The Changing of the Guard

by Tenshi

Sage peered over the jumble of empty bento boxes to see past his own reflection as the station finally slid into view. The warm train car and monotonous ride had left him in a kind of torpor, and he struggled for a moment to get alert and up to speed. Trains were always prone to put him into a state that was almost narcoleptic. But then, he didn't have it near as bad as some people.

"Hey," he said, kicking the boot across the seat from him. "Wake up. We're here."

Rowen snorted once, blinking sleepily over the edge of his leather jacket. "Unf. Fivmorminuts, ma."

Sage kicked him again, a little harder this time. "Wake up, unless you want to ride around Tokyo for a few hours."

Rowen emerged at last, blue hair going in every direction like some deranged video game hero's, jacket sliding down into his lap. "Mmm. When'd I fall asleep again?"

"About five minutes out of Iwaki." Sage unfolded his arms long enough to pass the empty food containers to a train attendant. "Actually, you were only awake for the two seconds it took you to inhale your lunch. It's only a two hour train ride; I didn't expect you to sleep the whole time."

"You know I had that deadline yesterday. I didn't get to bed last night until four." Rowen sat up and made a vague effort to put his hair to rights, groping around on the window tray for his glasses. "Unless you wanted to spend the whole vacation with my editor ringing my cell to chew me out wondering where my article was."

"Hmm, yes, because the theoretical shape of the universe is such a pressing news issue."

Rowen shot Sage a glare from underneath the bangs he was attempting to tame. "I don't give you crap when you're an hour late from the dojo because of some family thing."

"Yes you do," Sage countered.

"Okay, I do." Rowen was digging around in the cushion for his ipod. "But not as much."

The train hissed to a stop and sighed; all around them people were rummaging for bags and coats. Sage told himself that they were waiting to let the larger part of the crowd thin out, and not stalling. Rowen caught his eye and Sage smiled, feeling sheepish.

"Yeah," Rowen said, though Sage had not and did not need to say anything aloud. "I'm nervous too."

"It's been three years since we've all seen each other," Sage said, almost to himself. "We've all changed. What if--"

"Don't worry about it," Rowen said, though Sage knew he was trying to convince himself as well. "I don't care what all has happened lately, or how far apart we've been living. Ryou is always gonna be Ryou." Rowen pulled his duffel down from the compartment and passed Sage his bag. "So let's go and see him."

Outside the train station the crowd had begun to disperse. Light snow was falling, and Sage took a deep breath of the cold air. It was more polluted than Sendai, but Tokyo had a smell that was entirely its own. Every time he was there it seemed to roll back the years to a time when the battle ahead was his only real concern and the things that mattered were vital and clear-cut. It was as though the mundanities of everyday life had aged him more than time, and Date Seiji of Sendai was an entirely different person from Sage of the Halo, and a pretty boring one.

In Tokyo, it was easier to remember that though his armor was sleeping in him, it was still there. He caught Rowen looking at him like he had been thinking the exact same thing, the snow hanging in his hair like cherry blossoms. Rowen grinned like he always did, as though he was fifteen years old and afeared of nothing.

"You ready?"

Sage shouldered his bag. "Yeah."

Waiting at the bottom of the station steps was a familiar figure, hunched up against the cold even though the snow somehow seemed to melt before it touched his clothes. There was no snow in the messy black hair was drawn up into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, and he was dressed like a college student hard up on his luck, but Sage and Rowen knew him as easily as they knew their own reflections. Ryou looked up just a moment too soon to have actually seen them, but they both knew he had simply known that they were there.

Ryou took his hands out of his pockets and came up the steps two at a time in a dead run. He met the other two armor-bearers on the steps and ignored Sage's offered hand, sweeping them both up into a wildfire-warm hug and ignoring the stares from the passers-by.

"Damn but it's good to see you two!" Ryou said, taking them each by one shoulder and stepping back to get a good look at them. "You look great. Nice glasses, Ro. Didn't anybody ever tell you that'd make you go blind?"

Rowen grinned, tossing his duffel into Ryou's arms. "Yeah, but I figured it was worth it."

Ryou cocked a dark eyebrow at Sage's immaculate overcoat and wingtips. "Is there a board meeting you have to get to somewhere?"

"Some of us don't like to look like slobs when we travel," Sage said, with an oblique nod to Rowen's battered leather jacket and sweatshirt.

"Yeah well," Ryou brushed at his completely disreputable jeans, self-conscious. "I was looking a lot better before Takeshi thought it would be a real good idea to dump his apple juice on daddy." He shouldered both bags in spite of Sage's protests, and nodded across the plaza. "The car's that way."

"Man, I can't get used to you being a dad," Rowen said, looking at Ryou as though he expected the wildfire bearer to suddenly develop a pipe and cardigan sweater. "How old is the little squint these days? Three?"

"Five," Ryou said, trying and failing to not look pleased with himself. "It's bad enough keeping track of one; I dunno what I'm gonna do with two of 'em."

"How's Mia?" Sage asked, as they clambered out of the parking garage stairwell and Ryou beeped the lock on a gleaming red SUV. The old Samurai Jeep was long retired, though last time they had been to visit, it was still in the household garage as though ready for action.

"She's good," Ryou said, stuffing their bags in the trunk and moving an assortment of stuffed creatures and primary-school kana books out of the way. "Though between us I think she's ready to just have the kid already."

"Make that dad twice over," Rowen said, leaning on the bumper and shaking his head. "How the hell did that happen?"

"I dunno," Ryou said, winking as he slammed the trunk shut. "But I never had this problem when I was sleeping with you guys."

Conversation on the drive was spirited, full of the things that never managed to make it into intermittent emails or phone calls. Ryou was the sort of parent who knew how to talk about something other than his offspring. It seemed he was even glad for a chance to discuss some more guy-subjects, like whether or not any of the new game systems were even worth the money, and the number of pieces his motorcycle was in at the moment.

The road went by them in a blur of memory: the roadside spring where a moon-demon had ambushed them; the deeply scored marks on the cutting, almost covered by ivy, where twin mystic swords had melted deep gouges.

"Yuli'll be in tomorrow afternoon, and Sai and Kento got in late last night," Ryou said, as they turned off the main road and onto a familiar dirt drive. There was more snow here than in the city, lying in thick drifts along the road. Ryou shifted gears.

"I haven't seen Sai since the funeral," Sage said. "I guess that's already been two years now."

"And that wasn't much of a reunion," Rowen added, from the back seat. "How's he doing these days?"

"You know Sai, he keeps that kind of thing to himself. He doesn't want to burden any of us." Ryou shrugged. "He's tough. He lost his dad pretty young, too. I just think it was a shame about his sister and her husband." Ryou scowled at the road, flipping on the wipers as the snow started coming down again. "There's some stuff in life that mystic armor can't help for shit."

"Yeah." Rowen sighed, leaning his cheek on his hand and staring between them out the window. "Hey, there's the house."

Though the blur of falling snowflakes the Koji estate was an imposing gray shadow wreathed in fat, multi-colored Christmas bulbs. Every window was lit. Sage felt something thawing out inside of him, something far too springlike for the cold.

"Almost home," Ryou said.

Kento was coming out the door as they pulled into the drive, his hands busy with doing up tiny zippers and getting small feet into galoshes. Takeshi was a somber, hazel-eyed child and very methodical with his mittens. Sai's niece Yukiko, on the other hand, was a six-year-old tornado, racing to the door and back and hopping up and down when she saw the car pull up in the drive. A large wall of white tiger snaked out of the door and caught Yukiko by the back of the shirt before she could tumble downstairs.

"Looks like White Blaze's got his hands full," Rowen laughed, clambering out of the back seat. "he's the best babysitter a guy could ask for."

Kento stood up, pushing back the hood that Yukiko had just pushed over his eyes. "Hey, you made it!" He gave up on trying to stuff a squirmy little girl into her pink snow coat. "These two were just insisting on coming out to meet you, so I was gonna walk up the road with 'em. Guess we don't need to now, huh?"

"Awwww," Yukiko said, stomping one foot. "I wanted to make snowbunnies."

Takeshi ran down the steps, fell down, picked himself up with a frown of concentration, and finally made it close enough to Ryou for his father to pick him up. "Daddy, I made you a cookie."

"Did you?" Ryou grinned. "What kind?"

Takeshi was distracted by the sight of Sage and Rowen, and hid his face in his father's collar when Rowen greeted him by name.

"You remember Sage and Rowen, right?" Ryou prompted, ruffling his son's hair. "Give him a bit, and he'll be stuck to you like wet seaweed," Ryou added to Sage. Rowen was busy having most of his ribs broken by Kento.

"Damn I've missed your skinny ass!" Kento enthused, putting a wheezing Rowen down at last, and picking up his adopted daughter one-handed. "I can't believe it's taken this long to get us all back together. Sai's in the kitchen with Mia. You'd better say hi to him."

"I knew something smelled good," Rowen said, taking the porch steps two at a time. Ryou put down Takeshi and Kento hauled him indoors along with Yukiko.

"It's funny," Sage said, hesitating on the bottom step, "I don't think I've changed that much, but seeing everyone else makes me think maybe I have." White Blaze butted his head under Sage's hand, looking up with ageless brown eyes. "Except for this guy."

"We haven't changed," Ryou said softly, leaning his shoulder against Sage's, "It's just that everything around us has."

"Hmm." Sage was thinking of how Ryou looked, swinging his son up into his arms. "I'm not so sure about that."

Ryou punched him lightly on one shoulder. "You haven't. You still think too much. C'mon and let's get the party started, huh?"

The house had not changed much since the last time Sage had been there, though the sofa was new and the furniture was rearranged to accommodate the Christmas tree that arched up to the second story balcony. White Blaze returned to his rug in front of the fire, settling down with a contented wurf. The sounds of Mia and Sai laughing with Rowen in the kitchen were so familiar that for a moment Sage lost track of his own time.

"It's been too long," Ryou said, taking Sage's bag. "I kept asking you guys to come down."

"Never seemed like there was enough time," Sage answered. "Sorry."

"Here you are!" Sai said, emerging from the kitchen and disentangling himself from his apron. Small floury handprints decorated the knees of his jeans. The last time Sage had seen Sai had been at the funeral for Sai's sister and husband, wearing his formal black kimono and with a grief too large for even armor bond to breach. That was gone now, and Sai was not shy about the flash of blue light across his brow, the flicker of empathic affection that came with his hug. His unashamed love always had been the glue that stuck the five of them together. "I'm so glad you could come. Yukiko's been so excited."

"Liar," Kento said, from the kitchen. Takeshi and Yukiko had been pacified with sugar cookies. "He's the one that's been excited. Hasn't shut up since November."

"Is that Sage out there?" Mia negotiated her way into the living room with more grace than could be expected, owing to the generous curve of her belly. "Haven't you even let him get his shoes off yet?" She threw up her hands in dismay, but agreed to letting Sage kiss her cheek and comment on how motherhood must agree with her.

"You look beautiful."

"Flatterer." She flicked her dishtowel at him. "Come in and get a cup of tea. Ryou can take your things upstairs."

In the kitchen, Rowen was already engaged in a serious discussion on the art of cookie decoration, as Takeshi adorned his gingerbread men methodically. Yukiko was more inclined to free-form technique, and scattered sugar crystals with abandon. Mia had a panful of her best sukiyaki on the stove, and Sage found his favorite brown clay teacup right where he had left it.

"Feels pretty good, huh?" Rowen said, looking up from a complicated arrangement of nonpareils.

Sage smiled down at the steam spiraling out of his cup, and looked out over the kitchen window, at a back yard wreathed in snow. "Yes, it does."

Mia had long since gone up to bed, two sleepy children in tow. After the tucking in and bedtime stories Ryou and Sai had come back down to the couch where Sage was sitting with Kento and Rowen, already half-asleep himself.

The bond had never really left. It fell silent sometimes, while spanning the gap of time and distance, but it was singing strong now. Too many sentences that night had started with "You remember the time...", but now that they could talk freely about battles past, there were no words. They just sat together, each listening to the familiar feel of the others, and no one ever mentioned going up to bed.

When they did talk, it was about the future. Their armor call was still strong, but looking at each other, they knew there would be a time when it would have to be passed on. Sai had no doubt that Yukiko had the heart of a Torrent bearer, and Kento for a long time had kept an eye on his youngest cousin for Hardrock. Ryou confided that Takeshi had never once shown any sign of being an armor bearer, but that he already knew that destiny belonged to the daughter Mia carried. Rowen was an only child and didn't believe in family armor inheritance, and knew that when he found his armor's heir, he would know.

Sage admitted that he was worried. None of his sister's children had shown any sign of armor gift, and he knew the odds of having children himself were fairly slim. What if he couldn't find anyone to pass his armor on to? And when would they know it was time to give it up, anyway?

White Blaze blinked up at them with solemn brown eyes, and touched his wet nose to their foreheads. "Guess that's his way of telling us not to worry," Ryou teased.

"Yeah, Sage," Kento added. "We ain't dead yet, ya know?"

Sage pressed his face in the warm ruff of white fur. It smelled faintly of sakura blossoms and took away the lingering shadow of his doubts. For the rest of the evening, they did not talk of armor.

It was after midnight when Sage woke up. Ryou had curled up on White Blaze's belly, both of them closer to the fire than anyone else could stand. Kento and Rowen were snoring shoulder to shoulder, Sai had dozed off on Kento's knee. In the winter darkness, the whole house seemed to be holding its breath. The Christmas tree was made up of all the lights of their armors, but somehow the rainbow light diffused into a pure, golden glow.

Sage eased Rowen's feet off his lap and headed upstairs to the bathroom. On the way back he paused by the doors, peeking in on almost-familiar rooms. Mia's study had not changed, but the room he shared with Rowen was now Takeshi's, where he and Yukiko lay dreaming in the bunk beds. Rowen's telescope still sat tilted to the window, and the ceiling glowed with luminescent stickers of the planets. Kento and Sai's room was the nursery now, and Ryou's old room was the guest room, empty except for their luggage.

On the steps was a photograph Sage knew all too well; he had a copy of his own on the wall of the apartment he shared with Rowen. Was that him, looking back at his own reflection in front of a New York skyline? How young they all seemed, even though the age was just beginning to settle in their eyes. Next to that photo was one Mia had taken and printed up just that night, warriors who were no longer children, standing outside in the snow, arms linked and laughing.

"I'm starting a tradition," she'd said, hanging the new picture up next to the old. "So all of you will be up here together." Because the children were still awake, she did not say 'you armor wearers', but it was clear what she had meant.

Sage shook his head. He would have to find the next Halo wearer, first. On the next step down, Sage froze. He was fairly certain that the only photos on the wall had been those two, and a few large art prints from Mia's grandfather's collection. But in the reflected light of the Christmas tree, dozens of frames winked back at him. The moment he looked at one photo, he forgot the one he had just seen. In all of them were groups of five people--some all male, some all female, more often a mix of both. By the time he reached the bottom of the stairs, he knew he had to be dreaming.

The tree and the fireplace were the same. In the shadows of the dying firelight, he would have said that his friends were as he had left them. Except there was someone sitting in his place.

As his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he realized that they were strangers sleeping there, and only White Blaze was the same. The young man sprawled across him could have been Ryou, but only the Ryou of fourteen years ago. Any resemblance to the armor wearers Sage knew ended there. In Kento's place was a lean blonde warrior, hair cropped into soft spikes. Sleeping on him where Sai had been was a slender young man whose hair was distinctly pink in the firelight. Draped on the end of the couch where he had left Rowen was a boy with a Strata bearer's artificial indigo hair, worn long in one thick braid. They were all asleep.

Except for Halo. Sage saw his own eyes reflected back at him as though in the photograph, their distinctive violet-gray unaffected by the colored Christmas lights. The resemblance ended there, except for a certain similarity of bone structure, as this Halo was dark-haired, bangs trailing rather deliberately over one eye. The young man looked up at Sage on the stairs and Sage knew at once that he was recognized. Not just as a fellow armor bearer, but as the man in the first of the photos on the wall.

Sage had the distinct feeling that he knew what it was like to be a ghost.

He looked into his own future and the future of his friends, and was comforted. What was a distance of two years, or two hundred miles, compared to the bonds of destiny? It was not and would never be a matter of his armor alone. The armors were one, and they always had been. They and their virtues and the honor of carrying them were not left to any one of them. The fate of the armor was a shared one that had endured long before Sage himself came long. Long after he was forgotten by the world, the armor would remember him.

And so would its bearer.

The Halo warrior stood, folding his hands over his breast and bowing, as a student to his master. Sage saw the glimmer of green light on his brow, and felt the own mark on his forehead burning in answer.

He bowed his head, and when he lifted it, the vision was gone.

In the tumult of a Christmas morning with two children, even strange midnight visions could be forgotten. Sage's newfound contentment did not escape Rowen's notice, pausing under the mistletoe in the kitchen doorway not for a kiss, but for a knowing smile under his glasses.

"I saw them too," he said, without preamble. "I think it was the armor wanting to let us know that everything would be all right. We needed the nudge."

"You too? What about--"

"I don't think they need to, as much." Rowen stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked out over the living room. "They're already moving on, you know? I think it's just me and you that are stuck."

Sage looked at his image in the surface of his teacup, tuning out the shouts and laughter as gifts were unwrapped. "I was wondering. Maybe we should--"

"Let your sister manage the dojo and move back down here somewhere closer to everyone else?" Rowen took a drink of his soda, utterly nonchalant as though they had been discussing the prospect for ages. "Great idea. I'll go tell Ryou."

Rowen strode off into the living room, leaving Sage behind. For a moment Sage lingered in the doorway, thinking about the pictures that would fill up Mia's wall. Then he stepped forward into his own time, and the friends there waiting for him.


postscript: For those of you who remember Lost Legacy, I just wanted to let you know that Jormei's team turned out all right. I wrote my first RW fic in 1997, ten years ago. I think it's time for a changing of the guard, and a closing of the book. Their endings are their own, now.

Here's to you, my best boys. Banzai.

b i s h o n e n i n k