Author's Introduction:

*smiles, eyes shiny* Well, here we are, true believers. This is it—the last chapter of Cross My Heart, And Hope To Die, from 2007 to here. Hopefully I've done this justice tying up all the loose ends, and I just want to thank everyone whose encouragement and enjoyment of this story made it so much fun to tell. Thank you all for your patience, your kind words, your questions and comments—I'd never have finished this tale without you, and I only hope you've had as good a time with it as I have.

Enough out of me. Take us home, Simple Minds:

Chapter Eight: It's My Feeling We'll Win In The End

Won't you come see about me?
I'll be alone, dancing
You know it, baby
Tell me your troubles and doubts
Giving me everything, inside and out
Love's strange, so real in the dark
Think of the tender things that we were working on
Slow change may pull us apart
When the light gets into your heart
Don't you forget about me
Don't you try and pretend
It's my feeling we'll win in the end
I won't harm you or touch your defenses
Vanity and security
Don't you forget about me
I'll be alone, dancing
You know it, baby
Going to take you apart
I'll put us back together at heart

(Simple Minds, Don't You (Forget About Me))

In Mia's dream, she chased a white rabbit with tiger stripes down a well. Her fall was slow, allowing her to see the spectral figures that waited below—Kaori, the dark warlord Cale, a suit of armor with no one inside, and a giant squirrel with enormous teeth.

A hand grabbed hers, stopping her frightening descent. Before she could look up to see who had caught her, her eyes opened. The dream faded in the lift of lashes, but the touch on her hand remained.

"Hey," Sage whispered, stroking her palm lightly. Slowly, Mia realized that she was on the sofa in Ryo's apartment, lying across Sage's lap with a blanket tucked around her; one of his arms encircled her shoulders protectively. "Wake up and talk to me for a second."

Carefully, she sat up, blinking the sleep away; Ryo's borrowed "Milk Ball" shirt slipped off of one shoulder as she moved. Everything around her was soft shades of grey. "What time is it?"

"Almost dawn," he said. She saw his nostrils flare in a concealed yawn and wondered how much sleep he'd gotten. "We're nearly through. Sorry to keep disturbing you."

"S'okay," Mia sighed. "Nightmares."

Sage's eyes softened and he brushed her bangs back from her face. "Day will break soon."

Mia glanced around the darkened room. The coffee table had been pushed to the side of the room beneath the window, and the floor was covered with slumbering Ronin, each curled in a position best suited to rest their aching limbs and soothe their hurts. The floor probably wasn't the best place for them to sleep, but this wasn't the first time they'd abandoned comfort in favor of closeness. After nearly being torn apart by snarling, drooling monsters or armored demon warlords, you wanted your friends nearby to remind you that everyone was alive and in one piece.

Ryo grit his teeth as he struggled with a nightmare; Mia wondered if he were reliving his brave standoff against the demon. Slipping off the sofa to kneel at his side, she brushed his unruly bangs out of his eyes until he stilled beneath the soothing touch. When he was quiet, she smiled and stood up, wobbling as she made her way back to the sofa. Sage took her hand as soon as she was near enough, steadying her as she drew her knees up to curl beside him, cuddling into his side.

Instead of discouraging her, Sage seemed to welcome her nearness, trailing his knuckles down her bare arm as he let go of her hand. The touch was slow, gentle, almost shy—the kind of thing you do when you and your crush are just starting out and you begin testing the acceptable limits of touch, exploring your shared physicality. "How do you feel?" he asked, keeping his voice low for the benefit of his sleeping friends.

She shrugged. "Sore. And sort of dizzy. My side aches."

Sage frowned. "It'll be sore until the skin heals properly. Even if we treat it as best we can until then, you'll likely have a scar, and I'm sorry for that."

Mia only smiled. "I'm not. If it scars, it means I lived through it."

As she watched, Sage's expression lightened, and while he didn't smile back, he looked impressed. "My armor may be sprung from wisdom, but I'm not as wise as you."

Mia bumped his shoulder with hers affectionately. "I like you the way you are."

She thought he flushed slightly in the dark, but it was hard to tell; the fact that he turned away from her to hide it was a better confirmation. "It's still dark," he said, his whisper rough with embarrassment. "You should go back to sleep."

"What about you? Have you even slept at all?" she asked, concerned.

"I'm all right," he said, but his eyes flickered drowsily. "You go back to sleep."

"What if I said I'd stay up unless you slept too?" she asked.

A smile finally tugged at Sage's lips. "You'd last five minutes."

Mia socked him in the shoulder lightly and he laughed. "Fine," she whispered teasingly. "I'll go back to sleep." And she pushed him, one hand on his shoulder, the other on his chest. Caught unaware, Sage was put off-balance, the momentum carrying him down to lay against the sofa pillow she'd been sleeping on. Before he could straighten up, Mia pinned him neatly, snuggling down close in the limited space, her head resting on his shoulder.

"Hey!" he protested in a whisper. "I'm supposed to be watching out for you, remember?"

"Can't hear you," she said, pulling the blanket over them both, closing her eyes and exaggerating a yawn for effect. "Already sleeping. Couldn't last five minutes."

He laughed again, the sound shaking them both. Slowly, he relaxed; Mia felt one arm encircle her, bringing her even closer against him. With his free hand, he brushed her bangs out of her eyes, fingertips trailing gently through her hair. A feeling of safety stole over her as she felt him settle, all warmth and solidity beside her in the soft grey room. Just before she fell asleep again, there was a feather-light touch on her forehead. A kiss.

Dawn was breaking as Detective Shiga ducked under the yellow-bandaged door in the basement of the library at Shinsai University. There were so many ribbons of crime-scene tape around the school lately that it looked like a damn parade was coming through, he reflected darkly. This time, it had been an unlucky custodian who had discovered the body—Eiko Imamura, wife of the recently deceased Hiro Imamura. She had been found when the custodian had checked the doors while cleaning the hallway. Finding Imamura's office unlocked, the custodian had elected to investigate—and immediately wished he hadn't. According to CSU, it looked like Eiko Imamura had come to her husband's office, possibly to collect his belongings, and the grief had been too much for her to bear.

Suicide. At least it wasn't a damn animal attack like that homeless guy weeks ago, Shiga thought with some relief. That had been nasty—so nasty that the new medical examiner had actually vomited into a sewer grate, leaving some of the officers to yank his chain about not being able to keep it together and prompting the CSU team to be grateful that at least he hadn't thrown up on the body.

This was bloody, Shiga decided, like that had been bloody, but whereas the homeless victim had been frightening, this was just...sad. Eiko Imamura had been a beautiful woman, and her expression was somehow helpless beneath her closed eyes as she lay in her own blood like a ghastly Sleeping Beauty.

"Isn't that sweet." Detective Kozu's voice dripped with sarcasm as he indicated the woman's suicide note, still burning in green pixels on the computer that was on Imamura's desk.



Shiga was sorry, too. Glaring at his partner, he actually growled, "If you don't think she deserves some peace and quiet, we haven't been working the same cases these last few weeks."

For once, Kozu backed down, a look of mild surprise crossing his angular face. Whipping his head to get his ever-flopping forelock out of his eyes, he reached into his pocket for a pair of the latex gloves he'd jammed in there before leaving his car. "Everything all right, man?"

Shiga regretted letting so much emotion spill into his voice; he had to force himself not to snatch the gloves his partner offered him. "Yes," he grunted. "Other than the cooling body at our feet, everything's just fine and dandy."

Kozu wasn't convinced. "Kids O.K.?"

"The kids are with their mother, and fine." The words were as sharp as the snap of the gloves as he put them on; Shiga did not like talking about his family situation, even with his partner, who knew its ins and outs.

Detective Kozu, while not well-versed in the art of tact, glanced at the suicide note once more, then wandered towards the desk. "It's weird she didn't do it here, at the desk. Don't you think? Shiga?"

Detective Shiga was kneeling by the body. "Looks like there are footprints here."

Kozu spun in the chair. "Look at me, I'm a genius," he joked, then stopped his spin so that the chair was facing the body. "Of course there are footprints there. The custodian came in and found the body."

"Sure, but this one looks weird..." Shiga reached a gloved finger towards the bloody print.

"The guy panicked, Shiga," Kozu pointed out. "He was a mess when the uniforms got here. Probably shuffled his feet. That's why they're smudged."

Shiga stared hard at the smudgy prints for another minute, then sighed heavily. "Yeah, probably. What do you make of the head wound?"

Kozu was ready for this one. "Easy. She fell. Bashed her head on the way down. Hope it was quick, poor thing."

Shiga wasn't entirely convinced, but he had to admit he couldn't argue with his partner's logic, and the M.E.'s report would likely confirm it. Getting to his feet, he asked, "Done playing around?"

Kozu tilted his head. "I don't know. Why do you think she didn't do it here, at the desk?"

Shiga glanced back down at Eiko's still form. "She wouldn't have. Her husband's work was his life. She wouldn't have disrespected it by bleeding all over it. Not this woman. Not this marriage. I'm surprised she bothered to do it here at all. If she wanted to feel close to him, she could have stayed home."

"We'll never know now." Kozu shrugged. "We'll have to wait for the M.E.'s report and all, but this is looking pretty open-and-shut to me, pal."

Shiga nodded gravely. Instinct was tugging at his mind, insisting that there was more to this than met the eye, but the look of profound sorrow on the dead woman's face was wrenching at his heart. In the end, emotion won out. Kozu was right, and he wasn't about to argue with forensic evidence, which would undoubtedly support the theory of suicide, just because he was feeling nostalgic about his own failed marriage. "I suppose we should let the dead bury the dead. At least she's out of pain, now."

"In more ways than one," Kozu remarked, in an oddly sympathetic manner for him.

By the time CSU had done its work and the body had been taken away for autopsy, it was midmorning. The detectives were overdue for a meal break, and when they slid into a booth at the diner across town, they were grateful not to have to wait too long for service. Their waitress smiled at them as she bounced to their table in a perky manner totally at odds with her dark eyeshadow and thick mascara. "Morning, guys. What can I get for the stalwart officers of the law?"

A grin broke out on Kozu's face. "Dammit, Serena, I can't stand how cheerful you are in the morning. Start frowning, would you? Make sure they burn my eggs. You're about all the sunny side up I can take today."

The waitress laughed, scribbling on her pad. "So the usual, then. You got it, Detective." Turning to dimple at Shiga, she asked, "And for the good cop?"

Shiga chuckled, despite himself. "Good morning, honey. I think steak and eggs are in order after what we've had to deal with, and we'll have two coffees as black as this bastard's heart." He jerked a thumb in the direction of Kozu, who snorted.

"Coming right up, boys. You keep on serving and protecting," she sang, then sauntered off to fill their order.

"You just keep on serving, Serena," Kozu teased after her, and she burst out laughing as she headed for the kitchen.

Shiga shook his head, smiling. "You're a jackass. I hope you don't talk to your girlfriend that way."

Kozu snorted again. "Are you kidding? She'd have my head on a stick. The reason she and I work so well is that no one else'll put up with my shit, and don't think I don't know that."

"Elisa's a good woman," Shiga agreed.

"Damn straight. She wants to have you around for dinner soon, by the way. Always asks me how you're doing."

Shiga grinned. "And what do you tell her?"

"That you'll sleep when you're dead, what else?" Kozu smirked.

When the dishes were cleared away and Serena the waitress was given a generous tip, Kozu waved away the money Shiga held out to him. "It's on me, pal."

Shiga frowned. "Don't be ridiculous. I ordered steak."

Kozu only smiled, and while his eyes still gleamed with the mocking razor wit that was his trademark, his voice was warm as he got up from his chair. "Do you really want to pay me back? Call your wife."

"Ex-wife," Shiga reminded him idly as he too rose from his chair.

Kozu's look was pointed. "Call your wife," he repeated, more gently this time, and then the two men walked out of the diner to the waiting car.

Detective Shiga wouldn't remember this exchange a year and a half later, while he was waiting for Karen at the local bookstore with a single daffodil wrapped in paper tucked beneath his arm. She'd called to let him know she'd be running a little late because she'd hit traffic dropping the kids off at the sitter's—after a few cautious months of spending more time together and a year of rediscovering everything that had brought them together in the first place, they'd agreed to break the news of their remarriage together as soon as they were certain of it, not wanting to get the kids' hopes up.

Shiga could readily admit his own hopes were up; to quell his nervousness, he wandered aimlessly through the comparative religion section, hoping to find a philosophy book or something that might give him some insight as to how not to screw up this time. Instead, a book on mythology caught his eye, and when he pulled it off the shelf, he couldn't for the life of him understand what had interested him about it. It looked like just another book of wild fairy tales, and he knew from years of telling bedtime stories to his kids that most of the lore in Japan was the stuff of nightmares.

The title didn't do anything to discourage that kind of thinking, either. If You Go Out In The Woods Today...a Comparative Guide on Japanese Demonology was printed on the book's dust jacket. By Hiro Imamura, it boasted, and in smaller letters, Foreward by Mia Koji.

Something tugged at Detective Shiga's mind, but before he had a chance to properly consider it, Karen peeked girlishly around the shelf he stood beside, looking every bit as lovely as the day he'd met her in front of the student union seventeen years before, and he replaced the book on the shelf without a backwards glance, more than happy to leave the past in the past and focus on the future.

When Mia woke, she was alone on the sofa, a chill against her side alerting her to the fact that Sage was no longer beside her. Jackknifing to an upright position, she let the blanket fall away and glanced around to see Kento smiling at her, already scrubbed and dressed in jeans and a sleeveless white t-shirt.

"Don't panic," Hardrock soothed. "He's in the shower."

Mia unsuccessfully fought a blush. "He must be exhausted. He stayed up with me all night."

"Nah, he was sleeping when I got up," Kento said, sitting next to her on the sofa. "He was going to wait till you woke up to shower, but I told him I'd keep a lookout. He was pretty worried about you," he added cheerfully.

Mia turned her face away, tugging Ryo's borrowed shirt back over her shoulder. "I'm fine, but that's sweet of him."

"Well, Sage is a great guy," Kento said, and while he was still smiling, the words were pointed.

Finally smiling back, Mia nodded. "I know that."

Kento grinned. "Good. Don't you forget it," he said in a friendly tone, chucking her under the chin. "But I know you won't, gorgeous. You're great too."

Bumping his shoulder playfully, Mia let him wrap one arm around her in a hug.

"Don't crush her, Ken," Sage ordered, emerging from the bathroom in a cloud of steam. His haste was betrayed in how disheveled he looked—his hair was mussed from pulling his t-shirt on, and he'd left the bathroom before he'd even gotten one arm through the sleeve of his button-down. Mia almost giggled at the normally polished Warrior of Halo going anywhere with a wrinkled cuff or messy hair, but she was secretly far more impressed with his haste to return to her.

"I'm O.K.," she promised. "It's just a little sore. Where are the others?"

"Ryo's getting dressed, and Cye and Rowen went to get the morning papers," Kento said. "It's your turn to shower, gorgeous, and then we were thinking of breakfast at the Starlite before we hit the road. What do you think?"

Mia realized how hungry she was; she hadn't eaten the night before due to nervousness, and her stomach rippled with a hunger pang just hearing the words. "Sounds like heaven."

"That's what I said!" Kento laughed. "Go on, shower's free. Let's hope Sage left you some hot water."

Sage glared playfully, smirking. "I hope the next time you shower there aren't any towels, Kento."

Mia got up, tugging the borrowed shirt down over her thighs. "I won't be long," she promised.

"Hey, Mia!" Ryo said, emerging from the bedroom in a sleeveless hoodie and jeans. "How're you feeling?"

"Pretty good," Mia said cheerfully, rummaging in her duffel bag for her pink cotton skirt and a black t-shirt—she'd thrown the denim skirt and torn shirt from last night away, knowing the bloodstains were hopeless. "I'll feel even better once I shower and eat. I hope you guys are as hungry as I am!"

Wildfire grinned. "You bet. Come on, hurry up! I'm starving."

Mia nodded, bouncing past him into the bathroom in search of towels.

After Mia had left the room, Kento got up from the sofa. "I think I'll bring the car around," he said, twirling the keyring on his index finger. "We had to park pretty far last night after we got back from the hospital, and we may as well go straight to the cabin from the diner after we eat. I'll be right back."

The other two boys nodded at him, and Hardrock left the apartment, leaving Wildfire and Halo looking at each other over the coffee table. Sage couldn't help but notice the other boy's expression had suddenly turned serious; he raised a brow at Ryo, thinking he had something he wanted to say, but Ryo offered nothing save companionable silence until the sound of running water could be heard from the bathroom.

"Thanks for waking Mia up last night," Ryo said. "I was so wiped out after the fight with the demon; I slept like the dead."

Sage smiled reassuringly at his friend. It had been a long night for all of them, and it had been good to wake Mia anyway—he'd seen nightmares chase across her face many times as he'd sat by her side through the night and had been happy to rouse her from them. "I didn't mind," he promised.

Ryo nodded, settling back against the far wall as if Sage had said exactly what he'd wanted to hear, but the tension between them didn't lessen. Sage waited, knowing he'd spit whatever it was out when he was ready and not before.

Nothing else was said until Wildfire pushed off from the wall restlessly. He began to head towards the kitchen, but thought better of it in mid-motion, turning again and stabbing the air between him and Sage with a finger. "You break her heart, and I break both your arms, and burn down your house," he said. "Got that?" Ryo's unruly brows dipped over his tiger-blue eyes, which were as severe as Sage had ever seen them.

The warrior of Halo fought a laugh. This was a ritual—a time-honored brotherly privilege to threaten any of his surrogate sister's potential suitors with savage, violent beatings—and he didn't want to spoil it for Ryo. "Got it," he promised solemnly.

Ryo visibly relaxed, the tension easing from his shoulders and the smile returning to his face like the sun coming out after a storm. "Good." He turned away and continued into the kitchen, his obligation to his "sister" fulfilled.

Only when he was alone in the living room did Sage allow himself to laugh. Wildfire had probably been dying to say that for a very long time. He'd done a good job, too—the arson threat was a nice touch.

They didn't even have to place orders at the Starlite any more. Their waitress grinned as she placed cups and plates in front of them, rattling off their usuals with the pride of practice. "Cherry Coke and grilled cheese with tomato and bacon for Mia, western omelet over here, I'll get you extra ketchup in a second, Ryo. Pardon my reach—" She extended a pale arm over the table to place a teacup in front of Cye. "There's your Earl Grey, Cye, you just let me know if you want any more. Rowen, the Belgian waffles will be up in just a minute, okay, hon?"

She took the smallest plate from its balanced position on her pale forearm and placed it in front of Sage. "Someday I'll get you to order something other than toast and tea," she scolded, frowning playfully as she replaced his cup of tea with a fresh one. Her face lit up as she placed the last dish. "Extra powdered sugar on the pancakes today, just for you," she trilled, heavily made-up eyes softening as they rested on her best customer.

"Marry me, Serena," Kento sighed, fork at the ready.

The waitress laughed, dark ponytail waving. "You couldn't keep up with me, Kento, especially after eating that."

Rowen loved that and drummed his fists on the table in time with his laughter. "She's got your number awright, Kento. Too bad she won't give ya hers!"

The waitress winked. "Get stuck into that, guys, and call me if you need anything." She walked off, ponytail swishing.

"Remind me to overtip her," Cye said, putting his spoon into his soft-boiled egg.

While they were eating, Rowen and Cye began passing out all the newspapers they'd collected from their earlier newsstand run. Since it was nearly afternoon at this point, several later editions had articles of interest. Hiro Imamura's death had been officially ruled an accident, and an unlucky janitor had appeared to have found the body of Eiko Imamura, which was likely to be ruled a suicide.

"I still feel like we should tell someone," Cye said.

"Tell them what?" Ryo said through a mouthful of egg. "The truth's down the rabbit hole. No one will believe us."

"No one ever believes us," Mia groused, sipping her cherry Coke. "Maybe we should tell the story to the Sun-Times."

The protest came from the unlikeliest of corners—Kento slammed his copy of that esteemed rag down on the table, rattling the salt shaker. "We're not telling the Sun-Times. These idiots aren't journalists! They're just hacks is what it is!"

The other Ronin stifled laughter at Hardrock's outrage. Sage looked weary, pinching the skin between his eyebrows as he selected a piece of buttered toast from his dish. "Kento, we've been telling you that this whole time. What made you change your mind?"

Kento flipped the tabloid open. "Look what they printed today!"

Everyone leaned over the article. TERROR OVER…FOR NOW, was the headline, and the text was bordered by sloppy cut-and-pasted photos from movie magazines and comic books—all of snarling canines and beast men caught in the lumpy, misshapen stage between animal and human.

"Is that Lon Chaney?" Mia asked incredulously.

"I think it's Lon Chaney, Jr.," Cye clarified.

Kento was sputtering in fury. "If we went to the papers or the cops and told them what really happened, we'd be laughed out of the place if we were lucky."

"Arrested, if unlucky," Rowen added wryly.

"Exactly!" Kento roared. "But these jokers can say it was a werewolf and they get paid for it! I'm never reading this rag again."

"Hallelujah," Sage chuckled, tearing a crust off his toast.

Mia took the tabloid. "It says that the people of Toyama can rest easy knowing the full moon is over for now, but we should all be on our guard next month, because the beast can't resist the call of the moon." Wrinkling her nose, she repeated, "The call of the moon?"

"Hey, is that the Sun-Times?" Serena the waitress asked cheerfully, returning with Rowen's Belgian waffles and more syrup, along with another cherry Coke for Mia. "There you go, darlin'," she said as she placed plates and cups. "Who wants more ketchup?"

Hands were raised, and Serena handed the bottle over. "Careful with that, now," she warned playfully. "Don't want the reporters on that magazine thinking you guys are covered in blood! They might say vampires got you."

Kento shook his head, still steamed about the idiocy of the tabloid article. "That'd be just as sensible as anything else that's happened to us this week."

Serena laughed merrily, taking Sage's empty dish from him and replacing it with another stack of toast without him having to ask. "Tell me about it, honey. You wouldn't believe the cast of characters that comes into this place. If werewolves came in and ordered their hamburgers extra rare, I wouldn't be the least bit surprised."

"Is that right?" Mia asked, smiling at the other girl.

Serena popped a hip and winked big at Mia, her long, dark lashes fanning down and back up again like a movie special effect. "Of course! Name me a diner in town with better burgers! Where else are they going to go?"

This matter-of-fact announcement got a laugh from the entire table. "Ya gotta point, Serena," Rowen said. "An' th' apple pie is just as good."

The girl beamed. "You know it, sweetie. Why don't I bring you all some?"

Kento perked up right away. "I can't think of a better way to get this bad taste out of our mouths." He held the tabloid up, prompting another round of laughter from everyone present.

Serena the waitress was making a killing in tips over the course of the day, but the reason her eyes sparkled as they paid her was not because of the money but because her sharp eyes noticed an exchange between tall, blond Sage and pretty, smiling Mia, who were seated beside each other. When the money was collected from all the patrons at the table, he stopped Mia from reaching for her handbag, simply taking enough money for both of them out of his own wallet. Mia angled a shy glance at him but let him have his way, the entire exchange taking place below the table and out of sight of the other boys.

She was sorry to see them leave when they got up from the table; she'd become attached to the big, quirky gang over the week they'd sat in her section. Her farewell was warm and sincere as she waved them off, and their response, delivered by Kento, was no less so.

"Y'all come back."

"You bet."

For the last time that week, everyone piled into Kento's CJ-6 as best they could—Sage's car had been left behind at the cabin along with some of their luggage and everyone had crammed into the truck in an effort to get Mia to the hospital as fast as possible. Mia was having trouble keeping her seat on the console; Sage's hand on her back kept her steady until they got out of the city and she saw the mangled corpse lying in the road, looking so much worse in the harsh light of day.

"No! Oh, no!" she exclaimed, nearly bolting off the console as if she'd jump straight through the windshield to get to their fallen comrade's side.

"Mia, calm down—" Ryo said from beside Sage, trying to keep her still. Kento slowed the CJ and Rowen attempted to cover his friend's eyes to keep the horrible sight from her, but as the truck stopped she tore Rowen's reaching hands away from her face and climbed over his lap to get out the passenger's-side door. Her cry of anguish echoed through the woods as she dashed into the road.

"My car! Oh, my car!"

As they exited the CJ, the Ronin exchanged guilty looks—they'd told Mia that they'd had a car accident on the way back to the cabin, but they'd been so concerned with stopping Kaori and the inugami at first, and then later with Mia's own safety, that no one had broken the news of just how terrible it had been. Now she ambled around the bulk of her beloved truck in a slow, sad circle. "What happened? What happened?"

The Jeep, unfortunately, was a total loss.

The damage looked about a dozen times worse in the light of day; twisted metal dark with smoke damage, the leather seats distressed from the sudden heat and then the dousing of water, the whole thing lying almost forlornly in the crater water and fire had eaten into the ground.

"We are sorry," Ryo promised. "We are so sorry."

"It's my fault," Cye piped up. "I had to soak the damned thing—it was on fire."

"Nah, it's our fault," Rowen said sheepishly. "We're th' ones who set it on fire."

"We blew it up," Ryo said, voice tinged with horror. "We thought it might stop the inugami, but all it did was slow it down."

"It was like a member of the team," Kento said. "It followed us everywhere."

"I drove for the first time in it," Sage remembered.

"It rode valiantly inta battle," Rowen agreed.

"It's the way it would have wanted to go," Mia said sadly, completing her circle as the boys fanned out in front of the downed Jeep. "Remind me never to let any of you drive my car again."

"We won't get the chance," Sage said, sounding oddly nostalgic as he put a hand on what was left of the vehicle. "Farewell, noble steed."

Rowen pretended to play "Taps" on an imaginary bugle until Cye shoved an elbow into his side, muttering, "You are such an incredible shit."

Rowen chuckled. "If ya don't laugh, ya cry," he said wisely.

"He's right," Mia said. "I can't look at it any more, guys. Let's just get back into Kento's and get out of here."

"What's going to happen to it?" Cye asked once they were all back in the CJ and the Jeep was a receding sight in the rearview mirror.

"Mia's going to report it stolen and then collect the insurance money," Kento said matter-of-factly. The redhead let her mouth fall open in surprise.

"I can't do that, Kento! It's lying!"

Sage arched a blond brow. "I hate to admit it, but Kento may have a point."

"They're right, gorgeous," Rowen said. "Why don'tcha try 'splaining it t'your insurance carria? 'Ere, you be th'insurance guy. I'm you." Fluttering his lashes comically, he said in a falsetto, "A demon chomped my car an' my friends set it on fire hopin' t'blow up th' little critta before it got big enough t'kill us all."

Mia frowned. "I hope you don't think I really sound like that."

Cye laughed. "Mia, you've gone above and beyond to save the city from the inugami. I think collecting on insurance money when your car was destroyed in the line of duty is only fair."

Mia sighed, looking at her hands. "I guess. I loved that car, though."

"Think you'll get another Jeep?" Ryo asked, eyes twinkling. "Or will you let Sage talk you into a sports car?"

Sage gave Ryo a look, but Mia laughed, leaning back into Halo's hand, which was once again steadying her. "I think I'll get another truck—something we can all fit in that doesn't make me look like a soccer mom. Sage can keep the flash and dash, as long as he lets me ride in it whenever I want."

"No arguments here. On either count," Sage said, and Mia smiled at him in the rearview.

When they got to the cabin, everyone got out of the CJ warily, looking at the friendly cabin with its overgrown front yard. "Feels like forever since we've been here," Cye remarked. "It looks so strange and...normal, doesn't it?"

"I'll go in first," Ryo said. "I mean, nothing's wrong, but..." Everyone else nodded and stood aside to let Wildfire through.

"I'm going to check the rest of the grounds," Sage said. "Just to be sure. Won't be long."

"Don't go too far," Mia said, casting an apprehensive glance towards the woods. "Don't go near the…"

Sage nodded. "Promise," he assured her, before she could say, Don't go near the well.

Despite the air of tension surrounding the cabin, Sage wasn't worried that they'd find anything out of the ordinary. What he'd really wanted was a chance to see for himself in his own element—the clear light of day—that everything was all right. So given over to his mood was he as he explored the area surrounding the cabin in a wide circle that he didn't hear the pad of paws behind him until they hit his shoulder, sending him sprawling to the ground.

Sage hit the dirt on his back without even enough breath to scream. He cursed himself for twenty different kinds of an idiot, memories of the demon whirling in his head like a grotesque carousel. Ryo and the others had said it was dead, but he hadn't looked, he hadn't seen it—

But the paws that pressed against his chest had their claws sheathed, and the muzzle that leaned toward his face was closed over sharp teeth. A familiar face—

Sage let his head fall back to the dirt. "White Blaze. You scared the hell out of me, boy. What's wrong? Let me up."

But the tiger remained still. He wasn't giving Sage his full weight, but the paws on his chest pressed just hard enough to be menacing, and a warning growl issued from his throat.

Sage struggled half-heartedly, confused. "White Blaze? What's up?" The longer he stared into the tiger's serious gaze, he recognized where he'd seen it earlier—on Ryo.

Lifting his hands, which had remained free the entire time, Sage ruffled the big cat's fur reassuringly. "It's okay. If I break her heart, you have my express permission to devour my internal organs and keep my bones for chew toys. All right?"

This statement was rewarded with a big, sloppy lick of the tiger's broad tongue, and he lifted his paws from the blond boy's chest, satisfied.

Dusting himself down, Sage got to his feet. He hadn't gone far; the walk back was short, the tiger trotting happily out ahead, eager to see the rest of his friends now that his obligation had been fulfilled. He made a beeline for Mia as soon as they returned to the cabin, butting his head against her hip. She laughed, caressing his broad head. "Hey, you! Where've you been? I bet you had a nice quiet night after we were gone. Hope you rested up for the run home!"

"All clear?" Sage asked, joining his friends in the front yard as Ryo reemerged from the cabin.

"All set," Wildfire said happily, giving them a thumbs-up. "No bad guys in sight, and all our stuff's still here."

Mia uttered a soft exclamation, looking at Sage. "You are filthy!" she said, licking a finger and dragging it across his cheek. "You weren't even gone long enough to get this dirty!" Glancing down at White Blaze, she noticed the twigs and grit in his fur as well. "You too! What were you doing out in the woods?"

"Having a man-to-man talk," Sage said. White Blaze snuffled and Sage corrected himself as he slipped into the cabin to wash up. "Tiger-to-man, rather."

Mia crooked her fingers into hooks, as if she were about to pounce. "White Blaaaaze," she sang. "Someone's getting a bath when we get home."

Ears standing up at the mention of the hated activity, the tiger galloped away from her to hide behind Ryo, who chuckled, scratching his friend behind the ears. "She said the b-word, huh? Don't worry, pal. I got your back."

Mia helped Ryo secure the cabin while the other boys packed the cars, dusting down the tables and making the bed while Ryo shut the windows and made sure no one had left anything behind.

"I think we're all set," she said cheerfully, flapping her dustrag when Ryo emerged from the bedroom. Chuckling, she added, "You'd never guess what an adventure we had this week looking at this place."

Ryo opened his arms to his friend and she went gratefully into them for a hug. "You were amazing this week. We couldn't have done it without you."

Mia laughed into his ear. "It's all in a day's work for Team Ronin, right?"

Ryo chuckled and gave her a squeeze. "Just glad we ended the week the same way we started it—together."

Mia stepped back, one hand on his shoulder as she smiled at him. "We always will," she promised. "Come on, Wildfire. Ready to go?"

Together, they locked the cabin door, Mia handing him his duffel bag while shouldering her own. Kento hopped up onto the running board of the CJ-6 and thrust an arm through its open window to honk the horn. "Hey, Ryo! Wanna ride back to your apartment? I gotta go through the city to take these two home anyway." He hopped down and indicated Cye and Rowen with a jerk of his thumb.

"That sounds great, Ken." Hugging Mia once more, he slung his duffel into the car through the open window. Kneeling by White Blaze, he ruffled the tiger's fur. "Run safe, pal. Keep taking good care of Mia, O.K.? I'll come out to visit you guys real soon."

Kento yanked Mia to him and planted a wet kiss on her cheek. "I'll call you next week, gorgeous. Mama would love to see you at the restaurant soon."

Mai laughed, squeezing him back. "I'd love to. Tell your mother I'll bring my appetite."

"She'd be happier if you brought a date," Kento laughed, opening the CJ's door and getting behind the wheel.

"Wait, can I squeeze in the back with Rowen and Ryo—hey! Careful, Rowen!" Mia giggled as Rowen spun her in a graceful dance move before getting into the back seat. "I don't know if you heard, but my car died over the weekend in a demon attack, so I need to get to the train station."

Kento slammed the door as Ryo got into the back seat with Rowen and the bags. "Sorry, gorgeous. No room—car's packed full of Ronin Warriors."

Mia's mouth fell open in shock. "What! Kento, all six of us have fit into your car this week."

"We didn't have all our bags in it then," Cye said, looping one arm around Mia's neck for a hug of his own. "You don't want to ride all the way back into the city on our laps, do you?"

"Yeah, ya can't fit, gorgeous," Rowen added from the back. "Ya need a ride from someone else."

Mia frowned playfully. "O.K., I can take a hint. Safe home, guys. Drive carefully, Kento!"

"Call me when you're home," Ryo said.

Kento honked the horn, putting the CJ in gear. "Alllll aboooooaaaard! Kento's CJ Express is leaving the station!"

Sage held up a hand in a send-off; White Blaze trotted out into the road to stare after them. Mia waved her hand in farewell, jogging a little ways after Kento's CJ-6 as it lurched off down the dirt road.

"They could have made room for me in that car," she said aloud. "What's the deal?"

White Blaze nudged her hip, turning her towards the answer, who was leaning against the hood of the Fairlady, watching her with eyes the color of the night that was already beginning to fall around them. Mia's pulse tapped excitedly in her veins, but she kept her walk toward him free-swinging and slow and tried to sound casual. "Don't you have to get back to Sendai?"

"It would be rude of me not to ensure a lady got home safely," he answered just as casually, but the familiar words were borne on the barest curve of his mouth in a smile.

"Let me guess," she teased as she got closer. "They all drew straws, and you lost."

"No." The smile faded just a touch and the twinkle in his eye was swept away by something deeper, fiercer. Boldly, he reached out, wrapping strong fingers around her waist and pulling her gently closer, against the car's left fender. "I won."

Speaking was so difficult when she knew their mouths could be put to better use than words. "There's a train station a few miles from here," she ventured, remembering what he'd told her before they'd split up to trap the demon—it seemed so long ago. "You could drive me. We could…talk."

"I could drive you to the train station," Sage agreed, letting go of her waist and taking her hands in his, fingers curling around hers. "Or…I could drive you home."

She blinked; she'd never dreamed of such an offer. "But…it's out of your way!" she said in astonishment.

"There's nowhere I have to be," he said. "We won't get in till quite late, though."

Heart beating hard against her breastbone, Mia issued an offer of her own. "You could stay. You could sleep in your old room," she said, warming to the idea, even though there were a few other rooms she was imagining him in. "Like old times."

Sage's fingertip caressed the sensitive valleys between her knuckles, his eyes softening to dusk-pale instead of winter-cool. "These aren't old times. This is something new. Something now."

Mia's blood bubbled with excitement, and the nagging wound of when-do-I-get-to-be-happy felt as though it were finally knitting together. Because now was the answer, wasn't it?

"How long before you do have to be somewhere?" she asked. "Long enough to…hang out…for a little bit?"

He smirked. "Hanging out's what friends do. I had something else in mind."

At the sight of that smile, she couldn't resist teasing him a little. "So after all that, you're saying you don't want to hang out with me after all, is that it?"

Sage's hands let go of hers, one clutching at her hip, the other pressing against the small of her back, and just like that she was trapped in the cage of his embrace. Laughter faded as her senses filled with him, no longer half-grasped fantasies but the reality of his nearness, those violet eyes darkening with emotion. Her hands slid up his chest, feeling his heartbeat accelerate at her touch.

"I want…" he whispered huskily.

He didn't need to tell her what he wanted, not in words. The answer was given as he closed the distance between them, drugging her with a slow, open-mouthed kiss. It wasn't like the other times—there was no desperation, no doubt, no hurry. There was simply the two of them together, a deluge of feeling and a delicious promise of more to come.

Sage's gaze was hazy with heat when they broke apart, his tongue flickering over his lips as if he wanted to savor the kiss. "That should hold me over until we get to Toyama," he purred, but his arms stayed tight around her.

Mia reached for him, brushing his hair back off his face so she could look into his eyes. "It's a long drive," she said softly. "Don't you want one for the road?"

Sage's lashes slid to half-mast. "Yes," he said, leaning in to whisper it against her mouth. "Please."

Author's Notes:

Well, that's the end *^_^* When I moved down South for a year in 2007 in an attempt to reduce my craziness (which had gotten out of control at that point), the first job I could manage to get was as a secretary for a call center. If you didn't count hearing the wild stories the workers gave me for being late every morning (one guy called us to bail him out of jail when he was caught boosting a car, and one woman showed up looking like lasagna with teeth and told me matter-of-factly that she was late because she'd gotten into a fight with her live-in boyfriend), it was extremely boring. One day I let my mind wander so far that it came back with a few ideas for stories, and in a black spiral notebook (and later, a blue marble one) that still lives on my bookshelf, I began writing the notes that would eventually become this story. While my insanity shrunk that year down in Dixie, this story didn't—like the inugami itself, it far outgrew my original expectations, and I couldn't be prouder of it.

I shouldn't have to tell anyone that the opening lyric for this chapter is by Simple Minds. I'm sure you remember it from the film that made it famous, John Hughes' masterpiece The Breakfast Club.

If you go out in the woods today: I was so pleased to see Detectives Kozu and Shiga again. I hadn't expected to! Take care of yourselves and your girls, Detectives—it was such a pleasure working with you, and I hope to see you again someday! When Detective Shiga is waiting for his ex-wife (soon to be wife again) Karen, he finds the book of Hiro's research that Mia pushed to have published. Its title is derived from the lyrics of a song that always scared me as a child, The Teddy Bears' Picnic. I have no idea why it's supposed to be a children's song—I find the damn thing chilling.

I saw Lon Chaney Jr. walking with the queen: Tired of waiting for the story to break, the Sun-Times predictably makes something up to explain the demon attacks—they decide it's a werewolf, which is probably why they included pictures of Lon Chaney, Jr. from his 1941 movie, The Wolf Man.

A special thank-you: I thought about saving this for my 100th fic, but I'm so very pleased that Cross My Heart, and Hope To Die has been posted in its entirety that I've decided now's as good a time as any. I really, really need to thank the real hero of this story, and indeed all the creative work I do—the most magnificent horse in the universe, Cloudwalker. Cloudy has been both my best friend and my beta-reader for as long as I've been writing fanfiction, and here in 2011, that's ten years. Which, let me tell you, is a long time to put up with my nonsense. *chuckles* Some people treat friendship like a contract, some treat it like a toy; Cloudwalker is one of the few who's a friendship soldier. When a monster ate my heart in 2003 and I refused to leave my room for either college classes or doctor's appointments, Cloudwalker was there to tell me to stop acting like a soap actress and get out of bed. When I had a nervous breakdown in 2006, Cloudy was the only person I knew—friend or relative—who never treated me like a mental patient. When I was exiled to the South for that year in 2007, she remained in radio contact with me and issued me a hero's welcome when I returned triumphantly home. When I'm unreasonable, she's the first one to tell me that I'm acting like an ass. When someone attacks me, she's the first one to say it's on like Red Dawn and ask me whose face we need to rearrange. Cloudwalker is U.S. Secret Service contact Ingrid Hunnigan. She's Batgirl as the Oracle. She's the Twelfth Doctor. If I had a talking skull that held all the world's magical knowledge and was funnier than I am, Cloudy would be the voice behind its glowing orange eye-lights. Cloudy has had my six through one hundred fanfics, three blogs, six terrible jobs, three apartments, and five boyfriends ranging from the irritating to the malignantly ridiculous. And when I go septic and need to bloodlet all my mental imbalances onto paper as stories, she's the one that hacks through their dangerous terrain with a machete and turns them into something fit for human consumption, on top of sharing my every triumph and problem. You can't get any tougher than Cloudwalker without actually being a Highlander. I'm actually annoyed that I've never had occasion to take a bullet for Cloudy, because I honestly can't think of anything else I could do to properly repay her for being the coolest friend ever.

As I mentioned earlier, another special thank-you and bonus points go to my squad of ultimate badasses—the lovely, talented ladies of Team Ronin:

- Thanks to Max the Bish Deliverer for her constant encouragement and the amusing bits of intelligence she brings back to the Think Tank. That girl ought to have a Purple Heart just for wading through the evils of internet fandom and bringing home the bloody trophies to show us. Keep stacking them up, Hellraiser, and Scarlett will knock them down!

- If you're more in the mood for Special Ops, look no further than Ally W., who has the distinction of being brave enough not only to tackle fic about the OVAs, most notably Message, but to do it with style, flair and research. Anyfanbrat can write some brainless fic in which the guys have cell phones and dress in clothes from American Eagle Outfitters, but Ally knows exactly how to write a fic that contains a naginata, a Toshiba T3200, a Japanese holiday and an 8 ½ inch floppy disk and knock it out of the park.

- The ancillary characters will never be lonely with an author like Seinasu around. She knows how to handle the subtle relationships between them with surgical precision, and I've never seen better tributes to a character like Luna, or to a romance that is all but neglected in the RW/YST canon, the deep bond between Mukara and Naria. These are the character studies we should be seeking out to give us new insight into the story we love so well—what happens behind the scenes with the characters we're so fond of.

- Boggy, who rules the Think Tank when it comes to knowledge of our beloved Ronin—most notably Sage—has the distinction of writing what I would call Best Marriage Proposal By a Ronin In a Fanfic (An Analysis From Point A to Point B.) Rarely if ever do I see the care and attention to detail that she puts into her stories, regardless of fandom. Quality, not quantity, is the watchword, and it shows in every piece she posts. I only wish more writers cared so much about the craft!

These ladies are good at what they do, and what they do is great fun. Go check them out, right here at FFNet.

Lastly, as always, this story wouldn't have gone anywhere without the support and encouragement from you, the readers. I only hope you enjoyed this even half as much as I did. I had so much fun writing and sharing this story, and it's thanks to all of you—always thanks to you.