Chapter Nine

By: Valandra

Beta: Zorra

A/N: Are at the end of the chapter. Hellfire13, I had you in mind during the first part of this chapter. Enjoy!

Touma took a silent seat beside Shin's curled form and, despite his concern, kept his gaze turned to the lake. The redhead had only made it halfway through the yard before his strength seemingly abandoned him to drop him in the grass. In the time it took for Touma to join him, the older boy had drawn his legs up to his chest, his arms clutched around them as if to anchor himself.

'I've never seen him hide before.' Shin's head, bowed between his knees and curtained by his hair, hadn't so much as twitched when Touma joined him. 'Surely….' Touma frowned faintly, watching Shin out of the corner of his eye. 'He always knows when someone's close. Even in the middle of a fight….' Frown still in place, brow creased in concern, Touma leaned over to brush his shoulder against Shin's.

Shin's sigh, though thankfully not surprised, still concerned him. When the redhead turned his head to look at Touma without lifting it, the small smile on his lips was the last thing Touma expected. 'It's a bad sign when you're sad but smiling, isn't it?'

Before Touma could decide one way or another, Shin's quiet voice broke the silence. "When we first met, did you ever think he would so completely accept his place as a leader?"

Brow arched, Touma drew a leg up to rest his temple on while he contemplated the question. "When we first met…it was the last thing he wanted."

Shin's lips twitched with a soft sound of agreement. "Yet you still backed him up, despite gravitating towards Seiji and your long-time friendship with Shu."

"Mmm," Touma hummed, eyes lidded as he recalled those early days. They'd had so many arguments and fights amongst themselves in those first few days…. "Neither one of them could agree on anything, and I'm the last person who should play mediator. Ryo may have hesitated a few times, but he was never afraid to step in and tell them both to shut up."

Twilight eyes narrowed when Shin smiled faintly and closed his eyes in response. "Indeed, he had the temperament from the start."

'That's it!' Touma's thoughts exclaimed, having finally latched onto the thing that had been eluding him. 'Temperament but no desire….' "You were hardly the first to speak up, but you were always at his side, guiding him. Giving suggestions and ideas…as a Sempai should." Touma paused for a moment, weighed down by the sudden sadness his realization brought. "You knew…from the very beginning, you knew."

Shin sighed but didn't open his eyes. "I'm an empath Touma, and unlike the rest of you, I was raised knowing the legend of Suiko. I was trained, not for honorable combat or tournament, but for demonic war.

"After that first skirmish, feeling everyone's different motivations and temperaments…I chose the course of action that seemed best for everyone at the time. That would keep us and humanity alive. It didn't matter that I wasn't fully acknowledged, just as it didn't matter that Ryo didn't want the mantle. In the end, I was just grateful to not be alone."

'Fully acknowledged,' Touma's thoughts repeated, as he recalled Ryo's smirk earlier, when Shin was dressing them all down about when they'd all made their assumptions concerning him. He straightened up, eyes wide but unseeing on the boy. "Ryo knew," he breathed his realization. "Ryo knew what you were doing back then…that's why he'd glare at you. You weren't hiding behind him…and he knew it."

His eyes still closed, Shin's smile slowly slipped away. "He had everything he needed to lead us successfully, except the experience. …He's also a very quick study." Touma frowned and pulled himself from the past to focus on the boy beside him. He couldn't pin-point why, but Shin's sadness seemed to have grown.

"When he finally accepted I had no intention of stepping up, to so much as share his burden of leadership officially, he took the challenge with both hands and faced it full-on."

Touma smirked in-spite of himself. "In typical Ryo fashion," he agreed. "If he knew," and Touma had no doubt Ryo had anymore. "Then your faith in him, that he'd be able to handle it, meant more then any support the rest of us gave him." Touma felt his lips twitch at the irony of his next statement. "When trust puts his faith in you, how could you possibly fail?"

"Aa," Shin sounded. Touma flinched and stared at the older boy in shock. He couldn't recall ever having heard the red-head so close to tears. "No matter how angry he got with me," Shin whispered. "I never thought he'd ever look at me like that…."

"Shin…." Touma breathed, shocked to see the tears he'd heard slip free. He wasn't certain which of them moved first, but mere heartbeats later found Shin on his side, in Touma's arms with his face pressed into the young archer's stomach.

The heartbeats drew out into minutes, and Touma could do nothing more then hold him. He relaxed a little as Shin calmed; the elder's unpinned arm loosened around him as well. "Anubis wasn't threatening Seiji," Shin whispered, his face still hidden. "I didn't abandon the Troopers during the final war for them. I sure as hell wouldn't stand by and watch them threaten any of you now, let alone if they thought to raise a hand to any of you."

Touma was silent for a moment, lost in thought. He couldn't imagine ever being on the receiving end of that look; he'd come to respect Ryo too much. But for trust to be looked at in betrayal…. 'I don't think I would have been able to sit and eat after that.'

Before he knew what he was doing, and without quite realizing it, Touma found his fingers combing Shin's hair down in a soothing manner. "I know, oniisan," he spoke quietly, and smiled faintly when he felt the elder's start. "You never betrayed us. No matter how difficult a position it put you in."

He didn't say anything else as they sat there; Shin slowly relaxed against him. Touma lifted his gaze from the mop of reddish hair and stared out to where the horizon met the lake. ~You're an ass,~ he stated with the strategist's calm. As if it were a fact amongst other facts, that simply needed to be pointed out. He could feel the three of them standing on the porch behind him, watching; he had no doubt Ryo was at point, with Seiji and Shu a step behind on either side. He also knew Shin hadn't noticed yet.

~He's stood strong beside you since the very beginning. He never wavered once in his faith in you, in us. How dare you…is it any wonder he found companionship with them rather then us?~ Touma mussed, forcing himself to calm down before he tipped Shin off to their audience. ~Even now, two years later, we're still acting like children. Allowing hurt feelings and petty, not even malicious words to rule us.~ Disgust laced the tone of his thoughts; in his arms, Shin shifted.

Shin rolled enough to look up at Touma, though he made no attempt to leave the youth's embrace. He doubted Touma would have let him if he tried. "Don't be too hard on them Touma," Shin murmured, lidded eyes swollen and red-rimmed. Touma blinked and looked down at him, surprised. Before he could say anything more, Touma arched a brow and brushed the pooled tears from Shin's eye.

"You shush," he ordered quietly, his tone gentle yet chastising. "I happen to still enjoy my task of pointing out when one of them is being illogical and ultimately, stupid." It earned him an honest breath of a laugh and a watery smile.

Shin settled against him once more and closed his eyes with a soft sigh. "When did you get so good at this?" He was genuinely curious, despite his teasing under-tone. He grunted when the youth goosed him in response, but Shin noticed the fingers in his hair had yet to stop. That in fact, the hand that had goosed him had moved back to stroke his neck and spine, down to his shoulder blades.

Twilight eyes wondered back to the lake as he thought about how to answer. He was hesitant, but only because of their recent topic. He'd come to learn some tact over the years, after all. But then…Touma doubted that Shin would ever appreciate being coddled, no matter how upset he was. "Ryo," the archer answered after a few heartbeats, amusement twisting his lips at the irony. 'The lake instead of the fire, tears instead of burning frustration….' He shook his head and stole a brief glance at the content form laying against him. "Sometimes, when he's really frustrated or agitated…or at his wits' end, I can distract him before he runs off to vent alone. We usually sit in front of the fire…." He smiled faintly, recalling the last time. Ryo hadn't been so much frustrated as he was melancholy. When Touma joined him on the floor, the older boy hadn't said a word. Just leaned against his shoulder for a few minutes before he laid down to curl his head and shoulders in Touma's lap, like a cat. Brilliant blue eyes never once left the fire.

"I think Seiji's found some way to calm Shu down too," he added absently, his thoughts wondering and his earlier anger mellowed by his memories. "He doesn't have nearly as many…rash outbursts. And Seiji doesn't spend so much time isolated either."

Shin shifted against the youth, and let the backside of Touma's shirt slip from his fingers. "But I thought…" he spoke softly, his emotions hidden. "They called this a reunion of sorts. Did you all move to the same city?"

Startled from his thoughts, Touma frowned faintly and looked down at the older boy. "Near the end of last summer, actually," he confirmed. Though curious as to why the others hadn't said anything, he supposed it just hadn't come up. "Though Shu tends to spend his weekends helping in the family restaurant, and Seiji in the Dojo, so even living together, free-time is scarce. Ryo tends to go back to his cabin on the weekends too, to check in on it and 'Yaku."

"Mmm," Shin hummed, and gave into his amusement. "Do you go with him?" he asked, completely innocent.

"Aa," Touma sounded with an absent nod, completely oblivious to Shin's undertone. "Usually, yes. If I don't have a big project to work on."

"Naturally," Shin agreed, then sighed, his playfulness abandoning him as quickly as it had come. Just as the thought occurred to him to push himself up, he felt Touma's fingers press firmly between his shoulder blades. The fingers that had been playing through his hair had slipped down his throat and, in his momentary laps of attention, had pushed his shirt collar away to reveal the darkened bruise there. He hissed and flinched away from the light brush of Touma's fingers over it, and gave up any thoughts of pulling away.

"If it hurts," Touma murmured, ever the curious one. "Then why'd you let him do it?"

Shin frowned faintly against the youth's stomach, sensing more in the boy's underlying emotions that spurred the question, then the curiosity itself. He settled back against him and curled his fingers in Touma's shirt before answering. "It was pleasant enough at the time," he admitted, grateful that his hair and Touma's stomach hid the faint blush growing on his cheeks. "And it doesn't really hurt. Just a little tender."

Touma arched a dubious brow. Though he didn't cover the mark back up, he refrained from touching it again. "Bruises hurt, it's in their very nature. I don't understand how it couldn't have, even if you were both playing around."

Shin stopped himself from inhaling sharply, but only just so as he realized what it was his senses were telling him. 'You saw us,' he realized, but forced his embarrassment and irritation towards Anubis aside. 'What's more, you're comparing it to something personal….' Relaxed demeanor maintained, Shin nuzzled Touma's stomach before rolling his head enough to look up at the archer. "It was more the intent and emotion behind it, that was pleasant. He was being protective as much as he was being possessive, reassuring me I wasn't alone. Which I needed."

Shin was gratified to see the faint blush staining Touma's cheeks, as the youth realized he'd been found out. Shin just smiled and let his head roll back against the bluenette's stomach, effectively closing the subject on his unintentional peeping.

Touma however, was slow to turn his gaze away, back to the lake. "I'm surprised he hasn't come out to pull you away then." He wasn't entirely teasing.

Even so, Shin chuckled and his resulting smile lingered. "He's got no reason to be concerned or jealous, and he knows it. Besides," he added and briefly tightened his arm around Touma. "I'm quite content."

Minutes passed in comfortable silence then. Touma's mild start of wary surprise was Shin's only warning before his wrists were grabbed and he was hauled halfway up and back. Aqua eyes flew open in time to catch Touma's shocked expression, before absolute darkness settled around him in the form of a blindfold.

With a muttered curse, Shin shook himself free of his shock and struggled against the hold. Unfortunately, they had grabbed him near his wrists, which left him unable to go for pressure points to free himself. The one holding him was forced down due to Shin's struggles, but the redhead took no satisfaction in it. The position just let the other solidify their hold on him.

"Damnit Shu!" Shin cursed, wrenching his upper body away as he felt the stronger boy pull him closer. "Let me go!" He felt Shu's shock at being recognized, but took little satisfaction from it. Instead he kicked out and missed his next assailant's face by three inches. "Don't you dare Seiji," he hissed at the blond; certain in his intent to restrain his legs before Seiji had even moved closer to him. Did they honestly think that just because he couldn't see them, he wouldn't know where they were? Had they listened to a word he said earlier?

Weight settled on his upper thighs as his legs were instead straddled. Before he could bulk the boy off, fingers were reaching for the buttons of his shirt and Shin once more flinched away. Two buttons were undone before Shin sagged back against Shu's chest and ceased his struggles. "Please Ryo," he whispered, his steady voice wavering once. "Stop."

The fingers paused as the third button slipped free, and the weight on his legs shifted as the body leaned back to observe him. "You gave me permission to tell them."

His eyes closed behind the blindfold, Shin inclined his head marginally. "Not like this." Two heart beats passed before Ryo shifted again, his hands raising once more. Shin flinched away from the touch and turned his head away before they could grasp his chin or brush his cheek. He felt Ryo hesitate then with a brief flicker of uncertainty, before his hands continued on to grasp the blindfold's tie.

"Then how else Shin? You keep running from us…from me." Ryo undid the knot and was unable to hide his surprise when he was immediately pinned by a watery, hurt glare.

"You don't trust me," Shin rasped, his throat tight with threatening tears. "I felt it in your very core…reviewing those last few days of the final war…hunting for some hint of betrayal. Only to have settled for the fact that I remained silent," he hissed the final word, satisfied when Ryo flinched before him, and Shu tensed behind him.

Instead of retreating, Ryo's own anger sparked and he glared back, his own pain darkening his normally bright eyes. "I have trusted you from day one Shin! After our first joint fight against Naaza, how could I not?" He shook his head, his empty hands hanging at his side instead of gripping Shin's shoulders as he wanted. "Yes, I felt betrayed that you didn't trust me with the truth back then. And I still don't understand why you never said anything to me."

A wet, sorrow-filled laugh escaped Shin, but he couldn't turn his gaze away from Ryo's. "And when exactly was I suppose to have such an opportunity? When we faced off with Kayura? While in the flooding temple? How about the water-slide, that would have been a much better topic of focus then how to keep the three of us alive through it.

"I'm sure you think the labyrinth was a perfect setting. Where any wondering spirit might have happened upon us, and reported what it heard to Arago. Can you imagine what would have happened after that? …Though I'll admit that was an afterthought on my part. I was more concerned with relearning my limits. I'd been bed-ridden for so long that I was weaker then I anticipated.

"So let's see…that really only leaves the end of the wars, when you were comatose. So I fail to see when it is you seem to think I should have confided in you back then."

Ryo was silent, darkened eyes locked with Shin's; the redhead found he still couldn't look away. When, as the seconds drew out, Ryo lifted a hand once more towards Shin's face, the redhead flinched away and was finally able to turn his gaze away, to close his eyes. Ryo didn't hesitate this time, instead he cupped Shin's hidden cheek and turned the elder's head back up. He smiled faintly when he caught Shin's sharp breath beneath his initial touch, certain it was the push he needed to get through the elder's tightened shields. "Even before I saw the scar, you intended to talk to me."

Shin nodded before peeking up through wet lashes. "I just didn't know how to bring the subject up."

Ryo sighed and leaned forward to hug the elder. Shin was startled and confused, and couldn't return the embrace as Shu had yet to release him. "I never stopped trusting you Shin," Ryo murmured, his head resting on Shin's shoulder. "That's why I couldn't understand why you were being so quite while Anubis was talking. …Seiji explained," he continued, when he felt Shin shift to explain himself. Between the two of them, Shin shivered.

"Then why like this?" Shin wondered quietly. He tugged at his wrists, but Shu's grip was still unrelenting. Ryo straightened against him, and rested his hands on Shin's shoulders. A smirk played at the corners of his lips as he shrugged neglectfully. "It was Naaza's idea." Shin's flat glare made it clear he was not amused.

Jerking once more between the two of them, he swallowed back a growl as he looked back up to Ryo. "You gonna let me go then?"

Ryo arched a brow. "Do I have a choice?" he countered.

Shin paused and stared hard at the younger boy; he understood what a loaded question that was. "I didn't run from the Troopers," he stated slowly, though nonetheless firm. He noticed then, that Seiji and Touma had slowly moved to sit on the earth either side of him; pinning him as he'd avoided these last few days. "Nor am I running now."

Seiji sighed after a heartbeat and leaned forward, but he refrained from touching Shin. "Yet it's too late to secure you into our own fold."

Shin glanced at him from the corner of his eye while he nodded slowly. "I embraced the four of you as best I could from the beginning. But I never felt such a connection with you, as I did with them."

Shu sighed behind him, while Touma shivered. It earned the bluenette a curious look from his old friend. "I can't imagine waking up to that," he explained. "To having the enemy's voice in my head, to know their thoughts and realize they could hear mine…."

A heavy breath escaped Shin, and he subconsciously leaned back into Shu's strength before he inclined his head. "I thought it was my empathy at first. When I realized it was more then that…I was terrified…alone…and all I could feel were them. But…after the terror faded, and they understood what had happened, I started to feel safe."

Shu heaved a sigh and leaned forward to rest his chin on Shin's shoulder. "You're happy then?"

Shin nodded with a faint smile. He leaned his head back before he turned it to look at the younger boy. "Yes, actually. Though more-so now. I'm glad I didn't let Janus convince me to leave you two at the train station."

Seiji smirked, amused in spite of himself. However, sensing that Shu might take that and lead them into an unnecessary argument, he shifted to stand and swept the group with an arched gaze. "I think it best if we return inside and eat an honest meal then. I think the rest of us managed about as much as you did Shin, waiting for you to wake up."

Shin had the decency to blush, but it was short lived. He squawked in protest when Shu hauled him up by raising his pinned wrists to between his shoulder blades. He scarcely had his feet beneath him before he was spun around and, wrists released, thrown over Shu's shoulder. His legs were trapped securely in Shu's arm, to keep him from slipping as much as to prevent him from kicking the younger boy. "What did I do this time?" he demanded.

Shu shook his head. "Like I'm going to give you the chance to retaliate before we get inside. I'm not stupid Shin." He was quite serious and solemn. Shin just snorted and lifted his head enough to share a conspiratorial look with Touma, who was following behind the group.

Anubis' deep, amused laughter caused Shin to shiver as they climbed the deck. "Now there's a familiar sight," Naaza mused as they joined Touma to follow the group inside. "How many times did you catch him sneaking out only to haul him back in such a manner?"

Anubis' chuckled while Shin growled and struggled in Shu's hold; though the warrior of strength noticed there wasn't much effort on Shin's part. "Twice after Korin's capture, and once after Kongo's. I believe you chained him up after that."

"Aa, yes, I remember," Naaza agreed, his lips twisting in sadistic glee as Shin's hidden face turned beat red.

Though it was just banter to the Ma'Sho, as with everything they'd said since their arrival, it served a double purpose. Any lingering tension within the Toopers evaporated and caused the group to subtly tighten.

Seiji, who had been walking beside Shu, though clear of Shin's reach, leaned over as if to peek at his hidden face. "Shu's right," he murmured, years of practice keeping it to Shin's ears alone. "We could take them."

Shin made a quiet, contemplative sound before turning his still heated face to catch Seiji's eye. "Food first. Then we kick their ass."

The End.

A/N: Well, longer then I thought the chapter would be, though to be honest I had no idea how it would end. I must say I'm quite pleased with it, as I hope all of you are. Actually, the entire story was longer then I'd thought it would be. The whole inspiration for this story was Suiko being overwhelmed by the Venom and Shin being weakened by it before the spirits ever got a hold of him. As much as Ronin/Trooper writers love to torment our boys, this concept seems to be woefully under-developed.

Everything else just kinda came together as it was written. As Jazzmonkey pointed out, the Shin-age thingy is cliché and I honestly hadn't intended to include it when I first sat down to write; it just slipped in and fit as a major plot-point. I am however, very pleased that I managed it in a way that was pleasing to you, my readers.

As stated in my previous Author Notes, there will be a "prequel" to cover Shin's capture and his time with the Ma'Sho. Haven't decided on a title yet, so just be on the look-out for something new!

And finally, happy birthday Zorra!