PROLOGUE

Ayumi stared across the busy campus, feeling every bit the part of the ugly duckling from the old fairy tale. Not that she was ugly, by any stretch of the imagination. She felt lost, out of touch, and most certainly out of place. She rolled a finger through a ringlet of her raven hair and let out a sigh of frustration as the world moved on without her. A thousand questions invaded her thoughts: What was she doing here? Where was she supposed to go? Why was no one stopping to offer a helping hand? Most importantly—and also a direct contradiction to the previous—how could she expect people to go out of their way to do such a thing for someone they didn't know?

That would be selfish of her. It wasn't like they had time to stop and help some ditz figure out where she was supposed to be. They were all doing the same thing as she was, after all. This was freshman orientation. Everyone was here to enroll, just as she was, and to learn the campus. Ayumi adjusted her backpack to relieve the biting pain of the strap pulling against her shoulder, regretting that hadn't stopped at her apartment that morning to drop off her luggage, at least what little of it she had brought with her from America for her first week at school. Now she was going to have to cart a heavy bag all around a campus she didn't know, just so that she could get enrolled at the end of the day. She didn't care about the campus layout… not yet; she just wanted to enroll and go home, unload her things, and crash. It had been a long, exhausting, and nerve-racking flight over the Pacific.

Meiritsu University. Her mother's alma mater. Ayumi wet her lips and fought back a tear. Closing her eyes, she drew in a deep, cleansing breath of the late-summer morning air. She couldn't let her emotions get the best of her today. College was just around the corner, and with it, her future. Again, she shifted her backpack on her shoulder, groaning a little at the intense ache, and started off through the campus, peering through the crowds in search of some answer to where she was supposed to be.

Her heart almost stopped when she bumped into a wall that hadn't been before her a moment before. Her feet slipped out from under her and she found herself on her backside, her backpack thudding to the ground beside her. Blinking dumbly for a moment, Ayumi lifted her eyes up to the wall looming over her.

A rather large young man with an angry sneer glowered down at her.

"Why don't you watch where you're going, pipsqueak?" the man rumbled as he leaned forward. His mohawk was died green and his face was littered with… were those piercings? Ayumi's stomach lurched just looking at him. He was built like an offensive lineman for the Dallas Cowboys, the football team she had been fond of growing up in Oklahoma. He was dressed entirely in black, and his skin was pale as the undead.

Cursing her rotten luck, Ayumi turned over onto her knees and reached out for her pack. That's when the man planted his foot on her backside, giving her a little shove. "What's this? Offering yourself, bitch? You ain't nuthin' but a tramp, ya little tramp!"

"Ow!" Ayumi fought to adjust her skirt back over her purple panties. "You jackass!"

"Oh, I'm a jackass? You ran into me, little tramp! Don't you know when you run into someone you're supposed to apologize?!"

She sighed, her face flushed with embarrassment. Her heart was racing a thousand miles a minute. "I… yes, I know… I'm sorry, please, I didn't…"

"Stupid bitch! Look at me when I'm talking to you!" He planted his foot in her backside again, and when Ayumi lurched forward following the blow, she smacked her face on the pavement. With a moan of pain, she fought to push herself up onto her hands and knees, but just as she expected, the man would have none of it. He planted his foot into the small of her back and pressed her down. "Just who do you think you are? Don't you know who you're dealing with, little tramp? Don't expect to make a mockery of Bunji Hiro and leave with your dignity intact, you hear?!"

So much for making a good first impression, she thought. Maybe if I just play dead the big galoot will just go away.

She could hear Big Sis reprimanding her from back in the states for her flippant tongue, even before she got the words out, and was able to swallow the remark before making a serious mistake. She lay there, feeling the weight of the big man's foot holding her down, sensing the angry sneer as he loomed over her, thinking God-knew-what in that tiny, pea brain. Her hands balled into tiny fists and her breath came slow and ragged as she waited for the worst.

No way this brute would do more than this. The realization that they were in public soothed her nerves… a little. She bit her lower lip and waited.

"What, you ain't got nuthin' to say, little tramp?"

"Get off me…" She mumbled the words, almost hoping he wouldn't hear.

Unfortunately, the man had better ears than she gave him credit for. He grabbed her by the hair and gave it a yank, pulling her head up off the ground. "Say what?!"

"Hey asshole! Get your grimy mitts off her!"

That voice didn't sound Japanese… Though fluent, the tone wasn't right. It was the voice of someone who learned Japanese as a second language.

"What the hell… Tina?!" Suddenly her hair was free and the pressure of his weight on her back lessened. She breathed a sigh of relief and laid her head back on the ground, gently, her eyes closed, and waited for the storm to pass.

"You've been on campus for all of ten minutes, Bunji!" the voice growled. "What, now you're picking fights with girls a fraction of your size! I should bust you up, you know that?"

"Miss Tina… I just… we were just… she…"

"I can see what's going on here, Bunji! I'm not a complete moron, you know!" Whoever her savior was, the verbal war was closing in on her. Both stood toe to toe just over Ayumi's head. She kept her eyes closed, waiting for the bombs to fall. Her savior was definitely a woman, and she could hear the strong western inflections in her tone, detecting a southern twang. Had to be an American. "Just get out of here. Don't make me go postal on you, cause you'll definitely regret it if I do. You hear me, Bunji Hiro! Turn around and walk away!"

Ayumi heard a heavy sigh. Resignation. "Yes Miss Tina. I'm sorry, Miss Tina." His voice grew even lower. "Sorry. It was my fault. I saw her coming a mile away and I could tell she was lost, but…"

"Just beat it!"

This Tina certainly knew how to take the upper hand. Ayumi wasn't certain how long it took for the big man to lug away, but seemingly a lifetime later, she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and a soft voice reach her ears. "Oh, kid… geez. You okay?"

"Nothing I never experienced sitting on the couch watching the WWF with Big Sis," Ayumi joked, and then gave a groan of pain as she pushed herself up slowly, until she was sitting on the ground. She turned her gaze to the big green eyes sparkling down at her, and the concerned smile on her savior's face as she gently rubbed her shoulder. Ayumi felt as though she were about a foot tall and was sure she was shrinking. She didn't look about but knew there were other eyes upon her, more than the eyes of the girl who had come to her rescue. She wished they'd all just go away.

"You watch wrestling?"

"Well… no," she admitted, a blush painting her cheeks. "Though Moose Johnston back there really should consider a career in pro football."

Tina laughed, a hearty American laugh with a devil-may-care spirit. She clapped Ayumi on the back and rose, offering a hand. "Come on, kid. Let's get you off the sidewalk. You're blocking traffic, ya know!"

Ayumi's face reddened even more, and she accepted Tina's hand.

"Thanks," she said.

"By the way, my name's Tina Foster. What's yours?"

"Ayumi. Ayumi Honjō."