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A Season Of Dragons
"So how was your sabbatical in the woods?" Sai asked.
Ryo gave him a look, knowing very well that Sai had no interest whatsoever in camping, fishing, hiking and general overall roughing it in the wilderness. He was only asking because Ryo had shot down all his previous attempts to pry into more personal matters.
Ryo didn't want to talk about personal matters. Ryo didn't want to think about him - - them - - and Sai was not helping in the least.
"Did you kill anything?"
"I wasn't hunting." Ryo said, staring up at the rocky cliff face that dominated the right-hand side of the trail they were navigating. "Rowan hunts. I just camp."
"Oh. Well - - how was camping?"
"Pretty much what you'd expect, Sai. Woods, trails, campfires - - a lot like this minus the dragon-things." He was trying not to be short. He really, truly did not wish to be testy with Sai, but Sai was pushing it. Sai was so invasive that a body just wanted to strangle him - - or at the very least tape his mouth shut to keep from being plagued with the questions.
"Seiji went home to his family." Sai said, trudging in Ryo's wake, in his khaki shorts and stained tropical shirt. They were all sans armor in the heat of the afternoon and no obvious threat about. Despite the strength the armor lent, it was easier and more comfortable hiking without it.
"I don't know why," Sai continued in Ryo's absolute silence. "There's no love lost between him and them. They all hate him, if you ask me, because of his blood and because he got everything that they thought should have gone to them. I don't think he should have gone - - be he wouldn't listen to me and once we trusted him out on his own, he was damned and determined to go."
"I didn't ask, Sai." Ryo said softly. He hadn't asked Seiji either and Seiji hadn't volunteered. Seiji never volunteered anything. No comfort, no encouragement - - no love. Nothing. Ever. All Seiji ever did was take and control and use and never admit fault or show weakness. And when he did show weakness - - when he did falter, the guilt he felt wasn't for the horrible things he'd done - - but for the fact that he'd been weak enough to let it happen.
"Oh, well, I thought you'd want to know."
"Well, I don't." Ryo snapped, angry now because he'd not wanted to think about Seiji and Sai had forced the issue. "Can we just walk - - without talking?"
Sai frowned, green eyes showing hurt, which made Ryo feel the ass. He bit his lip and looked up ahead, picking out Kento's broad back among the shifting bodies of the hun'ra. Kento didn't ask painful questions, but it would be just too rude to jog up ahead and walk with him, abandoning Sai, after biting his head off. So he shoved his hands in his pockets and stared morosely at the trail and listened to Sai trying to be silent, but even in silence he was loud, exuding frustration and impatience and no small bit of offense.
Ryo wished he were anywhere else. He wished he were home, with no imminent threat hovering over his head, with White Blaze sleeping contentedly on the rug before the big fireplace and everything and everyone else in the place they belonged. It would be nice to sit back and watch a game on the TV and not have to worry about hurt feelings or dragons or - - or how he was going to survive the emotional turmoil that was Seiji.
"What's that?" Sai broke his silence, and Ryo glanced back to see where he was looking. Up at the top of the cliff ahead there was a dark blot of movement. Hard to see against the sun behind it, but it was damned sure not a rock and damned sure on the move.
"Damn." Ryo swore, summoning armor with a focused force of will, even as he turned to hiss at Sai. "Go tell Kento we've been spotted, but don't make a fuss about it. If there are more of them around that don't know we're here, I'd just as well keep it that way."
"What are you going to do?"
"Hunt that one down before he can spread the word."
And he was off, leaving Sai standing there with a complaint on his lips, bounding up the cliff face with the speed and power that only the armor could have granted him.
Ryo came back blood spattered. Sai was armored up. Kento was, the both of them on the verge of heading after him when he showed back up, red armor smeared with the blood of their enemy, face expressionless, eyes just cold and business-like.
"How many were there?" Kento wanted to know.
"Two." Ryo said and didn't elaborate. Just like that - - two quick executions and he didn't blink an eye. Even if they hadn't been human - - even close to human - - they were still sentient creatures. Weren't they? Sai had felt a pang in his gut with every one he'd killed - - had felt it tear at his heart, even though he knew it was kill or be killed. Had held onto Rowan at night and just shook from it - - from the killing. He'd never had a heart for it. Ever. He hoped he never did. He hoped he never had the expression Ryo had on his face, all spattered with blood, after casually slicing up two enemies. But then Ryo got that like that, in the midst of campaigns. Ryo stopped thinking about anything but the goal he'd set out upon and the survival and the protection of the group. He took that responsibility to heart - - to damned close to heart at times, in Sai's opinion. Too damned focused, which made him good at what he did, a body had to admit. Which made him near unstoppable when he was set on a target. Sai wouldn't want to get in his way when he was in this mode. Not with that look in his eyes.
There was blood on Ryo's cheek. Sai wanted to reach out and wipe it off, but at the moment, Ryo's unapproachability rivaled Seiji's on a particularly testy day.
"Do you think there are any more up there?" Kento asked, scanning the cliffs.
"Maybe." Ryo said. "None that those two contacted. We should stay on guard. Maybe run point and guard just in case."
Kento nodded, agreeing with the logic of that. Sai didn't like it. He didn't like them separating. The notion made his stomach lurch.
Ryo took point, bounding up the cliffs and outdistancing the rest of the hun'ra forces, while Kento opted to lag behind and cover their rear, which left Sai in the midst of the hun'ra, who weren't particularly fond of him. Oh, they were tolerant, because he was Rowan's shak'nor and because he was rather intimidating all armored up and sporting a very impressive, very sharp mystical trident, but he didn't like the looks. He didn't like that they whispered about him in front of his face and wouldn't respond to his very polite inquiries or comments without looking as if they were performing some distasteful task. And of course Rowan had encouraged it, because Rowan, not being the recipient, had initially thought it was funny. Rowan's sense of humor seriously needed to be taken out and shaken soundly. He imagined Seiji was ready to strangle Rowan, Seiji having less of a tolerance in general for the sort of thing that amused Rowan, and in particular having less of a reason to be concerned for all Rowan's parts to be in operating order.
To make matters more miserable, it started to rain. A steady, drenching downpour that was cold and oppressive. If a body was going to be wet, a body ought to be immersed in welcoming water instead of assaulted by a tenacious rain that ran in rivulets down the groves in a body's helmet and streamed into face and eyes.
Sai was not happy. He was happier less, a hour down the trail when the water flowing down the mountain side ceased to be simply annoying and proceeded to take half the mountain down with it in the form a sudden mudslide. The hun'ra scrambled for safety, but a good deal of them were caught in the onslaught of wet earth, either swept down the opposite slope or buried under the sludge. Sai dove into the mess, snatching hapless hun'ra warriors and flinging them up the trail with graceless desperation, before the rest of the slope came down upon them.
He unearthed some half dozen of the unlucky one's and sent them coughing and sputtering to safety before the next onslaught of mud came tumbling down. He just looked up and there was a wall of mud crashing down. He got out one uncharacteristic curse before it swept over him, tumbling him down the opposite slope with mud in his mouth, mud up his nose, in his ears, mud in every crevice of the armor. He was buried under mud and rocks and uprooted trees and panic welled.
He had been holding the trident, but he'd lost his hold on it somewhere along the way, which was a damned inconvenient thing, since one focused blast of his own personal brand of power would have made a quick exit. Without it, he had to claw his way out and to make matters worse, he wasn't quite sure which way was up.
Somebody hauled him out, finally, with a hand on one of the protruding bits of his armor and plopped him carelessly aside about a hundred feet down the slope from the trail where the mud had carried him. Sai couldn't quite see, what with the mud in his eyes, and he flung off the helm and turned his face up into the driving rain, rubbing at the clinging mud to clear breathing and vision.
"Over there! There's somebody over there!" Kento was casting mud and dirt aside like a backhoe - - finding a weakly struggling body and pulling it into the gray light of day. Sai couldn't see movement where Kento pointed, but sloughed through the unstable mud regardless, trusting Kento and Kento's bond with the earth.
"Where?" he called, plunging his arms up to the elbow in mud.
"To the right."
Sai almost had to immerse himself in the soup of dirt and stone and debris to find unresisting human flesh. He pulled a body up that wasn't breathing. Dead, with the head smashed in from some impact or another. Sai felt sick. He kept looking for others, with Kento's guidance. Vaguely he wondered where Ryo was . . .
The hair on the back of Ryo's neck wouldn't go down. The skin on his arms kept pimpling until he had to give in to the growing premonition that something was wrong and turn around to backtrack his path down the mountainside back to the trail that the hun'ra were following. He found the lot of them, bedraggled and filthy just past a section of the trail that was no more. Just slicked over with mud and dirt and debris. There were a few unmoving bodies on the ground, around which the hun'ra gathered. Sai and Kento were mud spattered and morose, off to the side, letting the hun'ra grieve for their own.
"Mudslide." Kento said, when Ryo wordlessly approached.
"Where were you?" Sai asked, a little accusing, then. "Never mind. You were probably too far ahead to hear."
"How - - how many dead?" he asked.
"Two." Kento said. "We got the rest out."
He felt a little lurch of his stomach. A little pang of guilt for not being there - - but everything else was numb. It was best that way. Easier to deal with the hardships of war - - which was what this amounted to - - when a body didn't allow itself to feel too much. He'd learned that the hard way.
They buried the bodies out of necessity as much as reverence. They couldn't leave evidence of their passage for the enemy to see. And afterwards, further down the trail, they found a lee large enough to make camp in. The rain still battered them, and with it strong, cold winds. They sent men into the surrounding darkness to stand guard in shifts, while the rest huddled, fireless, eating cold rations under the shallow overhang of rocks.
It was colder out of the armor than within. Ryo sat against the rock, his knees pulled up to his chest and stared into darkness. His mind drifted, wondering where Seiji was - - wondered if it were raining on him - - but he forced it away from that tangent with a surge of will and focused on things closer at hand. Sai and Kento sat across from him in their own five by three foot nook. Kento had started sneezing a little, and Sai was shivering, muttering forlornly about how nice a hot cup of tea would be now, and a dry room and a fire. Kento wrapped a big arm around him, pulling him close and Sai sighed, accepting the shared heat and the comfort. There was something about the way Kento pressed his chin against Sai's wet hair that spoke of intimacy before now unnoticed between the two of them.
It was embarrassing, almost, because Ryo had never once thought of Kento and intimate situations. With women or men. In all honesty, Ryo didn't think much of anyone and sex. It was hard to avoid with Rowan and Sai, because they threw it in his face half the time. But he'd never once dwelled upon what they did on his own. He didn't get off on Rowan's porn. Rowan could talk about it obsessively when he was on a roll, and if Ryo happened to be in his company, he'd nod and cast in the occasional obligatory agreement, all the while his mind wondering to other things. He didn't ogle the girls on the beach when there were more important things to occupy him, like surfing, or volley ball - - keeping track of what Seiji was doing, predatory and sleek in his expensive sun glasses and his traditionally black swim shorts, turning all the girl's heads.
Oh, how fucked up was he, when the only time he did think sex was when Seiji was around. When Seiji looked at him from under his gold-tipped lashes or brushed past him with a faint whiff of his cologne lingering in the air, or spoke his name, low and soft. It wasn't right. It just wasn't fair and he couldn't fathom it and he ought not be dwelling on it now, when they were in dangerous straits and he needed to focus on things other than Seiji and all the problems inherent therein.
"Ryo, you okay?" Kento asked.
"No." He muttered, pressing his forehead against his raised knees.
"What's wrong?" Sai wanted to know.
"Nothing. Just cold." And wet and miserable and fucked up.
"Come over here with us." Sai invited.
Ryo shook his head. "That's okay. I'm gonna get up and take a turn at watch soon, anyway."
He was scared to go over there. Scared to get too close to that new intimacy that had sprang up. He wouldn't have hesitated if he hadn't sensed that - - tenderness - - in the way Kento hugged Sai close. Maybe he wouldn't have had a second thought even then, if he hadn't been contemplating pushing aside what little intimacy he had in his life. God he hated that long dead bitch that had done this to them.
He rose, before they might notice that not all the wetness running down his face was rain, and stalked out into the night, calling up the armor and bounding up the trail.
Rowan sat under the edge of the tent flap, staring out at the invisible rain. It pounded rhythmically on the oiled leather of the tent's roof, sliding down the slant and dripping of the side. The night hid it all, save for those closest few droplets illuminated by the flame of the lantern. They had tents and fire and the relative comfort of the hun'ra's main traveling camp. Sai had gone off with nothing, his group forced to travel fast and light into enemy territory. Sai wouldn't be happy right about now, Rowan thought, hand in chin. Sai hated camping. Sai despised sleeping on the bare earth. Rowan missed him already. Maybe it hadn't been such a bright idea to split up, regardless of the Ryo/Seiji thing. It wasn't like Seiji's attitude had improved any, out from under Ryo's hostile stare and Ryo's unpredictable temper.
Seiji was still pissed and still sulking and not much in the way of sociable company. Of course the hun'ra were doing their part to destroy what good humor he might have had, with their dark stares and their derogatory comments and their general air of bigotry. They were even rubbing Rowan's nerves a little with it and he was generally tickled pink whenever some daring soul gave Seiji the snub. He glanced back into the small tent, where Seiji was stretched out on a bedroll. Not asleep, but trying for lack of anything better to do. They both had hun'ra robes. Rowan's were very nice, embroidered with silk stitching, long sleeved and flowing, reaching almost his knees, with comfortable trousers underneath. Seiji got robes befitting a shak'nor. Plain and serviceable. Simple black which did him more justice than Rowan's more ornate blue and silver. Seiji looked good in black. It made his skin glow and his hair shine like burnished white gold. Seiji had it on now, unbelted, and the material slid off the sides of his torso, revealing a long line of hard, pale flesh.
Rowan stared. He couldn't help it, Seiji by far more interesting to look at than a dark, rainy night. Seiji cracked a eye open, catching Rowan in the process. A dark blonde brow rose in question.
"Nothing." Rowan said, a grin twitching at his mouth. "Just thinking that black's your color."
The other brow rose. Rowan's grin blossomed and he shifted, swinging his legs about to crawl into the small tent, flopping down on his own bedroll and propping an arm under his head to stare at Seiji in earnest.
"They said tomorrow, you know?"
"I know." Seiji said softly. "They didn't say it to me, of course."
"Yeah, you're like the scum of the earth - - but they like to look, some of them. You're attractive scum, at any rate."
"Hummph." Seiji's eyes rolled.
"So how you gonna fix this thing with Ryo?"
Seiji's eyes narrowed. His mouth twitched.
"He's not gonna be the one to cave this time." Rowan surmised. "He's really, truly pissed."
"Then there's nothing I can to do change that, is there?" Seiji shut his eyes wanting out of this conversation. Rowan was bored enough not to let him.
"An apology might be a start."
"Didn't I?" Seiji said casually, without opening his eyes. "At some point between then and now. I thought I had."
"Ah, but what were you apologizing for, that's the clincher."
Seiji's eyes snapped open, angry now. "Fuck off, Rowan."
"Sure. Admitting fault is a big issue with you, we all know it. In fact, I don't recall ever hearing a 'sorry about killing you and all, Rowan' from you. Did I miss that one or did it slip your mind?"
Seiji blinked, blue eyes momentarily shocked, then the lashes fluttered down one more time and when they came back up, the eyes were guarded and wary. "Did I?"
"What? Kill me or say you're sorry? Yes on the first - - for a few minutes at any rate, and no on the second. I'd remember the occasion, I assure you."
"I'm sorry. I - - don't recall it - - clearly."
"Humm, it's like crystal to me."
"What do you want, Rowan?"
"I don't know. Maybe something with a little emotion behind it." He rolled over, close enough to look Seiji good and close in the eye, to invade his precious personal space and revel it in, because right now, with this issue at hand Seiji wasn't going to call him on it. Right now, Seiji wasn't even going to call him on the hand that he slid up Seiji's flat, hard tummy, just to see what it did to his face.
Seiji drew breath, his lashes fluttered a little, hiding whatever it was that crossed his eyes. It occurred to Rowan that as much as he might like to admit that he was doing this trying to push Seiji's buttons, now that he had his hand on that smooth, firm flesh, his palm on the indention of Seiji's navel, his fingers spread out over the faint ridges of washboard abs, that he was getting off on it. Fair was fair, after all. If Sai wanted to have the occasional little fling with Kento, that was fine - - as long as Rowan got to work out a few of his own kinks.
Seiji was one. Damned if baiting Seiji hadn't been a highpoint of his day for as long as they'd known each other. Those scant few weeks they'd actually been fucking between fighting - - oh years ago, before Sai and before Ryo had come into the formula - - had been some of the best sex in his life. Not the sweetest or the most romantic. There had been nothing of romance about it. They fought verbally and they fought physically between the sheets or against the wall or wherever the urge and the need had hit. If they'd have kept it up, chances were somebody would have gotten hurt. It had come to a mutually agreeable halt. It hadn't changed Rowan one bit. Seiji - - maybe a little, but then Seiji wasn't as flexible as Rowan. Seiji was uptight over appearances of honor and perceived sleights and whatnot. Rowan hadn't cared and Seiji had gotten over it. They'd gone years with nothing more than innuendo between them. Well, Rowan's innuendo, at any rate.
And now the Kento thing was making him seriously think about widening his horizons. Not that he'd do anything that would endanger Ryo and Seiji or Seiji's chances of getting back into Ryo's good graces if that's what he wanted - - but then again, what Ryo didn't know wouldn't get Rowan's ass kicked.
"Maybe we can come up with something - - to better demonstrate your remorse."
"Fine." Seiji said flatly. "You want to fuck me. Do it. You do whatever it takes to call it even."
Rowan blinked, caught off guard by the coldness of that suggestion. But then Seiji had his back in the corner, with the Ryo thing on the one side and Rowan's sudden stab at applying a little guilt on the other. He was scared, Rowan thought in amazement, he could feel the rapid beat of Seiji's heart under his hand. Oh, Seiji would do whatever needed doing, but he damned sure didn't like to be pushed. And though Rowan might not hesitate to push him a little, he didn't want Seiji to dread it. It cooled his engines rather thoroughly.
"Really?" he let a slow grin slip onto his lips, anyway.. "Whatever it takes?" He rolled over, getting a knee between Seiji's legs, half pressing his upper body against Seiji's. "You know, I've been going to these scat sites on-line recently - - Sai won't have anything to do with it - -"
"Fuck you, Rowan." Seiji shoved at him - - hard - - and Rowan let himself be knocked back to his own bedroll, laughing at Seiji's indignity.
Seiji glared, icy and offended. He never had been able to pick up on all of Rowan's little jokes. He took things too damned literally sometimes, got too damned offended, which was what made him so deliciously fun to prod.
"Did I say scat? Oopps. Sorry. Dirty me."
"Temper. Temper." Rowan folded his hands behind his head, grinning into the shadows.
There was a very long silence. Rowan couldn't tolerate it. "You never appreciate my humor."
" . . . . . . that's because you're not funny."
"Oh, that hurts. Sai thinks I'm funny. Kento thinks I'm a riot. Ryo - -"
"Don't. Just don't, Rowan. Shut up and go to sleep."
Seiji refused to say more than that, despite Rowan's best efforts, and eventually even he gave up and retired from the fight.
"I was just kidding." He finally muttered, even though he wasn't entirely certain he had been. "About the payback thing and all."
Rowan didn't manage much in the way of sleep and what he got was fitful and plagued with disturbing dreams. Mostly of him walking in on Kento and Sai in the midst of a little undercover operation - - and the two of them just looking at him and smiling like it was no big thing and beckoning him to come and join. Like having done it once made it a permanent thing. He wasn't quite sure he liked the notion of that. He hadn't gotten around to cornering Sai and talking about it. And if it was eating at him enough to cause dreams - - then maybe that's why he was entertaining thoughts about Seiji. Not that fucking Seiji wouldn't be an entertaining activity to engage in regardless of the state of a bodies mind - - it was just he usually didn't contemplate it seriously.
Seiji didn't mention it in the morning, so Rowan let it lie. They donned their native robes over their own much more durable, much more comfortable shoes and set out into a misty morning. The rain had stopped, but the day was gray and moist, a haze obscuring the trail ahead and the higher portions of the mountains completely covered in low lying clouds.
Eventually the trail grew narrow and rocky, climbing steeply around a sheer drop. By late afternoon the passage became more difficult, until finally the trail ran into what might have once been an old river bed that had cut its way through an otherwise unbreachable range of jutting rock and earth.
The cliff walls rose sheer and straight some three hundred feet or more on either side, unclimbable, unbreachable. At the top, bits of white indicated the first signs of snow that they'd seen. It promised to get colder to higher they climbed.
At the end of the long canyon the passage suddenly ended. A wall had been built, reaching from side to side and from bottom to top of the canyon. Each stone that made up the towering wall, might have been the size of a small house. What force, short of an army of heavy duty construction machinery, that could have lifted those blocks was beyond Rowan. At the center of the wall, were a set of gates some three stories tall. Great brass handles the size of carrier anchors adorned the iron facades.
"Well . . . that's a big fucking gate." Rowan said, shading his eyes against the sitting sun.
Seiji nodded in mute agreement. The hun'ra clustered around them, wary now that they were here and no small bit frightened.
"We will have to summon the gate's keeper to seek passage." The hun'ra natari, Thorn said.
"They let you guys past the first time around." Rowan said. "Why so worried about getting let back through?"
Thorne's eyes flickered to the closest of his hun'ra comrades nervously. "They let us pass not without - - payment. There is always payment with Ne'gal lords. Even ostracized ones."
"What sort of payment?" Seiji asked and Thorne frowned, not quite looking at him.
"Answer him." Rowan suggested, starting to get a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach as he wondered what it was that the hun'ra hadn't thought to mention.
"Since we are below Sarag'sa's respect and could not gain passage as his equals - - he took two of our people as gate toll."
"You gave him two of your - - wait a minute, I thought you were all hot and heavy about getting your folks back from being taken as slaves and here you go and offer up a couple just to pass through the fucking gates?"
"You do not listen, natari - - there is no other pass through the mountains. And those two gave themselves willingly in order to enable us to save the rest."
"Well that's just great - -Are you gonna give up a few more just to get a chance to talk with this dragonlord?"
"Rowan." Seiji laid a calm hand on his arm. Seiji was staring up at the gates, where about mid-way up a portal had opened and a hulking shape was moving out onto a narrow walk. "We don't need to give up anyone - - if we make them respect us." Seiji reminded him softly. "Perhaps we should have a talk with this gate keeper."
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