In 2007, the Ronin Warriors are certain that their old armors from Talpa are lost forever... until it comes looking for them. (BL/Yaoi themes)
There were three perfect circles of pancake batter on the griddle and Sai had his spatula poised, ready to dispense a fourth, when a singularly unusual event broke his concentration.
"G'mornin," Rowen said.
The pancake batter gloped onto the griddle in a most undignified splatter. "Good Lord, Rowen, what on earth are you doing up at this hour?"
"Looking," Rowen said, his head in the cupboard, "for a cup of coffee."
Sai prodded his horribly deformed pancake with a spatula, in some hopes of turning it back to a presentable shape. "Mugs are by the sink. If I had known that you had turned into a morning person, I would have made extra coffee."
"Ah," Rowen said, with a disgusted face. "Ever since I got a real job my schedule's been all screwed." They spent a moment dancing around each other in the cramped confines of the kitchen as Rowen rooted in the dish-drainer for a mug. Sai and Kento's place was inarguably prime, location-wise, but all Tokyo in its minimal square-footage. "Sage go out to meet the guys?"
Sai gave up on his imperfect blueberry pancake and reached over with the kettle to fill Rowen's cup. "Yes, they should be back from the station anytime now. Sugar?"
"Thanks. So," Rowen asked, hopping onto the counter and settling his backside between the gleaming rice cooker and the fridge. "How're you two doing?"
Sai arched an eyebrow at him. "Are you deeply concerned about our relationship, Mr. Hashiba, or do you simply want to know what Kento is like in bed?"
Rowen faked a wounded look, stirring his heavily sugared coffee with an enameled chopstick from the utensil jar. "It's been a while since we've seen ya, I'm just making sure you two are doing all right, is all." Taking a demure sip from his mug, he added, "I know what Kento's like in bed."
Sai ruined his second pancake. "Dammit, Rowen," he sighed, without any heat. "The telepathic images are not really required."
"Sorry," Rowen grinned. "Habit."
"Hmph. We are fantastically boring, if you must know. As I'm sure you and Sage are, after sixteen years of--" Blueberry pancake batter spattered across the griddle pan and onto the burner, setting up an acrid wisp of smoke as a summons went off inside their minds. Sai felt as much as heard Rowen's response as it went past him.
"Another one?" Sai snapped off the burner. "That's sooner than I expected."
"Shou-jin-kita," Rowen said, after a moment. "Near Shinjuku. Sage's on it."
"He's not going to be for long, that last one nearly took out Kento and me both before Ryou turned up." Sai pulled the ties free on his apron. "At least Yuli's with them. We'll have some data for Mia this afternoon."
"If we live," Rowen said cheerfully, and he put down his mug. "Damn, could have at least let me have my coffee first."
There was a flicker of azure and cerulean light, and a moment later the kitchen was empty.
"Good of you to drop by," Sage said, not quite out of breath as he was flung back into the hands of a suddenly materialized Rowen.
"Hey Sage," Rowen said, "Long time no see. It's been what, twenty minutes?"
"More like two months," Ryou said, picking himself up off the ground. He had left a smoking indentation in the pavement. "Did you bring back my copy of /Shaolin Soccer/?"
"Sorry, it's back at Sai and Kento's. DVDs don't teleport too well."
Ryou grinned as he caught Rowen's arm in greeting. "Yeah, I'm hoping they fix that in blu-ray--"
"What have we got?" Sai asked, breaking up the reunion. "We can catch up later--" He broke off as the what in question chose that exact moment to come round a large stack of warehouse crates, Kento's staff clamped in its jaws as it bore the Kongo warrior backwards across the dock, his armored feet scraping on the asphalt. Ryou ran forward to try and flank it, but the beast's tail was as good as a weapon, and Ryou was hard pressed just to defend himself against the blows. Sai rushed after him to add his strength to theirs.
"I keep hitting it," Sage said, dragging his hand across his mouth. The white glove of his yoroi came away smeared with red. "It's not doing a damn bit of good."
"Yuli!" Rowen lifted his head, even though Yuli was nowhere to be seen. "Have you got a reading yet?"
"He's lighting based, Sage," Yuli's voice said, inside his helmet. "Your attacks won't hurt it."
"Thanks for the timely information," Sage said, scowling as he shifted his grip on his sword.
"I'll say it's lightning based," Rowen said, his bow unfolding into his hands. The creature was translucent, flickering with energy. Its shape was vaguely lupine, great yellow eyes and gleaming fangs, but it was twice the size of the cars parked along the warehouse. "Yul! You got a weak spot for me?"
"Gimme a second!"
"No problem," Kento grunted, arms shaking with the strain, wincing as the beast's hot breath ruffled his hair, lightning dancing along the armor on his forearms. "Take your time, Yuli." Ryou dodged a sweeping blow from the tail, leaping up and over crates that crumbled under the force as the creature sought to trip him. Ryou landed just out of range, grateful for Sage's hand to help him up.
"I'm getting too old for this."
"No shit," Rowen said. His bow was drawn, level, gold arrow glinting in the sun as he waited for Yuli's information. "You wanna retire?"
"And do what?" Ryou grinned, sweaty. "Macramé?"
"Go for the eyes, Rowen!" Yuli, two streets over in safety, was pounding the daylights out of his laptop, trying to get all the information he could. He didn't pretend to understand how Rowen had uplinked sensors into mystic armor, any more than he knew how the Tenku warrior had rigged the earpieces in the helmets. He was just a code monkey and glad of it. "Sai! He'll be the most vulnerable to you. And make it snappy, guys, the cops are coming."
"Shit," Kento said, with feeling.
"Right." Ryou gestured with his left sword. "Kento, keep him busy, Sai, me and you go in when Rowen strikes. Sage, back us up, but try not to hit it with your sword, it'll just feed off of it. Pull Kento out if you've gotta."
Sage did not look pleased at being reduced to relief, but he was not the kind to question orders.
"All righty then." Rowen let his arrow go. The first one thumped ineffectively into the creature's shoulder as it moved, trying to shake Kento. Rowen swore and sent two more in quick succession, and these sank home, deep into the glowing yellow eyes. The lightning beast reared back in agony, tossing Kento aside and through what was left of the crates. It left its throat wide open to Sai's trident, and the prongs caught it and held it just long enough for Ryou to get in, blades flashing with reflected energy.
The ground shook as it fell, and the tremor lasted a full thirty seconds after the slain creature vanished, back to where ever it came from.
"Good," Ryou said. "Maybe it'll get classed as an earthquake."
"Sure," Rowen snorted, kicking at a charred bit of shipping crate that Ryou's attack had left smoldering, "a small, localized, mystical tectonic shift. Real likely."
"Hey, they're still trying to figure out the black ice on Mount Aso from way back when..."
"It's almost a shame," Sai said, looking down at the smoking, scorched patch of ground. "It was beautiful, in a way."
"You wouldn't have said that if you'd smelled it," Kento said, limping over, but Sage said quietly, "I know what you mean."
Sirens wailed, alarmingly close.
"Um, great job guys, but I think you should get the hell out of there."
"Right," Ryou said, looking as if he was talking to thin air. "Pack it up, Yuli, and meet us at Mia's as soon as you can."
Sai shrugged, taking off his helmet to sweep back his hair before putting it back on. "I guess we won't be taking the train."
Air tore as the five warriors departed. The dock was empty by the time the squad cars pulled into it, and Yuli was already on the train, his monitoring equipment unassuming in his laptop bag.
"Are they done already?" Sai looked surprised, a smear of clay slip on one cheekbone.
Sage shook his head. "No, Yuli's feeding the data into Mia's processor, it probably won't spit out a decent analysis for a few hours. Rowen's babysitting it."
"Oh, good." Sai reached out for his wire and drew it underneath the simple bowl he'd just finished trimming, separating it from the wheel. "I've got some things I want to finish while I'm here, anyway."
"I heard your last show in Kyoto went really well," Sage said, stepping completely into the cool shadows of Sai's workshop, his eyes following the simple elegance of the vessels on the rough, clay spattered shelves. "Looks like you've got a nice setup going here."
Sai lifted one shoulder, dribbling water from his sponge to clean off the wheel. "Mia's been kind enough to let me work here-- rent for studio space in the city is astronomical. I'd need a lot more than one good art show to afford it." Sai looked up, the wheel going still from his inattention. "Is something troubling you?"
Sage hesitated, gold brows drawn low. "That creature today was the third one we've fought in less than a month. First the one Rowen and I took out in Sendai, and then the one the three of you fought down here last week. It's been so quiet lately, I can't help but think it's something more than the usual supernatural runoff."
Sai considered this, sweeping the clay remnants into the ditch and getting a ball of clay from the trough. "Don't you think we would have seen a pattern in them, by now? I'm worried too, you know. But I don't think we can do anything about it until we know a little more." Sai threw the clay onto the wheel with a decisive flick of his wrist and began to pump the pedal, leaning over to center the clay. "Maybe Yuli got some more information for us today. We can try to track where they're coming from."
"They seem to turn up out of nowhere," Sage said, watching in a kind of peaceful fascination as Sai fanned his fingers up and brought his thumbs down, and a bowl blossomed under his hand. Something about the way Sai could move water and earth under his hands made a stillness inside of Sage, and he wished for the grace of seventeen syllables to frame it. "I never get tired of watching you do that."
Sai laughed in the way he often did when he was complimented, shy and unassuming. "I used to watch my mother for hours. So much that when I finally got to try, she couldn't tell me anything about the process that I didn't already know."
Sage smiled. "An expert from the start, hmm?"
"Oh no." Sai shook his head. "I was horrible at it. Everything I did turned out lopsided and awkward, and I swore never to have anything to do with it."
Sage blinked. "But you've done it for years, now. I thought you had always planned to continue the family business."
Sai tilted his fingers, and the bowl became a vase. "Not until after the armor." He lifted his eyes to Sage's and smiled. "I couldn't do it before. I understood the mechanical process. I didn't understand the art." The wheel stopped, and a sake bottle rested in cool wetness on the wheel, gleaming. "And before Kento, I didn't understand the earth."
"I don't understand either." Sage said, rueful. "My family is all about tradition, but there is nothing of a craft so peaceful."
"We're samurai too, you know," Sai said demurely, lifting the wheel off the spoke and placing the sake jar on the worktable to set. "But we turned to this when the navy didn't need us anymore." He searched Sage's face for a moment before asking, "Would you want to try it?"
"No," Sage said, almost too quickly. "I'm lacking in too many elements to even try." His smile was tight. "I'd rather just watch you."
Sai, who knew how to wait, nodded. "Of course."
Sage picked up a lump of discarded clay roughly the size of their lost armor orbs, and squished it speculatively. "Sai."
"When you were fighting that thing today, did you--" Sage searched for the words, "Did you sense anything off of it?"
"Besides just the energy of it, you mean?" Sai turned the water on in the sink, working at his fingernails. "No, not really." He splashed water on the muddy faucet knob before turning it off again, and reached for a towel. "Why? What did you sense off of it?"
Sage rolled the ball of clay between his fingers, pressed a dimple in it with his thumb. "I was fighting it first, you know. Before you got there. And when my sword connected with it... it didn't just draw energy off of it." Sage let the clay fall back into the scrap trough. "It recognized me. I recognized it." Sage wiped his fingers on the towel Sai was offering. "I knew it. I don't know how, or any other way to put it. But I knew that thing."
Sai floundered for an answer to that, anything to comfort the trouble in Sage's eyes, but Kento's voice found them, calling from the back porch of Mia's house.
"That's the data finished, I hope," Sai said, grateful. "Maybe it will tell us something?" He clicked off the bulb in the shed, and put a hand on Sage's shoulders as they stepped out into the late afternoon light. "Come on. You'll feel better with a cup of tea in you."
In all the years of Sage's familiarity of it, the study in Mia's house had never changed. The windows had been destroyed, more than once, by maraudering agents of darkness. Ryou, too, had done a fair amount of damage to it, in his own frustration. But whenever Sage stepped into it, it was as though for the first time, full of the smell of antiques and rice paper, under the benevolent gaze of empty helmets. The only thing that really changed was the constantly evolving computer equipment, and Yuli. Sage had had enough trouble adjusting to him being seventeen. Twenty-seven was just boggling, as the differences in their ages, so prominent twenty years ago, vanished completely.
"This is really cool," Yuli said, dark eyes flickering over the data speeding across the screen. "Will you look at the sub ether signature of that thing? And the energy reading is bouncing all over the place like a bass equalizer."
Rowen was camped out in the other chair, almost lost in the maze of cords and connectors snaking out of his laptop. He glanced up as Sage and Sai entered with Kento and Ryou in tow, and there was no smile in his voice. "I think we've found something," he said. "You're not going to like it."
"It's been hard to work out," Mia emerged from the storage closet, her arms full of old floppy disk organizers. They had met her just as she had gotten back from the university, and she hadn't bothered to change, still in her prim suit, her hair in a sleek twist. In a corner of the study her briefcase and satchel of papers sat neglected. "All of the data is so old, and some of it never got converted. Yuli figured it out--"
"Figured out what?" Kento said, stomping around behind Rowen and making a face at the utterly incomprehensible state of the screen. "Oh, well," he said, waving a hand at the scrolling line charts. "That just clears it all up."
"You mind explaining it to the rest of us?" Ryou asked. He was acting relaxed, but even if Mia and Yuli couldn't sense his emotions, as his fellow warriors could, the taut muscle in his jaw was quite evident. "We don't need a power-point presentation or anything but--"
"The energy signatures of the monsters you fought looked really familiar," Yuli said, turning around the monitor so they all could see. Six matched graphs scrolled on the screen, replaying clips. The other three were from something else, but they rose and fell in perfect tandem with the data samples. "They're the same as your armor." Yuli took off his reading glasses, rubbing at a blossoming headache between his eyes. "Your old armor."
"What?" Sai leaned over to get a closer look at the screen. "That isn't possible--"
"The original yoroi is gone," Sage said, though deep inside of him something twisted, as it had when he looked into the eyes of that sparking, green and gold wolf.
"Look," Rowen said, "Not to get too technical, but energy--even mystical energy--has certain rules. For one thing, everything goes somewhere. Stuff doesn't just disappear or cease to exist. Maybe the armor got destroyed, but something was left behind."
"Yes," Ryou broke in, almost angry. Sage, sensing Ryou's own memories, knew that the wildfire-bearer had felt the same futility when faced with a fiery tiger that his swords could not defeat. "It revived Naria and White Blaze, and then--"
"We're talking about the full set of your armors: the strength of Kikoutei and enough raw energy to wipe out a whole solar system." Mia stood up, her hands on her desk, as though Ryou was a student who was being particularly dense. "Reviving one girl and a tiger probably cost it about as much effort as you would take to sneeze. What about the rest of it? The doors to the Dynasty are closed, it couldn't return to where it came from."
In the study there was an ominous silence, broken only by the whirr of Rowen's laptop fan and the slooshy noises of a white tiger drinking out of his waterbowl in the kitchen.
"It got caught," Sage said quietly. "Pooling in crevices between our world and the Netherworld, unable to dissipate, fermenting--"
"Going fucking /rotten/!" Kento exploded, bringing his fist down on the desk with enough force to make the monitor jump, distorting the relentlessly cycling evidence. "Man, I knew we never should have put that shit on without a god-damn service agreement!"
"I've got the locations plotted here," Rowen said, sweeping off the cords and plunking the laptop down. "Sage and I fought that ugly, horned son of a bitch back home in Sendai--"
"Kento's," Sai said, leaning against the bookshelf. "It was coming down out of the mountains, didn't you say?"
"Right." Rowen tapped the screen with his pen. "And then you guys got Ryou's here, we didn't make it in time for that one. And today--"
"Was mine," Sage sighed. It felt better to admit it, to loosen the strange bonds of kinship and subsequent guilt he had felt for the monster. "Which means Rowen's and Sai's are left."
"Hey, easy enough then," Kento said, smacking his fist into his palm. "We just wait for them to turn up, kick their asses, and pfft. Mission Accomplished. Too bad I didn't get to see mine. Was it awesome, Ro?"
"Oh yeah," Rowen said, pulling up his t-shirt sleeve to display a fantastic bruise that spread from his shoulder down to his chest. "Awesome."
"Guys, you're all missing something really important." Yuli ruffled his hands through his already-spiky dark hair, making it stick out at odd angles. "Even if you beat them, all we're doing is dissipating the energy again. There's nowhere for it to go. How long will it be before it comes back?"
"Worse," Sai said, and there was a flicker of blue light across his brow, more than mere intuition. "What if it all gets /together/?"