An Introduction from the Authors:
Ok, hi all! After a long fan-fiction hiatus, the Invaders Sam and Shaun have returned to display their newest piece of work, a Shaman King Fic taking place years after the end of the anime series. We feel we should take a quick moment to explain the universe in which our stories take place. This universe doesn't coincide with either the manga or the anime exactly, though it's more closely related to the anime. It's a mix rather, of the manga, the original English dub and the uncut dub. We take a few liberties, but we feel we have captured the characters pretty well.
A few name choices have been made that may confuse you, so we thought we'd try to explain them briefly.
1. Horohoro keeps his original name, but we decided that the nickname Tray wasn't so bad, so we interchange them.
2. We changed Tamao to Tamera (like in the dub) because of personal preferences - I (Sam) think Tamera just sounds prettier.
3. Ren remains as Ren - thereby avoiding any chance of anyone being tempted to call him "Lenny", .
We also had to do a little guessing when it comes to some of the adult's personalities (as they never got much focus in the original stories), but they seemed to fit. We hope you'll agree!
This story takes place six years after the end of the Shaman Tournament, and most of the main characters are 19 years old.
"Living for the Moment"
By Invaders Sam & Shaun
"It feels so good to be back here," Yoh said, stretching his arms over his head as he stood in the gateway to the Asakura complex in Izumo.
His Itako fiancé shifted the luggage in her hands slightly, "So are we gonna stand here and stare at it all day or are we gonna go in?" she asked with a smirk.
"I was just- oh, there's no rush…" he tried to justify himself weakly, stumbling over his words, the expression on his face considerably less relaxed now.
"Come on, we can relax after we're unpacked," she said, nodding at the baggage he had neglected, and then heading towards the entrance to the complex.
He shook his head in agreement meekly, picking up the suitcases. He was never quite sure why she needed so much with her to go somewhere, especially just his home, "Okay," he said aloud, not wishing to voice the tiny mysteries of life that often cluttered up space in his mind when it wandered. Personally, distractions were welcome right now…
"Anna! Yoh! You certainly made good time!" Keiko Asakura greeted her son and future-daughter-in-law warmly, with a hug for each young adult as they entered the complex. "We weren't expecting you until lunch."
"We caught an early train," Anna said, accepting the hug and then bowing her greeting to Yohmei and Kino, who were standing a few yards away.
"Hi Mom, Hey Grandpa!" Yoh said cheerily, setting the bags down near the door, then straightening up to get a better look around, "Oh, hi Grandma!" he shored up his greetings, rubbing the back of his head with one hand apologetically, "Sorry, I didn't see you back there. I thought you were in Taiwan on business…"
"You think I would let business keep me from my only grandson's wedding?" she asked with a small smile.
'I really wish people wouldn't keep saying that…' "Well, er…" he paused, trying to avoid voicing that these very thoughts had crossed his mind.
"Come, let's get you two settled in," Keiko said, stepping in between the two young people, linking her arms with one of each of theirs, "Your father should be in later this evening, as well as all your friends, yes?"
"Yeah, that's when they should get here anyway," Yoh nodded. Punctuality was never high on Tray or Ryu's priorities though…
"Wonderful," Keiko bubbled, leading them off as leaf spirits gathered up their various duffel bags and suitcases, "We've already prepared rooms for all of you – though I wasn't sure. Do you each need your own room tonight or will one suffice?" she asked with a wry smile.
The Shaman King felt his face go very red at this and glanced at Anna, not sure what to say. He knew his preference, of course, but he didn't want to make a decision that she wouldn't agree with.
The color had risen quite noticeably in Anna's face as well and she stammered, "M-maybe tonight two rooms would be best for tonight…we want to uphold at least some semblance of tradition, don't we?"
He sighed, then nodded, "Yeah, right…"
"Oh you two," Keiko laughed, "Whose room have you been using back in Tokyo, if I'm correct in assuming what the color in your faces is implying?"
"Mom!" Yoh whined loudly, wringing his hands in anxiety.
Keiko laughed again, "I figured as much. Your father would be proud of you, Yoh."
He hung his head, extremely embarrassed, "I'm gonna go…um, make sure the Shikigami got the bags in the right rooms…" he murmured quietly to his fiancé, heading up the stairs quickly.
"Ah…" Anna started to protest, but he was already on his way and she was left with his mother, who seemed not the least bit discouraged by her son's departure.
Rather, she seemed stirred to further humiliating questioning and pulled her daughter-to-be closer to her side. "So, I know you don't have anything to judge it against, but how is he that way?"
Once upstairs in his room, Yoh Asakura quietly slid the door closed behind him, slumping against it. Mom always found a way to embarrass him, as only mothers can. He sighed, standing and walking slowly over to his bed, unchanged despite his six year absence. Without so much as a sound he flopped ungracefully face-first down on his bed, pulling his pillow over his head, "Amidamaru…" he called, his voice muffled.
"Yes, Master Yoh?" the samurai asked, appearing out of the air, "What troubles you? Should this not be an occasion marked by, oh, I dunno… happiness?" he asked, arms folded behind his back.
"I know…" he started, still holding the fluffy headrest over top of his cranium, blocking out all light, "But…I just feel like I'm gonna be sick…"
"Master Yoh," Amidamaru said gently, "Do you suppose that you might be suffering from nerves, rather than from a stomach flu?"
"I dunno…" he replied, "It's just that everyone's making such a big deal out of all of this…"
"Well, I have never been married, Lord Yoh," Amidamaru replied, just the faintest hint of pink rising in his cheeks, "But isn't marriage supposed to be a big deal?"
He sighed miserably, glad that his samurai companion could not see his pitiful expression, "Being married is a lot of responsibility, Amidamaru. How'm I supposed to know if I'll be any good at being a husband? I don't want things to change; I was just getting this whole 'boyfriend-girlfriend' thing down."
The 600-some-year-old samurai sighed, smiling slightly, "Master Yoh, you have done a fine job at any task you put your heart into and this shall be no different. Do you really think Anna's expectation's of you will change that much? We have already grown quite used to her demanding nature – surely it couldn't get worse!"
"Famous last words…"
"Ren, you've hardly begun packing!" Tami said exasperatedly, entering the bedroom the two shared.
The Mandarin Shaman didn't seem concerned, merely turning the page of the book he was reading. He was seated on the king sized bed his quarters housed, an open (albeit almost completely empty) suitcase near his feet, "Sorry," he said dismissively, his body language and tone not conveying his words in the least.
"Ren…why are you being like this?" Tami asked, leaning against the doorframe with a sigh.
He paused a beat before replying, his eyes no longer focused on his text but up at her, "Because I've no desire to go, I've told you that…"
"This is Yoh and Anna's wedding," Tamera said desperately, crossing the room to crouch in front of him, "Isn't that something we should be a part of, as their friends?"
Ren closed his book irritably, intent on saying any number of heated responses, but faltered when his eyes fell upon her pleading expression. He sighed, trying to calm himself enough to reply coolly. If she wanted him to go this strongly, he could put up with it for her sake, "I suppose…"
"Thank you so much!" she cried, flinging her arms around his neck, knocking him backwards onto the bed.
Surprised, he wrapped his arms around her back, kissing her gently on the lips. He could hide his feelings, bury them deep down for now, but there were some demons that he just couldn't seem to keep away, not for long…
Tami could sense the anger still smoldering beneath his lips, but at the moment, she was thankful he was suppressing it. She hoped that someday he would finally let her help him get past it, and these brief moments of sacrifice had to be a good sign.
"Well, I'm glad to see you two working hard," Jun said, sweeping past them and heading into Ren's closet.
Ren glared at his sister, his already strained level of patience pushed even further to its limit, "Can I help you?" he asked indignantly.
"Hmm?" she glanced over at them, "Not at all, little brother. Quite the contrary, actually, I thought I'd help you along with your packing, seeing as I know how much you despise it." She began leafing through the things hanging in his closet. "Did Mother send your cheongsam with you?"
"She should have," he responded, his hands rubbing Tamera's back slowly, glad to have something to do with them.
"Ahh, here we go," Jun produced a long, black, silk robe with white collar and cuffs from within the other garments, "And I've got my best Qi Pao with me, and Tami, what about you?"
"I've got a formal kimono that I've never had the opportunity to wear," Tamera replied, rolling over so that she was nestled in the hollow of Ren's shoulder, "That should do just fine." She kept her eye on the cheongsam as Jun pressed it flat with her hands as it hung on the edge of the closet door. "That looks like it would suit you very well," she said, "Have you ever worn it before?"
"No," Ren replied, eyeing the article of clothing as well, "There's never been a need before…"
"Well, it was tailor made for him when he turned 18," Jun said, brushing the tiniest bit of dust off of it, "It certainly should suit him."
"Mother insisted, citing the fact that I didn't have "anything half-way suitable to wear" as her reason," he murmured quietly to Tamera, exasperation clear in his voice. To his sibling, he raised an eyebrow crossly, "And just what are you implying by that?"
"I imply nothing, brother," Jun said with a small smile, "Only that I doubt you've changed much in size since you graduated high school."
He snorted, now a tad embarrassed at his rashness. It was a fair response, after all, "What time is the train departing for Izumo?" he asked, wanting to redirect the topic of conversation.
"Noon," Jun said, "So we've got about an hour to finish packing, and I expect we'll be at the complex just in time for afternoon tea."
"It'll be nice to see the complex again," Tami said with a wistful sigh, "It always looks so pretty this time of year."
"I'm sure," the young man responded unenthusiastically, staring up at the ceiling now.
"Yoh…?" Anna rapped lightly on the door to her fiancé's bedroom.
Startled, the young man sat up quickly, the pillow on his head falling to the floor. He hurriedly tried to make his hair look somewhat normal again (having gotten quite mussed whilst covered so oddly), "Come in!" he called.
The door slid open and the Itako stepped inside. "I just wanted to let you know that lunch was ready…did I wake you?" she asked, noting the slightly disheveled futon he was seated on.
He paused a beat before responding, embarrassed, a wide grin spreading across his face, "No, I was just…er…" At this his explanation died, unable to find the correct words he was searching for. His actions had been childish in nature, not to mention very difficult to justify.
"Reminiscing?" Anna finished for him, stepping further into the room and glancing around, "Can't say I blame you. This is sort of our last night as kids, isn't it?"
He swallowed nervously, the uneasy feeling in his stomach rising up again, "Yeah, I guess it is. Man, that sounds strange, doesn't it?"
"It really does…" she said, sitting down beside him on the futon, and twirling her well-worn beads around her index-finger distractedly, "How're you feeling?" she asked after a moment.
"I…I'm not really sure actually," he admitted, staring down at his hands, which were awkwardly unoccupied. Facing adulthood was something he had never really anticipated himself doing. Being a child meant he could still be carefree, still hang out with his friends and just have fun on a whim. Despite the happiness he continued to assure himself would come tomorrow, it seemed as if a great piece of his nature was condemned to fall away as well.
"You know nothing's going to change between us, right?" she asked, leaning against him, staring out his window at the cherry blossoms beyond, "All this does is present our love to the Great Spirit formally and, hopefully, receive his blessing. You do love me, right?"
"Of course," he stuttered, going slightly red at this sudden questioning of his loyalty.
"Then there's really nothing to be nervous about, though I admit, inside, I've got butterflies too," she said, flashing him a small smile, "But neither of us is alone in this. We've got each other, after all."
He reached one arm behind his wife-to-be and hugged her close to him, drawing comfort from her presence, "Yeah…"
She kissed his cheek and then patted his thigh, "Come on, let's go eat."
"There he is," Keiko said as Anna returned with Yoh on her arm, "Where was he, napping?"
"Just thinking about things," the Itako replied, as the pair took their seats at the table across from Yoh's mother. Yohmei and Kino each sat an opposite head of the table, with a vast array of edibles set out between them.
Yoh licked his lips in anticipation, inhaling deeply through his nose, a dozen different aromas each reaching his nostrils, his sensory system connecting the familiar scents with well-liked objects within his subconscious, "Mmm, smells good!"
"All your favorites," Keiko said with a wide smile, "Or as many as I could remember, anyway."
He smiled broadly, pulling his chair up closer to the table and tying a napkin loosely around his neck, "Awesome!"
Kino opened her mouth to reprimand him for such childish mannerisms, but after a brief exchange of glances with her husband, she let it slide and kept silent.
"Well, dig in," Yohmei said, "No need to waste time on formalities."
No further prompting was required than this, as the youngest Asakura male began to fill his plate hungrily, the uneasiness in his stomach momentarily forced away by the needs of the body.
Keiko muffled her laughed behind one hand and then began helping herself as well. It was so good to have him back in the house, the old building just seemed to come alive again with his energy. And it was only a matter of time before little ones were tearing down the halls again, she thought with a great swelling in her heart.
"Keiko, I would advise you to stow such thoughts for a future time," Yohmei reprimanded, beginning to eat delicately from his own platter (which had considerably less on it than that of his grandson), "We should keep our focus on the present, unless you feel satisfied with the preparations for tomorrow."
She flushed slightly, "Yes sir. Anna – maybe you'd like to go over to the shrine after lunch and see what Kino and I have done so far?"
Anna forced herself not to choke on the rice she'd just put in her mouth and swallowed forcefully, "Uh, sure."
"You ok?" Yoh asked between bites, a tad concerned for his fiancé's well-being.
"Oh yeah, I'm fine," Anna said, filling her mouth with rice again.
He nodded and went back to eating, no desire to press the matter, as a good portion of his mind was simply focused on revitalizing his body with substance.
"Wonderful," Kino said, "I'd certainly like to hear your opinion on our work, Anna."
The Itako seemed to shrink under even the most loving gaze of her mentor, "Y-yes ma'am…"
Master Yohmei smiled slightly, taking another slow bite of his meal. It was not often that he had seen Anna quite so unnerved. For someone as strong-willed as she, this was an unusual occurrence, but then again, his wife was not someone to be crossed either. From the tiny glance he had watched Yoh give the young woman, it must have surprised him as well. The Asakura women had always been the dominant gender in his long, illustrious line, something he was willing to accept quite easily.
Kino had nodded, as if settling the matter, but Anna (after just the slightest nervous hesitation) spoke up again, "But are you sure? I mean, really, what knowledge could I possibly have in such things?"
And just like that, the situation got more interesting. Yohmei leaned back, intent on continuing his quiet observation from a better angle. A clash between Asakura women (as Anna was to be in just a day more, so she might as well be), however slight, could make for decent sport. Once, his wife's word had been absolute over Anna, but the young Itako had long since reached the fruition of her tutelage under Kino.
The elder Itako narrowed her eyes at her former apprentice. "If you ever hope to play hostess, child, you'd best start honing your skills regarding such matters," she said, "Where's your spunk gone to anyway? My grandson hasn't softened you has he?"
Yoh looked up from his meal, wishing to defend his wife-to-be (albeit having to swallow first). Once his mouth was clear enough to allow for speech, he spoke quickly, "Hey Grandma, ease up! We've never done anything like this before. Anna was just-"
"I didn't raise that girl from infancy to be a quitter," Kino cut him off sharply, "If she can't rise to this simple challenge, then she's not worth marrying you after all."
"Kino!" Keiko said, looking worried.
The Shaman King stood angrily, blood boiling as it coursed through his veins. Few things in life could get a rise out of Yoh Asakura, but vilification of his lover fit the bill well, "Stop it…" he breathed, chopsticks clenched very tightly in his right fist.
"Oh ho ho! I've never seen you so worked up in your life, boy," Kino laughed, "What do you say, novice? Gonna make yourself fit to marry my grandson?"
Anna was on her feet as well now, "I shouldn't have to prove myself to you anymore! I've done everything you trained me for. I made him Shaman King! What more do you want?"
"Everything," Kino said, remaining seated, "It doesn't stop there, child. His mission certainly didn't end with the Shaman Tournament. You need to be prepared for the rest of your lives. I want to know that you're up to it."
"Enough!" Yohmei chided loudly, reprimanding himself inwardly for allowing the situation to have spiraled so far out of control.
"Surely this could be discussed at a different time," Keiko added.
"It should have been discussed directly after the Shaman Tournament," Kino said, rising to her feet, "But you were all too elated that the momentary danger had passed to even think of looking ahead. Well, you may yet suffer the consequences." With that, she exited the room.
Yoh, still trying to keep his breathing steady, inclined his head slightly to his remaining elders, "Excuse me…" he told them, making his way back towards the stairs. He paused at the base of the stairwell, waiting for his fiancé (who was likely just as, if not more, upset than he was).
Anna's fists were shaking and her lower lip was quivering. Without a word, she tore out of the room, fighting back tears of anger and embarrassment.
"Oh dear…" Keiko murmured.
The Shaman King abandoned all thoughts of retreating back to his room (his childhood sanctuary) and cleared the room in a half-dozen strides, calling out the name of his bride-to-be, slamming the door to the courtyard behind him.
Master Yohmei sighed, reaching into his pocket for his well-aged pipe, a life-long stress reliever, "The cuisine was excellent, Keiko," he commented mildly, "But I'm afraid I've rather lost my appetite for the moment."
Keiko nodded, and then set to work with the leaf-sprites clearing the dishes from my table.
Anna was sitting on the edge of one of the porches, hugging herself and rocking back and forth, trying not to cry. She hadn't cried in years, why was she starting up now?
"Anna…" Yoh said softly, approaching her from behind. He sat down next to her, putting both of his strong arms around her and pulling her in close to him, trying his best to offer her some comfort.
"Maybe she's right…" she sniffed, clutching at his shirt, "Maybe I really don't deserve you…"
He sighed, hugging her tightly, "That's bullshit and you know it..." he told her quietly.
"I…I don't even know what provoked that…" she said, "No that's not true, I do…I displayed weakness. I let my nerves get the better of me. I should've known better."
"And that's a good reason to demoralize someone? For being human?" he asked her incredulously, tenderly placing one hand on her chin and lifting her head slowly so he could look into her pretty, tearful eyes, "Do you really believe that?"
"No…" she said, "I don't. But…"
Yoh smiled and leaned downwards so his lips could touch hers, "No buts," he told her firmly, "It's okay to feel, Anna. I think I finally figured out that I was in love with you first showed me that you did have emotions. I asked you to marry me, and nothing my grandma says is going to make me stop caring for you. The future is a problem for another time, but we have each other. Isn't that enough for right now?"
She smiled through her tears and embraced him, whispering, "It's enough for forever…"
He grinned as well, returning her hug warmly, "Good."
"Thanks…" she murmured into his shoulder, "You coming after me means a lot, you know."
The Shaman King felt blood beginning to gather in his cheeks, "Well, you just looked so sad…I had to do something…"
She sighed and kissed him softly. "You know…I'm really happy you love me," she said with a small laugh.
"I'm just grateful that the feeling's mutual," he admitted quietly.
"I've loved you since we were six years old," she said, tapping him lightly on the nose with a forefinger, "I just took a long time letting you know."
His nose tickled a tad at her touch and he replied quickly, flustered, "A long time…"
She laughed at this and gave him a loving squeeze, "And I recall apologizing for that a few times in the past few years."
Her shapely body pressed up against him, supple and warm, initiating bodily feelings beyond his mental control. His cheek muscles twitched, and he forced himself to respond evenly, "Yeah, that's true," he paused, chuckling, "I'm glad for that too."
She nuzzled her face into his neck gently, "Thanks for leaving me alone with your mother before. Like that wasn't an awkward conversation waiting to happen."
Genuinely confused, he raised an eyebrow quizzically at her, "What do you mean?"
Anna rolled her eyes, "I mean that your mother was inquiring as to your skills in the bedroom…" she said, hoping she wouldn't have to explain further.
Any embarrassment he had felt just a few moments prior was matched and surpassed easily. He sighed pathetically, "Oh…great…"
"I never remember your mom being so forward before," Anna said, cheeks also slightly red, "But then again, she's never had a topic as embarrassing as this one to discuss with us before either."
Despite his current mortification, Yoh timidly spoke up again, pressing for a bit of information he wasn't even entirely sure he wanted, "So…what, um, did you tell her?"
"N-nothing," Anna stammered, "I told her off for asking. She seemed to think that was funny…but really, what was I supposed to say?"
"Nothing!" he replied quickly, relieved, "I was just hoping you hadn't actually told her anything."
"I figured you would," she nodded, "And what business is it of hers anyway? Honestly…" she shook her head, cheeks still deeply flushed, "I just thought just now…that you were worried no response was a bad response, which it certainly isn't," she finished quickly.
He nodded his agreement fervently, "Right, right…"
"Okay, just making sure," she said, "Because if it hadn't been your mother, I would have been proud to brag about you, you know," she added with a smile rubbing her nose up against his.
He grinned as well, still quite discomfited, but such worries paled in comparison to her loving touch. The young man inclined his head ever so slightly and kissed his fiancé on the mouth, breaking off after only a few seconds, "Thanks, I think…"
"It's a good thing, trust me," she grinned, returning his kiss, "You satisfy me like I never imagined possible."
She laughed and kissed him again, holding for a bit longer this time, "You don't have to be so smug about it, you know."
"Sorry," he apologized quickly, leaning forward once more, his body wishing to reclaim her sweet taste once again, "Forgive me, my Queen?"
"Yeah, alright," she shrugged, pulling him down with her as she fell backwards slowly onto the deck.
"Fuck! I can't believe we missed the damn train!"
"Well we wouldn't have if you had dragged your ass out of bed ten minutes faster," Pilika told her older brother as the two of them sat on a bench in Tokyo Station.
"You could've told me we were gonna be late," Tray complained irritably, leaning his head back and shutting his eyes, his arms draped over the back of the bench, "Didn't we tell Yoh we'd be up to Izumo by this afternoon?"
"Yes, we did," Pilika sighed, pushing her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose, "And I told you we were going to be late repeatedly, you just weren't conscious enough to understand me."
Horohoro sighed, still attempting to quiet the pounding in his head by force of mind alone. Hangovers: the world's cruelest punishment for partying, "Will the station take back useless tickets?"
"Depends on how smooth Ryu's tongue is today," Pilika said, "So keep your fingers crossed that the girl behind the booth is a desperate one."
"You'd have to be really desperate…" the Ainu male replied, still unmoving from the position he had assumed.
Seated on the other side of Horohoro, Manta sighed. It had been his own idea to take train and not use on of his private jets for the trip, an attempt at connecting to his friends on a fiscal level. But alas, such plans usually wound up blowing up in his face one way or another. And this was one road trip where the journey was definitely not the best part of it.
"Good news, my friends," came a familiar voice and two of the three seated looked up as Ryu approached, a new set of tickets in hand, "Seems our train took off ten minutes early due to an overeager engineer and we wouldn't have made it even if we had been on time. Lucky for us, the station was replacing tickets left and right, and there was enough commotion that no one bothered to ask if we had been on time or not. Our new train leaves in forty-five minutes."
"Ha, see? It wasn't my fault," Tray told his sister, self-righteous pride etched in his tone.
"You got lucky today, that's all," Pilika said, brushing her short blue hair behind her ear, "So what'll we do for forty-five minutes?"
"I wouldn't recommend moving," Manta said, "We don't wanna risk missing it again."
Ryu raised an eyebrow at the little man, then nodded slowly. Yoh was Manta's best (and first real) friend. Such an important occasion as this was something he simply wouldn't chance missing. He cleared his throat and sat down next to the heir to the Oyamada Empire, the four of them now occupying the entire bench (quite a spectacle in itself), "So, how's corporate life?"
"Oh booming…and dismal at the same time," Manta said, his shoulders slumped, "Seems the better the company does, the less study-time I have…"
"You still trying to get into that crazy place?" Tray inquired lazily, yawning, "I'm sure there're a ton of other schools that you could test into right now, you know…"
"I know, I know," Manta nodded, "But none of them are as good," he smiled slightly, "Tokyo U is the only school my parents will let me take leave from work to attend."
"You're all insane, you know that? You, Ren, and Tami…"
"Yep," Manta laughed, "And proud of it."
"I've spoken to the conductor, they're nowhere on board. Idiots…"
Tami sighed as Ren retook his seat next to her, "I hope nothing's happened to them."
The Chinese male snorted, his arms folded across his torso, "It would serve them right."
"Glad to see your mood has improved since this morning," Jun said, seated across from them, a magazine open in front of her.
He glowered at her, then took a deep breath and released it slowly. It was true, he was in a foul disposition at the moment. Subjecting himself to attending Asakura's wedding had seen to that, but now that they were on their way, it wouldn't do to make either of the females suffer for his current frustration, "Where's Bailong?"
"I sent him searching for the others right after you left, thinking you would cover more ground that way," Jun said, "I certainly hope he hasn't gotten himself lost…"
"Or recognized," Ren replied, rolling his eyes. His older sibling meant well, but she didn't always plan carefully, "He was rather famous, wasn't he?"
Jun put a hand to her mouth, "I hadn't even thought of that," she said, blushing slightly and rising from her seat, "In that case, I'd better go find him quickly." And she brushed out of the car.
He sighed, shaking his head, "I worry about her sometimes…"
Tami giggled, "She certainly is…er…"
He stood, walking a pace or two to look out the window at the rapidly passing scenery, "I'm sorry about earlier," he told her quietly, one hand now in the pockets of his trousers, the other held limply at his side.
"Hmm?" she cocked her head to one side slightly, "No, it's alright…I guess you and Yoh aren't exactly on the best of terms…"
The young man nodded slightly in accordance, "Not really, no. But I know you're still close with them, so I'm here."
"Thank you for coming," she said, standing and taking hold of his hand, "And thank you for the apology. It…it means a lot."
He smiled, linking his fingers with hers, "I don't mean to cause you so much trouble, not intentionally anyway…"
"I know," she said softly, kissing his gently on the cheek, "I know."
From outside the door to the compartment, the voice of Jun's guardian Jiang-Si could be heard, distressed and flustered, "Little boy, I will not "give you an autograph"- I've already told you, I am not Li Bailong!"
"Uh-oh," Tami said, turning towards the door.
And just like that, another opportunity to simply have a moment of privacy with his lover, gone. Tao Ren didn't move from his position, a tiny bit saddened that Tamera's hand was gone from his now, "I'm sure Jun'll be here to save him in a moment, don't fret…"
As if on command, Jun's voice drifted in from out in the corridor, "There you are, darling, I was so worried. And who's this charming gentleman here?"
"This boy…wants an autograph…"
Jun's very natural, friendly laughter followed suit. "Oh I'm so sorry, young man, my husband often is mistaken for Li Bailong, but we all know he's been dead for over twenty-five years now. Don't worry, you're not the first one. Believe me, I thought the same thing when I first saw him."
A much smaller, higher pitched voice replied, its owner obviously not even into the double digits in years yet, "Are you suuure?"
There was an audible sigh from both Jun and her Jiang-Si, and then Jun muttered, "Would anyone believe him anyway? Maybe you could just give it to him…"
Another loud exhalation of breath followed this, then the gruff, masculine, commanding voice of Li Bailong could be heard, "Alright child, I'll sign my name for you if you insist, but you mustn't tell anyone you've spotted me, ok?"
"Ooooh…are you on a secret mission or something?" the child's voice responded.
"Um…yes!" the deep voice agreed quickly, taking advantage of the opportunity as it presented itself. It continued, much quieter now, "You can't let the villains know I'm here."
"OH! OK! You got it!" The pounding of small sneakers on the hallway floor announced the child's happy departure and the car door swung open, revealing both Jun and Bailong looking rather flustered.
Ren turned away from the window to face his sibling, exasperation etched in his facial features, "Could you have handled that any worse?"
"Oh shut up!" Jun said, cheeks burning as Li sunk into his seat with a groan, "I panicked! What would you have done? Frighten the poor boy away with your Kwan-Dao?"
"Yes," Ren replied (as if this were the most obvious thing in the world), "Or at least told him off."
"And that's why you'd make a bad father," Jun said huffily, "You can't treat children like that, no matter how much they irritate you."
"When you don't even know them, who really gives a damn?"
"Look, if we'd upset him he could have made lots of trouble for us that we don't need," Jun said, seating herself beside Bailong, "If he's kept happy, he's also kept quiet – which was the only thing I was really concerned about."
The younger of the two Tao siblings, now quite worked up again, slid open the door and walked out of the room, not wishing to continue the discussion and risk saying anything he might regret later. Jun's comment about his possible paternal skills had hurt, one of the main reasons for his hasty exit. It simply wouldn't do to show that something like that could have actually gotten to him. Not that he was thinking about producing offspring by any stretch of the imagination (at least not in the near future), but he was the only one capable of continuing the Tao family line.
"Oh dear…" Tami said, putting a hand to her mouth worriedly.
"I would say it's best to let him cool off on his own, but then again, he's got no beef with you right now," Jun said, picking up her magazine again, "I'd give him a little while, and then go find him. Being with you usually helps him calm down. Though these temper-tantrums do seem to be getting more frequent."
Tami sat down across from the pair, hands clasped nervously between her legs, "What do you suppose I'm doing wrong…?" she asked after a moment of silence.
"Huh?" Jun looked up from her magazine, "Darling, you've done nothing wrong. He's got issues of his own that he needs to work out, and unfortunately he's got to confront someone other than us to do that."
Yoh Asakura sat up slowly, not wishing to get a stiff neck from not moving from one position for so long, "Wow, how long have we been out here?"
Anna, still lying on her back on the deck, raised an arm to glance at her watch, "About two hours. It's quarter to three."
"Hey," he said, a thought occurring to him, "That means people are gonna be here soon, right?"
"Pretty soon, yeah," she nodded, sitting up and stretching, "I guess Keiko will come and find us when they arrive."
He grinned happily, the thought of seeing all his friends again a pleasant one, "Probably…"
"Hmm," she murmured, leaning against him, "It's good to see you smile like that again. You haven't for a few days now."
"Sorry," he told her, kissing her forehead lightly, wrapping one arm around her shoulder, "Just been kinda preoccupied, I guess…"
"I know what you mean," she said, "I think we've both been stressed over this wedding thing. It's good to just take some time and not think about it."
He nodded, "I'll talk to grandma later, ok? I don't want you to worry about any of that – you're getting married tomorrow, I think that's enough for any person to have on their plate."
She put an arm around his back slowly, "Thank you…really."
"Don't mention it," he murmured softly.
"Hey kids," came Keiko's voice as she slid the door open behind them, "A few of your friends just got in. Wanna come meet and greet?"
"Be right there, mom!" Yoh called, standing quickly and offering a hand to his wife-to-be, "C'mon, let's go!"
"Hey! Great to see…some of you…" Yoh ended his sentence a bit lack-luster, as only half of his group of friends was standing in the living room when he and Anna arrived with Keiko, "Wait…where's Manta and the others?"
"Don't know, don't care," Ren answered briskly, setting down the baggage he was carrying (split between himself and Bailong).
"Um…ok," Yoh said, rallying again, "Well it's great to see you guys! How was the trip?"
"Rather uneventful," the Chinese male told him tersely, not wanting to have to talk to his rival any more than necessary. For reasons he wasn't quite sure of, he decided against mentioning the incident with Bailong (if only perhaps to save his sibling some embarrassment).
"We were slightly concerned when the others didn't board with us," Jun said, "But I'm sure they were just running late and will be here soon. How are you two holding up? You certainly look stress-free at the moment."
Yoh grinned, "It's been up and down, really. I'm just trying to enjoy the moment, that's all."
"Sounds like a good plan," Tami said with a smile.
Anna shrugged, "It works."
A single thought ran through Ren's head: 'Everything will work out.' His rival's motto in life, an infuriatingly simplistic thought that seemed to hold true no matter what the situation. Yoh Asakura was quite possibly the luckiest person he had ever met. That was the only way he accomplished anything: through luck or divine intervention. Sickening. "Where can I put our things?" he asked, gesturing at the luggage he was standing next to. He didn't need to spend anymore time with the Shaman King than absolutely necessary.
"Oh don't worry about that," Yoh said, waving a hand as a horde of leaf spirits entered the room, "The shikigami will take care of it."
"Shall I accompany them?" Bailong inquired politely.
"Sure, I guess," Yoh said.
"Just hurry back," Jun said, standing on tip-toe to kiss his cheek.
"What's all the commotion?" Master Yohmei asked, stepping into the room, his pipe clenched between his teeth.
"Oh, Grandpa! You've met the Taos before, right? And I know you know Tami!" Yoh said as Keiko ushered the girls into seats around the living room.
The old man nodded, a tiny puff of smoke emerging from his old-fashioned smoking device, "Of course. Welcome, everyone. I apologize that my wife isn't here to greet you as well."
"It's good to see you again, sir," Jun said, inclining her head towards him respectfully.
From her seat beside Anna, Tami felt the blonde woman stiffen while Yohmei and Keiko exchanged a small glance. She could sense the hidden tension that existed under the thin layer of normalcy the Asakuras displayed. Kino's absence surely had something to do with it, and the pink-haired woman could only wonder what had occurred before their arrival.
Ren folded his arms across his chest and leaned up against the wall, offering no such formal sign of respect to the elder man as his sister had.
Keiko's eyes traveled over towards the Mandarin male, noting his stance. It wasn't uncommon for this young man to display a sense of arrogance and rebellion towards elders – his dealings with authority within his own family was well-known – but something deeper than that was at work beneath his signature scowl. "I hope you'll find your accommodations here suitable," she addressed them with a warm smile.
"Aww Mom, they've been here before," Yoh said, casually settling himself on the arm-rest of the couch where his wife-to-be sat.
"I'm just trying to make conversation," Keiko shrugged, "You wanna take a shot at it?"
He thought for a moment, considering this, then voiced a question somewhat uncertainly, "Do you guys wanna go check out the shrine?"
"Sure," Tami nodded, "I haven't been out there in forever."
"We probably should anyhow," Anna said, getting to her feet.
Yoh stood, now more enthusiastic, and turned to his elder relatives, "Okay, we'll be back in a little while."
"Have fun!" Keiko said with a wave as the small group left the room.
As soon as they had gone, Li Bailong reentered the room, "Um…did I miss something?"
"Man, they really went all out, didn't they?" Yoh asked, taken aback by the ornate decorations his eyes beheld at the steps of the smallish structure.
"They certainly did," Anna said, with a small smile as Tami and Jun's faces lit up, "Don't know what they needed my opinion for, it's beautiful."
Ren snorted softly, unimpressed and unappreciative of the scene, and sat down on the steps, facing the direction they came from.
"Let's go look inside!" Tami gushed, as she and Jun grabbed Anna by the hands and dragged her into the temple.
Yoh considered following them, then decided against it (it wasn't often Anna got to have solely female companionship, so he'd let her enjoy it while she had the chance) and sat down next to the Chinese male, calling back to them, "I'll just wait here, you girls have fun!"
"We will!" came their whole-hearted reply, and then their elated chattering dulled as they disappeared inside.
Yoh leaned back against his hands on the steps, gazing up at the blue sky, "Sure is a nice day," he commented mildly.
Ren's eyes flickered over to the Shaman King for an instant, then resumed their bored scanning of the locale, "Lovely," he replied, having no real desire to discuss (of all things) the weather. As a matter of fact, there was very little (if anything) he would enjoy discussing with his rival at the moment.
Above the young men, atop the shrine roof, Amidamaru and Bason exchanged animated greetings, sobbing and hugging and gushing about how long it had been since their last meeting, until they remembered they were grown men (as well as paranoid homophobes) and they broke apart quickly, coughing into their hands and gazing intensely at anything but each other.
"Er…it is good to see you again," the Samurai said, cheeks slightly pink.
"Yes, the feeling in mutual," the Chinese general agreed, trying to sound indifferent, "It has been quite some time, my friend."
"Indeed," Amidamaru nodded, "Forgive me for saying so, but your charge appears…more…er…surly than usual."
Bason sighed, nodding slowly, "The young master has been quite upset as of late, I'm afraid. I would advise Master Yoh to watch his tongue around Master Ren today, lest he risk losing it."
Amidamaru swallowed nervously, "Oh dear, perhaps I should warn him…I shall return momentarily." Dissolving into spirit flame he flew off, disappearing into the head of his charge. 'Master Yoh?'
Surprised, Yoh looked about quickly, wondering as to the origin of the noise, 'Amidimaru? Izzat you?' Yoh thought to himself, not wanting to make too much of a fool of himself in front of Ren.
'Uh, yes, Master Yoh,' the Samurai answered back, 'I felt the need to advise you to tread carefully when addressing Master Ren, as Bason has informed me he is in a less-friendly mood than usual.'
Yoh nodded, 'Okay, I'll keep that in mind.'
"What on Earth are you doing?"
"Erk!" Yoh sat up straight, cheeks flushed, "Just, um…talkin' to Amidimaru."
Ren let out an exasperated sigh, holding his head in his hands for a moment before straightening up once again, not even dignifying his rival's actions with a response.
'I think Bason was right…' Yoh thought to himself, folding his hands in his lap nervously, 'Any idea why he's so moody?'
'No. My apologies, Master Yoh…'
"So…what's eatin' ya, Ren?" Yoh asked outright, turning towards the Mandarin.
Ren blinked, surprised, but recovered quickly. So many spiteful thoughts arose, so many things he longed to finally say to the cheerful, dull-witted King of the Shamans. It pained him to think of his rival like that, bearing the title he still firmly believed should have been his, "Nothing," he muttered quietly. He would bite his tongue for now, because Tamera wished it of him.
"Ok…" Yoh said, and there was a moment of silence before he tried again, "Are you sure? 'Cuz you seem really uptight."
"Just drop it, alright?" Ren snapped, glaring at Yoh. His features were meant to portray annoyance, but his eyes could not hide the thinly veiled hatred that burned deep within him.
The dark brown of Yoh's eyes flickered with tiny blue sparks as they widened, beginning to sense the hostility in the young man seated next to him. "Oh…ok…" he said quietly, staring down at his feet.
Ren stood and started to walk away slowly, "I'm only here because Tami insisted. The less I have to talk to you, the better."
Yoh's lower lip trembled slightly and he turned away, biting it to get it to stop. He stomach was twisting and churning again and when he spoke again, it was all he could do to keep his voice from shaking, "Ren…"
"Just keep the hell away from me," Ren called over his shoulder, his pace quickening ever so slightly.
The blue flames returned to Yoh's eyes just as the sky darkened and the rain came pouring down, and as the mist began rising from the ground, the Mandarin vanished into it, leaving the Shaman King alone on the temple steps.
"That was sudden, wasn't it?"
"It came out of nowhere," Keiko said, staring out the open door at the rain, arms folded across her chest, "There were no clouds in sight all morning."
Yohmei inclined his head slightly, his brow furrowed. He held a small cup of piping hot tea firmly in both his old, wrinkled hands, warming them with its heat, "It's been that kind of day, I suppose."
His daughter-in-law nodded solemnly, "It certainly doesn't bode well, does it? For tomorrow I mean…"
He considered this, taking a sip of his drink, then spoke quietly again, "Do you have any reservations about tomorrow? I admit, I was surprised when you agreed to the arrangement…what, twenty years ago?"
"Back then I could sense the power she had," Keiko said, "I knew she would be able to keep him alive during the tournament. I certainly never dreamed that they would fall in love the way they have, but I have to say I'm happily surprised. With everything they've gotten through so far, I have faith that they can continue to do so."
"It won't be easy," he paused, choosing his words with care, "My wife, coarse though her approach may be, touched on a few concerns I have worried about myself."
Keiko sighed, "I know…Me too…"
Yohmei took another drink from his mug, then decided to change the subject, not wanting to upset Keiko too much, "Was it just me, or was my wife's absence not the only reason for the quite palpable tension a little while ago?"
"The Tao boy," Keiko said, knowing at once what he was asking, "He's never forgiven Yoh for winning the title. But Yoh won't accept his refusal of friendship. Like a puppy, he senses the dislike and goes out of his way to reverse it, though in my experience that rarely succeeds."
"Well, you never know with that grandson of mine," Yohmei chuckled, "Still, I hope he exercises caution. The Chinese boy was practically bursting with negative energy…"
"I felt it too…" she turned back out towards the rain, "It seems so sad…almost unnaturally so…do you think something could have happened?"
"If there's anyone who knows that, I should think it would be Tamera. Yoh mentioned something about the two of them courting in his last letter home, didn't he?" Yohmei asked, now watching the rain himself from his seat on the floor in front of the table.
"He did," Keiko said, "They've been living together for a few months now, if I remember right. But I have to wonder how close he really lets her get."
The old man sighed, setting down his cup and digging through his pocket for his faithful pipe, "Certainly an interesting crowd Yoh's chosen…"
"Well, if Yoh were to have friends at all, I would not expect anything different than this band," Keiko said with a smile, "They have their quirks to be sure, and they come from different worlds, but at their best, I've never seen a group of people so closely bonded."
"And at their worst?"
At this her smile faltered, "Luckily they have never been at their worst all at once, and the others have never shied away from the task of helping a fallen comrade rise again." She pulled a ribbon from the depths of her silk robes and tied her long black hair back loosely, crossing the room to sit beside her father-in-law again. "I hope to never see them all fall at once…"
Yohmei struck match against its aged book cover, creating a tiny flame that he lowered into his pipe for a second, before lifting it again and waving it out, "That may well be Yoh's greatest fear. Without them, he'll be alone again, like he was for all those years during his youth…"
"I couldn't bear to watch that again," Keiko shook her head sadly.
"He may not realize it, but therein lies the reason he tries so hard to make people, even those who detest him, like him. It's psychological, a primal instinct that remembers the hurt of loneliness and drives him to avoid it at all costs," the elder male paused to take a puff of his pipe, then continued, "I just hope he doesn't get hurt…"
"Me too…" Keiko nodded as they both turned their gazes out towards the unexpected downpour.
"Man, that rain came out of nowhere," Anna said as she, Tami and Jun returned to the house, clothes soaked-through and clingy.
"I wish we'd known to bring parasols," Jun added, attempting to ring out her shirt.
"Good grief, you girls walked all the way back in the rain?" Keiko asked, greeting them with an armload of towels.
"More like ran all the way back," Tami said, taking one of the linens off the top of the pile.
"Where is Yoh?" Master Yohmei inquired, standing now, his old-fashioned smoking unit still lit and giving off tiny wisps of white smoke slowly but methodically.
"He's not here?" Anna asked as Keiko mussed-up her hair with a towel.
"We left the boys outside the temple," Jun said, "They were both gone when we exited. Did Ren come back alone?"
"Ren hasn't come back either," Keiko said.
Yohmei's brow creased with concern. Something simply didn't bode quite right. He sighed, bending down (not an easy task these days) to retrieve his walking stick. He hated using the blasted thing, but he'd need it now, "I think I might know where Yoh is."
"I should go look for Ren," Tami said, but Keiko was already ushering them further inside.
"I think you girls have spent enough time in the rain for now," the Asakura female said, and then turned to look back at Yohmei. She held his gaze only for a second before she continued into the next room with the girls.
He sighed and headed for the door, gathering up an umbrella from the coat closet. The device flew open with the touch of a button, and the old man slowly trekked out into the rain.
"I thought I might find you here…"
Yoh looked up, the rain pouring down his face and mixing with his tears, his ebony hair plastered to his head. At the edge of the complex, where the flat land met the dense forest, a small stone shrine sat, well-worn from the weather. As a child he had come running here whenever they announced that Anna was coming for a visit, or when a day in primary school had been particularly unbearable. Now he had grown too large to fit within its tiny alcove, and sat in the mud in front of it, looking very lost and pathetic and more than a bit water-logged.
Yohmei smiled sympathetically, holding the parasol up to cover the both of them, "I remember having to come coax you out of this spot many times during your youth," he chuckled, fondly recalling memories from his more spry days, "I was the only one who ever knew where you were. Even Anna never discovered this little hiding place."
Yoh wiped a hand under his nose, sniffling. "I remember too…" he said, "I know it's silly coming here now…I didn't think anyone would come looking for me."
"Did you think no one would be concerned? You're hardly dressed for this weather, after all. Your mother and Anna were worried when you didn't come back to the complex," The elder shaman paused, squatting down (a difficult task for his only somewhat-compliant lower appendages) so as to be at eye-level with his grandson, "What's troubling you, Yoh?"
"It's nothing, it's silly…" Yoh said, staring down at the mud puddle beneath him, "It's just…something Ren said…" he finished slowly.
"Would you like to tell me about it?" Yohmei asked kindly, as if talking to a small child, "I'll understand if not, of course. I'm sure Anna'd be easier for you to discuss such matters with, or Keiko…"
"I can understand why he was angry at me right at the end of the tournament," Yoh plunged forward, the words spilling forth out of him like the rain from the sky, "But it's been nearly seven years – how can he still be mad about that? I mean, it's not like I won to spite him! I just don't get it Grandpa, how long can someone hold a grudge?"
"Your friend has a lot of pride," Yohmei sighed, "A loss so severe must have been devastating. Seeing you as often as he does is like pouring salt in the wound, a constant reminder of his failure. I may not know a great deal about him specifically, but I know the Tao family: they don't forgive, and they don't forget."
Yoh hung his head, water dripping from his hair down over his face. "I don't know what I can do to get him to like me again…"
"Pray that Tamera's gentle nature has some affect on him," the older man shrugged, an answer to Yoh's question elusive, "Come, let's get you home. You don't want to be ill on your wedding day, do you?"
"Heh, I guess not," Yoh said with a small smile, getting to his feet, "Thanks for coming to find me, Grandpa."
"You're welcome," the old man replied, standing up as well (not that this made much of a difference, his grandson was still quite a bit taller than he).
Yoh reached down, "Do you mind if I carry that?" he asked, gesturing at the umbrella, "It kinda doesn't help me from down there…" he asked with a grin.
Master Yohmei just scowled, but relinquished the parasol begrudgingly, using his walking stick to smack his grandson upside the head before he could straighten up again.
"Ow, hey! What was that for?" Yoh asked, rubbing the back of his head as he stood up once again.
"Hee hee, alright, I'll give ya that one," Yoh said, starting off towards the house.
"Seriously Ryu, you gotta try one of these vodka martinis."
The 26-year-old shook his head, "I did not think you would be able to afford such luxury," he said, an eye-brow raised.
Tray shrugged, waving a hand dismissively at the warrior of the wooden sword, "Eh, Manta's tab had some room on it…"
The heir to the Oyamada fortune sighed, sinking down in his seat, "How did I know he was gonna say that?"
The blue-haired Ainu male grinned widely, taking another sip of his rather expensive alcoholic beverage, "Thanks, Manta. I'll pay ya back later, I promise."
"You drink too much, Tray," Pilika admonished, arms folded across her chest. On her shoulder, Kori nodded in imitation.
"C'mon, a drink here or there isn't gonna kill me," Horohoro replied, settling down next to Ryu, "It just helps me relax, that's all…"
"If you say so," Pilika said, tugging on her shirt fussily, "How much longer till we get there anyway?"
"It should be less than an hour by now," Ryu spoke up, looking down at his fake Rolex watch (bought from a street vendor at a price much lower than market value, and for good reason as he discovered later).
"I hope they're not too mad that we're late," Manta said, staring out at the scenery which passed much too quickly to actually see, "Maybe we should have called."
"Unfortunately, I think Master Yoh has gotten used to us not being able to be on time," Ryu said, rubbing the back of his head with one hand, slightly embarrassed to admit to this fact. Next to him, Tray nodded in agreement, still nursing the remains of his drink.
Pilika laughed slightly at this and Manta rolled his eyes. "Sad but true, I'm afraid," he said, "I just might get myself a drink."
"I think I may have found something of interest to you, Anna."
The women (minus Kino) seated around the living room glanced up at once, to see Yohmei and a soaking wet King of Shamans standing in the doorway. "Yoh!" Anna said, rushing over to her fiancé, "Where have you been?"
"Sorry, Anna," Yoh mumbled, "I was just-"
"He was just trying to sort a few things out," Yohmei spoke up, winking at his grandson. Yoh's hiding spot was one of the very few things still kept just between the two of them.
"Come on, let's get you dried off," she said, accepting that explanation and leading Yoh upstairs by one arm.
The young man grinned slightly, allowing her to guide him up the stairs, quite grateful for her commanding nature, "Okay," he said, his tone aimed to appease.
"Thanks for finding him, Yohmei," Keiko said softly as the two betrothed vanished up the stairs.
The old man nodded, folding the umbrella up that had been handed back down to him, "He was hiding, Keiko. I think they're going to need a bit of time to themselves…"
Keiko nodded and returned to her seat.
"You're soaked to the bone," Anna said, peeling Yoh's shirt up over his head, and then ringing it out over the bathroom sink.
"Sorry," he replied, shivering a bit, "I know I should've come back sooner. I just…needed a little time to think, I guess…"
"It's ok," she told him, tossing him a towel and then reaching down to unlatch his belt, "I just worry about you, you know?"
"Yeah, I know," he said, offering her no resistance, "Has Ren come back yet?"
"No," she shook her head, now crouching beneath him, with his drenched jeans down around his ankles, "Lift your leg up."
He complied obediently, not saying anything more, but instead just listening to the pitter-patter of the rain against the roof of his room.
"Use this," she said, waving the towel at him (which he had just been holding onto distractedly).
Somewhat taken aback, Yoh obeyed quietly, slowly dabbing at his sodden hair with the small cloth, "Right…sorry," he apologized.
Anna took the jeans off to the bathroom and returned, brushing past him briskly and pulling a clean set of clothes out of his closet. "You think you can change yourself from here?" she asked, holding the new garments out to him, "Cuz I'll do it for you, but I really don't think now's a good time for either of us to get turned on."
He smiled at this, but the normal jovial level he would have reached seemed unattainable within his current frame of mind, just out of his reach. No laughter thus came, "Naw, I can do it. Thanks."
"Ok," she nodded, handing the clothes over, "I'll be right back – I'll see if I can't get something from the kitchen to warm you up." She brushed a hand against his cheek lightly before hurrying out of the room.
He watched silently as she left, considering calling her back to him. There was a lot he wanted to discuss with her, but she would be back soon, so he let the moment pass. Yoh then began shoddily putting his fresh garments on, his attention clearly elsewhere. Outside, the steady downpour continued unabated.
And she did return a short moment later, a tray with two piping mugs of tea in her arms, "Hey again…I brought you some tea – plenty of sugar, the way you like it…" She knelt down next to him, for he had seated himself on his futon once again, and set the tray down, offering him a cup in an almost timid manner.
He accepted it gratefully, proffering her a tiny smile of thanks before taking a long sip. The smooth, green liquid streamed through his mouth and throat quickly, warming him with its simple elegance. He licked sweetness from his lips, "Mmmm, thanks…"
"No problem," she said, blowing the steam off her own mug and taking a small sip, "So do you wanna talk or do you just wanna sit here? 'Cuz either one is fine with me."
Yoh watched the liquid in his cup with feigned fascination, "Ren told me the only reason he's here is because Tami made him come…"
"I had a feeling it was something like that," Anna nodded, "You can't make everyone like you, Yoh…"
"Well, why not?" he asked impatiently, a touch of child-like pleading in his voice, "We used to be friends…"
Anna sighed, shutting her eyes, "There's something I should have told you a long time ago…"
He looked up, perplexed, "Hmm?"
"Right after the Shaman Tournament ended, I found Ren awake in his room one night, contemplating suicide…" she said tentatively, "I talked him out of it, but he really scared me…"
Yoh blinked, stunned, "What?" he breathed, unable to believe his ears.
"Yeah…" she said, staring into the depths of her mug, "Apparently, his family had provided him with a vial of cyanide for just such a failure as his defeat in the tournament. 'Death before dishonor' is an only family motto…"
The Shaman King slumped downwards, his previous good posture discarded. Ren, attempting to commit suicide? It didn't even seem plausible. The haughty, confident young man just wasn't the type, or at least Yoh had never thought so. Had he really driven his friend that far? "Oh man…" he started, almost at a loss for words from the shock. A question formed on his lips slowly, "Who else have you told?"
"No one…" Anna said, "I promised him I wouldn't."
"He really does hate me then… I thought for a while it was just his usual act, but on the steps of the shrine today, I could actually see the hatred in his eyes," he paused, news of this revelation finally sinking in fully, "I wonder if Tray or Ryu feel like that too…" he pondered aloud bitterly.
"Tray drinks away any regret he may or may not feel, and Ryu idolizes you way too much for him to ever hold you in resentment," Anna said crisply, and then turn towards him, her expression and voice much softer, "I had hoped Ren would move on after that night, and that it would never come to this, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen. I'm sorry, but I don't think either of us can fix it…" she wrapped one arm around him slowly as she finished.
He embraced her with both arms, his eyes threatening to betray him again, "I'm the Shaman King. I'm supposed to be able to deal with things like this…"
"I know, I know…" she said, stroking his hair gently, "It's ok…"
Beyond them, outside, the rain continued to pour.
Still outside, unconcerned about the storm that had sprung up so quickly, Tao Ren sat silently on a freshly created stump amongst a small clearing in the dense foliage surrounding the Asakura complex. Despite the age of the forestry, this area, abundant with various sized stones placed irregularly about, was not yet as thick as most of the woodland (as could be seen should one look at the rings of the tree base upon which the young man had planted himself).
Nature, however, was the very least of his concerns at the moment. His hands were folded in his lap and his feet found the roots of the once-proud tree as decent footrests. The young man had his head tilted downwards, staring at the water-logged ground. This allowed the rain, which had soaked every millimeter of his exposed body, to simply slide down his drenched hair towards the ground, as gravity intended. His clothing clung to him, exposing his considerable physique, having absorbed as much of Nature's tears as they could.
His Kwan-Dao was sitting upright in the newly-killed tree that now lay flat on the ground, the unwitting instrument in his need for a spot to sit and think. He had managed to keep some veneer of restraint when speaking with Asakura before, which was an accomplishment in itself in his mind. Only the thought of Tamera's innocent, pleading expression had kept him from releasing his long dammed rage on his rival.
Yoh Asakura had fallen into complacency, contentment in the absence of greater purpose or evil, and it sickened the Mandarin. This happy-go-lucky, relaxed, slacker was the leader of the Shamanic World, a reminder of his defeat in the Tournament almost seven years ago. But that was a quarrel among immature, inexperienced children, it wasn't fair. He had long since surpassed Yoh in strength, both physical and furiyoku level, but no matter how hard he worked now it wouldn't matter. He was forever damned to be Yoh's second, nothing more than his overshadowed witness.
"How easily the strength of nature falls to the will of humankind," said a soft, rough voice from behind him as Kino Asakura entered the clearing, water pouring over her umbrella forming a multitude of tiny waterfalls all around her form, "Now matter how proud or strong the tree has grown, it is a simple task to cut it down to nothing…"
He didn't look up, but his eyes flickered over to glance at the old woman for a second. She must have been the bastard's grandmother (what had Tamera said her name was?), "Can I help you?" Ren asked, his voice neutral, bordering disinterest.
She seemed to be judging in her mind whether or not she liked his tone as she was silent for a moment. "You may not believe this, but you and I share a few concerns."
Kino. Kino Asakura, that was it, "I somehow doubt that…"
"You worry for the future of the Shamanic World, don't you?" she asked, "How it could possibly survive under the blissfully ignorant eyes of my incompetent grandson?"
He blinked, surprised, and looked up at the elderly female, "Yes, I do," he smirked slightly. Perhaps not all of the Asakuras were insufferable, "But isn't incompetent being too kind?"
"Perhaps," she nodded, returning his smirk, "But I find incompetence often coincides with those in high-ranking positions."
"There are always those who are more capable, more deserving of such esteemed title," he snorted, disgust clearly etched in his voice, "The ones in power are just the ones that got lucky."
"The ones in power rarely work alone you know…in my experience, they are never the wisest or the most capable of the job they are expected to do. In more cases than I can cite, a leader is one who goes where he's told, and does what he's advised to do. I myself pull more than a few strings behind the scenes of this nation…"
"He may be a figurehead, but he still has the final say."
"I know…But just what does he have the final say in?" she asked, "What are the duties of a savior of the world?"
"Bring enlightenment to the people of the world," Ren answered evasively. The question was one that had always plagued his mind, as it wasn't one that had a definite answer. In his mind, gaining enormous political power seemed like the only logical way to affect any significant number of beings. With the help of the Great Spirit (who's will was known only to the Shaman King), mass change might be possible.
"Does that seem possible for one person to do alone?"
"Why are you asking me?" he inquired testily, the ceaseless rain pouring down his face, slowly numbing it, "Shouldn't these questions be directed towards your grandson?"
"I'm asking you because I sense that you have qualities my grandson is lacking, and I think he has benefited in the past from your influence," she said, tilting her head slightly to one side, "And the same working in the other direction as well…"
"I detest your grandson," Ren replied sharply, standing and walking over to the fallen tree to retrieve his spear, "And I don't want his influence, which is why I prefer to see as little of him as possible. I'll admit we were friends for a time, back before the Tournament, but those days are over."
She nodded, "I see. Than it appears I have misjudged you as one with character." She turned towards the cover of the trees once more.
Angered, Ren spun around, glaring at the retreating form, "Now wait just a goddamned minute, you old hag!"
"What, boy?" she asked coolly, not turning back to face him.
"Where the hell do you get off insulting my integrity?" he demanded, one hand finding the handle of the Kwan-Dao and pulling it out of its resting spot.
"Put it down, boy…" she said, no change in her tone.
Ren glanced down at the weapon in his hand, which he had a very tight grip on, but didn't relinquish his hold, "I get enough criticism from my father and grandfather, I'm not going to take any shit from an Asakura of all people!"
"You think the Shaman Tournament was your last chance to make your family proud of you?" she asked, turning back towards him.
"First and last," he replied, trying to mask his hurt with anger. It had been seven years since he lost, but the male portion of his family still refused to forgive him. His mother and Jun were different, of course.
"If you've already given up trying to win back their approval, why do you still sound like you care so much?" she asked him.
Ren remained silent, the cold rain pouring down his body ceaselessly, unable to answer. It was a question he himself had never been able to explain. His hatred for his father hadn't diminished over the past seven years, so it would seem ridiculous that he sought the man's approval. Admitting that he wished his grandfather and father would offer him even a single kind or praising word would be confessing to having such feelings. Most people would consider it commonplace for a child to seek a show of appreciation (however small) from its parents. His pride told him that he was above such matters, that he didn't need anyone (especially not his father!). Then why did it pain him so?
"Son," Kino said, taking a few steps closer to him, "These feelings are completely natural. It makes you no weaker to desire the love of your parents and grandparents."
He took a step backwards, no longer holding any desire to talk to the decrepit old woman, speaking softly, "You're wrong…"
"I most certainly am not," she said, "If there's anyone who knows about withholding affection from offspring, it's me," she glanced at the ground briefly before turning back to gaze up at him, "The look of betrayal on a child's face is usually enough to make you realize that what your doing, for whatever reasons, is wrong. But if you think the child doesn't want your love, if they put up a front for you, than you start to convince yourself that maybe what your doing doesn't effect them in the least."
Ren took another step backwards, nearly tripping over a branch behind him. His voice had failed him again, caught in his throat by unfamiliar emotion, "I-" he started, swallowing, waiting for a denial to surface for him. None came. The young man turned and fled.
"Ren! Ren!" Kino called after him, but it was no use. He was gone and she knew chasing him would prove no more fruitful than this brief meeting had been. She would get no more out of him that afternoon, but he would be thinking, and that was a small victory in her mind. Slowly, she turned back towards the forest, making her way back towards the house.
"Knock knock! Hey, anyone home?"
"Horohoro!" Keiko said, greeting the sopping-wet foursome as they entered the house, while shikigami leaf spirits took their coats and offered them towels, "Manta, Pilika, Ryu! We were worried you wouldn't make it in time."
"The train left early, it wasn't my fault we're late," Horohoro started defensively, feeling a bit brazen from his drink on the train.
"If the train hadn't left early, you would've been the reason we were late," Pilika said, running a towel over her hair.
"Hope you didn't worry too much," Manta said, as Keiko took it upon herself to dry his hair.
"Of course we did," she said, "You all really need to come up more often, you know. Things get much too quiet around here these days."
"Where are Master Yoh and Lady Anna?" Ryu asked in mild curiosity, his eyes flickering about the room briefly.
"Up in Yoh's bedroom and before you get any ideas, we think Yoh and Ren had some sort of…incident, and Yoh just needed some time to think," Keiko replied, straightening up.
"Would it be alright if I went up and saw them?" Manta asked her.
"Ren actually came?" Tray inquired incredulously in the same instant.
"I asked him to," Tami said as the group entered the living room.
"Suppose I should also take some blame as well," Jun added.
"Sorry," Keiko said, slightly flustered, turning back to Manta, "I'm sure Yoh would be very happy to see you, and you know where his room is."
"Thanks," the little man said gratefully, bowing slightly and heading off towards the stairs quickly.
"So if Yoh's up there, where's Ren brooding at?" Tray asked, as he and Pilika sat down across from Tami and Jun.
"He has yet to return," came the gruff voice of Master Yohmei, as the little old man entered the room from the opposite direction, "Welcome, everyone."
The new guests bowed respectfully and then Keiko murmured, "I hate to think of him out in this weather all alone."
"I believe you aren't the only one," he muttered back, choosing to remain standing due to his sub-average stature and turning his attention back to his new guests, "Your journey was pleasant enough, yes?"
"Well, once we actually got going, yes, thank you," Pilika nodded, "The hour-wait in the train station is another story, however," she added with a slight roll of her eyes.
Tami smiled slightly, and then turned towards the windows sadly.
Manta made his way quietly up the stairs, heading towards the bedroom of his best friend. It had been a while since they had last seen each other (his new "position" as manager at one of his father's plants had seen to that) and he was looking forward to catching up with him. Had high school really ended a year ago?
The small talk was in full swing beneath him, but he could practically feel the pretentiousness seeping up the stairs after him. The path to Yoh's bedroom was an easy one to remember and he rapped on the door softly, "Hey Yoh…Anna…it's Manta…"
The soft padding of socked-feet reached his ears and the door slid open. "Hey Manta," Anna said, gazing down at him, her expression much warmer than he would have expected, "C'mon in."
Surprised at this friendly gesture, he smiled and followed her in, "Thanks. Sure is good to see you again, it's been a while, hasn't it?"
"It has," she nodded, sitting back down beside her fiancé, "Look who finally showed up."
Yoh's face brightened considerably, "Hey Manta! What's up?"
"Nothing much," he shrugged, sitting down across from them, "Glad to be out of work for this. Though I heard your day could've been better."
He sighed, his state of mind downcast once more by this fresh reminder of recent events, "Yeah, kinda…"
"You wanna talk about it? Or are you all talked out by now?" Manta asked gently.
"No offense, but can we talk about something else, maybe?" Yoh asked weakly, unsure of how much more depression he could stomach.
The little man paused, thinking, "Okay…So, you're getting married tomorrow, congrats!"
Yoh forced a smile, "I wish I could be happy about that, but…"
"With the atmosphere right now, it's hard," Anna finished for him, "But it'll be better in the morning," she added, putting one hand over one of Yoh's.
Yoh felt the blood rush to his face, but tried to ignore his smallish friend, offering his fiancé a tiny grin, "I hope so," he said, his voice not much higher than a whisper.
"I promise," she whispered back, kissing his cheek gently and then turning back towards Manta, "It's been kind of a trying day for both of us, but it's good to have you guys here now."
The heir to the Oyamada Empire nodded, "I'm glad. The last thing you guys need is to have a rotten day-before-your-wedding. Can't be good luck," as an afterthought, he added, "Everybody else is downstairs, if you wanna come say 'hi'."
"That might be a good idea," Anna nodded, "It's almost time for dinner too," she said, glancing at her watch.
Food: the universal problem-solver. Yoh licked his lips in anticipation, imagining the wonderful cooking that could be the only inevitable product of Ryu and Tamera together under one roof. He stood quickly and took Anna by the hand, "Okay, let's go!"
"Nice ta have ya back among the living, dude," Tray said, slinging one arm around Yoh's shoulders as the small group gathered around the Asakura dinner table.
"Hey Horohoro, how's life?" Yoh asked, cheered somewhat more now that he was amongst friends.
"Just perfect, as a matter of fact," Tray began, but his sister cut him off before he could elaborate.
"He is currently not a rising X-Games star, as he's sure to tell you," she said with a smirk, "Actually, he's working at one of the skate-parks near our apartment. I'm doing secretarial work at one of the local law firms while studying for my college entrance exams."
"Would you shush?" The male Ainu exclaimed loudly, rather embarrassed by the blunt legitimacy of his current situation his sister spoke so freely about (the truth can often be quite painful, as the saying goes).
"I'm not gonna let you lie," Pilika said matter-of-factly.
"No worries, Tray," Yoh said, chuckling, "You're better off than I am."
"Found work yet?" Horohoro asked, not wanting the topic of discussion to linger on himself too long.
"Nothing that I can hold on to for very long…" Yoh sighed, "I just don't have any useful skills…"
"Plus you're kinda clumsy, otherwise you could at least try the restaurant industry, they're always hiring," Tray commented casually, leaning backwards on his hands.
Yoh hung his head embarrassedly.
"Believe me, he's tried that," Anna said, rubbing Yoh on the back supportively, "We both have actually, but I was always too 'head-strong' for the manager's tastes."
"I'm sure there's room down at the office…" Manta offered meekly, not wanting to offend but simply tender help.
"My family has supported me through all of my adult life," Jun said, "Though I'm rather embarrassed to say so now. But if you ever needed strings pulled, don't hesitate to ask."
"I thank you both, and if it ever really comes down to that, I suppose I'll have to swallow what's left of my pride…" Anna trailed off slowly, and then finished, "But we'll figure something out."
"Man, we just can't keep things light around here, can we?" Tray declared, more of a statement than a question, "That's alright, nothing a little Saké can't cure…"
Pilika frowned at this and muttered, "You drink too much…"
"I think we should save the Saké for tomorrow," Anna said, not outright supporting Pilika's concerns, but aiding to her subtly.
"Alright, alright," the Ainu male said, throwing up his hands in surrender (and nearly losing his balance in the process).
Manta reached over and caught him, laughing, "It almost seems like you've had too much already."
He adjusted his headband, now moderately discomfited, "Done nuthin' of the sort." The others just didn't understand. He could laugh it off and be happy for Yoh all he wanted, but it still didn't change the fact that development continued unimpeded up in the Ainu prefecture, destroying more and more of the land that his Minution guardian once dwelled in. Just one more spiritual sanctuary that man had no objection to decimating without a second thought. He had lost the Shaman Tournament, but seven years ago he had been fine with this, because Yoh Asakura was a kind, caring, and (most importantly) understanding person. Surely he would do something.
He snorted softly to himself. These were naïve notions of a child. Seven years were gone, without so much as a change to be seen. Tray understood why Tao Ren refused to rekindle a friendship with the Shaman King: so far, he had been a severe disappointment. True, the job was difficult and vague, but would a little action by now have been so terrible? The more he dwelled on this, the more upset he became. Being angry at Yoh, one of his best (and only) friends, was something Horohoro didn't enjoy being in the least. Alcohol had proven to be a very effective way of erasing such thoughts, so long as he had a decent intake of it. It may have been bad for his physical health, but so long as it helped him keep peace of mind…
"It sure smells good in there," Yoh called towards the kitchen, "Mom, you're not getting in the way, right?"
"I most certainly am not," Keiko Asakura replied, stepping into the dining room, unrecognizable smudges of food on her face and sleeves.
"Ha ha – right," Yoh nodded, "Ryu, Tami? What's the damage report?"
"Dinner will arrive on schedule, Master Yoh, I ask only for your patience," Ryu's boisterous voice carried out of the kitchen, "And be kind to your mother!"
"Hey – she's just as bad to me," Yoh protested, grinning widely, "Ask her what she was asking Anna about this morning!" To this, his fiancé blushed wildly.
"Do the rest of us want to know?" Manta asked, noting Anna's expression and the color in her cheeks.
"I don't see what the big deal is," Keiko shrugged as Anna shook her head furiously at her, "But if my Queen wishes for my silence, I shall surely oblige." She bowed slightly and whisked back into the kitchen.
"It's good to see everyone again," Amidamaru said, floating in the living room with the few other ghosts, wanting to give the living some privacy, "Our reunions shouldn't be so infrequent."
"Mm-hmm," Kori purred in agreement, settling down upon his shoulder comfortably.
Tokegero stretched his arms above his head and then cracked his neck, "Can't say it doesn't get boring being apart from you guys," he conceded, "But it looks like we walked into a drama-fest here. Isn't this supposed to be a party or something?"
"It was indeed supposed to be a celebration, that of Master Yoh and Lady Anna's union tomorrow. There have been…complications, you could say…" the Samurai nodded solemnly, his arms folded across his chest.
" It's such a shame>," Kori said, (though to any human's untrained ear it would have sounded like nothing but inane, albeit adorable, babble), " Is there anything we can do? "
"Unless anyone can think of a way to get Master Ren to put aside his differences with Master Yoh (even just for a day), I would have to say no. His hatred grows with each passing day- he has yet to forgive Master Yoh for becoming the Shaman King," Amidamaru sighed, shaking his head.
Kori folded her hands in her lap biting her bottom lip, " I've never had anyone to tell before, but Horohoro shares some of Ren's frustrations… " she said quietly.
The lizard-warrior raised a curious eyebrow, "Really?" he asked, very surprised, "I never thought he really let much get to him…"
" He drinks so much now… " Kori said cautiously, " He frightens me sometimes, and Pilika too. But he says things… " she trailed off, looking quite distressed that she was betraying her beloved master this way.
Amidamaru turned his head so he could see the little spirit properly (not a difficult task for the deceased warrior), "You don't have to tell us anything if you don't want to, Kori…"
" I don't want to seem like a tattle-tale… " she said, wringing her hands, " But he worries me…if he would just talk to Master Yoh about it, I'm sure it would help. "
"Have you suggested he do so?" the Samurai asked quietly.
" Once or twice, " she nodded, " But he thinks it would make more problems…he doesn't want to end up isolating himself like Ren. "
"Would you like me to talk to Master Yoh?"
" Could you? " she asked, eyes shining.
"Of course," he nodded, "I somehow doubt he'll be getting much sleep tonight anyway…"
" Thank you so much, " she said, leaning up to kiss his cheek.
Tokegero laughed as the samurai's cheeks tinged red, "Well, at least Ryu seems alright. His situation hasn't really improved, but it hasn't worsened. He idolized Yoh too much to be upset over something that happened seven years ago. It's just ancient history to him. The search for a happy place and his "Queen" continues…"
"Has he ever managed to approach a member of the opposite sex without frightening them away?" Amidamaru asked incredulously, happy to change the subject.
"Not yet," the lizard-warrior admitted, chuckling.
"I suppose statistically there must be someone out there," the samurai laughed, one hand behind his head.
"His persistence is either commendable or idiotic, I haven't decided which just yet."
A sudden commotion interrupted them and they turned as Tamera came marching into the room, dragging her animal-spirits by their tails. "That's it! I can't cook with you two getting in the way! Now please stay out here until I tell you otherwise, ok?"
"But Tami, we were just trying to help!"
"Well you're not helping," she said exasperatedly, "You can help by keeping out of trouble." She dropped the fox and raccoon on the living room floor and headed back towards the kitchen.
The two little nature spirits picked themselves up slowly, dusting off and grumbling incoherently to each other. Amidamaru raised an eyebrow at the two, "Trouble?"
"Not sure," Ponchi shrugged, "We weren't doin' anything different from what we usually do."
"Yeah," Conchi nodded, "Tami's just been on edge all afternoon."
Amidamaru exchanged a quick glance with Kori. Ren still had yet to return, the most probable reason for Tamera's tenseness, "It's been a trying day for everyone, I suppose."
"Excellent as always, guys," Yoh said, patting his stomach, "You never cease to amaze me."
"Thank you, Master Yoh," Ryu said gratefully, setting his dirtied utensils down on his empty plate, "You are too kind."
"Well, I'm stuffed," Tray said, leaning forward so as to rest his elbows on the table, "I think I'll sleep well tonight."
"I must say, I have not had such good cuisine since you moved away, Tamera," Master Yohmei spoke up, allowing a shikigami spirit to dab at his mouth with a napkin, "I intend no offense of course, Keiko."
"Of course," Keiko nodded, "And I agree – this was delicious, Tami."
"Thank you, ma'am," the pink-haired young woman inclined her head slightly, "But you were a great help – and you taught me everything I know, remember."
"Yeah, but I'm sure she's forgotten half of it by now," Yoh interjected, grinning widely.
"Smack him for me, would you Anna?" Keiko asked, to which Anna obliged happily, giving her fiancé a light punch on the arm.
Jun laughed slightly, as Pilika poked Tray lightly to keep him awake. "Perhaps rest would be best," the Mandarin female said, "It's been a very long day."
"I have no objection to that," Horohoro said with a yawn.
"Yeah, I guess tomorrow's a pretty big day, huh?" Manta asked thoughtfully, his own utensils (soiled though they were) arranged neatly on his platter, his napkin folded to cover signs of usage.
"I hope the rain lets up for us," Keiko said, rising from the table, as the shikigami began taking their plates away.
Both Jun and Tami turned subtle, worried glances towards the windows, where the rain could be easily seen.
Noticing the slight change in the girls' mood, Keiko began ushering all the young people off to bed.
The night air had become chilled, the never-ending rain still battering his body with all its might, though he had gone numb to the actual soaked feeling an hour or two ago. Tao Ren sat atop a boulder, barely even able to see his hands in front of him, let alone his ragged, forced breathing that produced tiny white, wispy clouds of steam. It must have been extremely late - Tamera would be furious at him for not returning sooner. He stood slowly, the soft, water-logged ground sinking slightly beneath his feet. The Kwan-Dao was still in his hand, but this was confirmed only by eyesight (difficult though it was), not by feeling.
The young man began walking slowly, his eyesight bleary from a lack of substance (meals hadn't seemed important earlier), his footsteps unsure under the uneven ground. He had to keep going, the Asakura complex wasn't too much further away. The body demanded rest, that he close his eyes for just a moment, but he refused it with the strength of his will alone. He held no real desire to return to the house of his rival, but it was cold, pouring, and Tami and Jun would be there, most likely worrying about him. Just a bit farther…
Tamera stood at one of the many back doorways of the Asakura household, quietly fastening her raincoat. Getting downstairs undetected had been easy enough; it was finding her lover in this dark downpour that was going to be difficult.
"You should be in bed," a familiar, raspy voice said from behind her and she turned. Kino Asakura was standing a few yards away, umbrella in hand.
"I can't sleep knowing he's still out there alone," Tami said, her voice strong.
"He won't be out there for much longer," Kino said, "I had just come down to meet him."
"What?" Tami asked turning back towards the outside, eyes straining against the dark, and sure enough, a tall, masculine figure was stumbling out of the woods, "My god – Ren!" she cried, tearing out the door. She was upon him in seconds, arms clasped around him as he nearly fell forward into the mud, his strength completely drained.
In another instant, a flock of shikigamis had surrounded him, lifting him up and bearing him into the house where Kino stood waiting. As the pair reentered the house, she turned towards Tamera, "I'll take him upstairs – go fetch some heating pads for his bed."
"Yes, ma'am, right away," Tami nodded and hurried off.
A short while later, Tami was kneeling over her beau as he lay in bed, dressed in dry clothes, suffering a terrible fever.
"Damn fool," Kino shook her head as she gazed down at him.
"He's not going to die, is he?" Tami asked tearfully, to which the old woman laughed.
"I highly doubt that, child," she said, "When he wakes up, you send for me right away, understand?"
As Kino turned and left the room, a new form appeared in the doorway. Anna stepped over closer to Tami, "So he finally came back?"
"Yeah…" the pink-haired woman nodded, pressing a wet cloth to Ren's forehead, "But he should've known better than to stay outside in this terrible weather."
"Guys are stupid that way sometimes," Anna said, setting herself down beside Tami and putting an arm around her shoulders, "You just do the best you can to keep them from getting hurt because of it. Don't worry about it too much."
In the doorway, another pair of figures had suddenly appeared. Yoh sighed, leaning against the door frame, "This is all my fault…"
"It ain't your fault he's a stubborn jackass," Horohoro countered, yawning loudly.
Yoh smiled slightly at this, and then gazed down at the floor, "Hey Tray…"
"Yeah?" the Ainu male asked, his eyes flickering towards the floor for a second (where there was nothing of interest, but Yoh's gaze had shifted, making him curious as to why) before returning to the Shaman King.
"You…resent me for winning sometimes too, don't you?" Yoh said, avoiding eye-contact quite obviously.
Tray blinked, caught off-guard by this inquiry, "What? No, 'course not…" he lied, not wanting to make his friend feel any worse than he already surely did.
"Please, don't try to protect me anymore," Yoh said, raising his head so their eyes met, "I might as well know the truth now, or you'll keep holding it inside till you break and by then it might be too late to fix this…"
The blue-haired young man sighed, "Is this really where you want this to happen?"
"Let's go to my room," Yoh suggested, "Ren and the girls aren't going anywhere."
"Fine," Tray agreed, inclining his head slightly and stepping aside to let the Shaman King go first.
The trek back to Yoh's room was a short one and the two young men stood facing each other in the dark room, with no moon or stars to illuminate them, each waiting for the other to go first.
"We've been friends a long time, Yoh. Little over seven years now, right?" Tray started cautiously.
nodded, "Ever since we found you frozen on the side of the road when you first
got to Tokyo," he smiled at the memory.
The other smirked half-heartedly, "Right…" he sighed, finally deciding to go against his better judgment. It was time to come clean, if only partially, "I got to know you pretty well during those months of the tournament. That's why I didn't mind so much (back then, at least) when you were the one who became Shaman King and not me…"
"But that's not the way it is anymore, is it?" Yoh asked.
"You're a good person, Yoh, probably more so than I'll ever be," Horohoro placed his hands in his pockets nervously, looking away towards the darkness of the window, where the rain continued to beat against the pane, "But it's been seven years now. I know being Shaman King is no walk in the park, but you-" he cut himself off, still unwilling to go all-out, the way he might've if he had been intoxicated.
"I haven't really been doing much of anything…I know…" Yoh said sadly, "I promised I would help you all realize your dreams, but I haven't. I let you down, huh?"
"Yes," the blue-haired young male answered, turning back to look at Yoh, "Did you know they're still developing up in the mountains? Kori's friends and family are now mostly hiding in my parents' complex now. I'm no eco-terrorist, so I'm not going to go up there and force them to stop," he paused, steadying his voice, "But the spiritual world has been slowly dying for five hundred years now, ever since the last King died. I'm no fool; I understand that it's hard to affect change. But at least your predecessors tried…"
"You're right…" Yoh said, rubbing the back of his neck slowly. It was a hard truth to hear, but he had known it was coming. "I haven't ever really gotten instructions from the Great Spirit…but I guess that means I should just be working on my own…Is there anything you'd like me to do? I don't think I have the power to conjure up a marsh for the Minutions to live in, or the political influence to stop the developers, but I want to help…so I'm open to suggestions."
"I don't know, man. Everything you're saying makes sense, but it really starts to eat at me when I start thinking about it too much," he took a deep breath, then released it slowly, "We're friends Yoh, I don't like being pissed off at you. Sometimes…I just need a little help calming down…"
"That why you drink so much…" Yoh said, finally understanding, "I'm so sorry…This summer I promise, we'll put our heads together and see what we can do for Kori's family, ok?"
Tray smiled, "Yeah, alright. An' don't worry about me, a few a day aren't gonna kill me."
"It's my job to worry about you," Yoh said, returning the smile, "It's what friends do," he offered the Ainu his hand, "Friends, right?"
Horohoro accepted the gesture firmly, "'Course."
"Well that's one crisis averted," Yoh said, just as the door slid open and Manta poked his head in.
"You guys okay in here? And what's everyone doing up?"
"Nothin', Ren just dragged his sorry ass home, that's all," Tray shrugged.
"Oh…that explains the women coming in and out of his room," Manta nodded, coming into the room, "So I can't help feeling I missed something important just now…"
"Nah, we're just cool," Yoh said, slinging an arm over Tray's shoulders, "Come on, hang out with us."
Before the little man could reply, there was a single rap at the window, much louder than any of raindrops could have been.
Yoh turned towards the window startled, "Dad!" he asked, sliding the window open, "Izzat you?"
"Dad?" Tray and Manta echoed confusedly.
Mikihisa stepped inside, dripping wet all over the clean wooden floor, the beak of his wooden bird-face mask a source of constantly-producing tiny drops of water, "Son, how long were you going to let me stand out there?"
"I didn't see you out there, I'm sorry," Yoh said, mentally noting how angry the women would be about the mess on the floor, "It's great to see you – but it'd be better if I could see your face."
The older man sighed, removing his face covering, "Very well," he paused a moment, sizing up his only child, "It's been a while, son. How are you?"
"Honestly, I've been better," Yoh said, "But things'll get better in the morning."
"Uh…that's an interesting way to enter your own house, sir…" Manta murmured quietly.
Mikihisa laughed, "Well how else was I supposed to come in? The front door?" He began discarding his wet garments, "Son, you can loan me a robe, can't you? You're mother wouldn't approve of me dripping any further than necessary."
"In the closet, Dad."
"Thanks." Mikihisa vanished for a brief moment before returning, clothed in a cotton yukata. "That's much better," he said, tightening the band around his waist, "Now what are you boys all doing up at this hour anyway? Having an impromptu bachelor party?"
"Not a bad idea, really," Tray chuckled, rubbing his chin.
"Ren just came in…" Yoh said, his expression saddening a bit, "He was out all day in this weather, so he's not in really great shape right now."
"Dreadful weather, that," Yoh's father agreed, "Really made travel difficult."
"Yeah…" Manta said, "There wasn't any mention on the news of rain today, but then again, they rarely know what they're talking about."
"True, true," Mikihisa drew his son in quickly for a brief hug, then released him just as swiftly, "Get some sleep, son. Tomorrow's a big day and you don't want to look like hell for it. I'm going to go find your mother. There'll be plenty of time for us to talk in the morning, I'm sure."
"Ok," Yoh nodded, stifling a yawn, "I'll see you then, Dad. Did you guys wanna crash here or were you going back to your own rooms?" he asked, turning towards his friends.
"Crashing sounds fine," Tray replied, "Getting back to my room requires effort."
"Hell, why not? It'll be like old times," Manta said with a smile.
"You boys have fun," Mikihisa said, sidling out of the room, "And do try to actually get some sleep."
"You bet, sir," Tray said, giving a short salute before sinking to the floor, "Sleep always sounds good to me."
"G'night, Dad," Yoh said as he and Manta sat down next to Tray.
"Dang, we shoulda had a bachelor party. Strong booze, a stripper or two, the works."
"Goodnight, Tray," Yoh said, rolling over onto the futon as Manta curled up next to him.
The door slid open once more a few minutes later and Anna stepped in silently. Keiko had urged her to sleep, but she had heard Yoh and Tray go off earlier and deemed it necessary to check on them. But one look at the sleeping trio told her she had nothing to worry about. With a small smile she backed out of the room and closed the door, just as the rain slowed to a stop, allowing the moon to shine through the window at last.