Remnants : Part Two
"Strange to be sleeping here, ain't it?"
Sage looked away from the view of the mountains, their autumn colors going indistinct and purple with the approach of night. Rowen was leaning in the doorway like a ghost of himself. The room Sage had shared with him years ago was very much the same as it had been, the twin beds and dresser. Though Mia had repainted at some point, the faint outlines of Rowen's glow-in-the-dark star stickers were still visible on the ceiling.
"Yeah," Sage said, pulling the window closed, the sheer window curtain going still. "But Mia's right that we should stick together as much as possible. Our two stray remnants are going to come looking for us, and better out here than in a crowded city street."
Rowen sat down on the bed closest to the window, and even the sound of the mattress springs contracting was familiar. "How long has it been since we bunked up in separate beds?" he asked, and punched the pillow. The sheets were freshly washed and the beds recently made, though there was an indentation on the other one where White Blaze had been napping in the afternoon sun. Sage eyed the furniture with a wistful fondness. The bedding was emerald and sapphire blue. This was Rowen and Sage's room, still, and it was what Mia had called it. Or perhaps more accurately it was Korin and Tenku's room. Would it always be, for armor-bearers yet to come, though the old armors of those names were long gone?
"Hey," Rowen said, when his question got no response. "You gonna come back to earth, or what? If you're gonna be in a stratosphere, I'd kinda like it to be mine, ya know."
"Sorry," Sage raked a hand through his hair, which fell back over one eye anyway. "I'm just not sure what we're supposed to do. I've fought my armor, remember? It healed itself. I don't know why all these years after Kikoutei I thought it would just go away."
Rowen didn't have an answer, but he stood up to put one hand on Sage's shoulder. "C'mon. Mia made sukiyaki. We'll have to get to it before Kento does."
Conversation over dinner was something closer to normal; it had been months since any of them had seen each other and almost a year since they had all been in the same place, and there was catching up to be done. Yuli and Mia complained about university politics, though as Mia's assistant Yuli had to pretend he hadn't heard her voice any dissent. Sai and Rowen got into a lively discussion on the merits and flaws of the last Harry Potter novel, and Sage listened with half an ear as Kento interrogated Ryou about where he had gotten the parts to rebuild his vintage motorcycle.
Sage didn't feel left out, even if he was the least vocal of the people around the table. Mia's cooking was excellent, as always, and the happy buzz of his fellow armor-bearers' thoughts made a contented, rainbow-colored blanket fall over his worries. By the time Ryou disentangled himself from Kento, and asked Sage how things were going at the Date Dojo, Sage almost felt like himself again.
After dinner Rowen and Yuli and Mia went back to the study, Sai to fuss over something else in his pottery workshop, and Kento and Ryou to exchange knowing glances over the pile of motorcycle parts in the garage. Sage made himself a cup of tea and wandered down the path to the boat dock.
In the cooling evening, the mist coming up off of the lake was like a phantom army, rising and falling under the command of one unseen and unheard by mortals. Sage added his breath to the fog and wrapped his chilled hands around the warm, empty teacup. He knew, long before he heard the crunch of gravel on the path or the mellow creak of the dock, that Rowen was there.
"Remember that night I found you out here?" Rowen asked, his voice hushed and rough with memory, his arm warm around Sage's shoulders. His thumb traced a warm, familiar circle in the hollow of Sage's collarbone. "After New York, all alone."
"Did you think I would forget?" Sage had only a moment to arch one eyebrow before they folded into each other, with far more grace and familiarity than that first, awkward kiss. Mouths met, fingers tangled, and Sage for a moment forgot about armor and darkness, and thought only about the aching, sweet twilight where starlight met the rising day.
"Hey, get a room why don't you?"
They broke apart, but not with anything like guilt.
"Come on," Rowen shot back at Kento, returning his grin, but not letting Sage go. "Can't a guy get a little bit of action around here?"
Kento's footsteps on the dock sounded like cannon fire, echoing around the lake as Sai and Ryou emerged from the shadows of the woods behind him. "Like you need any action, Hashiba! You already scored the best ass in the entire prefecture."
"Hey!" Sai said, mock-offended.
"Sorry, sweetheart," Kento spread his hands in apology, as though if he had been in charge, assets like Sage's would have been distributed more fairly. "Not that yours ain't fine, but it's the truth."
"Well, all right, it is," Sai relented. "But you don't really have to rub it in."
Ryou said nothing, fists jammed in the pockets of his leather jacket, staring up at the lighted windows of Mia's study.
"Anyway," Kento said, as Ryou's regrets got tangled up in their own contentment, "You shouldn't be hanging out in the cold. C'mon back to the house, we'll watch a movie or game or something. I still haven't paid Ryou back for nailing my ass to the floor last time we did Guitar Hero, and if you make pretty eyes at Sai maybe he'll make some brownies."
Sai rolled his eyes. "Really Kento, you just ate! Having everyone together again is no excuse to eat so much that you can't fit into your sub armor."
"Oh?" Kento grinned, "Then let me know when it is a good time to..." He trailed off. Sai wasn't listening, his green eyes intent on something out in the middle of the lake. "Sai?"
There was no time for anything more than a telepathic warning, as a gleaming coil of blue scales erupted up from the center of the lake and smashed across the dock, sending wood fragments and bodies flying. Sai spun around in mid-air and landed, in armor, knee deep in the shallows. The cloven mist rolled back like bolts of kimono-silk, and under the clear sky five warriors faced off against a cerulean sea serpent, his eyes afire with the light of the old Suiko yoroi.
"I thought it might be here," Sai breathed, the sweep of his trident cutting a trench in the water. "Where I sent you to sleep, for a time. Come for me then, if you want me!"
The serpent stretched translucent jaws wide, displaying needle-sharp teeth, and rushed at the samurai. They scattered across the water, red and gold, blue and green, and arrows and steel rained down on the lithe monster, churning the lake water to mud.
"Damn it's fast!" Kento breathed, landing heavily near the shore, and pulling his feet free of the slushy muck. "I thought Ryou's was tough!"
Ryou himself had a comeback for that, but never got to say it as the Suiko-monster whipped its tail at both of them, flinging them out into deeper water. In the dark, blinded by the light of the creature, Sage could only guess their location from the furious steam coming off of Ryou's armor. He swung his no-datchi high, summoning the burst of energy for his attack, but was stopped by Rowen's cry of alarm.
"Are you crazy? You want to electrocute the whole damn lake?"
"I will not spend another battle being useless--"
"Sou en zahn!"
Flames whipped across the surface of the lake, vaporizing the top layer of water and plunging the entire battle into a thick fog bank of steam, illuminated only by the shining body of the serpent. Sai arched up, scattering lake water and mystic light like rain, and the jaws of his trident caught the creature neatly behind its head.
"Hold him there, Sai!" Ryou yelled, out of the fog. "One more shot ought to do it!"
Sai grunted as the serpent thrashed beneath him. He would not be able to hold it for long. The remnant of his armor knew his power and would not stay subdued by it, but it was not the might of the old yoroi that made Sai's hands go loose on the haft of his weapon. It was the creature's eyes, shining through the muddy water, piercing through the breast of Sai's armor and straight into his heart.
Come back to me, Sai of the Torrent.
Terrible longing, terrible joy. Sorrow as deep and fathomless as the blackest ocean trench.
Sai withdrew his spear a fraction of a second before Ryou's attack burst forth in a second wave of fire.
Fire tore across the night, straight through the serpent's middle. It caught and burned to the ends in a second, like a party streamer kissed by a candle, and curled in on itself as it burst into blue sparks and ash, and was gone.
Sai went down in his knees in the water, his face in his hands, his cry of loss mingling with the echoes of the monster's death knell.
The silence in the kitchen was leaden. Sai sat on one of the barstools, mug of tea untasted in his hands, his gaze a thousand miles away. Kento had eyes only for him, radiating concern like some sort of worried hot massage stone.
"I'm sorry," Ryou said at last. "I didn't hear you until it was too late to stop."
Sai seemed to come back from wherever it was he had been, in the streets of New York, or the darkest heart of Africa. "No," he sighed. "It was better that you didn't hesitate. I'm not sure what I would have done, otherwise."
"I don't blame you," Sage said, one gentle hand on Sai's back, compassion in his frosted violet eyes. "I saw how it looked at you."
"I feel like I just killed a wild dog, only to find out it was a puppy I loved as a kid." Kento put his face in his hand, and shoved his coffee cup away from him.
"Or like one of your children," Ryou said.
Sage said, "Or your father."
"Or a lover," Sai put down his teacup, sloshing the tepid liquid on the counter, and caught Kento up in an impulsive embrace, leaning against his back.
"That armor was all those things to us," Rowen said, going to the window and looking up at the sky, as though expecting any minute for deep black wings to blot out the starlight. "We only had it for two years, really, before we got the pure yoroi from Suzunagi. And we all know it was a battle, in that tainted metal, to keep our virtues focused on it, to keep it from turning to darkness. But the truth is, that armor was part of us. It made us who we are. Suzunagi's armor is beautiful, and clean, and I can't say it's not powerful. But..."
"It's not the same," Sage murmured. "It is just armor, it is made to protect us, it is made to fight in. It's not like wearing parts of our souls on our skin."
"I dream about it sometimes," Sai admitted.
"Me too," Ryou said, and looked at his hands. "I can feel all of you pouring into me, and Kikoutei wrapping around my chest, across my face, and the heat--" His voice twisted and broke. The new armors lacked any unified form, and though none of them would admit it, they remembered the feeling of that white bond as though it had last happened yesterday, and ached for it.
"I don't think we're doing the right thing," Kento said, letting Sai have a moment to compose himself.
"I know," Sage swept their cups into the sink. "But what else can we do?"
Rowen flinched aloud, leaping back from the window a split second before every single glass pane in the kitchen shattered into a thousand pieces.
"I guess we don't have time to find out!" he shouted, armor flowing over him from bow outwards, as he took one jump from the floor and another off of nothing but air, and shot off into the sky like a comet. From outside, the air was shredded with the sound of wings, and an earsplitting cry like stars bursting into nova.
Rowen knew the others could not follow him, not for this battle. Below him, they armored up for the second time in less than an hour. Even armed they could do nothing in Rowen's element, only watch from the ground.
This fight was Rowen's alone.
He could not truly see the bird, he could only see the place where it was. Blacker than the coldest heart of space, rimed with a thin, deep blue of atmosphere, the ghost of the Tenku Yoroi was a shadow on the stars, a beating of wings and a sharp, stirring call. It went into Rowen's heart like a sudden wind on an October day, it burned in his blood like alcohol. He rose upward not to fight it, but to meet it.
"Here I am," Rowen said, his bow in his hand, but undrawn. "You know me. You've come to find me. I'm here. Now what?"
The bird was watching him, its eye a torn place in the blackness, where the stars could shine through. It keened softly as it circled him.
Rowen. Sage's voice didn't need the transmitters in their helmets for Rowen to hear him. What are you doing?
We struck first on all the others, Rowen sent back, not only to Sage, but to all of them. I thought maybe we should just ask one of them what it wants.
Sage's response was a nonverbal burst of disbelief, but he could not deny that after that first explosion of energy, the bird had not moved to attack again.
"You're just trying to get our attention, right?" Rowen asked, turning slowly in the air as the bird orbited him like a tattered moon. "What is it you're looking for?"
Rowen shivered. He knew that voice. When he had first learned his attack, the voice of the yoroi prompted him with the words, until Rowen no longer needed the help.
"Okay, me. Is that all?"
The bird blinked at him. The others.
Rowen blinked back. "They're down there. We're all here, so why are you--"
Comprehension dawned, and Rowen realized the reason for the terrible sadness in the creature's hollow eyes. "You're looking for... the other armors?"
Yes. The bird's wings arched up as it glided around him, falling very slowly. Where are they?
"Uh." Rowen began. "We, um. We kinda--"
I see. It is our fate to be broken, to be scattered, to rejoin only to be broken again in turn. We are One, and always will we strive to be. In you, in the white armor, we knew what it was to be whole. Do you not seek the same? Are you not like us, the same souls, only always armored in flesh?
Rowen looked down. Below him, the upturned faces of his friends were watching, listening. For a moment time folded in on itself and their colors were brighter, flying upwards towards Ryou, burning towards that moment when the outlines of their bodies lost meaning, spirits forged into one pure white light.
Almost always, Rowen had been the first to suggest calling the white armor. In Africa, that guilt had eaten at him. Had he, in his eagerness for that bond, urged Kikoutei to battles it should not have fought? Had he contributed to the white armor's bloodlust?
Kikoutei had no more bloodlust than any of the single armors, the bird reminded him. It met the battles presented to it, as we did under your call. Nothing more. You know this. The whole armor was the same as the whole of its bearers: the same light, the same darkness. You too, unite, and break, and unite again. Do you not?
There was a hundred feet of distance between Rowen and Sage, but Rowen knew the look in Sage's eyes as though they were standing side by side.
"What do we need to do?" Rowen asked. "Tell us."
Where the others have gone, I must follow. Send me there, as you did them. To our birthplace, to our Netherworld.
"Won't you just come here again?"
We cannot do anything else. We are no longer bound to armor, but strive to be whole. If you would seek us, seek us there. Now, guard yourself! The bird checked, hovering, and then plunged downward at its former master. Rowen dodged at the last moment, kicking away on nothing, summoning arrows to his hand. The bird's beak closed on nothing, and if it could have smiled, turning back to attack again, Rowen thought it would have.
His arrows sang through the air but tangled uselessly in the bird's wings, scattering the missiles and their golden light. It collided hard with Rowen, knocking them apart, and circled again to strike. Rowen didn't blame it, and sensed no malice in the attack. He would want to go out fighting, too.
Sage, Rowen thought, reaching out for the greenlit soul he knew best, trying not to think about how it must feel to be bodiless, empty and scattered. I can't bring it down. I need your help.
Sage's sword gleamed with a light all its own. It's an honor.
The bird flung its wings wide, talons as sharp as a midwinter shadow, and it seemed to Rowen that the bird intentionally left its chest bare. A pillar of lightning crackled up from the ground, bursting from Sage's sword, and it speared through the intangible heart of his lost armor. For a moment, Rowen thought it had pierced him, as well. His chest was too tight, his eyes were burning.
Seek us there, Rowen of the Heavens.
The bird burst into phantom feathers, which lingered for a moment in the wind and in Rowen's hands before fading away into the open sky.
And Rowen slowly returned to the ground, and to the waiting arms of his friends.