Author's Introduction:

Hi, I'm Star. Those of you who know me, uh oh! Here comes the massive chaptered Ronin fanfic I've been threatening to write for some time.

Those of you who don't know me…I want this to be love at first sight.

I began drafting this fic in May 2007, when Ty-Chou told me about the Boys of Summer Art Challenge, and I realized I'd always wanted to write a big, structured, chaptered Ronin Warriors fanfic, do it properly, you know, with a big plot and lots of action. Once I got the idea to do such a thing, my head was completely taken over, like a nest with a cuckoo in it. Now, so many months later, I'm thrilled to share the results of my efforts. I worked very hard on this, and whether anyone likes it or not, it's a labor of love and I am very proud of it!

As with all of my work for the past seven years or so, this would not have happened without my best friend Cloudwalker. Being my best friend includes but is not limited to being forced to beta-read my stories. So far, she has coped with this like a champion. I have faith that if I ever create fic that is too terrible to read, she will knock me unconscious with a Wiffle-ball bat before I can do harm to myself or others.

Also, big snaps go to the lovely ladies of Team Ronin, who you can find right here at fanfiction dot net—Boggy, Seinasu, Max the Bish Deliverer and Ally W. If you're looking for quality fic, complete with plot, story structure and a true understanding of our beloved characters, that doesn't assault you with pawsore plot devices and virulent Mary Sues, you need to check these ladies out.

Some things:

I love canon. I always try my best to keep everything as in-character, in-canon, as honest and believable as I can, because I love these characters and I love their story. Of course I want to do the right thing by my friends! So if anyone sees any major, glaring errors or something they think can be improved, please feel free to tell me so! I love discussion and constructive feedback. But please keep it constructive. That means no unreasonable ranting. This story holds a very special place in my heart and ranks among my most serious efforts. But it's not the negative I'm really concerned with; if you're having fun with it, tell me so—entertainment's what we aim for around here.

A quote from a very intelligent ficmistress named Krin, who you can also find right here at fanfiction dot net: "For the love of all things fanfiction, demand quality from authors." She's right. I can only hope I've done myself honor with this story.

If you like, you can even have a look at my Ronin Warriors fanart in my DeviantART gallery: http: / firestar9mm (dot) deviantART (dot) com.

Okay, for real now, I'm shutting up, here's the first chapter. (waves her replica of the Halo no-dachi and charges into battle.) Because the Ancient One said I could, dammit!

Cross My Heart, And Hope To Die

A Ronin Warriors fanfiction by Firestar9mm

Chapter One: Crystal Ball, Save Us All

Oh, crystal ball, crystal ball
Save us all

Tell me life is beautiful
Mirror, mirror, on the wall
Oh, crystal ball, hear my song fading out
Everything I know is wrong
So put me where I belong

(Keane, Crystal Ball)

If Mia Koji had had a crystal ball that could show her the future, she'd have slammed the phone right back down in the cradle.

That being said, if she'd had a crystal ball that could show her the future, she probably wouldn't have chased a boy and a tiger through the streets of Toyama, and one of the coolest stories ever might not have happened.

As it was, she didn't have a crystal ball. So when the phone rang early that morning, all she felt was a slight frisson of irritation that the sound had interrupted that nice dream about taking the champagne bubble bath. Rolling through the tangled bedclothes, she thrust an arm towards the nightstand and fumbled for the receiver. "H'lo?"

The voice was entirely too cheerful for the early hour. "Ms. Koji? Mia Koji?"

Mia ran a hand through her sleep-tousled red hair and curled around the phone, trying to remember if that was her name. "Mm."

Even if she hadn't been able to remember, all she would have had to do was open one of the books on the shelf above the desk. Any reader could have turned to the back dust jacket in either of the two volumes and seen her smiling face, followed by this text:

It seems inevitable that Mia Koji would become a well-known storyteller, having spent her youth studying ancient history as research assistant to her grandfather, a respected instructor at Japan's Shinsai University. Now, the student becomes the teacher, drawing on that background as well as her own extensive travels to pen powerful, imaginative tales of legends brought to life. Born and raised in France, Ms. Koji now resides just outside of Toyama, Japan, a beloved and familiar locale for her novels.

As of right now, there were two novels on the shelf, but Mia's cheerful attitude was that there was plenty of space for more, and she couldn't wait to get started. Notes for a third novel were already scattered across the desk, covered in her curly script, underlined, circled, connected by arrows. Her friends often joked that Mia's notes must have resembled the inside of her mind.

"Ms. Koji, my name is Hiro. Hiro Imamura. You probably don't remember me."

Mia didn't function well on not enough sleep, despite all the practice she'd had in years past. She closed her eyes and rested her cheek against the receiver, her mind spinning in a slot-machine-like catalogue of all the men she knew who might be the one on the other end of the line.

"I taught alongside your grandfather, at Shinsai University?"

Mia's mental roulette clunked to a halt on a boyishly handsome face, messy brown hair, kindly blue eyes. She remembered a man walking alongside her grandfather on the paths of Shinsai, slim without being skinny, like a marathon runner, hands gesticulating wildly in animated conversation with the older man. "Yes, I do remember! It's been so long, I'd nearly forgotten, but to this day I've never met anyone with such an excellent memory for mythological animals. It's nice to hear from you, Mr. Imamura."

"Come on, Ms. Koji, it's just Hiro," he laughed. "I hope you don't mind me calling—I found your number in the directory and hoped you hadn't moved. Please allow me to extend my deepest sympathies about your grandfather. He was a brilliant man, and an excellent colleague. The world is a poorer place without him."

Mia sighed, smiling fondly as she remembered the old man who'd made this life she'd grown so accustomed to possible. "Thank you."

Hiro continued. "On a happier note, I must congratulate you on how well-received your books are. I'll admit I haven't had the chance to read them myself, but the reviews are glowing. You must be very proud. I hope you're doing as well as the articles make it sound!"

Ah, that question. There was no easy way to say, "Oh, I'm great—when the earth isn't about to be overrun by dark forces and my friends aren't getting kidnapped and spirited away to the four corners of the planet, I'm doing just fine," but nothing else sounded nearly as interesting when you got right down to it.

"I'm…super," she said lamely. "I'm working on my notes for a new book, and it's promising to be very interesting. I hope the readers will agree," she laughed. "What about you? Didn't you end up teaching at a university in the city?"

"Yes," he said. "I was offered a position teaching comparative religion and I'm really enjoying it."

Bits and pieces were coming back to Mia. Hiro had been a nice guy, very bright, and when he got started on a subject he was interested in, you couldn't get him to stop talking. Even the most reticent student would find themselves getting involved in his lessons, and he wasn't the sort of teacher who would let a handful of more outspoken students carry the class—he got everyone involved as best he could. Dr. Koji had respected Hiro, saying that he had an engaging teaching style, and with the right focus could become an authority in his chosen field.

"Your grandfather was so proud of you, Ms. Koji, and I know he'd only be prouder seeing your recent successes," Hiro continued.

"That's so kind of you, Hiro, but please, call me Mia." Mia yawned, tugging on the strap of her nightgown, which had fallen over one pale shoulder. "What can I help you with today?"

"Oh, jeez, I've woken you up. I'm sorry," Hiro said. "Yes, actually, there is something you can help me with, if you don't mind. Bear in mind, this is a big favor I'm about to ask you, and you are free to say no."

"Oh," Mia said, blinking, her curiosity piqued. "I'd be happy to help if I can. What's the favor?"

Hiro took a breath. "Actually, Mia, it involves some notes I'm drafting for a book myself! I'm trying to publish some of my research, and I had planned at the start of my work to eventually cite your grandfather, Dr. Koji, as a source. It grieves me that he's no longer here to consult with, but I would be remiss not to include the influence his research has had on my work. As his research assistant, I remember how familiar you were with his work, and you're the only one who can promise the level of accuracy his input would have given my work."

Overwhelming nostalgia for those days with her grandfather overtook Mia. "You don't have to ask me twice, Hiro. I'd be happy to help you however I can. What's your book about?"

"You will?" Hiro sounded as if he hadn't believed she'd say yes. "Mia, that's wonderful! I can't thank you enough. I don't want to take up your time trying to explain it on the phone, but would you be available to meet me on my campus? I know it's a bit of a trip for you, but I'd really appreciate it. I promise not to take up too much of your time."

Mia smiled sleepily. "Actually, I could use a trip. There's a friend I could drop in on."

"All right! You're great. I owe you for this, I really do." Hiro's joy radiated down the line as he gave her directions to the campus."How's next Saturday evening?"

"Should be good. Is there a number where I can reach you in case something changes?"

He gave it to her, babbling his thank-yous. "You are great. This is going to be such a big help to me. Thank you, Mia, thank you so much—"

"You're welcome, Hiro. Y—Hiro, you're welcome. Really!" Mia laughed, her head beginning to throb with the stress of premature wakefulness. Finally, she managed to get him to hang up.

Flopping back down onto the pillows, Mia let out her breath in a whoosh, eyes sliding closed, the phantom taste of dream champagne still on her tongue. Maybe she could get the dream back, spend a couple more hours in luxury before she really ought to get up. The best part of living alone was that there was no one around to tell you what to do. You didn't have to get up and make sure the coffee was on, and the only person you had to look after was yourself.

A growl and a gentle tug at her bedsheets roused her from her thoughts.

She smiled. Well, she didn't live entirely alone.

Turning her head on the pillow, she said, "Oh, quit your bitching. It's not Ryo's fault the city doesn't allow pets—especially big pets. Don't you want him to graduate?" Sitting up, she ruffled the fur between the ears of a massive white tiger, and the beast's brown eyes slit in contentment.

"Want some water?" she asked. "Maybe a walk before breakfast?"

A rumbling growl answered her, not quite a purr, but something happy. A striped tail flicked back and forth, playing peek-a-boo behind the big cat's broad shoulders.

"Sound good?" she said, stretching her arms over her head and smiling down at her furry friend. "Sounds good to me too."

When Ryo Sanada had moved to Toyama to attend college, he wasn't able to take his pet, White Blaze, with him—the city had a law against pets, and besides, there was no way he was going to pass a massive Himalayan tiger off as a really, really big tabby. Besides, it wouldn't have been fair to coop the big cat up in an apartment all day. He needed room to run and a place that wouldn't collapse under the utility bill from all the water he drank.

Ryo had called her with the words she loved to hear—"Mia, can you help?"—and just like that she'd had a big, furry housemate. In truth, it was less that she was doing the favor for Ryo and more that he was doing her a favor—she welcomed the big cat's company, especially when the house had felt bigger and emptier than ever before.

Mia often frowned at other people when they complained about their problems. Exams could be studied for and cars could be repaired, but saving the world and no one remembering it—that was a bitch.

And yet, her boys had eased back into a semblance of normal living with barely a ripple. She was so proud of the ferocity with which they'd sought out their next great adventure—making lives for themselves. She'd waved her goodbyes, she'd wished them well, and she'd tried to calm her sickly pounding heart and get used to the fact that they would forget about her.

To her extreme surprise and delight, they hadn't. Not at all.

Living alone had never bothered her after that—her phone rang off the hook with questions, problems, invitations. It didn't matter that no one remembered but them—they remembered, and they were stuck together now, for better or worse. A team—a family.

Thinking about a gentle old man long dead, she was achingly grateful to be part of a family, especially one as special as hers.

As if hearing her thoughts, White Blaze put two big paws on the side of the bed and thrust his head close to hers to give her a big, sloppy kiss.

Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she smiled and said, "I love you, too. Come on, White Blaze. Let's go out."

"Don't buy that one," a blue-haired boy remarked conversationally to the guy on the other side of the counter, not looking up from the comic book he was reading. "It bites."

Arching a brow at the boy, the customer slowly put the comic he'd been thumbing through back on the rotating rack and reached for another one.

"That one too," the blue-haired boy said, still not looking up, as if some sixth sense had alerted him to the poor quality of the customer's choice. "That one sucks."

The customer paused to frown at the boy before turning on his heel and leaving the store, the bell above the door managing to sound offended.

Once it was safe to express his pleasure at his handiwork, the blue-haired boy grinned, propping his worn Converse All-Stars up on the counter and opening a Patlabor novel. He sighed contentedly. It was hard to protect the unsuspecting patron from truly bad books, but a hero's work was never done.

"Rowen!" a voice called angrily from the back of the store, having heard the bell above the door announcing yet another customer's furious exit. "Office!"

Rowen Hashiba rolled his eyes as he tossed his comic book back beneath the counter. His boss was so full of it—the "office" was nothing more than a closet at the back of the store. There was barely enough room in there for the rickety card table he called a desk.

Vaulting gracefully over the counter, Rowen sauntered back towards the closet, hands in the pockets of his acid-washed jeans. "Y'wanted t'see me, Chief?" he asked, affecting a casual air despite the cramped space. Had Rowen not been quite so slim, he might not have fit in the room at all; as it was, he bumped his elbow on the doorframe and regretted rolling the sleeves of his pullover up.

Rowen's boss was overweight, and despite his efforts to look professional in a tie and shirtsleeves, the sweatstains beneath his ham-like arms sort of ruined the effect. Bugs Bunny grinned from the fat man's tie in a manner that was totally at odds with his screaming face. "That's it, Rowen! Your job is to sell the books, not discourage customers."

Rowen pulled at a blue forelock. "But Chief, I can't just sit idly by an' watch some poor unsuspectin' person buy a copy of Vampire Hunter D. Th' romantic subplot is totally tacked on, an' that's crap. It'd have been a really cool story if they'd just let th' leads keep on fightin' wit each otha. It's my duty as a purveyor of good comic books to try'n sell'em somethin' decent, like Chicago."

A pudgy finger pointed like a pistol in Rowen's face. "What have I told you about being a smartass?"

Rowen arched a blue eyebrow and guessed. "Don't be a smartass?"

"You're fired," was the roar that followed Rowen out of the office. While he was grateful to get out of the enclosed space, the blue-haired boy felt the need to snatch a copy of Ranma ½ from a customer's hand. "Don't read that! It's crap." Pausing at the door, he stretched his arms out and announced dramatically to the scattered customers, "Don't read these books! They're nothin' but a buncha overly dramatic, forcibly romantic, oversexed, badly drawn crap."

At the sound of this speech, the customers attacked the shelves with renewed energy, searching for the books Rowen had described.

"Philistines!" the blue-haired boy screamed, slamming the door with such force that the little bell fell from its hook and jingled to the floor.

Stretching his arms behind his head, Rowen sighed, expelling his frustration along with his breath, and began the long trudge home. He didn't mind that he'd lost yet another job—he didn't really need the money anyway—but now what was he going to do with himself for the rest of the summer break?

Kento Rei Fuan never could turn down a damsel in distress.

"Please?" she begged, her small hands wrapping around his muscular forearm and pulling. Tears sparkled in her big eyes, but she was bravely trying not to let them fall.

Kento couldn't ignore her tragedy, knowing how important it was to her. He gave her an encouraging smile and a wink. Taking one of her tails of dark hair and tugging gently, he said, "Leave it to me."

While reconnaissance was not Kento's strong point, it was but the work of a minute to size up the situation. His opponent stood close by, the kidnap victim clutched in one hand, his back carelessly turned as he considered his victory already won.

Sneaking up behind, Kento tapped his younger brother's shoulder. As the boy's attention turned away from his captive—a small doll—Kento plucked it easily out of his hand.

Mei Ryu whirled, face stormy as he realized he'd been tricked. Putting a hand on the smaller boy's shoulder, Kento smiled down at the angry face. "How many times do I have to tell you?" he said, but not unkindly. "Don't take your sister's toys. You wouldn't like it if she did it to you. Tell her you're sorry."

Mei Ryu scuffed a foot along the floor and made a derisive sound.

Kento arched his eyebrows towards the tearful girl, clearing his throat.

Children's apologies are interesting things, usually delivered under extreme duress and with the stamp of a foot, rushed from the mouth as if they need to be over as fast as possible. "Didn't mean to make you cry," the boy burst out. "Sorry." Then he took off, away from the proof of his hurtful action and the gentle scolding of his elder brother.

Kento chuckled. As small boys' apologies went, that one had been better than most. Besides, he had the power to make the last pain of the incident disappear; he winked once more at the girl and held her doll out to her.

Chun Fa lit up, hands reaching out eagerly for her toy. She hugged it to her, swinging her shoulders back and forth with the energy of happiness and beaming through the tears still wet on her face. "Thank you, Kento."

"Don't let Mei Ryu boss you around," Kento advised, petting his sister's dark hair. "'Kay, pretty?"

Chun Fa tugged on his arm once more, and he bent to hear the secret. Thrusting her little face close to his ear, the girl whispered, "You're my hero." Then she danced off, reunited with her dolly once again.

The Warrior of Hardrock grinned. Another crisis averted, and there had been no need to draw a weapon. All in a day's work.

The bokken whistled neatly through the air, but the sound didn't thrill the swordmaster the way it had in seasons past. Wooden swords were no substitute for shining metal, and no matter how good he was at sport, it wasn't his very own blade and that was that. He marveled at his own loneliness for his weapon, like a child missing his favorite toy.

Still, there was no need for enchanted swords, not this day. The air was sweet and still with warmth, and a drowsy peacefulness hung over the estate.

His grip on the practice sword relaxed as he tried to figure out why it wasn't enough, why the days dragged interminably hot and the nights were filled with restlessness and sleep, when it came, was empty and dreamless.

The swordmaster's thoughts were interrupted by a thump from outside and a discordant jangle that rippled over his enhanced senses almost painfully. Nerves standing suddenly on end, he gripped the bokken tightly and slid the door back. Habit made his feet soundless and his breath slow as he approached the source of the disturbance, until he saw what had caused the noise.

A child was sitting in her own surprise on the ground, a broken string and a clapper in her hand. Fearful eyes were cast up at the rest of the chime she'd been pulling at, which still swung with leftover kinetic energy, unable to ring without the clapper.

The little girl's face paled at the sight of the tall swordmaster standing over her, ethereal in his snow-white haori, the wooden sword held at the ready. "I didn't mean it," she promised, her voice loud with apprehension.

Instead of scolding, the swordmaster tossed his head, making sure a thick lock of his blond hair obscured one violet eye, and dropped gracefully to one knee. All he said was, "That sounded like a nasty fall, Hana. Are you hurt?"

The girl's face blossomed into a shy smile. "No, Sage. Not hurt." She jumped to her feet and executed a little twirl for his benefit, skirts flaring around her, dark hair swinging. "See?"

Satisfied, he nodded at the child, his grip on the bokken relaxing once more as he rose to his feet. "Very good. Why were you playing with the chimes?"

She looked at him as though he were very silly. "It's the first day of summer. Don't you know anything, Sage?" She giggled. "I wanted to celebrate!"

"One season, another, it makes no difference to me," he sighed.

"Of course it doesn't," the child said, dimpling at him. "You're a grown-up."

"Am I?" he said idly, leaning one strong shoulder against the wall. "I don't feel like one sometimes."

The child eyed the wooden sword he held. "Sage, how come you don't go to school like my brother?"

"Well, I'm all done with that sort of schooling," he said.

"Why don't you play with the wooden swords anymore?" she asked, nodding towards the practice sword.

"Because I'm too old for that sort of playing," he answered patiently.

"Why haven't you got a wife?" was the child's next question.

Nettled, the blond boy blinked his visible eye sharply. "I—well—Hana, where is your mama?"

"Mama is home with the baby," the girl said. She glanced down at the clapper she still held, broken string trailing from it. "The chimes," she whispered fearfully.

He took the clapper and string from her. "They're only things, Hana. Things can be fixed. I'll see that the chimes are repaired."

The girl scuffed a shoe absently along the ground. "I didn't even get to ring them."

The swordmaster's lilac eyes glanced from the chimes to the child and back again. He smiled slightly, the barest quirk of his lips upward. He placed the wooden sword to one side, propping it against the wall he'd been leaning on. It was but the work of a minute to lift the child so that she was eye level with the chimes. "Go ahead, but gently," he cautioned.

She beamed, hands playing carefully over the chimes so that they sang their tune out into the warm summer air.

When he let her down, she boldly clasped one of his large hands in both of her small ones. "Happy summer, Sage."

He smiled, patting her head. "Happy summer, Hana."

Watching the child run off, he figured he'd best return the bokken to where it belonged, and distract himself from the question of where he belonged.

Ryo Sanada leveled a hateful gaze at his adversary, tiger-blue eyes burning beneath his tangle of dark hair.

"Never," he said flatly. "I'll never do what you want me to do."

The flare and passion of Wildfire, unfortunately, was entirely wasted on Professor Takegi. The teacher sighed heavily, tilting his small-framed spectacles so that they flashed reflected light briefly at Ryo. "Mr. Sanada, surely you realize that in pursuit of a study in any form of biology, you would have to dissect an organism at some point?"

Ryo's gaze never wavered for an instant, and when he spoke his voice dripped with red liquid anger. "Dissect. Not euthanize."

Professor Takegi sighed again, steepling his fingers. He was used to students coming in and protesting dissection study. Normally, they ranted and screamed and thrust independent literature under his nose. One plucky young lady had gone so far as to simply smuggle an entire shipment of frogs out of the laboratory before they could be used. But this young man…there was a heaviness to his ferocity, a permanence. His voice was choked by the blood his heart shed for the animals they wanted him to harm.

The trouble had started when the professor had announced that the final project would consist of euthanizing and dissecting felis domesticus. Ryo Sanada, a normally quiet and unobtrusive presence save for the occasional unexplainable mishap with a Bunsen burner, had…well, flipped out.

He'd flatly refused to do the assignment, and he'd worked himself into such a state that Takegi had removed him from the laboratory so as not to disturb the other students. But he couldn't seem to get it through the boy's head that he would fail the course if he didn't comply.

"Mr. Sanada," the professor tried again. "Rumor has it that you have an interest in pursuing veterinary studies. Should you choose to do that, you must be aware of the fact that you will have to euthanize animals every so often."

Ryo's teeth gritted bright in his tanned face. "That…is…different," he grated. "Those animals are sick, or they're hurt—they're suffering. You stop them running so they don't hurt anymore. Euthanizing animals so you can grade us on how we cut them open isn't like that. I won't do it."

Takegi glanced at his grade book. "You're doing very well in my class, Ryo. You're very bright, and you have a good grasp of the material. I'd hate to have to fail you over something like this."

The boy's eyes were full of a memory of a suffering, dying animal, a broad tongue caressing his face in farewell before a miracle occurred to bring him back to life. "I'm not killing an innocent cat," he stated, in a tone that discouraged further debate.

Professor Takegi had to admire his student's conviction. The boy was angry not because of social causes or popular opinion, but because he, Ryo, felt strongly about this.

"Okay, Mr. Sanada," the professor said, a hint of a smile playing around his lips. "I had originally planned to give a written exam and a practical lab exercise in place of this project. If you're willing to take a ten-point deduction for failure to comply with the curriculum, I'll let you do that exam and lab exercise in place of the dissection. Do we have a deal?"

Ryo's strong shoulders relaxed fractionally as he nodded. "Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

Takegi stabbed the air between them with a warning finger. "Now, if anyone asks, you objected for religious reasons. Got that?"

Ryo didn't smile; he pulled at the collar of his long-sleeved shirt uncomfortably; his throat tightening as he swallowed. He glanced back in the direction of the lab where the dissections were taking place. "May I take my test somewhere else please?" he asked softly, his eyes still tiger-striped with the memory of the friend he'd nearly lost so long ago.

Mia secretly hated cooking for herself alone. She liked cooking and was good at it, but it was just no fun when there was no one to enjoy it but her.

So she'd taken to sharing the results of her efforts with her houseguest, and sometimes she felt she'd never been more appreciated in her entire life.

"Ahi tuna," she sang, kneeling on the dining room floor and sliding a plate to her friend. "I hope it's not too much ginger for you!"

The ginger didn't seem to bother White Blaze, who tore into his meal with gusto, fangs flashing. "Hey!" Mia said, pretending to be insulted. "Sensible bites! I seared that, you know—it was a labor of love! I swear, sometimes you're as bad as Kento!"

White Blaze took a moment to lift his head from the steak and lick her face, his chest rumbling with a growl that Mia had come to identify as a laugh due to the happy note it held.

"Uck! I did use too much ginger," Mia laughed. "Oh well."

Seating herself in front of her own portion, she picked up her fork in one hand and reached to scratch White Blaze's ears with the other, hooking her feet around the legs of her chair. "I'm spoiling you, you know," she said around a mouthful of tuna steak. "When Ryo sees you again, he'll wonder how you got so big and why regular food doesn't impress you any more!"

White Blaze's tail twitched happily at the thought of Ryo.

Mia sighed in answer. "Another season come and gone. You think Ryo's classes went okay?"

A very determined short growl.

Mia smiled. "I'm sure they did too. You know how the guys are—no matter what, they're always going to be all right." Turning in her chair, she offered a piece of her steak to White Blaze, who was happy to share it with her. When both their plates were empty, the tiger sat contentedly at Mia's feet, licking his chops.

She stroked the big cat under his chin. "Your compliments to the chef, eh?" she laughed. "I'm glad you liked it." Her voice held the slightest note of pain. She missed her boys—missed having a house full of people, crazy laughter-filled dinners and just enough food for everybody instead of way too much for one person.

As if sensing his friend's distress, White Blaze pushed his head into her lap, asking for pets.

"What'll we have for dessert?" she wondered aloud, stroking his soft ears. "There's ice cream. Would you like that?"

A lick to her hand told her he'd like that very much.

Somewhere on the busy evening streets, Rowen lay on a park bench, watching night fall. He just didn't feel like going back to an apartment that would most likely be empty. Sure, he didn't know any of the people passing by on the sidewalks he trod, but at least he felt a little less alone when he was in a crowd, regardless of how small a part he was of it. Lots of people were out on this warm night, one for every star that was twinkling above him.

Damn light pollution, he thought idly, folding his hands behind his head on the bench, his arms bent at the elbow to form wings as he squinted through the glow of the streetlamps, trying to focus on the diamond-studded dark beyond. He could barely see anything for the haloes of artificial brightness that glittered and pulsed over the city.

Such was human nature, the blue-haired boy mused, to fear the dark—to beat it back with electricity and flame instead of looking up and seeing the amazing heavens.

Frustration slowly ebbed away, and an odd sense of calm stole over Rowen. He would always be Strata, no matter what happened. He would always be attuned to the majesty of the heavens, would always be able to look beyond artificial glow and human fear to see the fantastic. Even now, he could pick out the cold light of stars in the rapidly falling dark, and he knew he was part of something that would never pass away.

Rowen of Strata closed his eyes, wondering what stars his friends were under this night.

Despite his victory in biology class, Ryo returned to his apartment in a low mood.

He didn't understand why he was so out of place at school—and everywhere else on earth; why nothing seemed to make sense to him. There was always the hint that he was behaving like a fool for some reason; he'd gotten used to the professors frowning exasperatedly at him and the other students snickering about him behind his back. He'd thought he was too old for this sort of thing, but college was turning out to be just like high school without the zits.

It wasn't that he loved risking his life and being locked in bloody battle. But when the going was rough and others were looking at him to step up and be leader, he was useful; hand him a katana and he was golden, but put him in a chemistry lab or a literature class and Ryo Sanada was a klutz. He dropped things, he spilled things. He couldn't sit still, couldn't articulate his thoughts. His pens and pencils always rolled off his desk. At least when he was getting KO'd by nightmare apparitions from beyond the mortal realm, he didn't feel like such a…loser.

Coming home to the empty apartment got a little worse every day. He'd thought that once he'd fulfilled his destiny and things had returned to normal, he'd feel like it was happily-ever-after. He hadn't expected this full-scale…loneliness.

He was picking up the phone almost before he'd shut the door, looking for the one place he knew would always welcome him with open arms.

The heat of the early summer night had the ice cream melting into bowls of vanilla sweetness when the phone rang. Mia flopped onto the sofa, picking up the cordless phone from its place on the end table as she bounced on the cushions. "Hello?"

"Excuse me, ma'am," a voice said. "I'm having a huge problem with my mystical armor, and I was wondering if you knew anything about long-dead legends?"

She grinned against the mouthpiece. "Go to hell, Sanada."

But the curse was a loving one. There were lots of things that made life worth living, like chocolate-chip cookies, early morning sunlight, and friends—and as friends went, Mia knew she couldn't ask for better ones.

"Mia? Space to Mia!" Ryo laughed. "This is Mission Control. Come in. Did I lose you?"

"Never, promise," she said, settling back onto the sofa. "What's new? How'd your biology final go?"

"Aaaargh, don't ask," Ryo chuckled. "I had to refuse to take it. The professor let me do a makeup, but it was hard. I think my straight B average is in danger of becoming a C."

"Ryoooo," Mia said warningly. "I don't want to hear about you refusing to take exams."

He laughed, as if he welcomed the scolding. "Come on, Mia. It was the principle of the thing."

Mia knew her friend too well. He sounded almost relieved to be talking to her, even though he was carefully avoiding what was bothering him. "You okay?" she asked gently.

Silence for a minute, then Ryo sighed on the other end of the line. "How's my big cat?" he asked.

Mia smiled at the big cat in question, who was lapping almost daintily at a bowl of ice cream across the room. "Ask him yourself. Hold on a second." Leaning over the side of the sofa, she waved the receiver at White Blaze. "It's for you!" she sang. Ears perking, the tiger trotted over and Mia held the phone up to his ear.

"Hey, White Blaze!" Ryo said, his obvious cheer carrying easily over the line.

The tiger growled happily at the sound of the voice he loved, and Ryo laughed. "How're you doing, buddy? I miss you!"

White Blaze growled again. Whatever he was trying to say, Ryo seemed to understand perfectly.

"Really? No way. You've been busy, huh? I hope you're not having too much fun without me! Are you taking good care of Mia?"

A determined growl.

Ryo laughed. "Glad to hear it. You keep looking out for her, okay? I miss you, pal. I'll see you real soon."

White Blaze licked the receiver and Mia laughed, wiping it off on the sofa cushion as she lifted it back to her ear. "He gives you a kiss," she reported.

Ryo chuckled. "Give him one back for me."

"Will do," Mia promised, kicking her feet up behind her and crossing her feet at the ankles. "Speaking of seeing him real soon, Ryo, what are you doing next week? I got a call this morning and I've got a meeting in the city this week. Feel up for a visit? Me and White Blaze would love to see you if you're not too busy."

If Ryo had sounded happier just hearing her voice and White Blaze's growls, the idea of seeing them in person sent him from zero to sixty in two seconds. "Are you kidding? I'm never too busy for you guys! I'd love to see you. What day are you coming?"

"Saturday," Mia said. "I can't bring White Blaze into the city, of course, but we could meet somewhere else."

"My dad's cabin?" Ryo suggested. "It's outside of the city, and he can chill there while you're at your meeting. You could crash there as long as you wanted, and you and me could hang out."

"Great!" Mia said, feeling much better about the fact that she had to travel all the way into the city for a meeting. "I'm looking forward to it."

White Blaze interrupted with the happy growl, putting two big paws on the sofa and thrusting his head close to the receiver.

"He is, too!" Mia laughed, and Ryo echoed it.

In the dream, Cye Mouri was swimming. The water was a sparkling blue-green jewel, surrounding him on all sides, promising space to move in for as far as his eyes could see. His senses stretched to experience the octaves of differing temperature in the water, see the path of the moon and stars above him. It fit him close, closer even than his subarmor, knew him and wrapped around him as nothing else could. There were no sharp edges here, nothing bright to sting his eyes, nothing shadowy to trip him up. Here he was free.

He wondered how the waves that were tipped with moonlight might feel when they broke over him and pushed himself higher, surfacing with a splash. The starlight was cold on his skin as if it were water itself. He exhaled, at peace with the night.

And couldn't breathe in again.

The beautiful night air turned deadly in the space of a heartbeat—it chased down his throat into his lungs with a cold fire, filling him with pain. His hands clawed at empty space and he barely had time to realize that he was drowning, that everything hurt and there was no place to run. His lungs full of heavy oxygen, he sank back beneath the water, which had turned dark and unforgiving as it folded him in its embrace for the last time.

Cye woke in a cold sweat, whooping in air. His sheets were tangled around his chest and they felt rough against his hands as he batted them away. His skin felt hyper-sensitized, making everything uncomfortable, even the air around him scraping against his flesh. That nightmare again.

It seemed so unnatural for Torrent to dream of drowning, but it was the air that choked his throat, not the water. How he hated going back and forth—how he wished he could just be, and not have to choose where he felt right.

The last week of work went by in a blur for Mia—without any concrete knowledge of what Hiro Imamura's book was going to be about, she set about familiarizing herself with as much of her grandfather's work as she could in preparation for their meeting. She wasn't even sure how she could contribute, so she was hoping to arm herself with as much knowledge as possible.

If Mia was excited to see Ryo, White Blaze was ten times more so. Over the week, he'd spent nights running up and down the stairs and through the halls in a frenzy of anticipation, and Mia hadn't the heart to scold him for the tufts of carpet his claws had torn up. He was as exuberant as a kitten, and on the Friday night before they were to leave, he raced into the kitchen, paws slipping on the recently-mopped floor, shoulder slamming clumsily into a cabinet. Mia hid a giggle behind her hand and knelt down to be on his level. "All right, you, enough running around. Bedtime for big kitty." Ruffling his fur, she recited something her grandfather had often told her when she was a little girl. "The faster we go to sleep, the faster tomorrow comes. We're leaving early, so we better rest up. Come on, I'll race you!"

White Blaze galloped towards the master bedroom, and when she caught up with him he was already curled up on the throw rug she kept for him, showing her how good he could be. Grinning, Mia dropped a kiss on the tiger's head before preparing for bed herself. Soon, the house was quiet, except for the soft breathing of the big cat. Mia let one hand dangle over the side of her bed to stroke him as her own eyes drifted closed and her mind wondered if she'd forgotten to pack anything.

It was still dark when a rough tongue roused her from a soft dreamscape of gentle greys.

"I'm awake," she murmured, turning her face away. But White Blaze wasn't satisfied with the answer, nuzzling into the space between her neck and shoulder, cold wet nose making her squeak and huddle away from him. When she didn't get up, he seized the bedclothes in his teeth, pulling them off of her. Mia began to shiver, and White Blaze went in for the kill, putting both big front paws on the bed and licking furiously at her face.

Mia tried to squirm away from the tongue-bath. "No," she giggled, opening one eye. "White Blaze—ack!" She squinted as his scratchy tongue glued her hair to her cheek.

"Okay! Okay," Mia laughed, rolling to a sitting position. "I'm up, I'm up." When she was upright, the tiger put all four paws back to the floor and picked up her duffel bag in his teeth, offering it to her.

"You don't expect me to go in my nightgown, do you?" she laughed as she took the bag from him and stroked him beneath his chin. "We'll leave as soon as I shower and dress and we have a bit of breakfast, okay? You've got a long run ahead of you—you need to eat!"

Walking to the closet, she pulled out first one, then another hanger, each containing a casual suit. Even after all these years, she still felt like her grandfather's research assistant—it was difficult for her to break out of that mentality and realize that she was her own person now, with her own body of work and a reputation of her own. She'd have preferred more comfortable clothes for such a long trip, but she had that reputation to consider and she didn't want to look inappropriate when she got to the university. She had other clothes in her duffel bag and could always change later, she reasoned.

"Which one?" she asked the tiger, displaying each suit. "The blue? Or the white?"

White Blaze shook his head, snuffling, as she held up the navy blue suit. Instead, he pawed at the shorter, pinstriped skirt of the white one. Mia smiled, considering it—there was no reason she couldn't look good, even if she did have to dress up. "You like pinstripes better?" she asked, patting him. "Good choice!"

A quick shower and a light breakfast later, they were ready to get on the road. Tossing her duffel in the back of the Jeep, Mia settled herself comfortably in the driver's seat, rolling down the window to give White Blaze one more pat before they left. "Run careful, now," she said. "I'll see you there." She gripped the steering wheel, knuckles whitening as she imagined a dragstrip lighttree in the distance. "On your mark," she called out the open window. "Get set…go!"

The wheels spun and squealed, then the Jeep hurtled down the drive, but the tiger was still faster, bolting across the grass.

"No fair!" Mia laughed out her window. "I have to stick to the main roads! See you there!"

Turning the Jeep towards the highway, Mia had no doubt that White Blaze would reach their destination safely, and faster than she could, too, even in her car. He was one amazing feline.

Dawn was breaking to the east, turning the sky above the manor rose and gold as the girl and the tiger set off on their way.

The Jeep seemed almost as tired as Mia was as it ambled over the uneven ground. The dark, distant mountains had seemed to be getting further away from her all morning as the sun had risen higher and higher in the sky, but now she'd caught up to them and seen the cabin standing against them. Her weariness started to ebb away, replaced by anticipation at the idea of getting out and stretching her legs in the tall grass.

Sure enough, White Blaze bounded onto the dirt road as she closed on the cabin. Grinning, Mia reached one arm clumsily out the window to ruffle his fur.

She almost hated to park the Jeep on the impossibly green grass and mar the beauty of the idyllic scene. She settled for parking at an angle a fair distance away from the actual cabin and jumped happily out to stretch her legs. White Blaze padded around to greet her. Mimicking Ryo, she tapped both hands on her chest, just below her collarbone. Taking the cue, White Blaze reared up on his hind legs and placed both paws on either side of her, resting against the Jeep.

"Good job," she cheered as he licked her face. "We made it." Reaching back into the Jeep, she came up with a bottle of water. Taking a swig for herself, she poured the rest of it out in front of the big cat's muzzle and he lapped at it greedily.

Her heels sank into the dirt as they walked towards the cabin. "I hope there's a phone in there," Mia remarked. "I didn't want to tell Ryo what time we'd be here in case we were late."

Luckily for her, the problem was solved for her before she even got to the cabin door. "You guys made great time!" a voice called from the yard. "I wasn't expecting you for at least another half hour."

White Blaze's ears perked, and Mia matched the grin of the speaker as he strolled around the corner of the house, hands in the pockets of his dark jeans. Ryo looked wonderfully familiar—he was a little more tanned beneath his dark tangle of hair, and he was a little leaner, but his tiger-blue eyes were dancing and his smile was as bright as ever. "Ryo!"

With a happy growl, White Blaze bounded towards the sound of the voice he loved and all but tackled his master. Boy and tiger fell to the ground, rolling, tussling in the grass as if they hadn't seen each other in years. Mia giggled. A boy and his pet, reunited. So what if the pet in question was a little bigger than a cocker spaniel?

"I hope I get a greeting that good," she said cheerfully when Ryo had tired himself out and was kneeling by White Blaze, tickling his friend's broad paws.

"'Course you do," Ryo said, getting to his feet and scooping her up in his arms. Ryo gave great hugs—he squeezed fit to force the breath right out of you, and Mia returned the favor in kind.

"How are you doing?" she asked, even as he held her against his chest and off the ground, her feet dangling. "How was your last week of class?"

"Sucked," he said brightly. "But things are looking up already, now that you guys are here." He punctuated this with another squeeze.

She giggled and tapped his chest. "Put me down, silly."

He let her gently down and reached to pat White Blaze again. "And how've you been, buddy? You being good for Mia?"

The tiger circled Mia and butted his head affectionately against her hip, looking for a pat. She stroked his soft ears and smiled. "He's the best roommate I ever had. We get along just fine, don't we, boy?"

The tiger licked the girl's hand and nuzzled against her side again, his broad muzzle set in that serene smile.

"What a wonderful place," Mia gushed, looking at the cabin and the surrounding grounds.

Feeling warmed by the praise, especially from someone who lived on a beautiful estate, Ryo grinned. "It's home," he said happily. Then he put a hand behind his head and laughed shyly. "Unfortunately, no one's been 'home' since I moved into the city. We might want to dust the place out later."

"Later," Mia agreed. "It's too nice a day to be inside cleaning. Want to show me around?"

"After you," he said, stepping aside and smiling as he let her pass.

Sage Date was blissfully happy. It was too bad he was traveling much too fast for anyone to see the rare unguarded smile on his face.

The red Nissan Fairlady sliced through the thick summer air like a steel and chrome shark. In his secret put-away heart, Sage often thought that freedom must truly feel like this, the wind caressing his hair and the engine purring its pleasure around him. Speed promised safety, and his foot pressed harder on the pedal, willing his body to blur away until he was nothing more than the essence of flight.

He was looking forward to this trip. He'd sorely needed it. It had been almost a couple of months since he'd seen any of the guys, and even longer since he'd seen Mia—she'd been busy with teaching, and his responsibilities at the shrine and the dojo prevented him from visiting as often as the others were able to. Briefly, he was jealous of their closer proximity to each other, but he had no hope of ever moving closer. Too much was expected of him.

So when Ryo had called to tell him Mia had business in Toyama and that it might be fun to surprise her with a visit, Sage had readily agreed. The toll he'd paid was having to explain to his family where he was going—even now, his ears burned at the memory of it. He wasn't sure why he hadn't just said he was visiting Ryo, but the Ronin of Wisdom was not given to dishonesty. Before he'd thought it through, he was explaining that Ryo wanted all of the guys together to see Mia. His familiar use of the young woman's name had triggered an exchange of looks around the household, and from that point up until his departure he'd had to endure their not-low-enough stage whispering about was-that-the-girl-that-Sage-liked-so-much.

Naturally, he'd been more than happy to get out of Sendai for a while. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why he'd let her name slip. He was stubbornly ignoring the idea that it was because he was looking forward to seeing her and his excitement had gotten the better of his judgment.

Shifting gears, he smiled at the friendly growl of his fairest lady around him. "Don't worry," he assured the car. "You're still my best girl."

The Fairlady seemed to thrill at his words, devouring the road that was separating Sage from his friends.

The ride from the opposite side of the city wasn't going quite as smoothly.

"Whoohahahahahah!" Kento grinned at one of his passengers. "You're not representing Torrent too well if this little ride is getting you seasick!" He shifted gears choppily. "You're looking a little green around the gills—ha ha! Get it, Cye? Green around the gills?"

"I hate you," Cye muttered darkly, clinging to the open window of the car and trying to whoop in as much air as he could without having to see the wildly bouncing landscape.

Kento was just as proud of his wheels as Sage was, but where Sage's car had quite the pedigree, Kento's was a friendly mutt—a rugged CJ-6 that had been used for medical transport in the American service before being honorably discharged into the care of the Warrior of Hardrock. Sage had eloquently likened the CJ to a shark—not because it was fast or deadly, but because if it stopped moving, it might die. The steering column shook wildly at speeds over fifty-five, the body was peppered with dents, the bumper was rusted through on one side, and the seats weren't exactly comfortable, but the car was Kento's princess and he treated her like one.

Kento's other passenger was thoroughly enjoying the ride. In direct contrast to Cye, Rowen was bouncing happily along with the vehicle, completely impenitent about how far they'd had to drive to pick him up. He'd hit his head on the roll bar twice and didn't seem to care.

"I cannot believe he's having fun with this," Cye groaned, in misery from all the bumping and jostling.

"This is nothing," Kento said. "Remember the time he and Ully played 'Imaginary Rollercoaster'?"

Unfortunately, Cye did. After dinner at Mia's one weekend, Ully had mentioned that he'd never been on a rollercoaster before. Ryo promised their little friend they'd take him to an amusement park someday. Rowen, unwilling to wait, had another solution. Taking two of Mia's dining room chairs, the Ronin of Strata had set them up side by side, instructing Ully to sit next to him, pull down an imaginary safety bar and pretend they were on a rollercoaster. Soon, they were both throwing their hands up and screaming like they were being murdered by domestic cats, leaning from side to side to simulate centrifugal force. They pretended so well, in fact, that when the "ride" was over, Rowen had immediately collapsed to the floor and thrown up.

Cye's stomach heaved at the memory. "Just drive, Kento," he pleaded, gripping the window frame and closing his eyes.

Mia, Ryo and White Blaze whiled away a very pleasant afternoon in the woods surrounding the cabin.

"I have so missed this," Ryo announced, taking a deep breath of woodland air. They'd taken a rest in a large clearing a ways away from the cabin. Some seasons back, a pine tree had been struck by lightning and had fallen, making a perfect bench. Mia arranged her skirt carefully as she sat, trying not to snag it.

Ryo had elected to sit on the ground, legs stretched out, his back against the fallen pine. "You look nice," he said, smiling at Mia as she fussed with her clothes.

"Thank you," she said warmly. "White Blaze helped me pick it out."

The tiger was laying with his head in Ryo's lap, tail twitching contentedly. He growled happily at the praise. Ryo laughed. "He's got good taste."

"Oh, that's a fact," Mia laughed. "He only eats my most high-end clothing." Tilting her head in thought, she added, "By the way, you owe me a pair of Manolos."

White Blaze whipped his tail against Mia's bare legs in playful admonishment. He'd only eaten one pair of shoes, and platform jellies did not taste very good.

"I'm just teasing, you big baby," Mia giggled, patting the big cat's flank. "He's such a good boy. I don't know what I'd do without him."

Ryo looked relieved. "You're a princess to take care of him while I'm at school."

Mia beamed. "Please! He takes care of me. He listens to me read aloud sections of my notes, he raves about my cooking, and he's the best bodyguard ever. If anyone even thinks about breaking in, they'll know I mean business."

The friends shared a smile. Using the tree as leverage, Ryo braced his hands on the trunk and pushed himself to his feet. "Ready to go back?"

Jumping to her feet, Mia grinned. "I'll race you both." Giving Ryo a playful shove, she dashed across the clearing.

"No fair!" She heard Ryo laugh behind her. "That's cheating!"

With a roar, White Blaze quickly overtook the Ronin of Wildfire. Catching up to Mia just as she got to the end of the clearing, he set his teeth in her skirt and dug his paws into the earth, using his massive weight to stop her in her tracks.

"Hey!" Mia giggled as she stumbled backwards. "Okay, boy. You win!"

But the tiger only tugged harder, forcing her back a few more steps. "You're going to rip my skirt," she said, tapping his nose. "What's gotten into you?"

White Blaze let go of her skirt, circling around her to block both her path and Ryo's when he caught up.

"What's wrong?" Ryo asked, slowing his run as he reached them. "What's the matter with White Blaze?"

A warning growl trickled from the tiger's throat, but he refused to budge. "He doesn't want us to go this way," Mia said, squinting. When a passing breeze made the tall grass ripple, she saw the reason that the tiger had been so intent on stopping them—the ground sloped down at the edge of the clearing, then fell away abruptly in a wide, roughly circular drop. The sun gleamed off broken stone that had once lined the inside of the large pit.

"There's a hole here!" Mia said, looking down into the dark opening in the ground. "We'd have fallen into it if we'd kept going!"

Realization dawned on Ryo as he followed her pointing finger. "It's the well," he said. "There wasn't always running water at the cabin. When my dad bought the place, he had modern plumbing installed. He said my mother was too pretty to be carrying well water all the way to the house." His tiger-blue eyes went soft and sad as he smiled at the memory. "Guess he forgot about it and never had it filled in. I wasn't allowed to play over here when I was younger—he must have been worried I'd fall in."

Mia took her friend's arm, pulling him gently away from the gaping pit. "Let's walk back," she said softly, giving his arm a little squeeze to remind him that he still had a family—it was just a little less conventional than most. White Blaze seemed to echo the sentiment, pushing his head against Ryo's hip, asking for pets.

"Good memory, boy," Ryo said, scratching White Blaze's ear. "We were almost goners there!"

The tiger snuffled, making sure his friends were well clear of the danger before he followed them, nuzzling against Ryo's side with the love-growl rumbling in his chest.

Another kind of growl sounded, and Mia clapped a hand over her stomach, embarrassed. "Oh my goodness!" she laughed. "I guess it's been longer than I thought since I've eaten."

Ryo grinned. "Supper sounds like a great idea. I'm starving. Why don't we head back into the city to eat, and then we can come back here and set you guys up?" White Blaze made a sound, and Ryo ruffled his ears. "We'll bring you a doggie bag, pal, promise."

The tiger responded with a sharp growl, and Mia laughed. "We mean, tiger bag."

After making sure White Blaze would be all right at the cabin for a few hours on his own, Mia followed Ryo's directions to his apartment in the city. After parking on a side street, they only had to walk a few blocks to their destination—a tiny, brightly lit diner that boasted twenty-four hour service and endless refills on your chosen beverage. The "I" in "Starlite" on the sign was dotted with a neon star that flashed off and on at the end of a long neon tail. Mia had to smile at how comforting it looked, shining like a beacon through the early evening light. She and the guys had kept some pretty weird schedules over the years, and she loved any place that offered sanctuary on the world's off-hours.

"This place is cute," Mia said appreciatively, looking around at the deep, comfortably scarred vinyl booths and scratched Formica tables as she followed Ryo past the hostess. "And it's really close to your apartment."

"Plus it was the best place for everyone to meet up," a voice added as two large hands covered her eyes. "Guess who, beautiful?"

Mia whooped in delight, recognizing the voice. "Kento! I didn't know you were in town!"

She turned in the cage of his arms to hug him, and he returned the favor, lifting her off the ground just as Ryo had done. He gave her a squeeze, punctuating it with a playful growl. "I missed this girl! It's been ages!" Letting her down, he held out his hand to Ryo for a low five. "C'mon, table's this way."

"You got a table already? Cool," Ryo said.

"Yeah, cause I'm such a nice guy and all," Kento chuckled.

Ryo smirked, not buying that for a second. "And let me guess, you ordered an appetizer already, too."

Kento shrugged sheepishly. "Well, I was already sitting down and I didn't want the waitress to get bored!"

Mia giggled, hooking her chin over Kento's shoulder as she walked with them to the table. "This is great. I get two Ronin for the price of one!"

"Three," a voice said from Kento's table, and the young blond man sitting there got to his feet to greet them.

Mia was surprised to see him most of all, but she overplayed it with a very dramatic gasp for his benefit. "Do my eyes deceive me?" she laughed.

"They wouldn't dare." Sage Date returned her smile. "Hello, pretty."

"Hello pretty yourself," she teased, stretching her arms out for a hug. Sage's winter-cool eyes warmed over for just a second as he allowed her to wrap herself around him and nuzzle into the shoulder of his dark sport jacket, a fact that she never took for granted—he was not a casual toucher.

"Sage!" Ryo grinned at his friend. "Glad you could make it."

"Wouldn't miss it," the blond said, shaking Ryo's hand, then pulling Mia's chair out for her before returning to his seat at the table and smoothing the lapel of his sport jacket. "Let's just say I needed to get out for a while. The others get here yet?"

"Others?" Mia asked eagerly. "Who else is coming out?"

"Neva fear, Rowen's 'ere!" a voice trilled in answer, and Rowen jumped off the shoulders of the Ronin he had in a half-nelson. "We were just checkin' out th' desserts in th' case up front. Hope youse ain't been waitin' long!"

Cye rubbed his neck and winced, but offered the group a smile. "Did we miss anything?"

"Your appetizers'll be right up, sir," the little waitress said, bustling back up to the table, pad and pen at the ready. "Can I start to take your—oh!" Her dark ponytail swung as her green gaze bounced over the new arrivals. "Looks like the gang's all here!" she laughed.

"Yes," Mia said happily, looking around at her best friends—her family. "We are."

One of Mia's favorite things about her best friends was that no matter how much time had passed since the last occasion they'd seen each other, they always just picked up right where they'd left off.

"Stop stealing my fries, gannetface," Cye said, smacking Kento's hand away from his plate of french fries.

"It's your fault for not eating 'em fast enough," Kento laughed through bulging hamster cheeks. He'd already slopped ketchup down the bib pocket of his overalls. "These fries are great, but they'd be even better if they had cheese on 'em."

"Cheese, got it," their waitress said, black ponytail swishing as she walked past their table. "Coming right up, hon."

"Okay, Starlite gets the square," Kento declared, gesturing with a fry and smearing more ketchup on both the overalls and the white shirt he wore underneath them. "Best eating establishment ever."

"You have utterly no loyalty, Kento," Sage teased from across the table. "Your family owns a restaurant."

"Yeah, but we don't serve cheese fries," Kento said, shoving the plate towards Sage. "Try one of these. It'll blow your mind."

Sage wrinkled his nose in an expression of genteel horror. "No, thank you. I just got my mind the way I like it—in my head."

Kento pushed the plate towards Mia. "What about you, skinny?"

Mia shook her head, sipping her soda.

"Don't you ever eat?" Kento teased. "My mother worries about you, you know." He grinned and raised his voice in a fussy impersonation of his mother. "That child doesn't eat right! She's so thin! Poor Mia, no husband, not even a boyfriend! Such a shame, such a pretty girl."

Mia swatted playfully at Kento with her napkin. "Will you stop? Everyone always acts like I'm such an old maid. If memory serves, I had a boyfriend up until recently."

Sage coughed; Ryo stretched his arms over his head in an attempt to look casual; even Cye was averting his eyes. It was Rowen who said it aloud. "An' if mem'ry serves, that guy had the personality of a dial tone."

Mia frowned. "Thanks a lot, Rowen. Tell me again about that girl you met when you were tutoring remedial math?"

"Hey! That girl learned quick with the right incentive," Rowen protested, and then his eyes went soft with memory. "Real quick."

"That's enough," Sage cut in. "I don't want to hear any more."

"Me, either," Ryo agreed, and the others chuckled.

"Seriously, Mia," Kento said. "You need someone you can have fun with. That guy couldn't have kept up with you."

Mia's heart fluttered at the compliment, but she pouted anyway. "You guys could at least pretend that you liked him."

Muffled giggles broke out around the table. "No, we can't," Cye laughed.

Surprised that the Ronin of Torrent had a negative word to say about anyone, Mia let her mouth drop open. "You guys only met him once!"

"Once was enough," Sage muttered darkly, eliciting more laughter from his friends.

Mia blushed miserably remembering that weekend. She'd been dating a researcher she'd met while editing her second book, and he'd been nice enough, if a little low-key. He'd quickly grown tired of hearing Mia talk about her "boys", even though she'd assured him they were only her friends and not romantic interests. To prove it, she'd invited everyone to stay at the mansion one weekend to meet him.

It had been a disaster straight out the gate. Ryo, who scrutinized any man that came within ten feet of Mia like an overprotective brother, was not impressed and couldn't keep his disapproval out of his voice, especially when he overheard Kyouya refer to her as "little miss". Cye had been equally unhappy when all the dinner dishes had been left to Mia and had rolled up his sleeves to help despite her protests that she could handle it.

They'd left the kitchen to find her boyfriend in a heated argument with Rowen and Kento, who'd settled down to play video games. Kyouya had remarked that such an activity was "juvenile", teasing them by asking when the ice-cream truck would be coming around. Ryo had jumped in to make a sarcastic apology about their not being classy enough for him, and Mia had chugged nervously at the last of the beer she'd sneaked from the fridge in a desperate attempt to calm her nerves.

Unfortunately, she and her boyfriend had often argued about how much he hated the sight of a woman drinking beer straight from the bottle, and his bad mood turned on her.

It had been Sage, of all people, who had stalled the argument. He'd politely interrupted to ask Mia if there were any more beer in the fridge, and she'd nodded distractedly. Sage had disappeared into the kitchen, returning with two bottles, one which he'd kept for himself and one that he'd pressed into her hand. It had been a clear drawing of the battle lines, and Mia's boyfriend had left in a huff, telling her to come find him when she grew up and started acting her age. The evening was completely ruined, and the longer Mia had spent sunning herself by the lake with the guys the next day, the more secretly relieved she'd been that she could just be herself around them and not have to deal with imagined values of decency and propriety, putting on an act to impress someone.

Kento smiled, reaching across Ryo to tweak Mia's nose gently. "Mama means well," he said. "She just thinks you hang out with us too much when you could be dating. She says having too many guys around makes you not need a man."

Mia dimpled at the warrior of Hardrock. "I bet lots of girls would be happy to be in my place."

"Well, too bad," Ryo said, slinging a friendly arm around her. "We're keeping you. It's your place, and no one else's."

"Too true," Cye laughed. "We'd hate to have to replace you this late in the game. We'd have to bring in that girl who was following Sage around like a puppy over Christmas break. What was her name again, Sage? Mary Sue-something-or-other?" Torrent's eyes twinkled.

Miserable at the memory of all the unwanted attention, Sage fidgeted, spearing a cheese fry with his fork. "Hell if I know," he grumbled. "They're all named Mary Sue."

The laughter that broke out around the table was marred by an exclamation from Cye, who had belatedly realized that his friends had been stealing his french fries for about fifteen minutes now.

"How are the notes coming, Mia? When can we expect the next best-seller?" Cye asked cheekily after the dessert had arrived.

Mia giggled around a spoonful of cheesecake. "The twelfth of Never Going to Happen at this point. I'm having trouble even deciding what I want my characters to be like. Do you think the hero should be a man or a woman this time?"

Kento chuckled. "She should be a hot chick, who's really smart. After all, Mia, you'd tell a great story about that, cause they say to write what you know, ri—ow." The Warrior of Hardrock glanced to the side of the table where Rowen and Sage were sitting innocently. "Which one of you kicked me?"

Earlier, Ryo had spilled some of his soda and mopped it up with a napkin. Now, Mia took the wet napkin and tossed it at Kento. "Stop being silly! Besides, Kento, you haven't even read any of my books."

"I love your books!" Kento argued, dodging the napkin. "I just haven't finished, you know, reading them yet."

"There were too many big words for 'im," Rowen said, grinning. A second later, he ducked the napkin, which Kento had retrieved and thrown at him.

"Forget me," Mia said. "I want to hear about you guys. What's going on? Classes going well?"

"It's not so bad," Cye said. "I'm actually sort of having fun with my classes. How about you, Ryo?" He looked at the Ronin of Wildfire.

Ryo sighed. "Well, I liked biology…up until recently." The end of the statement was a mutter.

"You should have gone to school." Mia glanced at Sage, who looked briefly uncomfortable.

"What for?" the blond said airily, tossing his hair.

Mia knew he was talking about his home—he was next in line to inherit his family's dojo, and being the only son, things were expected of him. Still, it annoyed her that he wasn't more bothered by the lack of autonomy he seemed to have regarding his own life.

Kento jumped in to save Sage. "School's for chumps," he teased, waggling his eyebrows at the three Ronin who were enrolled in classes. "I don't go to school, and look how well I'm doing!"

"How fat you're doing is more like it," Cye teased right back, poking Kento in the stomach. True to form, Hardrock was definitely taking his responsibilities at his family's restaurant seriously—which included sampling the wares for sale. "Warrior of Hardrock? Hah! We should start calling you something else. How about Pudge—"

Kento pushed Cye's hand away playfully. "Hey! I'm not fat! I think I'm filling out quite nicely, actually."

Sage cheered up a bit. "You're not filling out quite nicely! You're bigger than ever!"

"You guys are just totally jealous of my hot body," Kento said, striking a pose.

"I might throw up everythin' I've just eaten," Rowen muttered, winking.

Mia laughed. They were really just teasing—Kento was still rock-solid with muscle, despite his obvious enjoyment of the softer life—but she sighed in contentment at the sound of the brotherly bickering she loved to hear.

When Ryo saw her expression, he bumped his shoulder affectionately against hers. "Me, too," he said happily.

Once the plates were cleared away, Mia reluctantly glanced at her watch. She was loath to leave this happy table, even for a little while. "I hate to say it, but I've got to run," she sighed. The statement was greeted with loud exclamations of disbelief and negatives from the guys.

"What!" Cye said.

"We just got here," Sage added.

"Maybe she's got a hot date," Rowen waggled blue eyebrows at Mia teasingly.

"She's got the five hottest dates in the world right here!" Kento said, slinging a friendly arm around Mia. "Don'tcha, gorgeous?"

Mia giggled. "It's not a date. It's only for a little while—I have to meet with one of my grandfather's former colleagues. He's trying to put together a book and he wants to use me as a source."

"I'll just bet he does," Rowen quipped.

Kento guffawed. "See! Hot chicks who are really smart get lots of attent—ow." He winced again, then glared at Sage. "It's you who keeps kicking me, you're the only one wearing dress shoes."

Sage ignored Kento and turned to Mia. "Meet him some other time."

"Yeah, let him write his own book!" Cye joked.

Mia smiled at their persistence. "If it wasn't for him, I'd have had no reason to come here and see you all. We should be thanking him! It's only for a couple of hours, I promise."

"Yeah, she'll be back," Ryo promised. "She and White Blaze are staying at the cabin for a while, right, Mia? Speaking of which, who's crashing where?"

"I'm staying wherever Rowen stays!" Kento said, grabbing the blue-haired Ronin's sleeve. "Sage snores like a chain saw!"

Sage flushed, jaw tightening. "I'm going to kill you one day, Kento."

Kento made a kissing sound at Sage. "Love you, man."

Sage made a face. Ryo laughed. "Sage? I can offer you the sofa, and the name of a good chiropractor when the weekend's over."

"That bad, huh?" Sage smiled briefly, like a flash of lightning, far-off. "Thanks, Ryo."

Mia glanced at her watch. "Oh, jeez. I'm late. I really have to go."

"Why don't you call my place when you're all done?" Ryo said to Mia, looking around the table. "Guys? Up for a few hands?"

"Definitely," Rowen said, eyes going steely. "I owe ya for the last time!"

"I won that Ho-Ho fair and square, Little Boy Blue," Kento said.

Mia laughed. "Don't have too much fun without me, guys. I have to go." She pressed her lips together, checking her watch again. "I had no idea it had gotten so late. I'm going to get stuck in traffic."

"Why don't you just take the subway?" Ryo said. "It'd be faster and you wouldn't have to fight the traffic. There's a stop right near the campus."

Mia thought it over. "I suppose I could leave my car at Ryo's and get it later on."

"Call us when you're done," Sage suggested. "I'll come pick you up. You shouldn't be traveling alone after dark."

Mia's mouth tucked at the implication that she was helpless. "That's sweet of you, Sage, but I'll be okay."

The other boys immediately backed up the Ronin of Wisdom. "Sage is right, Mia," Ryo said. "Let him pick you up—he's got a car, and there's no need for you to be on the street alone."

"Yeah, especially with a man-eating beast on the loose!" Kento chuckled ghoulishly.

"I live with a man-eating beast," Mia laughed. "I'm not scared of those."

"Kento is a man-eating beast," Cye teased, poking Kento in the arm.

Kento just smiled excitedly. "Seriously, you guys, haven't you been reading the newspaper? There's a monster out there that's been eating dogs and cats. And one homeless person!" The Warrior of Hardrock nodded at the incredulous looks he was receiving. "Even the prostitutes are scared to go out, and they have switchblades!"

Sage frowned. "You watch too much TV, Kento."

"I didn't watch it, I read it," Kento corrected. "The Sun-Times had a huge spread on it."

Cye rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "The Sun-Times featured the story? Was that before or after the feature on aliens landing and not being able to get jobs at Seven-Eleven?"

Rowen laughed. "The Sun-Times ain't exactly Pulitzer-Prize-winnin' journalism, Kento."

"I'm telling you it's true!" Kento said. "Don't you guys believe me?"

Mia chewed her lower lip, wishing she could back her friend up but unable to be dishonest to him. "Kento, you once told us you saw Sailor Moon at a McDonald's."

"She was ordering a Happy Meal," Kento insisted. The others groaned playfully, throwing their napkins at him.

Pouting, the Warrior of Hardrock crossed his arms over his chest. "Fine. Don't believe me. Get eaten by the beast."

Getting up from her chair, Mia dropped a kiss on Kento's head. "Don't pout or your face will freeze like that. I promise to call for a ride, okay?" She tossed a fold of bills on the table. "Dinner's on me, guys."

Rowen whistled. "Thank ya, suga mama." Mia swatted at him, giggling.

"No," Sage said sternly, reaching for his own wallet. "Give that back to her."

"I got it," Kento and Ryo said simultaneously.

But Mia wouldn't take the money back. She blew a kiss, escaping from the table. "I'm already gone, I'm not listening. Call you guys later!"

Having spent a lot of her life in some kind of learning institution, some time ago they'd all begun to blur together in Mia's mind, a wet-paint smudge of trees and paths and lampposts and books and high windows. Mia was unnerved by how deserted the campus of Hiro's university was—most of the students were already out enjoying their summer recess. The paths were empty save for the occasional harried student running late to catch up on something.

She wasn't really worried about anything happening to her, but the light was dying nonetheless. She found a bench to wait on with a lamppost standing guard. As she smoothed her skirt, the bulb sputtered to life, contrasting sharply with the sunset sky.

"Ms. Koji?"

Mia blinked; it had taken her a few seconds to recognize who was calling her name. Hiro looked terrible.

She remembered him being very energetic, full of life and vitality, and his voice on the phone had echoed the memory. But the man's eyes were sunken, the shadows so dark beneath them that he looked like a linebacker. His hair, which had always been trendily mussed, was positively unkempt. His dress shirt and slacks were wrinkled, as if he'd slept in them, but he didn't look like a person who got much sleep. His eyes scanned the path like nervous radar, rolling wildly, the whites latticed with veins. "Thank you for coming, Ms. Koji—Mia," he said, voice cracking as if his throat were sore.

"Hiro," Mia said, unable to keep the surprise out of her voice as she stood up to greet him.

"I am so sorry," he began, one hand running through his messy dark hair, the other holding a comfortably worn leather satchel that looked like it had seen Hiro through a lot of projects. "I'm running a little late. It's been—it's been a hard week."

Mia, having had more than her share of rough weeks, was instantly sympathetic. "Why don't you let me take you out for a cup of coffee? You can sit down and relax a bit."

Hiro looked almost pathetically grateful at the thought of a cup of coffee, but he shook his head. "I wish I could, but there's still something I need to take care of. I hate to ask you to do this, but could you give me one more hour?"

Mia really wanted to say no, especially when the guys were a phone call away at Ryo's, having much more fun than she was right now. "Sure, no big deal. Listen, Hiro, if today's no good for you—"

"No!" he interrupted fiercely, seizing her arm. "Mia, please. I really need your help." He glanced around once more. "Now more than ever. Please."

Mia's heart softened. She wanted to tell him that it wasn't the end of the world (and she knew; she'd narrowly missed the end of the world a good half dozen times), but she also knew how sometimes things did feel like a huge crisis when you were standing on the edge of them, doomed to failure.

In the end, her inability to turn down someone who needed her help won out. "You take as much time as you need, Hiro. Where should I meet you?"

"How about here in an hour?" Hiro's relief was plain on his tired face. "I'm just going to take care of one more thing and pick up some things at the library. I won't be long; I promise." He thrust the satchel he was carrying into her hands. "Here, take this. It's got all my notes in it. Maybe you can take a look while you're waiting? You'll have better answers to my questions."

Happy to have something to read while she waited, Mia took the satchel. "Okay. See you in an hour."

"Thank you," Hiro breathed. "Thank you." And then he turned and ran off, glancing over his shoulder once before he disappeared behind the student center.

Poor guy, Mia thought, swinging the satchel as she walked in the opposite direction to look for a place to wait. This book research must be killing him!

There was a small coffee shop near where she'd parked her car that boasted a halfway decent iced coffee. Mia sipped at one as she opened Hiro's satchel and examined the contents. The tables were clean and the place wasn't crowded due to the hour—the after-dinner crowds hadn't quite begun to filter in yet.

The coffee shop was trying to be trendy, and the table was near the window, only big enough for one person. Mia had a hard time fitting all the books neatly on the tabletop. There was a textbook about ritual magic, a small address book and a fat, leather-bound book with ruled pages inside and tons of Post-It notes falling out of it, their strips losing their adhesive and their edges curling.

She flipped through the textbook first. She'd seen that sort of thing before in her own research, not just the research she did to help the Ronin Warriors but also the research she did for her own books—she wrote about myths and there was hardly a myth that didn't involve some kind of magic. Over the course of her life with the boys, her work with her grandfather and her book research, Mia had come to know a little about a lot of mystical things. She recognized several symbols as she turned the pages and the names and images of quite a few demons and mythical beasts of legend.

The address book wasn't very interesting. All it contained were a few telephone numbers of fellow professors and some other people. Less than a dozen appointments and reminder notes were scrawled lightly in pencil, some of them crossed out. Towards the back of the book the pages contained more, but Mia couldn't read any of the squiggly symbols. They didn't look like any language that she was familiar with, but she'd spent enough of her time trying to decipher her own handwriting when taking feverish notes. It didn't surprise her that Hiro had come up with his own shorthand to make it easier for him—every serious scholar she'd ever known, herself included, had done that.

The leather-bound book seemed to thrum in her hands with energy; it was almost as if she could feel how much passion and hard work Hiro had put into his project. Notes were stuck everywhere, right from the inside cover on. Some of them had bullet points written on them, the writing small and neat. Others had one word scrawled across them with a question mark, a reminder to follow up on something later. The squiggly shorthand symbols were everywhere, and whimsical drawings of kitsune and nekomata scampered over the margins, and there was a beautiful drawing of a raiju wolf on one of the dividers, with blue ink wrapped around it to symbolize the lightning.

The only problem was that despite how far into the book she read, how closely she studied the notes and the sketches and symbols, all Mia saw was a catalogue of different mythical beasts and the common elements between their stories. Several of the pages were dedicated to flow charts that described different events in different legends, all leading to the place where the mythical creature showed up. She wasn't sure exactly what kind of point Hiro was trying to make from simply drawing parallels between a bunch of legends. Commonality was interesting, but what point could he possibly hope to make from this?

She decided to make that her first question as she looked at her watch, realizing that she was actually a little late to meet him again. Scooping up the books and notes, she quickly shoved them back into the satchel, tossing her coffee cup in the bin as she hurried out the door of the shop.

As her heels clacked over the campus paths back to the bench she'd waited on earlier, she saw that no one was waiting for her. Glancing at her watch again, she worried her lower lip between her teeth. Had Hiro gotten impatient? It was almost half an hour later than the time they'd agreed upon.

Then she shook the thought away. Hiro had been desperate for her to give him more time; he'd stressed how important her help was to him. Smiling, Mia realized he'd probably just lost of track of time, too—he might still be in the library, gathering his information. She decided to go there and intercept him—precious evening minutes that she could be spending with the guys were ticking away, and she wanted to get back to them as soon as possible. Nodding at her own idea, she strode towards the library building, satchel swinging.

Mia wasn't surprised that the library was deserted—it was getting late, and classes were over for this term. Anyone who was still on-campus were doing hardcore research for thesis papers or bigger projects, like Hiro himself. Through the glass-plated front door, she could see that even the front desk was empty, its surface cleared of all books, stamps and writing implements. The fluorescent light above the doorway buzzed and flickered as she pushed the door open. "Hiro?" she called, flinching at how loud her voice was in the entryway.

She'd thought that maybe Hiro had gotten engrossed in his research and lost track of time, but no one emerged from the stacks to answer her call. Clutching the satchel, Mia ventured past the front desk and took a turn into the romance literature section. "It's Mia," she called. "It's been almost two hours, Hiro, and I've really got to get back soon. It's getting late. Let's just go over what you've got, all right?"

Still nothing. Rounding a cart full of books that hadn't been reshelved, she found a smaller staircase up to the second floor and ascended, adding, "Did you forget we were supposed to meet here?"

Crossing the landing to the railing, she rested her hands lightly on it and scanned the first floor, looking for any sign of life. "Well, that's just great," she muttered. "I'm giving him ten more minutes, and then I'm calling Sage and…" She trailed off when she saw the hand, fingertips barely visible against the pale carpeting of the first floor. Slowly, she circled the landing to the top of the main staircase, the better to see what the hand was attached to, the full horror of the scene framed by the railings.

There is something about awful sights that magnetize us to them. The more hideous and outlandish the occurrence, the more convinced we are that it could not possibly be true, and the longer and harder we must look at it to assure ourselves that what we are seeing is in fact reality.

Mia Koji was a brilliant girl. She was smart enough to have breezed through her schooling at an early age and assume the mantle of being her grandfather's research assistant without breaking her stride. She could recite back, to the letter, ancient legends that had been long since forgotten by the majority of the populace. She could decode complex encryptions and figure out computer programs while running for her life. She knew exactly which part of her car's engine to hit with a crescent wrench when it started making that funny noise; she never forgot a friend's birthday and she knew exactly, when dividing a cake between five boys, one girl and a hungry tiger, how many slices each would get.

The rational part of Mia's brain, the part that knew all these things, was patiently pointing out to her that there was no way the man lying at the foot of the stairs was alive, not lying on his right side with his head twisted much too far over his left shoulder, not with those knobbly bumps that were unmistakably broken bone threatening to tear through the misshapen skin of his neck. Not with his sightless eyes fixed wide open, staring at nothing.

Ironically, the thing that Mia grabbed onto for support when she began screaming was a freestanding sign that read, "Quiet Please".

Sage had taken off his sport jacket and draped it over the back of his chair, and even his dress shirt seemed too hot all of a sudden, the overhead light beating down on him like the midsummer sun. But his discomfort was probably due more to the fact that all he had in his hand was a pair of twos.

Meanwhile, Kento, who had the worst poker face in the world, was smiling so hard his eyes were nearly crescents in his face. Obviously, Hardrock had a good hand.

The rest of the guys around Ryo's dinette table seemed to think so, too. "I fold," Cye, Ryo and Rowen said simultaneously, tossing their cards into the center of the table. Sage threw his cards on top of theirs. "Me, too."

Kento's mouth dropped open. "Aw, come on, you guys! You didn't even bet anything."

Rowen chuckled. "Ya stink at this, Kento. When ya gotta good hand, we know it. When ya gotta bad hand, we know it."

"I hate you guys." Kento threw his cards on the table in disgust—three jacks, easily beating Sage's pair of twos, Ryo's pair of fives, Cye's ace high and Rowen…well, Rowen didn't have anything good and hadn't since the game had begun.

The guys chuckled at their friend as Rowen dealt out the next hand. "Maybe we'll play a game that's more your speed next, Kento," Cye said. "Uno, maybe? Or Go Fish?"

"Hate you guys," Kento repeated with a smile as he accepted his cards from Rowen. "Seriously hate you guys."

The brotherly bickering continued as the cards were dealt, and Ryo sighed in contentment. It sure was nice to have the whole gang together, even if only for a few days. This break's going to be killer, he exulted, closing his eyes.

Actually, the Warrior of Wildfire was closer to the truth than he knew. Oh, crystal ball, crystal ball.

A Lot of Author's Notes, Which Is Only To Be Expected In The First Chapter:

Silver sails all out of the West: Look, I'm an American girl. And I'm not that awful kind of horrid beast that is too stupid to know that the word "otaku" is an insult and slips Japanese words into her everyday speech trying to sound cute. I just love a good story. This fic is set in Japan because the guys live there and that's where the story takes place. I don't pretend to know anything about Japanese culture save a few facts I've learned from people who've been there or read up extensively on the subject. So please forgive me but I'm unable to help writing with a Western-hemisphere spin on things. This is not meant to go against canon; I'm just an American, that's all. (smiles.)

Canon love: I don't have an "original character". I don't write crossovers. And I don't put myself in my stories. My canon already has a female lead. And she kicks ass, takes names, has the knowledge, and rules with kindness. Yes, she does. So I won't be appearing in this story, and if you're looking for some magical Sue to show up with another suit of armor and suddenly bespell all the guys with plus-ten sexiness, you're out of luck. I really like writing stories about Mia, who I think is treated entirely unfairly by a lot of the ficwriters in the RW/YST fandom—the story wouldn't have even happened without Mia. Sure, she gets captured, but so do all the Ronin over the course of the series! I was honored that she chose me to tell this story—for a long time, I've wanted to restore her dignity and her rightful place in the group, which is constantly being stolen by a seemingly endless parade of beautiful Sues that show up in the canonverse without so much as a passport or traveler's cheques and then proceed to magnetize everyone to them impossibly, taking the place of what's really important to the canon characters with only a tragic angsty past, a startling eye and hair color, the same powers or weapons as the heroes, and some vague connection to the villains as their excuse. Not on my watch!

The Starlite Diner: The Starlite Diner is not a canon location, and again, it might not be the norm overseas in Japan, but I have a special love for diners—they're open twenty-four hours promising coffee and chocolate milk and comfort food, and a lime rickey any time you want one, and the sanctuary in that is something I love and it's very important to me. Just like a friendship that lasts through growing up and Dynasty wars, diners are always going to be there through thick and thin, something that makes sense in a world constantly spinning on its axis, so I wanted the Ronin to have a safe place, too.

Things I'm leaving out: The Message armor and the Inferno armor. I have the complete series on DVD (it's my treasure!), but after extensive deliberation I've decided not to include the Message armor in order to ensure smoother writing of this fic. Know that this is not because I didn't enjoy Message. Message is a very involved story and Suzunagi is a very interesting villain. However, I can't write about the guys' new armors that they receive in the OVA because I don't know enough about them, and there will be battle scenes in this fic so I need the guys to armor up in a way I can actually write about. Besides, I love their original armors to death. On that note, Inferno will not be making an appearance in this story, so sorry, all you Inferno fans (if there are any). This is not because I don't enjoy the canon. I will always honor canon as best I can. I love canon. I'm just trying to ensure that this fic goes as smoothly as possible.

Anyone pick up on one of my favorite things about this fic? There are no cellular phones in it. (smiles) While I can't state specifically when this fic takes place (I'm not sure myself!) cell phones would be anachronistic in the YST canon, so I'm not including them. Could you just imagine Ryo or Rowen walking around with one of those huge Zack Morris cell phones anyhow?

I'll admit the geological blocking in this fic gave me a run for my yoroi. Again, not much is known about these guys beyond the canon, so I wasn't sure where they were coming from, and I apologize for any mistakes—despite extensive research, no two sources seemed to match, so in the end I went with the locations that were listed on a site whose webmaster corroborated my inquiries with translations of books and audio. I am most appreciative of him for answering my many questions—thank you Peter, webmaster of the Sage Page!

"So this is beautiful Shinsai U": Speaking of geological blocking giving me a run for my yoroi, I had a huge problem when it came to placing Mia. As far as we can tell from the American canon, she lives outside of Toyama (she made it there in her car before all hell broke loose in "Shadowland", so I'm assuming she wasn't too far away; in the Japanese YST, the story takes place in Tokyo—Shinjuku, I think—but in the American RW, it's changed inexplicably to Toyama. As I told Ghost of the Dawn, who was helping me figure it out, I don't care where it is, as long as it's supposed to be the same place. Since I'm sticking with American canon, this fic takes place in Toyama—thank you Ty for your help!). In "The Search Begins", Mia asks Ryo, "Let's go to Shinsai University…" to see her grandfather. Upon arriving and seeing that all the flowers have wilted due to Sekhmet's poison, Ryo remarks sarcastically, "So this is beautiful Shinsai U." Having little to no knowledge of Japanese topography or cartography, I have tried repeatedly to look up the name, and as far as I can tell, it doesn't exist. Being that I have absolutely no clue where she'd be, I just kept the name and am chalking it up to suspension of disbelief. Please know that this is not meant to go against canon or to turn the characters' backgrounds upside down to serve my own ficwriting means; I promise I've researched it to death and have come up empty.

Rowen in the comic shop: I had fun having Rowen expound on some familiar manga, although some of the titles (like the excellent Chicago) might be anachronistic. Chicago is a beautifully drawn detective story that used to run in Animerica Extra, and it's interesting, too. Patlabor is a mecha comedy, and it's great fun, like a similar title I enjoy called Dominion Tank Police. I'm not really a big fan of harem animes like Ranma ½, really, (except for Tenchi Muyo!; I like Tenchi Universe a lot) and while Vampire Hunter D is dark and lovely, they really shouldn't push the leads together like that. It's all such crap. When he storms out of the shop in a rage, Rowen calls the customers Philistines—meaning, people who have no appreciation for art or beauty.

The CJ-6 and the Nissan Fairlady: I have the privilege of knowing a Jeep CJ-6, and the brief privilege of riding in a Nissan Z-3, the descendant of the Fairlady, which was never available stateside, only in Japan. I love the idea of Kento having a rugged truck. As for Sage, every good Ronin fan should know that he's a speed demon, and I can't think of anything sexier than him at the wheel of the gorgeous Fairlady, tearing up the road and my heart! (smiles dreamily).

Imaginary Rollercoaster: Believe it or not, that is a true story. A friend of mine once threw up from pretending too well to be on an imaginary rollercoaster.

Felis domesticus,as I'm sure all you science types know, is a house cat. My best friend (who is also my beta reader for going on—what is it now, eight years?) also once refused to euthanize and dissect one in her college biology class, which was very cool of her. It was also cool of her to allow me to present the idea to Ryo, who was just as horrified by it as we were. The reference to a student liberating a group of dissection frogs is a shoutout to my homegirl Sam Manson, who pulled the same stunt in the Danny Phantom episode "One of a Kind".

Kento's mentioning that he saw Sailor Moon is anachronistic. Naoko Takeuchi's manga didn't start its run in Japan until 1991. (And I'm sorry, but crossing over Ronin Warriors and Sailor Moon in fanfiction is not okay. Ever. Just because there are five Ronin and five Sailor Scouts doesn't mean that those two series have anything to do with each other. All it means is that you can count to ten!)

Kitsune is a name for a fox demon in Japanese mythology. Across all boards of mythology, foxes are known for being very clever and for being tricksters. Nekomata are a type of bakeneko, or "monster cat". When a cat reaches a certain age or its tail reaches a certain length or it grows to be a certain size, it becomes a bakeneko. When the bakeneko's tail splits in two, it becomes a nekomata, or "forked cat" (an example of a nekomata is Kirara from Inuyasha, in case you are wondering). A raiju, or thunder demon, can take many forms, like a weasel or a tanuki, but my favorite is the image of a lightning-wrapped wolf. I'd love to try to draw one like Hiro did sometime!

Okay, if anyone's actually read this far, I congratulate you and appreciate it! I promise the next chapter is not as long as this one, but no promises about the length of chapter three.