A/N I know it's been forever (and ever and ever) since this fic was updated, and there's no good excuses for the long wait. Ghost of the Dawn was always good about remembering this fic, but for me, there always seemed like too many other things to work on and the inspiration just wasn't there. But the inspiration is back, and Ghost and I are trying to get this project wrapped up. Hopefully the next chapter won't be…five years in coming. Lol, that's really terrible, huh?

The Blinding Mask

Chapter Nine

The tour was a lucky one, only about fifteen minutes out on the water and the captain spotted several dark figures breaking among the waves. A pod of sperm whales surfaced for air and the tourists ate it up, chatting lively at the side of the boat, cameras clicking at a frantic pace. Only one passenger stayed on the opposite side of the ship. She had to be a tourist. It was unlikely she was from Japan with her pale skin and bright red hair.

But it wasn't the whales she was after. This was the opportunity she had been waiting for. With everyone else preoccupied, Robyn dug into her backpack and retrieved an intricate china doll. It had a beautifully painted face and bright kimono. Instead of the traditional dark eyes and hair, her eyes were green and hair bright red. Just like Robyn's. The physical similarities were just the beginning of why it set her at unease the first time she saw it.

The doll had just appeared in her apartment one day and, despite Robyn's attempts to get rid of it, it would always come back. There was something wrong with it. Robyn knew darkness the moment she laid eyes on it. It even agitated the harmless spirit of the drowned boy who inhabited her apartment. Sometimes, when Robyn glanced at it out of the corner of her eye, the beautiful painted face would mar into... something else.

Robyn never told Ryo, or Sage, or any of the others of the doll's existence. She worried them enough as it was, especially after the whole haunted house incident. This, she decided, she would continue to take care of on her own. After throwing the doll in various trash cans around the city, including a dumpster outside a Shinto temple, it always came back.

Robyn was getting fed up when she found it hiding under her bed the night she returned from Mia's house. This time, she was going to do it right.

The doll was wrapped in a white cloth with stones and Robyn held it with all its extra weight over the churning water of the sea.

"Whatever darkness is in you," Robyn said softly to the painted face, "let it go and find peace." Then she dropped it into the water and watched the package sink into the depths.

Once it was out of sight, Robyn let out a sigh and allowed her shoulders to relax. It made her skin tingle just to have it so close. She hoped this time it would rest for good. Japan was really no place for a person like her to live. The country was too old and the people too superstitious. Fear of the spirits made them churn and wander. It made Robyn's work cut out for her, but she was determined to finish it.

For the rest of the whale watching tour, Robyn sat and thoughtfully watched the ocean. She saw a whale or two herself and took quiet pleasure in it. Much more pleasure, however, was taken when her foot touched solid ground again. The water still made her nervous, though not as bad as it used to be. She was getting over that, too.

Once the tour was over, Robyn headed toward her originally planned destination. It used to be an older neighborhood, but you couldn't tell any more. Most of the buildings had been bulldozed to make way for new apartments. Including the old house Robyn lived in as a child. Not that anything had been left of it before. Ryo saw to it that Robyn's childhood home had burned properly to the ground several years previous.

Robyn had to take care of her doll problem first before she came here. It seemed unwise to bring one darkness to another place of darkness. Though the evil of this place was long gone by now. The fire had burned it all away. Robyn couldn't sense any remnants of that thing that had lurked in the corners of her childhood home and, even once or twice, slithered over to the neighbor's, the Mouris.

The redhead quietly watched the space where a new building stood. If only all evil could be rid of so easily. In the silent nights, she often wondered if it was that dark entity that was the problem. Was it the cause of her mother losing her mind or her father's abusive rage? Or was it the other way around?

Not that it mattered much any more. All of them were gone now. Robyn was the victor, she was the one left standing. There was no more proof that anything unseemly had ever occurred in this area.

Robyn let out a heavy breath. This was her last destination in Japan. She would love for her boys to continue to believe she had come all the way out here to see them, but that wasn't entirely so. She had come to face her demons—the things that kept her awake at night. The first had been that haunted house and it had still been a true horror until, again, Ryo had finished with it. Now it was probably as innocuous as any other pile of ash, the spirits trapped within now free to go where ever spirits tended to go. Robyn idly wondered if that was part of Ryo's power, exorcising the darkness with the light of his fire.

Did he have enough light to keep her out of the darkness forever?

Robyn quickly shook those thoughts away. It was better not to cling to false hope. Not to mention she shouldn't harbor ideas of dragging any of them into her world. Not when they had so many other weights on their shoulders as it was. Robyn didn't want to be just another heavy load pulling them down.

This place of her childhood was the last place she meant to visit while in Japan. It held more haunting memories than actual horror in the present. But Robyn had to see it—to look upon it without fear. That had been her goal. Now she could leave this place, this country, especially since her boys seemed to be recovering from their own darkness.

She could return home, feeling good about them being on the mend. It all felt like it was meant to turn out this way. Everyone would be fine.

There was a knock on her door and Robyn was hardly surprised. She had made a bet with herself at the odds of which Ronin would contact her first after everything that had been said at Mia's house. Her odds were on Ryo or Cye. Robyn had bet wrong.

"Rowen," she said simply, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice.

"I called you earlier," he informed her. "There wasn't any answer, so I thought I'd come over."

"When no one answers, that means no one is home," Robyn shot back.

"You're home," Rowen reminded her, not missing a beat.

"I just barely got back. You almost missed me."

"Where did you go?"

Robyn shrugged to add nonchalance to her story. "Just out and around. Get some fresh air, do some sightseeing." At that point, she realized Rowen was still outside and she moved to allow him to come in.

As his taller form walked through the door, it dawned on Robyn that it was just him and her alone in the apartment. Before all this happened, she would not have thought twice about it. But she had never seen his temper before then. His anger had been so focused and violent; so full of self-loathing and destruction. Robyn would have never guessed her silly Rowen to be capable of such emotion. Realization that she really didn't know him anymore made caution set in.

"So, are you doing okay?" she asked carefully.

"Yeah, I've been feeling…better I guess. Not perfect, but better," he admitted with a lightness in his voice that she hadn't heard in a while. "Ever since that day, I think we've all been slowly trying to—"

He paused when he noticed Robyn was still by the door. She had closed it, but her hands held the knob behind her back. As if she was ready to bolt outside at the slightest hint of trouble. True to his nature, Rowen looked around the apartment to find the source of her concern, before he realized that what Robyn was ready to bolt from was him. Rowen grew still, and then moved to the arm of the couch, sitting down to make himself seem less tall, less intimidating. Giving her more space.

In that moment, Rowen realized that he had broken something between them with the way he had been behaving. Perhaps permanently. Robyn still cared about him, but she, having had a past littered with violent men, didn't trust him any more.

Rowen looked down at the floor, then back up again, clearing his throat. "I'm not going to hurt you, Robyn."

"I know."

But her back was still against the door; pressed as far away from him as she could get.

Rowen was immediately filled with regret. He might have originally come to speak to her about something else, but he was going to address this first. "Robyn, I am so sorry for the way I've been lately. I have had so much anger and frustration in me for so long. It had nothing to do with you, but I took it out on you anyway. I'm an asshole."

She didn't nod, but she also didn't disagree, and that, more than anything, showed her feelings on the subject. But Robyn loved him too much to try to hurt him with words, the way Rowen and Nikki seemed to so often do to each other. Words weren't weapons for Robyn. They were ways to become closer to people, not to push them away.

Rowen cleared his throat, still holding her gaze. "I know all I have to do is ask you to forgive me, and you'll just say you already have. Because that's the way you are with us. Anything we ask, you want to do it. And you will say you have forgiven me even if, in your heart, you still don't trust me anymore."

Robyn still didn't reply, didn't move from the door.

"All I'm asking is that you give me a chance to do better. And maybe, sometime in the future, you can really forgive me for what I've done."

"Okay," she finally said quietly, looking down at her shoes. After a moment of silence, she lifted her head, her expression back to its usual. "So, what did you come over here for?"

The Ronin's shoulders stooped slightly in apology. "I'm going to be a jerk, again. I came to ask you for a favor."

Robyn huffed, putting on the tone she used to use on him. "Exactly what kind of favor?"

He looked a touch self-conscious as he admitted, "I want to take Nikki out on a date. Some place really nice. But Mia's not letting me go anywhere alone with her and Nikki's being a bit gun-shy about it, too."

The red head folded her arms over her chest. "And exactly what am I supposed to do about it?"

"You and Ryo should come with us. We'll double date. It will be fun."

Robyn blinked at him. She never imagined herself going on a double date with any of them. Then again, before those past few weeks, she had never expected to be somewhat dating one of them either. "What about Mia? They're friends. Don't you think Nikki would be more comfortable with her?"

Rowen seemed to immediately dislike that idea. "Mia and I... we're not as close as we used to be and I'm not really sure if I should be asking her to find a date right now. Some people might not take it all that well."

Robyn raised an eyebrow, but Rowen didn't elaborate, instead giving her a charming smile. "Besides, I'd like to see you and Nikki become friends. I think she needs to know more people, it will be good for her."

Robyn was pretty sure Nikki didn't like her at all from first impressions, but she kept that to herself.

"Please?" Rowen begged when he didn't get an answer. "I will owe you forever with this one. Please help me out."

"You owe me forever anyway," she retorted. Then in a softer voice, "You really like this girl, don't you?"

"Yes, I do," Rowen said with a seriousness that even made Robyn's heart flutter. "So much that it drives me crazy, and half the time I don't know what to do about it. In a few days, she's going to be leaving me to go back home. Again. But before she does, I want to try to fix this if I can. If she leaves, I want her last memories of this place—of me—to be good ones. Will you help me?"

Robyn looked into his crystalline blue eyes. They were full passion and honesty. For a moment she was jealous of Nikki.

She sighed. "Fine. I'll do it."

"Thank you," Rowen said, giving her another pleased smile as he pulled out his cell phone and scrolled his contacts. He then handed her an already ringing phone. "Here, he's still a little frustrated with me, but he can't say no to you."

"Who did you call?" Robyn asked suspiciously, just as the phone was answered.

"What's up, Rowen?" came Ryo's voice on the other end. He sounded quite unenthusiastic, and just like Rowen said, a touch frustrated. Holding them together and trying to force peace on his little world had been hard on Ryo.

"Actually, this is Robyn."

"Oh hey, hi!" His tone instantly perked up. "How's it going?"

"Well, Rowen's over here at my place right now..."

"Do I need to come over?" Ryo immediately asked with a protective tone. Robyn's mouth twitched into a small smile. That was kind of adorable.

"No, no. He wants us to go on a double date with him and Nikki."

"A fancy date," Rowen reminded.

"Rowen says we're going someplace fancy." She paused. "Can you even do fancy?"

"Because if you can't handle it Ryo," Rowen called loudly toward the phone. "I can find someone else to go with her. I'll ask Sage to take her out. She'll never look at you again."

"Oh Rowen," Robyn huffed, "Don't even—"

"I'll do it!" Ryo's determined voice sounded over the phone. "Now put Rowen on the phone."

Robyn handed the cell back to Strata. "Yeah?" A pause. "I was thinking tonight. That's not too soon is it?" Another pause. "No, I've got everything planned. I'll text you about it." Then he snapped his phone shut without saying goodbye.

"Thanks for doing this," Rowen then said to Robyn. "I think it's going to be fun."

"Yeah, it could be fun," she agreed, finally moving away from the door and toward her bedroom. "I don't think I've ever gone on a real fancy date. I'll have to see if I can find something in the closet appropriate to wear."

"Nope," Rowen informed her. "I've made other arrangements for you." He glanced out her window. "And I see your escorts pulling up right now."

"Escorts?" She immediately wondered how Ryo had arrived to her place so fast. But when Robyn looked outside, it was Sage's car that was pulling in. She immediately whipped around on Strata with a suspicious glare. "What are you plotting?"

Rowen grabbed her shoulders and gently but firmly pushed her out the door. "I told you, everything is taken care of," he reminded her smugly. "Just go with them."


Cye and Sage both stayed in the car when they saw Robyn was being guided down to meet them.

"I leave her in your hands, boys," Rowen said as he opened the back door on the passenger side for her. Robyn got in obediently, looking a little too surprised to put up a fight. After shutting the door behind her, Rowen looked in the passenger window at Cye. "Remember what I told you."

Cye's response was to roll up the window in his face and Sage promptly pulled away. Robyn wordlessly watched Strata as they drove off. He looked very pleased with himself, a little too pleased. She had to wonder if a date with Nikki was all he was up to.

Dead sexy.

Those were the exact words Rowen had used and Cye wasn't sure if he approved of attempting to meet that definition. He did, however, approve of the plan. "Operation: Keep Robyn in Japan" was what Rowen called it. Cye figured Rowen was doing this as a way to help make up for his past mistakes. Torrent wondered if Robyn would see it that way.

"Robyn belongs with us," Rowen had insisted to the two of them. "We all know it and inside she knows it, she just needs a little extra incentive."

"So we're putting all the responsibility on Ryo's shoulders," Sage accused, arms folded across his chest and frowning over Rowen's small dining table the afternoon before.

"It's going to have to be this way," Rowen insisted. "He's the one that's crazy about her and probably the only one that can convince her to stay. But he hasn't been as assertive about this as he should be. We need to push him in the right direction. That's why I'm going to ask them to do this date thing."

"And you getting a date with Nikki has nothing to do with it," Cye said with the raise of an eyebrow.

"Instant karma for doing a good deed," Rowen grinned back.

Neither Halo nor Torrent looked that happy for him, but Rowen ignored them. "Remember, we want to get her something that will really make Ryo put his hands all over her and never let her go."

"I can't believe I just heard you say that," Cye said flatly.

"I'll even pay for the dress."

"No," both Cye and Sage insisted at the same time.

"Fine, just whatever you get, make sure it's dead sexy."

Cye still wasn't sure he was comfortable with whoring out Robyn to his teammate, even if it meant getting what they all wanted. They were standing in a dress store he had never been before. Sage was the one that took them there. A good thing, too. Cye only knew of places to get gowns for high school dances. This place was pretty posh. A bit more high class than he was used to.

Sage had made himself at home, rifling through dresses as if he worked there. Maybe he just wanted to quickly be done and get out. He picked out three dresses and herded Robyn into a fitting room.

There she dallied for several minutes, claiming she didn't like the first two dresses enough to show them off before trying on the third. Sage had already wandered off to look for other options while Cye sat in boredom.

"Cye, can you help me with the zipper?" came a soft request.

Finally, he thought as he stood.

Robyn backed out of the dressing room, holding her hair out of the way as Cye zipped her up. She turned around and his eyes widened. The dress was deep blue with an old fashioned silhouette made to cut tight at the waist and accentuate her hips and bust. It made her look more mature and cultured. And definitely more curvy.

"Hey Cye, what do you think about this one?" Sage asked as he approached, holding up a plumb colored dress. Then he noticed Robyn. "Woah, hot."

Robyn looked a bit surprised at a comment like that, from Sage of all people. Then she turned around to inspect herself in the mirror, turning at different angles. She did look good in that dress. Probably better than she had ever looked in anything.

"I like it. What do you guys think?"

The two men checked with each other and it was unanimous.

"Oh yeah," Cye confirmed, "That's the dress."

Robyn then looked at the price tag and squeaked. "Oh wait, this is too much. I can't afford it."

"It's on us. You're getting that dress," Sage insisted in a tone that didn't leave room for argument.

As Robyn went to change, the two Ronins stayed quiet next to each other. But Cye noticed it was a different kind of silence than what had been before. It wasn't as uncomfortable and painful any more. Something was healing. Their friendship was slowly coming back, and for the first time since Cassie's death, Cye remembered what it was like to treasure his friend's presence and his understanding.

"Hey," he said quietly, catching Sage's attention. "I didn't say it the other day, but I should have. I love you, too."

The blond gave him an inquisitive look, but then settled into a satisfied expression.

Robyn stepped out, dress in hand and a female employee approached them. "How are we doing here?" she asked brightly. "Are you finding everything okay?"

"Yes, I believe we're getting this," Robyn said, though she checked with her escorts to make sure they were still okay with buying it.

"Great, I can ring that up for you right now. Come with me." The assistant took the dress and led them to a register. "You are so lucky to have such good looking friends to come with you."

"Yes I am," Robyn beamed.

"They make such an adorable couple, too."

All three gaped at her.

Robyn recovered first. "They do," she said with a huge grin at them.

Sage's eyes were still wide until Cye suddenly beamed as he threaded their arms together, deciding it would make Robyn happy if he played along. He also took a measure of personal joy doing something that irritated Sage.

Plus it was so hard not to laugh as Sage sighed and went along with it, paying for the dress as stoically as possible, with Cye still hanging merrily on his arm. His frown just made it all the more funny. The customer service girl had no idea how wrong she was.

Robyn rescued Sage from Cye when they stepped out of the store and gave him a quick kiss on the side of his face for being a good sport.

Okay, so maybe Ryo had played it a little cool with Rowen about the whole date thing. A date with Robyn was nerve-racking enough, if in a good way. A fancy date with Robyn? Unless flannel shirts or feudal age mystic armor was appropriate attire, Ryo was going to need some help with this.

It was instinctive that the first person he called was Mia. She had always been Ryo's connection to the more complicated things in life: bank accounts, insurance, the property he had purchased where he one day wanted to build a house…all of those things had been gained through Mia's guidance. Naturally, she was the one he would turn to on this matter as well. It wasn't until the phone had started ringing that it occurred to Ryo, Mia might not be willing to help him.

But this was Mia and, no matter what happened, she loved her boys. Not only was Mia willing offer fashion advice, she insisted on taking him shopping. Ryo had never purchased a dress suit in his life, and Mia said she didn't want him just randomly grabbing whatever he saw hanging on the racks.

An hour later, when he was pretty sure that Mia should have been at work instead of helping him, both she and Nikki were testing different colors against his complexion while he was being measured for slacks. That's right, he was being measured. By a dude. Up his leg.

Ryo couldn't possibly imagine something more out of his comfort zone.

"You look like you're considering going off to battle, Ryo," Mia murmured, eyes dancing in amusement as she texted something into her work phone.

"I'm going on a double date with Rowen," Ryo reminded her, frowning at the little man poking a tape measure too close to his crotch. "How long does this part take?"

Mia craned her head to get a better look. "Depends on how angular you are," she replied seriously.

Ryo's face grew confused for a moment, until he realized that she was teasing him. It had been a long time since Mia had teased him, and Ryo huffed in good nature. This was very much out of his comfort zone and he could do little else but stand there and let the women do as they wished with him, but he liked seeing the pair of them together. When alone, Mia and Nikki were much more relaxed, and a lot more fun.

Currently, Nikki had two different shirts in which she was taking turns holding up to him. "Hmm…the blue really brings out your eyes. But this purple would look good on you, too. And not a lot of guys can pull off purple."

Ryo had no opinion on either one. He didn't know about this kind of stuff. He dressed for comfort and for whatever was cheap.

"Don't Dais him, Nikki," Mia disagreed, shaking her head as the tailor rose and stepped a few feet away to write down his measurements. "Cale him instead. He always looked hot."

"Grey suit and maroon shirt? I don't know, Mia. Now a black suit and yellow shirt, like that one guy in that picture…the one with the chain thingies…"

Wildfire cleared his throat, giving them both a look as he glanced pointedly at the tailor and grumped under his breath, "I'm not going out on a date looking like whatever warlord you two think was hottest."

Both women smiled innocently at him. When Mia's phone rang—presumably work replying to her text message—it didn't pass Ryo's notice that she was headed for a maroon rack of shirts as she answered. Nikki had ditched the purple shirt and was pressing the blue one back to Ryo's chest, her faced scrunched cutely as she tried to decide.

"So are you okay with this tonight, Nikki?" Ryo asked softly when the two were by themselves. "Rowen isn't forcing you into this or anything is he? I don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

Nikki smiled again, a little quirk of her lips. "I'm…I'm not sure what I am. But Rowen's been almost…sweet the last couple days. He knows I'm bored, and he keeps ditching life to come hang out with me at Mia's. Nothing bad has happened, and it seems like he's trying to keep the peace. He's been making an effort for me, so I want to do the same for him. Plus, I think it could be fun."

"You're sure you're okay with this."

Nikki gave him that same kind of look one would reserve for a sleeping puppy. "Yes, I'm sure. You still worry as much as you ever did, Ryo."

He put his hand on her shoulder, squeezing. "You were always important to us, Nik. Of course I'm going to worry about you."

This time Nikki surprised Ryo by leaning in and hugging him. She liked Ryo. He was less intense than the others; less guarded and accusing. Far easier to be around. To his surprise, she had moisture in her eyes, but she was smiling still.

"Are you okay?" he asked, worried he had said something wrong.

"You being so nice always did get to us, Ryo," Nikki told him, chuckling at herself as she wiped her face with the back of her hand. "You could say the same thing the other guys would say, but something about you saying it always made us end up bawling. It's like you have this 'good guy charm', or something. But yeah, I'm looking forward to the date, and I'm glad you'll be there, too."

Ryo blinked in surprise at that, and wasn't sure what to say. Instead he changed the subject to something safer. "So, are you going to have anything to wear for this?"

Before Nikki could answer, Mia popped in with some clothes in her hands. "Nikki, try on this outfit for me. You'll look great."

"And there she goes," Nikki said with a bit of dry humor. "She's going to have us both trying on the entire store by the time we're done." But she left with the offered skirt and top while Mia took her place in front of Ryo. The tall brunette had produced a white dress shirt and a red tie. She threaded it around Wildfire's neck, after he shrugged the shirt on and started buttoning it.

As Mia went about tugging and tying, Ryo thought about what Nikki had said, about him being nice always getting to them. He was glad it helped him get closer to Nikki, but the person he really cared about was the one in front of him. He didn't like the idea of using his good guy charm, as the brunette had put it, but he missed her.

He missed her so much, and he wanted her back, and Ryo had always fought for the things he wanted.

"Thanks for coming out with me," Ryo said to Mia quietly. "It's good to see you again."

"Yeah, this is fun," she agreed. "Hmm…maybe we should Dais you. Red seems kind of redundant."

Ryo took a deep breath and forged on ahead. "I miss you. I miss going out to lunch together and you fixing my collar. And I miss your smile. Can we- do you think we could start doing things together again?"

Mia blinked, and then he saw her start to cave. "Yeah, Ryo, I would like that. Very much," she said softly, fixing his collar right there. "I miss seeing you, too." Then she added. "So how serious are you with Robyn? Or is this just something Rowen cooked up?"

"No, Mia. I really like her. Though, I think I like her more than she likes me," he admitted.

Mia kept her thoughts to herself as she adjusted his shirt. Silently, she thought Robyn to be crazy for not returning Wildire's affections. What girl wouldn't want to be his? Though Mia never really thought of Robyn as someone with much common sense. And yet she had been the one to ask Robyn what she would have done in her place. What was she thinking asking the redhead anything? And Robyn had given her a lot to chew on to boot.

Nikki then popped in to interrupt her thoughts. "What do you think, guys?" she asked as she modeled the outfit Mia had picked. The navy, long sleeved boat neck top left her shoulders bared, and it paired nicely with the fitted black skirt.

"Not bad, Nik," Ryo approved.

"You like it?" Mia asked.

Nikki checked out herself in the mirror. "I like the skirt, but the top is kind of clingy though." She paused and noticed Ryo. "Oh Mia, he looks like he's going to a job interview."

"He does, doesn't he?" she worried. "I'm usually better at this."

"That's because you still think of him like he's your little brother," Nikki accused. "Ryo's a grown man. He's strong and good looking, and girls would love to get their hands on that. So help him get some handling, woman."

Ryo was turning a little red. Nikki didn't seem to notice. "We need to find him something that will cause his date to keep her attention him."

"And away from Rowen?" Mia added, grinning wickedly as Nikki blushed and protested.

"I never said that."

"You didn't have to."

"….does she really have to hang all over them that much?"

"She doesn't hang all over us!" Ryo suddenly protested, sounding as though he wished he got more hanging on than he did.

Mia and Nikki simultaneously sent him a look that suggested he wasn't invited to this conversation.

"Let's try the Anubis look," Mia announced. "Quick, find me a yellow shirt."

Ryo found it wise just to sit there and let the two women have their way with him.

It rained that evening, the heavy clouds seeming to come out of nowhere and bringing a rather cold breeze with it. Nikki frowned at the grayness outside. She had spent her entire life in warm, sunny Los Angeles, and had never been able to get used to the changing weather of other places. And of course, the one night she was really looking forward to going out, the weather just had to be all gross and wet, and cold. Typical.

"Mia, can I borrow an umbrella tonight?" she called when she heard the other woman moving around down the hall.

"I think there's a few in the hall closet. I'll have to go look," her distant voice replied.

Nikki went back to primping in the mirror. All her bandages were removed now, but she still had a few fine cuts on her face. She had been dabbing at them with a makeup sponge for nearly twenty minutes, washing her face and trying all over again, in her attempt to make them disappear.

Maybe it was shallow to think about, but all three of her companions tonight were attractive. Ryo was good looking in that handsome, muscular, boy-next-door kind of way. Rowen was good looking in that tall, lanky, brooding intellect way. And Robyn was exotic with that red hair and those bright green eyes on her Asian features. Nikki definitely felt like the odd man out, plain and dull, and very non-Japanese.

There had been a time that her being different from him had attracted Rowen to her, as much as her mind and her fieriness had. But that was then, this was now, and she wasn't really sure what attracted Rowen anymore. As she ignored the stinging of a particularly deep scratch on her jaw, Nikki told herself that she shouldn't care. She shouldn't care what attracted Rowen, because it was all in the past anyway. She and Rowen weren't together. She was leaving, the way she always did, and that meant that they wouldn't be getting back together.

So it made absolutely no sense that she was trying like hell to look pretty, and to cover up the abrasions on her face.

Only, he stared at her face when she wasn't looking. The last couple days, when they watched TV on the couch, or sat out by the pier, just talking. Rowen was always staring at all her many little cuts. They bothered him, made him feel guilty, and Nikki didn't want that from him. Yeah, he'd screwed up. But she was okay, and she didn't want him to have to see that mistake every time he looked at her. It was too close to the feeling she always had when she looked at him…like she had screwed up.

No. No, Nikki didn't want that for him.

She didn't want him to feel bad, and so she had agreed to this date, and now she was perspiring from nerves. Nikki wanted to roll her eyes at herself. The guy had seen her naked, for goodness sakes, far more than once. He'd seen her at her worst. But…but she'd seen him at his best, and so it was hard not to stare in the mirror and wish…and wish that maybe for just one night…

"I think that might be Rowen pulling up now," Mia said as she walked by the doorway, pulling Nikki from her thoughts. The shorter woman yelped and shot Mia a desperate look, quickly trying to finish applying all her make up. If only she hadn't spent so much time on her hair.

Mia walked over to the nearest window and poked her head out as the thunder rolled. "Rowen, come in and get out of the rain, we'll be down in a minute." She pulled back in, hair slightly damp. "It's sure pouring out there, but he's got an umbrella. You should be okay."

Nikki stared at her reflection, trying to tug a tendril of hair over the contusion on her forehead. "I look like a battered woman."

"You look great," Mia told her, leaning against the door frame. "He'll think you look great, Nikki."

She turned, her smile a little shaky. "Thanks." Nikki let out a shuttering breath. "Mia, why am I so nervous? This is stupid, I'm already sweating."

"You'll be fine, Nik. You'll have fun."

The shorter woman turned her gaze over to her friend. "Do you hate me for going out and leaving you here alone?"

Mia almost laughed. "With as many times as I've left you for work? I'll be fine. Maybe I'll find something to do with myself tonight, too. Go to a movie or something."

"Bring your pepper spray," Nikki shot back playfully, to which Mia simply shook her head and did laugh this time.

"Kento gets pepper sprayed once, and you never let me forget it."

"Who shot Kento with pepper spray?" a masculine voice called from the floor below.

"If he never told you, neither will we, Rowen," Mia called back.

Rowen was waiting patiently at the bottom of the stairs, dripping umbrella by the door. A smirk was already forming as the two descended. Nikki almost slid with her heels on the wood steps. She wasn't used to shoes like these. As she hoped they would, Rowen's eyes went right to her legs.

"What's with that smirk?" Nikki asked, arching an eyebrow as she retrieved her coat from the back of a chair. "See something you like?"

"I do," he said simply, eyes still all on her. "You should turn around so I can see the back."

Nikki rolled her eyes at him, but found herself grinning as she briefly indulged him. "It's the same ass it always was, Rowen."

"Naw, it's a little scrawnier than it was before, but I'm not complaining."

Nikki stuck her tongue out at him as she shrugged on her coat. Rowen moved to assist her and Nikki felt her cheeks grow warm just to have his taller form looming over her. "So who shot Kento with pepper spray?" he whispered in her ear, warm breath tickling her neck, and Nikki laughed.

"Ask him. We're sworn to secrecy."

"You two have fun," Mia called in a bit of a motherly tone as they headed out the door. "Drive safe in that weather."

Rowen opened his umbrella on the porch, and Nikki ducked under it, keeping tight to his side as they hurried to his car. It was different than his last one, used but not nearly as battered, and only one door's paint job didn't match the rest of it. It didn't smell as weird when she climbed inside, and there was a seat belt on the passenger side this time.

It was only when Rowen shut her door and quickly ran around the car, slipping into the driver's side, that Nikki suddenly realized how much she didn't want to be in a car with Rowen driving.

Not in the least. Not at all.

As if he could sense that, Rowen kept his keys in his hand, although he was playing with them idly. "Hey Nik? On a scale of one to ten, how much does me driving you somewhere scare you?"

Nikki didn't reply, but she did grit her teeth and fasten her seat belt. "I'm cold, Rowen."

Those blue eyes that could see through everyone and everything tried to cut through her, cut through her bullshit, but it wasn't bullshit because Nikki was cold. So she reached over and grabbed his hand, pushing it towards the ignition. "Rowen, seriously, I'm freezing."

Strata hesitated only a moment longer, and then he nodded, turning on the car and cranking up the heater. "I'm going to drive safe," he promised her.

"Good. 'Cause this time, I'll kick your ass if you don't. Rowen? Isn't this supposed to be sending out hot air?"

Rowen put his hand in front of the vent closest to him. "Ummm…maybe? I got a good deal on it because it was a little buggy. There were some things I wasn't supposed to use, but I thought that at least the heater worked…"

"I'm going to die."

"You're not going to die," Rowen promised as he put the vehicle in reverse, ignoring the grinding of gears and the wide eyed look of horror on Nikki's face. "This car is new, so that you would have a clean escort to the ball m'lady."

"New to you. Seriously Rowen, this is the POS car reincarnated."

"No, it's new!" Rowen insisted. "It just was in a…little…accident…hmmm. Is that smoke coming out from the hood? Maybe the heater was the thing I wasn't supposed to turn on."

As Rowen rolled the car to a stop and hopped out to figure out what was on fire, Nikki slouched in her seat and decided that all those makeup attempts hadn't been worth it. Because this was Japan, and Nikki had learned her lesson very well about sequences of events in Japan.

"Shit…Uh, Nik? You're not going to believe this…"

Yeah, they were gonna die.

They didn't die, but something else had.

Between the pair of them, and their highly trained analytical minds, neither Rowen nor Nikki could figure out just what had died under the hood of Rowen's "new" car. They did know that the heater was making it start to smell bad, and that however it had died, had been a bad way to go. Rowen had never had a date start off with prying something's carcass off of his engine block with the end of an umbrella, but he didn't think that Nikki needed to freak that much when it popped off and almost hit her foot.

The key word was almost.

The car stopped smoking after Rowen drained a couple spare bottles of water into the coolant overflow, and the crisis seemed to be averted. Strata learned that trying to cuddle his cold date in the rain was one of those things that was more romantic when one didn't have "grotty roadkill hands", and that purses could and would be used to defend herself from "nasty umbrellas". Rowen was having fun, but his date was looking less impressed by the minute.

Despite her not giving him hell about their car accident, Nikki still seemed a little edgy riding shotgun. So Rowen drove slowly and carefully all the way into town. It didn't seem possible, but the rain poured even harder by the time they arrived at their destination. Neither one particularly wanted to use the umbrella, and water got into Nikki's shoes as they hurried under the cover of the entrance outside the restaurant, both soaking wet.

"Should have done valet parking, cheapskate," she told him a bit scathingly, her teeth chattering as they made it under the awning.

"The meal itself is probably going to break me," Rowen frowned as he shook his coat a little.

"You chose the place," Nikki reminded Rowen as the doorman let them in. "At this point, I'm fine with anywhere that has a heater."

Rowen grinned at her and moved a wet strand of brunette hair out of her eyes. "Lowering your standards already, Nik?"

Nikki rolled her eyes but didn't answer. Ryo and Robyn were already at the restaurant, looking nice and dry. They were sitting in the waiting area, Ryo in a dinner jacket looking comfortable. Robyn was wrapped in a long evening coat, glaring at the rain outside. Her arms had been tucked up against her body until Ryo took her hands in attempts to warm them up.

"Great night for a dinner," Ryo grinned, not getting up. He looked amused at the state of dishevelment of the other couple.

"Adds to the enchantment of the evening," Rowen shrugged, running a hand through his already messy hair. "How much longer?"

"We already requested a table," Robyn supplied helpfully. "They said it should be any minute."

Nikki watched the two snuggled there. Mia said Robyn was a bit cozy with all of the Ronins. While they were all at the house, Nikki hadn't really noticed the redhead paying any mind to one of them specifically. Not much thought was given when Nikki was approached with the double date idea. She just assumed Rowen picked Ryo because he was currently the most well adjusted of the group. But watching the couple sit together, she thought for the first time maybe there was something going on between the two of them.

"Your table is ready," a stiff man in a sharp suit said to them. "Please follow me."

The four were led deeper into the building, past the bar in the front, to a collection of tables bedecked in white linen. They were arranged in front of a wide dance floor with a live band playing gentle, slow music on stage.

"Your waiter will be with you momentarily," the host said as he handed them each a menu. "Enjoy."

"Wow, this place is pretty fancy," Nikki commented as the group took off their rain soaked coats.

"I told you," Rowen insisted as he helped her with her jacket, "we were going to do something special tonight."

Ryo was helping Robyn with her long evening coat when it was finally revealed what she was wearing underneath. The deep blue made her hair look an even brighter shade of red.

"Woah," Rowen blurted out. "Hot."

Robyn raised an eyebrow at him. "Those were Sage's exact words when he picked out this dress."

"He's got good taste." Rowen leaned back casually in his seat. He was going to have to tip that man. "Give us a twirl so we can see it."

For a moment, all Nikki could do was stare at him, shocked. She had always known that Rowen was a flirt. The thing was, he had never flirted with someone else in front of her. He might have been a flirt, but Rowen was also kind of a gentleman, and when they were together, his attention had always been completely on her. Her attention had always been completely on him. So Nikki had never been in a situation where she had watched Rowen turn his focus to someone else, and openly ogle them. And he was definitely ogling Robyn. True, the redhead did look gorgeous, and true, the two men at their table weren't the only men in the restaurant staring at her.

But still. It was…embarrassing. And it hurt. And she had no idea that Rowen's attention on Robyn was being done deliberately for Ryo's benefit. Not that Wildfire needed any further encouragement. He was standing there dumbly, coat still hanging from his fingers with a besot expression on his face. Robyn then became uncomfortable with the two men staring at her. She crossed her arms over herself and sat down, scooting in her own chair. Ryo then found enough of his mind to drape her coat over the extra chair at their table.

"You look very nice," Ryo managed to cough out when he found his voice.

Robyn breathed out heavily. "Thank you," she said without gratitude in her voice. She looked as though she now had a different opinion of the man who had picked out the dress for her.

Maybe Robyn could tell that Nikki was getting her feelings hurt, because she aimed a frown at Rowen. "Eyes somewhere else, buddy."

Rowen was still leering and Ryo frowned before kicking him in the shin. To which Rowen promptly kicked him back. Annoyed, Ryo kicked Rowen a second time, causing both to glare at each other threateningly.

Robyn gave them both an annoyed glare and then locked eyes with Nikki, giving her that wide-eyed "I can't believe we're stuck with these idiots" type look. Nikki silently nodded in agreement. It wasn't the redhead's fault that Rowen was staring at her still, or that Ryo seemed to be reacting to it by growing territorial. Nope, that was Rowen's fault, and Nikki wasn't sure whether to tell him he was a jerk or to just walk out.

"Rowen, quit it! Ryo, he's just trying to rile you up."

"I'm fine," Ryo insisted in a growl, his hand covering Robyn's. A hand that was unmarked and blemish free.

Nikki blinked. "Hey, the other day I saw you with all those bandages. Now I don't see a scratch on you." Nikki's eyes wandered over Robyn's face and bare arms. She was about to ask what concealer Robyn used when the redhead spoke.

"I have regenerative saliva," Robyn said with all serious. "I just lick it and it goes away." The table went quiet. Rowen and Ryo both realized they were waiting for Cye to yell at her. But Cye wasn't there. "Like a vampire," Robyn added in the pause, grinning wide.

"Yeah? Too bad that doesn't come stock standard for everyone," Nikki quipped back, used to comments like that from this group.

"I'll lick you if you like, Nikki."

"Oh, I second that," Rowen agreed. "I would like to see that very much."

"You would," both girls shot at him at the same time. Ryo stayed quiet. He still had no idea how she had recovered from so many injuries so fast. After talking to the guys about it, they had decided as a group just to let it go for now, at least until the waters between all of them were a bit calmer. Ryo hated it. He hated not knowing.

The waiter came to take their orders, forcing the group to pay more attention to the menu. Robyn's eyes grew to twice their size when she saw the prices. She tried to order something small, but Ryo countered with insisting she was just going to pick at his plate with such meager portions so she might as well get what she wanted. Robyn was trying to ignore Rowen, who had leaned back and was still eying her openly and appreciatively. Ryo was busy eying Rowen, but not appreciatively. Robyn kept trying to make small talk with everyone, but Ryo kept trying to pull Robyn's attention back to him. The more Rowen stared, the more riled up Ryo got, and the more hands-on Ryo was becoming. He was touching Robyn's hand, and arm, and then her shoulders.

If Rowen didn't quit it, either Ryo was going to end up punching him, or Ryo was going to end up dragging Robyn into his lap…

On her side of the table, Nikki finally realized exactly what Rowen was doing. She stifled a laugh, and then proceeded to start staring at Ryo, just because she could. It didn't bother Robyn in the least, and Ryo didn't notice, but at least Ryo was something nice to look at.

Apparently Rowen was ignoring her tonight, no matter what his ulterior motives, and that was kind of mean. So Nikki cheerfully ordered the most expensive thing she could find as punishment for her date's behavior. Though to Rowen's credit, he didn't even blink as she piled on the cost.

He could have told her his plans for tonight, but maybe Rowen had assumed she'd figure it all out herself. She certainly wouldn't have gone along with it if he'd warned her ahead of time, so she couldn't blame him for being sneaky. As they waited for their food in a sort of awkward silence, only Nikki seemed to be relaxed, now that she was in on it.

Ryo certainly hadn't figured it out. Wildfire kept glowering at Rowen as if the two were having some sort of silent argument. Maybe they were.

"Rowen," Ryo finally spoke out loud. "I would say yes in hopes it would get it out of your system, but I don't know if Robyn-"

"No, no. It's fine," she said as she stood. She leveled her green eyes on Rowen's sitting form and they weren't altogether approving. She beckoned Strata with a finger. "You, come see me in my office."

"Yes ma'am," Rowen said as he hopped up and eagerly followed her to the dance floor.

It was only then that Ryo noticed Nikki's watching him, and he shifted under the attention. "Um, would you like to dance, Nik?" He felt bad for her, after how Rowen had been acting. But instead of looking hurt or angry, but Nikki seemed to be enjoying the really expensive crab cakes she'd ordered as an appetizer, the ones she refused to share with Rowen.

"Hmm? Oh, no. No, that's okay, Ryo."

She turned her eyes to the dance floor as Ryo did the same thing. Nikki didn't miss a thing as she saw Rowen rest a hand on the redhead's hip and take her hand, and yeah, it did make her a little jealous. But it was nothing compared to the look of utter annoyance on Ryo's face, and Nikki had to hide her grin behind her wine glass. When Rowen decided to do something, he certainly did it all out. To be honest, Nikki was dying to know what Rowen and Robyn were talking about.

"I'm onto you, buster," was what Robyn was saying, to Rowen's bemused expression.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Strata replied innocently, twirling Robyn in a circle and dipping her. He made sure to eye her chest appreciatively, and somewhere back at the table Ryo was close to melting his salad fork with his bare hand.

"I'm serious. Stop looking at me like that, I don't like it."

Rowen glanced from her form to her face and saw Robyn's cheeks flushed with discomfort, her eyes unhappy. "Sorry," he said, ruse falling apart before her.

"Not as sorry as you're going to be if I let Ryo drag you out into the parking lot."

Rowen let out a chuckle. "Yes, yes. You have a scary boyfriend, I get it."

Robyn opened her mouth to immediately protest that statement, then reconsidered. "I know what you're trying to do and I'm cutting you off. You need to pay attention to your date or she's going to stop being amused by your antics. And I know you love this girl. After this dance, you do nothing else but pay attention to her and make sure she has an amazing time."

Rowen glanced over to the table where Nikki was hiding her grin from Ryo. "She's so pretty, isn't she?"

"Don't tell me. Tell her, you big dummy," Robyn shot back. "And you dance with her as many times as she wants, no complaints."

Rowen laughed. "Now who's trying to hook who up?"

"I'm doing you a favor," Robyn insisted, unrepentant. "You've finally found someone who will put up with you. You shouldn't let her go, there may not be another one."

"Ouch. Lady, you are hard on the ego."

Robyn smirked at him. "It's tough love, Strata." With that, she turned from his arms and walked back to the table. The song hadn't even finished yet. But Rowen seemed fine with it as he strolled behind her, hands in his pockets as if we were on an evening walk.

Ryo stood as they approached, pushing Robyn's seat in for her and she appeared more appreciative of his attention that time. Rowen just plopped himself in his chair, his crystalline eyes swiveling over to land heavily on Nikki. She was mid-bite of a piece of bread and butter when he smiled.

"Hey gorgeous. Did I forget to tell ya you're the prettiest girl here tonight?"

Nikki smirked and swallowed. "Did I forget to tell you I ordered myself a bottle of champagne while you were dancing? But only for me, you have to get your own. Maybe Ryo will share with you."

Rowen barked out a laugh and then leaned in and whispered something in her ear, causing Nikki to flush and then slap him on the shoulder. Rowen was chuckling, but his fingers had threaded through hers under the table. And just like that, it was how it had always been.

"Thanks for doing this with me," Rowen said softly, to which Nikki murmured that she didn't mind being his partner in crime, at least for one evening.

By the time the food came, both Nikki and Rowen were lost in their own discussion, a physics debate that Ryo wasn't even trying to follow anymore. But neither seemed to realize how close they were sitting, how Rowen kept stealing bites of Nikki's food, or how Nikki kept absently tugging his collar to straighten that which never stayed straightened. Rowen never noticed how much she was leaning in towards him, or how her hand kept inadvertently reaching for his when she grew particularly excited by their topic. Nikki never noticed how Rowen's eyes would brighten when she'd counter his logic with her own, or how often his eyes dropped to her lips.

Robyn looked satisfied for them as she and Ryo continued to merely sit companionably side by side.

They were all supposed to meet at seven. Frankly, Mia didn't think that anyone would show.

She had fretted and worried about the evening from the moment that she hung up her phone. Maybe it had been a cop out to call Kento first. She still wasn't entirely comfortable around him yet, but she wasn't sure Cye and Sage would even want to talk to her.

Though the conversation was brief and awkward, Kento had gruffly agreed to going out to eat and told her that he'd tell Sage and Cye to meet them too. But Mia hadn't been able to relax. It hadn't passed her notice that despite everything that had (or hadn't really) happened between them, Kento had saved her the discomfort of calling Cye and Sage herself.

That had been nice of him.

As she stood outside of the trendy little fondue restaurant, wondering if she was waiting for Kento only, Mia realized that there was very few times Hardrock wasn't nice to her. It didn't occur to her that he might not show, because if Kento said he would do something, he did it. She supposed that in the same respects, if Kento said Sage and Cye were coming, then they would be coming, whether or not Kento had to pick the other two Ronins up by the scruffs of their necks and drag them. And sure enough, at exactly five minutes before their scheduled meeting time, a familiar car rolled into the parking lot and three men stepped out.

For some reason Cye was driving, and Sage had that slightly stressed look around his eyes that he always had when someone else besides him was in control of a vehicle. Mia remembered their trip to the mountain together, when they had been looking for Kento and how Sage had been so tired. It had been the only time that he hadn't been stressed about someone else driving.

His face turned to hers, and for a moment she was back there, so long ago, running blindly to go face an enemy, to buy Sage more time. She was frozen in a waterfall, a silent scream on her lips, and then she had been in his arms as he had saved her. Sage had saved her. Ryo had saved her. They had all saved her at one time or another.

Was it so bad that she had tried to save them for a change?

There were three heads turned her way now, three bodies shutting their doors and walking towards Mia, so she tried to pull herself out of the past and into the present. They missed her, Ryo had said earlier. They'd want to spend time with her, if she still wanted to spend time with them. And she did.

She had meant to say thanks for coming, but as the group of guys approached and Mia opened her mouth, what came out was a softer, more vulnerable, "You came."

Maybe she sounded surprised, but Kento stepped up to her first, and moving slowly— as if not to startle her— the large man wrapped his arms around her in a gentle hug. "Of course we came," he told Mia, giving her a warm, if somewhat shy smile. "Thanks for inviting us."

"Everyone else is having fun tonight, so why shouldn't we?" Cye spoke up from behind Kento, and then he too moved forward and hugged her. Sage's version of a hug was a nod, his eyes briefly grazing over her face, and the pressure of his hand on her shoulder.

They had always been good at following Wildfire into dangerous situations, but when Ryo was taken out of the equation, the remaining Ronins tended to push themselves, each trying to take control of the situation and thus the brunt of the danger. Maybe they were all a little nervous too, because as the group walked into the restaurant, that's exactly what they did. Kento and Sage both mobbed the hostess' station, each starting to announce their party's name and number at the same time Cye suggested that they all avoid a wait and eat in the bar. Sage stepped towards the bar at the same time Cye stepped towards the main dining area, and Kento seemed to get confused, so he shuffled closer to Mia, frowning a little.

He'd been doing that since he was sixteen.

When Sage and Cye both started to go back towards their original directions, Mia couldn't help it and started laughing. She didn't even have to explain why, because the guys knew exactly what she found funny. Mia had been teasing them about this same stuff since she had been nineteen. Cye snickered when Sage rolled his eyes, and the hostess must have thought they were addled when the three moved away simultaneously to just let Mia deal with it. That at least they could do in tandem, they'd been letting Ryo handle things for years now.

When they were shown their table, a booth on the far side of the restaurant, Sage slid in first. Cye snickered when Halo gave him a flat stare. "You're not sitting next to me, Cye."

Despite his words, Sage didn't sound annoyed, and Cye actually laughed. "Aww, Sage doesn't want me anymore."

Kento chuckled at Mia's confusion as he scooted into the booth across from Sage. "Cye's been sexually harassing Sage all day. Don't worry, Sage likes it, he's just playing hard to get."

There were two seats. One next to Sage and one next to Kento. She hesitated, wondering if either one would want to sit next to her, and she could feel them watching her again.

A hand rested on her hip, a warm arm across her lower back, and Mia found herself being squeezed gently. "Mia, we all want to sit next to you," Cye promised her, his voice quiet and kind in her ear. "And we appreciate you wanting to do this tonight."

Sage leaned over and grabbed her hand, his skin against hers immediately making her feel a rush of relaxation. Maybe Halo was healing her, or maybe it was just how it felt to have Sage's fingers threaded through her own. "Mia's with me. Go grope Kento for a while, Cye."

Torrent laughed again, and both of them moved to their respective seats.

Dinner ended up being fun. Mia didn't talk a lot, but she did find herself grinning more than not at their antics. True to form, Hardrock kept stabbing his bread cubes too hard and losing them in the melted cheese pot. Also true to form, Torrent's miniature trident rescued the drowning bread cubes before Hardrock could recover them. And- because no matter how old they got, her boys would always be boys- Sage grew fed up with the both of them and stabbed all the remaining bread cubes onto his own weaponry, holding them hostage until a peaceful resolution could be made. Unfortunately these guys were made for battle, not peacetime, and Sage quickly found himself being flanked by hungry Ronins.

Mia was pretty sure that the best resolution would be her stealing the last of the cheese with her apple slices while the other three were busy destroying things.

It wasn't until the cheese and meat fondues had been consumed, that Mia realized how much she was enjoying this. The waiter placed a bowl of molten chocolate in front of her, and she made a small noise of pleasure as she dipped a particularly large strawberry into the bowl. Mia purred a little louder as she bit into the treat, and only then did she realize that everyone was watching her, grinning the identical grins of two young men watching an attractive woman making sex noises. The third wasn't grinning, but he did have a particularly well sculpted eyebrow raised.

"S'good," Mia mumbled around her mouthful, blushing red as she realized she had chocolate dripping at the corner of her mouth. She quickly swallowed and wiped her mouth, and then found herself blushing even more furiously as Cye shoved the rest of his strawberries her way.

"You can have mine, Mia," he said cheerfully, winking at her.

"Yup, mine too," Kento agreed, tugging on his collar as if it suddenly felt tighter, but still grinning like an idiot.

Sage sighed and pushed his over as well. "It's the closest anyone tonight will be to getting laid," Halo said, crooking a little smile of his own. "No matter what you and I made Robyn wear, or how hard Rowen tries."

Mia picked up another strawberry, one of Kento's, and then shot them a smug look. After all, she had been the one to dress Ryo, and Mia had seen enough popcorn and cuddling on her couch this week to know whom had what chances with whom. Dipping the strawberry into its bath of chocolate, she grinned naughtily.

"Wanna bet?"

Conversation picked up over dinner. First comments of how good the food was. Then Robyn picking at everyone else's plate, mostly Ryo's, tasting what everyone else ordered. She looked so funny completely covered in napkins, determined not to get a single crumb on her dress.

Her enthusiasm for eating was what really lightened the mood at the table. Nikki found herself liking the redhead more. Especially since she didn't spare Rowen another glance the entire night. In fact, most of her attention stayed on Nikki, asking her what part of the States she resided and what she did for a living.

Rowen seemed very pleased that the girls were talking. Then he wiped his mouth on a napkin and stood, announcing he and Nikki would be right back. With her hand in his, the brunette happily followed him out onto the dance floor. Nikki was almost giddy when he touched her hip. She put her hand on his arm, feeling the lean taunt muscles underneath the silky black shirt he was wearing.

"Oh, I like this," she approved, running her hand up his arm to feel the texture.

"It's my date shirt," Rowen responded with a wiggle of his eyebrows. "So the girls won't want to stop touching." His hand sank a little lower, not so subtly feeling the curve of her ass.

Nikki gave him a serious look. "I'm not having sex with you tonight."

Those crystal blue eyes fluttered at her. "Uh, okay," he said, not prepared for that statement.

"I'm serious Rowen, no sex. Whatever else you have planned for tonight, I'm not sleeping with you." Nikki glanced away from him, frowning. Then her expression softened as she turned to look back into his eyes. "I care about you, and I'm enjoying being with you tonight. But I don't want to go back to the way we were before, I'm terrified of it. If something else happens between us, I want it to be better, deeper than before. Not just cheap, tawdry nights and arguments in between." She suddenly looked a little timid and her voice came out small. "Can you- could you want that, too?"

Rowen's expression grew gentle and he reached over to kiss her forehead. "Yeah Nik," he said in a voice that made her chest flutter. "I want that, too." He hesitated, and then murmured softly in her ear, "But for the record, we were never cheap and tawdry."

Nikki smiled at that, and leaned her head on his shoulder. Then she laughed as Rowen snuck another feel of her ass, adding teasingly. "You were cheap and tawdry, Nik, but I was a perfect gentleman."

She smacked his arm, still laughing, and then squealed as he snatched her up tighter to his chest, spinning them both around in circles.

From the table, Robyn watched them, chin propped up with one hand. "Aw, they're adorable together."

"Would you want to dance?" Ryo asked her.

"Do you?" Robyn challenged back, looking perfectly content to stay where she was. She was still scraping mushroom sauce from her plate, licking her fork.

"Actually, this is nice like this, having a few moments to ourselves."

Robyn made a sound of agreement, still licking her fork.

Ryo caught her attention by placing his hand on hers. "Actually, I have a confession to make." he said lowly.

Curious, Robyn leaned forward as Ryo whispered in her ear. "Ever since I saw you in that dress, all I've been able to think about is taking it off you."

Robyn just looked at him, eyes wide, the prongs of her fork barely touching her red lips. His deep blue eyes were sharp and serious, and they held her gaze. A look of full realization crossed her face and she flushed a light pink down to her arms. She didn't say anything, only looked thoughtfully at the empty chairs across from her. But she didn't pull away as Ryo continued to caress the back of her hand with his thumb.

The rain had petered out into a weak drizzle by the time Ryo's truck pulled up outside Robyn's apartment complex. It was warm inside the cabin and even Ryo had yet to move to open her door for her.

"You had fun, right?" he asked hopefully.

"I did," Robyn beamed. "I'm so glad we got to do this, even if we were all victims of Rowen's machinations."

Ryo laughed. "Yeah, that's our Rowen, always tricking us into having a good time."

"That Nikki must be the strongest woman I have ever met to want to stay with him."

They both had a good chuckle, but Ryo didn't add to the conversation. He didn't want to talk about Nikki or Rowen. Not when they were sitting alone together like this. He wanted to do something, say anything that would make this night last longer. Only he couldn't think of a single thing to stop her from getting out of his truck when she was ready.

Robyn rubbed her hands together and then tested the temperature of her nose.

"You're still cold?" Ryo asked, his mouth hiking up to one side.

"Of course, it's me. I'm always cold."

"Come here, Popsicle."

Ryo tugged her arm and she scooted closer to him. His wide, dark hands encompassed her pale fingers and they were icy to the touch. He rubbed them, skin on skin, thumbs pressing into her palms to get blood circulating. Ryo breathed heat on her chilled fingers and Robyn felt an excited prickle clear to the tips of her toes.

She found herself leaned against him, shoulder to shoulder, enjoying his touch and not wanting to leave his side. Ryo's attention was fixated on warming up her hands so Robyn took the opportunity to quietly watch him. Her eyes took in the broadness of his shoulders, his smooth skin, that thick black hair that made her fingers want to bury themselves in it.

Then Robyn looked out the windshield at her apartment building. The rain gathering on the glass made everything seem even more dismal and uninviting. While she had enjoyed the night, there was that constant niggling at the back of her mind. She dreaded going back home. The longer she lived there, the less she liked the neighborhood. It was haunting, restless, and it kept her awake at nights.

And there was the doll.

It was the main reason Robyn didn't want to leave the truck. She didn't want to go through that door alone. She didn't want to see if it had found its way back. She wasn't scared of it, she just didn't want to punctuate such a fantastic day with failure if it happened to show up again.

Why was she even considering going in there, into the darkness and uncertainty, when she could stay next to this source of warmth and light if she so wished?

With that thought, Robyn felt dumb. Why was she still making stupid decisions? With those two options set before her, why was she even having a hard time choosing? She really was an idiot.


He looked up when she said his name, sharp blue eyes illuminated by the streetlight outside. He watched her mouth move soundlessly as Robyn attempted to find the words. Her brain wasn't working. Just speak! Tell him.

"I... want to go home with you," she found herself saying.

Ryo took only a moment to let that statement sink in. Without a word, he put the truck in reverse and they pulled out of the parking lot, away from the dark windows of Robyn's apartment.

"Hey, Cye. Rowen just texted me that he and Nikki are heading back to Mia's place."

"Did he say anything about Robyn and Ryo?"

"Nothing you'd want to hear. But yeah, looks like it's just the two of us the rest of tonight."

"…Oh really?"

"Shut up, Cye."

"I love it when you play hard to get."

Walking up the stairs toward his apartment was different than any other time in Ryo's life. He had never gone up those flights with his fingers threaded in a girl's before. He could feel a heat at his back where she trailed behind him, as if she were the one to possess Wildfire. When they reached his door, it was with reluctance that he reclaimed his hand to fish for his keys.

Behind him, he felt her body lean idly between his shoulder blades and his fingers were suddenly blunt and clumsy. With a little bit of fumbling, Ryo managed to get the key in the lock. The two made it inside and out of the chilly air.

"Can I take your coat?" he asked hopefully.

Robyn gave him a small smirk, but allowed him to take it off her. Both were aware he just wanted to see her in that dress again. Robyn didn't mind at all. For tonight, he was welcome to look all he wanted.

Rubbing her arms, she slipped off her heels and wandered over to the couch where she could tuck her icy toes under her. Ryo shrugged off his dinner jacket, placing it over her shoulders before joining her on the couch. Robyn tugged the material closer, enjoying the extra body warmth that came with it.

Subtly, she sniffed the collar, mostly out of habit.

She had gotten used to Cye's smell during high school with how many of his clothes she pilfered. Kento's jacket she had worn a few times and borrowed a sweater from Rowen once. Sage, Robyn wasn't even sure if he had a scent. Maybe he just smelled like fresh air. She couldn't imagine anything else from him.

Ryo's smell was pleasing to the nose. It was campfires and wilderness in the summertime. His smell was strong, male, and she liked it. She watched him sitting there in his white turtleneck while she took another deep breath.

"White looks good on you," she said simply.

"Yeah? Mia and Nikki helped me pick it out."

Robyn smiled to herself at the thought. She would have paid money to see the two women dress him up. It was nice to finally be able to take some time to admire her date. Rowen had been a constant distraction. Even when his attention was completely on Nikki, Robyn was always aware of his presence. She couldn't relax around him anymore. Their overt canoodling didn't help either. Robyn wasn't sure she would ever be comfortable acting like that in public. Maybe that was also the reason she asked to come over. She just wanted some time with Ryo alone, no distractions.

"I'm sorry, Robyn," Ryo announced while she had let her thoughts wander. His tone sounded a bit regretful. "I have to take off this dumb shirt. It's driving me nuts." He scratched at his collar and Robyn recalled he had been subtly fiddling with it all night.

"Is it itchy?" she wondered, feeling the material on his arm. It felt fine to her.

"I just don't like tight collars. They irritate me after a while."

Finally, Ryo just got fed up and yanked the shirt over his head. He immediately realized he was a victim of habit. Living alone, he had gotten used to taking clothes off whenever and wherever he was in the apartment. He glanced sheepishly over to see Robyn had politely looked away, but not before sweeping her eyes once over his bare skin. She noticed his neck was a little red with irritation.

"Yeah, I'm gonna go... get something else..." Ryo said as he stood and retreated down the hall. He didn't want to make her any more uncomfortable than she already was.

Robyn allowed herself to take in the view as he left. She liked it better from the back. The tanned skin wrapped smoothly around his muscles, shoulder blades prominent. His well sculpted derriere was filling out those slacks nicely. Robyn slapped her palm to her face to stop herself. God, what was she thinking? It wasn't even the first time she had seen him without a shirt. What was with this reaction now?

She just wanted to hang out with him a little longer, not anything like... that. Even Ryo didn't look like he expected anything more than just her company. She had asked to come over and he didn't even bat an eye. He knew they were just going to maybe watch tv or something, nothing more.

A thought came unbidden, running her hands over that back and feeling the sleekness of the muscles beneath her fingers. Robyn jumped up from the couch to shake herself.

What was with these thoughts tonight? She was being ridiculous! It was that fancy night out and this stupid dress. It was making her brain react all weird. She had to get back to feeling more like herself.

Walking down the hall, Robyn knocked on Ryo's bedroom door frame without looking in. "Hey, do you think I could borrow something to wear?"

"Yeah, just a sec," came the response.

A second later, Ryo appeared, tugging on a T-shirt with a wide neck. It showed off his collar bones nicely. Robyn always had a thing for collar bones. She had to fight not to roll her eyes at herself so Ryo wouldn't notice her internal struggle.

"How about a sweat shirt?" he offered, producing a gray, pullover hoodie.

"Ooh, looks warm." She turned around to present her back. "Can you help me with this zipper first?"

Robyn squeaked a little in surprised when Ryo grabbed her arms and gently backed her into the bedroom so they weren't loitering at the threshold. He swept the hair meticulously from the back of her neck. Robyn waited, feeling his warm breath on her spine as he revealed her inch by inch. Even though she couldn't see his face, she still felt frozen under his gaze. Warm fingertips touched exposed skin.

He fingered the clasp of her black lace bra and Robyn's breath hitched. Ryo pulled it back and cheekily snapped it against her skin.

"Hey!" It didn't hurt any, but Robyn still tried to whip around, intent on smacking him in the arm.

But Ryo was holding her from behind, pressing her against his chest and preventing her from turning. "I'm just messing with you," he laughed in her ear.

Robyn's world was covered with gray as the hoodie was pulled over her. Her head poked out of the collar as Ryo hugged her again, pressing his mouth to her temple. Robyn beamed silently. Having his attention, his affection, like this was nice.

She squirmed a little, trying to get her arms out of the dress sleeves and into the sweater. The rest of the dress still snugly hugged her hips. She turned around in his embrace, idly fingering the lip of his collar, keeping away from those tempting collar bones even though she wanted to touch them. One of Ryo's hands pressed itself to her lower back. The other took her hand, rubbing his thumb against her palm. Their foreheads pressed together. Every now and then they would sway, just a little. It was like dancing; their own private song only for their ears.

Robyn idly wondered if this was what falling for someone was like. Not the sexy dress-up or fancy dinners, but enjoying the nearness of another body. It was finding so much calm and contentment in the other's presence that everything around just melted away. There was just his eyes, his breath, his warmth. And her flushed cheeks.

"I have something I want to say," Ryo whispered. It sounded regretful, as if he knew his words would break the spell of this night. "Robyn, I know you are strong and capable of taking care of yourself. I know I've been a bit of a pain lately, making you alter your habits to satisfy my worries. I want you to know that I want you to be happy. I want you to feel free and safe, and fearless. Even if none of those things have anything to do with me. But..."

He paused for a moment, letting out a deep breath. "I have this horrible fear inside me. I feel it in my heart, in my armor, that if you leave us this time we won't ever see or hear from you again- no one will."

Robyn stared at him with wide eyes, taking in the absolute seriousness of his expression.

"I don't want that for you," he choked out, "but I don't know what to do."

Robyn was the first to break the stare and she sighed a little with her shoulders. "You know what, Ryo? I don't know what to do either."

She stepped away, but took his hand, pulling them back to Ryo's unmade bed. When she tried to sit with a leg curled up under her, the tight dress prevented her movement. Robyn unzipped the thing the rest of the way and shimmied out of it. The sweater barely went to mid-thigh, but she didn't seem to care as she made herself comfortable amidst the sloppy blankets.

"I left Japan because I brought something bad with me. The darkness followed me here, and I brought something dangerous into your lives that you didn't need."

"But we defeated it," Ryo protested. "We saved you. That's our job."

"I know," Robyn said affectionately, taking his hand. "I know you live to help people- to protect them. Even though you won, Sage had horrible nightmares, Cye almost died, and none of you never really looked at me the same after that night."

"We would have all done it again if meant keeping you safe," Ryo insisted.

"Yes, I understand you would have every time. But the point is you guys shouldn't have something in your lives that constantly brings that sort of danger to you. That's me. I knew the moment everything was over, it wouldn't be the last. I'm a magnet, Ryo. Since that awful ceremony, I've been marked. There's always going to be darkness drawn to me and you guys don't deserve that."

"But-" Ryo was cut off by a finger to his mouth as he tried to interject.

"And I couldn't stand living with friends who constantly had to save me because I was so helpless," Robyn continued gently. "I didn't want that sort of life for myself. So I left. After meeting you five, I felt stronger. You guys gave me the courage to handle this on my own. That's what I've been doing all these years, handling the darkness." She looked him in the eyes. "And I've been getting stronger for it."

"The reason your wounds have healed so fast," Ryo realized.

Robyn shrugged noncommittally. "I don't know what it is, but there's something... extra in me. The more I fight the more it grows. But back to my point, I thought if I left, I'd be taking everything dark with me. Then I came back to find you guys have had it far worse than I could ever imagine." She threw up her hands in frustration. "I don't know what to do about it anymore."

"Stay with us," Ryo said softly, unrepentant.

"I wish I had stayed," Robyn admitted, her voice cracking a little. "I wish I could have been there for you guys when you needed me. I know you're glad I wasn't there, I know why you feel that way. But I wish I could have done something for you." She broke a little bit right then, eyes watering. "Why do I always make the wrong decision? Why can't I ever do anything for you guys?"

A sob escaped, even as she tried to fight it, and Ryo reached for her shaking shoulders.

"Hey, hey," he said gently as he gathered her in his arms. "It's okay."

Robyn let him hold her, though she didn't hold him back. She kept her arms against herself, as if ashamed to be so close to him; even though she pressed her face to his neck.

"You did do something for us," Ryo said, "You gave us a fresh perspective. You made us look at ourselves and realize we needed to find the courage to move forward. You helped us be strong. You were there for us when we needed you."

Robyn didn't say anything, just sniffled a little, still resting her cheek on his shoulder.

"And you make me feel safe, Robyn," Ryo admitted.

At that statement, she did sit up, dabbing at the corner of her eye with one finger. "I make you feel safe?"

"You do." He reached out, brushing stray strands from her face. "I trust you, Robyn. Maybe you don't tell me everything, but you don't lie to me either. You tell me up front when you think something is none of my business. I know you care about all of us, about me. I know you want what's best for me. And I know you will keep my affections for you safe," he gave her a rueful smile, "even if you may not feel the same way about me."

Robyn's face turned regretful at that last statement. Ryo watched as she crawled closer, then propped herself up on her knees. As she leaned against him, hands on his shoulders, his hands found her hips. It was tempting to know that only a few inches lower he would feel white, creamy skin instead of the material of his sweatshirt, but he left them where they were, silently looking into those big, green eyes.

Thin fingers played with the hair at the nape of his neck. Ryo closed his eyes and swallowed at the tremors her touch caused. Robyn brushed the hair from his forehead, tracing his features with fingertips. She followed the sweep of his brow, his nose, the line of his jaw. Ryo's grip on her tightened a little as she ran her thumb over his bottom lip before lightly brushing her mouth against his.

It was an odd feeling to care about one of her boys differently from the others. Robyn was still getting used to it. Sometimes it almost made her feel guilty, but then Robyn had to rationalize that her relationship with Wildfire did not diminish her love for the others in the slightest.

She deepened the kiss and Ryo finally allowed himself to react to her touch. He tugged her in close, pressing her body against him, digging his fingers in to feel her thin frame underneath all that material. One hand traveled up to cup the back of her skull and Ryo kissed her until she was breathless. Then he moved to kiss her chin, her jaw, and then lower to attack her neck.

Robyn squeaked and cringed when his mouth found her neck.

"You okay?" he asked playfully as he pulled back.

She rubbed her neck with her shoulder. "It feels weird. It's so sensitive right there. It, like, makes my skin tingle all over."

Ryo grinned. "I think that's a good thing." He leaned in to kiss the quickening pulse of her throat and she closed her eyes, tensing as if she were on a roller coaster. "Maybe I should pin you down until you get used to it."

Robyn's eyes popped open again, staring at him with a startled expression. Her whole face was reddening before his eyes. Ryo took the opportunity of her stunned silence to remove his shirt. Though that didn't help Robyn regain her senses any faster. She was frozen in place by the tanned, shirtless man sitting under her. It was his eyes that held her there. Usually bright blue, they were stormy and hooded as they watched her intently. Robyn didn't move, couldn't move, under that gaze.

Realizing maybe he needed to turn it down a bit, Ryo raised an eyebrow at her, changing the intensity of his expression. He smiled at her and Robyn let out the breath neither one of them realized she had been holding.

"Sure you're okay?" Ryo asked again.

"Yeah," she said, not meeting his eyes. "I trust you, I'm just... not used to it. I'm so clumsy with these sorts of things."

She sat back on her heels, almost in apology, and Ryo propped up his legs on either side of her, caging her in.

"Hey, it's just me." He tipped his head to catch her gaze. "You can be yourself here. Whatever you want to do, or not do, I'm fine with it." He took her wrist and pressed her hand to his bare shoulder to prove his point.

Robyn stilled again, unsure what to do. Timidly, she rubbed her thumb against the skin, noting the difference between his darker shade and her pale fingers. Her fingertips slid to finally trace over that tempting collar bone. Robyn felt an urge to put her mouth on it, to feel the texture and temperature with her lips, but she refrained. Instead, she let them slide down his chest and stomach before removing her hand from him completely, a bit self-conscious she dared to do that much.

Ryo sucked in a sharp breath. Her fingers were chilly, but everywhere she touched forged an icy hot trail of fire down his skin. He was on her before he realized what he was doing. Robyn was pushed backward onto the bed, the pillow cushioning her fall and Wildfire attacking her mouth. He felt a brief moment of hesitation, wondering what he just did, before thin fingers shoved themselves in his hair and his scalp sent tingles all the way down his spine.

He dropped to his elbows, pressing their bodies together as they kissed. Robyn responded, sliding her hands down his back, digging fingers into the muscles. Her bare leg pulled up at his hip and Ryo ran a hand up the thigh, moving higher to search under the sweatshirt. His hand ghosted over a quivering stomach as he moved to kiss her neck.

Robyn squeaked out a sound when he touched that sensitive spot again, and it turned all the blood in Ryo's veins into molten fire. Even as he lost himself further in her, she was pushing him away by the shoulders. She wasn't shoving so hard she was trying to get him off of her, but she definitely wanted him to back off a little. It was like lifting a great weight as Ryo managed enough self-control to pull himself away.

"Sorry," he rasped in a husky voice. Robyn had never heard his voice like that before. "We can stop if you want, but you need to tell me now, or I may not be able to the next time."

Robyn stared at him, eyes speaking volumes for her stunned silence. No man had ever approached her with as much warmth, with as much heat, as this man hovering over her. No one had ever looked at her with so much want. His face, his body, told her everything and it was almost too much to take in.

"Robyn, you need to tell me to stop," Ryo warned, even as he leaned in, his mouth almost on hers. His body was tense, as if it took all his concentration to be this much in control of himself.

She didn't. Instead she reached up and wound her fingers back in his hair. "I'm not telling you to stop," she said softly. "I just need you to take a breath. I'm not going anywhere tonight so just... calm down a bit, okay?"

It did calm Ryo a little, knowing whatever happened between them, he would not be forced to release her to the night afterward. She would be safe with him, under his protection until the morning light. His entire body visibly relaxed.

"So you're really going to stay?" he asked in a softer tone.

Robyn gave a self-conscious smile. "Well, your bed is pretty comfortable."

Ryo's lips curved into his own, shy smile as he leaned down and pressed a light kiss to her collarbone. "And we're not stopping, we're just slowing down."

She nodded, and the look in his eyes made her catch her breath all over again. Lust and affection, tangled beneath protectiveness and determination. Ryo's hand cradled the side of her face, keeping her gaze on his as he shifted his weight back down against her own.

"Slow," Ryo promised quietly as she reached for him. "Robyn, if that's what you want, that's what we'll do."

There was something about Kento when he was comfortable that made everything feel like the world was good and in the right order. Mia wasn't sure why, but even when crammed in her back seat, foot propped up in the front, Kento's contentment made her content too.

After dinner, Cye and Sage had practically dumped the Warrior of Hardrock on her, saying Kento needed a ride back home. For some undisclosed reason, Cye couldn't do it, even though he had been the one to pick Kento up. It was a set up in the most blatant way possible, yet Mia didn't mind. Kento had remained poker faced about the entire ordeal, but Mia silently hoped he wanted to be in her company as well.

Hardrock had asked her to stop to pick up a few beers. Mia wasn't sure what for until she had pulled up into the tiny alley behind the Faun family restaurant and Kento didn't even bother unclasping his seat belt before opening his first bottle and offering one to Mia. She had accepted that night, under the gray, miserable weather. No sound between them but the rain pelting the car.

The silence wasn't uncomfortable. It was nice just to be near each other, one not expecting anything from the other. Then Kento grinned and nudged her with his elbow. That was when the "Do you remember when?" stories came out.

Before Mia realized it, the pair were lounging in her back seat, her on her second beer, Kento on his third. Both were laughing and reminiscing about better times, back when the boys were sillier and the most stressful thing in her life was her job. Kento's leg was propped up between them and Mia was pressed haphazardly against the door, but it felt like they were closer than they had been in a long time.

His deep eyes looked upon her, relaxed and content. He took in her laugh as if seeing a rare miracle of nature and his gaze would often drift to her bare shoulder every time her top layer slid off.

"So, what's up with Rowen and Nikki?" He asked as a sudden change of subject when he couldn't think of any more stories. "You think this is going to be long term or what?"

Mia looked thoughtful as she took a long swallow from the bottle in her hand. "I think Rowen's back in his old habits already. He shows up, he teases her and baits her, and she rises to it even though she knows he's doing it. And I go to bed to their movie marathons every night."

"Every night?" Kento raised an eyebrow as he popped the metal cap off of his beer with one thumb, the only one of the Ronins that was strong enough to do so.

"Every night since you all came over. Since they're only throwing popcorn instead of insults at each other, it's actually been kind of..."

"Nice?" he supplied teasingly.

"Easier on the eardrums," Mia chuckled, looking at her almost drained bottle. "Maybe I should cut myself off."

"Naw, you're fine until you start calling everyone 'Rowens' instead of 'Ronins'. That's the Mia cutoff point, because after that, you'll start puking."

She smiled at him. "I liked tonight," she decided, looking out at the water droplets gathered on the window. "And yeah, it's been nice to see them happier."

They were quiet, and Mia snickered. "Your mom's going to be mad when she finds us passed out in another vehicle behind her restaurant again. She attacked you with a broom last time."

Kento chuckled and took another drink. "Ma thought I was corrupting you. After that last time, she told me that if I was going to have sex in inappropriate places, then I needed to at least molest you indoors."

Mia snorted. "Molest me?"

"Hey, I'm not the one that gets five beers in and insists on taking her clothes off. That's all you, babe."

"I get warm," she insisted, and Kento grinned over at her.

"We know. Why do you think we never let Ryo get drunk when you're drinking? He loses enough control to crank up the temperature, and then poof: you're naked."

"I am not!"

"Yeah, you pretty much are. That's okay. You're hot and Ryo's good at getting people naked. Which is why I'm still maintaining that he's getting laid tonight, not Rowen."

"Oh, Rowen's getting laid," Mia said, rambling somewhat drunkenly. "Ryo too. And maybe Cye and Sage are coming to an understanding. In fact, I think out of all of us, you and I are the only ones not headed for coital bliss tonight."

"Ouch. I didn't even make a pass and I'm already shot down."

Mia grinned at his mock hurt expression. "I hope you don't feel too bad. I'm still here with you, aren't I?"

Kento smiled at her, but didn't move closer even as he said gently, "Yeah. I liked tonight, but I like this too."

Neither one spoke for a moment, but their eyes had locked.

"Besides," Mia added, finally breaking their gaze for another sip, "it's taken me this long to not freak out when someone touches me without my expecting it. I can't imagine actually sleeping with anyone, never actually knowing…"

Mia's words fell away. Embarrassed at her admittance, she turned toward the window.

"Never knowing what, Mia?"

She hesitated, long enough for Kento's fingers to lightly brush her shoulder to catch her attention.

"It's okay to talk to me," he said to her, voice somewhat rough. "I won't tell them, you know I'll keep it to myself. And I'm not going to judge you, or be pissed."

Mia took a small breath and then said, "I don't sleep with anyone because I never know if it's really them. Or if it's Damian. Not just when I'm with someone. Sometimes I'll catch myself at work, or at the library. I look around and I wonder if it's real. Or am I still stuck in a lie?"

It was the first time she had brought it up, and she could tell that Kento was being careful, taking a slow drink before swallowing and clearing his throat. "You think about that a lot?"

Mia looked down, scratching her fingernails on the peeling beer label. "Not as much as I used to. It's been a while since all that and I'm doing better. I try not to think of much else besides work. The men I date, it's never anything serious, so it doesn't get that far. I don't let it get that far."

"But you think about it when you're around us," he said simply, because Kento had always been so good at understanding her. "Especially me."

Mia nodded, wordlessly. After a moment, she reached over and touched her hand to his. "I know it's you," she told him quietly. "But what if it's not? What if I think I'm having a beer with you, but I'm not? I'm somewhere else, in some other dimension? Betraying you just because I think I'm talking to you? Because it's been like that before, Kento. I could have sworn it was you, I knew it was you. Just like I know I'm next to you now…but it's always in the back of my mind when I'm around you that maybe I'm wrong."

She bit her lip and then smiled somewhat bitterly. "Sounds messed up, huh?"

He didn't reply instantly, because he was Kento. Not because he was any less intelligent than the others, but because he was a deep thinker. And he thought with his heart. He went over her words, and he thought about her and him.

He decided that maybe Mia could never love him the way he had wanted her to, how he still wanted. Kento was a warrior, and he instinctively understood the nature of battles. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost, and sometimes not everyone came back. And those who came back would never be the same. Mia had been through war and she wasn't the same. But she had loved him once, and Kento wasn't ready to give up on her yet. He wasn't ready to give up on them yet.

"I wish... that I could assure you somehow," he said carefully. "That I could give you a way to know it's really me." He ran his fingers through his hair. "Too bad we didn't ever have like a... safe word or something set up before all that shit happened."

Mia stared at him, eyes beautiful and owlish. Then a slow smile curled her lips. It grew until she was grinning at him, eyes laughing. "A safe word?"

"Yeah," Kento insisted. "You know, like they have when…when a guy and a chick…" A flush of embarrassment came to his face and he cleared his throat. "Like when they are…you know."

Maybe it was the beer, she wasn't sure, but she broke down laughing. It was such a startling sound, Kento wasn't sure how to react at first. Then Kento had to chuckle, too. It felt good to hear her laugh, even if she was somewhat laughing at him. Mia was gripping the handle of the door as she tried to breathe between her laughter, so hard that she accidentally opened the handle and half fell out of the car. It hadn't stopped raining, and her face and hair were wet by the time Kento grabbed her and hauled her back into the vehicle. She was still laughing as he reached around her to close the door again, Hardrock grinning too.

"The safe—safe word is pineapple. Kento, it has to be pineapple!"

Mia was holding her aching side, unable to keep herself upright under her own power. She was leaning toward Kento, gasping face almost planted in the seat by now. Kento set down his beer and grabbed her with both hands, gently pulling her shaking shoulders over until they were both occupying the same side of the back seat. Mia was pressed against his side and he could feel the vibrations as her chuckles died down. She seemed content to lean against him as he rested an arm around her shoulder.

"It's really me, Mia," he said after a while. "Tonight it's really me."

Mia was quiet, her gaze far off. Her body relaxed against him, head resting on his shoulder. "Pineapple promise?" she asked, and he nodded seriously despite the little smile on her lips.

"Pineapple promise. Mia, it might take a long time, but someday you're going to trust me again," he rumbled quietly.

"It was never you I mistrusted," Mia whispered. "It was myself."

One of his hands smoothed over her hair while the other found itself tangled in her delicate fingers. Both were enjoying a pleasant buzz by now and didn't have it in them to move away from one another.

"Well I trust you, too" he slurred lazily. "You trust me, I'll trust you. That should be enough for now."

Mia said nothing, but snuggled closer as the rain pelted around them. From inside the restaurant, Kento's mother glanced out the tiny window and smiled.

Ryo lay in bed, watching the ceiling in the dark. The rain pelted the window and lighting streaked across the sky, lighting everything around him for an instant.

Robyn's sleeping body was snuggled next to him, warm and soft. Her arms were folded over her chest in slumber as if to guard herself. But her head was on his shoulder, so Ryo wasn't sure if she was subconsciously trying to protect herself from him or if she was just comfortable sleeping that way.

After what they had done that night, it was certainly too late to guard herself from Ryo's intentions.

She was sleeping in one of Ryo's longest T-shirts, her dress hanging up in his closet. Robyn had also put back on the pair of black lace panties she had been wearing. The same pair that had nearly caused Ryo to lose his mind when he saw them.

Laying there, awake in the dark, Ryo was aware of his Wildfire armor pressing a notion upon him. It now had a claim on the woman sleeping next to him. Robyn belonged to it, to them. And it would not tolerate anyone or anything taking her away.

As he had been with Robyn in his bed that night, Ryo had been very much aware of Wildfire in the back of his mind. The armor, that power that sunk deep in his veins was actively accepting her into his world as he touched and kissed her, listening to the beautiful noises she made.

A bond had been sealed that night, not just in his heart, but in a deeper part of himself. It kept Ryo awake, his mind wondering at the implications.

Was this how Rowen felt when he shared his affections with Nikki? Was it not just Rowen, but Strata who had turned his feelings toward her into a violent obsession? Was it the armor that caused him to be unable to let go of her?

If so, what was Ryo going to do if Robyn still left him after this?

The redhead breathed in deeply in her sleep and stretched. Her arm reached around him as she snuggled closer, pressing the bridge of her nose under his jaw. Ryo idly let his fingers wander through her hair. He did not regret this night, but the questions of what would happen after were keeping him awake.

In the dark, he felt Wildfire stir. He felt the power and the danger of the armor, causing his body to react. The thunder rumbled outside. He glanced at the girl sleeping at his side before slowly rolling over. Settling his weight on top of her, he gently kissed her awake before claiming her as his once more.