The River Sanzu
Chapter 16
a Ronin Warriors / Dark is Rising fusion
by Liondragon
1767 wc ~ PG ~ W/B

Hearts laid bare.

Will woke to candle fire and the smell of freshly cooked rice. He ached all over. His skin was wrinkly and damp, though his hair was dry.



His friend was hunched over his bedroll. The shadows painted his pale face like a mask. "Youíre in your altogether, you know."

Will sat up, tugging the covers from where heíd kicked them.

Bran slipped his glasses down. "Right as rain, then? Thatís a good blush on you."

"Get stuffed. Um, could you...?"

"Sure." Between the two of them they managed to get Will into pajamas. "Everyoneís here. Safe.Ē

Will fell back on the bedding, feeling faint. "Where are we?"

Bran touched his shoulder. "Seijiís family home. Lady Kayura took us here. Do you remember what happened?"

"After Mount Osore, no." Will frowned.

"Not even this?" Bran reached into his shirt and pulled out a downy black feather hanging from a string.

Will goggled at it. "How...?"

"Not sure. Touma gave it to me. I was too occupied with keeping your head out of the water. I think youíre part of the family now, boyo. Half dozen of them got a look at you..."

"Oh lord."

"...including Seijiís sister. But donít worry, sheís a doctor. Used to bare bums." Bran took off his shades and peered at Will. "Thereís some rice and juice over here. Hungry?"

"I might get sick, if I eat. In a bit." Will swallowed. "You saw it? The Sign?"

Bran nodded. His owl-like eyes caught the light.

I almost killed that. Will opened his hands. "I had forgotten. There is a power in the shape of it. They didnít have to attack me directly, only fog up my thoughts."

Bending closer, Bran dipped his head. "Why you? Will it always be like this?"

Will gathered his thoughts. "This seems a special circumstance. When I entered that shrine, I was spotted, and not just by Touma. The ghosts... It is that point where the power of Men merges with Wild Magic. They wanted life." Will looked at Bran, who was still in his traveling jacket. His friend seemed to stare at a spot over his shoulder, breath brushing lightly on his skin. "And they wanted to see their loved ones again. Even High Magic cannot alter the bonds of love."

Bran was still. "The Lady said you were walking with the dead."

In that fragile moment Will realized what he meant, and what had almost happened. He could see the empty vessel of his body which had taken him from darkest ocean to mountain deep and through the mists of time. Deathless they had named him, and so his sleep would have been that: unending yet final.

His mouth went dry as Branís fingers brushed his cheek. Callused tough at the tips from plucking harp strings. Then the curve of his palm, rough from year-round farmwork. Will clung to this knowledge, his only hold on reality, even as his mind awakened to the marks which should not be on Branís palm: the tell-tales of skilled swordsmanship.

Branís skin smelled of warm things, and earth, and grass after rain. Will moved his head slightly and their hair tangled.

"Sorry," he said.

Bran sat up stiff, meeting his eyes at last. "Close your mouth," he said, then he leaned in and kissed him on the lips. Surprise froze Will for only a moment. His eyes fell shut, and his body brimmed with warmth, like the sudden thrill of feeling after coming in from the cold. When he opened them again, his hands were digging into Branís side to pull him closer. His ears were ringing. Bran was breathing fast, hand still cupping his cheek.

They stared at each other until Will laughed. "Youíre not going to shut it that way." Bran grinned with relief. They embraced, wrapped in each other and the silence of the guttering candles...

...and the chatter of a dozen voices. Will pulled away, sensing the banished silencing spell. Two seconds later the door slid open and electric light flooded in.

"Cool! Youíre awake." Kayura smirked down at them. "Touma is back from fried chicken place." She set down a bucket of drumsticks, and took a seat between them. She didnít seem to notice Bran glaring.

Will glanced at her slippers, which were some kind of big-eyed hamster. "Lady Kayura, I presume."

"Why is he up?" Kayura said to Bran. "Back down, Will-sama. Thatís it. You look warm. Are you feeling chilly?"

"No, no. Just a bit wobbly. Thank you for everything..."

Other heads were peeking in now. Bran rolled his eyes and slid the door open all the way. From the floor, Kayura looked upside-down at the assembled ronin. "Weíll put up some extra paper wards and scatter some iris leaves, just in case. But the shakujo will be enough."

"Paper wards?" said Bran.

"Itís like the prayer tree," said Touma. "Oh yes, Iíd left before you got there..." He proceeded to explain them to Bran.

"So... written spells? That will keep him safe?"

"In theory." Kujuurou spoke up. Again Touma was translating for him, a fact which Seiji seemed to pick up on now. "Certain dark spirits can cut through those kinds of wards."

"Yeah, youíd know," Shuu muttered, though it was half in jest.

Seiji wasnít laughing. Nasuti glanced between them nervously, though she didnít say what was going on.

"Okay. Now youíre losing me." Ryo frowned at his team. "Everybody stop the mind-talk and explain."

Finally Shuu shrugged. "Eh, you werenít there when Seiji came to get me. You know, when Kujuurou-sanĖ" He stopped, obviously struggling for some sort of euphemism.

Tried to kill me? Bran supplied silently.

There was a flash, and a surge of power. Quickly Kayura pointed two fingers, and the staff appeared in her hand. "Stop it!"

Light and dark magic faded out; Will slumped back in relief. No one said a word. Kujuurou crossed his arms, and Seiji turned away. Touma simply called on his armor and disappeared.

Seiji wasnít finished yet. "Shuu, how can you be so casual about it?"

Shuu bit into a chicken leg to avoid answering for a while, but Seiji was still staring him down when he swallowed. "Maa, Seij, it was a long time ago. Besides, if he hadnít tried to break through the wards, maybe I wouldnít have made it out of that boulder. Weíll never know." He pointed the bone at Seiji. "We were all screwed over by Arago. All nine. I may hate Rajuraís guts, but he was being used the same way I was."

"Iím telling him you said that," said Kayura. "Now, out! The wards are only to protect against spirits who prey on the sick. Ordinary. Nothing gets past the shakujo except boys who canít stop talking. And I have ways to deal with the latter."

Prudently they left their good wishes before scrambling out. Kayura turned back to her charges. Her English was a positive relief, as Will was hesitant to use his powers to translate. "Donít look so worried. Touma probably went to the roof. He goes there to think. The rest of them can try to kill each other in front of Nasuti-sensei."

Bran snorted. "What about those things that were after us? We canít go around with wards around our necks."

"You have something better." She knelt and touched the feather. It glowed faintly through Branís shirt. "The spirit of the tengu made pure is the spirit of a mountain guardian. I am going back to prevent attacks from our side. If it is something from somewhere else? As long as you have this feather, you are safe." To their surprise she bowed very deeply to Bran, her brow touching the floor.

When she straightened, it was as if she was the same bubbly young miss as before, who bent her head to no one. Bran was too nonplused to respond. "As for Will-sama. My best advice? Donít hide your Sign. It is powerful and shows you if something is wrong. After that, easy to defend, right? You can always say to people the scar was an accident."

"It sort of was... but not really..."

"Now youíre over-tired. The body does not recover from spirit possessions quickly. After this, go where you can rest yourself."

Bran hummed thoughtfully. "Where he can convalesce?"

"Yes, right. And that means eat your chicken, and sleep. Now I gotta go hang wards." She flashed a parting wink and waved a V-sign. "Sweet dreams!"

Bran let out a sigh as the door shut. Once more the room was silent and bathed in candle-glow. "Alright, you heard her. Time to eat."

"Just a little. And what was that hum about?"

"Ideas of where you can convalesce. Rice cakes with the chicken, can you stomach that? No you donít, thatís all your share. We ate earlier."

Obediently Will ate while Bran took off his shirt and wet his face. Kayura was right. It was like heíd had hooks in him, draining him, and now they had been removed. As good as it smelled, the food was almost tasteless. His head felt too light, though the sensation wasnít all bad.

"Seems itís a hard crossing from enemy to friend," he remarked.

"I know. Poor Kujuurou. Earlier, we met the family. It was... interesting," said Bran.

"What happened?"

"Not so much what happened as whatís in progress. The family doesnít know Seiji had an affair with Touma. Or they know and donít say. They didnít react when the other guys got a bit obvious."

"Huh," said Will. "In the heat of battle, eh?"

"Something to be said for it," said Bran a tad slyly. "I pegged Seiji. Heís an heir. Honest-to-goodness old samurai clan, with all the trappings. Pleasant enough. They didnít blink at all this," he gestured to himself, "but I got the feeling theyíd stare me down if I knotted my tie wrong. Small wonder he races cars."

"Youíre not even wearing a tie..."

Bran flicked some water on him. "Hush, you. They expect him to go the old-fashioned route, if you get my meaning."

Get married to a nice girl. Someone who wouldnít know anything about the armors. "So his former enemy has everything he canít have..."

"You saw how they were. The rest can tolerate the fellow for Toumaís sake, but Seiji? Itís not the old blood anymore, itís personal." Bran spread a bedroll next to Willís. "Duw, I canít lie down yet. All that kneeling."

Will smiled at him. "I wish there were something more we could do."

"Me too." Bran twirled the feather.

Will reached out to touch it. "The Sign... I should tell you..."

"Tomorrow. Go to sleep. Your breathingís still weak. Tomorrow, Will." Bran caught his fingers.

Will stroked the fine down, thinking of two shadows huddled on the roof. "But youíre bound up in this."

"Tomorrow." There was a rustle of blankets. "And Will?"


"Your feet are cold."

Will chuckled. He closed his eyes and let the lightness take him. " owe me socks."

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