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A Wolf In Any Other Clothing

by P L Nunn

 

Chapter Five

 

Sai caught the cup before it could fall out of Seiji's hand. Sai caught Seiji as he slumped bonelessly sideways, and had a time juggling the cup and keeping Seiji from sliding off the couch. The cup clattered to the end table, cold tea sloshing onto the pile of Rowan's Playstation magazines scattered there. Seiji's head lolled on his shoulder. Seiji's eyelashes -- what he could see of them through the fall of pale hair -- were fluttering against his cheeks. Seiji was quite thoroughly out cold and Sai had the somewhat alarming thought that he'd somehow misread the dosage on the painkillers and given his friend a dangerous overdose. But no, he was certain he'd read correctly. He'd been very careful in his clandestine mission of mercy. Perhaps it was the glass of wine. Perhaps Seiji was just exhausted and sick. He was quite, quite warm. Sai tilted him back and slipped his hand under the thick bangs to feel Seiji's forehead. Seiji didn't protest. Those ice blue eyes did not slit open and give Sai a look of death for daring to make such a overtly motherly gesture.

"Seiji? Seiji?"

No response.

He sat there for a moment, both arms around the victim of his kindness, wondering what he ought to do. Whether he ought to give the doctor a ring and ask whether he ought to be unduly worried? Whether he ought to force Seiji awake and make him walk the drug off. He'd seen people do that on the telly when overdoses were involved. Make a body walk about, or force them into cold showers. But Seiji didn't seem to be gasping his last breath and his color was good. Seiji made a low sound and moved a little, shifting his head against Sai's shoulder. He smelled rather nice. Whatever he'd put in his bathwater to soak in still lingered on his skin and in his hair. Seiji had a taste for far off exotic scents. Subtle and curious, just enough to make a body want to take a step closer to him to figure out what it was he wore. Sometimes Ryo carried a hint of the fragrance around, if he'd spent the night between Seiji's sheets.

Sai decided he wasn't in danger of expiring. He slipped out from under Seiji's weight and arranged him on the couch - there was no graceful way for him to get him upstairs and into his own bed alone and he could sleep it off here as well as there.

He went and double checked the instructions on the prescription anyway, just for his own peace of mind, and decided that it had to be the wine. Restless and worried now on several fronts, Sai went out onto the front porch, careful not to let White Blaze slip out past him when he opened the door.

The big old porch creaked when he walked on it and rain rolled down the roof to pour out of the gutters. The sound of it was a steady, numbing patter, a merciless downpour that was hidden by the night. The weak porch light barely bit into the darkness. Sai wrapped his arms about himself and shivered, caught in a cold blast of water laced wind.

Stupid to worry, he told himself. Stupid to let the weather and night make him jumpy. It wasn't as if Rowan and Ryo couldn't take care of themselves. It wasn't as if Kento wouldn't find them -- perhaps stuck on the side of the road somewhere -- and haul the lot of them back home. It wasn't like there was any mortal thing in this world that couldn't be overcome by the mystic armors at their beck and call.

Nothing at all like that.

 

*

 

So, Rowan, how's it feel to be knocked on your ass, with a big ol' hellbeast trying its damnedest to rip out your guts? Why, it's just the bestest feeling in the world, Rowan, wish I could experience it everyday, just to get the blood pumping.

Rowan lay on his back, carrying on this conversation with himself for the few precious seconds it took to get his breathing under control and his hands to stop shaking. His hands clutched dirt and leaves, the bow being somewhere buried in debris off to the side and out of his reach. Mystical arrows didn't do a hell of a lot of good when the beasties were right in his face. The thing had hit him with enough force to feel through the armor -- and that was saying a lot. Had knocked him flat on his back and proceeded to try to rip his throat out with those damned vicious teeth while attempting to disembowel him with back and front claws. Of course the armor had repelled those attempts, but it didn't mean he hadn't been scared shitless while it was happening.

It hadn't lasted long. Not even long enough for Ryo to gain his feet and come at the thing from behind. Just a couple of frantic indrawn breaths-- more than enough time for the thing to have carved up anybody not encased in mystic Ronin armor -- and then it was gone. And Rowan lay there with rain dripping into his face, stunned.

There was a movement, the sound of moist leaves shuffling and he flinched, but it was just Ryo's dark sillhuette and Ryo's very steady hand held out to offer him assistance up.

"Will you call up your goddamned armor?" he smacked the hand away, sitting up a little awkwardly-- the armor was not the most flexible choice of attire a body could wear -- and blindly feeling around for his bow. "If I have ta cart you back in chunks, I'm gonna be pissed, let me tell you."

"You didn't make a dent in it, Rowan." Ryo pointed out. You hit it dead on and it just shook it off. What the hell is it?"

"Its a fucking hell beast. I thought we'd established that."

"Yeah. Well, what's it want?"

"It wants ta fucking eat us, man. Jesus Christ, Ryo, will you call up your fucking armor? The fucking thing's out there somewhere."

"Rowan, calm down."

"You calm down. It didn't try to rip your face off. God, I think it drooled all over me. Yuck!"

"Okay." Ryo said softly, and a nimbus glow surrounded him briefly, obliterating his shape for a moment as the armor formed around him. And then the two of them were metal encased and prickly with weapons. Rowan felt better for it.

"It went that way." Ryo indicated with a jerk of his chin. "Let's find it."

 

*

Sai broke out a chunk of Kento's handmade and rather expensive fudge for lack of anything else to do. He nibbled at the overtly rich stuff and leafed through a magazine at the kitchen table. He'd finished the package of shortbread wafers with his tea and the fudge was the only other sweet thing in the house -- unless Kento had something hidden upstairs in his room -- and Sai had a craving. He propped his chin in his palm, skimming over an article about what this Spice Girl was doing now and what that one was planning on doing in the future. The pictures were atrocious. The article was invasive and sarcastic, but it was one of Rowan's magazines, so one shouldn't be surprised at anything found between its covers. There was also an article on how one might convince one's spouse or girlfriend into participating in the grand adventure of a threesome. That one had pictures too of a rather graphic nature, and he flipped past it with a sigh. One ought not be surprised. Rowan had varying and exotic tastes. His screensavers were generally blushworthy and always pornographic, little wonder that his reading material was questionable.

He finished the square of chocolate, walnut encrusted sweetness. His tea was down to the last lukewarm dregs in the bottom of the cup. With a sigh, he closed the magazine and rose, thinking about going up stairs and turning on the radio to see whether any terrible accidents had been reported.

The cat whined a little from his sprawled position at the back door. Great tiger ears twitched when Sai softly told him to go to sleep. One covertly wondered if maybe a little of Seiji's pain killer wouldn't do White Blaze a world of good. Have all the grouchy, hard to deal with wounded things stoned out of their minds. Which was a terrible thing to contemplate and he felt bad thinking it, casting a guilty glance towards the sofa on his way through the dark den.

He padded upstairs and into his room. The soft, purplish light from his aquariums made the room almost phosphorescent. He switched on the radio and ambled about feeding this tank and that as he listened. All his fish were freshwater, his one marine concession being a small coral reef tank that housed a variety of invertebrate and corals. He couldn't conscience taking fish from the vast ocean and imprisoning them in small glass boxes. Freshwater fish weren't so bad. Freshwater fish didn't touch him the way salt ones did. The one tank, full of nasty minded African cichlids needed cleaning. He contemplated doing it, to pass time.

There were buckets and siphons and all the required chemicals to keep his scaly pets happy and healthy in the hall closet. He went out into the hall, down its dark length towards the closet at the end. He gathered everything he needed, and turned to cart it back to his room and found himself face to face with Seiji.

A Seiji who had come up on him as silent as White Blaze ever was, and a Seiji who stared at him through the shadows with fever bright, intense eyes.

"Oh, you've woken up." Sai stammered, still a bit unnerved from Seiji's sudden appearance. "Well that's good. You went out rather like a light. You ought to go to bed until Rowan and Ryo get back."

He started to move past with his burden. Seiji's arm snaked out, palm pressed to the wall, blocking his way.

"Ryo?" Soft, curious inquiry. Seiji's head tilted and long strands of pale silk hair fell to obscure the right half of his face. He moved a step closer, reaching out to brush the front of Sai's shirt with the back of a knuckle.

"Where is Ryo?"

"Umm, out with Rowan, don't you remember? Are you all right, Seiji?" Instinctively he moved back. He couldn't help it, with Seiji bearing down on him, and a look on Seiji's face that was just -- odd. Seiji was moving strangely too, languid and slow, as if his body was still afflicted with the effects of the drug, while his mind had fought free. Perhaps he was drunk from it. Seiji didn't often sink to that state, so it was hard to tell.

Sai held the bucket in one hand, and the long tube connected to the siphon cleaner over the other shoulder. Seiji reached down and caught that hand, lifting it up between them, tracing his fingers over the delicate bones of Sai's wrist.

"I'm sorry I hurt you, Sai."

"It -- it's okay, Seiji." He was breathless. "It wasn't you."

Seiji smiled. Sai didn't get to see him do it often, a sensuous curve of lips over perfect white teeth. It was breathtaking and frightening and Sai pulled back, pressing into the corner with no place else to go and no clear notion of why he ought to wish escape.

There was a snarl and a flash of pale movement out of the corner of his eye. Seiji whirled, back against the wall and stared wide eyed at the tiger who crouched low to the floor, not three feet from them, ears flat and low, dangerous growls rumbling from his throat. The cat meant business. The cat was low to the ground with a look in his eyes that was in no wise forgiving.

Sai let out a little sound of confused dismay.

"White Blaze. Stop it. What's gotten into you?" He stepped forward, past Seiji, one hand held out towards the tiger. White Blaze's growls grew louder, but his eyes were not focused on Sai. Sai glanced behind him at Seiji, completely confused now. He didn't even see the bunching of the tiger's muscles the moment before it leapt. The heavy body just knocked him aside as it passed, and with a tangle of white fur and silken house robe, Seiji went down under him.

 

*

 

They had a speed now that they hadn't had before without the armors. And a power that really ought to have made Rowan feel invincible, if his mind hadn't kept wondering back to visions of the damned thing clawing away at his gut and snarling into his face. It spooked him and kept him spooked. Silly, really, since the armor of Strata should have made him feel ballsy as hell. 'Course, Strata's arrows generally made his targets do a little more than blink in a moment's surprise.

So, he took to the trees. He felt better with the distance between him and whatever might be hiding in the brush. He could get a shot off from up there while Ryo dealt with whatever was ground bound.

The rain and the darkness made it hard as hell to follow Ryo's movements, much less see what might be lurking in the shadows. Ryo made a good deal of noise, though, which served the double purpose of letting Rowan know where he was and maybe just drawing the hellbeast towards him. Rowan didn't think the thing was running from them. There had not been fear in those glittering, angry eyes, just animal ferocity and a lust for the kill. He didn't know why it had taken off instead of trying to finish him, instead of whirling about and slicing into Ryo's then unprotected flesh. Maybe more animal instinct's at work. Maybe it didn't like the smell of the armor. Who the hell knew.

The forest was illuminated with a quick flash of lightening. The rumble of thunder was fast on its trail. Rowan looked skyward, up through the tangled canopy of leaves and frowned. Between the trees and the godaweful amount of metal he had on his body, he made one attractive lightening rod. Kento had gotten hit once, while armored up. It hadn't done a whole lot more than knock him on his ass and make him see spots for two days afterwards, but he'd claimed it had hurt like hell. Rowan really didn't wish to experience it himself.

"Hey, Ryo, wait a sec."

His call echoed a little inside the confines of his own helm.

"What?" Ryo was an oddly shaped sillhuette below.

"This is a lost cause tonight, man. The thing's not coming back out."

"What do you wanna do, Rowan, let it go and kill somebody else?" Short sarcasm from Ryo, which meant he was frustrated and probably as miserable as Rowan was with water dripping down into his face from the points of his helm.

"Course not, you shithead. But I don't wanna be lightening bait and I don't see any reason to stay out here all damn night for nothing. We come back in the morning with the guys and hunt the thing down then. Its big as hell, there's only so many places it can hide in the light of day."

"No way, dude. We're close, I can feel it."

Rowan swore. Moron. Simpleton. Damned stubborn ---

Something came out of the darkness and enveloped Ryo. There was an ear piercing screech of claws against metal and a crash of heavy bodies into underbrush that had no choice but to give under the weight. Ryo didn't make a sound. The hell beast didn't. Rowan did, vocalizing all the curses he'd been reciting in his head. He pulled an arrow, nocked it and frantically looked for a target.

There was a thrashing, a scream of anger/ pain/ surprise, that in no wise came from a human throat. A deep sound of rending wood and in the tangle of limbs and vines a tree began to topple.

"Ryo! Where are you?" He screamed down.

"Here." An answering call. A movement in the shadows and Rowan locked on target. Saw Ryo and between Ryo and himself the hulking shape of the beast. He drew and fired. The thing turned and he got one glance of glittering, devious eyes before it threw itself to the side. The sizzling bolt of mystic energy singed its fur as it passed and slammed with terrifying accuracy dead center into Ryo's chest.

Rowan's jaw dropped. He couldn't, at the moment, even come up with an adequate curse.

 

*

 

Seiji was out. Like the proverbial light. He'd probably been out before he hit the floor with all of White Blaze's considerable weight piled upon him. Sai assumed this only because of the limp way he sprawled, completely non-defensive, when the tiger attacked.

Sai was in the midst of opening his mouth to scream at White Blaze to stop, in the midst of rushing forward and putting his body in the way of tiger gone insane, when the big cat's ears just suddenly perked back up, and the growls stopped and the claws retracted back into large soft paws. White Blaze crouched over Seiji, sniffing his face curiously. The tongue flicked out to stroke Seiji's pale cheek.

Sai crept to his knees next to the cat, not certain if shoving him away were a good notion. Ryo was the only one who could really roughhouse with the tiger and get away with it, and even he came away on more occasions than not with scratches and welts.

"What's come over everyone tonight?" Sai muttered. "Please get off of Seiji, White Blaze."

The tiger, in a very cooperative manner, stood up and daintily stepped away. He sat down a few feet away and watched as Sai tried to wrestle Seiji up. Seiji had a couple of inches on him and good twenty pounds. He was not easy, when he was not helping at all, to get down the hall and into the cool confines of his own bedroom.

When he finally flopped Seiji down onto the bed, he sat down on the edge of it himself, running a hand through his hair in bewilderment. It was all just too odd. Seiji's strange behavior. White Blaze going quite deranged. Rowan and Ryo missing long into the night. Rather like something out of a horror movie. Sai didn't like horror movies. He didn't like the suspense and he certainly didn't like the bloodshed. Rowan thought they were amusing. He and Kento would laugh like idiots through the most horrendous parts, which really made one worry about the sad sick state of their minds.

 

*

 

He'd scored a hit, with the preternaturally sharp edge of one of the mystic katana's. Had opened a slice along the rough, bristle furred ribs. Or at least where Ryo thought the ribs ought to be. The thing really wasn't any stronger than he was -- which was saying a whole hell of a lot -- with the armor on. He'd kicked it off him and slammed it into a tree with enough force to snap the trunk. It had been going rather well until Rowan shot him.

Rowan's bolts hurt. Rowan's bolts dead on had one helluva impact. At the angle it hit, from almost directly above, it didn't fling him backwards so much as drive him down against the earth. He made a dent. Mud and leaves and chunks of root sprayed outwards. He lost all semblance of breath and his vision filled with bright dancing spots.

It kept him from seeing the hell beast as it sprang on him. But he felt it as it jerked him up and bore him backwards, slamming him against a thick trunk with enough impact to shatter yet another tree. So much for regaining his breath. One broad, claw studded hand/paw swooped down over his face, completely covering the faceplate of his helm, smashing his head back against the tree. Again. He figured he was going to come out of this with bruises if not worse. No matter how impervious the armor, there was flesh inside that didn't take extreme banging about without some protest.

And where in hell was Rowan when he needed him? He would have called if he'd had the breath. As it was he tried to get to the second sword which was still in its sheath at his back. The first one had been knocked out of his hand when Rowan's mystical arrow hit him.

There was a rustling of leaves from beyond and this time the beastie didn't have the time to turn and escape. The explosive energy of Strata's arrow hit it between the shoulder blades and sent it crashing forward into Ryo. He was momentarily smothered by it, before he got his arms under it and pushed it off. This time Rowan's arrow had at least stunned it as much as it had stunned Ryo. This time Ryo wrenched his katana out of its sheath and lunged forward, intending no manner of mercy. One quick, powerful slice that should have gutted it, but didn't. It hurt it though. It howled and staggered.

Ryo saw the other sword in the leaves and snatched it up, Hefted them both and summoned the will it took to control the raging heat of Wildfire.

"Rowan, back off." One short, quick warning to Rowan who was on the ground and closer than he ought to be to something Ryo was about to fry.

Rowan jumped back and the hellbeast, attracted by his movement surged after him. Ryo let loose a fountain of fire. It blasted into the beast, undaunted for the moment by the rain. The thing howled, caught up in an inferno that had nothing better to do than feed of its flesh. But it was still standing, staggering incoherently, and looking as if it were about to flee. Rowan sent another shaft towards it. And the impact of this one drove it to the ground. The mud and the rain put out the flames and it lay there, charred and unmoving, smelling of singed fur and cooked flesh.

"Well --- damn." Rowan said softly, standing spaylegged in the leaves, his cross bow still held at ready.

Ryo blinked water out of his eyes. "Did we kill it?"

Rowan shrugged, eyeing the steaming body suspiciously. "Why don't you go and poke at it or something to see if its really dead?"

Ryo raised a brow at the suggestion, then sighed and approached the thing.

"I didn't mean it." Rowan complained, then under his breath. "Idiot. Haven't you ever even seen a single movie in your life? You never go and prod the corpse."

Ryo ignored him, reaching out with the tip of one katana to nudge the very large, somewhat charred body on the ground at his feet. It didn't move. It seemed quite dead.

Hands grabbed his shoulders suddenly from behind and Rowan's shriek of it's alive!!, almost made him jump right out of the armor. Killing Rowan was not an option, so he whirled instead and swiped a katana at him.

"You asshole. That wasn't funny."

Rowan thought it was. Rowan was half bent over, laughing hysterically. "God, that almost made the whole night worthwhile. You are soooooo gullible, Wildfire."

"Fuck you, too, Rowan." Ryo muttered and turned back around to the creature. "So what do we do with it? We can't just leave it here. What if it resurrects or something? It was from hell, so was it ever really alive to begin with?"

"How in hell should I know? What da you want to do with it? Carve it up and take it home? Maybe Sai can make a stew."

Ryo gave him a disgusted glare. "I'm telling Sai about the tootsie pop."

"Oh, no you're not. I'll tell Seiji you slept with Mia."

"What? I did not!"

"Yeah, right."

"Rowan, I never ---"

"If its too wet to burn maybe we can cut it up and scatter the parts and pieces."

Ryo cast a distasteful glance at the corpse, knowing very well who would be cast in the position of butcher. But all things considered, it wasn't a bad idea. He sighed and sheathed one of the blades.

"I never even kissed her." He grumbled under his breath.

Rowan laughed.

 

*

 

"What the hell happened to you two?"

Kento sounded mad. Kento stalked up to them, dripping wet, rain slicker partially concealing his face and stopped dead in his tracks when Rowan held up the grisly head of the beast they had killed.

"What -- is -- that?"

Rowan grinned, shaking wet hair out of his eyes. "His name's Sparky. I was gonna take him home and make a pet outta him, but Ryo wouldn't let me."

"Close your mouth, Kento. It's gonna fill with water." Ryo said dryly and told him the story as they trudged through the woods towards the distant road.

It was dawn by the time they got home. The rain predictably began to let up as soon as the three of them crowded into the musty dryness of Kento's car.

It figured. Ryo sat in the backseat, fingers gently tracing a sore spot on his side and listened to Rowan and Kento talk. Things coming over from hell. He wanted to forget hell and all the things therein, but they had a severed head in the trunk as a reminder that forgetting might not be the safest thing for them.

They got home and Sai came out onto the porch, with as about as thankful an expression as Ryo had ever seen on his face. Rowan got to tell the story one more time. Rowan was getting good at it.

"Where's Seiji?" Ryo asked.

"Ummm, he's sleeping." Sai bit his lower lip. Sai sort of shuffled his feet and looked guilty. Ryo blinked at him, waiting, because Sai really looked as if he wanted to say more. "I sort of slipped him one of his pain pills because he wasn't going to take them himself and he was in discomfort and I don't think they go very well with wine because he sort of --- passed out. And then he woke up and was really quite out of his head and then he sort of fainted again after White Blaze jumped on him and I put him to bed after that and he's been asleep ever since."

Rowan snorted with laughter. "Sai, you drugged Seiji? Oh, god, that's just priceless. He's gonna kill you, you know?"

"He's okay?" Ryo asked warily, glancing up the stairs.

"Oh, he's fine. Really, he is."

"White Blaze jumped on him?"

"Oh, White Blaze was upset too. I suppose he was just nervous because he sensed that thing out there and that maybe you were in danger, so that's why he was so anxious to get out. He's okay now."

The tiger was purring on the rug in the den, to attest to Sai's pronouncement. Ryo went upstairs, the sound of Sai's horror as Rowan tried to bring the head into the front door echoing up the stairwell. He shed the wet clothes and got into the shower to wash away the grime. There was a nice sized bruise on his ribs just under his arm pit. There was a very faint red welt just under his sternum. Nothing was broken. If he hadn't had the armor on it would have killed him. He equated the impact of Rowan's arrow to getting hit by a fast moving car.

When he dried off, and slipped on a pair of boxers and T-shirt, he went to see if Seiji was in truth all right. Seiji was sleeping. Seiji didn't much move when he made his way into the room and sat down on the side of the bed. Seiji lay on his side, a pale hair obscured profile against the slate gray of his pillow case. He reached out and brushed the hair away and Seiji's long lashes fluttered. Drowsily, he blinked up at Ryo.

"Hey, I'm back." Ryo said softly.

"Hummmm." Seiji breathed an shut his eyes again. Ryo sat there, a wry smile touching his lips. It wasn't as if he'd been expecting a more enthusiastic greeting, but one sort of hoped when one was tired and achy and fighting back just the hint of the sniffles from a day of walking about in the rain. He made to rise.

"Stay." Seiji murmured it without benefit of opening his eyes. It was all the invitation he needed. Seiji's sheets were soft and warm and Seiji's body was pliant and smooth as he slipped down next to him. Seiji sighed against him, content to let Ryo position the both of them comfortably. A sleepy Seiji was generally agreeable. A drugged one was quite accommodating. It was rather nice to lie there in the comfort of Seiji's bed, with Seiji's soft head pressed against his shoulder and Seiji's svelte leg drawn up over his thighs. Quite an amiable way to let exhaustion take its toll and fall down into slumber.

He let thoughts of things from hell seep away. The one time had been a fluke surely. For it to happen again -- well, the odds were just against it.

 

The end

 

The arc will continue

 

 

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