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Build A Temple In Me

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It was one of those things he missed in the big city, strangely enough. The sound of cicadas.

 

On days when mirages shimmered over worn cobblestone and gravel paths, when rusty portable fans were pulled from cardboard boxes and set spinning and squeaking, when each breath was like panting inside an oven and sweat coated the skin of anyone who was outside for more than a moment, that was when the cicadas kicked up the worst racket. Hajime had often wondered if that was their way of complaining about the heat, too.

 

Nana had told him, warm smile crinkling all the lines on her face, that it was their way of welcoming the summer heat, and after so harsh a winter, who could blame them? Hajime could kind of understand that. After all, summers meant the end of school and a couple months in the country with his favorite relative. There were trees to climb, rivers to cross, rocks to scale, and so many colors and sounds and smells to take in that didn’t offend his senses like the city’s did. He always returned with a great adventure story or three to tell the volleyball club, making him an instant celebrity, so there was always that to look forward to when he got back home as well.

 

Still, Hajime thinks even the cicadas aren’t crazy enough to celebrate the stifling heat.

 

On days like these, there’s no point in leaving the house at all. Most of the villagers are elderly like Nana and could hurt themselves in the heat. But even the few families that live in the mountainside village won’t to do much but lie in as little clothes as they can get away with, watching the oscillating fan spin cool relief on their exposed skin. The ground is impossible to walk on without shoes. The shade is just a slightly darker version of the sun. And most importantly, Nana doesn’t have the strength to carry up the daily offerings to the mountain gods, nor does she have anyone willing to volunteer to take them up from the town.

 

Hajime doesn’t mind, honest. If he had to live in the country all the time, he might have, but the mountain was the most exciting place around town anyway, so carrying a basket of homegrown fruits, vegetables, and spices up to the shrine isn’t that big of a deal to him. In fact, he’s inclined to sprint his way up the steps, taking them two at a time, because the faster he drops off the offerings, the faster he can get back to searching for forest spirits on the mountain.

 

“Oi, Hajime-chan!” Hazaki-san calls, a large box of general store merchandise in his arms, muffling his voice. Hajime had sprinted past him, eager to be on his way, but stops short and turns around, dipping his head respectfully when Hazaki-san sets down his box and turns to Hajime with a smile. “Not gonna go all the way up to the green shrine without a hat, are you?”

 

Hajime feels his head self-consciously. Crap, he had forgotten his hat, hadn’t he? That was going to be some stinging sunburn tomorrow, and so early on his trip, too!

 

Hazaki-san smiles knowingly. Turning, he reaches into his box and pulls out a wide-brimmed hat, turning it over to inspect it and then, nodding to himself, tosses it to Hajime. Hajime fumbles the catch but eyes the hat with approval. It’s good and sturdy, just about the right size for his head. But… “Hazaki-san…I don’t have any money to pay you with.”

 

All he gets is a wink in response. “It’s on the house,” Hazaki-san replies, putting a finger over his lips. “Stay safe up there!”

 

“Thank you so much!” Hajime says quickly, bowing before turning on his heel to sprint to the foot of the mountain. He doesn’t stop at the bottom of the stairs, sandals slapping against the moss-greened stone steps, the noise punctuated by sharp, swift pants and a background of birdsong and cicadas.

 

The green shrine doesn’t get its name from nothing. The forest surrounding it is bathed in all shades of emerald and jade, golden sunbeams peeking through to illuminate the earthy browns of the forest floor. The leaves on the plants are full and healthy this time of year, flaunting their color and vitality amidst dappled sunlight and shade, calling out to Hajime in the whispers of the tiny creatures he’s sure are out there, hidden in the corner of his eye and just out of reach. He pushes himself even harder.

 

By the time he’s reached the top, Hajime is worn out and forced to lean on his knees, basket tossed to the side. A few drops of sweat drip onto the ancient stones and even more trickle down the back of his neck and along his temples, but Hajime has made it. Ahead of him, the faded red torii still stands proud, the talismans strung across the gate hardly stirring with the faintest puff of breeze. The komainu guards seem to face their eternal snarl on Hajime, but the plants growing across their bodies tell him that they mean no harm to a worshipper. He acknowledges their silent vigil with a nod to each, and walks through to the shrine.

 

It’s no great chore after that to burn some incense and lay out the offering. Hajime claps his hands together and offers up a small prayer of protection over Nana in her old age and him as he wanders through the forest of the mountain god. Duty complete, a grin breaks out across Hajime's face and he snatches his bug-catching net from where it was secured across his back and flourishes it victoriously. Today was going to be the day he finally found one of those pesky hidden spirits, he was sure of it.

 

Hajime has no real rhyme or reason to his navigation of the mountain, a fact that shocked his parents and some of the younger villagers, but just made his Nana smile. If you are kind and respectful of the forest spirits, Nana always told him, then they will have no reason to lead you astray or otherwise cause you trouble. Hajime wasn’t exactly sure how carrying around a net was ‘respectful’ of the spirits, although he hadn’t gotten lost yet. Then again, he hadn’t found one of them either. He followed the path of least resistance as he scaled the mountain, wandering down clearer trails, avoiding spines and brambles, hopping over fallen logs or rocks only if they weren’t impossibly large.

 

His parents had always said it was odd, his fascination with the mountain. Often, Hajime appeared stoic or unapproachable to his classmates, even at such a young age, but when he was on the mountain, that feeling curled up tight inside his chest unfurled itself and allowed him to relax. On the mountain, there were no people, no cars, no buildings, no sign human life even existed. It was strangely comforting to Hajime, to be in a place where humans were only an afterthought, just the tiniest presence in such an unending forest, the least essential part of it. He liked that, too. Being part of nature, of something so much bigger and more powerful than him. Well, maybe it was just because he got tired of the foul-smelling air and rush of the city.

 

Either way, his openness and acceptance of the mountain had led him to make some great discoveries, each one quite unlike the rest. And whenever he tried to find one of those incredible places again, his efforts just ended up leading him in circles. He’d seen a broad meadow of pink wildflowers, so many and so thick he couldn’t see the green of their stalks. A pool of pure water so clear he could see every detail of its pebbly bottom and so clean he poured out his canteen just to bring some of the sweet mountain water back for Nana. A black elk, muscular and with horns as thick and complex as the brambles Hajime often times found himself troubled with, leading a herd of smaller brown deer across a stream.

 

Never once had he seen a god or forest spirit, though. Each time, he came prepared with a net to swipe one so that, if just for a moment, he could hold or talk to the mythical entity, just to prove to himself that they were real. But they never revealed themselves, if indeed they existed, despite his begging, his offerings of honey, and his searches into the deepest depths of the forest. He was so ready to see one, this time. This time he wouldn’t stop until he found one.

 

The path he walked on this time was one of beaten down grasses, an animal trail of some kind that had been worn into the mountainside by years of travel along the green road. Hajime could clearly see how the path winded up a bump in the mountain, cresting on a ridge that most likely would give a spectacular view of the valley between his mountain and the adjacent. Hajime tapped at trees occasionally as he walked, not paying too much attention to his surroundings, the heat dulling his sense of curiosity.

 

It was impossible to ignore the wild rustling to his left, though, growing from a faint shaking of vegetation to a wild thrashing and crashing, the thunk of some heavy body against a tree trunk. It was loud and sudden enough to make Hajime jump, nearly losing his footing and tumbling off the edge of the path. He clutched desperately at his net to steady himself, heart beating furiously and eyes darting. The crashing didn’t stop, now accompanied by a faint growling in some place far off from Hajime, but not that far. Not far enough to make him feel safe. He stood there, shaking slightly and paralyzed by fear for several minutes until the white noise faded from his ears and the panic stopped choking his throat.

 

The sound, whatever it was, wasn’t heading his way.

 

He should have continued following the path. No, actually, he should have turned around and tried to make his way back to the green shrine, although backtracking had always gotten him turned around and lost. At the very least, he should have followed the way lined up for him by the mountain instead of defying logic and the magic of such a place. But being just an elementary (almost middle) school boy—and an adventurous and brave one at that—Hajime turned from safety to the mystery that lay off the beaten path. It was dangerous and stupid and Hajime was so scared, but what if it was a god of the mountain? Was he really going to go his entire life wondering if it could have been one of the very spirits he had spent so many summers searching for?

 

Hajime had, very early on, established that he chose to live without regrets. All of his actions had purpose, whether it was hitting Sousuke from class 2-A or venturing onto ice covered rocks in the middle of a stream to get Mina-chan’s runaway scarf or wandering about a wild mountain with no adult to guide him. This choice was no different.

 

Hajime pushed through the prickles of the brambles, slipped and clawed his way up past a massive boulder, shoved his body, gasping and sweating, up towards the increasingly louder ruckus. He had finally made his way to flat ground when the rustling stopped. Panicked, Hajime whipped his head around, searching for the noise. Had it heard him? Was it trying to keep quiet? The path back was no doubt lost; his only choice was to go forward. Sighing and hunching his shoulders, Hajime pushed through some large, leafy branches of a plant in irritation. He had been so prepared to finally see a spirit, too.

 

Well, he thought he had been, at least.

 

The branches parted to reveal a small clearing shaded by trees in all except one patch where the sunlight pulsed through, lighting on snapped tree branches, a scattering of leaves, and—

 

And there, its whole body heaving with the effort of breathing, was Hajime's answer.

 

The forest god was both smaller and larger than Hajime had expected. Nana had always told Hajime of the tiny helpers and tricksters that hid in the backs of cupboards or inside the kettle; under the shade of mushrooms and curled in the petals of flowers, and in that regard, the god was much larger than Hajime had imagined. But at the same time, Hajime had thought dragons would have been big enough to destroy cities. And this dragon wasn’t much bigger than Hajime himself.

 

It was a beautiful white dragon, or it would have been, if its fur hadn’t been matted and covered in dirt and twigs from an apparent struggle. Its teal mane clung to an elegantly curved neck, sticky with the same sweat that made Hajime's hair cling to his forehead. Thick, dangerous talons set in large, five-toed paws were also dirtied with the earth, large gouges carved into the ground proving that something was wrong. But Hajime couldn’t break eye contact with it, couldn’t look away from the froth lining the black of its lips as it curled its muzzle into a snarl at him, baring shiny sharp teeth all the way to the pink of its gums.

 

Human eyes, Hajime thinks faintly. It has human eyes.

 

A deep growl ripples across the clearing, loud and clear enough for Hajime to feel the vibrations from its voice, a wind drawing up from nowhere and rushing at him, making his clothes and hat flutter. Oh, this was definitely a god. But what was that?

 

There was a fine, shimmering webbing draped over the dragon. It looked as delicate as a spider’s web, but the parts of it that dug into the dragon’s hide deep enough to draw blood told otherwise. Hajime puzzled at the webbing for a moment longer while the dragon growled a little louder. He twisted his hands around the pole of his net nervously, and then, glancing up at his own bug-catcher, it became obvious. The dragon was trapped in some kind of magical net.

 

What the hell was Hajime supposed to do? He couldn’t just leave the dragon to die—whoever set the trap and made the net was sure to come for their prize. And the wild struggle of the creature proved that it wasn’t for anything good. At the same time, this was a wild beast. It may have had human eyes, but it was a god and an animal; it could tear Hajime limb from limb in the blink of an eye should he offend it in some way.

 

But it obviously needed help. Hajime bites at his lip. Live with no regrets, right? He takes a hesitant step forward, trying to communicate his intent to help through their locked eyes. The dragon’s growl sharpens into a snarl at his second step, but Hajime holds strong. The violent gold-brown of its eyes flicker from Hajime’s to look up at his net. Ah. Was he frightening the beast with his own net? It wasn’t much in the way of a weapon and it certainly couldn’t contain the dragon, but Hajime figures that it looked threatening nonetheless. Carefully, he sets it to the side, still looking at the dragon. The snarl softens, but the dragon never stops its low growls, even as Hajime comes within a meter of its fallen body.

 

He’s in the danger zone now. A single heave of its body or the stretch of its claws could kill Hajime in an instant. And now that he was this close to the god, Hajime realized that he had no real plan to free it. A slight panic sets in his limbs and his eyes dart nervously over the still dragon. Maybe he could…try and pull the webbing apart? It didn’t look too tough.

 

He reaches towards the dragon and another snarl ripples from its throat, this time accompanied by a failed effort to snap at Hajime, the magical net preventing it from moving its head much. As if infuriated by this, the dragon begins to thrash around like it was before Hajime appeared, doing nothing to free itself but furthering the damage to its hide. It was going to kill itself in a mad struggle to be free.

 

“Calm down!” Hajime yells at the spirit. “I’m going to free you, just wait a second! Stop it, you’re only hurting yourself!” The spirit doesn’t heed his warning, movements becoming desperate and more frantic. Helplessly, Hajime leaps toward its body, to pull at the webbing or to try and still its body, he doesn’t know, because the moment his hands latch onto the sticky webbing, it blackens and disintegrates to dust between his fingers. Shocked, he stares at the black-grey dust scattering into the wind that had picked up with the flailing of the dragon.

 

Clearly, the beast had no idea what Hajime had just done (although he didn’t understand much himself). Whatever it was though, the touch of a human seemed to destroy the netting, and with that in mind, Hajime set about running his hands over as much of the webbing as possible, watching it grey and shrivel up with every brush. The dragon kicked a leg free, just missing Hajime, and at the feeling of unrestricted movement, the dragon curled and twisted its body towards the opening Hajime had created.

 

Before it could burst out and take Hajime down in its mad scramble for freedom, he created a hole big enough for its entire body, stumbling backwards just in time for the dragon to scrabble out of the net. The dragon set its eyes on him, and in the single space of a breath, the two regarded each other. But that moment passed with the dragon’s recognition of Hajime, and it rushed him, claws slashing at him body. Crying out at the pain, Hajime raised a hand to protect his face, but not before he saw the dragon’s body start to morph and shift into something smaller, something more familiar, and the slashes that fell upon his skin weren’t the gashes of talons, but cat scratches only drawing blood.

 

The growling of the dragon distorted into a kind of screeching as the dragon leapt over Hajime, pulling his hat off as it moved past him. “Hey!” Hajime yelled, clawing at his hat but failing to snatch it back. The wild screeching became more hysterical and Hajime realized that the dragon was laughing at him. He turned around, looking up to follow the sound of cruel laughter.

 

Up in the tree behind him, safely out of reach, stood a boy no older than Hajime himself. The only way Hajime would have even known that the boy was not human was the fact that he had failed to transform completely, fangs still protruding from his mouth and claws at his fingertips as he twirled the hat in his hand, popping it up to land squarely on the stubby horns that poked through his mess of twig-and-leaf-infested brown hair. He still had a tail, too, whipping back and forth excitedly as his eyes danced over Hajime, little tufts of fur or patches of scales lining his bare skin.

 

“The hell was that for?” Hajime growls, eyes narrowing. “I helped you escape that net, why’d you scratch me? And give me back my hat!”

 

The god just snickers and sticks his tongue out childishly at Hajime. “Nuh-uh! I totally had it! Didn’t you see me kick a hole in the net?”

 

What the— “That was me who freed you from the net! I touched it and it turned to dust in my hands!” Hajime yells at the boy, smoke practically pouring from his ears. What a little jerk! After I went through all that trouble to save him!

 

“Ha!” The god barks sharply at him. “Think you’re so special, little mortal, just ‘cause you got to see a forest spirit? Think again.” His gaze sharpens, becomes predatory, and Hajime feels a shiver of fear, remembering the power in the dragon’s body. “I’m gonna eat you up—if eating other spirits makes me more powerful, imagine what eating a human will do!” He runs his tongue over his fangs, and Hajime tenses. Gulps nervously.

 

“Y-You can’t eat me! I have the protection of the mountain god on my side!” He bluffs, remembering the prayer he had made to the god of the green shrine. It seems to work. The dragon boy halts, eyeing him suspiciously. His mouth curls into a snarl, crinkling his nose.

 

“Oikami is weak now. Everyone knows that,” he hisses. “They need to get their little minions to catch them food now. If it weren’t for their spiders and the webs they weave, Oikami would be long dead!” He’s completely transformed to a human now, and he hops back onto the ground, Hajime's hat fluttering to the side.

 

The dragon boy walks right up to Hajime, puffing up his chest. “I’m going to defeat them all on my own, so you better run, little human, or I’ll really eat you. For real.” But like this, to Hajime, he just looks like some playground bully, like the kind who used to pull on Mina-chan’s pigtails. And with all the dirt and scratches soiling his skin and ratty clothes, Hajime thinks he’d be better off walking to the nearest orphanage than picking a fight with the all-powerful god of the mountain.

 

Hajime crosses his arms, ignoring the spirit’s threats. “Well, even if one day you really do fight this ‘Oikami,’ don’t you think you have some apologies to make? How ungrateful to attack your savior and threaten to eat him! You didn’t even thank me for saving you! How’re you gonna be a great ruler if you don’t have manners?” Hajime snatches up his hat. “If you ask me, you’re just some wild brat who doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut or pay attention to the world around him. No wonder you got caught in some hunter’s net!”

 

The god glares at him. “No one asked you!” He snaps. “What would a mortal know anyway?”

 

Hajime glares right back at him. “You think you're so high and mighty with your ‘mortal this’ and ‘mortal that,’ but I know that you need manners to rule a kingdom! No one wants to listen to a ruler who’s a pain in the ass and rude to everyone.” Nana would kill me if she could hear theses curses, Hajime winces internally. But this bully deserves it.

 

“I don’t need your stinkin’ manners,” the dragon boy sniffs, turning his nose up at Hajime. “All I need is brute strength to defeat Oikami. Then I’ll be the one who gets all the nice offerings at the shrine and who can gobble up all the minor gods instead of being the one gobbled! I’ll have actual worshippers.” Hajime thinks he looks almost starry-eyed for a moment. “And I won’t allow myself to get fat and old and weak like this Oikami has—I’ll be the one that rules forever!”

 

Hajime scoffs. “I hope that Oikami eats you when you go to fight him. That’d teach you a lesson.” The dragon boy laughs.

 

“Ha! Like that’ll ever happen. Remember me well, human, when I’m the god of this mountain and you’re worshipping me—my name’s Tooru, and there’s no way I’m gonna die!” He puts his hands on his hips dramatically and nods to himself.

 

“There’s no way in hell I’m gonna worship you,” Hajime snorts, rolling his eyes. “And stop calling me ‘human’! I have a name, too, y’know!”

 

“Oh, really?” Tooru asks, raising an eyebrow. “Well, what is it?”

 

Hajime has almost got the first syllable of his name out when he remembers: never tell a forest spirit your name—knowing it gives them power over you. “…Iwaizumi,” he settles on instead.

 

The god grins at his near slip. “Well, Iwa-chan, I’d like to see you try and fight my power when I’m the supreme ruler of this mountain.”

 

“Never,” he asserts. “I’ll never bow down to you. I’d rather die and have the whole village go down with me than worship you.”

 

Tooru's bravado falters. He looks crestfallen, like he really believed he could scare Hajime into worshipping him. His eyes pool with tears and his lower lip wobbles, and suddenly, Tooru looks to Hajime less like a bully and more like the bullied Mina-chan herself. “But I don’t have a single believer yet…” Tooru sniffles. “If I don’t have believers, I won’t get any offerings, and if I don’t get any offerings, than the bigger gods will eat me or worse—I’ll disappear from this world completely.” A few tears drip down his face and he gives another wet sniff.

 

It’s a ploy, Hajime thinks. He just wants me to lower my guard so he can gobble me up himself. So he tells himself, but Tooru doesn’t look in any condition to eat anyone, let alone a human child the same size as him. His voice had shaken when he spoke, and those were genuine tears pouring from his eyes. Hajime groans internally, but he was never one who could walk away from a person in need, even if they were a stuck-up, rude dragon-child.

 

“Look,” Hajime begins, awkwardly. “I’ll never worship you, and I mean that. But I’ll become a believer in you so that you’ll never disappear. So please stop crying.”

 

Tooru takes in a deep, shaky breath and scrubs at his eyes. “Do you mean that? For real? Even after I was so mean to you?”

 

“Don’t remind me of that,” Hajime grumbles. “I won’t say it again.”

 

“Oh, thank you, thank you!” Tooru cries, flinging himself at Hajime, who falls over at the weight of the hug. “I promise I won’t ever try and eat you again!” Tooru declares, shedding a whole new batch of tears all over Hajime's shirt.

 

“You better not. And get off me! It’s way too hot for this.” He shoves Tooru off him, but the boy only smiles brightly at him, a line of snot still dripping from his nose.

 

“Gross,” Hajime mumbles. “Wipe your nose, idiot.” Tooru does, still practically bursting with light. Hajime finds it was much easier to look at him when he was trying to eat Hajime. Dragons are weird, he decides.

 

“My very first believer,” Tooru murmurs to himself, trailing Hajime as he grabs his net and turns to head back the way he came. “But how will you make sure you never forget me?”

 

Hajime thinks for a long moment. “…I’ll make up a song,” he decides, thinking back to Nana’s songs to her plants and the spirits that she claimed lived in her garden. Humming to himself, verses come to mind, and Hajime grins as he weaves together a little ditty about the dragon god:

 

Dragon boy, dragon boy running all around,

Watch out, watch out or you’re gonna fall down.

Sliding down a slope, slipping through the trees;

Watch out! Oikami’s coming and it’s you he’s gonna eat.

You better start to run for it and flee, Tooru, flee.

 

“Hey!” Tooru whines. “That’s not very nice! Iwa-chan, that’s rude!”

 

Hajime smiles at him, wide and beaming at his genius, for the first time since they’d met. “Takes one to know one, Tooru,” he laughs, running ahead of the spirit and chanting the verses over and over while Tooru squawked at the indignities.

 

--------------------------

 

When Hajime asks his grandmother about the mountain god who watches over the village, she is happy to tell him about the legend. At the time of the village’s birth, the elders at the time made a deal with the ancient mountain god, Oikami, that in exchange for providing her with a growing group of worshippers and daily offerings, she would protect them from the brunt of natural disasters and make the land fertile for crops. As the years went on, the tradition of worshipping the god continued, even when her title was passed to new spirits and the names of the founding elders were forgotten.

 

Nana doesn’t seem all that surprised when Hajime tells her that he found a spirit in the mountain forest, after all these years. She does seem surprised, however, when he tells her how he freed the god and got into a fight with him, ending in becoming…friends…with him.

 

She’s even more surprised when he says he’s going to meet up with him again tomorrow.

 

--------------------------

 

The best part about being friends with Tooru, Hajime finds, is that he knows all the coolest places to play.

 

It makes sense, considering that he has lived his entire life in the forest of the mountain, but he saves Hajime a lot of time hunting down adventures by bringing them directly to him. Hajime runs even faster to the shrine the next day, blowing past Hazaki-san and old woman Aiko without even looking back, to their amusement. The day’s no cooler, but still Hajime finds he has more energy than usual, taking the stairs three at a time. The cicadas buzz with excitement, their chorus no longer complaints at the heat but cheering for Hajime as he darts up the mountain. He finds Tooru waiting for him, in human form, making faces at the komainu, just out from under the shrine’s gate. He brightens when Hajime appears.

 

“I thought the guardians were supposed to protect humans from the forest spirits,” Hajime says, nodding at the komainu.

 

Tooru shrugs. “I don’t have a malicious purpose, so they have no reason to wake. Besides, these spirits have been asleep for centuries—I’m not sure they even know how to wake up at this point. Your village needs a new shrine.”

 

“It’s not my village,” Hajime corrects, laying down today’s basket and lighting the incense while Tooru watches, fascinated.

 

“What d’you mean? You live there, don’t you?” Tooru asks, eyeing up one of Nana’s tomatoes.

 

Hajime shakes his head. “No, I’m only visiting. My Nana—hey! Get your paws off of that! It’s for Oikami and you know it!”

 

Tooru drops it willingly, though, at Hajime's words. He cocks his head to the side. “You’ll be leaving?”

 

Hajime hesitates. “At the end of summer, yeah,” he says finally. “But I have plenty of weeks before I even need to start packing.” Tooru pouts anyway.

 

“You’re gonna forget about me,” he laments, sticking out his bottom lip. Hajime rolls his eyes.

 

“Nuh-uh. I made up that song about you, remember?” Tooru blinks and a small smile crawls back onto his face. He had forgotten about that. Even if it was a dumb song, at least Iwa-chan wouldn’t forget about him!

 

“C’mon then! I have to show you all the cool hideouts and places to play!” Tooru calls, bouncing towards the trees. “Enough of those offerings, come on.”

 

“Coming, I’m coming!” Hajime whistles Tooru's song as he follows the god, straying off the path he would have usually followed into the woods. Behind him, a bright blue butterfly lights on the roof of the shrine, its shimmering wings nearly reflecting the sunlight with each rapid beat.

 

At first, Hajime isn’t too good with the directions Tooru takes them in. It’s contrary to his instincts when traveling through the forest—they defy animal tracks and clearly beaten paths, favoring the raw undergrowth and wilderness of the untouched forest. Hajime tries to lead them astray, but each time, Tooru insists that he knows the right way. After the fifth or sixth are you sure we’re going the right way? Tooru sighs and stops them. Turning to Hajime, he orders him to stand completely still.

 

“This is gonna feel really weird,” he warns. “But I’m sick of you complaining so I’ll do it. You’ll thank me later.” He clamps his hands firmly down on Hajime's shoulders. Hajime glares at his hands, opening his mouth to complain, but as he looks back up at Tooru, Tooru swiftly delivers two licks of his tongue across Hajime's eyeballs.

 

“Eugh! What are you doing? That’s disgusting, ugh!” Hajime protests, scrubbing his eyes and backing away from the dragon boy.

 

“You’re welcome,” Tooru says drily. “That’s for saving me yesterday,” he adds under his breath, although Hajime hears him.

 

Hajime has no idea how this could possibly be a fair trade until he opens his eyes. Then, he has to gasp at what he sees.

 

All around him, it’s like the already vibrant forest has taken on new life. Every color has twenty new shades, every edge of every leaf is so much more vivid, and to Hajime, it’s like a cloud over his eyes has been removed. He can see them, finally, the tiny spirits hiding behind leaves or crawling along a branch or even floating through the air—all eyeing him curiously, as if to wonder what a silly little human was doing on their mountain. The spirits come in all shapes and sizes; some look like plants, others like animals, and some are amorphous or intangible, but all acknowledge his existence, either with looks of curiosity or by giving him a wide berth as they pass him. And, humorously enough, he can see the path Tooru was leading him down.

 

(Later on, his parents will say that Hajime had always had green eyes, although they never remembered them being that vivid. He’ll blink uncomprehendingly at them and then gasp in the mirror as his eyes reflect all the colors of that mountain—Tooru's mountain, as it had become to him. And every time he looked in a mirror or heard the giggles of girls who blushed as they looked at his unusual eyes, he would think of dragon boy with dirt-covered hands and a smile brighter than the sunlight that had touched the fallen leaves in the clearing where they met.

 

Well, Nana said to his parents, the fresh air and sunlight did change a person.)

 

“This is amazing, Tooru,” Hajime said as an inchworm-like spirit floated past his nose. Looking back at the wrong turn he’d tried to take them down, he frowns. “But why did the forest lead me down such a path if it’s not the right one?”

 

Tooru shrugs. “The mountain is kind to those who possess a kindly spirit or are familiar to it. You have never meant this place harm, and it remembers you from past visits, so you were taken to nice places that didn’t interfere with the lives of the forest spirits. And in turn, they never bothered you. If you had been a bad person, they surely have led you astray and you would have never made it off this mountain unscathed.”

 

Hajime eyes the path they’re taking now. “So where are we going if not a place safe for humans?”

 

At that, Tooru gives him a cheeky grin. “We’re going somewhere only spirits and gods know how to get to. Chin up, Iwa-chan—you’re the first human who’s going to see any of this.” This time, Hajime trusts him to take the lead, consumed with taking in all the new elements of the forest that he could see, from the stirrings of the plants at the slightest breeze to the insects crawling along the wood of the trees to the herd of eight-legged deer in the distance, their leader a magnificent bull with intricate and heavy horns from which moss and flowers grew. His ears flick towards Hajime, unthreatened, and he makes a snuffling noise, the breath expelled from his nostrils filled with golden pollen.

 

While Hajime gapes at the clearly very ancient spirit, Tooru rolls his eyes far back into his head and strides back to where he had left Hajime in the dust, wrapping his hand around Hajime's wrist and tugging insistently. “Come on.”

 

Hajime allows himself to be dragged away, but he doesn’t stop looking around at their surroundings with awe, tripping over exposed tree roots or small plants in the way of his feet. Nor does Tooru release his hold on Hajime's wrist, although he loosens his grip to a gentle hold, only tugging when Hajime pauses for too long or tightening when he trips, throwing out his other hand to steady his clumsier companion.

 

The path, even visible to Hajime's eyes, seems to have no rhyme or reason. It bends and twists in on itself, leaping over hills and trudging through streams to the point where Hajime's not too sure the path isn’t a god in itself, with all the maddening changes in direction. When he mentions this to Tooru, he only gets a knowing smile in response. It takes slipping on a boulder, nearly soaking himself through with freezing mountain water before Hajime wants to give up. Whatever the place Tooru insists on showing him, it can’t be worth this misery. “Isn’t there somewhere else we can go?” he grouses, annoyed.

 

“Do you want to go back?” Tooru asks him, but there’s a curious tone to his voice, too serious to be normal. When Hajime finishes straightening out his clothes and actually looks at Tooru, he nearly jumps in surprise. Tooru's eyes are something feral and intense, eyeing Hajime in the same way he did when he sounded so sure that he would consume the boy. It’s like a test. Tooru is testing him.

 

Hajime snorts. “If this surprise sucks after all this effort, I’m going to sock you in the jaw.” He storms past Tooru, determined. Like hell he was gonna be outdone by some cheeky brat!

 

“Now you’re getting it,” Tooru laughs, and then runs past him, shifting so quickly that Hajime barely registers the change from two legs, to four, to flying as Tooru leaps into the air, his long dragon body curling and weaving as he takes to the skies. Below, Hajime runs to keep up with him, yelling at the dragon boy, but then he feels a change. It’s like passing through a wall of water—something clear and thick brushes past his skin and then he’s free, but he’s not wet at all once he passes through the barrier.

 

Confused, Hajime stumbles to a stop, looking behind him. It doesn’t look like there was a wall of some kind, but he does notice the trail they were following, a kind of shimmering light without a sun to glow on the grasses, slip away, like a snake sliding through the grass. So it really had been—?

 

“Well! You passed the test, Iwa-chan!” Tooru bounds up behind him, human again. At Hajime's confused look, he grins. “You can only pass through the barrier if you really want to. And only spirits and humans that have passed through it before can find it, so I needed to guide you a little. But now you’re safely in the spirit world!”

 

Hajime wouldn’t say he was safe in the spirit world, per se, given the legends and old wives’ tales about children being dragged away, never to return from such a place, but now that he looked at an angle, he could see the translucent barrier rippling and reflecting in the sunlight, stretching as high and far as his eyes could fathom. There was a way home, at least.

 

“Can’t say it looks much different from the outside world,” Hajime observes.

 

Tooru's grin widens. “You haven’t seen anything yet,” he murmurs, excited. Hajime follows his lead to a massive tree just over the hill. As they get closer, Hajime realizes that the ‘top’ of the tree is really not a top at all—it’s just the place where cloud cover conceals its branches and leaves and trunk. By the time they’re at the foot of the tree, Hajime's eyes are wide as saucers.

 

“You could fit Nana’s entire village in the trunk,” he whispers.

 

Tooru nods. “Yup! This tree’s been here since before the first Oikami came to this mountain. It draws magic from the soil as well as nutrients, so it’s impossibly tall and strong. I’ve tried flying to the very top, but,” Tooru shrugs. “I don’t think it’s possible. In time, other trees should grow this big as well, but that won’t be in either of our lifetimes.”

 

He reaches for a twig the size of Nana’s roof and hauls himself up on it. “Follow me. It’s going to take a while to climb to a good vantage point.” Hajime's expression gives him pause. “What?”

 

Hajime touches the smooth, weatherworn wood of the trunk. He’s unbearably nervous—he’s never done well with heights. It’s much nicer to be safe on the ground, in Hajime's opinion. “I’m not so sure about this. What if I fall?”

 

Tooru waves a hand dismissively. “That’s not a problem. If you believe you won’t fall, you won’t, simple as that. The tree won’t let you.” Hajime gives him a look. “Trust me,” Tooru entreats him, doing a fantastic job of looking simultaneously like a puppy begging and as trustworthy as the ground Hajime was standing on. Hajime gives in with a sigh.

 

Together, they work their way up from twigs to branches wider than highways and leaves that Hajime could build a house on. Thankfully, there’s some shade from the sun with the size and spread of the tree’s appendages, and Tooru is right—it’s fun and Hajime's not as afraid. Each time his foot slips, either Tooru is there to snap his arm down and catch Hajime's hand, or his foot finds a knot or a splinter from the bark that hadn’t been there before, and he rights himself. The first few times are disorienting and he has to pause to catch his breath and still his heartbeat, but after a while Hajime realizes that the tree really won’t let him fall, and he forgets his fear.

 

Hajime races Tooru up the tree, swinging and climbing with reckless abandon. He whoops and hollers as loud as his lungs will allow him, feeling freer than even marching through the mountainside. A breath or two beside him, Tooru too has taken to yelling, although his screams edge towards roars and echo down into the rapidly shrinking forest below them. Hajime doesn’t even think much but of climbing, climbing, climbing until Tooru stops him with a hand to the shoulder.

 

“This is it,” he whispers. “This is what I wanted to show you.” Hajime doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand, until Tooru leads him out along a leaf and gestures to the entire valley below.

 

It’s about that time that Hajime realizes how high they are above the rest of the world, so high in fact, that the birds circling the treetops aren’t much more than specks below him and Tooru. He fells intense vertigo for a moment until he actually looks around, and notices what an incredible vantage point it is.

 

All around them, Hajime sees forests and mountains he never knew existed, shielded by the cloak of the spirit world, some so tall that they still had snow caps and trees topped in white. There are waterfalls, a massive lake, and trees that stand above the forests, like the one he and Tooru are in, but not nearly as tall. The valley teems with life—each breath Hajime takes is charged with energy. Spiritual, magical, wild…he doesn’t know and he doesn’t care. All Hajime knows is that this is the most beautiful place he’s ever seen. And above a particularly dense forest, a massive white dragon curls and twists itself in the sky, hovering as if to guard the forest beneath like a sacred treasure.

 

“That’s my home,” Tooru says, noticing the way Hajime's eyes stick to the dragon circling. “Seijou, also called Aoba Johsai after the protective spirit that guards our forest and mountain,” he explains, nodding at the dragon. “It’s not an actual god, like I am, but an eternal guardian of the land, territorial and non-sentient, like the komainu that guard your shrine. Except, it’s protecting our lands from other spirits. Some day I’d like to take you there.”

 

“Tooru…this is…” Hajime can’t find the words all of a sudden. “I can’t believe I never knew this place existed. How can something so beautiful exist right under our noses?”

 

Tooru shrugs. “It’s so beautiful because we keep it hidden from humans—no offense intended, of course, but humans have a way of ruining beautiful things.” It’s a fair accusation. Hajime thinks of the stink and rot of Tokyo and frowns. If that happened to a place like this…

 

“I’m glad you showed me this,” Hajime whispers. “I know it means a lot to you, and to think you’d trust me enough to let me see your home…”

 

“Hey, don’t go getting sentimental on me!” Tooru panics, blushing. “I’m the one who’s supposed to get emotional, not you.” Hajime punches him in the arm.

 

“I’m not getting emotional! It’s just so amazing, I have to—” Hajime sniffles, and Tooru politely looks away as he scrubs his eyes.

 

“I’ll point out all the cool things to see and do, okay?” Tooru offers, and Hajime accepts. Tooru shuffles closer to him, and they spend the rest of the day like that, shoulders brushing and Tooru's hair tickling Hajime's nose when he leans across him to point out some neat hiding place he found, or an interesting rock that makes different songs depending on where you hit it. He shows Hajime where he was born, where the migrating spirits gather when it starts to get too cold, and Oikami’s mountain domain, a rocky and barren mountainside.

 

Hajime listens and drinks it all in, committing to memory everything Tooru says until the sun begins to sink below the snowcaps and Hajime's eyelids drift down with it. When he slumps bonelessly against Tooru, fast asleep, Tooru isn’t even surprised. He sighs and rolls his eyes fondly, but doesn’t disturb his sleeping companion.

 

“You’re lucky I’m feeling so nostalgic or I definitely would have tugged your ear or poked your cheek until you woke up,” Tooru tells an unconscious Hajime. “You’re lucky I haven’t had a friend to share all this with, or I surely would have pushed you off this leaf or abandoned you in the spirit world.” Even to his own ears, the threat sounds hollow.

 

“Gross,” he says, wrinkling his nose at Hajime. “Humans smell funny and they’re awkward and loud. They don’t know a thing about being careful and they’re really stupid and easy to trick. It’d be so much easier to just eat them all.” Tooru opens his jaws wide, fangs exposed. His teeth light on Hajime's soft jawbone and against his spiky hair, but Tooru can’t bring himself to bite down. He turns away after a moment, snorting.

 

“Whatever, you live this time, Iwa-chan. Be grateful.” Hajime snores softly. Tooru's eyes soften despite himself. “Come on, wake up already. There’s no way I can carry you down, you know. I’m not nearly big enough to take your weight on my back—not that I would ever consider letting a human ride me like an animal. My arms aren’t strong enough to lift you, and my claws would definitely scratch you to pieces. So wake up.”

 

When Hajime wakes, it is dark out and he is lying safely on the soft forest floor, Tooru off to the side tearing at plants with bare feet tipped in what were definitely not human nails. Confused, Hajime glances back up at the tree. How had they gotten down? He stands up, brushes dirt off himself, and asks Tooru the question.

 

Tooru jumps, speaking too quickly and making up some story about how the leaf detached from the tree and slowly floated back to the ground with them on it and what do you mean you don’t believe me, it’s magic, you hear me, magic! When asked where this ‘magical leaf’ was, Tooru stuttered fiercely and blushed even fiercer, spitting out a story about how it was eaten by some forest spirits while Hajime was sleeping. Hajime doesn’t mind the tall tale, really. He doesn’t actually care how he got back to safety, it’s just enjoyable to mess with Tooru's composure.

 

They walk back to the barrier in silence, led by will-o-wisps fluttering around in lines that curved not unlike the ‘snake’ that had led them to the barrier in the first place. “I thought will-o-wisps only ever led travelers astray,” Hajime mutters mostly to himself.

 

“They like you,” Tooru says, not adding that it’s probably because he is so comfortable around Hajime. “There are tons of human stories about the horrors of spirits and all the terrible things they do, but they never attack or mislead without being incited first. And those who walk safely among the spirits don’t usually feel like bragging about it.”

 

Hajime can understand that. He has no intention of telling anyone but his Nana about these escapades with Tooru, not even his parents (not that they’d believe him anyway). He’s surprised by how fast they make it to the green shrine once they pass through the barrier, but he doesn’t ask about it. The answer is obvious: magic.

 

He bids Tooru farewell there, will-o-wisps not venturing much farther than to the torii. It’s probably unsafe for Tooru to go much further either, Hajime figures. They part with whispered promises of meeting the next day, and Hajime wonders if there was ever a time in his life when he had felt more happy and satisfied. He comes up blank.

 

------------------------------

 

They meet the next day. And the next. And the day after that. Hajime's time at his grandmother’s becomes a blur of one day with Tooru to the next, to the point Nana sincerely wonders if he might be spirited away into the wild by the god who had taken quite a liking to her grandson. And each time, Hajime assures her that he knows the way home by now, and that if it really came down to it, he could probably knock out Tooru if he got a good hit in.

 

At that, she can only smile, because what child doesn’t love to go on adventures? No one had been stolen from their village in all their years under Oikami, and she doubted that her wild-hearted grandson would be snatched so easily. She was more afraid that he would choose to stay on his own. In the weeks that followed, she was sure to make especially nice offerings to the mountain god, praying for Hajime's safe return each night.

 

Hajime knew that she needn’t fear, though. Tooru wasn’t any kind of malevolent spirit, although he had acted like one at first (“All bark and no bite,” Hajime had laughed at him once, when Tooru growled at him, baring all his shiny fangs. An impromptu wrestling match had ensued shortly after, but Hajime wasn’t harmed, further proving his point.) Tooru was just lonely. All the smaller spirits were terrified of him, probably because he kept trying to eat them, but when Hajime was around, they seemed to calm and come out of hiding, more curious of Hajime's presence than fearful of Tooru's.

 

At first, Tooru only showed him where to find them—in the hollows of trees, under logs and the thin blades of grasses. Those spirits were small and jelly-like, oozing around Hajime's curious fingers and floating through the air, always just out of reach. Careful you don’t inhale one by accident, Tooru warned. They’re harmless until they get into your system. Human bodies are the perfect incubators for tiny spirits, and they’ll wreak havoc on your insides. Hajime was more careful after that, but he still liked to see them form groups and dance away to a new hiding place, like synchronized swimmers through the air or across the plants to a new home.

 

Some of the larger ones took the shape of animals, and these ones were the braver kind. They were too animalistic to communicate with Hajime, but intelligent enough to know he didn’t mean them harm. A dove that changed color based on mood lighted on his shoulder. A teleporting snake played hide-and-seek with him. A cat with a tail made completely of fire brushed against his legs. If they got too close, tried to draw Hajime too far into their games or touches, Tooru snapped his teeth at them, scaring them off and breaking the spell. But the more often that it happened, the easier it was for Hajime to shake off the spell on his own by sensing their call, whether it be a physical touch or an organic noise.

 

(He was a frighteningly fast learner, Tooru thought but did not say aloud.)

 

Their last week together, Tooru taught Hajime how to talk to them. It wasn’t about speaking words loudly or clearly, Hajime found. He could yell or call all day and he wouldn’t draw a single spirit to his side. It was about intent. Spirits in particular were drawn to thoughtful humming or whistling, even soft singing. Music was the only human sound that didn’t scare them away, but rather, made them excited and playful. Of course, the music had to be kind and from the heart, otherwise they would sense the maliciousness or roughness behind it and quake in fear in their hiding places, the rustling disturbing the gods of the forest, who then led the humans astray and to their downfall.

 

But when a human sang or created music in a soft, respectful way, the curiosity of the spirits drew the gods out of hiding, made them watch with caution but also an open-mindedness to the intruder. It was then that a soft talking or whispering, not to any god in particular but to the forest as a whole, could draw out a god willing to engage the human—usually just a small one, but occasionally the more powerful gods who might talk to and take a liking to a human.

 

It was a cycle, Tooru explained. All the creatures on the mountain relied on each other for survival. From the plants and animals that nourished the higher beings, to the spirits that acted as an alert system to the gods, who acted as protection for the forest and all its inhabitants. Humans didn’t really have a place in the cycle, but they weaseled their way in nonetheless, either absorbed by it or eradicated by it. All except Hajime, who still walked the line, observing but not a part of the system, an intruder but not a danger.

 

Hajime couldn’t argue that he didn’t belong there. His knowledge of the world came only from Tooru and legends, not all of which could be trusted. And yet…there was still so much more he wanted to know and learn of the mountain, he thought, turning his hand over as a mouse-sized, three-legged spirit crawled over it slowly, its singular eye darting around, suspended in its jelly body. As it moved, it made a pleasant whistling sound, which Hajime returned occasionally with some soft humming.

 

“It likes you, too,” Tooru said despairingly. “Why do they all like you?”

 

Hajime shrugs, eyes not straying from the creature. “Maybe because I’m less obnoxious and loud compared to you,” he suggests, only half-joking.

 

“Ha ha, very funny,” Tooru grouses, flopping down on the forest floor next to Hajime and pouting. It was amusing, Hajime thought, how he got jealous over such a small thing. Like he wasn’t the one showing Hajime all these amazing things in the first place. Like Hajime would replace him with the tiny spirits that whistled and chimed.

 

“You’re…leaving, tomorrow, aren’t you?” Tooru asks, more serious this time. “This is our last day together.”

 

Hajime looks up at that. “I’ll come up to say goodbye in the morning, I promise.” Tooru is still pouting. “C’mon. If you sit like that all day you’ll ruin our last day together. Let’s go back to the tree.”

 

Tooru brightens at that. They leave the spirits behind and make for the impossibly tall tree, racing to the top when they get there, this time with no hesitation on Hajime's part. It’s not even noon by the time they reach their old vantage point, collapsing and panting on the smooth surface of the leaf. (Tooru wins, but Hajime accuses him of transforming in order to win, which is, fair enough.)

 

The dragon’s still circling, although this time it pauses to rest on the treetops, draping its impossibly long body over the leaves like a fog. It exhales, and those really are low-hanging clouds pouring from its nostrils and clinging to the trees around it. Hajime laughs. It looks like a big, sleepy dog to him.

 

“It’s tired,” Tooru observes. “Flying is hard work, even if you’re not a tangible entity. There’ll be fog over Seijou for a few hours while it rests up. Great time to play, when the visibility is so low. All the young spirits will be running about, and the older ones will come out to lie on rocks and breathe in the ancient one’s breath. It’s supposed to contain wisdom, but it just tastes like humidity to me.”

 

Tooru leans his head on Hajime's shoulder. “I wish you could stay and see it all,” he mumbles softly. “I’m gonna be lonely again.”

 

Hajime elbows him, but much more gently than usual. “That’s not true. Treat the other spirits and gods well and they’ll play with you, I’m sure. They’re not as afraid as they used to be, since you’ve been so benevolent.” Tooru sticks out his tongue in annoyance.

 

“They’re boring. I wanna talk to you and play with you,” he whines. “Humans are so much more interesting.”

 

“I wanna stay, too,” Hajime admits. “School is fun and I love playing volleyball with my friends, but this is even cooler. There’s so much more I need to learn about your world—I’ve barely scratched the surface. But I can’t stay.”

 

Tooru sighs deeply, and Hajime flops his head against Tooru's in return.

 

---------------------------------

 

The morning of his return, Tooru shows his true colors and bawls.

 

It’s a sloppy affair. There’s snot and tears all over Hajime's clothes, as well as an inconsolable, screaming and crying mess of dragon and boy. Tooru can’t even hold his transformation together, the pads of his hands turning hard and scaly, his hair growing down his back and turning an inhuman sea-green. His tail wraps around Hajime's leg and Hajime can only sigh. He should have seen this coming.

 

“I promise, Tooru. I won’t forget you. How could I?” He mutters the last part. Tooru's wailing only increases at the consolation, though.

 

“Don’ believe you,” he sniffles. “I don’t even know when you’re comin’ back!”

 

“Soon enough,” Hajime grumbles, running his hands through the hair that feels more like an animal’s mane than a normal head of hair. “Time flies when you’re immortal, don’t worry about it.”

 

“Too long,” Tooru whimpers, clutching at Hajime's shirt. “Still too long.”

 

“I have the song. I can’t forget you,” Hajime points out.

 

Tooru eyes him sharply. “Promise. Promise you won’t forget about me.”

 

Hajime rolls his eyes, but in favor of promising, he just sings, “Dragon boy, dragon boy running all around; watch out, watch out or you’re gonna fall down. Sliding down a slope, slipping through the trees…”

 

Tooru crinkles his nose predictably in response, and Hajime laughs mid-verse. “See? I’ll sing this song all the time.”

 

It’s that comfort that allows Tooru to let him go, transforming back into a human so that he can give Hajime a proper hug. Hajime pats his back somewhat awkwardly, but returns the hug. Tooru lets him go and shoves his back gently, urging him on his way with a wavering smile. Hajime waves once, then turns and walks back down the steps. When he glances back, just once, he doesn’t see a boy but a dragon, huffing a breath at him and then turning away, making his way back into the forest.

 

It’s only when he’s strapped into his parents’ car that Hajime realizes he never made Tooru promise not to forget him, too.

 

----------------------------------

 

“Oi, Iwaizumi.”

 

Hajime looks up from his stretching, composing his face into a blank expression, raising an eyebrow. His summoner is Hanamaki, a tall wing spiker with a good poker face. He can jump well, although his technique isn’t superb, but it’s his even temper that sets Hajime a little on edge. He never knows what that guy is thinking, even though they’re in the same class. Best to play it safe, especially since he’s attracted the attention of the other first-years, particularly the clever middle blocker, Matsukawa.

 

“Can I help you?” Hajime asks evenly.

 

Hanamaki cocks his head. “What’s that song you’re always humming? Seems pretty catchy.” Hajime ascertains from his tone and expression that this probably isn’t a taunt that he was put up to; he seems genuinely curious. The other first-years aren’t even trying to hide their interest anymore, and Hajime looks hard at them. They make as if to shrink away, but he beckons them over with a nod.

 

“It’s not anything special,” Hajime replies gruffly. “Just a short song about the mountain god and the…trickster god of my grandmother’s village. I sing it to keep the village and Nana close to my heart, but I’m also fond of the legend.”

 

He’s garnered some curiosity, mostly because the kids have hardly stepped foot outside of Tokyo except for visiting family or to away matches, and even fewer have been deep into the mountains, like Hajime. At Hanamaki’s prompting, he tells them the ‘legend’ from Nana’s village—the story of how Tooru wants to become the master of the mountain. Surprisingly, it’s Matsukawa who quietly requests that Hajime teach them the song.

 

He acquiesces, still confused why any of them would care to know it, but glad that the ice between the first-years has been broken. He’d worried that junior high would be tough to find friends, but the volleyball team takes a liking to each other, and he starts off with a strong base of companions. For the rest of the year, he hears snatches of his chant—an Oikami’s coming and it’s you he’s gonna eat in the locker room before practice, a whispered dragon boy, dragon boy under another’s breath while throwing a volleyball in for a player—hums and whistles, too, keep the song and memories fresh in Hajime's mind.

 

But the last verse, the one that mentions Tooru's name, he keeps to himself and only hums in solitude, the secret of a friend whose face blurs and slips away with time, but feelings of warmth and happiness around never fade.

 

-----------------------------------

 

The summer before his second year of high school, Hajime returns to the village.

 

His first thought is not of Tooru. He’d grown occupied with his studies, started taking school seriously at his parents’ insistence, and earned promising grades. Even more important to him, he’d been elected team captain of his junior high volleyball team and became engrossed in the sport. It was a passion and love that consumed his mind and body whenever he wasn’t studying. It was fun though—playing volleyball with his teammates and having group study sessions when they weren’t. It wasn’t that Hajime didn’t miss the mountain; it was more that it wasn’t at the forefront of his mind anymore.

 

Instead, his first thought is of how nothing has changed. It’s not a bitter thought by any means—it’s a nostalgic one. Hajime remembers each raggedy building and patched together home (not houses but homes, built on family tradition and a habit of welcoming strangers inside, even in the modern day and age). He’s grown taller, too, significantly. Things that towered over him when he was younger now stand in his shadow. Nana doesn’t look a day older than she did when he left her last, and she still pulls him into her arms with enthusiasm, thanking his mother and father for lending her some muscle for the summer. All four of them laugh.

 

Still, it’s hot as hell in the village as always, although there’s a breeze that cuts the heavy-hanging heat and making it bearable. Hazaki-san is moving about, spry as ever, and it seems there’s more life in the village than before. Hajime likes that. A place as beautiful as this shouldn’t be dead. If he were more sentimental and poetic, Hajime might say that the breeze and the cicadas were welcoming him back, but instead he smiles at the thought and hails Hazaki-san, asking if he could possibly get a part-time job at the general store for a few months.

 

Nature may not have recognized Hajime's return, but the people have. Everyone wants to stop him and tell him how handsome he’s getting, how much taller he is, how strong his arms are and oh, would you mind lifting this box for me? My back’s been killing me lately, there’s a dear, thank you so much, would you bring this to your grandmother as thanks? Hajime doesn’t mind it. He likes being helpful, likes making himself useful. Sitting still was never an option for him when he was younger, and that habit of keeping in motion has only grown with him.

 

Nana’s home is as much of a botanist’s shop as her botanist’s shop is a home. It’s very hard to distinguish the two, and not just because they’re in the same building. Hajime's bedroom is the pull-out couch in the living room, and he has to war with creeping vines on the windowsill and foreign fruits on the coffee table to pull his bed out. It’s shorter than he remembers, but if he sleeps at an angle, he’s okay. There’s bonsai in the kitchen and medicinal herbs in the bathroom and watering cans of all shapes and sizes, some bought and some handmade. Downstairs is the actual shop, although some cozy chairs and blankets have migrated south for when Nana doesn’t feel like walking upstairs for her afternoon nap or a customer needs to rest their feet.

 

It’s funny—the village is nothing like the city where Hajime lives and the updated, modern apartment that he calls home, but somehow, this rickety, plant-infested flower shop is more of a home than Tokyo ever was.

 

It occurs to him, three days into his visit, as he’s helping with the watering and natural fertilizer, that he hasn’t seen that one god in the forest since he’d last been to the village. The thought is so sudden and surprising, he ends up nearly drowning a plant in water while spacing out, much to Nana’s horror.

 

“What on earth had you so consumed?” She tuts after the fact, dabbing a towel at the water on the counter. “Never seen a boy so far gone into his own head in my life.”

 

“I’m really sorry,” Hajime winces. “I just remembered that lonely god I found on the mountain all those years ago. I haven’t thought of him in some time, and I was wondering how he’s doing.”

 

Nana raises an eyebrow, but there’s a brightness to her eyes. “Didn’t forget about him or pass him off as a dream or imaginary friend? I’m impressed, Hajime.”

 

Hajime laughs. “How could I forget him? He was insufferable and he tried to eat me when we first met.”

 

Nana shrugs good-naturedly, pretending to think very little of the situation. “Oh, but I know most boys your age would be consumed with sports or girls and thinking very little about the natural world, let alone believe in a spiritual world. Can’t blame me for thinking you’d up and forget that Tooru.”

 

“I am consumed with volleyball,” Hajime replies wryly. “And Tooru sometimes appeared to me as a girl, although most times he was a male. Depended on what we were doing, mostly, how he appeared.”

 

“Bah, stop trying to make me think ill of my grandson,” Nana scolded him teasingly. “All the other women in the village are jealous of me, you know. They all wish their sons and grandsons were half as helpful as you are.”

 

Hajime ducks his head and goes back to tending to the plants. “How about I take up the offering tomorrow morning? I don’t have work with Hazaki-san that morning. Maybe I’ll look for Tooru.”

 

“I’ll send something special with you, then, and pray to the mountain god that you find each other,” Nana agrees. “Wouldn’t that be something! Meeting up with an old and powerful friend you met as a child.”

 

Perhaps it would be, but as Hajime makes his way to the foot of the mountain, he thinks Tooru has surely forgotten about him by now. After all, Tooru didn’t have any way of remembering him, and he hadn’t made any promises to never forget Hajime. It would be quite the miracle if Hajime came across the dragon boy, but although he did believe in magic and spirits, Hajime still can’t quite accept the existence of miracles.

 

That didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy his time in the mountains, though. He still had the sight Tooru had given him, still knew how to find the spirit world, and he still knew how to communicate with the spirits of the mountain forest. How had Tooru made him sing, again? Ah, that’s right. Soft humming to start, make the spirits curious.

 

Hajime hums his song softly under his breath as he climbs the stairs, taking them one at a time with the occasional hop in time to the rhythm of his own creation. The basket in his hand sways with his slight dancing, and Hajime almost closes his eyes, taking in the summer heat and the relief of shade. A sound of bells or maybe the rushing of stream greets his ears, soft at first, but growing louder. When he opens his eyes fully, he sees them, dancing at his feet. Hajime laughs and then starts to actually sing, the tendrils and tiny paws of the spirits waving music. They form a line behind him, beside him, and ahead of Hajime, some of the minor gods of the mountain are looking at him from the trees or poking their heads out of bushes to observe the strange antics of the human.

 

It’s a peaceful and welcoming scene, Hajime thinks. It’s sudden, but he realizes he’s missed this, even with the joys of volleyball taking over his life. It was good to be back outdoors again. He holds his hand out to a tree and coaxes a gecko made completely of shadow to climb from the bark onto his hand, scurrying over his skin for a moment before skittering back to the tree. It’s the first contact Hajime needs to be surrounded by the creatures. Four- and six-legged gods creep closer, unafraid, and the spirits dance over Hajime's feet, a few daring to climb up his leg. Hajime is halfway to convincing the flame-tailed cat to walk within stroking range when he hears a ferocious and ear-splitting roar.

 

“WHO DARES TO DEFAME MY NAME IN THIS FOREST?!

 

The roar is coupled with the sound of trees being toppled one after another as the owner of the voice rapidly approaches Hajime. The gods, so calm before, scrabble away at full speed before Hajime can even ask them what’s wrong. The spirits’ slow movements turn to blurs as they fly from the staircase, back to the safety of their homes and begin to rattle and shake uncontrollably, like Tooru had told him they did when afraid or threatened. Hajime, on the other hand, is frozen in fear, unsure of where to run or hide.

 

It’s too late to act, though, as the trees ahead of him collapse onto the stairs in a whirlwind of splinters and dust. Hajime's not sure of he hears the ancient stones crack or not, but he has the fleeting thought that it’s going to be hell for Nana to make her way up to the green shrine from now on. The thought vanishes, replaced by Hajime's fear for his own life, but as the dust settles, the owner of the booming voice is revealed, and all the fear melts from Hajime's body as quickly as it paralyzed him. He should have known.

 

Standing before him, is not the tiny scrap of a minor god he had met in a forest clearing all those years ago. This dragon is nearly full-grown—the size of a school bus, massive paws with even more lethally sharp claws, a long teal mane running down the length of his body, clean and well-kept, rippling in the air even without wind. He’s just as angry as the first time they met, possibly more so. There’s foam at the edge of his mouth, long snout pulled into a vicious snarl, fangs clenched together. He’s ridiculously handsome for a beast, Hajime thinks, admiring the way his horns have grown in long and ivory and his whiskers are now long enough to curl up.

 

Hajime would know Tooru when he saw him no matter how old he got, but it’s clear Tooru doesn’t remember him. Not that Hajime can completely blame him; he’s no longer the scrawny, baby-faced kid that played in the woods every summer, he’s grown up too. Hajime puts a hand on his hip and raises an eyebrow, the side of his mouth quirking into a grin. This would be an interesting encounter.

 

“Who are you, that you would dare soil my name and trespass on my territory?” Tooru demands in a voice too deep for Hajime to reconcile it with the screechy infant he had known. “Speak now, intruder, and perhaps I will have mercy on you.”

 

“I didn’t know you ran the mountain now, Tooru,” Hajime says easily. “Have you already defeated Oikami in my absence?”

 

“What,” Tooru hisses, and Hajime can’t tell if he’s more shocked and angry that Hajime knows his name or that he mentioned Oikami. “How dare you—”

 

“I also didn’t know the mountain god’s territory extended as far down as to the green shrine. You know, the place protected from malicious spirits,” Hajime interrupts, grin fading. “What the hell are you doing, Tooru?”

 

Tooru roars at him again, incensed, and wow even though he knew the god, Hajime still felt the rush of fear flood his veins at being so close to the sound. Tooru lunged at him, halting right before Hajime, towering over him. Hajime still refuses to budge. There’s something that’s eating at him: the way the other gods fled so quickly despite Tooru being a minor god like them, the way the spirits shook as if Tooru would hurt them, the aggression and the power Tooru had, it all added up to something Hajime had a sinking feeling he wouldn’t like.

 

“Why are all the other spirits of this mountain afraid of you?” he asks, voice dead serious. Tooru snarls and makes as if to headbutt Hajime, but Hajime meets him head on, locking their foreheads together as they glared at each other.

 

(It was strange, though. A creature as powerful as Tooru should have been able to knock Hajime over with just the smallest flick of his muzzle, and yet. And yet they stood as equals, unable to push each other away. Unstoppable force meets immovable object—the laws of physics bended to their very existences.)

 

“Who are you?” Tooru asks again, by way of reply.

 

“Can’t recognize your savior?” Hajime snorts. “I’m hurt that you’d forget about me.” Sarcasm. He’s not sure he wants this Tooru to remember him.

 

Tooru mouth parts in a throaty laugh. “Foolish human. Do I look like I need a pathetic mortal to save me?”

 

Hajime scowls. “You did when you were younger. When you were better than all of this,” he murmurs, and Tooru jolts. Looks harder at him.

 

“Your scent is familiar,” he admits, confused. “Every human that walks up these steps puts me off and disgusts me, but your scent…” He shakes his head and breaks from Hajime, turning to pace. Where did he know that smell from? A human that wasn’t quite as human as the rest—one with a touch of magic in him and a love for the forest that made him smell like earth and spice and look brighter than the sun’s reflection on the big lake at noon—

 

Tooru flips around, eyes wide, looking Hajime up and down. Could it be? He opens his mouth and breathes in, but yes, it is him! The scent is slightly different, tempered with physical maturity and his own personal tag, like a flashing sign or a waving flag, drawing Tooru to him. He could never forget this boy.

 

“Iwa-chan,” he says softly. “But you—you were gone for so long. Why have you returned now?” he moves closer to Hajime, ears flattening a little, intrigued by the changes in his old friend. “You’ve grown so much.”

 

Hajime wants to let it go. He wants to pass off the spirits’ fear as an instinctive reaction to the crashing and booming of Tooru's presence. But even now, they’re quivering in their hideaways, the sound faint to his ears but present. Something is wrong. “Why are the spirits afraid of you, Tooru?” he repeats, hard.

 

Tooru draws back a little, the familiarity in his expression fading back to the hardness of his façade, the little show he put on to try and prove that he was better than everyone else. “Who cares?” he scoffs, irritated. “Who cares what the little things on this mountain think or feel? They have every right to be afraid. I’m stronger now, much stronger than before, when you met me. It won’t be long until I’m strong enough to truly challenge Oikami.”

 

He throws his head back with a laugh. “I can eat any of the spirits I want to!” he boasts, “None of them are powerful enough to stop me!”

 

There it was. The answer Hajime had feared. “Don’t you remember how you were years ago?” he asks, voice deceptively soft. “Remember when you cried to me for fear of being eaten by more powerful gods? When you could have died, had I not freed you? Are you really so forgetful and cold that you would allow yourself to inflict those same fears upon the other inhabitants of this mountain?” Hajime practically snaps the last question.

 

Tooru glares at him. “The right of the strong is to consume the weak, I never disputed that balance. I may have been upset by it, but that’s the way things are.”

 

Hajime's fist shoots out, connecting solidly with a tree. “You bastard…” he hisses. “You’re the one who’s strong now; it’s up to you to change the status quo! How quickly you’ve forgotten you are and who you were! Does it really please you to have them live in fear?”

 

Tooru curls his lip. “I don’t have to listen to you. You spend one summer on the mountain and you think you know everything about the spirit world. News flash, Iwa-chan, you don’t know shit about how things are run around here.”

 

“If this is how you were going to turn out all along,” Hajime seethes, “I wish I had turned around and left you to die in that net, like the unrepentant tyrant you are.”

 

“Get out!” Tooru roars, talons digging into the staircase and cracking the ancient stone beneath. If Hajime could hear over the blood rushing in his ears in fury, he might have heard the edge of hurt in Tooru's voice, buried under layers of anger.

 

“Gladly,” Hajime snorts, turning on his heel and darting down the steps, the offering forgotten in its basket at the foot of the tree. At the last moment he looks back, a thought occurring to him. “I bet you don’t even know how to transform into a human anymore, you’ve become such a beast,” he laughs bitterly.

 

“Leave!” Tooru screams again, this time with an edge of desperation. Hajime looks away from him and the mountain, head shaking in disgust. No amount of good memories would be able to cure the seed of distaste he felt for that place. Not this time.

 

-----------------------------------

 

Nana gives him the requisite amount of scolding for forgetting the offering, but she’s gentler with him than usual. It must show on Hajime's face, that something terrible has happened, or maybe it’s just the fact that he’s home not even an hour later when he used to spend days at a time in the forest. She’s kind in her probing, and although Hajime resists her at first, in the end, Nana is the only one he could go to with this kind of a problem.

 

“It’s Tooru,” he says softly, collapsing on the upstairs couch. “He’s not the person I used to know.”

 

Nana puts down the plate she was drying, brow crinkled in concern, and gives Hajime her full attention. “Why, what has happened to him?”

 

Hajime scowls harder. “He’s become something hideous and revolting to even lay eyes on. I never want to see his ugly mug again.”

 

“I thought you said he was quite the beautiful dragon,” Nana hums. “Something along the lines of ‘the crown jewel of the mountain’s beauty’.”

 

Hajime flushes, despite himself. “That’s not—okay, so he has grown, too. He’s a full-size dragon now and breathtaking from a distance. He’s the kind of magnificent that compelled artists to lift their brushes and musicians to compose odes, but once you actually get to know him…” Hajime swallows. “He’s as foul and toxic as poison.”

 

“He wasn’t like that before,” Nana notes. “A few years is nothing to a god; how could he have changed so quickly?”

 

“I don’t know,” Hajime sighs, loud and frustrated. “He’s drunk with power, is what it is, but I don’t know what could have given him such great strength. It’s awful, Nana. He’s terrorizing all the other spirits on the mountain, making them shiver in fear and run at even the sound of him. He could have been a grand king, ruling just and fair over them, but instead he chose to be a vicious dictator, slaughtering at will.”

 

But Nana seems to be preoccupied with something else. “It’s curious that he seems to be growing like you,” Nana murmurs. “That rate of maturation is very, very unusual. He can’t be more than a few hundred years old, yet he’s already as big and strong as an adult? No wonder he’s acting out—he’s still just a child.” She looks hard at Hajime. “I wonder how he’s managed to defy so many laws of nature.”

 

Hajime meets her gaze, confused. “What?”

 

She dries her hands on a dishtowel, looking thoughtful. “You said to him once, that you would believe in him, that you would become his first believer. I hadn’t thought about this, but if Tooru is just a minor, unrecognized god, then he doesn’t have a shrine built to him or offerings given.”

 

“So?” Hajime grumbles, crossing his arms.

 

“He told you his name,” Nana says. “He went from unnamed to named in that moment, no longer within the realm of obscurity and minor spirits. And you promised to make him more than just a minor god by believing in him, although you couldn’t have known it at the time. I doubt even Tooru knew what he was doing, but I think…” She pauses.

 

“What, what?” Hajime prompts anxiously.

 

“I think you have made your soul and body into a temple for him,” she says thoughtfully. “And instead of offerings of food, you give him offerings of song. Each of your friends, too, anyone who sings that song, is making an offering to Tooru, but yours have a special potency. That’s the only way he could have accelerated his growth so much and in so short a time.”

 

Hajime gapes at her. “Like hell I did anything like that!—Excuse my language,” he coughs at Nana’s hard look. “But there’s no way that could be true. My body? A shrine for Tooru? I already said I wouldn’t worship him, just remember him.”

 

Nana smiles. “I never said anything about worshipping him. In fact, I think it’d be more like he’d worship and protect you. After all, you’re the source of all his power. Ah, I am quite envious of you, you know, Hajime-chan. I always hoped to have a divine encounter and befriend a god of the mountain. I’ll just have to live vicariously through you.” She sighs fondly.

 

“You can have him,” Hajime grumbles. “He’s an annoying ass who thinks he’s almighty. I shouldn’t have saved him.”

 

“Nonsense!” Nana disagrees, waving a dried spoon at Hajime. “He’s disappointed you by acting out. You may think you mean nothing to him, but just you wait. He’ll be bowing and scraping to get you approval soon enough.”

 

“I’m not going back,” Hajime declares solemnly.

 

Nana’s smile doesn’t fade. “So you say now, but I know you well, my grandson. You’re like my late husband; you can’t keep away from the mountain.”

 

Hajime huffs and flips onto his side.

 

----------------------------------

 

Hajime keeps the anger towards Tooru and the hurt it caused him warm and burning in his heart for the next few days. All through the day, working in Hazaki-san’s general store, Hajime's brow is pulled tight, eyes hard and unforgiving. He loads the shelves with jerky movements and the fierce intensity of someone trying very hard to distract themselves. In the end, he only succeeds in scaring one of the kids from the village and making Hazaki-san worry about him.

 

“Honestly, Hajime-chan,” Hazaki-san says, almost pleadingly. “You’re working yourself to the bone here, you have to be careful. You’ll get heatstroke in this shop. You best go outside for a while, get a breath of fresh air.” It’s not a dismissal but genuine concern on the shop owner’s part for the dear visitor to his village. Hajime hates making him worry anyway, after all he’s done for Hajime, giving him a part-time job.

 

He steps outside for his break, taking a long gulp of cold water from Hazaki-san’s mini-fridge, nearly crying at how good the cool water felt trickling down his throat. He wipes some of the sweat gathering on his face with his sleeve, looking around at the village.

 

They were survivors that was for sure. It wasn’t the most beautiful of the small towns scattered about the country, but this little village was stubborn, clinging to its home at the foot of To—of Oikami’s mountain. If Tooru became Oikami, what would become of these people and their uneven streets, expansive fields, and goodwill towards strangers passing through? Nothing good, that was for sure. If Tooru couldn’t be assed to care for his own kind, like hell he would respect the agreement between villagers and Oikami. Their crops wouldn’t flourish, the wells would dry up, and all the success and happiness of the people in the village would disappear in the burning summer heat.

 

Like Tooru's goodness had, like the curiosity and giving heart he had once possessed, like the boyish charm that had enamored him to Hajime—

 

Hajime shakes his head and wanders back inside, sparing one glare at the mountain, like he could pierce through the trees and the leaves to find Tooru and kill the evil residing inside of him with just a look.

 

The rest of the week, Hajime takes pause every now and then to stare at the mountain, trying to puzzle out what he could do to save the village. He wouldn’t sing again, that was for sure. But his friends would, they didn’t know any better—he couldn’t starve out Tooru, then. It was a heavy burden, the thought that only he could hope to change Tooru's mind, make him care again, but Hajime bore it well, hid it even better. Or at least he thought so, until Hazaki-san told him he looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

 

Not the weight of the world, Hajime wanted to say. Just the weight of your world.

 

He had to go back. It was a fact, a responsibility. He might have shamed Tooru, just a little bit, but it was up to him to make things right again, reset the balance. God knows Tooru couldn’t do it himself, he was too busy thinking he was the greatest thing on four (and occasionally two) legs. It was with a heavy heart and dragging feet that Hajime left for the green shrine the next morning.

 

Nana was delighted. “Bring these pastries up, too, won’t you dear?” she asked.

 

“What for?” Hajime eyed the two, admittedly mouth-watering pastries with suspicion. “The offering’s right here.”

 

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” Nana tuts. “I know you’re going to meet him again. You may not be in the wrong here, but an olive branch extended never got anyone hurt.” Hajime wants to mention the fact that in saving Tooru the first time, he nearly ended up dying, but he knows the protest won’t change her mind. Instead, he pulls on his hiking boots miserably and slouches out of the house, looking less like a pouty teenager and more like a criminal walking to his execution.

 

Still, Nana may have been on to something. When Hajime reaches the top of the steps, Tooru is already waiting for him, in human form. She’s taken the form of a girl this time, and all of a sudden, Hajime is having difficulty swallowing. It’s not like it was some great mystery that Tooru was gorgeous no matter the form she took, but in his younger years, Hajime hadn’t thought much of the bright-eyed girl or boy beside him other than ‘interesting playmate’. What had Nana said about boys taking interest in girls again?

 

Tooru's hair should be wild, but it falls in soft brown waves, brushing her thin shoulders and even more slender frame. She’s muscular though; Tooru can see the pull of muscles in her arms as she picks at the plants growing on the roof of the green shrine where she’s perched, scowling at her hand as she does, fingers tipped in talons that scratch at the ancient monument. Unsurprising—her dragon form was also slim like a snake’s, but powerful. She’s wearing some kind of dress that looks horribly old and unfitting for someone with a storm of rage and strength beneath her skin. It occurs to Hajime that she hasn’t seen a human girl in, oh, hundreds of years.

 

He can’t help himself, he bursts out laughing. So hard, in fact, that he has to double over. She bristles immediately, and seeing that look coupled with puffy lace sleeves makes him howl even harder.

 

“What,” she snaps, cheeks turning pink from anger or embarrassment, Hajime has no idea. “What the fuck is your problem?”

 

Ooo, language. Hajime gains control of his body again and rolls his eyes. “Get off the shrine; it’s not yours.” Her eyes spit make me at Hajime, but she obeys when he quirks an eyebrow, hopping down with an irritated huff.

 

“Why were you laughing, Iwa-chan,” she sneers, throwing the nickname in to annoy him. It doesn’t work, this time.

 

“That dress really doesn’t suit a snot-nosed brat like you,” Hajime snorts. “It’s so…last century.”

 

Tooru blushes harder. “How would I know?” she growls. “It was the wedding dress of the girl who used to visit this mountain, god,” she mutters, and wow, okay. Hajime actually feels a little bad. He remembers what Nana said about Tooru trying to please him, and as much as he didn’t believe her, here Tooru is, in what is (was) a fancy dress and in human form, harkening back to their disaster of a last conversation. She was making an effort at peace, even if Hajime knew it was going to take a lot more than that to get him to forgive Tooru.

 

“Who’re you getting married to, me?” Hajime teases, an olive branch. For a moment, Tooru looks like she’s going to snarl something, maybe even transform back into a dragon, but she catches the edge to his voice and rolls her eyes instead.

 

“Who would ever want to get married to a momma’s boy like you?” She pokes back at Hajime, pointedly not looking at him.

 

“Someone who wants a pastry, probably,” Hajime replies, wiggling the bag in front of Tooru's nose. Her eyes dart after the bag, hungry, but Hajime trots over to the shrine to perform the ritual, refusing to even open the bag. He claps his hands and sends a prayer for patience with Tooru. When he turns around, she’s no longer wearing an abomination of fashion, but some sensible shoes, shorts, and a shirt that clings to her like…yeah, Hajime's not going to dwell on that too much.

 

“Um,” he starts, but before a snappy comment can come to his mind, Tooru has snatched the bag of pastries from him, peering inside with interest.

 

“Good luck getting that protozoan brain of yours to think of a comeback,” she sniggers, digging out a warm, crème filled pastry and popping it in her mouth.

 

“Protozoan don’t have brains,” Hajime retorts too soon, realizing that he walked right into her trap as she raises an eyebrow and smiles around her prize. It’s Hajime's turn to flush, and he thinks he hears a condescending ’humans’ come from Tooru's mouth, victorious.

 

He stomps up to her and snatches the bag away, flopping beside her on the boulder she’d resettled on, angling his body away. She doesn’t seem to mind much, too busy chewing on the gift. Hajime pulls out the chocolate-iced one remaining in the bag. It’s his favorite, but he doesn’t know if Tooru left it for him on purpose or just by chance. He’s a bite into the dessert when Tooru pipes up.

 

“So I take it this is an apology for last week?”

 

All of the appetite leaves Hajime's body so fast he wonders if he’d even felt hunger in the first place. She thought this was— “No it’s not an apology,” Hajime snaps. “I’m not the one who’s been brutalizing my own kind for fun.”

 

“It’s not for fun,” she sighs, like Hajime's the one being ridiculous. “I need to grow in strength. Eating the others gives me power. Think of it less like cannibalism and more like they’re giving their lives to the cause.”

 

“Oh yeah? And what is this cause?” Hajime hisses.

 

Tooru blinks. “A better Oikami, of course. Me.” There’s so much unfathomable stupidity in that statement, Hajime has to take a moment to compose his thoughts.

 

“You do realize,” he growls, “that you are eating your future subjects, right? If this current Oikami is so bad, think of what the spirits will think when you’re Oikami! Sure, why not, allow another spirit-consuming god to rise to the throne—that’s not how it works.”

 

“I know that,” Tooru grumbles. “I wasn’t going to eat them after I became Oikami…” She mumbles.

 

“Is my song really not enough?” Hajime sighs, defeated. “Your power comes from that, why do you have to eat everyone?” At Tooru's blank look, Hajime feels a little sick. “…You did know that your power came from the song, right?”

 

Tooru gives him a sheepish look. “I knew that you were the source, but I always thought it was your presence, not the…” She waves her hand.

 

“And every time you ate a spirit…” Hajime continues, looking pale.

 

“Sometimes it would work, sometimes it wouldn’t, y’know?” Tooru laughs awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck. “I just thought…I don’t even know what I thought.”

 

“Oh my god,” Hajime sighs, shoving his face in his hands. “Well, at least we cleared that up. No more eating others of your kind, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Tooru agrees in a small voice.

 

“Either way, we’re going to have to rebuild your relationship with the other gods on this mountain,” Hajime decides, standing up.

 

“What? No. Ew,” Tooru protests. “It’ll be fine, I’d rather that they were scared.”

 

“No chance,” Hajime says, pulling Tooru grudgingly to her feet. “If you’re going to be Oikami then you’re going to have to be well-liked, I don’t care if you disagree with me.”

 

A wry smile settles onto her lips. “No use convincing you otherwise, huh.” She stretches her arms above her head with a small, satisfied noise that absolutely does not stick in Hajime's mind like a curse. “You’ve always been so stubborn and annoying, Iwa-chan. Did the big city shove a stick up your ass or something?”

 

Hajime punches her in the arm, chivalry be damned. Tooru yelps and jumps away from him, sticking out her tongue childishly. “Wow, Iwa-chan, how mature,” she sneers, giggling and running away when Hajime stands up and walks purposefully after her. “Someone save me from the human beast! I’m so scared!” She laughs, but actually yips and makes for the forest when Hajime's pace increases.

 

It’s not fixed. Nothing’s been really fixed between them yet. Hajime still doesn’t like it, that she could so easily throw away the lives of other beings. He doesn’t trust her to keep her side of the agreement when he’s gone, and because of that, he’s not sure if he wants to sing for her again. She might still turn out to have tricked him, to have known about how the song gave her power and still decided to eat the other spirits, but there was something in the honest confusion and sheepishness to her usually so composed and haughty expression and body language that makes Hajime want to give her a second chance. What had Nana said again? No wonder he’s acting out—he’s still just a child.

 

Maybe that’s what this is, this urge to chase her through the mountain, tackle and shout and shit-talk each other like normal teenagers. Maybe it’s her second chance.

 

And Hajime's stubborn—sure, Tooru was right. But he’s also not one to hold grudges; leave that to Tooru. So he ducks his head and charges after her through the trees, branches and leaves whipping at his exposed skin, turning it red from the abuse, but there’s a rush in racing full speed down the mountain. The rush of adrenaline from fear of tripping, the chill of wind on his sweat-soaked skin, the burn of pushing his muscles to their limits—Hajime's heart is beating fast and it feels so good.

 

He catches Tooru by virtue of her waiting for him, curious to see if he’d actually pursue. Of course, by the time he sees her, he can’t slow his momentum and ends up barreling into her, full speed. Tooru might be a god, but she’s not quite strong enough to keep from stumbling backwards and off the edge of the cliff face she had parked herself by, taking Hajime with her. Hajime has a moment of blind, animal fear of falling, the thought that he was absolutely going to die, and that, for a person who lived with no regrets holy shit did he have a lot of regrets

 

Then Tooru is spinning away from him in their mid-air tumble towards the treetops below, and Hajime understands. It’s just a moment, but he sees her, up close and personal, as fingers curl and fuse together to form talons, as joints pop out and in, rearranging; how her spine arches and lengthens, how her whipping hair thickens and spread down her back, and finally how her face stretches into a muzzle, horns and whiskers reforming swiftly, but those too-human eyes never changing. She’s a dragon again in seconds, and then her front paws are wrapped around Hajime's body, violently jerking him close to her. There’s a wind billowing around them that came from nowhere—no, she summoned it—breaking their fall as they slowly tumble to the ground.

 

They crash through branches and trees loudly and painfully, but Tooru shields him enough that Hajime only feels slight whiplash from the jerky movements of her body. When they kiss the leaf-covered ground, it doesn’t feel any worse or more fatal than tumbling of the pullout couch to Hajime, and Tooru's on top of him, human again so as not to crush him. Her hair tickles his face, the tresses wild and windblown from the near-death experience. They’re both panting.

 

“Are you okay?” Hajime asks stupidly, not really sure what else to say while his heart returns to normal.

 

Tooru glares at him. “Are you okay?” she retorts, angry, and Hajime can’t imagine what he’s done wrong until she says, “Stupid fucking flimsy humans, you could’ve died if I wasn’t here, can’t even survive a fall from that height, god I hate humans so much—”

 

“Thank you,” Hajime says quietly, the realization that she saved his life finally settling in. She could have let him fall; the whole ordeal was his mistake, and it’s not like he’d done anything lately to warrant her protection. “You could have let me die, but you saved me instead. Thank you.”

 

Tooru seems to have become very aware of their position, the way they were pressed flush against each other, Hajime tucked safely under her, hands at her elbows (How did those get there, Hajime wonders). One of her hands is resting over his heart, firm against his chest as if to make sure his fragile human heart was still beating. And oh, it was definitely beating. Tooru turns the most interesting shade of pink Hajime's ever seen on her, but he’s sure it’s mirrored on his own heated face at the how easily she can sense the beat of his heart, how close she was—

 

Tooru jerks her hand away as if burned by the heat of Hajime's body, quickly scrambling off of him and running an anxious hand through her hair, not meeting his eyes as he stands. “Well, you know, you’re the—what was it? Source of all my power? Yeah, yeah—that’s the one. Couldn’t have you dying on me or I’d be back to being weak,” she babbles.

 

That made sense at least. If even touching Hajime made her nervous, he can’t imagine why she’d want to save him other than obligation and need. They weren’t exactly physically intimate as kids; sometimes they’d brush each other’s arms or hold hands or fall asleep leaning against each other, but not much more than that. It could have been a species difference kind of thing, the reason Tooru didn’t want to touch him too much. He’d heard of gods who disappeared when a human touched them.

 

Hajime takes a moment to assess their surroundings. Faintly, he remembers seeing the village as he fell, so they couldn’t have gone too far. The trees here aren’t as thick low to the ground and fairly tall, but he hadn’t felt the almost intangible touch to his skin of passing through the barrier, so they couldn’t be in the spirit world. “Where are we?” he asks.

 

Tooru hums thoughtfully and looks around, opening her mouth and breathing in to taste the air, much like a cat. She cocks her head to the side. “We’re near a stream,” she says, and glances back at Hajime with a playful look in her eyes, previous embarrassment gone. Hajime knows that look. He returns it with a grin. They’re going to go adventuring again.

 

The stream they find isn’t very wide or deep, but the water is completely clear and making a pleasant burbling noise. It rolls over a massive boulder with an alcove beneath it, and that’s where Hajime and Tooru go exploring. Hajime pokes around the alcove, pleased to find several small, glowing spirits clinging to the boulder. Tooru patrols the top of the boulder, splashing and laughing in the water.

 

“Iwa-chan!” she calls, jumping off the boulder and splashing into the pool in front of the alcove. Hajime scowls at her. “Iwa-chan, you have to come in the water, it’s so—what’s that?” She finally notices the spirits, one of which Hajime is coaxing into his palm with a soft whistle. But the moment Tooru fixes her eyes on the spirits, the ones still on the ceiling flee farther deeper in and the one on Hajime's hand scurries beneath his shirt.

 

Hajime raises an eyebrow at Tooru, and she crosses her arms. “Yeah? They’re scared of me. So what?” Hajime shakes his head and beckons her closer. Grudgingly, she flops down next to him as he attempts to ease the spirit from under his shirt.

 

“C’mon buddy,” he coos. “It’s okay, the mean dragon lady won’t touch you. That’s it, there you go. Good boy—er, girl…or whatever you are,” he stumbles, laughing at his own mistake. The sound of his laugh is what finally draws the inchworm-like spirit out and onto his palm again. Tooru grimaces at how easily Hajime bends the spirits to his will. They like him too damn much, Tooru thinks.

 

The spirit waves at Hajime's face as he continues to whistle, pleased with the noise, and slowly, the other spirits begin to reappear, glowing dots turning into lines of bioluminescent light crawling towards them. Tooru feels distinctly uncomfortable, especially when a two-tailed Kitsune, a minor god, pauses on its walk past the stream to listen to Hajime's music. There are birds settling into the trees around them and silvery-white fish swimming against the current to hear him. Tooru's unused to this. Usually just the sound or smell of her would send them all running, but now Hajime's here and it’s like they think Hajime's tamed her.

 

She bristles a little, irked. But then Hajime grabs her elbow gently, turning her towards him (god, what is it with him and his elbow fetish, Tooru thinks feverishly). Before she can snap at him, he’s taking her hand, flattening it out with strokes of the pad of his thumb across her palm. Tooru's mind goes completely blank, and somewhere deep inside of her she can hear pained laughter and a tamed, huh? at the edges of her mind. She has barely any time to register his touch, though, because soon enough he’s encouraging the spirit to inch onto her palm from his, free hand curled around her wrist, just light enough to be a warning, but with all the power in her body, Tooru thinks his hold might be unbreakable.

 

The problem is, it actually works. The spirit is in her hands and it’s all due to Hajime's gentle encouragement. She looks at him, wide-eyed and panicked. What’s she supposed to do with this thing? Eat it? Sing to it? Teach it how to do tricks? Hajime laughs at the confusion on her face and the way that, against all odds, she’s holding the creature tenderly, as if afraid to break it.

 

“See?” Hajime murmurs from way too close to her ear. “Your instinct isn’t to kill—it’s to protect. This is the real you: not a killer, but a leader and a guardian of all these other weaker spirits. You couldn’t hurt this little guy if you tried.” Half of her wants to prove him wrong, the other hand is intrigued by the slow movement of the spirit across her hand, unafraid.

 

She looks at him really hard, then at the Kitsune that was now curled up in his lap, pleased with the way Hajime was stroking its fur. “What god did you sell your soul to in order to get so clever?” Tooru mumbles in return, feeling very, very unequal to Hajime in that moment. Hajime just rolls his eyes.

 

“Come on,” he says. “We’re going to see as many entities of the forest that we can and show them all that you’re a changed god.” Tooru kicks and whines about it on principle more than anything, but there’s something to be said about the way the creatures of the mountain follow them, unafraid and admiring, like they’re the rulers of the forest, working side-by-side to protect all of the animal and plants and spirits and—

 

(Something heavy settles in Tooru's gut that she won’t acknowledge, but it’s as final as gravity pulling Hajime to earth, except this time she’s the one helpless under the weight of it, as inevitable as falling asleep, as burning-hot in her mind as Hajime's smile.)

 

She’s been feeling very alone for a very long time, isolated by the cruelty of her own actions, but with Hajime next to her and the creatures of the mountain brushing close enough to touch, she wonders how she could have ever believed she was alone.

 

--------------------------------------

 

It’s still a rocky road to forgiveness and what they had, though.

 

Tooru accepts that he was wrong, and his mind has been changed enough so that he won’t ever eat another spirit again, but he’s frustratingly unrepentant about what he did. One second Hajime's got him to actually talk to the three-eyed crows, but in the next, when he asks Tooru to make up for killing seven of their family, Tooru snaps at him, fangs and all, scaring them off. He won’t make amends, won’t apologize, and Hajime knows it’s because he still believes himself to be better than them all, even if he doesn’t want to brutalize the spirits and gods anymore. Yeah, so I still plan on ruling all you useless, brainless creatures, but I won’t, like, eat you.

 

“How hard is it to just treat them with respect?” Hajime snaps at him one day, after Tooru scares off some of the gentle, floating spirits again.

 

“Why do I have to?” Tooru retorts, sharply. “They don’t even comprehend speech! They’re barely even alive, why do I have to treat them like they’re on the same level of intelligence as I am?”

 

“Because that’s what a good Oikami should do!” Hajime growls. “So what if they only exist to float around and feed on the health of the forest? They’re still living creatures that deserve to be treated with dignity. Just because they don’t have complex thoughts doesn’t mean they aren’t worth your time. It’s because you’re so much more intelligent than them that you have to protect them from others who might exploit them!”

 

“I could maybe accept that where gods are concerned,” Tooru concedes, grudgingly. “But the spirits? You have to draw the line somewhere. Animals and plants and spirits are nowhere near the level of important as beings that can actually, you know, use magic.” He realizes his mistake a little too late. “I mean, of course, humans are—”

 

“Oh, don’t even,” Hajime hisses, disgusted. “Don’t even pretend that you put humans on the same level as yourself. To you, they’re just a hair above animals, or if we’re lucky, minor gods.”

 

“You’re important,” Tooru says softly, and Hajime just exhales loudly, exasperated.

 

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Hajime asks, suddenly tired. “The rest of my species is garbage but I’m okay? You see how that doesn’t help, at all, right? What about Nana, or my parents, or Hazaki-san, or my frie—”

 

“I get it,” Tooru snaps.

 

“You don’t,” Hajime disagrees, but it’s with resignation rather than anger.

 

He slouches against the side of the cliff face—the very one he and Tooru had fallen off, now a favorite location because of its stunning view—and slides to the ground, sighing again. Why did it always end like this? They make progress, to the point where Hajime actually thinks Tooru might have changed, and then he goes and does or says something completely contrary. It’s taken all summer and Hajime still doesn’t know what’s going on in Tooru's head. He pointedly looks away from the god.

 

Maybe he should have just stayed in Hazaki-san’s general store all summer instead.

 

There’s the sound of soft shuffling, and then Tooru slides next to him, their arms brushing. They sit together in uneasy silence before Tooru breaks it softly. “I am trying,” he whispers.

 

“Fuck,” Hajime groans, dragging his hands through his hair, tugging at it half-heartedly. “I know you are, Tooru, you’ve been so good about this. I know that, I just—” His words fail him, but it’s the truth. Tooru is going against beliefs that he’d established long before he met Hajime, all because Hajime asked him to. Maybe he’s been too harsh.

 

Tooru slides further down, looking up cautiously at Hajime, but Hajime is still not looking at him. Tooru rests his head in Hajime's lap, pillowed comfortably against his thigh. Hajime doesn’t really think about it, just moves his hand to draw it through Tooru's fluff of hair, like he would stroke any of the other gods of the forest. Tooru makes a soft almost purring sound of pleasure, and Hajime finally looks at him.

 

Tooru as a human male is—well, it’s not any stretch of the imagination to say he’s an Adonis. Strong but not beefy, taller than Hajime, and with delicate features that make Hajime alternate between feeling like punching him and doing something like this, running his hands through Tooru's hair. But now, curled against Hajime like a cat, eyes shut and so very warm and alive in Hajime's lap, he feels a surge of protectiveness over Tooru.

 

“I’m not very fair to you,” Hajime admits quietly. “You’re making an effort, which is more than I expected.”

 

“Ouch, Iwa-chan,” Tooru laughs. “What a back-handed compliment.”

 

His laugh vibrates pleasantly against Hajime's thigh and he makes a point to draw his nails against Tooru's scalp, making the laugh fade into a soft sigh of pleasure in an attempt to derail the thought of how good his laugh sounds and feels. Tooru's back arches a little, which is an unfortunate side effect that sets Hajime's pulse racing. Why couldn’t he just be ugly, Hajime thinks for the thousandth time. That would have made everything so much easier.

 

He decides to sing to Tooru then, half because he’s trying to distract himself and half as an apology. Creatures emerge from the forest, as they always do with human song, this time lovely blue butterflies with glinting wings that catch in the sunlight. They flutter all around Hajime, a few daring to light on Tooru's knee, Hajime's shoulder, the grass around them. Tooru's posture relaxes even further into Hajime at the familiar words, lines in his back smoothing and shoulders slumping. Dragon boy, dragon boy running all around; watch out, watch out…

 

The singing lapses into silence. Even with Tooru as still as he is against Hajime, none of the spirits or gods aside from the butterflies dare to approach them, remaining just within the boundaries of shadow. Hajime wonders what this scene must look like to them—the most powerful god aside from Oikami slumped against the adopted human of the mountain, trusting. If Hajime had any talent, he’d paint the scene.

 

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” he says, because for as much as he wants to exist in this moment of peace forever, reality always comes crawling back to bite him. Tooru shifts around, flipping so he’s on his back, looking up at Hajime.

 

“What?” he says, and god, he sounds just like the young Tooru Hajime used to know, the one who cried when his first friend told him that he had to go back to the city.

 

“End of summer, remember?” Hajime tries and fails to smile consolingly. “The cicadas aren’t nearly as loud anymore. I have to go back to the city for school.”

 

“Noooo,” Tooru whines petulantly, wrapping his arms around Hajime's torso and burying his face in his stomach. “Iwa-chan you can’t goooo.”

 

“Get off me, idiot!” Hajime grouses, shoving at the god, but by virtue of being a god, Tooru doesn’t budge an inch.

 

“Why do you never tell me?” Tooru whines again, but this time there’s a vaguely hurt edge to it. “Last time, too, you just…sprung it on me.”

 

Hajime sighs. “I didn’t want us to fight today. I thought we could have a last good day before I dropped the bomb on you, but…” He smiles ruefully. “We seem to be addicted to tearing each other’s throats out with words.”

 

Tooru giggles. “Oh, but you wouldn’t be Iwa-chan if you didn’t argue with me all the time. Imagine an Iwa-chan who just blindly agreed with everything I said! Gah, boring.”

 

Hajime runs a hand through Tooru's hair one more time, although it feels strangely intimate and he flushes. “You’re not mad?” He mumbles.

 

Tooru shakes his head minutely. “Iwa-chan keeps me—well, it’s such an awful way to put it, but Iwa-chan keeps me human. Gods don’t really have a conscience, I think, not at least until they’re much older and wiser than I am.” He smiles. “I’m lucky, ‘cause my conscience exists independently of me, and he keeps me in check when I’m being awful!”

 

It’s suddenly very, very hard for Hajime to swallow. “Tooru…” he manages.

 

“You better not come back up to the mountain before you leave,” Tooru says softly. “The forest spirits have become really, really fond of you. They might just spirit you away if you come back to say goodbye, and you won’t be able to go back to that big, human city. What a shame that would be.”

 

Are you speaking for the mountain, or for yourself, Tooru? Hajime thinks to himself, but he doesn’t actually want to know the answer. Is afraid to.

 

Hajime glances at the fading sunlight. “This is goodbye, then,” he says, equally as soft. He catches Tooru's eyes and there’s that rushing sound in the back of his head, ever-present when he looks too long at Tooru in any of his forms. He can’t breathe for a moment, heart beating far too fast to be normal, but then Tooru reaches a hand up and presses it lightly against Hajime's cheek, not quite cupping the side of his face.

 

“Goodbye, Iwa-chan,” he murmurs. “Don’t you dare forget about me.”

 

“And you, me,” Hajime replies, leaning into the touch a little. Tooru doesn’t draw away quickly, like he usually does when touching Hajime, but he swallows thickly.

 

Hajime wonders if he’s trying not to cry.

 

-----------------------------

 

“It’s been a pleasure having you around,” Hazaki-san says cheerfully as he shakes Hajime's hand and gives him his paycheck. “I’m glad you got out of that funk you were in at the beginning of the summer—it was strange to see someone as composed as you not himself.”

 

“Er, thank you and I’m sorry for any trouble I caused.” Hajime bows awkwardly.

 

“Oh, you’re never any trouble!” Hazaki-san laughs. “We just worry about you, you know? You’re a precious guest here, and everyone adores you.” Hajime has to smile at that, a human reflection of what Tooru had told him yesterday. He looks around at the small gathering of people that are chatting before seeing him off. His parents, as always, look pleasantly disarmed by the village’s hospitality.

 

“I think you can take the train next time, Hajime,” his mother says. “You’re old enough to go by yourself.” She has nothing against the town of course—it’s just a lot of driving for busy people who need to save the money. But it’s the ‘next time’ that really catches his attention.

 

“Thought you said I wouldn’t be coming here for the summer anymore?” Hajime asks, surprised. His mother smiles at him sheepishly.

 

“Well…you always seem so full of life when you get back from these visits. Your father and I think it’s a nice break from all the studying and work you’ve put into school. So we’d be willing to pay for the trip once you get into university,” she explains.

 

Hajime grins. “Sounds like a plan. Besides, Nana needs someone to keep her company other than the plants and mountain spirits,” Hajime adds slyly, winking at Nana conspiratorially. She laughs and pulls him into a hug.

 

“Don’t stay away too long, Hajime-chan,” she sighs. “This town misses you.”

 

As Hajime climbs into the back seat of the car, he thinks that he probably misses the town as much as it misses him. His heart gives a pained thud, and he gives in, looks back. The villagers wave at the dust cloud their car kicks up, familiar and bittersweet. He’s not quite sure why he looks back up at the too-green mountain, a kind of mournful longing settling in his chest.

 

Maybe it’s just luck, but his eyes alight on their favorite cliff face, a spot of orangey-gold amidst green-blue, and he sees him. Tooru watches him go, dragon form healthy and strong, cutting a magnificent profile at the edge of the cliff. He’ll be alright, Hajime tells himself. He’s going to be just fine on his own. And the smile that crosses his face tells him that it’s not just a reassurance to himself—he actually believes it. Will believe it for years to come.

 

----------------------------------

 

“Oh Hajime, dear, please do be careful—that box is quite heavy—”

 

“Why, Nana, it sounds like you don’t trust your favorite grandson’s strength.”

 

“You’ve grown to be quite the cheeky little one now haven’t you? My, not too little anymore though…”

 

“Reminiscing on when I could fit under your chin? How about we try the other way ‘round, shall we?”

 

“Iwaizumi Hajime, I swear to the heavens ab—oh! Please, be gentle with that! It could fall!”

 

Hajime grins back at Nana, sliding the sagging cardboard box up onto the shelf with a final shove. She tuts and rolls her eyes at him, and in that moment Hajime can’t stop himself from wrapping his arms around her in a bear hug. As much as he finds it amusing to play the mischievous new tenant of the house, he has truly missed his Nana.

 

“What’s this now, getting soft on me?” She teases Hajime gently, hugging him back.

 

“I’m just so glad I’m back,” he laughs lightly. “It’s good to be home and away from the horror of finals. I miss this town every day.”

 

Nana pats him on the back and pulls away. “Well, it is good to have a source of labor around again.” Hajime laughs louder. “But I’m sure I could introduce you to a few old friends that have surely missed you while you were away at university.”

 

Hajime pads back over to the kitchen, snatching his coffee mug from the counter and sipping at the scalding liquid gingerly. “I’d love to meet up with everyone, too,” he admits. “However, since I’m going to be here all summer as a non-paying tenant, I have to do my duties around the house to make up for it.”

 

Nana huffs, putting her hands on her hips. “You’re always welcome here, Hajime, and don’t you forget it. I’m more amazed with how you’ve grown.” She pinches at his bicep mischievously. “Volleyball has been treating you well.”

 

Hajime brushes her away, embarrassed. “I’m not even on the team anymore,” he mumbles, gruff. “I just play for fun with a few guys from university.”

 

She hides a smile behind her hand. “Still, I’m sure the extra pairs of clothes I’ve kept for you won’t fit you…” She fingers the material of the shirt she had been folding, nostalgia seeping into her expression. “You’ll have to leave me some new ones, or let me buy you something from the store,” she muses.

 

Hajime feels, quite suddenly, a sweeping feeling of contentment and love directed at not just Nana, but her flower shop-home, the sleepy little town she’d lived in all her life, the kindness of the simple people living their simple lives, the cracks in the walls and the dust of the streets, the evergreen of the mountain and the memory-dream of a boy or a creature whose heart beat in time with the wind through the trees…

 

Nana tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, sunlight illuminating the dust motes floating lazily on unseen air currents and lighting on the well-kept wrinkles of Nana’s skin and her grey hair pulled tightly into a smart bun, with only wisps drifting down into her face. Nana has the same green eyes as Hajime, unseen in anyone else on his mother’s side. He feels overwhelming fondness for the woman who has always been more of his mother than the one who lived and worked and breathed Tokyo smog. These wide open spaces were his true home more than the weave of traffic and telephone wires and grey, grey, grey.

 

“Hajime? What’s wrong, honey?”

 

Hajime swipes at the tears furiously, ducking away from Nana and lifting another box as a distraction from the flood of emotion threatening to overturn his sensibilities and dissolve him into a blubbering mess. He was nearly twenty, damn it. He swallows and allows one ugly sniffle.

 

“It’s just good to be home.”

 

----------------------------------------

 

True to his word, Hajime takes care of Nana’s shop and all the heavy-lifting, strenuous labor that Nana had trouble keeping up with since her husband had died. Holes in the roof dripped droplets onto the wooden floor of her kitchen and warped the boards, so Hajime spent an entire morning perched on the slanted rooftop, dodging searing hot tiles and wiping sweat from his eyes. A hammer in one hand, nails in the pouch tied around his waist, and fresh wooden boards from Takagi-san’s hardware store down the road, Hajime nailed the boards in all the places Nana had marked, and then a few she hadn’t. And of course, Hajime stuck out like a sore thumb, calling the villagers’ attentions to him as they passed, squinting eyes and confused expressions that became surprised and amicable once they recognized Hajime.

 

“Here’s some bottles, Hajime-kun, to replenish the ones you’ve used,” Hazaki-san’s wife, Hazaki Amari, called to him, offering a handful of water bottles and waving him off when he tried to pay. “Can’t have the favorite grandson passing out from heatstroke,” she explained, winking.

 

“And some lemonade for you, Hana.” Old woman Aiko followed soon after to deliver the drinks to Nana, and the two friends spent the remainder of the late morning gossiping beneath Hajime.

 

When Nana complained offhand about her arthritis making it difficult to water all her plants, Hajime drove to the larger town twenty miles down the road to buy her an irrigation system from the superstore. The trouble was, he hadn’t the faintest idea how to put it together. But like clockwork, the townspeople weaseled their way into Hajime's business, helpful and amused.

 

Takagi-san himself came down from the store to help Hajime link the system to the well, dirty work that required digging and cutting and connecting of wires and pipes and all kinds of technological mumbo-jumbo that made Hajime's head swim as he followed Takagi-san’s instruction. A few of the boys Hajime had known when he was younger—now men starting families of their own—offered to help with the fixing of the irrigation system in place over Nana’s plants. The sounds of nailing and drilling and cheerful conversation echoed down the streets, bringing the children to play with the spare parts and wives to supply lunch for the workers.

 

Hajime supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised. Villages like this survived only by cooperation and taking care of one another. And yet, the hospitality and ease with which the people offered their services caught him pleasantly off guard. Hajime, displaced city boy, found that even he could fit in, laughing loudly and bumping the shoulders of his fellow laborers in playful jest. At the end of the week, his face hurt from smiling, and he fell onto the pullout couch each night dead tired and with a satisfying burn in his muscles, dirt underneath his fingernails.

 

“Does anyone go up to the green shrine anymore, Nana?” He asked one day, belatedly realizing that she hadn’t asked of him to deliver the offerings. He was sure they would not have abandoned the tradition.

 

The answering smile on her face is a strange, secretive one. “Oh, yes, one of Aiko’s granddaughters—very sweet, beautiful girl about your age—goes up every day. My hip just isn’t strong enough to carry me up and down those steps anymore, and she was so kind as to take over for me.”

 

Hajime frowns. “If your hip is so bad, we should move you into a house that doesn’t require you to walk up and down those stairs every day.”

 

“Bah!” Nana waves her hand dismissively. “I’m fine. But now that you’ve brought it up, I would like to ask a favor of you. Aiko will not stop pestering me about how she thinks you and her granddaughter will get along swimmingly. Humor both of us and meet up with her, will you?”

 

“Yes, of course,” Hajime replies, looking out the window at the green mountain distractedly. “Of course, I’ll take her to lunch when she’s free one day, maybe to the town down the road, I saw a nice little café there…”

 

(Nana, in all her wisdom, doesn’t comment on the way Hajime can’t take his eyes off the mountain, searching for something she’s not entirely sure anyone but he can see. His hands have forgotten the dishes he’s drying, mouth parted but not speaking. She thinks, amused, that Aiko’s granddaughter won’t have much luck after all.)

 

Hajime doesn’t think much about the mountain after that. If Tooru still felt the urge to meddle in the affairs of humans, then surely that poor girl would be at his mercy. In actuality, it was probably a good thing. This town was looking healthier and happier than ever, which meant that Tooru hadn’t thrown any childish tantrums—at least, none that affected the humans. If that girl was tempering his wild heart and pushing him back in line then there would be far fewer problems than if Tooru had to rely on Hajime.

 

He still sang, though. As a reminder to Tooru and to himself that they had twined their fates, once upon a time.

 

Sighing, he trims the last few leaves from the errant bean plant that had invaded the space of its neighbor. Somehow, without even being there, Tooru still had found a way to be on Hajime's mind. He cracks a smile at that. Hajime tosses his garden shears to the side, poking his head around the corner of the shop to look for Nana, when he hears commotion coming from outside the shop.

 

That’s odd, Hajime thinks. No one’s this awake before eleven.

 

From what he can tell, it’s a gaggle of women and girls causing the stirring. A group of three first-years—Yuki, Junko, and Katsumi—rushed past the entrance of Nana’s shop, giggling and whispering amongst themselves. It’s the final straw that draws Hajime out, curious about the disturbance in the peace of the village. He follows the sound slowly and cautiously, hands in his pockets. When he turns the corner of the lane, his heart stops, followed by a furious reboot that pumps hot, angry blood through his veins.

 

There, in all his glory, was Tooru.

 

It was difficult to fully make him out from the swarm of girls that surrounded him, enchanted by the otherworldly beauty of Tooru's human form. Hajime catches snippets of conversation, whispers that “wow, a beautiful person is in our village!” and “he’s definitely famous, right?” that make him seethe. Tooru's right at home, too, signing autographs and laughing lightly at something that one of his groupies is saying. He takes a selfie with one of the girls and Hajime feels something inside him snap.

 

“Tooru,” he growls, making no effort to hide the irritation in his voice, “what are you doing here?”

 

Tooru's eyes snap toward him so fast, Hajime nearly flinches away from the searing, piercing gaze he’s met with. A predatory grin spreads across Tooru's face, and the intensity of his stare doesn’t abate in the slightest. “Iwa-chan,” he breathes, so light and sensual Hajime nearly loses his composure because what the hell was that about?

 

The girls’ attention shifts from Tooru to Hajime, and then Hajime is painfully reminded of the fact that he himself is somewhat of a celebrity in the village, if the shy looks and flushed cheeks and whispers of oh, it’s that handsome boy from the city are anything to go by. He fights down a blush and crosses his arms, still glaring at Tooru. A mistake—the crowd’s eyes turn to his arms and the whispering grows in volume, and Hajime fails to keep his cheeks from going pink when Tooru, too, looks him over appraisingly and fixes him with a smirk and raised eyebrow of approval.

 

“Nevermind, I don’t care why you’re here,” Hajime snarls a bit desperately, stalking towards Tooru, girls parting for him and staring. Hajime wraps a hand around Tooru's wrist, deliberately ignoring the thrumming of his pulse, and pulls him forward. “I need to have words with you. Strong words.”

 

He yanks Tooru through the crowd, the god coming along willingly enough, but not before he blows kisses to the girls and promises to see them later. “You won’t be seeing them later,” Hajime mutters, mostly to himself, but Tooru hears and laughs.

 

(As they leave, the whispers turn to full voices and gossip about the two handsome young men that appeared in the village, and what luck they must have to be visited by such rare creatures as they. The questions, of course, crop up almost immediately:

 

“Do you think they’ve married?”

 

“Which one do you think is more handsome, Hajime-kun or that strange new boy?”

 

“Do they know each other? How do they know each other?”

 

“Are they friends? Enemies? Relatives?”

 

“Who are Hajime and Tooru?”)

 

Hajime doesn’t stop walking or speak to Tooru until they’re far beyond the noises of the village or prying eyes and ears. He throws Tooru against a wall with a growl. (Another mistake: Tooru's back hits the wall hard and he lets out a small haa of pain that parts his lips prettily. Hajime doesn’t like the way Tooru looks at him with hooded eyes or that looking and listening to him causes his blood pressure to rise.)

 

“What the fuck were you thinking?” Hajime yells, translating his elevated heart rate as anger at Tooru's recklessness. “What possessed you to just wander into town like it’s nothing? If the people here saw you—saw your true form—it would be like Oikami sent down an angel of death! It would be—”

 

“Marvelous,” Tooru hisses.

 

“A disaster,” Hajime corrects him through gritted teeth. “These are simple, good people. Why are you terrorizing them?”

 

Tooru gives him an exaggerated eye roll. “Well, Iwa-chan won’t visit me anymore—even when he’s been here three weeks—so I thought I’d spirit away one of those pretty girls to keep me company instead,” he replies in a sing-song voice. “Maybe that girl who always comes up with the offering—”

 

“Listen here, you fucke—” Hajime grabs a fistful of Tooru's shirt, hauling him close to Hajime so that he can scream at him up close and personal, but as soon as Tooru is close enough to breathe in Hajime's furious exhale, his eyes spark again, intense and powerful, and he breaks free. Tooru turns on Hajime, shoving him up against the wall and pinning him there, a leg between his thighs, with godly strength. Hajime surges against him, snarling, but even the full impact of his body doesn’t move Tooru a fraction of an inch.

 

“What’re you gonna do to stop me now, Iwa-chan?” Tooru taunts, his low voice pressed against Hajime's ear and hair tickling Hajime's cheek. “Come on. Show me what you’ll do.”

 

“Isn’t it enough to have someone to converse with on your stupid fucking mountain?” Hajime hisses, still shoving at Tooru. There’s a roaring in his ears he can’t explain, but it’s choking his throat and making it hard to think because under his fury, there’s a fear for Tooru's safety, and below even that, there’s the joy that Tooru's here and that he remembers Hajime this time.

 

Tooru pauses for a second, but then bursts out laughing. “Oh, what? You really think I spoke to that girl who comes to the shrine? Don’t make me laugh any harder Iwa-chan.” But his laugh sounds bitter to Hajime.

 

He pulls back just a little, so he can look Hajime in the eyes and fuck, that’s too much intensity, too much Tooru for Hajime to function at such close proximity. Hajime can see every fleck of emotion and humanity in Tooru's eyes, smell the wild scent of earth and water and sky and freedom that never left him even in human form, feel the strain of Tooru's muscles against him as he was pinned, god Nana just had to be right; Tooru had grown, too, he was stronger and more mature and beautiful

 

“Do you really think you’re so easily replaced, Iwaizumi?” Tooru growls, low and possessive.

 

Tooru.” Hajime honestly means for it to come out as a hiss of annoyance, but what escapes is a strangled, wretched moan of Tooru's name. Hajime's voice sounds so wrecked he doesn’t even recognize it, but the roaring in his ears and the pounding at the back of his head blurs into a single point of clarity with the word, the hands pushing Tooru away settling on his arms instead and clutching at him for stability. Hajime is suddenly very aware of every point of touch between their bodies, and the sheer volume has him dizzy.

 

Tooru freezes at the utterance, eyes going wide. Something shifts in his expression too fast for Hajime to catch, but there’s a cracking sound to the left of his head and the hand on Hajime's right shoulder suddenly becomes a painful grip. Tooru jumps away from him not a moment later, staring at his hands and oh god they’re tipped in claws not fingers when did that happen. Hajime looks to his left and finds that a chunk of the wall is missing, and a glance at his right shoulder reveals that yes, his shirt is torn. He and Tooru share shocked, confused looks, Hajime's heart still racing as he looks at the crumbled section of wall and thinks that could have been my shoulder.

 

“W-Well…” Tooru starts shakily. “You’re my own personal shrine, so, uh, y-yeah, you’re not replaceable. Stupid of you to think otherwise.”

 

“If you thank me for being your shrine by ripping my shoulder out, I don’t think I want that job anymore,” Hajime babbles, not really thinking about what he’s saying.

 

“That wasn’t—!” Tooru protests, but stops himself partway through. “That wasn’t because you’re my source of power,” he mumbles after a moment.

 

“Oh really? Then what was it because of?” Hajime demands.

 

Tooru's looking at him like that again. The tension rises between them. Hajime is sure he’ll be thrown against the wall and devoured in a second. Tooru falters. “That’s…I…”

 

“Spit it out,” Hajime whispers, mind turning fuzzy at the edges because he knows they’re on the verge of something, a something that they’ve been playing at since they met, coming to head when Tooru leaned into him, when Hajime spoke his name like that. He’s afraid to know—can’t not know. His heart hurts.

 

But the fire flickers and fades from Tooru's eyes and he turns away, huffing. “I just lost control…o-of my transformation for a second. No big deal, happens to the best of us.” He walks away determinedly, but realizes after about five steps that he’s lost. “Um, which way is it to your grandmother’s house?”

 

“Like hell I’m letting you into my home,” Hajime scoffs, concealing his unease and shred of disappointment beneath their usual bickering. “What if you turn into a dragon and wreck everything?”

 

“I won’t!” Tooru scowls at him. “I’m not that incompetent.”

 

“Could have fooled me,” Hajime says drily, but leads Tooru to Nana’s shop anyway. The entire way back Tooru entertains himself by imagining (out loud, so Hajime can definitely hear him) how crappy Hajime's Nana’s house is. He’s painted quite the glorious picture of a rundown hut with a dirt floor and a pile of hay for a bed, all sorts of wriggling creatures sharing the space with Hajime and the wart-covered, hunch-backed owner Hajime called grandmother by the time they reach Nana’s shop.

 

Hajime is smugly pleased when Tooru halts mid-sentence to gasp at her shop.

 

Tooru can’t even muster up the willpower to tell off Hajime, well if you had told me she was a botanist… Nana’s shop is any plant-lover’s dream home. Every crack in the wood, every horizontal surface, every free wall—even outside the shop—is covered in plants. Lining her windowsills and doorframe are pots of various sizes and colors: some are plastic, others clay; some hand-painted by the village children or decorated with glue and plastic gemstones, others tiled or painted by masters of their craft. The plants inside each pot vary as wildly as their pots—from flowers to vegetables to bonsai to young bushes and trees.

 

He walks closer, because he must. The walls are covered in healthy ivy and passionfruit flowers, blooming and turning towards him as if recognizing a master of nature when he’s in their presence. Hajime watches as with every step towards the shop Tooru takes, the brighter the flowers become, the fuller the leaves, the thicker the stems. The plant life revels in his presence, and Tooru in the life cultivated by a single human woman.

 

Tooru takes note in particular of a flower with full, blue petals turning a dark purple at the sepals. He reaches out a finger, and the flower turns upwards to face his finger. He swirls it in a lazy figure eight and Hajime blinks in surprise as pollen floats slowly from the flower to circle Tooru's finger. No, not pollen—tiny pollen-like spirits, dancing around their master.

 

“This one’s rare,” Tooru says softly. “It’s a soul flower, attracts butterflies to it. Even I have trouble finding them on the mountain. To grow one as a human—unbelievable.”

 

“You’ve got a good eye,” Nana says suddenly, revealing her presence from just inside the doorway. Hajime nods at her and Tooru fixes her with a soft smile. Nana looks Tooru up and down critically for a moment before she, too, returns the smile. “Can’t say I’ve seen any butterflies around that one, though.”

 

“That’s because they’re spirits of the mountain,” Tooru explains, waving his finger so that the tiny spirits flutter back into the flower. “They wouldn’t stray this far away from home, like any sensible spirit would.” At this, he looks back and grins cheekily at Hajime, who scowls.

 

“Nana, this is…Tooru,” Hajime manages.

 

“Ah, lovely to meet you finally,” Nana says politely. “I’m Sakurai Hana, Hajime's grandmother. He’s talked about you quite a bit, but I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting you until now.” She bows respectfully to him, and Tooru returns the bow.

 

Hajime, however, was horrified. “Nana—! You just—!”

 

Tooru smiles brightly at Hajime. “Ha-ji-me,” he sounds out Hajime's given name, rolling the syllables across his tongue smoothly. “You have quite the beautiful name, Hajime-chan,” he giggles, and Hajime feels sick to his stomach—partly horror that Tooru has his name, partly anger at the –chan tacked onto the end, and partly because he’s never heard Tooru say his name before and it does things to him.

 

Tooru turns back to Nana. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Hana-chan. I have much respect for you and your gardening skills. I’m quite impressed.”

 

“It helps that there’s a little magic flowing around here,” Nana says cryptically, and when both Tooru and Hajime give her looks of surprise, she laughs. “Hajime's song, of course. The plants love to hear it as much as you do, Tooru-san.”

 

“Tooru-san?” Hajime whispers in disbelief.

 

“Hm, that does make sense,” Tooru agrees, and Hajime can’t stand to see them get along any longer. He storms into the shop with a huff, feeling childish despite it all. God, Tooru's even offering Nana his arm as they walk inside, like he’s some kind of gentleman. She already likes him, Hajime can tell, and he wants to groan. Of course Tooru would be smooth and charming now of all times. Of course.

 

Nana gives Tooru the grand tour of the shop and they discuss (in great detail) each of the plants species while Nana gives Tooru growing tips and Tooru tells her about the spirits lingering in her shop, happy to share her home and help the plants grow strong and healthy. She’s delighted by him, and even stranger, Tooru is delighted by her. Hajime feels as if he has lost somehow, even though he’d be happy to pawn Tooru and all his problems off on someone else.

 

Hajime's just about to head back out into town and leave the two green thumbs and their plant boners alone, when Tooru grabs at his arm, gently. “Hey, Hajime,” he says softly. “Show me your home.” He means the upstairs, and like hell is Hajime going to show him all that.

 

“No way,” he scoffs. “I don’t want you breathing over me when I sleep. And don’t call me Hajime.” Tooru makes an unintelligible whining noise and grabs Hajime's arm, rubbing his forehead against it.

 

“Get off me!” Hajime yelps, but if anything, Tooru curls closer to him, pulling Hajime's arm into his chest and whining variations of ‘Hajime’ and ‘please’.

 

“Fine. Fine! It’s fine so get off of me!” Hajime eventually concedes, and Tooru releases him only to wrap his arms around Hajime's waist from behind and hook his chin over Hajime's shoulder, making a pleased noise when he succeeds. Sighing, Hajime leads Tooru up the stairs, annoyance increasing when Tooru doesn’t let go and is tall enough to not slip away when he’s a step below Hajime.

 

Hajime is freed when they reach the tiny space Nana and Hajime call home, Tooru more interested in examining every nook and cranny of the apartment like a dog would in its new home. He pauses only to smile at the three soul flowers on the windowsill by the sink, murmuring ‘four flowers’ under his breath and shaking his head in amazement. He’s in and out of the fridge, the cabinets, the bathroom, the bedroom, finally collapsing on the couch with a sigh.

 

“As I thought,” he drawls. “It’s tiny in here. I’m getting claustrophobic.”

 

Hajime thinks back to when they crawled on their hands and knees through a tiny passageway in a cave Tooru wanted to explore, and how he seemed right at home wriggling through suffocating darkness while Hajime hyperventilated. He snorts. “If you don’t like it, feel free to get out.” Hajime swallows. “Also, get off my bed. It’s weird to see you lying there.”

 

Just to be contrary, Tooru makes himself more comfortable, stretching and making a pleased noise that, just like last time they met, echoes in Hajime’s mind and ingrains itself into his memory. “Why?” Tooru asks, grinning like the little shit he is.

 

Hajime grits his teeth. “Because—” Because it makes you look welcome, makes it look like we’re friends. Because you fit so awkwardly (so well) on that couch, just like me. Because I want to do something stupid, like squish next to you.

 

Because it makes you look like you’re mine.

 

“Just because,” he finishes lamely. Tooru snorts.

 

“Why are humans so damn uptight about their beds? You don’t see me getting protective over a nice patch of grass. It’s just where you sleep, right?” he grumbles.

 

“…Yeah,” Hajime mumbles, not willingly to expand upon what exactly happened on beds when people weren’t sleeping. Ignorance is bliss, and all that good stuff.

 

“You know I’d never use your name for something horrible, right?” Hajime's head snaps up at how small Tooru's voice sounds. Tooru isn’t looking at him, biting his lip and playing with his fingers instead of meeting Hajime's eyes. He looks so vulnerable in this moment that Hajime drops his guard and settles on the arm of the couch, looking concerned.

 

“Where did this come from?” He wonders aloud.

 

“Just…you seemed so distressed when Hana-chan told me your name,” Tooru sighs. “Are you really so scared that I’d hurt you with that knowledge?”

 

Hajime isn’t really sure what he was scared of. He’s not afraid of this Tooru, too anxious to meet his eyes, nor the Tooru who could have slashed him with claws earlier in the day. He was afraid of the Tooru who killed for fun and he was scared of the Tooru his grandmother approved of. Hajime looks at Tooru's feet, sock-covered despite the uselessness of socks in the forest. It was so stupidly, uniquely Tooru to think of even that detail, (or not think of it) that Hajime had to smile.

 

“I’m scared when you’re not yourself,” he admits. “When you ate the spirits, last time, with no remorse—that scared me. The way you talk easily and familiarly with Nana—that scares me, too.”

 

Tooru snorts again. “Isn’t the other me just the one that you shaped me to be?”

 

Hajime shakes his head. “No. Your stupid socks, your excessive vanity and need to show off, your fear of handling a spirit too roughly, the way you snort when you laugh too hard and get embarrassed about it because it’s a ugly sound—that’s who you are. That’s the Tooru I love.”

 

The moment the words leave his mouth, thoughtlessly, Hajime regrets them. Tooru had been turning more and more pink as Hajime spoke, and now he’s left sputtering and blinking, completely crimson. “H-Hajime—”

 

“No, shut up,” Hajime growls, flushed to the ears himself but determined to fix this. “You’re my best friend, despite the fact that you’re also the most obnoxious shithead I’ve ever met. I know it’s stupid of me to say this—and I can’t believe I am—but despite the differences in our species, our lives, and the short amount of time we’ve spent together, I still care a fucking lot about you, Tooru, and I get dead scared when I think that you might cease to be yourself. So just…don’t stop being Tooru. Not for me or anyone else.”

 

“Hajime-chan is my best friend, too!” Tooru wails, throwing himself forward and pulling Hajime into a tight hug. “I love Hajime the most out of anyone in this world!” he declares, and Hajime can feel his balance slipping.

 

He has time to squeak “idiot, let go, I’m falling!” before he topples backwards onto Tooru's chest with an oof. Tooru burrows his face into the crook of Hajime's neck and shoulder, twining his legs with Hajime's blubbering about how Hajime is his only true friend and how much he loves him. He’s so warm—half of Hajime wants to pull away before Tooru comes to his senses and things become awkward, while the other half wants to stop fighting against Tooru for once, just lean back and accept him. Hajime's reason loses out to the feeling of Tooru's skin close to his after so long, silky and pale despite his life in the wilderness.

 

“Stop crying, you moron,” Hajime sighs. “How old are you?”

 

Tooru doesn’t reply but stops crying, only allowing himself the occasional sniffle and open-mouthed inhale of Hajime's scent. He means nothing by it; if anything, Hajime's scent is just a comfort, a familiarity that calms him down, but the brush of soft lips or the poke of a nose against Hajime's skin is too much to handle when Tooru is so beautiful and so close and Hajime is only human.

 

Hajime reaches for Tooru's hands and detaches one from Tooru's softened grip around him, stroking a thumb over his skin and letting the steady pulse of Tooru's heartbeat calm him down and forget their too-close proximity.

 

-----------------------------

 

“Oh, Hajime, about Aiko’s granddaughter—”

 

“Ah, right, about her. I forgot to tell you, Nana, but if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to graciously decline her offer to meet.”

 

“Oh? Any particular reason?”

 

“It’s not that I don’t think she won’t be a perfectly lovely girl, but I do know how arranged marriages and marriage interviews go, and I can’t be having that.”

 

“Why, Hajime! I didn’t know you had someone in mind for marriage.”

 

“I don’t. But I’m not good enough at the whole small talk, flirting thing to fake my way through it when I’ll never belong with her. I’d be quite happy to go for a friendly coffee some other time though.”

 

“Should I give her a reason why you can’t make the lunch?”

 

Hajime finishes lacing up his hiking boots with a final tug. There’s a mysterious smile on his face, equal parts excitement and wonder. He glances through the kitchen window and his lips twist, amused. “Tell her my heart has always been with the mountain.”

 

Nana does.

 

----------------------------------

 

This summer something is different.

 

Hajime still hikes up to the green shrine the next morning a backpack slung over one shoulder and a steady pace of one-two, one-two up the steps, whistling the entire time. The creatures of the spirit world seem even more lively than usual, near fearlessly strolling out in front of Hajime and winding past his legs or just over his skin. There’s a static to the air, as fresh and sharp as mint—the smell of magic. It’s so much stronger here. Something has happened since he was gone. A few flying spirits settle onto his arms, head, and shoulders, cheeping softly. He laughed at their antics for a while before he reached the top step.

 

Tooru waits for him, leaning against the torii in black skinny jeans and a shirt far too fashionable for a hike, making Hajime feel woefully underdressed. But then Tooru smiles at him, delighted, and Hajime forgets to be self-conscious.

 

Tooru is helpful with the offering, laying it out although not praying, and nervous about his dress (“Is this actually what the boys in Tokyo wear?” “The ones that can afford it, yes.” “Eugh.”). He was behaving so well that Hajime thought he was ill, sneaking glances whenever he thought Tooru wasn’t looking, but he couldn’t find any signs of illness, nor any cracks in this benevolent, cheerful façade he was sure Tooru was putting up.

 

It’s not until Hajime sees the flowers leaning towards Tooru and a three-eyed raven perch on Tooru's shoulder, pecking playfully at his ear, that Hajime has to stand up from his crouch, impressed. Tooru meets his eyes, questioning. Maybe then he realizes that his hand is stroking another raven delicately, with care and affection Hajime had never seen him display towards other creatures of his own will, let alone subconsciously.

 

Tooru puts his hands on his hips. “What?” But he looks embarrassed at getting caught, scowling slightly.

 

“You’ve changed,” Hajime observes. There’s nothing negative in his tone—rather, he’s surprised and delighted by the change in his old friend. “You’ve started treating them like they’re worthy of respect. And look what it has brought you.”

 

Tooru looks baffled for a moment, but Hajime doesn’t bother to fight down a grin. At Tooru's feet, tiny weeds struggle out from between the stones of the temple, fresh and green, reaching towards Tooru. Where his hand had rested against shrine, moss turns spongier and darker—healthier. The tree branches rustle in the wind but from all directions, the wind pushes their leaves and appendages towards Tooru. To bend even the wind to his power and near royal grace…

 

“You’ve become a true king of this mountain, Tooru,” Hajime says softly. “You’re worshipped by the plants and the animals and the spirits and every pebble or breeze and trickle of water. You truly are a grand king.”

 

Tooru huffs. “Well that much was obvious, Iwa-chan. Somehow this mountain has come to love me, and I, it. The day will come when Oikami moves from their home against the mountain, and on that day, all the entities of nature will hold me up as I challenge Oikami.” He twists a piece of hair between his fingers. “But I guess I owe it most of it to a tiny, smelly human who showed up on my doorstep all those years ago.”

 

“You owe all of that to me and don’t you forget it,” Hajime teases, hopping away when Tooru swipes at him. This time, Hajime is the one who takes off running, heading for their favorite spot. Tooru pursues with a mock-exasperated sigh. The sound behind Hajime starts distant, but quickly gains on him, and the telltale bu-dum, bu-dum lets him know Tooru's cheating, as usual. Some things never change.

 

This time, Hajime isn’t afraid to hurl himself off the cliff face that caused them such a scare last time. He twists through the air wildly, a whoop dragged forcibly from his body as his stomach ends up somewhere in the vicinity of his esophagus and his heart moves to his liver as he drops. There’s an amused snort in his ear, and then Tooru's clawed paws catch him at the waist and lift him to the ground safely. Regardless, his legs give out beneath him and he collapses, kissing the earth and laughing.

 

Tooru lights next to him, Hajime catching the roll of his eyes as he drags himself to his feet. “One day I won’t be there to catch you,” Tooru mutters. Hajime doesn’t believe him for a second. Not like it’s much strain on Tooru nowadays—he’s a mature adult, finally grown into the length of his body and put on muscle that puts Hajime's biceps to shame. His whiskers are long and tapered…yes, two-thirds his body length, like Nana had said. And his horns had a fully developed arc to them, smooth and dangerous.

 

Hajime punches him in the foreleg amiably, and earns a deep but friendly growl in response. “Please, like it’s some big hassle to break my fall. If it’s so troublesome, I could always…” Hajime trails off, looking at the dip in Tooru's body where neck met body. A human could fit on there—

 

“Oh, don’t even think about it, mortal,” Tooru barks. “We’re friends and equals, but you’ll never be my master.” Tooru shifts back to a human with an inhuman pop and click of bone and reformation of skin and muscle. Hajime shivers, unnerved.

 

“Come on,” he sighs. “I can’t even ride you once?”

 

Tooru is turned away from Hajime, but his ear tips go pink. “No, thank you.”

 

Hajime feels a little of Tooru's mischievous spirit enter his own. “I bet you’d like it.”

 

“It’s humiliating and animalistic, nothing befitting a god like me,” Tooru sniffs, barely keeping his voice from wobbling.

 

“Hey now, I’m not that bad!” Hajime mock-protests, suffocating a laugh. “I’ve heard it’s something like a religious experience, actually, and it doesn’t have to be animalistic if you don’t want it to be.”

 

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Tooru groans, covering his face with one arm. “I give up, get away from me.” He shoves at Hajime blindly, but Hajime just traps his hand and twines his fingers through Tooru's fondly. He squeezes Tooru's hand to let him know he was teasing. Tooru blinks at him moodily from behind his arm, but lowers it when Hajime squeezes his hand again.

 

“Why do I even put up with you?” Tooru sighs, long-suffering.

 

“I could ask you the same thing,” Hajime notes. “Do you even know what you were like as a kid?”

 

Tooru headbutts him in response. “Mean, Iwa-chan. Stop being such a jerk or I won’t show you this cool new place I found.”

 

Hajime lets the teasing go (but not Tooru's hand). Tooru leads him away from the vista of the village, deeper into the mountain, and as such, deeper into the spirit world. Passing through the barrier feels to Hajime as if he can breathe freer in the air crackling with the static of magic. They pass the tree that touches the clouds, and for a fleeting moment, Hajime wonders if maybe Tooru is taking him to Seijou, the dense forest Tooru called home, under the watchful gaze of the spirit Aoba Johsai. But in all their adventures, Tooru had never brought Hajime anywhere near his home or the domain of Oikami, most likely for a reason.

 

True to the pattern, Tooru takes him east, away from the north of Seijou. Hajime's disappointment doesn’t last though, as along the way, Tooru proves just how much he’s matured. Tooru pauses to name spirits or point out particularly beautiful ones to Hajime, lifting a log here or pressing a warm hand to Hajime's chin to guide his gaze to the maze of interwoven branches in the overhead canopy. Even more promising, the spirits and minor gods in question came out to greet Tooru. It was different than how they greeted Hajime, prancing around him as if begging him to sing and moving close when he acquiesced.

 

The spirits yielded to Tooru. When they ‘bothered’ Hajime too much, Tooru would fix them with a stern gaze that quelled any overexcitement. But they didn’t tremble—they bowed to him respectfully and scampered off. In the same way, when he called to them, they came fearlessly but giving Tooru space unless he demanded proximity first. Hajime was embarrassed to admit that he forgot Tooru wasn’t actually the ruler of the forest.

 

Where was Oikami, and why did they give all this up?

 

Tooru's new spot happened to be a vista much like their cliff face, but instead of overlooking the village, it boasted a panoramic landscape of the spirit world, down in the valley, from Seijou to Oikami’s mountain. Even more interesting to Hajime was the pool of clear mountain water moving gently towards a waterfall that cascaded into the valley. Although the stream had a steady current, the pool was an offshoot of the river, and it was so very hot out.

 

Hajime has his shirt off and is pulling one leg out of his shorts when Tooru notices. “Iwa-chan?!” he squeaks. “What are you doing? Put your clothes back on!”

 

Hajime gives him a death glare, but leaves his boxers on to protect Tooru's virgin eyes or godly fear of his—actually, come to think of it, when Tooru was in human form, did he have a human one or some kind of weird, dragon thing going on down there? Hajime's not nearly enough of a pervert to stare openly at Tooru's crotch, but he does wonder.

 

“Swim with me, Tooru,” he offers. “You know it’s too hot to ignore the cold water.”

 

Tooru wrinkles his nose at the pool for a moment, and Hajime has time to think another dragon thing? Before Tooru relents with a muttered ‘fine’ and stripping of his own. It was rude to watch the tensing and relaxing of Tooru's shoulder muscles and the dips close to his spine, Hajime figures after too long of a moment staring. The cold water of the still pool cools him down in more ways than one.

 

Predictably, Tooru bores of relaxing in cool water after about two minutes, and starts up a splashing fight (Hajime wins), a bubble-blowing contest (Tooru wins), and a fish-catching contest (Tooru wins by cheating; called a draw). Hajime had only intended to dip for a little while and then keep on hiking, but the urge to splash Tooru in the face and the sound of his terrified squealing proves to be too tempting an offer for Hajime to resist. It has nothing to do with the way he laughs, bright and fearlessly loud when he makes himself a bubble beard, or the soft, pleased noises of victory he makes when he catches them a fish, not at all.

 

They cook the fish over a fire that Hajime is put in charge of making (“Don’t dragons breathe fire?” “An outdated and offensive stereotype to those of Eastern breeding. We prefer not to associate ourselves with our heathens of Western cousins.” “Ugh, whatever.”) It’s a tiny, pathetic thing until Tooru rolls his eyes and whispers a spell into it, causing it to roar to life. The fish cooks nicely, and although given the size of Tooru's true form it seemed too small, he seems quite satisfied with the portions. It’s late afternoon by the time they head back, Tooru already filling in the rest of Hajime's schedule with things they could do over the summer.

 

“Ah, hate to burst your bubble,” Hajime cuts in apologetically, “but I’m actually needed around town, too. I have a part-time job this summer as well.”

 

“At Hana-chan’s?” Tooru asks hopefully.

 

Hajime shakes his head thoughtfully. “I’m not paid to work for Nana—that’s just gratitude. Hazaki-san’s hiring me as a cashier this time, so I have actual hours and everything.”

 

“Sounds boring,” Tooru mutters.

 

Hajime rolls his eyes. “How else am I going to pay to keep coming out here?”

 

Tooru perks up at that. “You’ll be coming back?” Hajime nods.

 

“More often if I can—oh don’t get flattered. It’s to help out Nana as she gets older. She’s very capable, but I don’t want her straining or breaking anything.” Tooru looks pleased, regardless.

 

“I’ll come help you out, then, when you can’t come here,” Tooru decides.

 

They’re back at the shrine. Hajime shakes his head softly. “No, Tooru, you have a responsibility to stay here and guard the forest. You’re its master now, more so than Oikami, remember?” Tooru snorts.

 

“It can survive without me for a few hours while I explore the human world,” he argues. “Besides, I want to talk to Hana-chan more. I’ll trade with her all sorts of secrets to growing plants. And of course, leave a little magic behind.”

 

In the end, that’s what convinces Hajime. If it would make Nana’s life easier or more pleasant, then he would do anything in his power to make it so, even if it meant entertaining his troublesome friend when he wasn’t trailing Nana around her shop like a puppy. That much was amusing to Hajime—the great Tooru, beloved by all entities of nature and strong enough to compete for title of Oikami, bowed to Nana’s expertise and love of plant life and nature in general. It was strange to think that she knew some things that Tooru didn’t, but she was more than happy to show him how to convince the most petulant of seeds to germinate, how to feel the soil to check if the consistency was right for a certain plant, which ones needed what amount of life and for how long.

 

Tooru took in her words unblinking and fully focused, nodding when he understood and probing with gentle questions when he didn’t. In return, he gave Nana the secrets to drawing the friendly spirits to her shop with small bowls of cream set out or flowers turned just so that the wind would pick up their scent and blow it up into the mountain, calling them down. Nana couldn’t see the spirits like Hajime and Tooru could (and Hajime grimaced at the idea of letting Tooru lick her eyes, no matter what benefit it would give), but she seemed to have an otherworldly sense for them. Nana laughed and waved it off as having the greenest thumb in the village, but she had an uncanny knack for giving special care to the plants that housed tiny spirits or gods.

 

Hajime was under no delusion that he had a green thumb. Every time Nana tried to teach him, he got frustrated, and he had ruined more than one bonsai in the past. He was more content to watch Tooru flit around the shop to fetch Nana various watering cans and natural fertilizers, humming softly to himself and covered from head to toe in specks of dirt and plant matter. He lit up the small shop with the force of his happiness amongst the humans he had adopted as his own. Nana appreciated the help, too. Tooru was the genius botanist assistant she had never asked for, but gotten nonetheless.

 

Hajime didn’t mind Tooru monopolizing Nana’s time or vice versa as much as he had thought he would. He inserted himself into their discussions with tea and biscuits (something he actually could make) or some summer juice that Aiko had dropped off along with a hint that Hajime should really visit sometime soon. Tooru loved the juice the most, lapping it up like a child would and trailing Hajime back into the kitchen for more, hanging his head over Hajime's shoulder and pawing at his sides until Hajime swatted him off with a bark, pouring him some more juice.

 

He whistled and sang more often, too. Tooru used to be bothered by the song, Hajime remembered, but now he basked in the sound, maybe because he knew that it was for him and him only, making him stronger with every note that broke the heavy summer air. And in times where Hajime paused after the song—moments when Nana was shaping the soil at the base of a tomato plant, when the line of wind-chimes hanging from the shop’s overhang clinked softly and out of time, when Tooru looked into the sunlight, chest heaving with a deep inhale and a soft smile tweaking his lips, light brown eyes turning gold where the sun lit upon his face—Hajime had to bite his lip with the weight of emotion thrumming through his chest.

 

This summer couldn’t end, he thought.

 

So he didn’t let it.

 

Hajime wouldn’t give up his part-time job even to spend time with his summer family, but he would drag Tooru with him after, Tooru taking her female form to hide her presence, given the scene her male form had caused. She still drew attention and eyes from the villagers, an arm linked through Hajime's and delicate hand resting on his bicep, smile blinding as the empty sky at the height of the day. She often chose to wear light sundresses that made her seem even more untouchably divine and beautiful, a large sunhat shading the pale of her skin (as if Tooru could ever get sunburned). Aiko stopped mentioning her granddaughter, which at first made Hajime worried he’d done something to offend Nana’s best friend. He realized, very belatedly, that Tooru was quite gorgeous and only ever seen on his arm or close to his side, and that to any outside party they appeared much like all those grossly happy engaged couples Hajime had always turned his nose up at. It was an incredibly embarrassing situation, but how could he defend himself? Say that they were just close friends who happened to have a lot of physicality to their relationship and never left each other’s side? Who would believe that in such a small town as this?

 

Besides, Tooru seemed unruffled by it all.

 

She loved the food, the music, the clothes. Hajime walked her around to all the little cafes and Eru-neechan’s grocery; Tooru was enchanted by cheap sweets and expensive meats that made Hajime grumble as he pulled out his wallet again and again, but seeing as she wouldn’t be able to come down to the village on her own, he relented. Like many of the supernatural creatures of the mountain, music enthralled her to the point of dancing in the street with the village children, spinning in her dress and laughing brightly while they clung to the edges of her dress and sang love songs to the most beautiful woman they had had ever seen. Hajime got a few nods of approval from the young men of the village and appraising looks at Tooru that had Hajime ducking his head and looking away. She wasn’t his (but she was).

 

Nana only had one nice kimono for special occasions, and the nearest store was in the next town over, too far to take Tooru, but Hajime didn’t mind describing the patterns that danced over the fabric on festival nights, the brightly colored fish won from a game, the booths with more delicious food than Hajime could even think to try, the sway of the paper lanterns strung over the gathering, and the way the village lit up with manmade magic. Tooru looked thoughtful, distant, but not in a way that seemed bored with Hajime's story. She was thinking, which wasn’t necessarily good, but when Hajime asked what was on her mind she put a finger to her lips and winked at him.

 

Hajime didn’t think much of it, that night when he went to bed. He supposed he would go to the mountain tomorrow and meet Tooru halfway—he’d spent weeks showing her around town, but he was running out of things that would hold her attention, and he missed the peace and wild of the mountain forest, anyway. Thoughts of what to bring for early lunch blended into darkness as he fell asleep.

 

He dreamt, quite vividly, of a soft but insistent drumming, the clink of chimes, and the haunting melody of a pipe drifting through his window as he slept. There were festival lights below, carried by creatures of the forest that walked in a procession, swaying with the beating of the drums. Except, when Hajime blinked awake and rubbed at his eyes sleepily, the dreamlike mirage didn’t disappear. He peered out the kitchen window, fairly lights glinting below, and a smile curved across his face. Well, Hajime thought, there’s really only one who could convince the spirit deer to carry a sedan like that.

 

Hajime didn’t bother to change from his boxers, but pulled on a shirt, tiptoeing down the creaky stairs as lightly as possible. It didn’t matter that this was clearly a party he was being invited to, Hajime knew Tooru would provide. The sedan chair appeared to be made completely from gnarled tree branches, a canopy of leaves and flowers shielding his head and moss cushioning his seat as Hajime climbed in and was lifted up. Despite their seemingly slow procession into town, Hajime was carried rather quickly into the mountain. He couldn’t help the wide-eyed expression on his face as he took in the mountain at night, lit for a party or a celebration, or whatever this was that Tooru wanted it to be.

 

Their path was lined by bobbing will-o-wisps, flashing blue fire to green to gold to red as they pleased, tiny glowing green spirits casting an eerie light over the ground that was turned golden by the fairy light torches as Hajime passed. They passed through the spirit barrier, and then Hajime could hear it, the haunting music every mother and nanny and town elder warned the children against following into the woods, for fear of being spirited away by the creatures of the forest, never to be seen again. The sound of pipes mingled with the louder, more rhythmic drum beats and the hair-raisingly beautiful voices of the gods of the mountain, drawing Hajime forward and to the music, as if he had no control of his body.

 

They approached a clearing lit by a bonfire, and there Hajime heard the music clearest, saw the gods in the trees playing their instruments and all the spirits of the forest trembling and singing, lacing their magic over the gathering. Around the fire, more spirits danced wildly, almost frighteningly, gleeful and free as the crisp air. His procession halted and the spirit deer lowered him to the ground. Hajime took one faltering step out, transfixed by the display of life and energy and the pull the spirits had on him, drawing him in.

 

“Hajime.”

 

The spell relinquished its hold on him with the call of one voice, and Hajime turned to the fire, where he had heard the voice. Suddenly, the clearing doesn’t look so spellbinding, but more beautiful and welcoming. The soul flowers around the edges of the celebration bloomed in the light of the full moon, calling the blue butterflies and their shimmering wings out, twinkling amongst the fairy lights. All around him, the spirits bowed to Hajime. He’s surprised and humbled by the display—it’s not like he’s done a thing to deserve this, but perhaps, being summoned by Tooru meant he was an honored guest to these creatures.

 

The fire, towering as it was, parted when Hajime looked at it again, flames licking away from the center, like two massive waves making a space for Hajime to see through it to where Tooru stood, dressed to kill, in robes that were probably as ancient as he was. Across the broad sleeves and down to his sandals were detailed paintings of the mountain, Seijou depicted right over where Tooru's heart would have been, if he were human. There were animals and spirits and plant life and the sky and the great trees they had climbed as kids—unbelievably detailed and magnificent. Around Tooru's neck, a variety of dragon teeth sat strung on a thick cord, and circling the crown of his head, just in front of the sleek horns that protruded from his temple, was a circlet of laurels, making Tooru seem infinitely more wise and poised than Hajime had ever seen him.

 

And maybe this was who Tooru had become—this true lord of the mountain, giving Hajime a look that made him feel steady and welcomed and safe. It’s like Tooru can read his mind, because he laughs softly and gestures to his attire, Hajime not missing the glint of claws on his fingertips. “The laurels and the robe are a gift from the habitants of this mountain,” he sighs. “They were quite insistent that I look proper if I was to court you with a festival such as this.”

 

Hajime's heart thudded fiercely. Court. Is that what Tooru was doing? A courtship ritual to endear Hajime to him? He couldn’t speak or breathe around the lump in his throat that had formed when Tooru had just come out and said this thing Hajime was dancing around. “Court?” he blurts, because Hajime had a kind of terrific self-control that failed when he most needed it.

 

Tooru raises an eyebrow. “You are my temple,” he says softly. “I haven’t shown you proper gratitude for making me who I am, and that is a crime on my part. I am sorry, Hajime.”

 

Hajime's heart calms down slightly at the reassurance that Tooru wasn’t diving into that pit of emotions and feelings and memories that Hajime couldn’t name yet, but he still flushed at the mature formality of all this, at Tooru's maturity. “And the teeth?”

 

A fiercer smile. “The approval of my family, those of Seijou. In accepting you and in challenging Oikami.” He fingers a particularly large ivory tooth with a spark of excitement. “Aoba Johsai has given its approval, too.” Hajime sucks in a breath at that. The massive dragon was guardian of Seijou and as ancient as Oikami. If Tooru had its approval too—

 

“Dance with me, Hajime,” Tooru demands breathlessly, fearlessly, and Hajime's name on his lips sound like an order or a wish, but Hajime doesn’t care. Doesn’t care.

 

He steps through the fire without another second’s hesitation, heart thrumming with adrenaline. He’s close enough to feel the fatal heat, close enough to be licked by hungry flames, but as he lays a bare foot on the embers, he knows without a doubt in his mind that he will not be harmed. The flames don’t touch him. The embers do not burn. He walks through fire like he walks across soil, safe and sound, because Tooru protects him. The magic thickens in the air when he passes through, taking Tooru's outstretched hand, and when he does, his clothing ripples and shudders around him until he, too, is wearing a robe like Tooru's. His is painted with dragons curling over mountains and seas of fire, and Hajime swallows, throat tight again.

 

Tooru pulls him into the dance of the spirits, music whirling around with the warm summer breeze, ruffling Hajime's hair and sticking to the inside of his lungs as he dances, wild and fluid like the spirits, one of them if just for tonight. Tooru is at his side, always, hands intertwined or arms pressed flush. Always touching. Always moving. Always Tooru's too-human eyes eating Hajime alive.

 

The other gods dance near them—Hajime has an epiphany, then, that it’s not the bonfire that is the center of the dance: it’s them. The glow of the flames dance in their eyes, bridging the gap between feral and human, drawing the others’ attention and gaze and almost-touch. He and Tooru are a kind of magic themselves; they circle each other like enemies, pulling in close enough to chase the breath from the other’s lips, then far enough away to watch the spark of hunger—the fire’s and their own—in the other’s eyes. The gods want to touch, too, want to get in close to that electricity and burn, but they know to keep their distance from the dance.

 

Tooru doesn’t deny himself the brush of Hajime's skin and the proximity that speaks of claim, so Hajime doesn’t either. Hajime isn’t one of the mountain, can’t dance like they can (like Tooru can) with the fluidity and sensuality that tickles down Hajime's spine when he sees, but each breath of the air is a breath of freedom that loosens the clutch of embarrassment and fear around his heart. And when it releases him, when he no longer agonizes over the gap in skill, he allows the witching music to get in his lungs and blood and under his skin and he dances. Tooru's hand is at his hip in an instant, the silent sign of possession over the human, the protection from the spirits that want to trap him in the circle forever, because Hajime lights up the clearing with a warm, deep laugh and eyes closed, fearless.

 

He should be tired of the music, of the dancing, of the swirling around the bonfire that only grows higher and higher with the volume of the music. But Hajime's feet won’t stop hopping and twisting, his heart won’t ache with exhaustion, his muscles won’t burn, and when he throws his head back as Tooru dips him back, nose buried against his vulnerable flesh, the sweat doesn’t stick to him unpleasantly. This is the magic of the fairy circle.

 

It’s hard to tell when the transformation happens. Tooru laughs easily and wildly, closes his eyes to feel the rhythm pulling them around and around as often as he is drinking in Hajime's appearance and the summer night scenery. At one point, Hajime tangles his hand in Tooru's hair and finds it long and thick as a mane, running down his back but holds on, running his fingers through the strands. At another, the soft hands matching Hajime's tough, calloused palms become thick and rough as a wild animal’s, dwarfing Hajime's with their broadness and the length of his talons.

 

Hajime doesn’t know when he stops expecting cloth or skin and welcomes the brush of fur and scales against his skin, but the music reaches its climax and Hajime spins to face his companion and is met by the wise-looking muzzle of Tooru's true form, meeting his eyes. Hajime reaches out to draw fingers along the tendril-like whiskers that flow along Tooru's body, reaches again to brush against the bone of his smooth horns, and again to grasp the sides of Tooru's muzzle, his eyes as patient and amused as ever. Hajime's heart feels full and warm, and the buzz of the dancing makes his muscles ache pleasantly, all satisfaction and no pain. He pulls Tooru close to him, resting their foreheads together as he takes a shaky breath. This is what he kept coming back for. This is who changed his life irrevocably when he was too young to understand the path he had chosen.

 

Fur gives way to skin, and then suddenly Hajime is cradling Tooru's face in his hands, fingertips just brushing his hair and thumbs lining his jaw. Tooru seems pleased with himself, huffing happily, the exhale too close to Hajime's lips for comfort. Usually. But there’s something inherently magical about the way the spirits have quieted for them, the way Tooru lets Hajime this close, the way Hajime's heart beats steadily and fearlessly. He swipes his thumbs across Tooru's cheekbones, their foreheads still pressed together.

 

Hajime can’t look away from Tooru's eyes, warm with affection that settles in Hajime's gut. His mind flits, just for a moment, of legends where gods wed humans by stealing them into the night, and then even briefer, he thinks well, I wouldn’t really mind either way, before he nudges Tooru's nose with his own, gentle and playful. Tooru screws up his face in mock-horror, but nuzzles back, taking the easy physicality one step forward by holding Hajime's elbows and leaning back so that he could kiss his forehead. Hajime hums at that, unperturbed, and lets Tooru kiss his temple and his ear and his nose delicately. This means something, Hajime knows it means something, but the magic around them is messing with his rational thought, and he pulls Tooru into a tight hug before he does something stupid.

 

Tooru curls into him easily, hands fitting naturally at Hajime's hips while Hajime presses his fingers hard against the muscle of Tooru's back, tracing up to his shoulders where he just holds him like that, feeling the rise and fall of his best friend’s chest against his own. They don’t let go until the music fades and the magic of the fairy circle begins to dim, leaving only the will-o-wisps and the green glow of the trees to guide the two off the mountain. They bump shoulders companionably, not saying anything to each other but sneaking glances. Hajime can feel it—the beginning of a something fluttering in his chest, the beginning of a beginning or something equally as stupid and irrational as Tooru himself. With Tooru himself.

 

The soft green glow of the mountain is replaced with the flash of red and blue when they reach the foot of the mountain, and the fluttering in Hajime's chest falls flat, crushed under the weight of a sudden, heavy dread.

 

It occurs to Hajime suddenly that he has no idea how long he’s spent on the mountain, consumed by the fairy circle’s magic. He didn’t tell Nana where he was going, and even though she was prone to sleeping like the dead, she was still old and fragile and she was home, alone, where anything could happen. He exchanges glances with Tooru, sees the same pinched-brow worry, and they break into a run immediately, making for Nana’s house faster than Hajime can ever remember racing for the mountain, driven by an all-consuming fear. The whole time they’re running, pain returning to Hajime's calves and rawness to his throat with every pant, he’s thinking it’s not her it won’t be her there are tons of old folk around here and she’s healthy

 

But the emergency vehicle is parked in front of Nana’s shop regardless of Hajime's self-assurances. The neighbors and most of the village are huddled in groups around the scene as the paramedics’ wheel out a gurney and she looks so small, so fragile with an oxygen mask on and strong men lifting her into an ambulance. Hajime pushes through the crowd, leaving Tooru behind as he desperately tries to get to her. Distantly, he registers the sound of Tooru's halting voice in a worried question, the whispers of the townsfolk around him, his own voice growing in volume as he calls for Nana and gets no response.

 

The ambulance doors close before Hajime can make his way close enough to beg a ride to the hospital with her, and he lets out a frantic wail that doesn’t sound at all like him. His knees shake and then collapse, strong arms reaching to catch him before he can completely slump to the ground.

 

“Whoa now, whoa now, steady,” Hazaki-san’s voice is next to Hajime's ear, and he forces himself to listen. “It’s okay, you’re alright, Hana-san’s going to be okay, the Takagis heard the crash and called in time for her to be alright—”

 

“What happened?” Hajime whispers, voice thick with grief.

 

Hazaki-san’s brow furrows. “She suffered a stroke, they think, when she was on the stairs coming down into the shop. She lost her balance and fell—which is what the Takagi family heard—and they rushed to check on her immediately. The paramedics—they think she’ll be able to recover, but her hip—” Hazaki-san shakes his head slowly. “She hurt it really bad, Hajime-chan.”

 

Hajime's throat closes up and he stuffs his fist in his mouth to keep from letting out a sob. Tears swim in his eyes, but he fights them back. He has to be strong now, has to take care of Nana, has to get to the hospital

 

Hazaki-san’s still looking at him.

 

“Hajime…” he says softly, looking at Hajime with a mix of confusion and pity, “why weren’t you there? Where were you during all of this?”

 

Hajime opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. Where was he? Up in the mountains, playing around in the middle of the night, while his grandmother and most important person to him suffered a near-fatal injury. If he had been there…if he hadn’t wandered off like a kid, maybe he could have gotten whatever Nana needed from downstairs. Maybe he could have caught her when she fell. Maybe he could have recognized the symptoms and driven her to a hospital before things got bad enough for her to tumble down the stairs.

 

Hajime shuts his mouth with an audible click because both he and Hazaki-san know there’s no good answer. He fucked up, and he fucked up bad. “Can you drive me to the hospital?” he asks quietly, cowed. “I need to apologize to her. I need to make sure she’s okay.”

 

Hazaki-san nods after a moment. It’s not his job to chastise Hajime for his mistakes, and either way, Hajime was clearly suffering. “Give me five minutes and I’ll be ready,” he says. Hajime nods, too ashamed of himself to stop the tears from overflowing or hide the wet sniffle as he tried to get control of his breathing. There’s a hand on his shoulder—light and unsure of how welcome its touch was—and Hajime feels a burning in his gut like never before.

 

Don’t touch me,” he snaps at Tooru, glad that the other villagers have given him space and are keeping to themselves. He slaps Tooru's hand away and Tooru—fucking Tooru—has the audacity to look hurt, like it was his relative who had just suffered a stroke, like he had any level of comprehension of human emotion.

 

“Get out of here, Tooru,” Hajime seethes. “Get out of my sight before I do something I regret.”

 

“Hajime, I’m sor—” And Hajime is so done with the soft pity in his voice, the regret and the guilt that makes Tooru's words quake, because it reminds him of the guilt and the fear inside his own chest and he is just done with Tooru being anywhere near him, regrets that he ever let him into this life.

 

“Sorry? You’re sorry?” Hajime snaps, raising his voice before dropping it so that they don’t draw attention to themselves. “Nana needed me, for once in my entire fucking life, she really, really needed me. And where was I? Fucking around in the forest with you!”

 

Tooru flinches away, and Hajime feels sick pleasure churn in his gut, the twisted joy of lashing out at someone else to try and press some of his own pain on another, to push the blame away from himself. “It’s your fault that Nana hurt herself this bad. For taking me away from her. I was so, so stupid to think anything good could ever come of—of this.” He gestures between them. “So you better get the fuck away from me, Tooru. And don’t you ever seek me out again. I won’t sing for you, not for the rest of my life; don’t bother trying to change my mind.”

 

And Tooru doesn’t. He wants to explain, wants to protest, wants to hold Hajime because god he’s trying so hard not to let the shimmering in his eyes fall, but the harshness in Hajime's voice is a sucker punch. Eyes welling up with tears and biting at his lip as he squeezes them shut, Tooru whips away from Hajime and runs, sprints with all the strength in his godly body to get away from Hajime. Hajime was right in the end, wasn’t he? Tooru had selfishly, selfishly wanted Hajime to himself and as such he had snatched away something precious from Hajime and Hana-chan. Who was he to call them ‘his humans’? Who was he to insert himself into their perfectly happy family? His two greatest friends in this world…because of him, they were suffering. Hajime was right, Hajime was right. He would never darken their doorstep again.

 

There’s a dull thud of satisfaction in Hajime's chest before it’s overtaken by a new grief, one that he can’t stand to process. Alone, Hajime feels the tightness in around his heart squeeze harder, stung with regret, but he brushes it aside. Gives in to delusion. Good. Thank god he’s gone. Maybe now we’ll be okay. Should have never trusted a trickster god like him in the first place.

 

“Hajime-chan, let’s go,” Hazaki-san calls, and Hajime turns his back on the mountain one final time.

 

----------------------------------------

 

Hazaki-san is right. Nana gets to the hospital in time for the doctors to treat her, and miraculously, she shouldn’t have any lasting effects from the stroke other than that she’s going to have to have someone keep an eye on her from time to time. Her hip, however…the doctors tell Hajime it will never heal completely and that she’ll have trouble walking for the rest of her life. Even with special surgery (Hajime pales at the cost) she still would have difficulty, and, her doctor suggests, she should just forget about stairs altogether. It would be for the best.

 

Hajime bristles at that. He won’t let Nana give up her one true love, the botany shop she worked so hard on every day to perfect. He snaps that he’ll move her bed down himself, make her a separate room downstairs to sleep and rest in. They can move some of the plants upstairs instead. It’s not a big deal.

 

But who will take care of her? The kitchen is upstairs. How will she function on her own? It would be better for her to move into a bigger town, closer to the hospital

 

No. No, fuck that, Hajime says, curse and all, making some of the nurses gasp at his language, but for Christ’s sake, his grandmother isn’t an invalid, she just needs a little help. Who will help, they ask? He will. Hajime will stay with her.

 

And he does just that. He ignores the protests of his parents that he’s throwing away his life, ignores the pitiful glances from his friends, but doesn’t fail to get their numbers so that they can still keep in touch—Hajime's just moving to the country, he doesn’t intend on burning any bridges. Besides, he can’t lie to himself that he liked his university, liked the city, liked the prospect of working a nine to five job, just another cog in the machine. Hajime's heart is with this village, with Nana, with the mountain and the marvel of nature. He always wanted to be somewhere where he could breathe freely, and the people of the village will definitely help him get on his feet and make a living there.

 

He brings very few of his personal items to the village, just some photographs of his high school volleyball team, the MVP medal that his friends had made him as a joke, his clothing, and his laptop. He pauses at the store to buy a sketchpad and some colored pencils, after a long moment of deliberating. He’d always wanted to learn to draw.

 

Nana is out of the hospital by the time Hajime has fully moved in and back to her cheerful self. Hajime and some other villagers have to rearrange the furniture to make room for her wheelchair while she’s still healing, and Takagi-san once more lends Hajime tools and supplies to build her shelves within reach of her wheelchair. Nana tuts at Hajime for spoiling her and not trying to find a job. She tries to convince him to go back to university for a while, too, but she knows as well as Hajime that he was never settled there. He assures her repeatedly that he’s not leaving her alone again, and politely ignores the few tears Nana sheds in response.

 

Hajime is too skittish to ask Hazaki-san for a permanent position at his general store, but is saved the trouble when one of Hazaki-san’s regulars resigns in preparation of moving her family to the city. He hunts down a stuttering Hajime and insists that Hajime take the position. Hajime finds himself stocking and cashiering and delivering orders to the villagers within a week. It’s good work, busy work, between his new job and Nana that keeps Hajime safe and distracted from the mountain looming over the town, and any dangerous thoughts that may follow with thinking on it too long.

 

The first few months are rough. Nana gets frustrated with her injury easily, gets upset that she has to trouble Hajime to run up and down, and Hajime sees a lot more forced smiles than he’s ever seen before, but Nana is nothing if not a fighter. She fights to get better and she fights to be positive, spending more time out in the fresh air, like the doctors suggested, and the more time she spends outside, the happier she seems at the end of the day and the better she sleeps. She mentions to Hajime, once, that she understands why he was drawn to the mountain now, but the twisted, painful look on his face at the comment stops her from mentioning it again.

 

It’s on one of those days that she’s resting outside, rocking back and forth in the rocking chair Hajime had bought for her (after one miserable, failed attempt to make one himself), that the first cold wind blows through the village, down the lane, making Nana huff fondly and pull her blanket up further and making Natsumi and Junko shiver and rub their arms as they scurry inside Hazaki-san’s store. Hajime looks up from where he was cleaning the shop sign, on the roof.

 

“What was that?” He murmurs to himself, but Nana hears him.

 

“That’s the first wind of fall, and right on time, too,” she replies pleasantly. “Thank goodness, I was wondering if it would never come.”

 

Hajime frowns. “That’s trouble for me. I’ve got to make sure this roof is stable and can handle snowfall. And that greenhouse out back is filthy.”

 

Nana laughs at Hajime's scowling face peeking over the edge of the roof. “Oh, but it’s also pretty exciting, Hajime-chan,” she argues gently. He doesn’t see the clever smile on her face as she continues. “We still haven’t had the last summer storm—the strongest of them all.”

 

“A storm? Nana, you’re too carefree; don’t be excited about that,” Hajime sighs, running over the checklist in his mind to confirm that yes, the windows should be storm-proof. He’d have to move the plants inside, though. Should probably do that soon, actually.

 

“You know what they say about the last summer storm in our local legend, don’t you, Hajime-chan?” Nana asks innocently.

 

“Hmm? No, can’t say I do,” Hajime replies distractedly.

 

“The storm is supposedly the battle between Oikami and the yearly challenger. If it’s a small storm, then there’s no challenger and Oikami goes back to resting. If it’s a big storm, then Oikami is fighting to keep hold of their title. The fiercer the storm, the fiercer the battle. …I wonder if it’ll be a ferocious storm, this year.”

 

Hajime freezes, hammer dropping from his hand mid-swing. Before he can stop himself, he thinks about how Tooru had gotten approval from Seijou to challenge Oikami. How much stronger he had gotten because of Hajime's songs. But Hajime hadn’t been singing to him—he kept his promise from that night, didn’t even think of singing for Tooru. His heart gives a pained twang. He doesn’t remember exactly what he said to Tooru that night, so blinded was he by grief, but he knows it was brutal and cruel. He had said some horrible, horrible, untrue things to Tooru, and every time he thought about it, he was consumed with guilt over hurting Tooru unfairly like that.

 

So he couldn’t sing. What sort of apology would that be, just to start singing like nothing was wrong? He had to make amends, but was far too scared to approach the mountain after remembering, at the very least, that he blamed Tooru for what happened to Nana and told him never to seek out Hajime again. He wouldn’t blame Tooru for killing him on the spot if he returned to the mountain.

 

But Tooru…without the song, surely he had weakened? He needed offerings just like every other named god needed them to stay strong. Tooru wasn’t stupid enough to challenge Oikami when he was weak, Hajime was sure. That would be foolish—he would be throwing away his life—

 

Hajime frowns. “Why did you say this was going to be the strongest summer storm of all if it varies year to year?”

 

Nana covers her mouth. “Oh my, did I say that? I could be mistaken, of course. But isn’t Tooru-san going to challenge Oikami this year?”

 

“No,” Hajime snaps. “He’s not. If he did, it would be the same as suicide.”

 

“I wonder about that,” Nana says thoughtfully, rocking in her chair and humming a song Hajime knew all too well.

 

--------------------------------

 

“Sheesh,” Hazaki-san mutters, sticking his head outside the door of his general store and looking up at the sky. “I know the weatherman said we were going to have an afternoon of rough weather, but I didn’t realize it would be a typhoon. Look at those clouds!”

 

“What’s that?” Hajime says, looking up from his clipboard, in the middle of stocking cans.

 

“I said,” Hazaki-san repeats, stepping back inside, “we’re going to have to close up shop early today. Those are some nasty looking clouds out there.”

 

Hajime frowns and peers around the corner of the aisle. The sky is that shade of near-black that tells of rains so heavy that driving is impossible; the wind tearing at the upper branches of trees hints at gusts strong enough to turn umbrellas inside out. Hajime swallows. “It might pass us,” he says hopefully.

 

Hazaki-san shrugs amiably. “It might. But by god, it looks like Oikami will be getting their fight this year. The cold winds have been blowing in lately, so this is probably the last summer storm. Good luck to Oikami—from the look of the weather, he’ll need it.”

 

Suddenly, Hajime feels a wave of hot, irrational anger at Hazaki-san.

 

“May I be excuse early?” He asks, tightly. “I have to help Nana move everything inside the shop before the storm hits.” Hazaki-san looks perplexed at the coldness in Hajime's voice, but nods and lets him go, scratching at the back of his head.

 

Hajime feels bad the moment he storms out the door. It’s not Hazaki-san’s fault for rooting for Oikami—that was the only god the villagers knew, after all. How was he to know that Oikami was abusing their power and that the challenger was doing everything in his power to right the wrongs that had been done to the creatures of the mountain as one who had once been preyed upon, too? Hajime lets out a long breath and slows his furious stride. It didn’t matter, anyway. Tooru wasn’t going to do it this year. Maybe next year, when he had found himself a new shrine, he would.

 

Nana is, as expected, making a nuisance of herself and trying to put away as much as she could without Hajime's help, sweat beading on her forehead. Hajime sighs loudly but doesn’t chastise her when she greets him cheerfully, knowing perfectly well that she was straining herself past the doctor’s orders. Hajime moves efficiently to shift all the hard to reach pots and tools from outside the shop in, and works double-time so that Nana has very little chance to dart in and out in her wheel chair.

 

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” She huffs at Hajime when she finds that there is no more moving to be done.

 

Hajime fixes her with a perplexed look. “What?”

 

Nana looks like she’s about to explain, when Hajime hears it. The telltale rattle and shake of a spirit afraid. He whips around, startling Nana as he searches for a sound she can’t hear. She knows something is wrong, though, when he starts to rifle through her plants with single-minded intensity. Hajime finds them quickly, hidden in the soul flower that Tooru had drawn them out from when he first came to the shop. They quiver deep within the bell of the flower, not responding to his hummed summons or the beckoning of his hand. This was a deep fear, deeper than just the threat of a predator. Something was wrong on the mountain.

 

As if reading his mind, Nana gasps aloud. Hajime spins on his heel to face the new intrusion, when one of the three-eyed ravens bursts into the shop and clatters to a halt on a counter in the shop, cawing loudly until Hajime approaches it, running a hand over its feathers until the bird had calmed. But even then, there was trembling along its body that frightened Hajime. He couldn’t tell what was wrong, even if he had his guesses, but before he could think to ask, the raven’s third eye shifted its gaze onto him and Hajime felt a burst of thoughts not his own within his mind.

 

Master…Oikami…a challenge…over-powering storm…Oikami awakening…Master is weak…

 

Hajime clutches his head, but he understands the message the raven is trying to get across. Tooru—that idiot, that bastard—was going to fight Oikami regardless of his condition. “How proud does he have to be?” Hajime snarls, cursing the day he ever met Tooru. The bird next to him flutters anxiously.

 

Pride? No no no no…not pride…protector. No more of my people…will be eaten…weak but…protecting us all…

 

Hajime goes cold from head to toe. “He’s…fighting for you?” Hajime asks numbly, hardly believing his ears. Had Tooru really grown that much? To fight for the rest of his brethren? But why now, why when he was at low-power, when he could die?

 

Help…need yours…tell him not to…need you…need you… The raven clacks his beak together and shifts his weight. Listen…to you.

 

He wanted Hajime to stop Tooru from choosing the route of certain death? Sorry, Hajime would have loved to, but Hajime was the last person Tooru wanted to see, he was sure of it. Yet, already he was reaching for his rain jacket, glancing desperately at Nana. But Nana only smiled to herself and nodded at Hajime. She made a slight shooing motion, and the raven took flight, maneuvering out of the shop and cawing for Hajime to follow.

 

“Nana—” Hajime starts, looking her over worriedly. “Nana, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but he—he needs someone to tell him not to, and—” But Nana shushes him with a finger to his lips.

 

“You don’t need to explain this to me,” she says softly. “I know how much he means to you. You’re the only one who can save him from himself. Go on—you have somewhere to be. I can look after myself.”

 

Hajime gives her one more anxious look over and then wraps her tightly in a hug. I’m going to bring him back, Nana, he wants to say. I’m going to make sure he knows how sorry I am and how stupid this is, going to make him promise never to do anything this brainless again…

 

(But she already knew it all, didn’t she.)

 

Hajime pulls away and doesn’t look back as he follows the raven out of town. Maybe the other villagers sees him chasing a bird, running wild in the middle of an impending storm and think him crazy, but Hajime doesn’t care. He has somewhere he needs to be and someone he needs to shake some sense into. The rain begins almost as soon as he reaches the shrine steps; big, fat drops that not even the canopy overheard can protect Hajime from. He thinks he’ll be okay, tearing through the wet forest in pursuit of the raven flitting from branch to branch, not a spirit in sight. The rain pelts down heavily and the wind whips him raw and cold, but Hajime thinks he can make it to Tooru in time.

 

Then he passes through the spirit world barrier, and everything changes for the worst.

 

Behind the barrier, the winds change from a tugging to a slashing gale that knocks the raven from the sky and into Hajime's arms, Hajime himself nearly sent tumbling backwards with the strength of the gusts. His back smacks a tree and he grunts, the sound swallowed by the howling of the wind and the sheets of rain that soak him through anew every few seconds. He grits his teeth at the irrefutable evidence that a battle was stirring in the spirit world.

 

Inspired, Hajime orders the bird to point his beak in Tooru's direction, and dutifully, the raven does as bid, acting as a magical compass for Hajime. But even with magical help, the going is impossible. For every one step forward, the wind knocks him two steps back. The slanted rain hurts Hajime's eyes and forces his clothes to stick unpleasantly to his body. Each step is a journey, greeted by solid ground or sucking mud, dragging his feet in and forcing him to exert more energy to free them. The wind takes a personal dislike to him, trying to knock him off his feet at ever corner.

 

Hajime keeps the raven tucked close, trying to shield the messenger from the worst of the storm, but in doing so, he stumbles, crashing gracelessly into some low-lying bushes that thankfully save him from an impromptu mud bath. The raven digs his claws into the bush, fluttering wildly, and Hajime squints through the sheet of rain ahead, dismayed to see that the rows of trees are actually protecting them from the open force of the gale. They aren’t going to make it. All the strength in Hajime's too human body isn’t enough to carry him to Tooru. He bites his lip until it bleeds, furious, and smashes his fist into the ground.

 

Failed you once, in blaming you. Failed you twice in not being able to save you from my mistake.

 

The raven caws then, loud enough to make Hajime wince. He’s using magic to project the call, although Hajime can hear how weak the raven’s voice is—he’s nearly at his limit too. But whatever he calls for works because Hajime sees the tiny, flame-tailed cat emerge from the hollow of a long not five minutes later, soaked to the bone but tail still swishing with life. And behind her, a bear-sized, two-tailed cat who pushes through the wind and rain powerfully. The mother, Hajime realizes. She eyes Hajime for a moment, wind howling around her and rippling her fur, though she seemed not to notice it. Then she blinks wide yellow eyes and offers her back to Hajime, and he understands.

 

Thank you, Hajime thinks to the raven, hoping he can understand the sentiment, and grasps the sides of the cat, hauling himself onto her back with about as much grace as he stumbled with. Impatient, she tilts alarmingly to the right and Hajime rolls on, squeaking and clinging tighter. She huffs in acknowledgment. Amazingly, when she turns to face the onslaught of storm, she cannot only walk, she can run. The trees whip past Hajime from where he can see around her thick ruff, curled as tightly on her back as he can. It’s rough going, but with each press of her massive paws to earth, Hajime gets closer and closer to Tooru.

 

A lake, nearly too wide to see across, comes into view, and then Hajime understands where they are going. It makes sense, that Tooru would go to Oikami’s domain to fight them himself, but as the ground turns from leafy undergrowth to cracked ground and rocks and dust, Hajime feels the bravery in his chest dry up with fear at Oikami’s power to affect an entire ecosystem. The cat makes a grunting sound and bristles her fur when they pass the lake. Hajime runs a hand down her side, and yes, she’s shaking too. They are all so afraid.

 

With one final leap, the cat clears a gorge and comes to a skidding halt, claws digging into the earth to keep her from getting any closer. Hajime looks up when she stops, surprised at the stillness of the air around them. He wishes that he didn’t, honestly.

 

It’s clear, immediately, that they’ve come too late. The few, straggling trees that had tried to survive in Oikami’s domain were flattened, and deep gouges and craters in the earth decorated the valley beneath Hajime. And in the middle of it all, Tooru raises himself, dust and pebbles scattering, from the ground he had been smashed against. Hajime is reminded acutely and painfully of when he first met Tooru, just a tiny whelp of a dragon, bloody and filthy, tangled in a trap. He’s horrified to find that the Tooru from back then looks better than this one, his back leg twisted at such an angle that makes Hajime's stomach turn, bleeding heavily from gashes in his sides, bruised all over but especially on his side, where Hajime is sure his entire ribcage is cracked. His left horn is missing, shattered halfway.

 

Oikami, once upon a time, may have resembled something like the benevolent god of the mountain was supposed to look like, but any human or even animal resemblance was gone. Oikami took the form of a massive rock wall; clumsy stacks of boulders for hands and a general torso area that extended to its head. They moved slowly but with purpose, and it was clear how only a few glancing blows could have reduced Tooru to the broken mess he was. Oikami had barely even stirred from the mountainside where it slumbered. Hajime feels anger churn the fear in his gut. Undeserving of the title.

 

He has to get down there. He can’t yell from here; Tooru will never be able to hear him. Hajime urges the cat forward, but she’s shaking fiercely, hair on end, and she growls warningly when Hajime urges her too harshly. Helplessly, he watches as Tooru launches himself into the air again, wobbling but climbing, body curling into a spring. He was going to attack? In that condition? No no no…

 

Hajime's call for Tooru is drowned out by the roar Tooru lets out, striking at Oikami’s arm like a bullet. It’s a body slam strong enough to remove the makeshift arm, but Hajime's estimation of Oikami’s speed is proved false as the creature jolts faster than Tooru, smashing an open “palm” against him and flinging him into the side of a mountain with a clap of thunder. It’s hard enough for Tooru's body to indent the rock, enough to crack his skull, oh god, he’s not moving, he just suspended there, held up by the self-formed crevices in the rock…

 

Tooru,” Hajime chokes.

 

Oikami lowers its arms, victory achieved.

 

The cat howls, low and mournful, sinking to the ground.

 

A single eye, too human to befit its owner, cracks open.

 

Hajime has seen lightning strike before. Once, it was even close enough for him to feel the hairs on his arm stand on end. This is nothing like that.

 

A bolt of lightning shoots through the clouds overhead and straight into Tooru, like he was a rod of metal. The blue-white electricity doesn’t fade, but crackles around him sharp enough to make Hajime's ears hurt and his skin crawl. The light is almost too blinding to look at, and the smell of ozone chokes his lungs, but Tooru is rising into the sky, lightning still shimmering across his body as he absorbs it into the now electric-green and impossibly white colors of his coat, static rippling and cracking the air around him as he climbs. Oikami watches—as much as they can watch—transfixed.

 

Tooru takes a deep breath, an inhale so powerful Hajime feels his lungs pull at the air around him, miles away, as if taking in all the oxygen of the arena for his own. When he exhales, it is with a roar coupled with the violence of thunder that shatters the earth around him. A blast of lightning bursts from his jaw, focused completely on Oikami. The electricity pierces Oikami’s body, spider webs of cracks decorating their entire stony hide. A single shift of their body, and Oikami collapses in on themselves, immovable boulders turned to gravel with the weight of Tooru's harnessed power.

 

Hajime has time to think that Tooru just inhaled lightning and spat it back out at Oikami before Tooru's form wobbles, drops a few meters from where he’s suspended in the air, and then drops completely, falling like the last stone of Oikami’s body and crashing straight into the ground. Horror overturns the joy and disbelief in Hajime's gut in a moment. He shakes the cat’s fur wildly, but this time she has already beaten him to it, rushing down the slope to her master just as fast as the other spirits and gods of the forest emerge and run to his side.

 

Hajime has to push through all manner of gods and spirits to get to Tooru's side. He doesn’t fear their wrath at his rough handling and he doubts they notice either—they all just want to make sure Tooru is alright from the battle and fall. Hajime finally waves off a few of the more insect-like spirits and he’s with Tooru. Fear claws his throat at the image of Tooru, once so strong and broad, now a crumpled mass of flesh on the ground. Tooru doesn’t raise his head to greet Hajime.

 

The surrounding creatures still and hold their breath as Hajime crouches down, falls to his knees, and presses his ear to the patch of fur over Tooru's heart, praying to hear a beat. Hajime remembers the steady drum of Tooru's six-chambered heart next to his after a run, how it vibrated through Hajime's when he rested against Tooru's dragon form. He can’t feel a thing now.

 

But that’s okay. He could still be fine. Hajime reaches for Tooru's muzzle. His heartbeat is bound to be faint after such a strenuous battle, and his hide is thick. He’s fine. Hajime rests a hand on his snout, feeling for the telltale rush of air past his nostrils or parted maw. He watches for the heave of breath entering Tooru's chest between the broken ribs. He feels and sees nothing.

 

Hajime sits back, draws his hands through his hair once, twice, five times. There are eyes on him from all the silent creatures of the spirit world. They want—no, they need to know he’s okay. Hajime wishes he could impart some of the frantic, ragged gasps of his own on Tooru. Why was it so difficult to detect his life signs? God, even for a dragon it shouldn’t be so hard. Adrenaline drips into Hajime's bloodstream and he jumps up, starts pacing. Surely there’s another way to test for life.

 

His hands are curling and uncurling into fists when his mind blanks other than the thought he’s not breathing, heart’s not beating, not breathing, not beating but that was still okay. He was a god after all. Gods didn’t need to breathe or eat or drink or sleep or have their heart pump life-giving blood through their veins. He would be fine. He had won, hadn’t he? He was Oikami. Tooru's dream had come true. So he would stir at any moment.

 

A small wail breaks the silence of the gathered creatures, so broken and tortured that Hajime starts, flinching. The other spirits shift nervously, glancing between Tooru and Hajime, but then a few more take up the cry, then more, then the whole crowd is howling into the clearing sky because their Oikami, their Tooru, was no longer alive.

 

Hajime fists his hands in his hair, tugging at the strands until he’s sure he’ll rip them out and collapses next to Tooru again. “No,” he says, confidently. “Tooru, this is the part of those cheesy fucking hero movies where you cough and lift your head and sweep me off my feet while the peanut gallery cheers. This is the part I’m sure you’d always dream about, because you’d love those dumb movies, I’m sure, visualizing yourself as the hero.”

 

He hiccups. “C’mon, c’mon Tooru, c’mon love,” he whispers. “There’s so much about those smelly humans you don’t know, so much about your mountain—it is your mountain now—that you haven’t shown me.” It’s hard to see, blinking sweat and fallen rain from his eyes, and god, has he already caught cold from the storm? His nose is running and his throat is closing and, and…

 

“But I needed to tell you that,” Hajime says, voice cracking. “You need to know it’s not your fault and that Nana misses you and that she’s grown another three soul flowers and that she sings for the spirits and that she’s okay and I’m okay and you’re—” Hajime takes Tooru's muzzle in his lap, fingers shaking as he wipes some of the blood and dirt from Tooru's face with his sleeve.

 

“I want to sing for you again,” he croaks. “It’s not anything pretty, but I want you to hear it. You have to hear it. I’d been thinking about composing you a new one anyway, so you’re gonna fucking hear it, okay? I’ve been agonizing over this, so you’re going to be alive and well to hear my voice cracks through this whole thing, right?”

 

Hajime takes a steadying breath, then another, shaping his voice into something resembling a song:

 

“I see myself reflected in your big eyes

As your tears trickled down your cheeks:

 

‘Ha-ji-me, Ha-ji-me, come let’s play a game!’

‘Ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, come, let’s go for a run!’

 

You hugged your knees, crying out your eyes

Tell me why, I’ll listen to everything

Don’t worry; I’m not going anywhere

No matter what happens, I’ll be with you

I love your face when you laugh

Even when you’re down, please try to cheer up.

 

‘Ru-ru-ru, ru-ru-ru, come let’s sing a song!’

‘U-o-on, u-o-on, come, shout your heart out!’”

 

The spirits pause to listen to his broken struggle of a voice, as they always do. This time, however, when Hajime collapses over Tooru's too still face, a tiny spirit whistles softly, a fluttery imitation of Hajime's song. The melody drifts to his ear and Hajime raises his head, looking over at the tiny spirit taking up his call. A thought occurs to him—a long shot, a desperate hope, a prayer to gods much bigger than the ones around him or Tooru or the Oikami as she was at the very beginning. This is one to the most divine: a prayer for a miracle.

 

Hajime hums the melody again, encouraging the spirit to raise its voice. The wailing of the crowd quiets to listen to hear the spirit and its surrounding companions pick up the sound, a lovely chiming that stills the heart of terror that had inflicted the creatures. Hajime begins the song again, eyeing each of the gods around him until they, too, sing or growl or rustle along with the song—the offering—given not just to the young, fallen god but to those who watched over them, the ones who had a hand in the creation of the earth they stood upon.

 

A massive chorus builds from that soft first bar, the wishes and hopes of every creature released to the clear sky, finally shining upon the gathering. A ray of light drifts towards them, the cloud obscuring it moving by slowly, making it seem as if the light were coming for the creatures. And perhaps it was, Hajime thinks, tears flowing down his face with the weight of his prayer, since the light paused in its journey to light upon Tooru's cheek and over one closed eye.

 

It is a call to the dragon. Wake up, wake up; they’re all waiting for you out there.

 

A nearly undetectable twitch of his lip.

 

The shift of a whisker.

 

Tooru's squeezes his eye shut tighter, grumbling low in his throat, “Who the hell thought shining a light in my eye was a good idea?” His voice is wrecked and weak, still crippled from the fight, but he’s lifting his head from Hajime's lap, blinking his eyes open and assessing the crowd. “Hmmm, I suppose I can excuse it this time,” he sighs, coughing up a little blood at the end. “After all, you did just save my life, every one of you. Thank you.”

 

Hajime can’t do a thing to stop the rush of spirits and gods to press up against Tooru's side, eager to express their worries in warbles and mews and tremors, wanting to touch him just to assure themselves that they had been granted a miracle. Well, Hajime thinks. They were devoted worshippers of Tooru's, weren’t they.

 

Tooru stands to his full height, carrying with him a new weight to his presence—the heaviness of burden and power, the almighty ruler of the mountain—Oikami. He is magnificent, even injured and close to death, and Hajime has to look away.

 

“Hajime,” Tooru summons him, and the spirits part from Tooru so that he can see Hajime. “Why do you avert your gaze?” He sounds sad about that, and Hajime's stomach drops.

 

Hajime finally raises his head to look at Tooru fully, and flinches when he sees a careful edge to them, a distance that had never been before. I put that there, Hajime thinks. I made him step carefully around me. But there’s still that softness to Tooru's eyes that speak of a something Hajime had been too afraid to name until now, and that’s what breaks him.

 

“Oh, Tooru,” he sobs, naked under the unquestionable love in Tooru's eyes. “I’ve gone and done all this to you. You nearly died because of my selfishness.” But Tooru is already shaking his head.

 

“I wanted to fight for them, Hajime,” he asserts. “Even…even without your power.”

 

“That’s my fault,” Hajime snaps, angry at himself. “I blamed you in my grief for something you didn’t deserve to be blamed for—and that’s no excuse for saying such things—but to deny you something your life force depended on…I wouldn’t have complained if you attacked me for it. I was too cowardly to face you because—I—”

 

“I forgive you,” Tooru says softly, moving towards Hajime with a grace Hajime had never realized he possessed. The shift from dragon to human is flawless and smooth as running water, talons softening to fingers as Tooru takes Hajime's face in his hands, wiping tears away. “I worried over you and Hana-chan too much to stay away. I watched you with the help of the spirits in her flowers—I saw Hana-chan struggle and cry and I saw her heal and laugh again. I saw you, angry, but only for so short a time before you looked troubled and anguished, looking at my mountain.”

 

“It’s not an excuse. It’s not enough of an apology,” Hajime insists.

 

“I am a deity,” Tooru laughs. “It’s in my blood to hold grudges, so don’t you think I mean it when I say you’re forgiven, Iwa-chan?” There’s a teasing light in his eyes that Hajime doesn’t deserve, but it fills his heart anyway, heals the hole in his chest that had been bleeding since he cut Tooru so forcibly from him.

 

Tooru taps his chin thoughtfully. “Well, if you want to compensate, you could always just become my wife.”

 

Hajime stares at him for a long moment before he feels the tips of his ears burn. He looks away. “Sure, whatever.”

 

There’s no response, and Hajime eventually glances back to see Tooru blushing prettily, eyes wide as saucers. “Tooru?” He prompts, nervously.

 

“Y-you accepted…” Tooru says softly. “I didn’t—”

 

“Oh? Well did you mean it or not?” Hajime grumbles, fighting down his own blush with all the strength in his body. “It’s rude to jerk around a guy’s feelings, even if you’re a god.”

 

“Hajime—you—!”

 

“Oh, for the love of all that’s holy,” Hajime mutters, pulling Tooru's chin down to mesh their lips together softly, parting only a moment later. “Tooru Oikami, you gigantic moron, I am…really, really fucking in love with you.”

 

Tooru sputters, undignified. A hand flies to his lips and he draws fingers down them, catching slightly on his lower lip, and Hajime's eyes drift down to them. His tongue flickers out nervously, and Hajime raises an eyebrow at him.

 

“Hajime…this is…” Tooru is giving him a desperately searching look, a sad look, and Hajime doesn’t understand. “This isn’t…I haven’t put a spell on you, have I?” Hajime understands, and now he’s dumbstruck.

 

“I…no, of course you haven’t, what the hell, Tooru. What kind of spell would it be if I called you a moron?” He sighs, rolling his eyes but failing to wipe the fond smile from his face.

 

Tooru brightens, and then sunlight fills the gathering dramatically, and okay, Hajime would be angry that Tooru was being over dramatic as always, but he was also almost certain Tooru had no idea what he was doing. “Then—! For real—!” He smiles so freely that Hajime finds he would rather stare directly into the sunlight. “Oh Hajime, my Hajime!”

 

Tooru's hands are warm on Hajime's cheeks and along his jaw, warmer than they were wiping his tears away. Those hands are also tilting his face and bringing him to press mouth, chest, arms, hips to Tooru's, until they’re twins of each other. Tooru sighs into the kiss, relieved and in love and smiling so wide against Hajime's mouth that Hajime can’t kiss him properly. Hajime tugs at his hips, annoyed but still stroking along his prominent hipbones.

 

“Can’t even kiss normally, you dweeb,” Hajime mutters, lips brushing Tooru's as he speaks, eyes closed. Tooru giggles and oh, he feels that, shoulders to toes against him.

 

“Your mouth is so rough, Hajime,” he laughs. “Your lips are chapped and it’s like you’ve been biting them bloody and worrying about something awful.” Hajime wants to snipe back that he tastes bad or has resurrection breath or something, but he can’t. Tooru's mouth was always the prettiest thing about him, and he’s getting agitated not kissing him and getting to touch something so silky and regal with his own mouth.

 

“Shut up,” he replies cleverly.

 

“But…” Tooru says softly, blinking his eyes open and meeting Hajime's. “You were worrying over me and loving me, even though it was painful, when you hurt yourself like that, so I want even that part of you, Hajime.”

 

“You have me,” Hajime whines. “You have me.”

 

“Mine,” Tooru whispers, then sucks Hajime's bottom lip into his mouth. Hajime arches against him when Tooru releases it with a too satisfying wet pop. But now is not the time or place, when the spirits look to him for guidance, even if Hajime is one of them, Tooru's own magic present and growing, just a little, in his eyes. Mine.

 

“Oikami is dead, long live Oikami!” Hajime cheers suddenly, wrapping an arm around Tooru's waist firmly and leaning into his side. Hajime doesn’t expect it, but the creatures of the mountain take up the cry, proclaiming Tooru's victory to very edges of the spirit world, where even Aoba Johsai lets out a low roar like a foghorn to celebrate the birth of a new king, and Hajime is still holding Tooru, close enough to feel his heartbeat, where he belongs.

 

---------------------------------

 

“Oikami must stay in their mountain domain until they die or pass on the title”—that is the rule of the old legend, and even Tooru's extraordinary rise to power could not break the binding rules of his power. Hajime, however, can’t say he minds all that much.

 

“Hajime-chan, where are you rushing off to this early in the morning?” Aiko yawns from her rocking chair, giving Hajime a smile. There’s a lightness to his step these days, the villagers have noticed, although he never brings that beautiful woman or the male model with him anymore. Aiko figures, like the others of their village, that he’s finally fallen for the mountain itself, as Hana’s late husband did. And just like with her husband, Hana isn’t all that bothered, secretive smile on her lips as she floats around her thriving shop. It had been featured in a newspaper by one of Hajime's friends and as such, now had quite the reputation of being a must-see in the fringe villages out in the country.

 

Hajime waves a picnic basket of food, some of it still steaming, grinning. “Offering, remember?” He explains.

 

“Oikami-san eats rather well for a god, don’t they?” Aiko sniffs, but smiles.

 

Hajime laughs in agreement. “He eats a little too well, if you ask me. I’ll be taking my leave now, Aiko-san!” Hajime bows and takes off before Aiko can ask him about his choice of pronoun for the mountain god. Hazaki-san emerges from his porch rubbing the back of his neck.

 

“He’s a bit odd, our Hajime,” he comments and Aiko sighs.

 

“He spends all day up there on the mountain, but he’s still the cheerful boy we used to know.”

 

“Helpful and a great employee, too.”

 

The two exchange baffled glances but shrug lightly. So what if Hajime was a bit odd? He was a light in the village, making the place feel more alive than it had in years. He was their adopted son as much as he had become the adopted son of the mountain.

 

Hajime bounds up the steps—four at a time, he flies—to the top, brushing gently past blue butterflies and soul flowers that decorated the shrine ever since Tooru became Oikami. He drops the picnic basket unceremoniously and claps his hands together, calling out to his god through prayer. Tooru's usually here by now, but Hajime doesn’t mind annoying him by prodding at him through prayer.

 

The bushes beside him don’t even shake before a blurred white form launches itself forward, curling around Hajime protectively but still surprising him into yelping. They tumble together down the slope that has become as familiar to Hajime as the back of his hand, off the edge of the cliff. He throws his arms and legs out, yelling into the sky as the wind rushes past him, gravity pulling him selfishly toward the grasp of earth and death.

 

But Tooru—god of sky as much as the earth and death-defying—is beneath him in a moment, scooping him up into the golden touch of the sun and the endless sea of blue. Hajime's hands fist in teal mane and he settles his body in that crook between Tooru's shoulders and neck, pressing himself against the warmth of Tooru's body, listening to his heart beat steady and strong.

 

Tooru flies them through the barrier and up to Seijou’s mountain, the new domain of Oikami. They sail to the very peak, Tooru easing them down into an area cleared by Tooru's gift with winds and Hajime's own painstaking labor. In the center of the clearing, a brightly colored temple sits, nearly complete now, missing only a few rugs and tapestries that were still being shipped into town. Hajime hops from Tooru's back and flops on the ground, making a pleased noise when he sees the picnic basket gripped in Tooru's back talons. He’s human in another moment, dropping himself across Hajime's stomach forcefully, making Hajime huff at the weight.

 

“Annoying,” he says, working his fingers through Tooru's hair.

 

“Hungry,” Tooru replies, blowing a raspberry on Hajime's stomach until he lets out a ridiculous, girly giggle and swats Tooru away, sitting up. From Seijou, Hajime can’t see the village. A part of that makes him sad—the village will always be the place he, as a human, was from, and Nana’s shop will always be home. But from here he can watch over all the spirits and gods, he can be by Tooru's side, watch the hatching of the dragons and run with them, as one of them. There is a new part of Hajime now—he’s the husband of Oikami, the royal second-in-command of this mountain even as a human. The village is home, yes, but…

 

Hajime rests his head on Tooru's shoulder. “Love you,” he murmurs, just because he can.

 

“Love you more than any power you could have ever given me,” Tooru replies, soft and honest.

 

The temple—their temple, their new home—can wait, Hajime thinks. After all, they have the rest of their lives, and on, ahead of them.