The River Sanzu
Chapter 18
a Ronin Warriors / Dark is Rising fusion
by Liondragon
2537 wc ~ PG ~ W/B

The truth about Touma and Kujuurou.

"You were protecting us in Kyoto."

Sasaki Kujuurou looked up from his tea. He had been leaning on a wooden pillar, watching the geese on the misty pond. If he was surprised by Willís fluency, he didnít show it.

"Touma left for Tokyo to research, and I watched you in the meantime. He doesnít know what you are," Kujuurou said, as though that made Will impenetrable. "He says if he encountered you in an old tale, you would either be a god or a demon. Now he is not sure what your friend is, who can banish a tengu and call you back from darkness."

Will blinked. Bran hadnít mentioned his part in the purification. Three times heís saved me. "Bran decides the extent of his power. Heís no different from any other human being. Like you." Will watched Kujuurouís expression until he understood. All the armor bearers were ordinary human beings. "I came out here to thank you."

"Hn. Touma complains that I do not take compliments well. But he also says that I drink my tea noisily." Kujuurou set down the cup. "Our help did not come quickly enough. We did not understand why you would be attacked. Also Touma wanted to hide his alliance with me, which caused more delay."

So Kujuurou had been closest when the yuurei attacked, yet had remained in hiding. Heíd alerted Touma, who had in turn sent Shuu. All that to conceal their connection. "He might have saved us a lot of trouble," said Will, a bit harshly.

Kujuurouís shoulders stiffened. "He does not like to move when there is much to be lost and no clear strategy. And there is no easy way around Date Seiji."

Someone stepped out on the porch. Will raised his hand. The geese flapped in the water as he spoke a spell. Too late he wondered if his powers were still corrupted...

Kujuurou turned to see Seiji looking straight through him. He smirked, and Will felt his concealing spell palpitate with the barely contained power of the wolf armor.

"Good morning, Seiji." Will held on to his composure. Kujuurou was quite safe. And without warning, the armorís magic was hiding him from Will as well. Touma was controlling all this power?

"Good morning, Will-san. I am very sorry for the interruption last night. Please forgive me." He bowed low. "How are you feeling?"

"Much better, thank you. And itís okay. Itís been a trying few days for all of us."

For a moment Seiji seemed as ghost-like as Bran, his pale eye against his pale skin. Will huddled into his robes. If Seiji called his armor, he would see Kujuurou for certain. How deadly a split would be among these powerful guardians... and perhaps that was why he had to intervene.

"Indeed," said the ronin. "We have not brought our armors into battle for a long time."

Intrigued, Will touched the now-familiar magic of the armors. "Youíre still recovering..."

"Yes. What happened to you always happens to us." Will glimpsed a strange sheen in Seijiís eyes, sharp as first sunlight in the leaves. This is what theyíd meant before. The Sign had to be attacked deliberately before it compromised Will. Yet after just one battle, the armor itself assailed their mortal souls, preying on their natural will to fight. That partly explained last nightís blow-up.

Willís voice was soft. "When I watched you fight against the tengu, Seiji, I thought: this is a great warrior. Yet your anger and fear were damaging your control. Greater men than you have fallen to the Dark, and for much less."

He could almost hear Seijiís teeth grind. "And I suppose I must accept that my best friend has given up so much, so carelessly?"

Bran was right. This is personal. Feeling increasingly out of his depth, Will murmured, "Sometimes itís best to move on."

Seiji gave a rough laugh. "I am not angry for the reasons you think, Will-san. Touma has always been secretive about his plans. A trait I share with him. No... I cannot see why Kujuurou could not shoulder his own burden."

Something pushed Willís spell aside. To his horror Kujuurou also banished the concealing shadows, and stood up. His voice was thick with anguish. "There was no one who objected more than I. I would have been a happier man if Touma had walked away from his fate. If he had chosen someone else."

Dark magic surged from Kujuurouís raw emotion like a nightmare eager to come alive. Then Will felt it being reined in, twisting and plunging into a sea of stars. By the sound of Seijiís gasp, he could sense it too. "The armors," Will said, "they can prolong your life. But you can let them go when you are ready to die..."

Seiji nodded, locking eyes with Kujuurou. "Toumaís armor is no longer all of his now. He cannot let it go, ever. When the time comes for us to cross that river, Touma may not accompany us."

Pondwater splashed as the geese took off.

"The rest of us bear it alone," Seiji said under his breath.

Kujuurou seemed to accept the blow. "Korin no Seiji, you were my worthy enemy. You know better than anyone the potency of Yamiís taint. Perhaps if I were a stronger man, I could bear it. I was ready to destroy it before Touma could do anything. But I waited too long. He made my choice for me."

Seiji remained silent. Will let out the breath heíd been holding. "Toumaís a better man than any of us. I didnít ask for my hard fate as an Old One. But he chose the very same."

"Ee, my ears are hurting. Whoís speaking my name?" Touma popped out from around the corner, followed by Kayura. He glanced at everyone warily and came to stand beside Seiji. Kujuurou withdrew, as though yielding the field to his lover. "Your sisters are back with the carps."

Seiji shook his head at Toumaís words. "They made more?"

"Of course. Seven more sons in the house than they started with..." Touma tried a smile, and Seijiís gaze softened. It was then that Will sensed a change in Touma. He was the same affable fellow with a bright intellect... and he wasnít hiding anymore. This man fears no darkness.

Touma and Seiji locked gazes, and Will couldnít help but dip into that stream. /Seiji, you guys taught me that lesson yourselves. You donít leave anyone behind./

From around Touma came the dark power heíd tried to hide from the first. It was darker and colder than anything human. At the same time these were not shadows of the abyss, but the space between stars, or the chill of deepest night when the sky is clear.

The tension drained from Seijiís shoulders, as did the subtle glow of his armor. It was as though a dam had broken. Touma ducked his head. /I saw a way to save him, and I took it. Sorry I didnít say anything earlier./

Seiji shook his head, squeezing Toumaís arm. As Will pulled away, he caught a thread of the strong love between themĖ laced with regret, but ultimately happy. This is the strength of belonging, he thought. Even if it couldnít last forever.

"Will-san? Is it easy?" said Seiji, not looking away from Touma.

Will watched the rippling pond. "No. But a good friend of mine showed me... we never truly bear it alone." He managed a smile. "Canít go back. Canít look back."

Seiji bent his head. "Thank you."

Kujuurou had set out for the front gate, and stopped on the stone path. "Eight more kites, imouto?"

Will blinked. Heíd called Kayura his little sister.

"Of course," she said. "He was born on this day, the Red Top Child." There was sorrow beneath her air of levity. At once Will knew they had honored him at the shrine.

Touma tugged on Seijiís arm. "Come on, theyíll wonder where we are. Your sisters want us to put up them up." Seiji allowed himself to be dragged off, while Kujuurou followed at a more sedate pace.

Will and Kayura stayed behind. "In case you were wondering," she said in English, "Toumaís choice was very foolish. Now he will be the one left behind. But you are right; there is no going back."

She was not at all what Will expected. Of one thing he was sure of Ė she wasnít another pea in a pod. "Lady Kayura, may I ask something? Who is ĎShutendoujií?"

"The Red Top Child? The fourth and fiercest of the warlords. Oni, demon of cruelty, the unstoppable ogre." She grasped Willís wrist. The Sign burned faintly before them. If this was Old Magic she commanded, hers was more potent than the armors. A familiar hope wakened in him, and he searched her eyes.

She held his gaze, yet he found nothing remarkable in her nature ó only the poise and confidence of youth. Not even the mark of an armor. It was then that he realized who Shuten was. There had been nine armor bearers; he had assumed that she had been the ninth, but that was not so. The demon is already gone, Kujuurou had said yesterday.

But then, who was she? She had been a hostage of the Dark, a former enemy of the ronin. And the golden staff was hers. Will thought of the Lady, the likeness between them, and the questions massed in his mind and spilled into their link.

Kayura seemed unperturbed by the flood. /I do not know if my ancestor was one of your kind. But I am just an ordinary woman, trapped in a time not her own. My home is among the spirits and demons now./ She released his hand, though she did not avert her gaze.

Will wet his lips. Strangely he did not feel disappointed that she was not an Old One. "In the youjakai... you are a guardian of guardians. Surely you donít do this all by yourself?"

"Itís just myself and my two brothers, Rajura and Naaza. The spider and the snake. The wolf has escaped from us." She smiled again. Will saw that she had many smiles, and not all were guileless. "Toumaís last victory against me." She looked away.

Will was struck by how much she reminded him of his sister Mary. She was the youngest of them, wasnít she? Just a girl whose old rival had taken away her big brother, to live in a world where she could only visit and never stay.

Bloody hell. Lifeís too short. He stepped forward, and hugged her. She squeaked, utterly surprised. At first Will thought heíd made a misstep... then she returned his embrace.

Now he was glad that she was fully human. With a look he might share volumes of wisdom with his masters, but this small connection could mean that much more.

She was blushing. Out of habit, she thumped his chest. "What was that for!"

Will pretended to wince. "Donít worry. I wonít tell anyone." He grinned.

"Hmph." She covered her laugh, wide, dark eyes narrowing again. "Will-sama, may I request something?"

"Sure." Will stuffed his hands in his pockets.

"One year in the youjakai can be a hundred years among men. After I return, it will be too dangerous to open the gates for some time. When it is safe again... if you are still here, might I visit you?"

It was Willís turn to be surprised. "Yes, of course."

"Great!" She tiptoed up and kissed his cheek. "Remember, you must be here! I didnít go through that trouble of saving you for nothing!" She dashed off. Will supposed that was as good a thank-you as he could manage.

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