“Ah,” Kento sighed, leaning back in his booth seat contentedly. “They sure know how to make a mean burger.”
“Or three,” Rowen remarked dryly, drawing a laugh. Kento grinned widely.
“You're just glad we found an American restaurant,” Ryo said, pushing away the last of his breakfast omelette with a smile. “Yankee.”
“Me too,” Cye said, smiling up from his ham and eggs. “Not that I don't like Japanese fare,” he added apologetically. “It's just nice to taste something closer to home.”
“Whoever thought to put meat between bread was a real genius,” Kento said, dipping the last of his tater tots in ketchup and tossing it into his mouth, savoring it. “Genius.”
Ryo glanced across the table, where Sage would have sat. He'd seen the others do the same, and more than one joke die on Kento's lips. And those long periods of time where he would have said something, and they had all paused when it didn't come. He had hoped they would find him. This whole thing was giving him headaches, especially with how hard he was working to keep his temper in check.
“I'll go pay the bill,” Rowen said abruptly, scooting out of the booth.
The table was quiet. Cye picked at his food, pretending to eat but too distracted to have a real appetite.
“I guess we should find some place to sleep for the night,” Ryo said, hoping he sounded more light hearted than he felt. “Get an early start.”
“My favorite,” Kento grumbled good naturedly.
“Sounds like a plan,”Cye agreed encouragingly. He elbowed Kento's ribs. “I'm sure we'll find some way to wake this guy up!”
“Oh yeah?” Kento grinned. “Maybe I'll get up first and do something to you!”
Cye laughed. “Not a chance!”
Rowen came back, throwing a slight glance at Kento. Why had Sage always insisted on paying the whole thing, especially when a particular one of them ran it up so high? Oh yeah, that was right. It was hard to remember Sage had deep pockets when he acted like such a regular guy. “All done,” he said.
“Alright,” Ryo responded, getting up. “Let's find a place to bunk down.”
“I asked the waiter for suggestions,” Rowen said helpfully. “There's a little hotel just down the street. Can't miss it.”
“Then that's that,” Kento said enthusiastically. He climbed out and stretched, yawning mightily. “I could use some serious shut eye.”
The hotel was small, rustic, but it kept a homey sense of class, making it quite inviting. They booked a single room, used to sharing. They acquired extra blankets and pillows, then arranged themselves on the floor. There was a perfectly good bed, but none of them wanted to be the one to take it.
Rowen claimed floorspace by the window. That went undisputed, but when he wanted to keep the curtains open, Ryo objected, preferring more total darkness. A disagreement that got much more serious than it should have.
In the end, he slept in the shadow of the bed. Cye and Kento crowded against the other wall, trying to give the other two space. Rowen stared out through the open curtains, and hoped their missing brother also had a safe place to rest tonight.
Sleeping in front of the bared windows also meant he was fully exposed to the sun's most early, hesitant touch. Rowen blinked miserably in the light and turned over, hoping to ignore it and go back to sleep. Why did it have to be up already? He pulled the pillow over his head.
“Saw that!” Cye said from across the room, attempting to rouse the snoring Kento. “Time to get up!”
“I just got to sleep,” Rowen grumbled. Then he remembered why they were rising early like this. With another groan, he pushed himself off the floor. His eyes adjusting, he saw Cye's hair was wet, and shook his head. He'd already had a shower. How did this guy have the energy to be ready to go already? A glance at the clock told him it was six thirty. Criminal.
Ryo came out of the bathroom. Showered. Their leader looked surprised. “Still working on Kento? Geez the guy can sleep.”
Cye shook the big boy again, and when that, shocker, had no effect on his state of consciousness, started dragging him around the room by his arm. “At least Rowen got himself up, I wasn't looking forward to waking him! You know how he gets in the morning.”
“I'm just fine in the morning,” Rowen said irritably. Seriously, did it have to be so bright? He saw the smiles and knowing looks exchanged by the two early birds. Ignoring them, he gathered his day clothes and headed for the bathroom. Might as well take a shower, too. He ran into the door post. “Who put that there?” He complained loudly, to some repressed snickers. Rubbing his head, he finally made it inside. Unbelievably, he could hear Kento ask, “Who's there?”
“You're welcome,” he said under his breath. He started the water running and took off his shirt.
Fifteen minutes later, he stepped out of the bathroom, feeling much more awake. He just might survive the day after all. Kento stumbled past him, with a sleepy, “Good morning”. At least, that was what Rowen thought he was trying to say.
“Where's Ryo?” He asked, and started helping Cye fold up the blankets and putting them and the pillows into organized piles.
“He's out getting some breakfast for everyone,” Cye answered, knocking one of Kento's forgotten socks off a blanket. It was too stiff to flop like a sock should. He and Rowen looked at each other, scared.
“When was the last time he washed those things?” Rowen asked, staring at it, suddenly wondering if it was supposed to be gray.
“I really don't know,” Cye started laughing. It grew uncontrollable, and he went from rocking on his heels to falling on his back with it. Rowen didn't see what was so funny.
“Hey, Rowen,” Cye said, still on his back, but not laughing anymore.
“Yeah?” He started on the blankets again.
“Do you think we would have all met, without Talpa and the armors?”
“I really don't know,” he frowned thoughtfully. “Probably not, I guess.”
“Kinda strange, having something to thank this war for.”
“I hadn't really thought about it.”
“I'm glad we all met. It always feels like I'm with family. You know?”
“Yeah,” Rowen smiled. “I'm glad too.”
They worked in silence, until they were packed up, and everything left neat and tidy.
“What about Sage?” Cye asked as they stared at their handiwork. “Do you think he's okay?”
Rowen wanted to say yes, but Cye wasn't asking for assumed hope. “I wish I knew.”
“I'm so worried about him,” Cye's hands tightened in on themselves. “With all those horrible feelings,” he didn't have the words. Neither of them did. “I feel so guilty. Not being there for him, not knowing what he's going through.”
“Yeah,” Rowen agreed quietly.
“I hope he'll still call us his friends.”
Ryo opened the door. “Hope everyone's hungry.”
“You bet!” Cye said exuberantly, and took some of the fast food bags from him, placing them on the bed.
The shower stopped abruptly, and one minute after, Kento bowled out of the bathroom, tucking his shirt in. “Save some for me!” He shouted.
Cye laughed. “Maybe we should have tried food in the first place.”
“Yeah!” Ryo agreed, chuckling. “Dig in, guys.”
Shortly after seven saw them all loaded into the Jeep and strapping in.
“So where are we going?” Kento asked from the back seat.
“I'm actually not sure,” Ryo said. “Any suggestions, guys?”
Rowen started looking at a map of the area.
“Like we said before, somewhere away from people,” Cye said.
“Maybe somewhere sunny,” Kento added. “He always seems to like that.”
“There's a road on the other side of town,” Rowen suggested. “It goes pretty far, and it doesn't look like there's a lot out there.”
“Okay then,” Ryo backed the Jeep out and got on the road. Something was tickling at the back of his mind, but he couldn't figure out what. Hopefully it would reveal itself soon. Whatever it was, he knew it was related to Sage, and right now they needed any clue they could get.
They drove for over an hour, but couldn't discern any sign of the object of their search. They took a side road which dead ended on them in half an hour, at a large farm. Questioning the farmer's wife revealed nothing. It seemed a tall order, finding him without any direction. Keeping heart, they turned around and headed back to the road they'd branched from.
At the turn pike, they debated which way to go. Consulting the map decided them. Continuing their prior route would shortly dump into a protected national forest. If they hadn't found hide nor hair of him by then, they could at least rule out this direction.
Ten minutes later, the most alarming jolt yet spasmed through them. Gasping with shock and physical pain, Ryo lost control of the vehicle. He tried, but they swerved across both lanes before sliding off the road.
A horrible emptiness shuddered through their souls, and a bleak loss swept through their hearts. Each with a hand pressed tightly to their chests, they started talking at once, after the Jeep finished the slight, harmless rocking motion as it settle halfway into the ditch.
“What was that?”
“Sage, was that Sage?”
“Is he-did he?”
Ryo didn't wait for the babble to become sensible, he got the Jeep back on the road, heading the opposite direction. The darkness had stirred a memory, and he bet he knew where the other had gone. His heart dropped to the grating road beneath when he realized it might be too late for the revelation.
“Idiot!” He shouted, banging a shaky hand on the steering wheel. The horn honked, making all four of them jump, quieting them for a moment.
“What is it?” Cye asked, looking sick.
“I can't believe I was so stupid!” Ryo growled, depressing the pedal past cautiousness. “The caves, that's probably where he would have gone.”
“What caves?” Kento asked, taking his hand from the pain that wasn't his.
All eyes were on Ryo. “After we were separated,” he explained, his hands white knuckled in anger on the steering wheel. “Back in our first battles, Sage was sent to some caves a bit before Takamodo. Right back there!” He fumed violently. “We could have been there last night!”
“Calm down, Ryo,” Rowen advised, his own heart still racing.
“No! This is all my fault. If I'd only remembered,” Ryo's eyes were two orbs of the wild storm as they rocketed down the road. “Now he's,” he couldn't finish.
“Maybe that wasn't what we thought it was,” Rowen said, his eyes low.
Ryo spared him a glance. “Do you really believe that?”
“No,” Rowen answered faintly. He shivered. It didn't feel empty now, but what did that prove? Not a thing. It was exactly the sort of thing he had supposed it would feel. It was the rending anguish of a permanent loss.
“That's hours away,” Kento's grip tightened on the back of Rowen's seat. Desperation and a dark promise thickened his voice.
“Don't you think I know that?” Ryo growled.
Cye's lip quivered, and his eye lashes bore reflective pearls. “Sage. He can't really be gone, can he?”
No one answered him. “He just can't be,” Cye whispered to himself as he closed his eyes.
The intensity of the air grew thicker as the miles were eaten by the tires that rolled madly beneath them, until it grew practically palpable. Cye felt smothered by it. The weight of the anger and the possibly insatiable hunger for vengeance pressed on him from all sides, and it hit him that this was the type of thing the evil streak in their armor would feed on gloatingly. “Guys,” he said neutrally. He didn't want that turned on him. “Remember what the Ancient One said.”
“Later,” Ryo said darkly. “Maybe.”
Kento steadfastly said nothing, but he did swallow and blink. Rowen shifted slightly in his seat.
“We should probably slow down,” the blue haired boy said reluctantly. “It won't help any if we get pulled over.”
“I don't care,” Ryo responded, effectively ending all conversation.
As quickly as the poor Jeep could go, but too slow still, they made it back to Hibeosho. Though each second gave them only a brief glance, it looked more quiet than it should have been. And no police sirens swelled in response to their ludicrous acceleration. Shortly, they reached the bend that would put them on the path to Takamodo. Tight lipped, Ryo barely stayed on the road as they squealed through the turn.
A few cars passed them, also speeding, their driver's wide eyed in terror. The Ronin all wondered, but kept their speculations to themselves. Several minutes later, they came in sight of a police barricade on their side of the road.
When Ryo didn't slow the car down, Rowen said, “They might know something.”
Ryo debated. He was completely inclined to simply drive around it, or come to the worst, he thought he could ram through them. But on the other hand, if his guess was wrong, it would cost them even more time to backtrack and try again. At the last moment, he slammed on the brakes. An officer came running up to them. Ryo tensed. If this guy was just going to ticket or try to arrest him for speeding, compliance was not an option.
The young man looked haggard, his face pale. “Trust me,” he said through the window Ryo had rolled down. “You don't want to go that way.”
“Why not?” Ryo challenged.
“I understand why you would want to try to help, but stay out of Takamodo. It's a complete nightmare. If you've got friends or family there, you can't help them,” He looked that way. “All available forces have gone in, but we just recently reestablished radio contact.”
“I'm not staying here,” Ryo said.
“You'll just complicate things,” the officer warned. “Do not proceed.”
“Try me!” Ryo shouted, and with the high pitched squeal of burning rubber, the Jeep jumped forward and whizzed past the barricade, leaving the officer shouting and waving his arms.
“They drew him to the city,” Rowen shook his head.
“He would have been surrounded,” Cye said quietly. “But he wouldn't have let a trap stop him from going, not with all those people in danger.”
“We all should have been there,” Kento thundered. “This is a major city, not some spot in the woods!” His sub-armor appeared on him. “I'll make them all pay.”
“If they got Sage, you'll get your chance,” Rowen said, donning his sub-armor as well. “And I'll be right next to you.”
Ryo's red and white appeared in silent agreement, and Cye followed suit.