he was talking about. Sage might have pointed out that it was not an ability acquired to enhance Rowen, but a survival response from the armor of Strata itself. In high school it wasn't uncommon for Rowen to randomly run into people when he wasn't paying attention. Even armors might have coping mechanisms, and prefer not to be jostled about unnecessarily. But the armor had never said, Rowen had never asked, Sage had never commented, and all of this was left un-thought as the blue haired man shifted sideways to let an undergrad pass by without bumping shoulders. She looked at him and gave him a sweet smile, the same smile she gave him every time she saw him wandering the halls, which Rowen forgot to notice. She shook her head with an amused expression as he passed, completely unaware.

Rowen unlocked the door to his group's research lab, slipping inside and closing the door behind him. Technically he was supposed to leave the door open if he was there, making himself available to the other students if they needed homework help. It was part of his duties as a graduate student, but Rowen wasn't in the mood to be helpful. A small desk in the corner had become his "spot", and the desk was covered in books waiting to be read and stacks of papers waiting to be graded. Rowen grabbed one of the books and sat down on his swivel chair, spinning slowly as he thumbed through the pages. He had a class in a few minutes and he should have read the required pages much earlier than this, but he hadn't been able to focus very much lately. After scanning two pages Rowen dropped the book in his lap with a soft curse, leaning back and staring around the room.

"Why the heck am I even here?" Rowen asked himself irritably. "Robyn's back in town. I should be with her right now."

But Rowen already knew the answer to that one. From the moment that Robyn had thrown her arms around him, Rowen had felt increasingly uncomfortable. He loved Robyn, she was…had been one of his very best friends. But things were different now, stuff had happened that none of them had really talked about, and that stuff had changed them all. Had changed him. And as much as he loved Robyn, Rowen wasn't sure he wanted those knowing eyes to stay on him for too long. Without prying, Robyn still had a way of finding out their darkest secrets. Robyn had looked great, healthy and happy. She had seemed so excited to see them, and from the small things that she had said while they went to find Ryo, her life was really good right now. The last thing Rowen wanted was for Robyn to see the reality of him right now.

He was just so…angry. After they had escaped the cave, Rowen had done a lot of soul searching. He had decided that he needed to make peace with both Mia and…her. He had set down his confusion and hurt and had been ready to make a peace offering. But then she had just…left. Even months later, the memories that had been returned to him swirled around in his head, intruding upon his thoughts when he least expected it. He could be sitting in a classroom, focused on the lecture in front of him, or driving down the road minding his own business, and then unexpectedly a memory would assault him. The feel of her skin, the smell of her perfume, the sound of her voice when there was no one else but them, the way she looked at him out of the corner of her eye, everything. The memories were old and sometimes hazy, but they cut deep. It left him feeling weakened and confused, distracted and lonely, and above all frustrated. Rowen knew he needed to let go of his anger, that it didn't help him, but he couldn't.

The campus bells chimed the turn of the hour, indicating that not only had Rowen been sitting silently lost in his thoughts for almost fifteen minutes without realizing it, but that he was also late to class. Instead of dashing out of the room, Rowen slowly stood, the unread book clasped to his side. He looked around. Not too long ago he had been sitting right here and his world had changed. As he shut off the lights and let himself out of the room, forcing himself to head towards the classes that he had once loved, Rowen knew exactly why Mia had done the things that she had done.

"Nice place," Ryo commented as he surveyed the inside of Robyn's new apartment. "It's..."

"Sparse..?" Robyn helped with a laugh as she looked over the empty room and the bare walls. "Yeah, it's a bit empty and kind of small. But I like it. It's cute and cozy. I mean, I do have a couch and a bed. What more do I need?"

As Ryo and Robyn happily chatted, Sage wandered to the window and looked out. It seemed like a nice enough neighborhood. Then, Sage paused for a moment as a feeling came over him. Something about this place was setting off his sixth sense. He looked around him, both in the room and out the window. Nothing seemed immediately threatening and he calmed again. The feeling he had didn't feel neither good nor evil. It just seemed a bit unsettled. Which was fine; he had experienced places like that before, where the spirits weren't necessarily bad, just a little more active than usual and restless. The feeling passed and Sage thought no more of it.

The three friends hung around until it was about time for Cye to get off work. Sage had his number on his cell phone and was the one to call Torrent. Robyn laughed when she could hear Cye's exclamation at the news from her place on the couch. Sage had to hold the phone away from his ear at the outburst. After Cye had calmed down and stopped yelling at a smug Sage who refused to let Robyn on the phone to talk to him, he promised to meet them at Kento's family restaurant as soon as he was able.

Sage chuckled as he hung up the phone and Robyn wondered again about him. He had surprised her when she first ran into him and now. Not only did Rowen seem different, so was Sage. The blonde still seemed just as disgusted with the world as usual, but now, he seemed less inhibited. As if whatever he had been hiding or trying to avoid before had either been exposed or he just didn't care any more. It was something else Robyn could take time to analyze later.

Sage dialed one more number, letting Rowen know what their plans were, before the three of them headed out to the car. Robyn's mouth was watering by the time they reached the restaurant. She breathed in deep the familiar smells. She had missed this place. Not only the atmosphere, but the food was fantastic. They were greeted by the hostess as they came in and Sage told her how many people they were expecting.

Kento was out working the floor. When he glanced towards the entrance, he noticed Ryo standing there and waved to him. Ryo waved back and then pointed to the top of a red head who wasn't paying attention. Kento blinked a few times, trying to figure out who it was. Then he stared and started to walk forward as if on automatic. He had a tray in his hands and hastily shoved it into the stomach of a surprised young waiter. The waiter took it without complaint, obviously scared of Kento, who was bigger and his parents owned the place.

Robyn didn't even notice he was coming until a pair of huge arms wrapped around her and easily lifted her off her feet.

"Ah! Kento!" Robyn squealed and squirmed in his grasp. "Put me down!"

Kento did so, but the second he did, Robyn turned right around and hugged him, to which Kento returned.

"Hey Robyn! Where'd you come from? Why didn't you tell anyone you were coming back? Unless..." He shot a dark look to Ryo and Sage. If they knew and didn't tell him, there would be hell to pay.

"Oh, no no!" Ryo waved his hand nervously. "We didn't know either! We were all surprised! Honest!"

Kento let it go and turned back to Robyn, holding her at arm's length.

"Wow Robyn, how long has it been? Six years?"

Robyn shrugged. "Sounds about right. Sorry it took me so long to get back to see you guys."

"No worries," Kento grinned back. "It's a long ways away. I'm just glad you made it back at all." He looked her over. "Wow, you've really changed. You look kind of hot now."

Robyn's jaw dropped and she gaped at him. She looked a mixture of stunned and offended. Kento laughed and then hollered to earlier scared waiter that he was done for the day and was going to hang with his friends.

"Is that okay?" Ryo asked as they all sat down at a booth. "Just taking off from work like that?"

"It better be okay," Kento grouched. "I've pulled in SO many hours this week."

"Aw, my poor Kento," Robyn sympathized, rubbing his back.

Kento sighed and leaned into her, resting his head on her shoulder like a dog asking to be petted. Robyn happily obliged and rubbed his back some more and coddled him while across the table, Ryo and Sage looked on a bit jealously.

"Oh, there he is," Ryo announced, sitting up straighter.

Robyn perked up and looked behind her to the door. She saw Cye walk into the restaurant and look around and she squealed.

"Let me out! Let me out!" she ordered, now slapping Kento's arm, trying to get him to move out of the booth faster.

"Fine, fine!" he sighed, slowly pulling his tired body out, a bit disgruntled Cye was ruining the attention that he was getting.

Robyn quickly made her way over to him and even though Cye was much taller now, she jumped up so she could hug him around the neck. Cye grunted and took a step back as he caught her. She was a bit heavier than he remembered. Once he got his balance, he held her back as Robyn gushed over him.

"Oh Cye! It's SO great to see you! I missed you so much!" Robyn exclaimed, pulling away from him and grabbing his face in her hands. "Let me see you! Oh you've grown so handsome! Look at you! I love this face!" She pulled him in for Eskimo kisses and that was when Cye started struggling.

"Yes, yes! I got it! I got it! I'm happy to see you, too! Now let me go!"

Robyn didn't let him go and Cye had to practically drag her with him over to the table where his friends were all laughing at him.

"So when did you get in and why didn't you tell anyone?" Cye then asked, sitting on the same side of the booth as Kento with Robyn between them.

Robyn shrugged. "As I told Sage and Ryo, it was kind of last minute. I've been planning to come back to Japan for a while, but I wasn't sure when. Last week though, I came upon this great deal for an apartment when I was surfing for rooms on the internet and I couldn't pass it up. So I booked the place, got a plane ticket and came over. I just got in last night."

"So what are you gonna do here?" Kento then popped in. "You staying for a while or...?"

"I signed a three month lease with the apartment," Robyn replied. "I was thinking of just staying for the summer. There's some things I wanted to take care of here and, of course, see you guys. Tomorrow I'll probably go out and look for a job."

"So how can I get a hold of you?" Cye asked.

"I've got a phone at my place," Robyn replied. "Anyone have a pen?"

Sage pulled out one out of his pocket and Robyn scribbled a number down on a napkin and held it out. It was mostly in Cye's direction, but anyone at the table could easily grab it.

"Yoink!" Kento called as he snatched it and put it in his pocket.

"Kento!" Cye protested.

"Ha ha! Too slow, Cye. She's all mine now." Kento chided back.

"No worries here," Ryo piped up, looking smug. "I know where she lives."

Sage nodded and Cye frowned at all of them. It was then a thin, blue haired young man came in. He wasn't noticed until he sat himself at the booth next to Ryo and Sage.

"Sorry it took me so long, did I miss anything?" Rowen asked.

"Only Kento undressing me with his eyes," Robyn retorted.

Cye's eyes widened, then glared at Kento who sheepishly waved away the accusation, insisting that wasn't the case. Robyn laughed and everyone settled into friendly conversation as they ordered and ate their meals. Robyn was anxious to hear about how everyone was doing; who was studying what in school or working where. When asked about herself, she would give short answers in bored tones and immediately direct questions back at them.

Ryo worried about it for a while. He could tell from his friend's postures that they were worried Robyn was going to ask a question that would be hard for them to answer. And since they didn't know she was coming, they never had time to discuss it. Not that they hadn't had four months to discuss things already. In truth, this was what bothered Ryo the most. The fact that none of them ever talked about the events that had thrown their lives into a tailspin, or the crushing reality of the memories that had been returned to them. They especially didn't talk about that overwhelming awareness of their own limitations and weakness, brought on by their first true defeat. Yes they had still won, but not because of their strength as warriors. Everyone knew what had happened, but it was as if saying it out loud would somehow make it worse; make it feel more real. And thus, it was Ryo's opinion that none of his friends were healing and they were about as worse off as they were right after it happened.

But now they were going to have to discuss it at some point, weren't they? At least to consider what they were going to tell Robyn. Again, Ryo had the feeling his friends would not be in favor of telling her anything. They all wanted to continue living their lives that everything was okay; that none of them were hurting inside. Especially through Robyn, they wanted her to believe it so they could continue to believe it, too.

To the relief of the Ronins, Robyn's questions continued to be about every day things. No mention whatsoever of armors or fighting. Soon, everyone was relaxing more and happily answering her questions. It was refreshing for all of them to talk with someone who didn't know what had transpired a few months ago. Who didn't look at them just so, knowing they were all hiding something. Knowing that had been lying to themselves for months. Someone who didn't look at them with anger or pity or guilt.

That night, Ryo let it be. He let the pretend go on and found himself being swallowed in it as well. He missed talking and laughing and feeling safe and happy with those he cared about around him. It was worth it to avoid that one topic no one wanted to talk about. In that revelation, Ryo realized he really didn't want to tell Robyn what had happened to them. He didn't want to see the reaction on her face if she knew, even a little bit about it. He didn't want her to stop smiling at them and suddenly feel sorry for them instead. And he didn't want to take away this little bit of a sanctuary away from his friends. Let them go on pretending through her that everything was fine, even if it was just for these three months.

After dinner, Cye insisted Robyn come home with him to see his mother. Robyn was more than happy to oblige. Everyone else decided to come along and jumped in with those who owned vehicles and drove off to Cye's house. As she was let in, Robyn marveled how the place still seemed so familiar though it had been several years since she had been there. When Mrs. Mouri saw her standing in the living room, she gave a shrill cry, as did Robyn, and both ran to each other, hugging and crying while the young men all stood around awkwardly. Robyn didn't think she would cry when she saw any of them, but she couldn't help it this time. Mrs. Mouri was the closest thing to a mother she had ever had and coming back to this house was like coming home.

After things had settled, Cye's mother stayed with them, chatting a bit. She really enjoyed having all of them in her house. It had been a while since they had all been in her living room like that. Even just the five Ronins. Since high school, it was hard to catch all five of them together at any given time. So she made sure to soak up the moment as much as she could. But as the night dragged on, Mrs. Mouri had to excuse herself to bed for she had to get up early. She made Robyn promise to come by again before heading upstairs.

After she left, the conversations grew quieter and far between. They all seemed fairly content just to sit in each other's company, whether they were talking or not. And Robyn may not have noticed, but the Ronins were talking volumes to each other just with their eyes as they tried to figure out what they were going to do about Robyn, if anything, while she was there. Maybe it would be best just to let things be as they were. But they would need some time to figure that out in greater detail later.

"Wow, it's late," Robyn finally realized, looking at her watch. "I completely lost track of the time. I need to get home soon."

"I don't know why you won't just come stay with us like you did before," Cye told her. "You know how much Mom would like that."

Robyn gave Cye a sweet smile and reached out, hugging his arm tightly. "That's really nice of you, Cye, but I don't want to impose. Plus it's kind of neat having my own place, making my own rules, going where I want to—hey, woah!" Robyn's eyes got big as she started squeezing his bicep curiously.

"Wow Cye, look at you! Mr. Muscle man now! What have you been doing, working out every day?" Cye blushed from pink to scarlet as Robyn began squeezing various parts of his body to see if the rest of him had become as rock hard as his arms. She grabbed his stomach, and Cye jumped back, swatting ineffectually at her.

"Robyn!" Cye sputtered, mortified, "Stop groping me!"

Robyn arched an eyebrow at him.

"Are you saying you don't like it?" She grinned evilly at him as she placed a hand on his knee and slid it up his thigh.

Cye made a shrill sound that none of his friends had heard him make in a long time. He jumped and grabbed her hands. "I said stop!"

Robyn laughed at Cye's face which had gone bright red. Kento was chuckling at her antics and even Sage look amused.

"Oh come on, Cye," Robyn joked, "Who died and made you such a prude?"

Cye went instantly still. Robyn didn't notice at first, intent on now finding the most ticklish spot she knew he had between two of his ribs. She did notice however when he grabbed her hand in a gentle but firm grip, his face flat of emotion. Robyn looked up at him in surprise, then noticed that the others had become very quiet. Kento was looking away, rubbing his head the way he did when he was particularly uncomfortable. Sage's face had gone stony, and his visible eye gleamed with an odd light. Ryo was looking at her with a mixture of sympathy and embarrassment. Rowen blinked as if he had missed the entire thing.

"What?" Robyn asked quietly, sobered. "What did I say?"

Kento cleared his throat, but no one said anything. Finally Ryo gave her a gentle smile and placed a hand on her shoulder.

"We've all kind of grown up, Robyn," Ryo said to her, turning her so that she faced him. "It's going to make us more serious. Plus things have happened these last few years. A friend of ours died a while ago." Ryo could almost feel the others flinching. This was not a topic they wanted brought up so soon, if not at all. But Ryo continued anyway, staying as vague as possible.

"It was very sudden and they were a very good friend of Cye's." Ryo left it at that, offering no other information.

"Oh," Robyn balked, looking surprised. "Wow, I had no idea. I'm sorry." She turned to Cye. "I didn't mean it that way. It was just an expression. But if I had known, I wouldn't have--"

"It's okay," Ryo said kindly, squeezing her around her shoulders. "You've been gone a long time, Robyn. There's no way you could have known."

"Don't worry about it," Cye added. "I know you didn't mean anything by it. I took it way out of context. It's my fault I--" He paused when Robyn leaned in to hug him tightly around the torso, tucking her head under his chin.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "Please don't be sad."

A different emotion coursed through Cye's chest. It still hurt, but it wasn't the same grief. It was something else. Since remembering her death, no one had ever said a word to him about Cassie, not even Sage. None of them wanted to speak of that time or anything about it. It was like she hadn't really existed and it tore Cye up inside. But if he said anything, if Cye started it, he would bring a wave of unwanted emotions to everyone and he did not want to be the cause of it. So he bled silently inside himself, praying half that she, that THEY, had happened, and half that they hadn't.

For four months he had lived that way and he felt his heart grow cold and dead inside him despite the smile he plastered on his face. But then Robyn had showed up and his heart had stirred. He was reminded what it felt like to feel for someone dear to him outside his team. And he had never loved Robyn more than he did right that moment. Even though she had never met Cassie, never knew how Cye felt for her, Robyn was the only one. She was the only one who held him and said she was sorry it happened and to please not be sad.

Cye's arms instantly went around her and he embraced her fiercely. He closed his eyes as he rode the wave of emotion that washed over him. He still hadn't even been able to bring himself to cry over what had happened. His heart had been hardening to the point where he wondered if he could cry again. But now he felt something different. Something hurt and some pressure on his heart felt like it was releasing at the same time. And for a moment, he didn't want to ever let her go.

The group stayed quiet, letting them have their moment. Sage looked away, his face a mask void of any emotion.

"Well, I've got to bail, guys" Kento told the group as he got up and stretched. "I've got to get to the restaurant early tomorrow morning. There's a shipment coming in and it seems like they mess it up every week. I've got to make sure everything's alright." He reached out a hand to Robyn with a "Come here" and pulled her to her feet, hugging her and patting her back.

"It's good to have you back, Robyn," he told her. Robyn smiled into his shoulder as she tried to hug him back. The guy had gotten so massive, she could hardly fit her arms around him.

"It's good to be back," she said as she pulled back. "Too bad it's getting so late. I probably should go, too."

Everyone else was agreeing as they checked the time. They weren't teenagers any more. They were adults with adult responsibilities. They had jobs and school and no time for staying out all night like they used to when they were young.

"Do you want to get together tomorrow?" Robyn asked them all, but more Rowen specifically. Rowen had always been her partner in crime and she felt the urge to spend some quality time with him, especially since he hadn't spoken much all evening. Rowen seemed to have not heard her, a million miles away as he dug absently in his pockets for his keys.

"Rowen!" she raised her voice. His head snapped up, making his blue hair bob and fall messily across his forehead. He seemed surprised, but Robyn couldn't guess why.

"Uh, yeah. Sure, Robyn. Tomorrow," Rowen murmured.

Robyn threw a glare at him.

"That lacks the commitment I was hoping for," she stated, putting her hands on her hips.

Rowen stared at her for a second, then seemed to come to himself. He grinned ruefully at her and gave her a mocking half bow, grabbing her hand.

"Yes ma'am. I will be at your beck and call tomorrow. I will be desolate if you deny me the pleasure of your company. I will await eagerly for the very moment that I am allowed-" Rowen was cut out by a thump to the back of his head.

"Hey!" he protested, glaring at Sage.

"Leave her alone," Sage said mildly, also putting on his jacket. "And get going. You have class early tomorrow morning."

Rowen rolled his eyes and dropped Robyn's hand.

"Yes, mother," he replied sarcastically. Rowen gave them all a half wave and followed Kento out the door. Robyn didn't even realize until the blue head disappeared into the darkness that he hadn't given her a hug goodbye. The old Rowen used any excuse he could to hug on her, especially in front of Cye since he knew it bugged the Ronin of Torrent so much. She tried not to feel too disappointed.

Robyn turned back to the other three, who had formed a loose triangle in front of her. She smiled brightly. Instead of hugging them each individually, Robyn consolidated her efforts and threw her arms as wide as she could, managing to hug all three guys at once. Cye chuckled quietly and Ryo laughed outright. Robyn pulled back and gave them a small wave.

"Well, I'll be going now. I'll definitely give you guys a call when I'm done job hunting." She started to turn, but a hand on her elbow stopped her.

"Hold up, Robyn," Sage said, his fingers light on her arm. "One of us will walk you home."

"Oh no," Robyn started to object, "Don't worry about it. I'm perfectly fine. I can just take the subway and-"

Sage's hand tightened slightly, although still gentle enough not to cause her discomfort. Robyn had the distinct feeling that the light grip couldn't be pried off with a crowbar.

"We will take you home," Sage repeated, half to himself, half to the others. They nodded seriously.

"Uh, okay…" Robyn agreed, kind of confused. She raised an eyebrow at the three suspiciously, but let it slide.

Ryo flushed slightly at the look she was giving them. Robyn had never liked being told what to do. But she had grown up too, and she was more patient and tolerant than she used to be, so she didn't make a fuss about their protectiveness. In fact, one look at both Sage and Cye's grim expressions, Robyn didn't feel like contradicting them at all. Things were different now, they were different. They seemed the same on the surface, but underneath her friends had become…harder.

"I can do it," Ryo offered. "I live only a few blocks over. It's on my way."

It was only then did Sage let go of her arm, satisfied. Again, Robyn gave the blonde a curious look. He still did things that confused her and never offered any explanation. Maybe he hadn't changed as much as Robyn initially thought.

Robyn waved to the remaining two Ronins one last time before she and Ryo disappeared out the door. This left Cye and Sage alone together in the stillness. Cye shifted in the awkward moment. There hadn't been a time the two of them had been alone together after the incident. They tried their best not to make it happen. It had been awkward at times when Cassie was alive. Now, the stillness was almost unbearable.

Cye's insides were churning. Ever since Robyn's earlier comment, he wanted to say something. He was dying to say something. And now that it was just him and Sage, he could finally speak to the one person who understood his grief.

Cye opened his mouth and Sage turned his back, grabbing his jacket.

"Good night, Cye," Sage said, his face as blank as ever. With that, he was gone. Cye listened to the door shutting behind him and then was left alone in silence.

Ryo and Robyn spent the subway trip in comfortable silence. It was late and neither had much energy to continue with their earlier happy chatter. Ryo didn't mind. He wasn't much of a talker anyway. He was usually content to just sit around and enjoy the others' company while they talked. Robyn herself, while a talker, was probably still trying to adjust to the time zone. They were only a few minutes into the ride when her head slumped over onto his shoulder. Ryo smiled at that. How was it that she had been gone so long, and so much had happened without her, but she could go right back to being the way she was? She made it feel like no time had passed at all. Half asleep, Robyn slipped her arm through his and snuggled closer to him.

Ryo looked down at the top of her head. He remembered back then when she had suddenly left them, left the entire country, without any warning whatsoever. He remembered how his friends reacted when they found out. Some of them were angry, some were sad, others confused. And yet, the truth was, Robyn had unknowingly dodged a bullet by running. A large, ravaging bullet that would have changed her forever. Maybe even killed her.

A shadow fell over Ryo's face as he thought about what had already happened to those who had been involved. Both the Ronins and their friends. He fervently wished nothing like that would ever happen again and no more people he cared about would be sucked into such a nightmare. If Robyn had still been living with them at that time...Ryo didn't even want to try to imagine.

The subway doors hissed open and Ryo grabbed Robyn's shoulders, pulling her awake and to her feet, lest they miss their stop. Once out in the cool night air, Robyn had an easier time staying awake. Ryo walked next to Robyn, his hands in his pockets, his shoulders relaxed and his stance easy. Every once in a while he would playfully bump into her when she wasn't expecting it, keeping her on her toes. Robyn would laugh each time and thump him back. This was the Ryo she was used to: happy, fun-loving, quiet and gentle. He seemed more outgoing than before, holding his head higher. Gone was the uncomfortable and awkward backwoods boy and in his place was a man secure in who he was, but still the same Ryo. Robyn was about to say so, turning and opening her mouth. Something about Ryo made her clamped her mouth shut, however, and she watched him out of the corner of her vision.

Ryo's eyes were sweeping the city streets systematically, moving right to left, top to bottom, before returning to start over again. As relaxed as he seemed to be, Ryo was definitely on edge, like he expected them to be attacked at any moment. Robyn added that to the long list of things that had been confusing her lately.

"Ryo?" she ventured. Ryo looked at her curiously, catching the tone of uncertainty in her voice. Robyn decided to not skirt the issue.

"Ryo, are we safe here?"

The question seemed to catch Ryo off guard, and he didn't respond immediately. They walked a bit further as he formulated a cautious reply.

"Why would you think we wouldn't be safe?" he asked, his voice deliberately light.

"Because you're watching everything like you might be expecting something to happen." That was blunt enough. Ryo looked at her seriously, then a small rueful smile touched his lips.

"Straight to the point as always," Ryo murmured. He shook his head, looking at the ground before him thoughtfully. "Would it be a good enough answer to say that it's best to be cautious, and not be caught by surprise?"

"Depends," Robyn answered. "Is that a real reason or a half reason?"

"Both. No, I don't expect to be attacked right now, just like I don't expect to be mugged right now or to fall down and break my arm on the sidewalk. But I also don't want to assume we won't find trouble, and end up getting both of us hurt."

"Which is a real reason," Robyn stated. "So what's the rest of the half reason?"

Bright blue eyes regarded her solemnly, then Ryo sighed, seeming to sink within himself. A deep sadness crossed his eyes, and he suddenly looked much older than he was. His shoulders slumped momentarily, but quickly straightened. He shook himself and gave her a comforting smile.

"We missed you Robyn. We love you and we finally get to see you again after all this time. So we will be protective and walk you home at night because we want you to be safe. To me that's a good enough reason."

The tone in his voice was final and Ryo lapsed into silence. Robyn digested his words as they walked. He didn't really answer her question, but there was still an answer in there and Robyn decided to accept it. If Ryo wanted to keep them from getting in trouble, then by all means. She had a natural tendency to end up in questionable situations, and it wouldn't hurt to have someone watch her back. In fact it was kind of nice, giving her a warm fuzzy feeling that pushed away her curiosity. Robyn slipped her arm through Ryo's as they neared her apartment building, bumping him with her hip, causing him to stumble slightly.

"So that's how it is, is it?" he asked her jokingly, grabbing her around the waist and picking her up, half swinging/half dragging her while Robyn laughed and hit at his arm.

"Ryo!" she laughed as he lifted her higher and partially carried her up the front steps of her complex. "Put me down!" Her feet touched ground and Robyn regained her balance, grinning.

"Thanks for walking me home, and I use the term "walking" lightly," Robyn joked.

Ryo chuckled. "Do you want me to go up there with you?" he offered.

Robyn cocked an eyebrow at him.

"Reeeally?" she replied suggestively. "I didn't think you were that kind of person, Ryo."

Ryo looked confused for a moment, then realized his choice of words and blushed crimson.

"No…" he stuttered, embarrassed. "Not like that! I didn't mean-"

"I'm glad some things don't change," Robyn laughed, fishing out her keys.

Ryo pouted a little, shoving his hands in his pockets, looking like he didn't appreciate it at all. That just made Robyn grin at him some more.

"Well, good night Ryo. Thanks again."

"Hold on," Ryo said, pulling out a piece of paper. "Now don't take this the wrong way, too," he insisted, pulling the paper away from her grasp for a second longer. "But this has my number. I live just a few blocks from here. If you need anything, you call me, okay? Or..." He gave her a light smile. "Even if you don't need anything, you can still call me."

"Got it," Robyn nodded, taking the paper. "I promise I'll use it sometime."

"I'll hold you to that," Ryo nodded with a smile.

Robyn nodded again, lingering on her door step. Ryo remained where he was as well and the two fell into an odd silence for a moment, unsure of how to break away.

Finally, Robyn stepped forward, putting her arms around his neck.

"It really is so good to see you guys again," she said into his shoulder.

Ryo smiled as he put his arms around her. But then he felt her hold on his tighten, her shoulders shuddering a bit. And he heard the smile leave her voice.

"I've missed you all so much," she whispered.

In that voice, Ryo felt the shadow of the sad, scared girl he had met six years ago. She was still in there somewhere just as the old Ryo was still inside him. The same, he hoped to be said of his scarred friends as well. He held Robyn back tightly for a moment before she pulled away, her eyes glistening wetly with tears threatening to spill over.

"Sorry," she said in embarrassment as she hastily rubbed her eyes. "I tried not to be a baby about this, I really did."

"It's okay," Ryo confirmed as he placed a friendly hand on top of her head. "It's been quite a day."

Robyn had to agree with that and she wished him one final good night and to walk home safely before going inside.

Ryo watched as she disappeared behind her door. Then he turned and stepped away, pausing to look up at the buildings around him. Several other apartments, a modest house that looked like it might have once been a used as a shop, and various small restaurants stretched in each direction, all normal. Ryo thought back to those tears in Robyn's eyes. Even if those were happy tears, seeing a woman cry always made Ryo's chest hurt. He suppressed the urge to go up and get Robyn and take her back with him, to plop her down between all of them. He wanted to make sure that nothing like what had happened with Mia, Cassie, and Nikki happened to her. He never wanted to see her cry the way he had seen them. Especially Mia…

Ryo's thoughts turned dark as he drifted back to the events from four months ago, and he scanned Robyn's neighborhood once more intently. Finally he decided that there was nothing wrong here, not the best neighborhood, but it was safe and not to far from where his own apartment was as well. If he had to, he could be back here fast. Robyn had his number, and she'd call if she needed him. Having reassured himself sufficiently, Ryo started walking home.