The splendor of the rising sun spread over the lake like a mirror of fire. Sunbeams touched lightly on the high walls of the Yagyu mansion. Seiji watched the treetops change from light grey to brilliant green as the sunrise burnished them. He could smell Shinís cooking through the balconyís open door. Both of them had been up for hours, roused by the vague echoes of their leaderís nightmares. Their more fortunate roommates had slept right through.
They were starting to gain their strength back after Aragoís defeat. It had been days before theyíd even been able to help Nasti around the house. At least the four of them were up and about; Ryo still slept, guarded by his faithful tiger. He was semi-conscious, moving in and out of dreams and nightmares. Nasti was able to feed him broth and fruit juice, but little else. They took turns cleaning him up, and at those times they often thought heíd woken up at last. No such luck. Each time heíd slip back into his strange slumber. He was as good as comatose.
Seiji closed his eyes, turning towards the sun. When he had accepted his armor a year before, he had expected the hard-fought battles, but not this tiresome waiting. Or living with five other people he hardly knew. Nasti was endlessly generous, and quite devoted to the cause. Even today she was sleeping off another exhausting night of research. Shin and Shuuís bickering got on his nerves sometimes, but the two of them kept the atmosphere light. And Touma...
Touma was a puzzle. Having a roommate in the first place had been a new experience. Seiji had wanted to room with quiet Shin, but Shuu beat him to it. Shin had been acquiescent, though now he often muttered about Ďthe garbage disposalís snoring.í Seiji smiled to himself. Those two were as close as brothers. But Touma, now... he had just shrugged when Seiji asked him if they could room together. The blue-haired archer kept to himself most of the time.
Understandable, as Seiji had done just that in the beginning. Heíd soon come to the conclusion that they had to act as a team, and that meant he couldnít afford to keep up his usual aloof manner. Yet to this day he hadnít gotten very much out of Touma.
He opened his eyes. Direct sunlight hit his retina, and Korinís power swelled within him to absorb the energy. It was strange and wonderful to see the world painted with light. He wondered what Touma would say if he told him that.
"Ohayo," came a sleep-blurred voice.
Seiji started. He hadnít sensed Toumaís approach. ĎWell, he is up early. For him.í Softly he greeted Touma.
A companionable silence settled between them. Seiji wondered what he could say to bring the young man out of his shell.
To his surprise, Touma started talking first. "Did he have a nightmare?"
"Yes. A bad one. Shin usually sleeps through the milder ones, and he was up like a shot."
"He has to wake up soon." Seiji stole a glance at the archer. The dark blue eyes were narrowed in thought, his forehead creased. The seriousness made him seem older than his fourteen years.
"The four of us have our strength back. If the Dark Realm attacks, we can handle it."
"That doesnít count the recuperation time. He hasnít eaten anything solid in a week. And you know when he wakes up heíll want to start training and fighting right away."
Seiji raised his eyebrow. Touma was certainly observant. "True."
"You know," the archer turned to Seiji, "I think it was a mistake to take Rekka off him. We trained a couple of times in armor, and our energy came back to us faster. But now heís asleep and he canít call the armor to him."
"Nasti still hasnít found anything on that white armor, either."
Touma nodded. Then he veered off subject. "I wonder whatís in those woods."
"Iíve found a few nice spots for meditation," said Seiji. "Itís a huge property. I donít think Nasti knows where all the trails go."
"You wanna go exploring?"
Kanji orbs safe in their pockets, Seiji and Touma hiked through the forest. They talked a little. Mostly it was small talk about Shinís cooking or Shuuís sense of humor or the expanse of Nastiís grandfatherís property. Gradually some personal information mixed into the conversation. Seiji learned that Touma was an only child, and his parents were divorced. For his part, Seiji told him about his sisters, the dojo, his kendo championships.
"Wow, no wonder youíre so good with Korin Ken," said Touma, pushing back a branch.
"Actually itís a completely different style. In kendo the swords are lighter and smaller. Korin Ken is much longer and heavier. I doubt I could lift it out of the full yoroi."
"Biceps like yours?" Touma clapped a hand on Seijiís arm. "Iím sure you could."
Startled by the casual touch, Seiji watched as Touma withdrew as quickly as heíd opened up. It was as though he thought heíd offended him.
"Hey, I wonder whatís over that hill." Seiji followed his pointing finger. There was a clearing in the bushes above them. Seiji opened his mouth to say, ĎMaybe we should stay on the path,í but Touma charged up the hill.
"Thereís a trail up here! Címon!"
Seiji sighed and scrambled up after him. The loose soil gave way under his feet, and he slipped forward. Quick as one of his arrows, Touma caught his hand. He was grinning like a little kid with a new toy, all seriousness cast aside. Seiji couldnít help but smile back.
Over the hill they found... more bushes. Determined, Touma towed Seiji along, ignoring the swordsmanís protests. There was no path, just underbrush. "Weíre going to get lost, Touma!"
"Iíll just armor up and fly up for help."
"Shuu will have a field day over this."
"Aw, lighten up!"
Suddenly they burst through. They were standing at the crest of a gently sloping field. Seiji sucked in his breath in awe. Wildflowers and sweet smelling grasses stretched into the distance, a good baseball fieldís length away. Tree-covered ridges flanked the meadow on every side, rising steeply to enclose the area.
"Must have been swampy here before," breathed Touma. "Then the plants took over and filled it in." He grinned again, and without warning took off down the slope, Seiji firmly in hand.
Seiji gasped a laugh, finally realizing that they had been holding hands the whole way here. He sped up, running side by side, never letting go. The exhilaration of discovery filled him, both of the hidden field and the archerís childlike side.
Touma slowed down where the ground inclined a bit more. He flopped onto the grass. Seiji looked down on him, amused.
"Whatís the matter? Come on, the grass is soft." He cocked his head. "Too late to save your clothes. Youíve got stuff all over you."
Seiji grimaced at his dirt-streaked shirt and slacks. "Itís your fault for dragging me through that." He sat down next to him. The thick grass was indeed as soft as a pillow. Touma picked a bright red flower and twirled it in his fingers.
"I have a 250 IQ, you know." It was almost a questioning tone rather than a boast.
Seiji looked over at him. He was still staring at the flower. "You are a very quick thinker," he hazarded.
Touma opened his mouth as though he were about to say something profound. "That one looks like a duck."
ĎWhat?í Seiji followed his gaze to the sky. Puffy white clouds floated by. "Oh. No, looks more like a leaf."
They named clouds for a while. Seiji found himself relaxing for the first time in days, engaged in simple arguments over the species of clouds. It was nice to ignore the voices which insisted he was being ridiculous, that he should be worrying about their practically invalid leader. Another bout of laughter, and they fell silent again.
"Why did you need me to know about your IQ?"
Touma smirked, not looking at him. "People treat me differently when they learn how smart I am. Well, they treat me differently anyway, but they really start acting like Iím an adult when they find out." He looked over at Seiji. "I just realized today, you guys are the first people who act like Iím normal."
"Of course youíre normal, Touma!" Seiji shook his head in amazement. He paused. "Except for the mystical armor and the saving-the-world part."
Touma laughed. Seiji noted the pleasant rosy color rising on his cheeks. It warmed him to see the archer opening up at last.
"Ryo was right, you know," Seiji said. "Weíre all friends now. The battle has made us trust each other."
"Iím glad. We would never have met under normal circumstances."
As the sun climbed the sky, they talked, this time of their worries and fears, and their hopes for the future once the Dark Realm was defeated. At last the noontime heat was too much for them. Touma offered a hand to help Seiji up. Neither released his grasp until they were within sight of the mansion.
The next day, the pace picked up again: Ryo finally woke, and Saranbo began his attacks. From then on, though they had more downtime between battles, it was always a tense, vigilant period when they never knew when a demon would corner them.
At Shinís suggestion they all had breakfast at dawn each day, just in case there was an attack in the early morning hours. That was hard on Touma, who was used to sleeping in till midday. Seiji was constantly on his case to go to sleep earlier. After getting doused with ice water one too many times, Touma finally agreed to a compromise: with Seijiís help heíd appear for breakfast, eat a little, and then go back to sleep.
Yet soon he and Seiji fell into a different routine. Instead of going back to their room, Touma would take a quick shower then walk to the field with Seiji.
They never told the others about the place. It didnít seem right to share their discovery. Most mornings Touma would fall asleep in the grass and Seiji would meditate nearby. Sometimes they would walk a circuit around the field, talking or just admiring the serene beauty around them. On days after battles, their energy still drained from forming the Kikoutei, Seiji would doze off too, lying in the soft grass next to Touma.
And each day, around lunchtime, Touma would check his watch and extend a hand to Seiji. Without a word the swordsman would take it, and hand in hand they would leave the field behind.
The days grew shorter, and the mornings colder. On one particularly chilly day, Seiji suggested that they stay in. Touma was insistent.
"Weíve had so many rainy days lately. Iíve been bouncing off the walls, cooped up in here."
Seiji smiled, pulling on a sweater. "Thatís because youíve been on a sugar high for the past two days." A balled-up shirt hit the side of his head.
"Itís not my fault Shin makes killer chocolate fudge!" Touma stood on his bed, bobbing with each word.
Seiji tossed him a jacket. "Fine, hyper-boy, weíll go. And then you can explain how half a batch of fudge disappeared before Shuu even came home."They set out, the wind whipping around them. As Seiji had predicted, Touma was shivering almost immediately. The archer was too thin for his own good, always eating sweets which his high metabolism burned away. They reached the bend in the path, and out of habit Seiji took Toumaís hand.
He gasped. The skin was cold as ice. "Touma..." he scolded.
"No, letís go." Touma didnít look at him, but the grasp on his hand tightened.
"The grass has to be brown and dead by now."
"Good. It will smell like autumn." Toumaís voice was distant, dreamy. APlease, Seiji. Iím tired of constantly..."
He trailed off, but Seiji knew what he was talking about. The battles against the Dark Realm were taking their toll. Ryo was brooding more often, Nasti was working frantically to learn more about the Kikoutei, and Shuuís restlessness was getting to everyone. Shin was beside himself worrying about the group.
"You wonít be any good if you get sick," Seiji murmured, unconsciously pulling Touma closer so that their shoulders touched.
"Wonít get sick," Touma whispered. He slipped out of Seijiís grasp and reached over to catch his other hand. Compelled, Seiji wrapped his free arm around Toumaís waist.
It was when the soft blue hair settled on his shoulder that Seiji realized what was happening. Touma didnít seem to mind that they were practically snuggling. In fact, he let out a sigh which brushed warmly on Seijiís skin.
Seiji had never given it a second thought before. The way they held hands when the others werenít around, the blinding smiles Touma reserved for him alone, the ridiculous games of tag which always ended up with one of them pinning the other to the ground. They had spent the past few rainy days exchanging back rubs in the privacy of their room, while discussing the books theyíd been reading or simply enjoying each otherís company in drowsy silence.
ĎWhat does this mean?í Seiji thought, guiding Touma over some tree roots. He did like the way Toumaís hand fit perfectly into his. And he looked forward to their mornings spent in the field. After weeks of battles, it was nice to come home to that.
So did that mean he had feelings for the archer? He wasnít sure. He rubbed Toumaís arm, trying to warm him up. It occurred to Seiji that maybe he didnít care. Touma was his best friend, and maybe that was enough.
They disengaged temporarily to climb up the slope. Touma clasped his hand once more as they cut through the bushes.
Before them appeared a sight which Seiji would never tire of. The field had indeed turned to a rich, dusty brown. While most of the trees in the forest behind them were still green, the trees here were gradually turning red and gold and orange. The wind swept through the meadow, the grasses rippling like waves on the sea.
"You cold?" Seiji said.
"Yes," admitted Touma. Seiji gave him his best annoyed look. Touma just stuck out his tongue at him.
"Well... letís go over to that ridge. Itís a good windbreak."
Touma smiled at him gratefully, even though Seiji could tell his teeth were chattering. "Baka," Seiji added. Touma just squeezed his hand in reply.
A massive tree had fallen over the ridge in question, providing an unobstructed view of the field. They leaned against the trunk, legs dangling over the edge. Seiji was now all too aware of Toumaís fingers twining with his. He stiffened when Touma leaned on his shoulder again.
Touma shrugged. "You know... you and I..." Seijiís heart quickened. "What?"
"We have such solitary personalities. Weíd be perfectly happy by ourselves, most of the time."
Seiji swallowed, hearing the words in his head before they reached his lips. "Iím happy to be with you, Touma," he whispered.
The wind almost drowned out Toumaís answer. "Yeah... me too..."
He fell asleep draped over Seijiís body, arms comfortably wound around his waist. Seiji looked down at his sleeping form. Gently he kissed the dark blue hair, watching the fire-colored leaves wave in the wind.
~to be continued~
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