From Dying Embers

By Mardrena

Mia scurried downstairs, fully dressed for work and looking quite stressed. She ducked into the kitchen and fished a granola bar out of a box and tore the wrapper off before stuffing the entire bar into her mouth. She chewed quickly and gulped it down with a small glass of milk then set the glass by the sink and scooped up her bag on the way to the front door. Before she could round the corner, someone stepped out infront of her, causing her to recoil.

"You've been avoiding me," Ryo stated firmly.

"OOH! Gosh Ryo! Don't do that! You scared me half to death!" Mia patted her chest and took several deep breaths as she stepped around Ryo and continued towards the door.

"You're doing it even now. You haven't said more than two words to me since we got back."

"Oh you're being silly. I've just been extremely busy lately. I mean, there was the Pairing on Thanged, then that horrible, horrible plague…and when I got back home, I found out the girl I'd put in charge of things while I was gone didn't do half of what she was supposed to, so now I'm ten kinds of backed-up at work. I'm sorry Ryo, but I just haven't had the ti-"

"Mia." Mia flinched upon hearing the tone and looked at Ryo, who stared at her with narrowed, sad eyes. "I can tell when someone's not being forward with me."

Mia paused by the lamp table close to the door and placed her fingertips on the wall. No matter how hard she tried, she still found it difficult to look him in the eye without seeing him as that black-skinned flame-haired nightmare… She rubbed the back of her head sheepishly, and her hand unconsciously moved down over her neck. Ryo noticed how she rubbed the area where he'd bitten her, and she noticed that he noticed. The burns had never healed quite right…

Poor Ryo…this is just eating him up inside…I can tell he feels what happened damaged our friendship…and the worst part is, he might be right

Any other person might've used excuses to ease the tension, but Ryo wouldn't. He couldn't. It wasn't so much that the demon had forced him to throw inhibition out the window…but that it allowed him to… "I don't know what else I can say except I'm sorry, Mia," Ryo said softly.

EVERY man has a little darkness in him…

Mia took a deep breath, composing herself. "There really isn't anything you can say, Ryo…it's just something that'll have to fix itself with time…Now, I'm really sorry, but I do need to get going. I'm running late as it is," Mia sighed and shook her head. She reached for her keys resting atop the table, but Ryo snatched them up quickly and walked past her.

"The only way you'll overcome a problem is by facing it head on. Come on, I'll drive you to work," he said and headed out the door. Mia felt slightly exasperated, but she wasn't exactly in a position to argue, seeing as how he had the keys. She shouldered her bag and followed him outside and walked over to the passenger side. Ryo had already seated himself at the steering wheel and buckled himself in while Mia placed her bag into the back seat.

"I didn't think you knew how, considering how you seem to like riding Whiteblaze wherever you go," Mia commented and buckled her seatbelt. Ryo gave a hearty chuckle as he started the ignition. A half-smile tugged at Mia's lips. The sun barely peeked over the horizon, so no one else in the household heard the sound of the car leaving the driveway.

"I said things in a way I didn't want, and I said them before I was ready," Ryo said abruptly.

"I'm sorry, what?" Mia blinked and glanced at him, confused.

"Some of what I said while…while that thing was inside me, I did mean…but not as it-I, said them. This is something that's been bothering me for a lot longer than just this past week. Stuff that's happened recently…it really got me thinking a lot…" Ryo said while glancing from the road ahead to Mia. "Between all the fighting the Ronin Warriors do, I sometimes forget that I'm still a mortal just like you, and I'll die someday. It goes with the territory."

"Wait…what are you trying to say?" Mia frowned, partly worried and partly annoyed.

"That's the problem. I know what I want to say, just not how to say it, and that's the part that's bugging me," Ryo's gaze kept shifting from the road to the rear-view mirror. "Since that first big battle, when you spoke up…helped us all come together…I've respected you a lot…and I think…it's turning…or trying to turn, into something more than just respect."

Mia shifted about in her seat and wrapped her seatbelt around her left arm. She bit her lip and tried to think of the kindest way, yet no matter how she tried to string the words together, she kept thinking about all the close calls and narrow escapes; from the empty streets of the dead city to Talpa's very doorstep. Ryo looked equally torn and opened his mouth to speak.

Things happened so fast, Mia registered the events several heartbeats after they occurred: heartbeats that seemed to last for hours. The car jolted to the right sharply and pitched forward, landing on its side and grinding forward against the pavement. Her arm twined about the seatbelt was the only thing that kept Mia from slipping down, and when she regained focus she found herself hanging sideways with the seatbelt pinching her waist painfully. She looked about the interior groggily and saw the driver's seat empty and the windshield in ruins.

"What…oh…Oh my God! Ryo? Ryo!" Mia wormed her arm out of the seatbelt and fumbled with the clasp. Upon its release, she dropped towards the cracked driver's side window and crawled towards the gaping windshield. Chips of glass popped out of the frame as she brushed against them, and a few stuck into her clothes, poking her skin slightly. She emerged onto the road and pushed herself to hands and knees before standing shakily.

The angle of the crash had caused Ryo to slip out of his seatbelt, and had thrown him through the windshield to land several feet infront of the wreck. He now lay on his left side with his back facing Mia. "Oh my God! Ryo! Ryo!" Mia ran over to him and gingerly placed a hand on his shoulder. He stirred and groaned softly, trying to roll onto his right and sit up on the road.

"Uuugh…what happened?" he squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his head.

"Ryo, you have to stay still! You can't move!" Mia exclaimed, sounding frantic.

"I'll be fine…I've been through worse…" Ryo assured weakly and tried to stand, but Mia grabbed him by the shoulder and held him fast.

"RYO! I'm serious! You can't move!" Mia shouted, almost on the verge of tears.

"Mia, what's wrong?" Ryo frowned, surprised by her frantic tone.

"Ryo…you can't feel that?!" Mia stared at him, bewildered. Ryo blinked several times until he noticed how Mia's gaze kept jumping from his eyes to his chest. He looked down slowly.

A windshield wiper blade protruded halfway out of his chest. "…Whoa…" Ryo's eyes widened and he blinked again in disbelief. "Um…I'm screwed aren't I?" he asked weakly and looked back at her. Mia shucked her blazer and tore the sleeves off and into smaller strips.

"I don't think it hit anything vital, otherwise you'd already be dead. No!" Mia swatted Ryo's hand away when he reached up as if to try and pull the wiper blade out. "It's containing the bleeding for now. We need to just sit tight and flag down the next car we see, get you to the hospital ASAP…" Mia muttered and began looping the strips around Ryo's shoulder and chest, placing them alongside the blade in an effort to keep it stable. "Where's my phone…" Mia glanced over her shoulder at the wreck. She'd remembered she kept it in her bag and moved to fetch it, but paused when she saw its crushed remains poking out from under the frame.

"We can't wait for help. We need to get out of here fast."

"No, we're going to stay put until-" Mia frowned when she saw Ryo point at something behind her. She looked over her shoulder again and moved her gaze up, past the car frame. A black shaft connected to a wicked curved blade protruded from the rear-left wheel well.

"Huhh…it…it hurts to breathe deep," Ryo complained and held his index and middle finger close to his mouth, trying to whistle.

"Then don't. Can you stand?" Mia grabbed his left wrist and draped his arm over her shoulder. Ryo braced his right palm against the pavement and rose to his knees.

"This thing's sticking out of my chest. My legs work just fine," he half-grumbled and stood shakily. Mia glanced over her shoulder, alarmed when she heard distant coarse growls.

"Hurry…into the woods! If we lose them in there, we can reach the highway," she whispered and the two trudged off the road into the dense growth.

On a grassy ledge overlooking the road, two heavily armored figures observed the two flee. "A worthy throw! It would seem the Ronin Leader has been grievously wounded. He will not be able to summon his armor in his state," a Dynasty Soldier turned to face its' companion. Smoke erupted into the air as the soldier's body collapsed into a pile of pieces. The other soldier recoiled in shock and brought its' weapon about in an effort to defend against the unseen assailant. It gagged and its' body shuddered before suffering the same fate as its partner.

A jagged curved blade attached to a long black shaft dug into the grass deeply. "You've got a head start. Use it well," a coarse voice whispered. A slight breeze sent deep red hair brushing against burgundy leather and blades of grass left glistening dew on black leather boots.

Kento slowly slid into a chair at the dining table opposite of Sage, who quietly ate breakfast. "Even I'm having trouble keeping high spirits," Kento muttered.

"We went to Thanged for a wedding and almost came back from several thousand funerals," Sage commented solemnly. Cye and Rowen came downstairs to join the two.

"Where's Ryo today? Usually he's out and about at this time," Cye asked.

"He might be out back practicing. He's been pretty rattled since we got back," Rowen said. Just then the kitchen phone rang and Sage stood up to go answer, leaving the others to eat quietly. Tanya had yet to show herself that morning, and Whiteblaze remained curled on his mat.

"What?!" The others looked up when they heard Sage's exclamation. "Okay…I'll make sure to let her know…if I see her…Goodbye." He hung up the phone and stepped back into the room.

"What was that all about?" Rowen raised an eyebrow when he saw Sage's expression.

"That was the university…Mia never showed up to work," Sage replied slowly.

"Guys," a hoarse voice spoke from the second floor. They looked up to see Tanya clutching the rail, knuckles white. "All of a sudden I'm getting a really sick feeling about Ryo!"

"If I could just…get this thing out, I could armor up and port us both to safety…" Ryo reached for the wiper blade again as he sat next to a tree, but Mia promptly grabbed his wrist.

"Just because it didn't hit anything going in doesn't mean it won't coming out. Injuries like this must be handled very delicately. I can't hear anyone following us, so I think we've lost them for now. We can at least let you rest a few minutes…Ryo?" Mia frowned when she saw his eyes closed. "Ryo? Ryo! You have to stay awake! Ryo! RYO!" Mia slapped him across the face.

"OW! Easy, Mia! I'm dying as it is," Ryo whined and rubbed his cheek.

"Not yet you're not, and I don't intend on letting you. I need you to stay awake until we get you to safety. Keep talking to me," Mia insisted.

"I've never been one for lengthy conversation," Ryo whispered and tried to doze off again, but Mia cuffed him upside the head. Ryo winced and relented then tried to relax against the tree.

"Tell me…tell me…" Mia bit her lip, trying to think of a suitable subject. "Tell me about the first time you got your armor." Ryo blinked several times and drew one leg close to his chest.

"Wow…I can't even remember the last time I've told anyone that story…"

"Have you ever?"

"Hnn…good point…well…it happened long before the First War…I was living by myself at the time, and I only really had Whiteblaze to keep me company…"

Fire crackled throughout the forest in all directions. Weakened branches snapped off and dropped to the ground, sending showers of embers to spread the fire even further. "Keep it going boys! It can't stay hidden forever!" a burly hunter crowed.

"We'll make so much off the black market, we'll be set for life!" a skinny hunter gloated.

"Assuming we get the thing intact. You know the fur fetches the highest price," an older hunter argued and continued fanning the flames.

"NO! STOP! STOP! WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING?!" a young voice cried out.

"What in the-"

"It's just that crazy Sanada kid. Don't pay him any mind."

"How could you people DO something like this?! Don't you have any idea of the damage you're causing!" a young man with long black hair and intense blue eyes ran up to the larger hunter and tried to wrench the rifle out of the older man's grasp.

"Beat it kid. This ain't none of your concern," the hunter shoved the boy back, knocking him to the ground. The boy tried to scramble back to his feet but tensed when the two other hunters took aim at him. "Run back home to your daddy- oh wait, he's not even in the damn country, is he?" All three hunters broke out guffawing. The boy growled angrily before turning around and running away into the burning forest, calling desperately for someone named "Whiteblaze".

"Let him go. I doubt the dad'll even care if anything happens," the skinny hunter sniggered.

"Whiteblaze! Whiteblaze!" the boy cried and peeled off his blue-and-gray sweater and futilely tried to swat the flames into submission. The fire roared louder and smoke billowed into the air. The boy ducked down and coughed, covering his mouth with one hand briefly before redoubling his efforts. His own safety didn't matter to him, his concern lie elsewhere. "Whiteblaze!" he cried again, tears mingling with sweat from the intense heat.

Fire sprang onto the cloth of the sweater, and he quickly stamped it out before lashing at a burning stump. Every time the fire crept back slightly, it leapt forward twice as much. "WHITEBLAZE!" the boy wailed as he continued his battle against the wildfire. Before he realized it, the fire had him surrounded on all aides. He tried to shield himself with the remains of his sweater and barrel through the blaze, but the fire roared up, driving him backwards.

"…what?" The boy blinked in surprise when he realized the fire licked at his skin without causing it to blister in the slightest bit. He froze, both bewildered and horrified at the sight of the flames wrapping around his body. The heat no longer felt smothering…it felt…soothing.

The three hunters remained in their clearing, laughing and drinking beers as they waited for the fire to exhaust itself. They gasped and looked up when all of a sudden the flames began surging towards a single point in the distance, forsaking the fuel they'd fed upon so richly. Embers still smoldered in the cavities of gutted trunks, but the fire seemingly condensed into a humanoid form before subsiding entirely.

The dispersing flames revealed the young Sanada boy clad in a strange form-fitting suit of white armor with red plates reinforcing the chest, waist, forearms, and shins. He held both arms infront of his face as if to protect himself, but lowered them when he no longer heard the crackling roar of the wildfire. He looked around at the blackened remains of the forest then reached up with a hand to pat his chest, but paused and stared at his hand, bewildered upon seeing the shining white metal. He twitched his fingers, uncertain whether they were actually his, and the armored fingers responded to his commands. The metal fit over his body so closely, like a second skin, yet it felt quite mobile and comfortable.

"WHAT IN THE HELL-WHAT KIND OF FREAK IS THAT?!" the skinny hunter shrieked and took aim. The boy gasped and shielded his face with his arms once more as the hunters opened fire. Buckshot struck the reinforced red armguards and glanced off uselessly.

"THAT'S ENOUGH!" Righteous fury erupted within the boy and he crouched and sprang forward powerfully, closing the distance between him and the hunters so quickly, he appeared to almost glide. He drove his armored elbow into the stomach of the burly hunter, sending a man easily twice his weight and age tumbling back in a daze. Almost in the same instant, the boy pivoted on his heel and landed a terrific kick upside the head of the skinny hunter.

The elderly hunter fumbled with his rifle, but the boy snatched it out of his grasp with ease and just as quickly cracked it in half over his knee. The hunter stumbled onto his backside and stared up at the armored boy, utterly terrified. The boy threw the busted halves of the weapon to the ground in disgust and sneered down at the hunter. "No more," he growled.

The other two hunters began to recover, and despite the stunning retaliation, looked unwilling to back down just then. The boy tensed and readied himself, and the hunters saw a curious glowing red mark appear on the boy's forehead. All four of them looked to the side when they heard the crunch of charred branches and heard low growling.

The hunters' elusive quarry now stood close by and lashed its' striped tail. Without their precious guns, they would fare poorly against a large white tiger. The boy smiled, relieved at the sight of the majestic beast, and the hunters cowered pitifully. The tiger snarled menacingly, baring its' teeth before letting loose a powerful roar. The hunters squealed like frightened children and pelted out of the scorched forest quicker than the flames had retreated.

"Whiteblaze! I'm so glad you're safe!" the boy walked over to the tiger and wrapped his arms around the thick neck. The tiger purred and nuzzled the boy. "You don't seem that surprised about this stuff…you know what this is, don't you?" Whiteblaze stuck his nose under the boy's extended palm and licked the metal. "That's why I received this power…to protect the innocent-like you…" the boy muttered and rubbed Whiteblaze's ears. The two gazed at the horizon through the flame-stripped trees and spotted in the distance the skyline of a city.

"I know my duty now…"

"I never thought that less than a year after that day that I'd find myself facing down legions of bad guys and risking my life for the fate of the world."

"I can't think of it as a coincidence, but my Grandfather really started digging into his research about a year before the First War started. I wonder if he somehow sensed your powers awaken. He seemed to recognize you when he saw you on the news that first time…" Mia mused. The both of them looked up when they heard twigs crunching in the distance. "We need to get moving. Here, lean on me," she insisted and helped Ryo to his feet. He wheezed slightly but managed to shuffle along beside Mia. They exited the forest and came upon the highway shoulder. Mia sighed in relief and glanced to either side.

"Hey! HEY!" she yelled and waved at an approaching vehicle. The car slowed down and looked ready to pull over and assist the two.

A spear struck the car's fuel tank, causing it to explode immediately. Mia recoiled from the force of the blast, and Ryo almost fell down, but Mia kept a tight grip on him, not wanting him to land on his stomach. Through the flames, she spotted several bulky figures stalking towards them. She glanced around frantically, trying to spot an escape route. She spotted a guard rail overlooking a drain channel and hauled Ryo towards it. The two of them crouched down and braced their feet along the steep slope then inched over the edge, sliding ever so carefully and struggling to keep from tumbling quickly. The heels cracked off of Mia's shoes and landed in a puddle. Mia glanced at Ryo when she heard his labored breathing.

"Stay with me, Ryo! We have to keep moving! Remember those things you wanted to do? You have to live long enough to see them done! You've been through worse. We've been through worse. Remember…remember when we searched for Rowen?"

"I don't think insurance covers this," Rowen commented and pulled a Dynasty spear out from the upended wreck. "This explains why Mia never arrived."

"The ol' car's definitely seen better days," Kento grunted and righted the vehicle.

"But why didn't they call if they were attacked? Mia carries a phone with her, right?" Cye asked and glanced around the road. Sage looked down at the pavement and crouched.

"She had a phone," he muttered and fingered the shattered remnants of circuit boards and plastic that had been pinned under the frame. "Any luck finding Ryo?" he asked Tanya.

"No…I can't get a fix on him, and the only reason that'd happen is if he weren't wearing armor…Rowen, what about you?" Tanya lowered her dagger and glanced at him.

"Nothing, and I've been trying since we got here," Rowen shook his head, blinking as the glow in his eyes faded. "Whiteblaze, you know Ryo's scent. See if you can find him. I'll search from the sky," he said and rose into the air slowly. Whiteblaze lashed his tail and bounded into the forest, with Rowen following high above.

"If it was the Dynasty that attacked them, why wouldn't Ryo use armor? Or you suppose he did and already took Mia to safety?" Cye wondered aloud.

"They would've called if that were the case," Kento argued. Sage thumbed his chin and continued examining the scene. He glanced from fragments of glass scattered over the pavement to the shattered windshield. Just then he noticed one of the wiper blades missing…

The fire still crackled in the circle of stones. Sage and Cye had already retired to their sleeping bags, and Kento-after much grumbling and fussing-finally settled in to sleep. Little Yulie had dozed off leaning against the great Whiteblaze and held a thin blanket around his shoulders. Mia glanced about the beach and leaned down to prepare her own bag, but paused when she spotted Ryo still awake. He sat close to the campfire and stared at it intently, as if somehow communing with his element. Mia walked over and sat down opposite of him.

"The decision's already been made. You really should get some sleep and try to build your strength for tomorrow. I can't imagine the Dynasty would let us rescue Rowen so easily," Mia said softly. Ryo said nothing and kept his gaze on the flames. Reflections flickered in his wild blue eyes. "I know how much you want to fight, but we can't go rushing headlong into a fight without proper preparation. I mean, as relieved as I am now that four of you are together…I really can't afford the gas to go chasing you all down again, now can I?" Mia chuckled.

Ryo rarely if ever looked relieved or joyous. More often than not, he seemed to look pensive, or even angry. Mia frowned, feeling slightly uneasy. His eyes reminded her somewhat of his companion tiger, yet even Whiteblaze's eyes looked friendlier most of the time. "You don't like talking to women, do you?" Mia asked cautiously and grimaced.

"Huh? Oh! No! It's not that, I just-um…sorry, I just keep thinking…" Ryo stammered and drew his knees up towards his chest, his cheeks turning as red as his armor. He averted his gaze and ran his fingers through his thick black hair. "I'm not sure what to think, actually. I'm not…I mean-I never thought you'd stay with us through all that's happened, to be honest," he remarked.

"I have every reason to help you, you know that."

"Yeah…it kinda makes me wonder…where would we be if it weren't for you and Yulie?"

"Well I imagine face-down in a pool of magma," Mia giggled, eliciting a chuckle from Ryo.

"Sage told me about what happened up north. I thought after going through something like that you'd hang up the towel and go somewhere else."

"I'm just the kind of person who can see the bigger picture. I don't worry about my own safety because I can't. I know there's more at stake here than just getting accosted by Dynasty goons on what's slowly turning into a daily basis. I owe it to all those people Talpa captured."

"You know…you may not be the one wearing armor, but you're sort of like me. You're a different kind of warrior fighting different kind of battle…" Ryo commented softly.

Mia regarded the young man and smiled. He looked so young…he should be in school now, yet here he was grappling with demon generals and unforgiving elements. The two stared at each other over the ebbing flames of the campfire. Mia felt herself blush and pushed her hair behind her shoulder. "Get some sleep. We'll all need our strength, for whatever battles we'll face."

"Sure thing," Ryo nodded and scooted over to his own sleeping bag. Mia waited until she saw him doze off before settling into sleep herself. The only sounds she heard came from the distant sliding surf and crackling of the fire, both of which lulled her into a deep sleep.

"When I…was a kid…I had a dream about going into space…though it involved something less painful than riding an energy ball…" Ryo croaked.

"You must've had a lot of dreams when you were little…did they involve anything you've witnessed as an adult?" Mia asked as they hobbled along the bottom of the drain channel.

"Not even close," Ryo chuckled before grimacing and reaching up to his chest. Mia glanced at him worriedly and threw a glance over her shoulder. Either they'd lost their pursuers or they were being hunted slowly, for sport. Mia looked back at Ryo when she felt him falter.

"Ryo? Ryo, come on. We have to keep going," she insisted and tugged at him.

"I'm trying to-but my legs…they…they don't wanna…move…" Ryo whispered and sagged onto his knees. Mia knelt beside him and held him steady.

"It's your body…you're going into shock. Ryo, please, you can't give up now. City limit's not that far away. Don't let that fire burn out just yet…Ryo? RYO!" Mia cried to no avail: He'd passed out. She rubbed her hand across her forehead and looked around. She reached down and clasped his hand between hers, tears slowly seeping from the corners of her eyes.

She blinked them away when she noticed the AnimArmor ring. "Of course! Hey! You in there! Um…Lyor! Listen, I need you to come out! Ryo's been seriously injured, and he-hey, can you hear me?" Mia grabbed Ryo's wrist and held his hand close to her mouth. The gold and onyx insignia remained inert. "Come on, answer me you stupid lion-gyaagh!" Mia stumbled back when crimson light erupted from the ring and spilled onto the ground nearby. The light solidified into a powerful feline form with a thick mane. African Wildfire bared his teeth and swished his tail.

"Oh thank goodness! Sorry about calling you stupid, but this is kind of an emergency-no! You can't carry him," Mia stated when Lyor hummed and leaned down to nudge Ryo. "He's badly injured and he needs medical attention. I think we're being followed. I need you to go get help, see if you can't find Sage, or Shannon, or even Dr. O'Connor-wait…what are you doing?"

Mia could only watch as Lyor opened his mouth wide. Fire swirled between his teeth and erupted into a thin beam that struck Ryo's chest. Ryo promptly awoke screaming in agony as the fire burned away the cloth surrounding the wiper blade and began scorching his flesh. Mia could only sit back and watched, awed and horrified at the sight, and somewhat impressed at how precisely the Incarnation controlled his power. Lyor finished and closed his mouth then turned and bounded away, presumably to go find help.

"I…I don't believe it…he-he cauterized the wound!" Mia remarked in amazement.

"Oh! Really! Wow…is that what he did?! Okay! I thought he was…trying to barbecue my heart in my chest!" Ryo gasped and blinked several times. His chest heaved with deep breaths and steam rose from where the wiper blade still stuck into his flesh.

"He's bought you a little more time. Your condition should be stable for now." Mia reached over and undid the remains of the bandages. She began tying the ends together to make new bandages to redress the wound and tore strips off the bottom of her blouse to compensate.

"Yikes, was he aiming for medium rare or well done in there?!" Ryo croaked and gulped. Mia secured the new dressings and helped Ryo back to his feet.

"Come on. We have to keep moving in case the enemy spotted Lyor leaving," Mia whispered and the two set off once more.

"They move quite swiftly considering the Ronin Leader's current condition," a Dynasty Soldier commented as it and five other soldiers followed a much slimmer-looking armored warrior. It wore lighter armor and a dusty cloth veil over most of its' face. Two short blades rest in scabbards hanging from the belt and a third longer sword rest in a scabbard on the back.

"If those two imbeciles from the bluff had finished the job properly, we would not have to waste precious time hunting them. Although, I suppose a quick kill would deprive us of the satisfaction so richly deserved. They passed this way recently…this came from the mortal woman," the thin warrior reached down and picked up a broken piece of a woman's shoe.

"We must find the Ronin Leader and put an end to his life with all haste, if we are to prove our worth to the Emperor," a second soldier rumbled.

"I thought you rank-and-file types would enjoy having your powers enhanced," the thin warrior sniffed and narrowed white eyes with pinpoint pupils behind a low-hanging visor.

"It is insulting enough to be deemed 'obsolete', but for Lord Tchnetun to have Khamnes placed as a general above Duratir and Duratin is galling in every sense of the word!"

"Well, I do not feel threatened in the slightest bit, as we Trackers never outlive our purpose."

"Your kind are nothing but cowards who relegate yourselves to scouting and assassination."

"And yet, upon whose expertise are you relying upon for this mission, hmm?"

"We are the true Hand of the Emperor, for we can never truly die!"

"Unlike Gash…" a third soldier snorted.

"He let himself get distracted. If he had done his job properly, not even Anubis would have survived, but I digress…Their pace is slowing, the Ronin Leader continues to weaken."

"Quiet! Look!" a soldier pointed up at the guard rail where he spotted a reddish blur bounding along the highway. Lyor glanced down at the soldiers but maintained his course.

"Wildfire's spirit-beast! You suppose it killed the others on the bluff?"

"No. Their wounds were caused by blade, not claw. Wildfire must have dispatched it to seek help. Two of you, follow it, but maintain distance. Do not let yourselves be detected. The rest of you, follow me. At long last, the life of Ryo of the Wildfire shall be extinguished…"

"Save yourself…"

"What?" Mia glanced down at Ryo. "How could you say such a thing? Ryo, we're just a few blocks away from the city proper. You can't give up when we're this close!"

"Your life…is more important…"

"Don't be silly. Isn't there that big prophecy on Thanged? That you have to fight in the end times or something?" Mia huffed and readjusted his arm across her shoulder.

"It says the Ronin Warriors will fight…not me exactly …"

"But-but-you don't have an heir! Didn't Tanya say something about Armors needing heirs?"

"The Armors can choose on their own…they can seek out…people with the proper spirits…just, leave me here," Ryo tried to slip out of Mia's grasp and sit down on the ground.

"Ryo! No, I am not going to leave you! You hear me?! I won't let you die!"

"Mia…I know I'm going to die. I…knew the job was dangerous when I took it…" Ryo smiled weakly then closed his eyes. Mia frowned and leaned down and pressed his shoulder.

"Ryo? Ryo! Ryo!" She tried slapping him across the face, but he'd passed out again. Tears burned behind Mia's eyelids as she tried to keep her emotions in check. She wiped her eyes clear and scowled angrily. "You might be ready to give up, but I'm not! I didn't all those times during the Wars, I won't now!" She stooped down and tried to get Ryo to his feet again, but even if she could lift him, his feet would still drag and slow their pace.

Mia glanced around desperately, hoping she could spot someone taking a walk or casual drive nearby she could flag down. No such luck graced her, however. She looked down at Ryo again then set her jaw before crouching down next to him. She slipped her left arm under his knees and her right under his back then took several deep breaths in preparation.

Mia grunted from the unprecedented effort and shakily-yet slowly-lifted Ryo off the ground. Her knees wobbled slightly but held strong. Come on Mia…he can't possibly be any heavier than a filing cabinet…and goodness knows you lifted plenty of those back in the day… Mia took one step after another and continued forward, finding it easy to build up a steady pace as long as she focused on the distance ahead rather than her precious burden.

I sometimes forget he's a person too…he can feel joy and pain just the same as anyone else… Just like…that one time… Mia remembered the visit almost a full year after the incident in Africa. Ryo alone had decided to remain behind rather than return to Japan with the others. He'd refused any cash for the journey, and said a solemn goodbye to the others, wishing them well on their new lives. Mia worried for him, but trusted in his ability to survive on his own…

Mia finished setting out plates and cups on the dining table for two. She glanced around wistfully. The estate seemed so…quietdead without anyone else. With the world safe from peril and the others gone their separate ways…she found she missed them dearly.

Mia jumped when she heard the doorbell and walked over swiftly to greet her visitor. "Ryo! Oh I'm so glad to see you!" Mia hugged him warmly, and he loosely returned the gesture, mumbling a greeting softly. "I got your call, and I honestly couldn't believe it was really you, it's been so long! Come on in, I just fixed some tea," Mia beckoned inside. Ryo-looking much weathered and older than she'd remembered- stepped inside almost cautiously and set a heavily-laden backpack on the floor. Mia noticed how he wore plain clothes, rather than his usual youthful, bold style. She went to the kitchen to fetch the teapot and carried it back to the dining room. She found Ryo seated at the table and hunched over slightly.

"So how did your visit go? Did you two get to catch up on everything you missed?" No answer. Mia finished pouring tea and set the pot down then glanced at Ryo. She frowned in concern when she saw his face…an expression she couldn't quite describe: immeasurable grief and sorrow barely held in check. Ryo set his arms atop the table and clasped his hands.

"Ryo…what…what happened?" Mia asked shakily and walked over to the seat beside him.

"I couldn't-I couldn't…" Ryo whispered. His knuckles went white and he wrung his fingers.

"Couldn't what? Ryo?-oh…oh no…oh nooo…" Mia sighed in dismay and sank into her chair.

"They just…came out of nowhere…we were-and they-they went straight for him! And there was nothing I could do! I couldn't do anything! I tried! I wanted to! But I couldn't!" Ryo burst out weeping and sank forward against the table. Mia placed one arm around his shoulders and drew him close, patting him on the back gently. "Now I have no family left," he sobbed.

"No…no, Ryo, that's not true…" Mia whispered and comforted him as he cried the hardest she'd ever seen from him. He buried his face against her chest and she stroked his hair. "As long as you have your friends…as long as you have me…you'll always have a family."

"I see the trail of the woman, but not Wildfire," a Dynasty Soldier grumbled and glanced around the muddy expanse where the channel sloped up towards the street level.

"Perhaps she secreted him away somewhere nearby and left to seek aid?"

"Fan out and search the area! Check every possible shelter!"

"No, wait!" the Tracker raised one hand and crouched down beside a set of small footprints. "Look at the depth and angle of the impressions…" it pointed at the impressions then looked up at the slope. "She carries his weight...Onward. We are gaining on them!"

"Ooogfh…whew…okay…just a short break…" Mia panted after setting Ryo down against a support pillar for an overpass. She braced her hands against her knees and leaned forward.

"Mia…?" Ryo mumbled and slowly opened his eyes. "What…what…what are you still doing here? Wait…where are we?" Ryo blinked a few times as he surveyed the surroundings.

"We're just inside city limits. We're almost to safety. I told you that, right? Didn't I tell you not to give up?" Mia chuckled and brushed her hair behind her shoulders.

"Wow…I'm…really impressed… that you managed…to haul my heavy ass so far…"

"Oh please…you're not nearly as heavy as Kento…he'd probably be at the great big diner in the sky if he were in your position." The both of them laughed at the notion, but Ryo stopped quickly and winced in pain. Mia leaned down to check his bandages once more.

She glanced to the side when she spotted something in the shadow of the pillar. She gasped and stumbled back when it looked as if the shadow itself peeled away from the concrete in a large bulge. Two large paws set down on the ground, followed by two more. The darkness receded and revealed a feline form black as pitch clad in ornate steel armor.

"Blackblaze! Oh! Oh, I never thought there'd be a day I'd be glad to see you!" Mia lunged forward and hugged the Nether Tiger around the neck briefly before pulling away, noticing how the tiger looked almost embarrassed by the display. She looked to the side when she spotted a large white black-striped form bounding towards them. "Whiteblaze! Oh thank goodness! You're both here! Are the others right behind you? Ryo needs to go the hospital right away, he-"

Mia frowned when the two tigers turned away from her and seemed to look into the distance. Her heart sank when she heard slow heavy footsteps, and she realized they hadn't come in time to rescue them: they'd come in time to defend.

Six Dynasty Soldiers and a lightly-armored warrior approached steadily. Whiteblaze pulled a Soul Sword from Blackblaze's back and held it ready, while Blackblaze drew the remaining sword and held it tight in his jaws. The Dynasty Soldiers lunged, weapons raised. Blackblaze pounced and cut down one with little effort, but the second managed to parry the initial strike. Whiteblaze crushed another to the pavement under his weight then hurled his body to the side, catching another in the chest and sending it crashing against a support pillar.

"Amateurs…" the thin warrior sneered and turned to face Ryo, who sat slumped against the pillar helplessly. "Die Wildfire!" it lunged and brandished two daggers. Blackblaze intervened and crossed blades with the Tracker. "Blackblaze, you traitorous mangy fleabag! You have no true loyalties to the Ronin, so why protect him?" Blackblaze seemed to have trouble standing his ground, despite the warrior's small size. "You do not answer? Why not transform into your 'other' form then? Hurk!" The Tracker croaked and collapsed: cut in half by Whiteblaze. Instead of smoke, black liquid pooled around the body.

One soldier remained and Whiteblaze whirled around to dispatch of it. The soldier twirled its' spear and swung down with the butt of the shaft. The metal struck Whiteblaze in the side of the jaw, knocking both the sword out of his mouth and himself unconscious. Mia gasped when she saw Blackblaze pitch to the side and collapse, suffering from the echoed blow. The last soldier stared down at the fallen tigers briefly before returning its' attention to Ryo.

Mia stood up and ran forward then stopped and spread her arms wide. "No! You have to go through me if you want him! I won't let you-aah!" Mia yelped when the soldier effortlessly swatted her to the side. She landed near one of the fallen soldier's weapons; a kusari-gama.

"At long last, will Ryo of the Wildfire meet his end, and thus will we prove our worth to Master Talpa," the soldier proclaimed and raised its' spear. Ryo closed his eyes, resigning himself.

Mia wrapped her fingers around the handle of the sickle and rose to her feet. Her arms felt like they almost popped out of their sockets. How the heck does Anubis lift this thing! Mia saw the soldier preparing to strike and felt the strength of rage and grief fill her body. With tremendous effort, she lifted the weapon off the ground and charged forward. If she could just strike the soldier in the back, while it focused on Ryo. All it would take would be a small cut…

The soldier lashed backwards with the butt of its' spear and sent Mia flying. The kusari-gama dropped to the ground with a loud clank. Mia pushed herself onto her right elbow and looked up as the soldier stepped towards her.

"I know of you, mortal woman. You have made much effort to gain the attention of the Dynasty. Now you have it, and you shall die for it!" The soldier raised its spear and prepared to impale Mia. "No longer will you be a nuisance to the Dynasty-uuhnn!" the soldier grunted in shock when something thin and black pierced its' visor from the back of its' helmet and exited through the eyes. The soldier sank down, twitching slightly before falling still completely.

Mia sat there on the pavement, stunned, shocked, and bewildered that she remained alive. Any bit of relief she might have felt quickly evaporated when she recognized the thin piece of metal that poked through the fallen soldier's head. She looked up shakily and saw Ryo standing behind the remains, a hand clutched over his chest. He panted heavily and looked weary.

"Ryo…what have you done? What-what have you done?" Mia stammered and stood up slowly. Ryo's eyelids drooped shut half-way and his free arm hung limply.

"I'm…I'm sorry Mia…I…I couldn't let him…kill…you…" Mia's eyes widened when she saw bright red liquid seeping through Ryo's fingers and spreading into the cloth of his shirt and the tattered bandages. She lunged forward and caught him by the shoulders and eased him onto his back on the pavement. Ryo coughed a dry cough at first, and then began gurgling.

"RYO! RYO! NO! RYO! HOW COULD YOU!? HOW COULD YOU!? WHY WOULD YOU DO SUCH A THING! RYO!? WHY!" Mia pressed both hands against the hole.

"You're-*ghk* too…too important to me *hghk* to let you…die…" Ryo whispered.



"SAGE?! SAAAAAGE! HERE! WE'RE OVER HERE!" Mia screamed at the top of her lungs. Sage ran over to them and knelt on the opposite side, followed shortly after by Rowen and Lyor. "HE'S BLEEDING O-O-OU-UT!" Mia removed her hands and held them close to her mouth, sobbing uncontrollably. Sage placed his hands over the bleeding hole and closed his eyes.

"I…I can stabilize the wound, but he'll still need to go to the hospital. Ryo? Can you hear me? We're here with you! Don't you go, don't you dare go! Not yet! NOT YET!"

"RYOOO! RYOOO!" Mia screamed and screamed and sagged sideways. Lyor offered his shoulder to her while Sage and Rowen placed their hands on Ryo's shoulders and arms, preparing to teleport. Ryo himself looked entirely peaceful and still….

He shuffled through the fog-shrouded graveyard and kept his gaze downward. There's gotta be a spare spot somewhere here…for me… he thought to himself as he continued walking. He glanced up and spotted a clean white marble slab engraved with his name.

"Sorry oldtimer. I can't let you go any further." A pair of legs blocked his view and he stopped, confused. Ryo blinked, staring at the worn jeans before looking up at the lanky figure.

He looked to be in his late-teens and wore a bright red shirt and a white windbreaker with blue-and-gold striping on the forearms and cuffs. Long shaggy auburn hair hung down the boy's neck and back and thick bangs curled over sparkling green eyes. The boy raised his arms and placed his palms on the back of his head, smiling cheerfully. Something about the way the eyebrows forked at the ends and the thin sideburns curled seemed eerily familiar…

"…Who are you calling 'old'?" Ryo demanded, annoyed.

"Umm…you? Unless there's someone else in this spooky-surreal-graveyard setting…" the boy frowned and turned from side to side before glancing back at Ryo. "Isn't that what I'm supposed to do? The whole 'respect your elders' shtick they beat you over the head with?"

"…Who are you?" Ryo scowled and shook his head.

"Me? I'm no one. I don't exist..." the boy shrugged before turning his lips up in a wry smirk. "Yet. But I'm not gonna if I let you pass. Now…I have to wonder…are you merely talking to a figment of your subconscious brought on by the onset of shock, or is your near-death experience affording you a rare glimpse of the future?" The boy lowered his arms and pointed at Ryo with both index fingers then averted his gaze and glanced from side to side. "…that's trippy…"

"Uhnn…" Ryo grimaced and held a hand over his chest. He pulled it away and saw his palm stained with blood from a wound that hadn't been there before.

"Oh good. There's life in the old ticker yet. Turn back around and go back to where you came from, pops. They're worried about you. You can hear them, can't you?"


"Mia…I…I can hear her…and the others…" Ryo looked over his shoulder then back at the boy. Blinding white light appeared behind him and all but drowned out his smiling face.

"Go back. I'll see you on the other side…eventually…" The light consumed the landscape.

Charles O'Connor jogged along the crowded hallway of the OR wing. He narrowly dodged crashing into a nurse by pressing his hand against the wall and pushing himself to the opposite side, but maintained his speed. He skidded to a stop and walked swiftly alongside an incoming patient. "Ryo? Ryo, can you hear me?" He fished a penlight out of his breast pocket and clicked it on, shining it into the half-lidded blue eyes.

"Hey, get that thing out of my face!" Ryo grumbled from under the oxygen mask.

"He'll be fine. Get him prepped for OR right away, I'll be there shortly."

"OR? Wait, what? Mia? Mia? Where are you? What's going on? Mia?" Ryo asked nervously and tried to tilt his head up and look down the hall where he caught a glimpse of Mia as she stopped following him and stood in the hall watching him move away. Charles pressed him back down and Ryo saw a set of double doors creak open then swing shut.

Mia staggered back and almost fell over until Sage caught her by the shoulders and steadied her. She turned around and buried her face against his chest. "There's nothing else we can do at this point. It's up to Ryo now," Sage whispered and stroked her hair. Mia nodded shakily and wiped her nose against the remains of her blouse. "We can't wait in here. Come on…the waiting room's this way…" Sage gently guided her out of the hallway. No matter how comforting he tried to sound, nothing he said eased her shuddering.

Sage had left to go fetch some snacks for her, leaving Mia hunched over in her seat with her knuckles pressed against her forehead in a fervent prayer. Her gaze snapped up when she heard the creaking of the double doors and saw Charles enter the room. Her stomach turned at the sight of his bloodied scrubs as he peeled them off and quickly discarded them in a nearby waste bin. She staggered out of her seat and waited anxiously as he approached.

"I can count on one hand the amount of people I've seen suffer such severe injury to the chest cavity. Ryo makes it two hands…" Charles remarked with a sigh and placed his hands on his hips. Mia gulped any comments down and waited patiently as he prepared to speak again. "When the blade went in," he placed a fingertip on his chest. "It lodged itself between his heart and his right lung, but when he yanked it out," he made a pulling gesture. "It cut into the right atrium." Mia clamped both hands over her mouth and pressed her fingertips into her cheeks. "If Sage hadn't arrived when he did…" Charles trailed off and let his arm hang at his side.

"C-can…can I s-see him?" Mia whispered and looked up shakily. Charles grimaced.

"If you want, for morale support, go on right ahead. Can't guarantee he'll be responsive, though. One of those seeds Shannon planted matured enough to brew a batch of that tea, so I got him set up on a drip of the stuff. He should be ready to go in a couple days or so. Mia…he came close…he came really close…" Charles whispered and stepped to the side to let her pass. Mia thanked him softly and followed his directions to the recovery ward.

He looked as if he slept quite soundly with the monitoring equipment beeping steadily and the bright green fluid in the IV bag seeping into his body. Bandages and gauze covered his chest. Mia stood by the door frame and watched him quietly. She sagged against the frame, feeling utterly exhausted with relief at the end of what had undoubtedly been a most harrowing day. She opened her mouth to speak but hesitated and closed it, turning to leave him in peace.

"…Mia…?" She whirled around when she heard a faint voice and saw him with his eyes open. He grunted softly as he tried to sit up in the bed.

"No! Ryo, no, you NEED to stay in bed this time. You have no idea how big of a bullet you dodged," Mia scolded and rushed over to his bedside to keep him from clambering out, as he seemed intent on doing. Ryo wheezed again and wormed his arm from under the covers.

"I have to say this…" he whispered and grimaced.

"It can wait. You need to rest. You'll be up and about in no time. Doc said he's got you on a Richtho drip. No, Ryo, get back down. You're-" Mia hissed, exasperated.

"MIA PLEASE!" Ryo shouted and grabbed her by the wrist with a startlingly powerful grip. Mia froze and looked into his eyes, which looked fierce at first before softening. Ryo nodded towards a chair, which Mia grabbed with her free hand and pulled towards the bedside. "I have to say this, now! And I want it to come from me! Not the meds. Not some demon…" Ryo waited for her to seat herself and gently clasped her hand between his own.

"When…when I came back, all those years ago…I really found it hard to keep going…to keep fighting…not just evil, but life itself. I thought…that I had no purpose to fight…but then…after everything…I remembered…I always have a purpose." Ryo's gaze looked distant before focusing back on Mia and he took several more deep breaths.

"The plague…reminded me how…how precious life is…We came so close to losing so many of our friends…But, having someone close…someone to share all those feelings with…makes our time living so much more special. It seems like…everyone's found that special somebody that gives them purpose…someone they can be happy and sad with…until the end of all things…

"Rowen has Roxi, Sage has Shannon, Cye has Brianna...Anubis has Michelle…heck, even someone like Dais can find that special somebody they want to spend their lives with… I think…what I'm trying to say…what I've been trying to say is…Mia…" Ryo rubbed her fingers and looked her in the eye. "I-I'd like it if…if you could be my special somebody."

"…Ryo…oh Ryo…" she had no suitable words to reply at the moment, but she remained in her seat at his bedside, her hand in his, and her gaze meeting his. Several words tried to bubble to the top of her mind to express her emotions.

"No" wasn't among them.

"I'm terribly sorry for expecting you to come out here this late, your Honor."

"Nonsense, Mia. You don't have to adhere to such formality with me, you know that. Why, I remember presiding over your grandparents' service decades ago…in fact, I think it was in this very park…though perhaps not in this exact spot," an elderly judge chuckled and glanced about the garden. "Besides, you gave me a week's notice. I can't complain at that. I am relieved to hear that you're safe and sound. I heard news reports about you being involved in a wreck…"

"It was nerve-wracking, as to be expected, but we're doing just fine now."

"And by 'we' I assume…" the judge raised both eyebrows and smiled.

"Yes," Mia giggled briefly before composing herself and smoothing the folds of her simple white dress. "Now, I know I said this before, but I have to be absolutely sure that you'll keep this confidential. My fiancée is pretty…unconventional…"

"Mia, darling, I could tell you secrets about your Grandfather that would make even you blush at your age. You can trust me," the judge assured. "Besides, it's not like you have any immediate family who'd be fussy over your choice of…hus…band…" He heard the click of metal against the walkway and saw moonlight glinting off of red-and-silver armor and ornamental gold crests. A white surcoat hung over the shoulders and back, embroidered with red and black. Mia leaned against the rail overlooking the small pond; the very same one she and Yulie had spied upon while the Ancient One lectured Anubis all those years ago.

"Your Honor, I'd like you to meet Ryo Sanada, or Ryo of the Wildfire."

"Your Honor," Ryo greeted and bowed slightly. The judge's shock melted into happiness.

"The Professor would be so proud of you," he whispered to Mia. Ryo stepped over to stand next to Mia and the judge backed up a step and fished out a small book from his coat. "Now, if we're ready to begin. We-" he opened the book and began thumbing through pages.

"Not so fast. You're supposed to be the honest one, Ryo. Where do you go off getting yourself hitched without a Best Man?" The judge glanced to the side and raised both eyebrows upon seeing a royal blue-and-silver armored man approach.

"I understand that in this modern age, it is tradition for the bride to be accompanied by a father-figure. Seeing as how you are regrettably bereft of your Grandfather, I would offer my services in his stead," an older-looking man with auburn hair and sharp green eyes and clad in bulky armor draped over with a brown-and-gold surcoat stepped over to Mia.

"Of course, Anubis," Mia answered happily and hugged the man briefly.

"Okay! Anyone else want to step in on what was supposed to be a private service?" Ryo shouted, exasperated. He turned around once, throwing his arms up before letting them hang against his sides. Only the gentle lapping of the pond answered him.

"Nope. It's just us," Rowen chirped and pulled off his helmet then tossed to the side upon the grass. Ryo removed his as well and handed it to Rowen, who set it down nearby.

"Allright then…if we are…ready to proceed…" the judge fished out a pair of gold-rimmed glasses from his coat and fitted them into place then peered down at the book. "Um…rings?"

"Oh! Uhh…shoot…oh," Ryo muttered and placed two fingers into his mouth, whistling shrilly. The judge turned from side to side, looking up and expecting someone else to arrive. He spotted something moving past his waist and looked down, nearly jumping out of his shoes upon seeing a large white tiger pad towards Ryo. "Thanks Whiteblaze," Ryo whispered and retrieved a small black box from the tiger's jaws. He pried it open and held it up to Mia. "I had Australa make these…before we left Thanged," he admitted and rubbed his right ear, blushing Wildfire-red as he pulled one simple gold band from the cloth pad and handed it to Mia.

"If you all are ready…we can proceed?" the judge glanced at each of the participants, who nodded in reply. "Very well then…" As the judge spoke, Ryo and Mia glanced at each other from time to time. A slight midnight breeze knocked a few leaves loose and set them drifting down towards the pond. Ripples coursed over the water from where they landed, briefly disrupting the reflection in the water of the simple nighttime service.

Kento hummed to himself as he carried plates to the table, deciding to make breakfast for everyone for a change. He wanted to pitch in and give Mia a break from chores, and he was every bit as capable of cooking food as he was of devouring it. Mia jogged downstairs briskly and moved to her spot at the table, dressed for work. Kento greeted her with a smile and went to the kitchen to fetch a fresh carton of milk. He returned to the dining table and saw Sage and Ryo had arrived too, with Sage seating himself two chairs away and Ryo standing close to Mia holding her bag. Kento began pouring milk into the glasses he'd set out earlier.

"You sure you don't want me to port you to work?"

"The car's working just fine. It got roughed up, not totaled. You worry too much, honestly…"

"Well, I'm honestly worried…"

Kento glanced up at the two when he heard them talking and raised an eyebrow. His eyes widened and his jaw almost dropped onto the table when Ryo leaned down and kissed Mia on the cheek. Sage glanced at the stairs and spotted Tanya scurrying downstairs. She paused on the bottommost step when she saw Ryo and Mia…snuggling…and promptly turned back around and scurried back upstairs, slamming the door to her room behind her.

Kento held the milk carton over a glass and continued pouring, completely oblivious as the milk began overflowing. He just then happened to know that both Ryo and Mia wore simple gold bands on their ring-fingers. Ryo glanced at him when he heard liquid dribbling. "Kento, you're wasting milk," he commented and grimaced at the growing puddle.

"Huh!? Oh! Sorry." Kento set the carton down and ran to fetch a wash cloth to soak up the mess. He returned and saw that Ryo had seated himself at the table and had tugged his chair closer to Mia's, and the two ate together, talking to each other softly. Kento walked over to the other end of the table and leaned over to start cleaning up the mess. He leaned over to Sage.

"It's best…to just…not ask…" Sage said crisply before Kento could get a word out of his gaping mouth. Kento gulped and nodded, and stared at the two seated at the other end.

"Why the bloody hell did you drag me out here this late?" Cye complained and shielded his face from tree branches that tried to smack him in the face.

"Come on dude! You're not at all suspicious about why Ryo and Mia headed out to the lake house after dinner?" Kento grinned over his shoulder and shone the flashlight on the path.

"Um…no? Because it's not my business…or yours…"

"Kee hee hee…Ryo and Mia, I didn't see it coming! The sly guy!"

"Doesn't being a complete pervert violate your Heart of Justice, or something?!"

"Oh don't be silly. I just wanna see if the lake house is rockin'. Didn't say I'd knock…" Kento grumbled as he pushed his way through the bushes separating the forest from the property.

He came to a halt when he found his path blocked by Whiteblaze, who carried one of the Soul Swords in his mouth. "Oh! Heya Whiteblaze! Don't mind me. I'm just here to check in on-" Whiteblaze let out a low growl despite having the sword grip in his mouth and lashed his tail. "Whoa, easy there big guy! I'm not an enemy, I just wanna-" Whiteblaze growled again, and Kento's eyes widened when he saw Blackblaze approach; also wielding a Soul Sword.

"That does it. We're out of here and back into our nice warm beds. Just because I like water doesn't mean I like being out at night when it's damp and cold," Cye grumbled and seized Kento by the arm and dragged him away from the lake house.

"Wait! Can't we just…stake out! You know?" Kento protested as his heels dragged.

"No…" The two tigers remained alert until the two Ronin had moved far enough away. Whiteblaze set his sword on the ground while Blackblaze nudged his back into its scabbard with some effort before lying down infront of the door to the small building. Whiteblaze sat down on the ground by the forest and curled his tail about his legs.

The window had fogged up at some point. Whiteblaze glanced at his spirit-brother, who looked like he napped quietly, though his ears twitched from time to time.