Seasons of Grace

by llamajoy

author's note: pretend that i have never written for this series before. (please.) this is something new. takes place post-series, post-gaiden, pre-kikoutei.

Rising before dawn is nothing new to Sage, but as the days shorten and the season turns, it becomes a welcome respite from the dreaming.

His pillow is wet when he leaves it behind, but he does not linger long enough to discern the night-sweat from the tears. The morning is not for memory, he tells himself, working through his hair with unsteady fingers, willing the images to dim (Manhattan, blood on white gauntlets, screams that needed no translation). The morning is for calm meditation, for training. His armor calls him yet, an insistent and not unwelcome thrum, in the depths of his mind, at the backs of his hands. He does not wince when his fingers catch at tangles in his hair, though the sting at his scalp makes him bite his lip.

Even if he were to cry aloud, he would not wake his roommate; Rowen sleeps soundly through any noise he might make at that hour-- and any noise anyone else in the house might make, as well. Halo is meticulous in his quietness, nonetheless: there is strength and succor in his morning routine, in the unbreachable defense of his courtesy.

So Sage is silent as flesh and blood with nightmares can be silent, finding his gi, slipping into socks, padding towards the bedroom door.

Today Rowen is restless under the rumpled layers of his blankets, blue hair a haphazard splash across the edge of his bed. Not for the first time, Sage thinks perhaps Strata might be having nightmares of his own. He watches the other's face for a moment longer this morning, wondering what moves behind the flinching eyebrows into the other warrior's sleep.

If Sage's breath is tight in his chest, coming loud to his ears, he dismisses it as sleeplessness; simple weakness to be honed from the body through the proper discipline. There are many reasons he seeks solace in his kata each morning; he does not need to remind himself of that. It is not only the dreams that dog his heels like wolves of winter, frost-rimed eyes and teeth sharp like icicles.

As he closes the door soundlessly behind him, he does not see Rowen blinking blearily after him, then hauling the covers back over his face.

The house is still before sunrise; downstairs it is dark and hushed but for one stove light and the reassuring hum of the refrigerator. The kitchen rug is askew. He thinks that Ryo might have been just here a few hours ago, sleepless and wanting some leftovers of Mia's best sukiyaki-- Or maybe it was it Kento, up too late, after the leftover pizza instead. What had they had for dinner the night before?

He is chagrined but not surprised that he can't remember; his evenings are running into one another, a blur of murmured conversation, of worried looks and silence. They are closer now than they have ever been, the five, shared sweat and desperation to braid their lives together. But Sage feels keenly the distances between them, too, though he cannot tell if the ache stems from being too close-- or from not being close enough.

Sage straightens the rug as he makes his way to the kitchen door.

His morning ritual is an uncomplicated one, the pleasant simplicity of cotton gi and warm-up kata, and then back inside for a cup of tea. As a rule he does not summon his full armor, preferring body unfettered and the challenge of the yoroi within his mind. And if it means, on a December morning such as this, that the hems of his pants are heavy and wet with snow, or his hands on the hilt of his sword are pale with cold, then it is all the better chance for him to school the mind, to focus the body.

Training sword kata on the flat, dry floor of the dojo is one thing; finding footing on a slippery surface, keeping balance intact and blood flowing, is its own form of meditation.

In fact, the weather is almost a mercy; he is grateful for the burn of each tiny flake, genuine snow and not the trickery of any evil power. Simple pain, cause and effect, the cold of ice sapping the warmth of skin: these are things that are no strain to understand. In honing spirit and blade-skill, he finds a welcome respite from thinking.

Caught up in the pattern of it, lift and swing and step, he feels the armor stirring in its resting place, stretching contented-- and he is in his subarmor, unconscious of the change.

The sounds of his kneeplates and his gauntlets are muffled in the snow, but something about the clamor he makes catches battle-echoes at the back of his mind, the residual presence his fellow four in armor, in formation all around him.

He believes them to be sleeping, to a man; there is bond enough between them that he would know, were one of his friends actually fighting. But as he hefts his sword and cleaves invisible foes, he pictures them: Kento's staff swinging low in front of him, Sai and Ryo, spear and swords, flanking high on either side. Behind stands Rowen with a golden arrow notched and ready to fly; Sage, don't move. A breath that's half a laugh. I've got you covered.

There may be blood, or danger, on the outskirts of these thoughts-- but now, at this moment, it is not an uncomfortable memory. The pressure on his heart eases; the kata comes more smoothly. Not missing a step, Sage closes his eyes.


It's a different sort of tide, this time, than the swelling darkness that tries to tug him under in his dreaming; it's over him and past him in a rush and Sage thinks there might be-- brightness-- to the breaking waves. He realizes that he, of any of them, has a knack for discovering the light buried and hidden in dark places; although he did not until that moment think of it that way. It is not the voice of the Ancient One that speaks inside him, anchor of reason and echo of rei in his thoughts.


He has to blink twice at the light cresting over the ridge before he realizes that he is not imagining things: the sun is rising, and someone has said his name. He turns, and there in the doorway, barefoot in blue jeans and a grin almost as easy as his usual one, stands the very last person that Sage expects to see.

He straightens, willing his blood to still and his head to clear, the movement of his kata still straining him forward, tugging at his edges. When he catches his breath, his lungs stretch and quiver as they take in the fresh and bitter air. "Rowen?"

The familiar smile turns sheepish. "Heya."

Mia, he might have expected, rising for her chores before heading off to classes; or maybe Sai, lured outdoors by Torrent and the promise of a new-fallen snow. Seeing Rowen voluntarily upright and mobile any time before lunch is seldom a good sign, usually meaning catastrophe, the Dynasty, or worse. But there is no hint of threat in his stance, or his slow and sleepy smile. He stands with his head cocked and his arms crossed against the cold, looking flushed; after sleeping warm under piled blankets, the chill paints a bright stain across his cheeks.

"You're up early," Sage says, the Korin-ken slicing cleanly into a snowdrift at his feet.

Strata squints up at the sunrise sky, his eyes taking on the full spectrum of the morning, multifarious shades of blue. He is not quite awake, it seems; his throat works twice before it remembers speech. "Couldn't sleep."

"You were dreaming." He means it as a question, but knows the truth of it even before he's finished speaking.

"Mm." Rowen's response is barely verbal. "Could ya tell?"

In stepping closer, Sage catches an unexpected glimpse of something, there, waiting just at the limits of his understanding. Rowen's eyes seem as shadow eclipsed in blue, as the whole round earth with the sun a corona of light around its eastern edge. For a moment, Sage feels the infinite weightlessness of a man cast into outer space, looking down on home from an unattainable distance.

Comprehension, raw and uncensored, flickers over Rowen's face-- and then he's smiling again, scrubbing both hands through his hair and shaking his head. "Ow. Did you just--? Yeah. Something like that." He shrugs. "Don't really remember much of being up there. Ryo says I brought us down."

It is Sage's turn for wordlessness. There is a loneliness to Rowen's dreaming, a different flavor of aching than his own.

"'m not the only one dreamin' around here," Rowen interrupts him, mincing out further into the snow on the back steps, his arms wrapped tight around himself. "You haven't slept right for days. Have ya."

Thus confronted he cannot lie, not to Rowen, though he might have wished not to speak of such things. He shakes his head, his mouth a thin colorless line as he struggles to speak. He pulls his broadsword free of the ground and shoulders the steel against the phantoms of his memory.

"What do you--" The question is not fully asked when Rowen blanches. Even unspoken, it hovers between them, nothing either of them can say. "Ah, Sage, I'm sorry." He is shuddering and it's not just the cold; he reaches out to Sage, hesitating just shy of touching him. "Forget I asked."

In his fingertips, Sage feels the heavy curve of gravity, the planet spinning somewhere far beneath him; he recognizes the feel of falling.

And surprises himself by not caring too much. After all, maybe he is getting good at hurtling headfirst into things. Not since those interminable weeks in downtown Tokyo when they still had trouble keeping one another's names straight has Sage felt so unmoored and buoyed up on possibility; not since he put his back to his family's house and found himself caught up in a fight far bigger than himself, older than time. Worse things there are than war, and Sage realizes he is not-- has never been-- alone.

The sunlight is brilliant in his hair, glinting from his sword, from the frost dusting his armor, as he bridges the distance between them. "I won't forget," he says, squeezing Rowen's arm, leaning so close that their foreheads touch, blond hair and blue like the sun and sky.

Then his sword folds back into the subsiding subarmor, and he stands in soggy gi, his skin slick with melting snow. He doesn't realize that his fingers are tingling, nearly numb in the wintry air; he does not feel the cold but for its absence, only the surprising warmth that is thawing his tongue. "Thank you." He feels better than he has in days, a short laugh escaping him like the daylight scattering from ice-brightened treebranches. "But why are you standing in the doorway? You're not dressed for this weather."

Rowen's turn to laugh, one skyblue eyebrow raised incredulously-- towards the weather or towards Sage's stance in it, he can't tell. "Uh, you neither. Ya look frozen."

"I barely feel the cold," Sage says, but when he glances down at himself he knows it is suddenly a lie, albeit an unintentional one. His hair falls across one eye as he lowers his head, shivering lightly. "Or at least I didn't, until I stopped moving."

Rowen shifts from one naked foot to the other, looking like a bluejay hopping in the snow. "And this is the part where ya come in for tea... right?" He can't quite disguise the hopeful look on his face, or the trip in his breath when Sage steps closer, the two of them moving through the door together. "I put some hot water on for you."

Sage closes the door behind them.


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