"Who are you, Burning Tiger?" Gabriel demanded.
"I am He-Who-Scorches-with-Flame. I am Power-of-the-Daytime. I am That-Which-Drives-Forward. I am Unstoppable-in-Fury. I am master of this place and time.
--Aristoi John Walter Williams
Cat feral, Yuzuru thinks. Thought touches only the edges of truth, but it is enough. Dog rabid, perhaps, but there is something about Takaya's spirit that arrogantly demands more than that; something upright, something tradition, unyielding, perhaps. But then Takaya's eyes flash and his voice lowers, his mouth is such a cruel thing. He has embraced something dangerous. The way Naoe flinches from him is proof enough, even without Yuzuru's insight.
Cat feral, hungry, and tired as Takaya collapses across his bed. He's abandoned school, abandoned everything of his former life but for Yuzuru and his sister. He seems them rarely. Nagahide is here more often and… Feral, reluctantly so, Yuzuru believes. The smile he finds so suddenly on his face is kind and gentle.
"It's good to see you," he whispers. It should be easy to speak the truth in a clear voice, but Yuzuru struggles. "It's been too long, you know?" There are tears in his eyes and when Takaya rolls over to look at him, there is pain etched deep into his face.
"I'm sorry," he murmurs. He cannot hold Yuzuru's gaze and turns towards his hands instead. Even his fingers are like claws, Yuzuru notices sadly. "Things have been --"
"I understand." He can see from the grit of Takaya's teeth that no one understands, but he accepts the comfort because it is Yuzuru.
Stillness and pain hangs between them, a webbing of confusion and unspoken words. The grief in Takaya's expression is unbearable and so Yuzuru's kindness draws him near, perching precariously on the edge of his own bed. He reaches out his hand—thin, it seems, thin and white—something Takaya could break so easily.
"I love you," Takaya croaks, flinching. Yuzuru does not let him slip away, settles his hand on the young shoulders of an ancient lord. In this arena, Yuzuru is stronger.
"Do you, my lord?" He has denied it too long now, has helped Takaya to deny it and the rift is widening, someone new is immerging.
Takaya's face is horrified and repulsed. "No, not him, I don't want to be him." Yuzuru's pity is gentle; he embraces his friend, breaths against the wild black of his hair. Takaya is the drowning man, Yuzuru sees that now. "Whoever I am, I love you."
"What do you want this to mean?" Yuzuru wonders at ambiguity and possibility.
Takaya's expression shudders and then hardens over. "Nothing." He strokes the back of Yuzuru's hand with his thumb. "Nothing, just know that I do."
The forest says strange things to him these days. The leaves weep, the bark howls when the wind is run upon it. The city is his home, or perhaps his battlefield and… now the dirt beneath his feet is calling. He strips off his shoes, rolls up his sleeves and runs. The fat sacred deer on the temple grounds do not startle as he passes. The birds do not stir in the boughs. There is wind on his wrists, fire in his throat.
He dares not ask, he dares not.
"Who are you?" his voice trills, birdlike, uncertain. Fire, fire in his throat, the fetid breath of a hunter breath across his face. A ghost, a phantom of a hallucination, silver and metallic.
"I?" the voice purrs and smiles. "I am Steel Tiger, but this you knew."
His dreams are shatters, flashes of moonlight and indignity. His soul burns sourly in his throat and the path of Steel Tiger is a trail of clawed ground and blight. Black jungle dreams wherein the leaves weep and the bark howls and there is wind beneath his elbows as he runs.
There is something run wild in the temple of his thoughts, Naoe shudders, unraveling. His calm, his temperance, is shaken. He misses the city, his independence, but the threads which hold him here are wrapped around his throat and he is choking. His prayers are stifled murmurs, barely audible, barely felt.
Are you listening, gods? he wonders, bent double with his lips to the floor. He can barely hear himself, how will they hear him in the heavens?
Yuzuru has not heard from Takaya in weeks.
Something has happened there, between them. Naoe is certain of it.
And the forest reeks of animal, he recoils from it. The very aura of the forest has gone feral. He remembers this place as placid, noble, much the way he remembers Kagetora. That scent is here too; that power. The dog in him is aroused by the metallic feline stink.
The trees feel the boy's movement, the boy's rabid path and the torture he leaves behind. Naoe sets off into the shadows and wishes he'd stopped this before the hour became so late.
The trails are easy to follow, but his quarry is difficult to track. There are times when he displays a four-legged cunning, other times a two-legged shrewdness. But he is there: he sends goblins to plague Naoe in the night, nymphs in the day; confirming his presence, begging to be chased.
Naoe wonders if this is a game, but does not feel secure in the assumption. So he hunts, follows the signs up the mountain, deeper and deeper into holy land and danger. He dreams of Kagetora constantly, of his heart beating its final weak palpitations upon a china plate before it is skewered by a delicate silver dessert fork, before it is raised to his lips.
The dreams are not unfamiliar, but they have disturbed him for hundreds of years. Always that gleam of bone-china and silver, even in the days of paper and wood.
Wearily, Naoe pushes the raw thoughts away. He lights one of his few cigarettes, smothering the hunger blooming in his chest with the killing smoke. Birds stir irritably in the trees above, they caw little taunts at him, talons scratching at the wind-worn bark.
"Kagetora…" he breathes gray. Faces watch him with smoking gray eyes from within the twisting motes.
Yuzuru's mouth, Takaya remembers in bright snatches, had tasted of the tea he had been drinking. His skin had tasted of soap and of sunshine. He had trembled beneath Takaya's tongue, had stilled in surprise at the coal-fueled heat in Takaya's body; his eyes, his voice, his hands.
"Ougi," Yuzuru's voice had fluttered and Takaya's mouth had sneered against his flesh. His hands had pawed and Yuzuru had gasped, wet and tense.
"Shh…" Takaya had growled, choking it back, Little Bird. Sweet smelling steam had poured from between his lips; raw meat and pomegranates. "Shh…" he had repeated, licking first his own canines and then Yuzuru's molars.
Yuzuru's hands, soft and slow as feathers, had slid the length of his spine and Takaya had arched beneath his touch, lithe and athletic; he always had been. Those fingers had wound up into his hair, stroked and soothed until the violence receded.
The overwhelming stink of steel had faded. Takaya's skin had eased back off the bone, his muscles had become pliant. His thigh had been between Yuzuru's, one hand had been braced upon the pillows, and the other had been playing the ridges of Yuzuru's ribs.
"I won't do this to you," Takaya had promised, unapologetically.
Yuzuru's mouth, Takaya remembers, had tasted of him then; of raw meat and pomegranates, his saliva sticky and sickly sweet.
Steel Tiger hunts his thoughts, feeding upon weakness, his claws raking hesitation. Steel Tiger sees through his eyes, smiles with his mouth, kills with his hands, runs with his legs.
Steel Tiger's breath writhes through his body, the danger is evident by the time Naoe is allowed to find him. Perhaps Naoe has known… has flinched from the changes in his master, even as he has crawled closer on his belly.
The steel pins in Takaya's hips do not creak as he shifts his stance, arms crossed across his chest. He has not been waiting. He has merely reached his destination; this moment. It is a permissible inevitability that Naoe will follow him to this waterfall high up on the holy mountain.
"Kagetora," Naoe calls weakly over the din. He can barely hear himself, yet the boy turns and sees him with the eyes of Steel Tiger. Golden eyes wrought of brass? of amber? Takaya's thin lips part, his teeth gleam.
"Chasing me again, " he muses. "My blood in your nose… it must distract you from how trapped you are."
Naoe bristles; he has not been lured this deep into the wilderness to play Kagetora's cruel feline games.
"I was sent," he spits, the moist earth soaks up the saliva hungrily. "I do not glut for punishment."
They all know it is a lie; Kagetora, Takaya, and most of all Steel Tiger. "Don't you?" his lord ponders on poison daggers. The set of his shoulders is smug, is safe. Naoe is shaken with it, with lust, with fear, with disgust.
"How childish," Naoe replies, voice low and husky, his expression prim and haughty. "I won't indulge you. I've come only to bring you back. The others worry and you shirk your duties."
Takaya sneers. "You would tell me my duties?"
Shame burgeons in Naoe's chest, but he hides it, raises his chin imperiously. "Until you accept your responsibilities, yes."
There is a sharp teenage petulance; Takaya's face beneath the new danger. Steel Tiger is still in his skin he as stalks—melts—towards Naoe, the granite spray of the waterfall at his back. The thunder of water is one with the hissing steam which slithers from Takaya's mouth. The thunder of it does not smother the treble groans of metal plates sliding against one another as he moves.
"I have long since accepted my mandate, Nobutsuna," he breathes, reeking of chalk and of blood. His hand settles gently on his general, his captain, his vassal's shoulder. Naoe brushes him off, incensed. He has suffered.
"And yet here you hide," Naoe accuses darkly.
"Wishing that to be the truth will not make it so," Kagetora retorts airily. He does not flinch when Naoe rears against him, he does not show fear when Naoe's rage and shame wrap around his throat.
"You provoke me," Naoe whispers. "Is there something you want from me?" He has dark implications and violence in mind.
"Not what you think."
"How do you know what I think?" Naoe demands savagely and Steel Tiger smiles through Takaya's bones.
"You smell like a bitch in heat."
Naoe inhales sharply, as if Takaya has punched him. It takes every ounce of self-control he possesses to only hit the boy across the face. He is uncertain afterwards whether it was with open hand or fist.
"I've never known you to be crass and spiteful. Kagetora, Takaya… never like this."
"Your weakness must be addressed," Kagetora answers, looking up at Naoe through the ochre flutter of his eyelashes.
When Naoe's indignation raises its head this time, the boy also moves in to strike. Naoe's forearm throbs where they collide, but he throws the younger man back. He follows his quarry to the ground, dog that he is, and once again wraps his fingers around Takaya's throat.
"Do not speak to me of weakness," he murmurs, his lips and his lord's very close.
"Do it." Kagetora goads, flexing his body in the dirt. Naoe trembles at the invitation, his hand finding Takaya's side beneath his thin mundane shirt.
"What do you want from me?" his voice cracks, his eyes shatter. The body beneath his is not willing, is not pliant. It is as unyielding as steel.
"To confront you," Steel Tiger snaps, fury flashing molten gold in Takaya's dark eyes. "You wanted strength, you dog, and strength of body I will have in time. I have bolstered myself in other ways." He arches, almost as if trying to bridge the thin gap between their mouths. "I've given up almost all of the life Takaya loved, and almost all of the memories Kagetora treasured. My spirit is steel. I could pierce you through with a thought; I could kill you, right here, right now." His voice had dipped to a sibilant whisper, but raises suddenly and his skin blazes. "And now you wish me to bend?" He shouts, enraged, spit flecking across Naoe's face. "You wish me to submit to you, Nobutsuna? You will have to break me. You will have to force me, for I will never submit to you, to anyone."
Naoe's fingers slip from his throat; he sits back, weak with shock and pain.
"Who are you?"
Takaya rises into a crouch. "Four hundred years…" he growls bitterly. "Why are we expected to stay the same so long? So much death and pain! Why is it inconceivable to you that I should change?" His eyes… Naoe recognizes these eyes, but not as Kagetora's.
"What is your name?" he asks, voice quavering. The expression on Takaya's face softens. He stands gracefully and goes to stand before the waterfall once more.
"You do not need to ask," he calls over his shoulder. "You know I am Steel Tiger."
And perhaps Naoe did.
The others notice the change Takaya went through on the mountains. It is like a storm, one whose ozone they smelled a long time coming but were still caught by.
Yuzuru's eyes are gentle as they rest upon his friend. The expression Takaya returns to him is…
"Did the two of you work anything out?" Haruie asks Naoe hesitantly.
He stares at her in surprise, his mouth moving slowly. "Yes… no, I… no," he decides. His eyes dart back to Takaya, there is pain and confusion in his face. He walks away from her without another word, he seems preoccupied.
It is only when Haruie leaves on her motorcycle and Nagahide escorts Yuzuru home that Naoe returns to himself.
He wonders where Kagetora will go…
"Do you need a ride?"
The boy nods and climbs into the car at Naoe's invitation. They are both quiet except for Takaya's directions. As they drive, Naoe realizes how much he missed the city. He lights a cigarette and is lulled by the stream of lights and by the silence of Kagetora's presence.
The apartment complex they pull up in front of makes Naoe's stomach drop. It is run down and cramped, the surrounding neighborhood is also less than ideal.
"You stay here?"
"Sometimes," Takaya answers. "I go home to… my sister, sometimes. To check on her, give her money."
"How are you --" Naoe beings to protest.
"I told her I have a job, which is mostly true. When I'm not out on business I do whatever I can around town." His voice is unconcerned; he gets out of the car. Naoe follows.
Takaya has no intention of letting him so much as see inside. He turns around at his door and stares at Naoe. The older man approaches him, pushes him back against its surface, bracing one hand next to his face and raising the other above Takaya's head, forearm to the wood; sheltering and entrapping him. He brushes Takaya's hair off of his forehead with this hand.
The boy's eyes narrow, cruel feline gold hinting at the edges.
"I still love you," Naoe whispers. He stoops down and kisses Kagetora between his eyes. Takaya's eyelids flutter closed.
"Still chasing," Steel Tiger laughs. His breath is cloying like raw metal and raw meat.
"Yes," Naoe agrees.
He pulls back, returns to his car and then leaves without a backwards glance.