August 14, 11:05am The Toyama Mall is packed with people, especially teens who are mall-ratting their way through their summer. Rowen Hashiba walks among them, hunting desperately for birthday presents. He feels uncomfortable here, among the crowds. He’s already been to several stores hunting for something - anything to give the twins for their fifteenth birthday. Rahne had treated Sage and everyone to a rock climbing excursion at the new Rock Climbing Center for his birthday. There was no topping that. But she had a permanent pass to get in there, so it had cost her only twenty dollars to get all of them in for the day. Now he had to figure out what to get her. They had a maximum limit of twenty dollars per birthday. Forget that that rule had been made before Rahne had showed up. They still had to find something for both of them, for under $20. Rowen wanders into a book store, thinking that maybe she’d like a book. Most paperbacks cost under ten dollars. One down, five hundred thousand to go. She was an insufferable tomboy, so no gushy stuff. Maybe some science fiction or fantasy adventure. Kento had mentioned she liked the Star Wars series of books. Rowen tracked down the Star Wars books, and immediately felt his plans go up in smoke. There was an entire aisle that was nothing but that series. "It’s going to be a long day..." Rowen mutters to himself. Cye walks into a second hand store, he had an exact idea of what to get Rahney and Ryo. Rahney had made the mistake of telling him one cool morning that she got cold easily, so he was getting her a quilt if he could swing it. Ryo needed a new gym bag, the last one kinda met its maker a long time ago, but he still was using it. Yuck. It smelled so bad it was actually nauseating. He grabs a blue and gold Powerhouse Gym bag on the fly as he passes them. The area where bedding is kept is ahead, and he can already see exactly what he wants: a puffy, navy, white, and red plaid quilt. Cha-ching. Jackpot! Kento solves it even easier. Soccer ball for Ryo, a new gymnastics leotard for Rahne. Granted, the ball was on clearance, being last year's style of Official World Cup. But who would look for a date on something that would just get kicked around anyway? He hopes he got the leotard right, though. It was a brilliant jewel-tone red with a gorgeous embroidered butterfly at the point where the neckline terminated, but he didn’t know if it was something she could use. Oh, well. I’ll just keep the tags. Sage is at a loss. He knew exactly what to get Ryo, and he’d already gotten it. The strategy game Risk. But, he didn’t know Rahne well enough. He was still getting bruises for flirting with her, and she was the one dishing them out. But she had given him that awesome present... A girl with her ears full of holes and dangles walks in front of him. Instead of flirting with her, Sage stops dead still. Why didn’t I think of this before!? Rahne envied Mia’s single pierce-job, why not get her gift certificates to the Earring Boutique!? When they get home, they find the twins playing some sort of computer game. Ryo and Rahne are playing two player mode, kicking butt and taking names. Then Ryo puts the game on pause. He says something in sign language and hugs her. Rowen realizes it’s Ryo’s favorite video game, but it costs about forty dollars. As soon as he thinks it he realizes that they pooled their resources to get it for each other. Rahne obviously didn’t mind sharing, her warm smile speaking volumes. He has a gift for Ryo, but not for Rahne, and that’s depressing. The birthday party is great, full of music and fun. The cake is marble, half white and half chocolate; one of Cye’s delicious concoctions and Mia fixes one of her gigantic dinners. They dive into their presents after dinner. Ryo opens the box that Cye put the gym bag in and laughs so hard tears run down his face. Rahne rips open Kento gift. She takes one look and throws her arms around him in thank you. "It’s gorgeous!" Sage simply hands Rahne a envelope with a grin. Rahne opens the it, and sees the gift certificates; gives him a quick secretive smile. They continue to open their presents, laughing boisterously. Kento suddenly appears with a Twister box. Everyone groans and laughs at the annoying game making yet another birthday appearance, but they start to clear the furniture away from the center of the floor. Rowen had gone upstairs at the start of the gifts in a last ditch attempt to find a present. He combs the piles of books that surround his bed and lay strewn on his shelf. He grabs one of his older books, a hardcover version of Jurassic Park. Maybe she’d like this one. "Rowen?" Rahne asks from the doorway, her face concerned. "Here, I couldn’t find anything. Sorry..." Rowen says shyly, handing her the book. Rahne takes it from him, looks at the title, and then holds it close. She looks up at him, about equally shy. "Thanks. Um... I ... um... need to get back to... the party." Rahne runs from the room and back downstairs, and back to the games, leaving Rowen feeling confused in his bedroom. I love her... Jeez, I don’t even know why. But I do. Sept. 3, 3:00pm "Woo Hoo!" : Kento "You look soooo cute, Rahney!": Cye "SHUT UP!" : Rahne "You gonna dance the "Macarena" up there?": Kento "I happen to be a "Macarena"-Free girl. And that is SO out that you wouldn’t believe." "No shit, Sherlock Babes! Oh, pretty ribbon!": Kento (again) "Yeah, show us some leg!": Cye "Keep digging, Pillsbury Watson!": Rahne (Again.) "Oh ouch! ...Biff..": Cye (laughing) Mia shakes her head, as she once again tries to determine the proper hem length for Rahne’s skirt for school. Rahne had become good friends with Kento and Cye; but, it was the same type of friendship Cye and Kento had. Full of arguments, insults, and bluster. And they got pretty vicious sometimes. "Rahne, hold still!" Mia scolds as the hem is once again jerked out of her grasp. Rahne’s standing on top of a chair so the hem is up where Mia can easily see it; though the height is making it no easier to finish this up. "Don’t you have something better to do!?" Rahne pleads, feeling totally embarrassed about the skirt situation. Kento and Cye lean in the doorway of Mia’s study, picking on Rahne every moment the chance presents itself. Both of them didn’t need any special considerations for their uniforms. "Nope, babe." "If we did, this is more fun anyway." Rahne scowls at them, and then smiles wickedly, "Kento, if you leave me alone for five minutes you can have my secret stash of chocolate." "Hmmm. Milk chocolate or the satisfaction of slowly torturing you? I think I’ll pass the candy up just this once." The skirt vanishes from Mia’s grasp once again. "You would decide that for once!" Rahne groans, looking around, trying to find something to throw at them. "Well, I found the five packs of gourmet microwave popcorn under your bed this morning..." Kento drawls, licking his lips. "YOU WHAT?!" "They tasted great, Rahne!": Cye. Kento grins, "Notice: past tense." Rahne grabs the pad that hangs from the back of the chair and hurls it at them with all her might. Kento just swipes it out of the air. "Ohhh, babes-" "RAHNE!! KENTO!! CYE!!" Mia interrupts, looking at all of them in the eyes, one by one. Everyone falls silent. She can’t keep the smile off her face, but she has better things to do. "Thank you." Mia quickly marks the skirt and pins it up so she can throw it on the sewing machine later. Mia steps back from the chair; taking the pins, tape measure, and chalk marking pencil with her. "Okay, sic 'em." Rahne leaps from the chair in a flurry of dark green skirt. Kento and Cye nearly kill each other trying to get out of the door, as Rahne bolts after them with murderous intent. >Crash< ... "Ow! - Rahney! - Babes! -Only joking! - MY room!? -popcorn’s still there, Honest! Rahney! -Riiight... like I believe..!" The sounds of the pitter-pattering of not little feet and loud voices recede as they race down the stairs at breakneck speed. Sounds like a stampede, Mia thinks, trying hard not to laugh at the three of them. Finally the house falls quiet once again. They had been a great help on making Rahne a little less reckless and had helped her more with her voice lessons. Rahne’s voice wasn’t quite so hard to hear, it still wasn’t great, but at least she sounded closer to being normal. Mia sits down at her computer once again, coping her latest research onto encrypted disks. She was still finding little tidbits of information on the Nine Armors and Talpa in the strangest places. A month ago Mia had learned of a Russian scroll and a tapestry that had something about some magic armor, and tomorrow she was going to get her chance to get a look at it. What she had gotten was from a picture of the scroll... something about a winter armor. Probably one of the Warlords... She can’t help but wonder though, about which one they possibly could be referring to. Hearing shouts from outside, she sees Kento, Cye, and Rahne; now in jeans and T-shirts, with Kento’s latest toy: An American football. Rahne must have gotten murder out of her mind fairly quick. They’re tossing it back and forth, chasing after it when it goes a little short or a little too far. "I got it! I got it!" Rahne’s chasing after Cye’s latest pass, but she doesn’t see Kento behind her. The ball sails neatly towards her outstretched hands... and then she sits down hard as Kento strikes her shoulders squarely and grabs the ball. All the way up here she hears Rahne shout, "I don’t got it!" She belongs here... Mia sighs, Rahne had asked yesterday if she could stay here indefinitely. She had still been considering it, until now. Rahne fit right in with the others. Sage practiced kendo with her. Rowen introduced her to his mind games and his favorite books. Kento and Cye had helped Rahne more than anyone else had been able to in the past. Ryo had even stopped worrying about her so much, and was closer than ever to his sister. But Rahne also knew when to back off, and let the guys do what they normally did before she showed up. She also has never been told about the armors. They figure that if something comes up, they’ll tell her then. Mia sits back down at her computer, and turns the radio up to drown out the noise from below. Maybe now she can get some work done before the university’s classes get back in session. She’s doing even more teaching this year than she has previous years, but that’s because of her grandfather’s death. Mia blinks back unexpected tears and dives back into her research. "I don’t got it!" Rahne yells, laughing as she dusts herself off, and climbs to her feet. Kento was doing an end-zone dance in the middle of the field in front of the house, singing "We are the Champions" at the top of his lungs. Cye laughs, jogging up to him and giving him a high five. Ryo jogs up to Rahne. She’s grins, still bent over catching her breath, her hands on her knees. He waggles his eye brows at her. They start to sing the song from the one of the Sabrina The Teenage Witch episodes: "One way, or another, we’re gonna getcha. We’re gonna getcha-getcha-getcha-getcha, one way or another..." Kento stops his victory dance, ignoring the disconcerting twin-thing, and slaps the ball between his hands. "Is that a challenge you two?!" Rahne straightens up, and Ryo leans on her shoulder. They don’t look at each other, but suddenly say together. "You got it." "Hey, make this a three on three." Sage yells from the house. He and Rowen jog up to join the newly formed teams. At first Kento’s team comes out ahead, just about wasting Ryo’s. Then Rahne and Sage manage to tackle Cye, and they finally get the ball. "Huddle, Huddle!" Ryo calls as Rowen calls the same thing over on Kento’s. Oh, Jeez, there goes at least half the play! Rahne and Sage lean inward in a tight circle with Ryo. "Okay, Sage, Sis: watch Rowen and Cye, they’re the fastest. Stay away from Kento, he gets a grip on you there’s no gettin’ away. I’m going long, got that? Whichever one of you’s in the open, get ready to run like crazy! Okay?" "Got it." "All right, bro." Over on Kento’s team, Rowen sees Ryo’s team break their huddle... "Okay, Kento. Ryo’s probably going to try something..." They line back up, facing each other. Sage gives the yell. Ryo runs backwards a little ways with the ball. Rahne and Sage dive into melee, running and pushing for all they’re worth. Sage gets through. Ryo snaps his arm back and lets it fly. Sage gets it, but Cye and Rowen dive after him. He shoots it to Rahne, but she misses and it bounces several yards away. Since the game started, the rules have been getting laxer and laxer, now there’s no rules on fumbling. Kento sees it and charges for it from down the field. Rahne sets her mouth in a determined line and charges for it too. Ryo sees this game of Chicken, though it looks like a freight train going up against a Spree Moped. Kento’s something like 140 lbs., compared to Rahne’s 90 something. At the last moment, Rahne ducks her head and sends her shoulders into Kento’s stomach. He actually stumbles backwards, giving a small grunt; Rahne grabs the ball, gives him a quick raspberry, and runs like hell. Next play, Sage quietly runs up behind Cye. He grabs Cye’s shirt and pulls it up over his head, and intercepts the pass meant for Cye. >CRASH!< Rowen doesn’t even have to look to know Sage just got tackled by Kento. The sound’s distinctive by now. Of course, Ryo tried to tackle Kento. They all went down in a tangle of arms and legs - then everything goes dark-blue as someone pulls his headband down over his eyes. Someone who walks almost silently. Rowen pulls his headband off and points at Rahne, laughing at him from about ten yards away, and mouths "Next play... just you wait." Next play, Rowen simply bumps Rahne out of the way of the pass she was trying to intercept. She rolls on her knees and elbows, and pushes herself up with a laugh. A few plays later, Ryo looks up to see a delivery truck coming down the long driveway to the house. "Hey, guys. UPS’s here." But as turns around, he sees Sage and Rahne try to tackle Kento. He just drags them along: they barely slow him down. Kento turns suddenly, throwing Sage off him, and Rahne; who’s holding onto his shirt for dear life, swinging in the air with his momentum. "Hey, guys! Game Over!" The others come on over giving each other high-fives. "What was the score anyway?" Cye asks Rowen as they come up. Rowen shrugs, "I don’t know, I didn’t think we were keeping score." Sage walks up beside him dusting himself off, Kento and his sister come up behind him. "Y’know, Babes, you almost had some good hang time there." "Is that what it’s called?!" her voice absolutely dripping with sarcasm. "I thought it was just the latest ride at the Koji Amusement Park." Mia comes outside to receive a large box from the driver, and goes back inside, her face flushed with excitement. "That must be those artifacts she was waitin’ for," Rowen says to no one in particular. Whenever a mail truck came up the driveway, it meant a major mail call. Everyone gathers around the truck to see if they got anything. The driver looks at his list. "Okay, I got something for: Date, Hashiba, Mouri, Rei-Faun." He hands a medium size box covered in brown shipping paper to Sage, and another to Cye; Rowen a flat box like clothes come in. Kento gets a huge box with a child’s handwriting: "Survival Kit". "OH YEAH!!" Kento yelps, ripping the box open. He pulls out a bag of cookies; rips it open and proceeds to stuff cookies into black hole that some people call his mouth. "I hope his mom packed more cookies than that! He’ll have those gone in a few more seconds!" Sage laughs as he reads the letter his parents sent with his package. The packages are basically "How are you doing?" and "Back to School" inquiries by their parents; the type where they want to make certain you have enough underwear, et cetera. While eating Kento reads the letter his parent’s sent with his package. They had sent gifts for the twins, his sisters had hand-picked Rahne’s. OH GOD! Kento thinks, pulling the small boxes out. He takes a quick peek at Rahne’s, knowing instinctively his little sisters had gone nuts on girl stuff. Yep. Hair scrunchies and a Gigapet. Gee... how did I know? Kento thinks sarcastically. She’ll get this later. It’ll be embarrassing enough without the guys. Rowen opens his package, it’s from his mom. She sent him a new shirt from London, where she’s covering some story or another. Basically the same start of school fare she always sent this time of year. Cye grins over his care package, watching Kento eat his way through his. The summer had gone by too fast for him. The lake on the edge of the Koji estate had always had a boat launch and a dock. Sometimes fishermen took boats out onto the lake, or the occasional couple out for a romantic boat ride, but most of the time the Lake was devoid of people. Now at twilight, the area is even more deserted. There’s a new moon tonight, and the countryside was dark and peaceful. Rahne - crouched on top of one of the two-foot diameter pylons that supports the dock - watches the sunset deepen until the sky was a velvet black generously bejeweled with stars. In the fading light, her unsheathed katana gleams faintly. Absently, she reaches up to fidget with her pendant before tucking it under her shirt. Ryo had gotten it for her when she had gotten sick that last time, and had permanently lost her hearing. A cool breeze ripples her bangs and the stick up loose hairs of her scrunchie-ied bun. As the hair brushes her ears, her earlobes sting. Three hours ago she’d finally gotten around to using one of the gift certificates Sage had given her, and had gotten her ears pierced. Now small silver studs glisten on her ears. She wonders briefly what Sage would think when he saw her... Back to business, girl! Rahne snaps herself back to what she’s supposed to be doing. She was doing an exercise in strategy and fighting. Swords only, no help. No "safe" or "base". Find the person, fight the person. First blood or disarm to win the duel. Two wins needed to win the game. Three way game between Ryo, Sage, and herself. Her first bout against Ryo she’d won by default. White Blaze had helped him, but he still won. She had the small cut on her wrist to prove it. It had stopped bleeding long ago, but her ego was still hurting: She used to be better than Ryo! Surprise, surprise. I’m the one who sucks now. Obviously, Sage had caught Ryo, she was still waiting to fight him for the first time. (Or Ryo again if he won.) The only problem was Sage had a much longer reach than she did, both with his size and the fact he uses a no-datchi. She wonders briefly how much the darn thing weighed anyway. A small vibration ripples through the pylon, but it’s probably just lapping water. C’mon guys. Fighting in the dark isn’t fun... Another small vibration. More water. Cool fingers brush one of her new earrings; warm breath touches the back of her neck: "Nice touch." Rahne vaults backwards off the pylon, spinning in a tight backflip. Turning around in mid-air; she sees Sage laughing at her from a small skiff, the long pole he used to push the boat along tightly in his hands and his no-datchi thrust through the sash of his outfit. He’s standing on one the seat; the boat bobbing slightly with every motion he makes. She sticks the landing and shakes her head in defeat. "And I thought I had you beat..." Rahne sighs, walking back to her pylon. "No way." Sage smirks, carefully sitting down in the boat. "Gotta admit; though, it was clever. If there hadn’t been any boats, there wouldn’t have been any way for me to’ve ambushed you." Rahne’s hesitant to sheathe her sword; once caught, rules stated they had to fight. "Um... aren’t we supposed to fight?" Sage shrugs, his kendo uniform stirring in the breeze. "Do you want to fight in the dark?" Rahne lowers the katana. "No." "Then get in." Sage takes them across the lake; then over land to a bonfire the guys have made out in a clearing in the woods. When they see them coming, they clear the area of anything that can be tripped over and sit on a dead tree at the edge of the clearing. They stand with the fire between them. Sage salutes her with his no-datchi. Rahne bows then copies the gesture. They stand apart and still, gauging each other. Sage, muscular and calculating. Rahne, lithe and quick. Sage suddenly starts to circle, his sword held ready. Rahne follows, her eyes pinned on his throat to keep his cool lavender eyes from intimidating her. She dances in close, her sword flashing past. She leaps with all the grace of a bird of prey, her sword slashing toward Sage. He blocks and cuts like a machine, trying to slip past her guard. She dances away nimbly, her eyes smoldering. She starts to spin in pirouettes, her blade of blur of scintillating sparkles of reflected light; attempting to disorient him. Sage strikes out, stopping her motion, sparks flashing as steel contacts steel. Rahne backflips out to a prudent distance. Sage leaps, his overhead cut puts them hilt to hilt. He strains against the blade, trying to overpower Rahne. Her arms shake, but she’s not giving. He puts his weight into it. She disappears in a flurry of dirt and leaves. She flips up from her backwards roll. Facing him, katana ready. She runs at him then jumps, slashing towards him, and underneath herself. Her blade gleams through a figure eight pattern. He barely manages to block it, but he counters with a thrust of his own. Rahne won’t have it. She blocks, then instantly reverses her swing to come down higher up on his sword. Sage whips his no-datchi out of her way. His foot hurls toward her shoulder. She drops out of the way. She comes out from her splits, and up into a mule kick. Sage leaps backwards, performing a one-handed cartwheel to avoid her next parry. No one getting the upper hand. He lets loose a furious volley of pounding strikes. Rahne blocks them each time, but she’s tiring. "Where’d she go...!" He gasps as Rahne launches into an intensely fast tumbling run. He turns to see her leaping through the fire, too fast to get burnt. Sage’s almost too slow. He gets out of her way at the last second, her blade slicing through his uniform sleeve, but missing the skin. Sage immediately reverses his block into a swing while she’s still off balance. She blocks, but Sage catches her katana at the right angle. It spins free of Rahne’s hand to the ground. He points the tip at the base of her throat. "Checkmate," Sage says, with a grin on his face. Rahne bows to him, sweat finally beading on her brow, breathing hard. Defeated, but invigorated. The guys are cheering both of them, laughing and teasing from their seats. Sage sticks his no-datchi in the ground, and throws an arm around her shoulders in a quick hug. "You were great, Rahne! Don’t feel bad, I didn’t tell you that I’m a master. But that’s still the most challenging duel I’ve had in a long time!" None of them see the danger in the night; watching, waiting. One who uses dark dreams as his ultimate weapon.