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A Season Of Dragons

by P L Nunn


Chapter Fourteen


By the time Seiji gathered his wits and his strength enough to do something . . anything . . . it was too late. Everything that was going to happen had happened and he could only hope that Ryo had survived it relatively intact. The fact that Ryo was still up and running in the damned white armor was very apparent from the strain Seiji felt in the stream of his own mystical power. Most of Halo's vitality had been neatly diverted, a sentient energy feed for Ryo to use as he wished. In whatever damn stupid, foolhardy venture he cared to jump head first into. But he supposed the important thing was that Ryo had survived it. Little enough surprise when you got right down to it, Ryo's luck running towards the impossible. What he was doing now, was anyone's guess though, still armored up, but not exerting the amount of energy it took to battle the sorts of things Ryo felt the need to summon the white armor for.

All it all, it meant Seiji could function almost normally again, though at a lower level than when Ryo wasn't wearing the white armor. It also probably meant that running off to the mountains was probably a waste of time, the battle being over and Ryo being alive a good indication that Ryo had come out on the winning side and was most likely on his way back here.

"What do we do?" Kento wanted to know, one armored hand on the wall as his own strength slowly returned.

"Go back." Seiji said, not feeling quite so decisive as he managed to sound. Which meant back tracking through the fortress, which was blessedly ne'gal free, all the reptiles most likely out on the wall or round abouts facing down the threatening ne'gal force in the pass.

In the narrow tunnels leading to the great hollow wall, they did run into a crowd. A human crowd . . . or a hun'ra one at any rate. A great flock of them crammed together and frightened, being herded down the tunnel by a hissing ne'gal guardsman.

"Hey. Hey!! What's this all about?" Kento bellowed, shouldering his way into the flow of people, targeting the ne'gal with a threatening glare. The ne'gal glared back, clutching its long weapon and Kento clutched his right back, having been deprived on one fight and not backing down from the possibility of another. But fighting here, in such close quarters with unarmed, unarmored hun'ra all around would be disastrous. More innocent would die than guilty.

"Kento!" Before Seiji could step in with the voice of reason, a shrill female voice rose above the clamor and a shapely female form weeded its way through the press of bodies, making a bee line for Kento. Kento's archeologist from the red hair and the tattered khakis. Her cheeks were as red as her hair from excitement or fear or both.

"Oh, God, I'm so glad to see you." She clutched at Kento's armor and Seiji would have bet good money that Kento's face turned a matching shade of red under his helm. His chest certainly swelled a bit, reflex action to the gushing attention of a female of the species.

"Are you okay, Karen?" Kento laid a hand carefully on her shoulder. "What's going on?"

"They're making us leave." She cried. "They just came and started gathering everyone together and told us they were letting us through the pass. And I'd just started to make sense of the ne'gal culture."

Seiji met Kento's eyes over the woman's head. Then glanced at the scowling ne'gal. "Which side of the pass are they being let go on?"

"The hun'ra side." The ne'gal hissed at him.


"Your Kan'tara demanded it."

His kan'tara . . .? And Sarag'sa had granted it? Ryo must have made one incredible impression with his white armor and his stunt with the firedrake. And as much as he wanted to rush out and see for himself, there was a tunnel full of frightened, helpless people here, at the mercy of the ne'gal and whatever vengeful spite the ne'gal might feel after having their hand forced.

"Move on. Move on!" Ne'gal hissed urging the hun'ra closest to it to start walking again with a motion of it's spear. The hun'ra cringed, crowding against the mulling people before them.

"Come on," Kento yelled, obviously thinking along the same lines as Seiji. "The sooner we're out of here and on the other side of this pass the better. We'll go with you. We'll protect you." He cast a questioning glance back at Seiji, eyes almost pleading under his helm, as if he wasn't certain Seiji would go along with the plan. Seiji nodded once and Kento's mouth twisted in a grin of relief, before he got swallowed by the press of moving people and the shadow of the tunnel. Seiji held out an arm to stop the spear wielding ne'gal and stared up levelly at the tall reptilian guard when he shuffled to an impatient stop.

"Goad them with that weapon again," Seiji promised softly. "And I'll make you eat it."

There must have been something in his eyes that made the ne'gal hesitate, or maybe it was just the recent show Ryo had put on that made the thing wary of humans in mystical armor, but its scales twitched and darkened in stress and it nodded once, short and quick and was there after more gentle in its urging.

Seiji trailed along at the back of the group, wary of more ne'gal closing ranks from the rear, but only another single guard showed up and he and the other ne'gal exchanged no secret signal for attack. If there were more ne'gal leading the way, Seiji hadn't been able to see them through the press of hun'ra and the darkness of a narrow passage. He hoped Kento had managed to separate himself from the woman and worked his way to the fore, in case danger waited there. The closeness and the dark of the tunnel made Seiji anxious. Small, dark places worked on his nerves. There were only sporadic torches in niches along the wall and their flickering light cast demonic shadows on the uneven walls.

It occurred to him after some time of walking that they had long since covered the distance that it would have taken to reach the gate at the great wall.

"This is not the way to the pass." He held a hand out to catch at one of the ne'gal. The creature shrugged him off, hissing.

"Of course not, shak'natari ka'rath. Do you think the gates of the pass will be weakened with an army on the other side. There is more than one way to the mountains of the east."

Arguing the point when Seiji had no idea whether it was valid seemed a waste of time and breath. Seiji itched to draw his sword and simply hold it, but there was little enough room already and his blade was no small thing. It was the darkness and the knowledge that they were not traveling towards a nearby gate, but deeper into the mountain's belly towards some distant exit on the other side.

A tiny hand nudged at his armor. Almost he didn't feel it at all, it was so hesitant, but he sensed the closeness of someone within his personal space and glanced down, surprised to find a child had fallen back and walked close to his leg. She looked up, large eyed and frightened, her small brown hand clutching at the edge of his armor. He was not good with children. He was terrible at speaking comforting nonsense words or having the patience to deal with endless questions. She made him as nervous, staring up at him expectantly as the ne'gal did with their towering bodies and menacing weapons.

"Is Ryo coming?" she asked of him, before he could shoo her back to the hun'ra. She caught him off his guard with that question and he blinked down at her. Her accent was not that of the hun'ra - - more modern than that by a long shot. Was this the girl that had been captured before Ryo's eyes then, on the island? The one he had been so upset over? Very likely.

"He's coming." Seiji said.

"He promised he'd take me home." She said in a very small voice. Desolate and afraid and alone here. Maybe alone if she got home, if her family had fallen victim to the ne'gal attack. He crouched down, looking into her liquid eyes. "If Ryo said so, then he'll see you home. He doesn't break his promises. Ever."

Somberly, she nodded, accepting his word. He looked around for a hun'ra woman to look after her. One of them at the rear took pity . . . on him or the girl . . . and sweep the little thing up, giving him a grateful look he wasn't sure he deserved. The girl stared at him over the woman's shoulder, with eyes older than anyone her age deserved to have.

Sarag'sa's ne'gal were not about to open the gates while his brother's army was twitching in the pass just outside it, which meant anyone down in that pass had to make their way up to the top of the wall on their on. Sarag'sa seemed to be one of the few ne'gal with wings that didn't have the mass of body weight that prevented him from a straight take off from solid ground. Most of them needed height to drop off of for the wind to catch under their wings and keep them aloft. They also weren't long distance fliers, Ryo had discovered, along the way here from the ne'gal camp where they had freed the prisoners. It took work and effort for them to stay in the air and they tired quickly. But not quickly enough not to do damage while they were aloft. They had climbed laboriously to the heights the cliffs provided and swept down when the attack had started - - so Rowan said. But they were downed now and not going anywhere quickly save back down the pass the way they had come. They wanted to retreat that way, it was clear. Wanted it badly when Sarag'sa proved his superiority over them and snatched up the severed firedrake head, lifting off the ground with a bunching of legs and a powerful flapping of wings to jam the head onto several of the spikes protruding from under the lower battlement for all to get a really good look at.

"Give a good glare, Ryo." Rowan suggested, Rowan's hand surreptitiously hovering at his elbow as if he were afraid Ryo would topple over and embarrass them. Obediently, Ryo scanned the ranks of the enemy. Ne'gal of all different sizes and shapes, the ones to the forefront the big, lumbering wingless sort, while the lighter flyers gathered at the back, their wings protruding above their heads like sails in a crowded port. A great deal of them were staring at him like he was something Sarag'sa had conjured out of the depths of hell to devour them. They most certainly weren't used to their hun'ra fighting back. They didn't know what to make of the fact that the hun'ra had acquired a protector that could take out their biggest, baddest beast. Ryo hoped the memory stuck long and well, because it was going to be a while before he was up to doing it again. If he could. A great deal of that fight had been seat of the pants and balanced on the thin edge of luck.

"We've gotta go up." Rowan said softly, worried about appearances. "You need me and Sai to help you?"

"No. I got it."

Rowan sighed, relieved. "You two go first. I'll stay and cover just in case." Rowan nodded at Sai, urging him to get a move on. Sai pulled at Ryo's arm and Ryo took a deep breath, forcing leaden limbs to move. If Sarag'sa could get off the ground with that damned big dragon head in tow, Ryo could damned well bound up the canyon side and the wall to reach the top. Just thinking about Sarag'sa got his anger simmering a little again and lent a little more energy to his empty reserves. He followed Sai up the corner, rebounding off the cliff face to make the first ledge. Gathered ne'gal scattered to make room for them. They didn't bother trying to worm their way through the shoulder to shoulder ranks of reptiles to make the small doorway at the center of the causeway, instead using the same method of bouncing off walls to reach the top of the towering ramparts.

Sarag'sa was already at the top, back in his all too human form, thick arms crossed, wings neatly folded behind him, a suspiciously pleasant look on his long face. He smiled at Ryo, who bristled under his own helm, hating this smarmy, raping reptile prince more than he'd hated anything in a long time.

"Very, very impressive." Sarag'sa said. "After your first appearance in my pass, I'm surprised you were able to succeed as grandly as you did."

Something very nasty hovered on the tip of Ryo's tongue. Sai stepped forward instead, inclining his head politely. "Thank you lord Sarag'sa. We thought it would make an impression on them."

Sarag'sa looked past Sai to Ryo, clearly intrigued.

"The hun'ra?" Sai asked.

"On their way to their lands on the other side of these mountains." Sarag'sa said.

Ryo wanted to ask about Seiji. Well, Seiji and Kento, but honestly Seiji was first and foremost in his mind. He bit his tongue stubbornly not wanting to even utter Seiji's name in front of this bastard on the off chance that he'd find reason to say it himself. It was stupid and unreasonable and he was damned and determined to start the fight back up way up here if Sarag'sa so much as inferred anything remotely connected to Seiji.

"Where are they now and how do we get to them?" Rowan had come up behind them and managed the important question.

"Traveling a tunnel through the mountains that will put them two miles from this pass and at the edge of the highlands that back this range. Your shak'natari are with them."

"Both of them?" Sai asked warily.

Sarag'sa nodded, eyes flickering again to Ryo with a vaguely self-satisfied expression that Ryo couldn't decide to take offense at or not. He decided for the moment, not. Seiji was okay. He would have felt it otherwise, that frantic tug at that place in his soul where the not so tenuous connection he had with Seiji was anchored. He'd felt it enough on the way here, when Seiji was distraught and ignored it, to know the difference.

"Which way will they come out?" Rowan asked and Sarag'sa pointed. "Not far from where the canyon mouth is. You'll find a cluster of hun'ra tents there, waiting for the return of their fellows, no doubt."

"Come on." Rowan had his elbow again and was urging him on, which was annoying in its own right. "We'll go overland and meet them on the other side. It'll be quicker. Thanks for the hospitality." Rowan nodded at Sarag'sa. Sai did with the same generic politeness he used on insurance salesmen and telemarketers.

They took the direct route through the pass, over the top and across to the bordering rocky cliffs on the other side. Leap. Bound. Jump. Scale. Ryo did it by reflex, pushing the exhaustion back yet again, drawing power from the armor to fuel battered, watery muscles. Maybe some of that power was coming from Rowan and Sai, at this point he couldn't tell where he was getting the energy to follow Rowan's haphazard path across the treacherous landscape. Sai came behind him, maybe to make sure he didn't falter or lose footing without someone there to see it and spot him. It was probably warranted.

Ryo's thoughts had gone scattered and thin with exhaustion. The body did what it had to do with very little contribution from the brain. He thought about Seiji staring at him with cold cruelty, a dead queen behind his eyes. Of Seiji so deep in despair he sought the coward's way out rather than face the problem head on. Of Seiji, shocked and bruised after taking a direct hit from Ryo, when Ryo hadn't the sense to get rid of the armor when he was burning with rage and looking for a fight. Regret. He didn't want to hurt Seiji. He never wanted to hurt Seiji. He wanted to protect Seiji from all the things that threatened. He wanted to understand Seiji and he just damned couldn't . . . most of the time. Couldn't comprehend why Seiji just couldn't come right out and admit things like being weak and hurting and being embarrassed over a perceived wrong and asking not just for pardon but for somebody to understand the problem. For God's sake just talking would be a great start. Just sit down and let the words spew forth whether they made sense or not and let somebody who cared try and make reason of them.

But doing all of that wouldn't be Seiji. It would go against Seiji's nature, against all the walls and mental armor that Seiji had put up over the years, growing up with a family that didn't much care for him . . . traditional, asinine vultures all, in Ryo's opinion.

He'd kicked Seiji's ass and Seiji had let him. He'd raped Seiji and Seiji had let him do that to, just laid there and taken it like it was apt punishment. Like he deserved it from Ryo anymore than he deserved it from that sonofabitchbastardasshole Sarag'sa.

Ryo's foot slipped in landing and he slid down a dozen yards before he caught himself. Sai was there in an instant, fingers gripping the shoulder of Ryo's armor. Ryo shook him off with a growl, then slammed a fist into the side of the mountain, splintering rock, geysering dirt into the air. Again and he roared in frustration and Sai clung there on the ledge beside him, wide eyed and wary, until Rowan appeared above, bow knocked and ready, looking for enemies to take down.

Sai looked up and exchanged some wordless explanation with Rowan. Rowan didn't say a thing. Just turned on his heel and disappeared over the top and left Sai to urge Ryo into moving again, even though his vision was blurry from tears he hadn't even realized had started leaking from his eyes.

"Come on." Sai said gently. "Shouldn't be far, now."

"I'm tired." Which protest only emphasized the fact of just how exhausted he was. He'd never, ever have complained about it if he weren't half out of his head with fatigue.

"Well, that's what you get for fighting dragons all on your own, you idiot."

"You were there." Ryo managed a halfhearted smile and Sai snorted, not bothering to argue the point.

"I can always carry you."

"Yeah, right." Ryo pushed himself up, got his footing and clambered up the slope on his own. Rowan wasn't too far ahead, perched on an outcropping of rock five hundred feet up, nothing but sky behind him. They'd reached the last of the summits and there was nothing beyond but the decreasing hills and valleys that bordered the flatlands where the hun'ra dwelled.

Rowan's eagle eyes spotted the hun'ra encampment first. He lifted a finger and pointed it out to Sai and Ryo, a collection of dust colored tents that blended miraculously well with the barren slopes of the arid side of the range. They might have easily passed it by as the ne'gal might have if they had been searching.

They walked towards the fringe of the camp and a dozen hun'ra warriors melted out of the rocks to challenge them, narrow eyed and suspicious of prickly, armor clad intruders, even if they were hun'ra sized. Rowan swept off his helm, assuring them that no reptile face was hidden beneath its shadows.

"We're friends." Rowan said. "Your people are on their way back. I'm pretty sure the ne'gal aren't following."

They murmured at that, wary and excited, but the fact that they were human could not be ignored and the humans - - hun'ra - - stuck together here out of necessity. So they welcomed strangers into their camp, and offered food and asked questions that Ryo was too tired to fully comprehend, what with the barrier of accent and language in combination with the driving desire to just sit down and vegetate for a very long time. He had to get rid of the armor. Now that he'd stopped moving, keeping it up was proving an impossible feat. He let it slip away with a relief that bordered on sexual and sat down promptly after in the dirt where he'd been standing.

"Its okay. Its all cool." Rowan was holding out his hands, trying to soothe the hun'ra who were rightfully freaked out over the disappearance of the armor.

"Ryo?" Sai crouched next to Ryo, melting down to sub armor himself which elected another set of suspicious murmurs from the hun'ra and set Rowan trying to explain that they weren't demons taken the form of hun'ra to infiltrate the camp and murder them all.

"I'm all right." Ryo said wearily. "Just had to get rid of it, is all. Just need to sit for a while."

"Maybe someplace other than on the ground in the middle of their camp, eh?" Sai smiled at him, then cast another one of those silent, communicative glances up to Rowan and Rowan interpreted it and asked the hun'ra if there was a place they could rest up. Warily, the hun'ra offered a tent and Ryo made the supreme effort of getting up, albeit with a hand from Sai and limped off towards a small tent. The armor had hidden the greater extent of the aches and pains. He felt every one of them now. Sai had to be aching too, he'd taken more than one bad hit himself, fighting the firedrake. Smart of him to keep his sub armor, it would keep him going until they all felt safe enough to completely disarm.

"You guys need to go and find Seiji and Kento." Ryo caught at Sai's wrist inside the small, plain little tent. Barely enough room to stand upright, and just wide enough so that a body could stretch out if it needed and take a decent rest. There was a pallet on the floor and a neat roll of woven blankets at the head of it. Sai unrolled it while Rowan hovered at the opening, tent flaps draped across the broad shoulders of his armor.

"I need to go. You're done for and we're not leaving you alone."

"These aren't enemies." Ryo protested. "These are people. Like us."

"People can do a lot of fucked up things if they're scared and don't trust you. And these folks do not trust us, yet." Rowan said with a look that clearly said Ryo was being naive and for him to just shut up and listen to more cynical heads. "Besides which, I don't entirely trust that Sarag'sa won't change his mind and try something. You guys stay here and I'll go track down the refugees."

If Sai had problems with that plan, he didn't argue them out loud. He did get up and pull Rowan a little outside the tent though, to exchange a few very quiet words. Rowan leaned forward afterwards, touching his forehead briefly to Sai's before turning to survey the rocky slopes beyond the camp, then jamming his helm back on and bounding away.

Unless the ne'gal decided to attack en masse, Ryo had to trust that Rowan could deal with finding Seiji and Kento and their band of hun'ra. It was either that or sit there and worry until it ate him up. He listened to Sai trying to talk to the hun'ra outside the tent, about Sarag'sa letting their people travel through his fortress. About the ne'gal chasing them on the other side of the gates. Defending of all things, the pale tone of his skin and the fact that it didn't make him any less than the dark skinned hun'ra. Sai started to sound a little snarky around that last bit of conversation, no doubt weary beyond patience of being looked on as some sort of foreign freak.

Ryo shut his eyes, leaning forward to press fingertips against temple in an effort to chase away the pounding ache behind his eyes. He damn well knew better than to overextend himself in the white armor - - had learned his limits the hard way - - but it wasn't like he'd had a whole vista of choices laid out before him. It wasn't like it hadn't worked, risky or not. He gave in to the temptation and lay down, curled on his side on the blanket covered pallet, hands still carefully massaging the soft skin at his hairline, wishing very much Sai would take his conversation with the hun'ra just a little further away.

But, maybe he did, or maybe the voices just faded a little as Ryo slipped into a fitful doze, but they came back again in a loud clamor of many, many more voices raised in excitement. Something was going on and Ryo instinctually began to push himself up to find out what. His body protested, every ache and bruise that he'd only felt a hint of before through the numbness of sheer exhaustion, now screaming at him full force once his body had stopped its forward momentum.

He groaned and arduously straightened his legs, shutting his eyes and wincing as his right calf began to cramp up. Badly. He flexed his foot, trying to work it out of the muscle. He'd been a fool to simply collapse instead of slowly walking off the strain. Tired or no, it had would only have been a sensible thing to do to keep from happening just what he was going through now.

It refused to dissipate despite his ministrations. His eyes teared up of their own accord from the pain of it. The tent flap rustled, Sai coming back. Only it wasn't Sai brown head Ryo saw through blurred vision, but a far paler one and Ryo drew in a sobbing breath of frustration, in no wise up to facing Seiji at the moment.

"What' wrong?" Seiji snapped, seeing clearly enough that something was, his hesitation at the flap turning into a direct crossing of the tent, sub-armor fading as he moved, leaving him in the dark robes in which Ryo had last seen him. Denying it would have been utter foolishness, what with him curled around his leg, his hands uselessly trying to rub out a cramp that had corded every tendon in his leg, leaving toes crooked and aching and the rest of his body starting to cramp up in sympathetic protest.

"Leg." He ground out, squeezing his eyes shut, a simple enough way to avoid having to meet Seiji's anxious gaze.

"Injury?" Seiji's hands batted his own away, pushing up the loose leg of the fine trousers he wore under the matching tunic Sarag'sa's people had provided for him.

"Cramp. Bad . . fucking . . . cramp." He'd been cursing a lot lately, maybe Rowan rubbing off on him after all this time. Maybe just too many circumstances that demanded it. Seiji's strong fingers dug into the rigid muscles of his calf, kneading, pressing all the right spots. Down to his foot, firmly flexing it forward and back, stretching complaining tendons until they loosened and relaxed into something close to tolerable. Seiji had the touch, that wonderful healing warmth that seemed part and parcel with the power of Halo. Ryo sighed, tension flowing out of him, muscles, bone, flesh all falling back into proper alignment. If he just let himself fall asleep now, content and comfortable, Seiji might go away and Ryo wouldn't have to confront him, wouldn't have to face up to his own shameful crimes.

"How do you feel?" Seiji asked, long after his hands had stilled. Very soft, very subdued, like it hurt him to voice the question out loud. Maybe it did. Seiji wasn't good at initiating uncomfortable conversations. Seiji was usually the one to turn his back and will the subject dropped.

"Like I was in a tin can that bounced down the side of a mountain." Ryo murmured, not opening his eyes. "And had a dragon try to chew it up and spit it out."

"Fool." Seiji sighed, even softer. And didn't say anything more, leaving Ryo to wallow in his own guilt, made all the more vivid by Seiji's mere presence. He had never been so good at keeping silences, at not blurting out the things that weighed on his heart, no matter how shameful or embarrassing. Ryo handled guilt about as well as he handled . . . oh, say exams on molecular physics . . . which was to say not at all.

"I'm sorry. Seiji, I'm so sorry. I was so angry . . . I shouldn't have . . ."

"Shut up, Ryo." There was no malice in that request. None of Seiji's usual icy disdain when a subject was brought up that didn't meet with his approval. Just a weariness that Ryo empathized with oh, so very acutely.

"Its not your fault." Seiji's face was nothing but shadow and the fall of pale hair. Ryo could hardly see the movement of his lips. ". . . mine."

Ryo let out an exasperated breath, the churning of adrenaline getting him past the aches and pains. He pushed himself up, not willing to latch hold of Seiji in anger again, but damned ready to vent frustration verbally.

"Give it a rest, Seiji. I'm so sick of your whole suffering in noble silence routine. Of you shouldering all the blame for everything and then running off and hiding when it comes down to talking about it. Yes, you were stupid . . . stupid . . . just . . ." Ryo floundered for a more adequate word and could not in his flustered state come up with one. He repeated the one that stuck in his head. " . . . Stupid . . . for the Sarag'sa thing. I don't even wanna get into what you were thinking, though I'll bet money it was some masochistic bullshit."

Ryo had to take a breath. He was shaking so badly that his teeth threatened to clatter. He still couldn't see Seiji's eyes. Couldn't see clearly the set of his mouth to have a clue if he were pissed or shaken or simply didn't care. "But, its not your fault. Not all of it. Just like what happened with . . . with her, wasn't your fault no matter that you've convinced yourself that it was. You made a bad choice and you got burned for it. We all got burned - - but so the fuck what? We've been burned before. We survive. And I never ever held a grudge against you for what she did, but you pissed the hell out of me when you . . when you . . ." he couldn't even say the word. Couldn't even contemplate Seiji trying suicide to salve his lost honor or whatever the hell he'd been trying to achieve. "When you let it rule you, even after she was gone." He finished quietly. And wasn't that just the heart of the problem in a few simple words.

"Funny." Seiji said softly, kneeling there at the edge of the pallet, long hands very still on his knees. "I just told someone you never lied - - and yet here you go proving me wrong."

Ryo gaped at him, off his balance and floundering, wondering what Seiji was talking about. His eyes must have shown his confusion, because Seiji did look up a little, through the fall of hair, a flash of anger caught in a stripe of canvas filtered light.

"You say you held no grudge - - that you never placed blame at my feet - - then where were you, Ryo? Where . . . were . . . you?" This last came out harshly, Seiji's voice breaking up with emotion that Seiji never showed to the world.

Ryo blinked, trying to gather wits, trying to comprehend just what it was that had Seiji's voice shaking and his hands suddenly clenched into white knuckled fists in his lap. "Where was I? I was there. I was right there." He cried.

"The hell you were." Seiji hissed. "You couldn't stand to look at me. There was no excuse to trivial to take you out of the room if I came in. You said it was okay . . . that you forgave me. But it was only words. You didn't feel in your heart. You think I wouldn't know?'

"I think you were out of your mind, is what I think." Ryo retorted, but it held only a fraction of the heat he'd had a few moments before. Was Seiji right? Ryo had been so hurt and bruised after getting back from Egypt, so traumatized by the weeks of stress and mental as well as physical abuse that certainly he'd kept to himself for a while, trying to find the reserves to heal. And maybe he had been distant from Seiji, because no matter how innocent Seiji was of the crimes that had been committed using his body - - it had still been Seiji's face and Seiji's voice and Seiji's unique scent and such strong reminders were hard to shake. And like Seiji said - - he knew things. He felt emotions very strongly, even if he hid his own most of the time.

So Ryo was pissed at Seiji from stubbornly shouldering the blame, from letting it hang like a weight around his neck, from distancing himself from him in the process, but maybe, maybe all of that came about because Ryo hadn't been there to shore up Seiji's shattered defenses. Maybe all the things that Ryo had convinced himself to be angry at Seiji about, were at some level, his own fault? It was confusing. At the best of times Seiji was confusing. This tangled mess was making Ryo's head hurt worse than it already did.

"Well," Ryo said, because he'd made mistakes and Seiji had made mistakes and there was no going back and changing them, only going forward and making sure they weren't compounded. "I'm here now and I'm not going anywhere."

"How comforting." That was said with dry sarcasm, which meant Seiji had his back up, that Seiji had been offended and Seiji was reflexively striking back with words designed to wound as much with tone as meaning. Ryo was too tired for the petty things to matter. The resentment was gone. Just drained away with the rest of his energy and all that was left was regret that things had gotten so miserably skewered.

"I'm tired." He said, hanging his head, hair slithering around his face and shielding him from Seiji and the dim light inside the tent. "Everybody get here all right?"

Silence while Seiji digested the change in subject and decided whether to go along with it or not. And finally. "Yes."

"There was a little girl . . "

"Yes, Ryo." Seiji repeated.

"Okay." He trusted Seiji not to lie to him. His back ached, taut with tension and strained muscles. Maybe bruised as well, he hadn't really had the chance to check out the state of individual hurts. He lay back with a stifled groan and stared up at the slant of the low canvas ceiling. "I'll go out and see them in a little while. I just need to rest a bit longer. Maybe a half hour . . ."

"Maybe longer." Seiji suggested and shifted to rise. Ryo wanted to stop him. Badly. Wanted to reach out and snag his wrist to tug him down onto the pallet with him. Wanted to press him close and simply hold him, letting his body express all the regret and sympathy that he just couldn't seem to form in words.

But he hesitated and lost his chance, and Seiji was on his feet, and through the tent flap as fleet and quiet as the wind.

There was a great crowd at the center of the camp, the hun'ra celebrating the return of family and friends, exchanging tales, giving good news and bad. They were not especially boisterous in their reunion, a rather reserved people at heart, but their joy was apparent. Being all too familiar with the ne'gal, they had held small hope for the success of the party they had sent to track their captured folk. Rowan, Sai and Kento were among them, the lot of them having banished their armor in the overly optimistic hope that they were safe from attack. Seiji kept his distance, having had enough of being looked on as a freakish foreigner for one day - - for one lifetime. He scanned the slopes to the west warily, looking for the tell tale signs of enemy scouts, but saw nothing more than rocks cast in the shadow of a day well past its zenith.

It was easier to breath out here. Easier to get a hold on his emotions. Being in that tent with Ryo had wrecked havoc with his control. Not so hard to do these days, but still he'd felt a tightness in his chest and a constriction in his throat that warned of traitorous tears and he'd had to escape. It took far longer than it should have to chase the feeling away.

"Seiji. Hey, Seiji." Rowan was hailing him, beckoning from the outskirts of the hun'ra congregation. Seiji did not particularly want to join them, but Rowan showed all signs of continuing to call if he didn't, so he moved that way, scowling at the hun'ra that gaped at him with owlish curiosity.

"Hey, how's Ryo?" Rowan clapped a hand on his shoulder. Seiji endured it and shrugged.

"Past his limits. What do you want?"

"Karen has proved to be not as useless as I first thought." Rowan declared and the red headed woman, who'd been talking animatedly with an old hun'ra turned at the mention of her name and glared indignantly at Rowan.

"I heard that. What is that supposed to mean?" The last word sputtered to a halting end as she noticed Seiji. She blinked. A hand immediately rose to finger comb her hair. The hostility evaporated like mist on a hot rock. "Oh - - oh, you're one of them - - with the armor, I mean. We haven't met - - not without your helmet thingy off - -"

Rowan rolled his eyes. Seiji stared at her levely for a moment waiting for her to sputter out. It was not an entirely dissimilar reaction from what he was getting from the hun'ra, only lacking the contempt.

"Yeah, yeah." Rowan said. "He's hot. Get over it. What I was saying," he continued, ignoring Seiji's droll glance and Karen's embarrassed blush. "What that our little archeologist here remembered the symbols on the gate thing that brought us here, drew them out and one of the elders here thinks he might know where some similar symbols are on this side of the mountains."

"It could very likely be another portal home." Karen said excitedly. A discovery of this magnitude will rock the world. I'm going to be famous."

Rowan winced, casting a worried look to Seiji over the woman's head. If they got back home, it was doubtful she would limit the tale to the portals and the world that existed at the other end of them.

"Come on," Rowan latched hold of Seiji's arm and urged him away. "I wanna talk to you."

Past the tents and a little ways up the slope where huge slabs of rock protruded up from the hard ground, stabbed up through the earth from some prior shifting of continental plates. Whether such an event had happened five years ago or thousands was anyone's guess. Kento could probably sense, if the earth was unstable, though, if they cared to ask.

"What, do you wear cologne laced with pheromones?" Rowan finally said, casting Seiji a lopsided grin. "Cause I swear I've never met anyone who so many people wanted to fuck on first sight."

"Did you want something in particular, or were we just going to discuss the drawbacks of my sexual appeal?"

"Ahh, yeah, I guess it could be considered sort of a bad thing, current events and all."

Seiji stopped walking, stood there with a hand on a shoulder high rock and waited for Rowan to say whatever it was Rowan was bound and determined to say.

"So you and Ryo get a chance to talk?"

"This is your business . . . how?" Seiji narrowed his eyes.

Rowan just stood there, waiting. Seiji let out a frustrated breath and hissed. "If you're so worried about Ryo, go and talk to him."

"I'm not worried about Ryo. Ryo can take care of himself. Ryo can deal with shit and not self destruct. You're the problem child, Seiji."

Seiji opened his mouth. Shut it. Tried to work up a bit of righteous indignation over that jibe and failed. It wasn't worth the effort when Rowan could come up with too many examples to prove his point.

"We talked. Ryo said things that he doesn't believe. End of story."

"What things?"

"You are not serious?" Seiji gave him a look, knowing very well that Rowan knew he wouldn't share those intimate details.

"I am." Rowan surprised him. "You may wanna keep it all to yourself, but this effects us all when the both of you are making stupid ass decisions. Point in case, you and the lizard king and Ryo and the big fucking dragon. That's the sort of shit that endangers all of us and since circumstances and mystical bullshit prevent the two of you just walking away and not seeing each other anymore, you either need to make the fuck up or come to an amicable split."

Rowan could have hit him and had less impact. Despite the fact that he'd been dwelling on just such a solution these past months, it still took his breath away.

"It would probably be best for Ryo, even if he won't admit it." Seiji said softly.

"You think?" Rowan tilted his head. "What about you?"

Seiji couldn't answer that out loud. Couldn't and wouldn't express what such a loss would mean. The gaping hole it would leave. He slumped back against the rock, staring past Rowan to the pink of evening, sun-kissed clouds.

"He says he doesn't blame me, Rowan. But how can he not?"

"Dude, he went through hell - - voluntarily - - for you. He came close to freakin' killing me for what I did to get you back. He doesn't blame you, Seiji. Trust me."

"He acted like it."

"What he was was fucked up, not as bad as you, but fucked just the same and worried about your stupid ass, but you weren't seeing it at the time. And you know, nothing pisses you off as much as somebody you love going out and doing stupid stuff and scaring the shit out of you. You had us all a little scared, you know? Then you left and didn't call for what - - weeks. You think Ryo wasn't freaking out wondering if you were okay or not? You think it wasn't building up every single day he didn't hear from you? Yeah, I'd be pissed off at you too. I was actually. But it was just a sign of affection."

Seiji sniffed.

"Seiji, just bite the fucking bullet and be honest with him, for all our sakes."

"I haven't lied . . ."

"That's not what I mean. Let your damned shields down. Let him know you're hurting - - shut up - -" Rowan raised a warning finger when Seiji opened his mouth to deny such a thing. "- - and let him frickin' comfort you, because its what he needs to do and if you haven't figured that out by now then you're more whacked out than I thought."

Rowan held up a wrist with a watch that echoed the rise and fall of the sun in their own world. "The hun'ra are planning a big celebration feast, dining, dancing, spear-throwing for fun, that sort of thing - - so the way I figure it, you've got a few hours at least before we're so wasted we'll have to cram into the tent and crash with Ryo. Why don't you go and . . . you know, make nice, while you've got the time?"

"Don't presume to tell me what to do, Rowan."

"Suggestions. They're just suggestions."




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