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To Fall in Snow, Still Burning

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"Easy," he muttered, "easy, easy." A meaningless stream of sounds, muffled and useless under the heavy skies. Touma grimaced, and hitched Ryou higher over his shoulders.

Ryou tossed his head, panting, and tugged at Touma's grip – "Don't," he said, his voice firm enough that Touma almost stopped, surprised. His left foot slipped a little in the dry snow on the sidewalk.

But Ryou slid back into nervous muttering, and Touma bowed his head.

"Easy, Ryou," he said.

* * *

Ryou crashed at his place tonight, when the snow started coming down in earnest.  With White Blaze hanging out with Jun again while his parents were away, Ryou had gotten lonely.

"You have the most comfortable couch," he said, which was a lie. Xiu's couch was amazing, and Seiji and Shin at least had actual couches. But Touma didn't mind the company. They sat on his rickety futon and watched old movies while the snow sifted past the window.

Ryou looked tired in the light from the television. Halfway through the second movie, he'd laid his head on Touma's shoulder, and fallen asleep. When Touma brushed his hair back, his face felt warm.

"Hey," he said, and gave Ryou's shoulder a shake. "Hey, Ryou." He didn't respond.

Touma gently shifted out from under him, and straightened him out on the futon – it would be murder on his back, but he'd move him to the bed if he couldn't wake him up.

He was back in just a moment with a blanket, but already Ryou's dark hair was plastered to his face with sweat.  When he sat next to him, Ryou's eyes opened – wide and glassy. Scared.

Startled, Touma didn't react in time when Ryou grabbed his arm. His shoulders hit the floor hard.  Ryou's hands were wrapped in his t-shirt.  Their legs were still on the futon, tangled together.

"You can't have them," Ryou said, snarling at Touma and seeing someone else. "You can't . . ." But then his eyes shuttered closed, and he pressed his forehead against Touma's. It was much too hot.

"Touma?" Ryou's voice was barely a whisper. He felt it more than heard it, a soft puff of air against his throat.

"Yeah, Ryou, just me." Carefully, he brought his hands up to pat Ryou's shoulder.

"I don't feel right," Ryou muttered, and was asleep again – or maybe just unconscious, hot and heavy on top of him. He huffed out a breath, staring at the ceiling.

Awkwardly, careful not to drop Ryou, he pulled his feet down and around, and pushed himself to his knees.

It was just a fever, he told himself. Just a fever. It was snowing – had been cold and windy for days, and Ryou never fastened his coat. It was no surprise that he'd get sick. He'd be all right.

But there was an unsettling shiver in his gut, and as he studied his friend's face – pale and drawn, the bright red flush rising high on his cheekbones – he couldn't help but think that he'd seen Ryou wounded, exhausted, and afraid, but never sick. He didn't get sick. None of them had since the armors came to them.

Touma set his jaw and hoisted himself to his feet, pulling Ryou up with him with a hand under his knees.

He had to call Nasuti. She'd know.

* * *

The park was two blocks from his apartment. He tried to ignore the way the chains on the swing set rattled like armor under their icy coating; the way the shadows under the elephant slide could hide anything at all. Ryou was quiet, and Touma concentrated on feeling his chest move through the layers of coats and scarves he'd wrapped them both in.  On making sure he was still breathing.

"Here, Ryou?" he asked, not expecting an answer, but longing for one all the same. "Is this far enough?"

* * *

He'd almost managed to get Ryou to the bedroom when he came awake again with a wordless cry. He kicked off the wall, pushing Touma to the opposite side of the hallway and tumbling to the floor when Touma lost his grip. He was up again immediately – eyes still closed, swaying on his feet.

"Ryou!" Touma exclaimed.  He reached out to steady him, but Ryou's eyes opened, and he shied back from the venom blazing there.

"What have you done with them?" Ryou yelled, voice breaking. Touma stared – he could see Ryou's armor, a pale flickering vision born out of Ryou's fear and fury.

"Ryou, please," he said, keeping his voice even and soft with great effort. "It's okay. It's me. We're all okay." He put his hands up slowly, and kept his back to the wall.

Ryou blinked at him. The possibility of his armor started to fade. "But Arago . . ." he started, plaintive and sad.

"No, Ryou. Arago's really gone this time." And you almost went with him, he thought, feeling the memory clench around his heart.

Ryou leaned closer, peering at his face. "Touma." It wasn't a question this time. And then, as matter of factly as he'd announce that the snow was falling, he said, "There are dynasty soldiers here. We have to leave." He tried to walk past Touma then, back to the living room, but his knees buckled.

Touma caught him automatically, but he was already pulling forward, stronger than he should be. "We have to go," he insisted.

Touma looked back up the hallway, to his bedroom, to his phone, but Ryou was heading for the door. He'd leave without him, and be out in the snow alone. Sick. Coatless.

"Okay," he said, helplessly catching Ryou's sleeve. "Okay." If White Blaze were here . . . but he wasn't.

He managed to stop him long enough to wrestle him into a coat and scarf, long enough to find his own – but Ryou was opening the door before he'd finished buttoning up. He looked back at Touma, eyes fever bright. He motioned for silence – the effort left him listing alarmingly. Touma hurriedly pulled his arm over his shoulders.

He'd find a payphone.

* * *

The falling snow was more like static in the still, bitter air. Tiny, dry flakes that didn't so much collect on the ground as scatter like salt. It crunched underfoot. Touma shifted Ryou's weight over his shoulders again and looked around the park – there, he thought. On the other side. Under the streetlight, the snow on the bench and the payphone all looked gold.

He could feel Ryou's fist clench, bunching the fabric of his coat at his waist. He paused, holding his breath, but Ryou settled again. " . . quiet," he heard, barely louder than the clink of the swings. " . . . they'll hear . . ."

He ached, trying to imagine what Ryou was seeing. "I'll protect you," he whispered, knowing Ryou wouldn't hear him. Knowing Ryou was thinking exactly the same thing.

* * *

Ryou made it down the stairs and out into the street before he stumbled to his knees, pulling his arm free from Touma's grip. "No," he said, pushing at him. "No, you have to go. Get away from them." Again, Touma could see his armor, trying to manifest. He caught his breath – Ryou was far too weak to keep that up. He could feel his own armor responding, trying to lend its strength.

"Come on then," he said. "I'm not going without you. No sacrificing yourself this time." Not ever again, even in a fever dream.

Ryou protested when he picked him up and slung him over his shoulders. But Touma braced himself, and Ryou wasn't strong enough to pull away.

"I've got you," Touma said, and Ryou slowly relaxed. "I've got you."

"We have to go." Ryou's voice was muffled, caught in both his scarf and Touma's. But he'd said 'we,' and Touma counted that a victory.

"We're going," he said, moving forward. "Don't worry. We're going."

* * *

He cleared the snow away from the bench with an awkward sweep of his foot, and sat Ryou down on it. He slumped forward, and Touma braced him up with one hand flat against his chest. Ryou's dark hair, damp with sweat, swept across the sleeve of his coat.

With his free hand, Touma dug the change out his pocket, and lifted the payphone from its cradle. He let loose a sigh when he heard a dial tone.

It rang once. Twice. Again. Please, he thought. Please be up.

"Hello?" Nasuti sounded groggy.

"Sorry, Nasuti," he said. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"Touma? What is it?" Already, her voice was sharper.

"Ryou's sick," he said. It sounded so simple. "He's got a fever. Can you pick us up?"

"But he doesn't get sick. Where are you?" For all the confusion in her voice, she didn't hesitate.

Touma dropped his head against the payphone. "The park around the corner from my apartment," he said, letting the relief color his voice. He knew she'd hear it. "Nasuti. He wouldn't stay inside."

She paused, working through why that might be.

"I see," she said. "I'll be there soon."

"Thank you." Touma hung up the phone with reluctance. The night felt eery, with the bone dry snow rubbing against itself with a strange creaky sound, and Ryou so still and silent. It felt lonely.

He sat down beside Ryou, wrapping his arms around him to keep him upright. "You'll be all right," he said. "She'll be here soon."

Not that soon, he thought. Her house was pretty far outside the city. "Soon enough," he amended. "It'll be fine."

* * *

He maybe should have called Seiji, he thought. Or the others. But Nasuti had been the first one he thought of, and he didn't have any more change in his pockets.

"Stupid," he told himself, tucking his face further under his scarf. "You panicked." It was still his first instinct not to let Ryou out of his sight. Even though they hadn't had any trouble in months. Even though they'd all started to relax a little.

Ryou stirred against his side, and Touma looked down at him. He was shivering. Touma wrapped his arms around him more tightly. Close enough to feel it when Ryou suddenly stiffened. Which gave him warning enough to keep his grip when Ryou knocked them both to the ground.

This was getting old, he thought, a strangled laugh trying to escape. Powdery snow puffed up around them like smoke.

Ryou slapped a hand over his mouth, eyes wild as he stared over his head into the park. He leaned down and whispered into Touma's ear – "They're here. I'll lead them away."

Touma hissed and wrapped his legs around Ryou's before he could do any such thing. Ryou fell back on top of him with a gasp, shoving at him, but Touma wrestled them around and sat on him, pinning his shoulders down into the snow.

"No, Ryou," he insisted. His voice came out low and harsh, desperate. "There's nothing there. Stay with me."

"Touma, they're after me. I can keep you safe." Ryou's eyes were wide and very blue under the streetlight.

"Don't." Touma heard his voice breaking. Firmed it deliberately. "I'm fine. There isn't anything there, Ryou."

"But . . ." Ryou's chest heaved. "No. No. Can't you see them?" And his shoulders bucked under Touma's hands, and his gloves were slipping suddenly on armor instead of wool, and Ryou was throwing him off. His head cracked against the bench, and Touma saw Ryou drawing his swords through a haze of snow and pain. It gave him a halo – red, like his armor. He clambered after him, feeling his own armor manifesting, pushing the ache in his skull to the background.

Ryou swung at empty air, slicing snowflakes. He was so unsteady on his feet – Touma reached for him, a despairing cry escaping him. "Stop it! Ryou!"

But then it wasn't empty air Ryou was fighting. His sword caught on something Touma couldn't see, caught and jerked like it had hit something, and Ryou fell back like he'd been hit himself.

Touma caught him – his armor burned. And then, with his armor on, holding Ryou, he could see them.

Dynasty soldiers, pale as the snow, and more insubstantial – they looked like wraiths, like nothing they'd fought before. Their eyes were empty.

"They're after me," Ryou said again, and brushed Touma's arms away. "Please, Touma, get away."

Touma blinked. He couldn't see them now. But . . . he growled, and grabbed Ryou's wrist.

There they were, closing in. "Stop pulling away," he barked, as Ryou tugged at his hand. "I can only see them when I'm touching you."

Startled, Ryou looked back at him. "You can see them?" They're real? his eyes asked, really?

"Sorry," Touma said. His eyes burned. "Sorry, Ryou."

He took a deep breath and swung around so that his back was up against Ryou – he could feel him trembling, even through the armor. He couldn't draw his bow like this. But Ryou could hardly stand.

"I thought they were haunting me," Ryou said. Touma didn't like the dreamy calm in his voice.

"It's as good an explanation as any right now," Touma said. One of the silent soldiers reached for Ryou – Touma blocked it with his free arm. The touch of it burned and sparked against his armor. Touma grimaced. This was impossible.

"Ryou," he said, letting go of his wrist. The wraiths disappeared again. "Tell me where they are!" He whipped his bow around, drawing power until he held an arrow knocked and ready, singing with tension.

He could hear Ryou panting for breath behind him. "Pick a direction," he said. "They're all around."

Touma narrowed his eyes. "Fine. That's fine." He let loose, aiming straight ahead. It seemed like the arrow would slam into the elephant slide across the park, but it stopped, midair, just six feet in front of him. It flared, and in its golden light he thought he could see the soldier's armor start to smoke and fall apart. He could see the impact in the snow as it fell.

Behind him, Ryou was fighting still, but he was staggering. Touma grimaced, and spun around him, firing arrows as quickly as he could, blind. Most of the arrows found a mark – the ghostly soldiers flickered and fell, still insubstantial, but less so now. He didn't know what that meant.

"Touma!" Ryou cried out just as he felt a crushing blow against his chest – he fell, gasping. Through swimming vision, he saw Ryou take a stand over him, unsteady, determined.

The snow was bitingly cold under his cheek. He could hear it crunch, under feet that left no footprints, coming towards them. Just a single set of steps now. He could hear the rattle of Ryou's armor as he shook, hear his laboring breath. He was steaming in the cold air.

He tried to get up – willed himself up – but he couldn't make his legs move. Couldn't catch his breath. His lungs were on fire.

Then, he heard Ryou shout, and through his legs, across the park, he saw Seiji, and Shin, and Xiu, running towards them, armors on. And just past them, Nasuti's jeep, parked illegally, and Nasuti herself running after them.

He slumped back down, and let the snow soothe the burning.

* * *

There was a tiger at the foot of the bed. White Blaze had met them in the drive as Nasuti drove them home, looking displeased.

Touma leaned against the wall and watched Ryou sleep – still and peaceful in Nasuti's guest bed. The fevered flush was fading slowly from his cheeks, and his breath came easier. Touma rubbed at his own chest, feeling the bruise under his shirt.

He pretended not to notice Shin every time he paced past the open doorway, but he could feel his concern. For both of them.

But they were fine now.

Nasuti wandered in, covering a yawn with her hand. Her cardigan was buttoned wrong, Touma saw, and her hair was escaping the tie she'd pulled it back in.

"You should go back to sleep," he said.

"I will. When I want to," she said, eyes narrowed. She stepped around White Blaze and pressed a hand to Ryou's forehead. "His fever's coming down," she said more kindly, and he could hear the smile in her voice. She noticed the cardigan's buttons then, and made a little mortified sound, quickly fixing them before she turned around. The tiger huffed out a breath, sounding amused as he laid his great head down. Touma carefully didn't smile, and tried not to notice the pink in Nasuti's cheeks.

"Thank you," he said instead.

Nasuti stilled, smoothing a hand over her cardigan. "You weren't doing so badly, on your own."

"No," he said. "I couldn't help him alone."

She studied him, thoughtful, and he tried not to squirm, sure she could see the way he was favoring his ribs.

"You kept him safe," she said finally. "It was almost over by the time we got there."

He turned his face away. "Do we know what they were yet?"

"I think they were projections," she said, considering. "They weren't entirely in this world, but they could reach Ryou – and you, after you'd been exposed enough – through the power of your armors. Through the link between your armors and the warlords' armors in the Netherworld."

He looked back at her, afraid to ask – were they enemies again? – but she was shaking her head, anticipating the question.

"I suspect that Kayuura and the others were also under attack. There is still some unrest left in Arago's wake. Seiji has gone to find a likely Gate to open – in case there is another attempt."

Ryou murmured something, turning his head. Nasuti paused, looking back at him. Her dark gray eyes were calm.

"Touma. I don't think the others will let you out of their sight for a while," she said. "You should go to sleep."

But she gave his shoulder a pat as she walked out of the room, as if she knew he would not sleep until Ryou woke up. He caught her hand.

"Good night, Nasuti."

She smiled at him, and turned the light out as she left.

The snow drifting past the window was falling in proper flakes now, thick and wet. It clung to the window sill and left feathery trails across the pane. He watched it fall, listening to Ryou's soft, steady breaths.

fin