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A Warrior's Heart

Chapter Text

The sky view from the sea was one of Haru’s favorite things.

When the waves were calm, the surface became an undulant sheet of silver. Haru reached out from where he floated on his back just below it, watching his hand break through into another world.

The universe above belonged to humans, and Haru lived here, in the boundless blue deep. He drew his hand back down and closed his eyes, letting his ink-black hair tickle the scales on his cheeks. It was bliss.

 

“Haru.”

“Haru!”

Annoying…

He flipped onto his stomach to meet a pair of luminescent eyes as large and blue as his own. Ikuya kicked up from the murk below, panic in his face. Haru leveled him a blank stare.

Ikuya was a couple years younger than Haru, a skinny boy with hair the color of wet jade and the uncanny ability to find Haru wherever he was hiding. Though Ikuya tried to mask his admiration, Haru knew the boy looked to him for a great many things he had no business being an example for.

Sometimes Haru thought he could just swim away into the open ocean in any direction, and leave the others to their troublesome lives. They probably would barely notice he’d gone, as he never went on hunts with them. But the thought of leaving Ikuya behind had always kept him.

“Haru, something’s happening back home,” Ikuya said. “We should go.”

“Too troublesome.”

Humans, Haru. They’re at the island!”

The two boys reached Moyajima and swam up through the rocky caverns of the sirens’ den. They hurried out of the water, sidestepping piles of bones scattered over the clammy stone floor. The stench of death and rot hung stagnant in the murky caves—remnants of a plentiful hunt. The others had sunk an entire ship, Haru heard.

They’re getting greedy.

Sirens terrorized and murdered humans as often as they could manage—but never ate them. They didn’t need to kill humans to survive, and Haru couldn’t wrap his head around the idea of expending so much energy doing something unnecessary. So he had asked one of the others once, why they did it.

“Watching the fire leave their eyes is the greatest feeling in the world,” she sneered. “It makes you feel alive like nothing else can. The more fire they have, the more there is to take.”

He didn’t understand. Haru didn’t think he could ever muster a desire for anything that strong, and learning to hunt with the rest of the sirens was entirely too much effort. If he never killed a single human in his life, he would be fine with that.

The boys’ breaths puffed out in frosty clouds as they ran up through the empty innards of the island. Whatever was going on above had drawn every last one of the other sirens out.

Emerging from the caves, Haru and Ikuya found them, crowded over the crags and watching the beach below. Several ogres were present as well, growling quietly, clubs in their gigantic knurled fists. The siren boys nudged their way to the front where they could see.

“Watch yourselves, shoreborns,” hissed one of the others.

Ikuya let out a soft gasp at the sight they beheld. At least a dozen sirens lay dead on the beach, their stringy black hair fanned out on the rocks. Some of them sported acid burns, others frozen with ice, and one or two were still smoking like dying coals.

Above them was a stocky blond man in polished armor bearing the blue and white emblem of Iwatobi. And beside him, three young girls.

All three had round cheeks and light hair that curled and bounced in the balmy breeze. Each was dressed in silk under her traveling cloak, the glint of colorful jewelry catching the midday light. The oldest of them couldn't have been more than fourteen.

Magic!” Ikuya tugged Haru’s arm. “They’re sorcerers.

Kurou, undisputed leader of the siren colony, whose gaze was strongest of them all, stood surrounded by the trio. The tallest girl looked him directly in the eyes, unwavering. It was the first time Haru had seen him afraid. They were talking, though the wind was making it hard to hear.

He did hear Ikuya’s name.

And then his own.

 

________________________

 

Haru pressed his nose close to a slit in the canvas covering of his cage and inhaled deeply.
Pine, wet leaves, grass, and soil rich from recent rain. Forest air had a thickness to it, and he hated it. He couldn’t help but compare the damp, earthy stillness to the salty ocean wind he loved so much. The gusts that skipped over white crests, whipping his hair across his face. Cold. Free.

The three young sorceresses had long since departed for Iwatobi’s capital, along with Ikuya in a cage of his own.  Meeting Ikuya’s wide, frightened eyes as the boy was led away needled Haru's heart. He had been right—the others’ greed in their attack on that galleon had brought Iwatobi’s wrath down upon the island.  When offered a truce, Kurou had agreed to Iwatobi’s demands for peace in their waters: the sirens were forbidden to hunt Iwatobi vessels or towns for ten years.  And as insurance, two of Kurou’s heirs would be forfeit. If both sides held to their bargain, the sons would be faithfully returned to Moyajima.

Should the sirens break terms, Haru and Ikuya would be withheld forever. 

Idiots.

Humans put such stock in heirs, and family, but creatures of the deep had no such ties to one another. Haru was no more an heir than any other in the den. He and Ikuya were not Kurou’s sons, nor were they strong or special in any way. They had been sent abroad because they were simply unwanted.

 

Ten years.

 

Haru would be a hostage in this forest for a longer span of time than he’d been alive, and that was the most fortunate outcome. He would be eighteen by the time the truce was up.  Until then, he would have nothing but a memory to go by of the sea that he loved.  Tears sprang to his eyes.  

His cage rattled, and the quick thnk thnk thnk of the cart wheels rolling over a wooden bridge jarred Haru from his grief. Men were shouting all around him. The caravan’s movement had come to a halt, and he could hear heavy footfalls of his escorts dismounting from their steeds.

After two and a half weeks of travel, Haru’s cage was lowered to the ground, and the curtain covering was lifted. Though it was nearly sundown, he blinked at the sudden brightness.  The sunlight was green-filtered, and the air was pungent with the stench of wet plants.  All around him were humans.

Anger and terror rattled in their voices as they hollered.

“Aomori is a sacred haven!.”

“What’s the king trying to say with this, dropping one of these in a holy place? Unforgivable!”

“Don’t look at it!  Turn away!” A mother ushered her two children out of sight.

The townspeople were gathered around his cage, the din of their outrage assaulting him from every side as they argued with the Iwatobi soldiers. They had their faces angled away, refusing to meet his eyes.

“Well I for one ain’t gonna take it in my house!” A tall, leathery woman rapped on his cage with the handle of her hoe. “Wouldn’t even trust it locked in my shed!”

“It’s a danger to us all! We should hang its cage from a tree,” said another man viciously.

The crowd's ire mounted, and they clamored, railing against the soldiers from the caravan. Violence would erupt if this went on any longer; Haru could sense it in the air. Already on edge, he felt his scales appear on his back and his eyes brighten. Someone noticed.  The people screamed, and the soldiers leveled the ends of their spears at him. Shaking in spite of himself, he huddled at the center of the cage, hugging his knees to chest.  Haru hoped if he shut his eyes tight enough, it all might disappear, and he could be back under the waves. He was scared, and so alone. The other sirens had never been friendly, but they were familiar. He’d had Ikuya, and he’d had the water. But here, he was just a creature in a cage, at the mercy of a mob.

I want to go home.

He blinked away the wet blurriness in his eyes. Haru lost track of how long he’d sat curled up in the middle of the cage, but at length he heard a man’s voice break over the others.

“For goodness’ sake, he’s just a boy! Let him be!”

“You want it in your house, Tachibana?”

Haru didn’t dare raise his head until he heard the door of his cage squeak open. Someone was inside with him. Panicking, he backed away like a cornered animal, his head knocking against the metal bars. The person inside was a boy his age, dressed in olive.

“You don’t really look like what I thought you would.”

Curious green eyes met his, regarding him without a trace of fear. The other boy had soft-looking hair, a button nose, and glowed with an energy like the earth after a storm. Murmurs bubbled from the crowd he shuffled closer on his knees.

Haru didn’t answer, but the boy wasn’t deterred. “I’m Makoto! I think you’ll like it here.”

As if I could.

Makoto extended his small, dimpled hand. Haru stared, completely at a loss for what to do with it. The hand remained outstretched, expectant.

Slowly, cautiously, Haru lifted his own hand to touch fingers with the peculiar green boy. Makoto managed to smile even wider, and eagerly grasped Haru’s entire hand in his. He pulled, and Haru stumbled out of the cage after him.

Makoto knelt to pick up a stick he had left outside the grated door, and then led Haru by the hand calmly through the crowd. The townsfolk had gone silent, and Haru could feel their gazes searing into his back. The only audible sound was the leaves crunching under the boys’ feet as they passed by, and the rhythmic tapping of Makoto’s stick in the dirt. The human boy strode up to a gentle-looking bespectacled man near the edge of the group. The man looked at Makoto, then at Haru, and laughed.

“Hi there!” Haru recognized his voice as the man who had spoken up for him earlier.

Haru instinctually squeezed Makoto’s hand once.

“Dad, can he come with us?” Makoto asked.

The man paused. Haru didn’t miss the way his smile faltered. “Can he…ah…”

“Please?” Makoto begged. “He needs somewhere to stay.”

“He does, but…” Mr. Tachibana glanced at Haru, still holding Makoto’s hand, and back to the stunned, angry crowd. “Sure. Alright. Let’s…let’s go.”

Makoto cheered and Haru let himself be pulled away.

The human boy and his parents lived in a modest wooden house next to an old oak tree. Smoke rose in a thin stream from the chimney and the smell of something delicious wafted from the windows. Fallen needles crunched under their feet as they ran up to the front door. Makoto kept his hold on Haru’s hand, and the siren felt his scales gradually disappear. Inside, a woman welcomed them home, and greeted Haru. She had a sweet voice, and her belly was round.

“Ooh, hello!” she leaned down and smiled at him. Makoto looked like her, he thought. “I’ve heard about you. Welcome to Aomori. Has my son been showing you around?”

“I will, Mom!” the boy said.

Makoto’s parents spoke in hushed voices near the stove for a long while as the human boy excitedly showed Haru the rest of the house. Haru knew they were talking about him—what to do with him.

Tachibana was their family name. They were carpenters, running a small shop out of the back of their home. Unfinished chairs, benches, and other items lay in various states of completion around the workshop. Makoto had made Haru wear his shoes so he didn’t get splinters walking around, and his feet slid around clumsily inside the too-big slippers.

When the boys returned, supper was on the table. The family made quiet conversation, and Haru was grateful they never pushed him to talk. It was a strange thing, eating together this way. In the sirens’ den, no one had deemed talking important enough to stop chewing for. Haru listened to the family as he sipped his soup, curious in a way he’d never been.

Taking care to stay out of the Tachibana’s way, he washed up and searched for a corner to sleep in. The space under the table would do, he thought. He ducked his head and curled himself up, brushing away some of the crumbs from dinner.

“What are you doing?” Makoto’s face was in front of his, blocking the light, as he crouched down to see Haru under the table.

Haru frowned and drew further in.

“You can’t sleep there!” The green boy laughed. “Get in with me! My bed has lots of room, see?” To prove his point, he threw back the covers and clambered into his low wooden bed, scooting over and vigorously patting the empty spot beside him.

“Come on! You’ll catch cold over there!”

Haru extracted himself from beneath the table and stood in the middle of the house, suddenly unsure of what to do with his own limbs. But Mrs. Tachibana was at his back, gently ushering him to the edge of Makoto’s bed. He let himself be eased in, and the second his head touched the pillow, Makoto brought the covers up over them both.

“I told you!” He giggled. “Isn’t it better than the floor?”

Makoto went on babbling about some small creatures he’d seen in the woods that day. Eventually, he fell asleep and Haru could stare at him unreservedly. This had to be the strangest child Haru had ever met. The townspeople’s reactions were quite typical of humans at the sight of sirens. Though he had only been on one hunt, Haru knew they had every right to fear him. He could drain the life out of any one of them with nothing more than his eyes. Yet Makoto was here, unafraid, ready to share his home, even his bed with Haru.

The pillow was soft, and Makoto was radiating warmth Haru could feel in the cocoon of the quilts. The future of his life as a hostage in the human world was terrifying and unclear, but tonight he was safe—and it was enough. He closed his eyes and let sleep claim him.

Haru woke to the sight of Makoto’s back. Makoto was still asleep on his side, all the way to the far edge of the mattress. Haru lifted his head and looked behind him at the expanse of empty bed space that was supposed to be his, and recoiled from where he was curled up against the other boy. Some part of him missed the comfortable heat, but if Makoto woke and saw him, Haru would die of embarrassment.

A muffled snicker came from the other corner of the house where Mrs. Tachibana was making steamed buns for breakfast. Haru yanked the covers back up over his head.

The Tachibanas had a daily routine to which Haru became an awkward spectator. They ate together, fed the birds in the backyard, then Mr. and Mrs. Tachibana set to work in the shop while Makoto readied himself to go out.

Haru was perched on a stool wearing one of Makoto’s borrowed tunics, thumbing at the webbing between his fingers, and reminded once again that he didn’t belong. The night before had been nice, but now Haru had to figure out where he would be staying, what he would do with himself for the rest of the day—for the rest of ten years. Surely this family didn’t want him another night.

“Aren’t you coming?” Makoto stood by the door with his stick and a lunch basket, fumbling with the ties on his shirt. “You like lots of water, right? And swimming? The lake isn’t that far from here. I’ll take you!”

Haru blinked, regarding the green boy from across the room.

“Don’t you want to?” Makoto straightened, clearly expecting Haru to come with him.

He did. He did want to swim. Warily, he slid off the stool and left the house with Makoto.

“Ah! You left without a cloak!” Makoto said as Haru strolled through the doorway. “You’ll get cold! Wait, I’ll get one for you. You can use my blue one!”

Makoto strolled down the fern-lined beaten trail while Haru followed beside him, wearing his borrowed indigo cloak. The pair made their way down toward the lake under the shade of the trees.

“Walking around the woods is good practice for me, too” Makoto said, stick held out in front of each step. “The White Cat chose me last year, so I’m going to be a guardian when I’m older.”

Haru listened intently, hoping Makoto would continue without being asked.

“Aomori’s Tear is hidden somewhere in the forest, and when my trial comes, I’ll have to find it all on my own.” He approached a tiny stream, nimbly hopping across. “So walking all over helps me learn.”

Before his departure, Haru had heard about Aomori from some of the others in the den. It was the most sacred place in all of Iwatobi. Tucked deep in the woods was a legendary stone imbued with powerful protective magic that kept evil at bay. People in Iwatobi called it the Blue Tear.

It was the reason Aomori was chosen to host Haru, a prisoner from a den of demons. No siren could enter the forest without a human because of the Tear, and once inside, he was at the mercy of the staff-wielding humans who protected it.

He had seen a few already, since his arrival. They had looked like travelers, all dressed in green and brown, each with a beautifully carved staff. Haru could feel the stone’s magic pulsing through them, even from afar.

Haru deftly trailed after Makoto, careful not to step on the moss-covered roots half buried in the dirt.

“But really, I don’t think I’ll be a very good one,” Makoto slowed abruptly, and Haru nearly bumped into him. “I want to go out and explore. I love the forest. It’s so pretty, and everyone needs it, but I’m…afraid of it, sometimes. When it’s dark and I’m alone, I get scared. I shouldn’t be scared.”

Makoto’s knuckles tightened around his walking stick.

“I start imagining something terrible is out there, and I come running back. I’m really pathetic.”

Makoto looked out into the endless tunnel of trees off the path to his side. His light was dimmed somehow, and Haru suddenly couldn’t bear to see it.

“I think you’re brave,” Haru said.

“You…” Makoto started. “You do talk! I knew it, I knew you could talk!”

Haru shrank into himself. His scales tingled under his skin, but Makoto was looking at him with an expression he’d never seen on anyone before. The boy’s entire face was lighting up, brighter than the morning light streaming through the gaps in the canopy. Any apprehension he had left melted away before it.

“Of course I can.” Haru turned his face away, suddenly too bare under Makoto’s full attention. “And you helped me, when no one else would even look. So if you ask me, you’re brave.”

Makoto watched him push past, eyebrows raised.

 

Embarrassing. What a stupid thing to say.

 

Then Haru’s hand was swept away from his side as Makoto took it in his and walked calmly next to him.

“Do you have a name?” Makoto asked cheerily.

“…Haruka. Haru is fine.”

“Then thank you, Haru-chan!”

 

The forest thinned and gave way to a wide open body of dark, glittering water. It lapped lazily at the stony embankment, framed by tall reeds and sinewy trees that bent over the edge to skim the surface with thin branches.

“I know it’s not the ocean, but if you want to—”

Haru had his tunic up and over his head before Makoto could finish, making a beeline for the lake’s edge. He could hear the boy’s amused chuckle behind him, but once he dove in, any shame he’d left on the shore was infinitesimal.

A splash told Haru that Makoto had jumped in as well, and was paddling toward him. Haru kicked and surfaced beside the human boy, shaking his wet hair away from his face. He was grateful for this, and everything Makoto had done for him since he’d arrived. Haru wanted to thank him, though he didn’t know how. Recalling Makoto’s gesture the evening before, Haru extended his hand.
It was webbed, and scales shimmered all up his forearm, now that he was in the water. He knew his irises were large, and glowing—like a demon’s. But Makoto took his hand with a giggle, weaving his fingers between the stretches of slippery blue skin.

“You’re welcome!” he chirped.

The boys spent the rest of the afternoon at the lake, and for the first time in his life, Haru wanted a day to be longer.

 

Haru stayed with the Tachibanas again that night, and every night after that. There were few complications, and their volunteering to harbor him met no contest from any of the other people in Aomori. He spent all of his time with Makoto, exploring the forest, gathering herbs and roots for his mother, and attending the boy’s lessons on days when children were required to have them. With nowhere else to go, he found he had latched onto Makoto, following him around everywhere he went. But the human boy never seemed put off; he began calling Haru a friend.

Some days, his longing for the sea would hit him harder than others. He would rise early in the morning before sunrise and steal down to the lake. If he looked out over the water while the fog still rested over it, he couldn’t see the woods on the far side. He could pretend then that there was no other side.

 

Come nightfall, Haru would be more than ready for sleep. A while ago, Mr. Tachibana had pulled him aside and asked if he wanted his own bed made. Haru had firmly shaken his head no.

He slid into his spot next to the wall and waited for Makoto to join him.

“Don’t wait for me, Haru. I have to finish something first,” Makoto said with a smile.

Haru shrugged and turned over, distantly hoping Makoto wouldn’t be too long.

Haru’s body had betrayed him again during the night, and he woke at dawn to find himself pressed up against Makoto. Only this time, the green boy was awake. Haru hissed through his teeth and recoiled, but Makoto only grinned gleefully and sat up. His brown hair was sticking out in several places, and Haru battled the urge to smooth it down.

“You’re up! You’re finally up!” Makoto dropped down and reached over to his table nearby. He came back holding something small covered in his cupped hands.

“Look, I made this for you!” He opened his hands to reveal a small carved wooden item. It was vaguely bean-shaped and the pair of eyes at one end must have meant it was supposed to be an animal of some kind, Haru guessed.

“I know you miss your home in the ocean, right?” Makoto crossed his legs nervously. “So I thought I could make you something from there. It’s a dolphin!”

Haru stared in astonishment at Makoto, then at the carved toy. He rose and slowly plucked it from Makoto’s palm, turning it over inquisitively. It was far too round, had no snout, and was painted red and green.

“This isn’t what dolphins look like,” Haru said flatly. “But I…thank you…Makoto.”

Makoto cleared his throat. The green boy was still strangely happy, Haru thought. “Ah, well…I guess it looks like a trout, doesn’t it? I’ve never seen a dolphin before.”

“I can show you,” Haru said.

 

Haru picked up woodcarving quickly, dexterous hands whittling the small blocks into delicate shapes. Recalling images of dolphins flicking and cutting through the water helped Haru remember the ocean in a way that felt fond, and stung less. A few days later, he dropped his finished carving into Makoto’s hands when the other boy had come home from gathering mushrooms.

Makoto was overjoyed to receive Haru’s gift. He flashed Haru a smile that was radiant and soft, warm like late morning sun after a swim in the deep. For some reason, Haru wanted to see it again.

Haru made more toys to give to Makoto, recreating all of the sea creatures he loved best. Mr. Tachibana gladly gave Haru any good scraps of wood from his work, and the young siren carved them to life. Each time he gave Makoto a new one, the other boy would glow with excitement no less bright than the times before. They would play together with the wooden creatures, naming them and creating fantastical stories. Makoto was always eager to learn about the ocean, and Haru answered all of his questions, talking more than he ever had back home.

 

Months slipped by, and some of the trees bronzed and shed their leaves.

“What’s wrong with them?” Haru asked. The loss was sad to him, somehow. “Are they dying?”

“They’re not!” Makoto said. “The leaves grow back in the spring!”

Haru had never heard of anything like that before, but he liked the idea of the green coming back.

Mrs. Tachibana gave birth to two healthy children that Autumn. One girl, one boy—both tiny and squealing, and the most amazing things Haru had ever seen. Makoto held the girl, Ran, in his arms as he sat on their bed.

“Would you like to hold him, Haru?” Mr. Tachibana cradled the boy close. Haru nodded.

Ren was sleeping, his stubby hands opening and closing like sea anemone. Haru held him carefully, gazing down at him in awe. The child was warm, and fragile, and precious. The ineffable desire to cherish him exploded in Haru’s heart, and he looked to Makoto in a desperate attempt to describe the feeling to him. Their eyes met, and he knew he didn’t need to.

 

Seasons cycled again. And again.

 

Eight more years.

 

If asked his name, Haru introduced himself as Tachibana Haruka.

Makoto had to attend special lessons as a future guardian of Aomori. Haru went along with him, rules be damned, because everyone knew by now that they came as a pair, or not at all.

Makoto still loved the forest, and still froze in fear of it when faced with darkness ahead of him. The other kids bullied and teased him cruelly, but he never bit back. Any snide remark about “Scaredy-cat Tachibana” was answered with a threatening blue glare from Haru when Makoto’s back was turned, and the bullying quelled.

Both boys had been cast adrift in their own way, though neither one of them minded that much.

 

 

Five more years.

 

Haru still went down to the lake before dawn sometimes, but far less these days. The water was too cold for humans in the morning, so more often than not, he waited for the sun to climb higher and warm the shallows so Makoto could come with him. He’d taught Makoto to swim like him, and they did so together, kicking on their backs on the surface, side by side.

During the evenings, Haru would work in the Tachibana’s carpentry shop, embellishing the items with beautiful carvings and reliefs. He had come to thoroughly enjoy making art, and was happy for the opportunity to improve the family business. People from all over Iwatobi (and even some from overseas) bought things made from Aomori wood because the Tear’s magic protected them against evil. He wondered what they might think if they found out their prized furniture from the sacred forest was decorated by a demon.

Makoto and the class of other future guardians went on long treks, delving deeper into the forest, splitting into smaller groups. Haru usually went along with him, always there to help him when the need arose. The other students had eventually accepted them both, and Haru thought he could even call some of them friends. Yazaki Aki was one of them, a shy, pretty girl who could scale trees faster than a squirrel. She would sometimes accompany the pair, offering to navigate from high branches.

But today they were alone, walking through one of the oldest parts of the woods, where the trees were so tall, they couldn’t see the tops. Their majesty was overwhelming. These plants had been here longer than the people in Aomori—at least two thousand years. He and Makoto passed through the dappled shadows beneath them in awe.

The crumbled limestone ruins of a temple were scattered around the area, roots and lichen having taken much of the stone back into the earth. But a few walls were still standing—the carved reliefs miraculously intact and untouched. Most were of ships, and men on horses, and long-tailed, sharp-toothed beasts breathing fire.

 

 

“Those are dragons,” Makoto said, running his hand over the pediment. “The great protectors of our world. But there hasn’t been one in Iwatobi since the old wars. They live over the sea somewhere.”

“I want to see one.” Haru tried to imagine what a real dragon must be like, staring upward at the carving until his neck ached.

 

The two of them continued down the path, stopping here and there to make observations. Makoto scribbled notes into his scouting journal, Haru adding drawings to it when he saw something he liked. When the time would come for Makoto’s guardian trial, he would have to know the woods like they were his own backyard. He studied hard, and ventured out further and further each time, even though Haru could tell doing so often made him uneasy.

Haru marveled at Makoto’s courage—his willingness to fight his fear for the chance to protect this place. Thinking about it made Haru want to walk closer, make sure Makoto knew that he would never have to make the journey alone.

“Hey, Haru-chan,” Makoto nudged Haru gently.

“Don’t add ‘chan.”

“Have you ever wanted to meet your birth parents?” Makoto asked, looking somewhere far off in the canopy.

“Not really.” His answer came easily.

“Why not?!” The human boy looked scandalized.

“Why would I?” Haru shrugged. “I don’t remember them, and if they see what I am, they’ll just run like everyone else.”

“Haru…” Makoto’s face fell. “Well I know if I lost a child, I’d want to see them more than anything, no matter how much time had passed, or what happened since I’d lost them. I’m sure your parents are the same.”

Haru opened his mouth to protest, but Makoto continued. “And besides, if they met you, they would see what a loving, gentle person you are.”

“I’m not.” Haru insisted. “I could kill anyone, with one look.”

“But you don’t, do you?” Makoto turned around to grin at him, walking backwards on sure feet, and there was that look again. A smile like something was bubbling just under the surface—a new part of their friendship Haru couldn’t quite identify.

“I do use my power.” Haru corrected. “It’s how I catch fish.”

Makoto laughed into his knuckles.

“I’m afraid of a lot of things, Haru.” Makoto said softly. “But I’ve never been afraid of you. Not even the first time I saw you.”

“You should have been. That was stupid.”

“Maybe.” Makoto reached out for Haru. “Maybe I could tell you weren’t going to hurt me.”

“Hm.” Angling his face away, Haru let Makoto take his hand. “Still stupid…”

“Well I can’t make you, but if you get the chance, you should find your birth parents, Haru. I’ll be there with you when you do.

 

Three more years.

 

It was hard for Haru to recall a time when his days had been different. The part of his childhood he had spent with the sirens felt distant, like it might have been someone else’s experience— because his home was here. He still pined for the sea in his heart. Only now he had something he treasured more than all of the water in the ocean.

Makoto broke the surface and made his way over to where Haru floated in the shallow part of the lake. He was walking on the bottom past the rocky bank, he was so tall now.

Love wasn’t a concept Haru had been acquainted with before he came to Aomori. He knew that you helped another if you expected them to share their meal later, and that sticking together in groups was a safer way to travel. But in seven years, Makoto never asked for anything in return for his kindness, and Haru had come to accept that a smile from his green boy was the only thing he really wanted.

Sometimes Makoto would look at him with such tenderness it made his chest swell until he thought it might burst from his ribs, and he knew he would give anything to see that expression as many times as he could. In a way, the siren woman’s words from years ago made sense to him now. His affection for Makoto was frightening in the way it encompassed him completely.

“Haru-chan? Is something wrong?”

The human boy’s closeness brought Haru back into the present. It was raining lightly, though the sun still leaked through the clouds, glistening on Makoto’s wet shoulders and sparkling in his hair.

“I love you,” Haru said.

He did, and he knew that he had for a long time. It felt natural to say—an obvious truth that they both felt in every touch of their fingers, swirling in the spaces between them when they walked side by side in the woods each morning.

Still, Makoto looked taken aback by the admission for a moment. Then his face softened, and he reached up to cup Haru’s cheeks, pressing a delicate kiss to the tip of his nose.

“I love you too, Haru!” He laughed shyly. “So much!”

His heart full, Haru wrapped his legs around Makoto’s waist under the water and used them to push himself up and lightly press his lips to Makoto’s smiling mouth. Makoto’s lips were wet with rain, but still warm and pliant. Haru did it again, and once more before they toppled under the surface and came up again splashing and giggling.

 

Two more years.

 

Ran and Ren adored the collection of toys Haru had made. After he and Makoto came come each night, they would play with the wooden sea creatures together. Having four people play meant more of the animals could be a part of the story, Ran said. Haru always picked the green and red dolphin—the only one Makoto had carved.

The twins were his age now, when he had made them.

Makoto and Haru had their own house, as was customary for teenagers at their age. It was just down the road from the family’s cottage—quaint but sturdy, and with a garden of flowers and vegetables in the back. Haru had painted the inside walls in blues and greens, with fish swimming from the kitchen to the door.

He would fish in the lake, and cook for Makoto, since the guardian-in-training couldn’t even crack an egg without burning his fingers on the griddle. Makoto brought logs for the fire, and wood for Haru’s work when the siren boy needed more.

“I’m home!” Makoto stomped inside and unlaced his boots at the threshold.

“Welcome back.” Haru said. He was at his desk, chipping away at his latest commission. Haru still worked for Makoto’s father, but sometimes the wealthy buyer from overseas had special requests just for him. Little things—charms, decorative tools, frames, the handles of fans, or weapons. Makoto would bring him blessed wood from deeper in the forest for these projects. He enjoyed these the most; working small felt intimate somehow.

Hanging up his cloak, Makoto strode across the house to him and planted a kiss in his hair.

“What’s that?” Makoto kept his mouth where it was, resting his head on Haru’s and peering down at his work. Haru could feel his breath on his bangs, and leaned back into Makoto’s welcoming embrace.

“It’s a hilt,” Haru said. The order requested a winged dragon, wrapping around the object, with carnations and roses along the edges.

“Mmm I hope it’s just for decoration, then.” Makoto chuckled, moving his face down to peck Haru on the cheek. “It’s so beautiful!”

Makoto pulled away to look Haru in the eyes, and Haru knew it was coming, could see it in the other boy’s face:

“Still not as beautiful as you.”

Haru set down his carving knife and elbowed Makoto for his efforts, rising to start preparing lunch as a stubborn blush crept up his face.

“Haru-chan are you embarrassed?” Makoto draped himself over his shoulders, swaying them to and fro. He could hear the playful smugness in Makoto’s voice, and he refused to be the only one flustered today.

Haru twisted around in Makoto’s arms and shut him up with a firm kiss that lasted until the back of his legs hit the bed they shared.

Lunch could wait.

 

Out in the garden that evening, they sat watching the moths flutter around their lantern.

 

Makoto had been silent for a while, and Haru wished he would speak up and say what he was thinking about.

“When I’m a guardian, Haru…I can’t leave the forest.” Makoto reached a finger out, and moth landed there gracefully. “I have to stay near the Tear to protect it, so I won’t be able to come see you that often. Maybe only once every…every few years.”

Haru knew this. He had known since Makoto told him about becoming a guardian ages ago—but hearing him say it felt like getting crushed into the surf by an angry swell that he had seen coming long before it had broken.

“Oh,” Haru said.

He would have to return to Moyajima. The sirens had, against all odds, upheld their end of the bargain for nine years, and likely would for one more. Peace between their races was bigger than Haru, bigger than his family, and the law would see that he was returned to the den.

It was something he tried hard not to think about, because waiting for so long to get back to the ocean was painful and sad when he’d had all those years of captivity ahead of him. Those years were almost up, and the road back was short—yet now he found himself grasping for every grain of sand that slipped down the hourglass, his anticipation replaced with the inevitable realization that he was running out of time.

 

One more year.

 

The leaves were falling again in Aomori, coppery reds and oranges breaking up the walls of evergreen. Haru reached up to pluck one from where it had settled onto his shoulder, and held it aloft in his pale hand. He spread his fingers, and the leaf slipped past the blue webbing, floating to the ground to join the others. This would be the last time he could see them fall.

Makoto was afield again, traversing the woods with Aki and a few others. He wouldn’t be back until the next day, and Haru thought he could use the time to work on a gift he had started. Every guardian had a staff that they carried, using them as walking sticks, weapons, and reminders of home when they were gone on patrol. Haru would find a way to carve the contents of his heart into a staff for Makoto. He smiled to himself.

Eyes on the ground, Haru didn’t notice Makoto’s approach until he felt the weight of a cloak on his shoulders.

“It’s getting chilly out, Haru. You’ll get sick walking around with just that thin shirt on…” Makoto fussed over him, fastening the front of the cloak, smoothing out the sides while Haru watched him intently. Makoto had always been excessively attentive, making sure he had all he needed.

He used to find it annoying occasionally, but now he wondered how many more times he would get to see his friend wrap a cloak around him, or sigh in that exasperated, fond way he liked so much.

“I thought you’d still be out.” Haru brushed Makoto’s hand away and hugged the wool tighter.

Makoto shrugged. “I turned back a little early. The trip was going well, and…you know, I…” he trailed off.

I want to spend more time with you.

“Let’s go home.” Haru led the way, Makoto following gratefully.

 

One more night.

 

“How much farther?”

“Don’t worry, Haru,” Makoto said, not missing the concern in Haru’s voice “It’s not that far out; I’m fine. I’m getting better with that, you know…”

Makoto held a lantern out in front of himself as he led Haru by the hand down the narrow path winding away from their house. Makoto had a special surprise for Haru tonight, he’d told him, and Haru let his mellow excitement swallow his apprehension.

“Here!”

Careful not to trip as he led Haru out of the brush, Makoto stepped aside to reveal a tent of sorts he had set up in the small clearing. A heap of blankets lay beneath a sheer woven sheet that was pinned at the sides by a thin wooden frame.

“What is this, Makoto?” Haru glanced over at his best friend, his family, his love.

“Get in!” Makoto pulled the sheet open, and Haru ducked inside. “You’ll see.”

They slipped off their shoes and laid out on top of the blankets, close together in the middle of the pile. On their backs in the clearing, the sky brimming with stars stretched out over them, twinkling like a million tiny beads.

“Wait, Haru.” Makoto was reaching into his bag, removing his tinder set. “Wh-! Don’t look, it’s a surprise!”

“Fine.” He sighed and lay back.

“Close your eyes.”

He did. He heard Makoto strike a fire, then shut something metal, and finally the lantern was blown out.

“Open them.”

Haru gasped. The insides of the tent swam in luminous blue.

“Do you like it?” Makoto sat on his knees near the candle he had made for Haru. It was an oddly-shaped container crafted out of metal and a mosaic of cerulean glass. The flame inside fluttered, filtering through the shards and making blue shapes dance on the sheet above them.

“Makoto…it’s…”

“Ah, It’s supposed to look like the water,” Makoto said sheepishly. He joined Haru on his back and snuggled closer. “So this way, it’s like we’re under the sea together. It’s stupid, it probably doesn’t look anything like—”

Haru turned Makoto’s face toward him and stopped his chatter with an impatient mouth.

They broke apart after a few minutes, panting softly and dizzy with affection.

They could still see the stars through the sheer sheet, blinking beyond the current of moving light. Treetops rustled in the breeze, and Makoto and Haru rested in comfortable quiet. Inside of here was Haru’s own piece of heaven. He was floating beneath the waves in the middle of the forest, curled up into Makoto’s steady warmth. It was all he’d ever need.

“Can we stay in here forever?” Haru said finally.

Makoto laughed, lacing his strong fingers between Haru’s and squeezing. “Sure, Haru. We can stay a while. As long as you want.”

Soon he would be under the salt waves looking up at the same sky in the heavy silence of the ocean, alone. Once it was a feeling he spent every waking moment dreaming about, hopelessly yearning for. And now he would give it up a thousand times over to spend the rest of his life here.

Panic ensnared and stung him, paralyzing him with dread as he thought, this is the end. Haru turned onto his side to face his Makoto, eyes wide as blue moons, tears streaming unchecked into his hair.

“I don’t want to go.” The words came out in a strangled whisper. “Makoto, I don’t want to go.”

Makoto drew him in, hand splayed on the back of Haru’s head, and their world shrank into a candle, a pile of blankets, and each other.

“I’ll find a way, Haru.” Makoto said shakily into Haru’s silky hair. “We’ll bring you back, this isn’t goodbye.”

“It is,” Haru hissed into Makoto’s chest. “I love the forest, and our family, and…and you. But I can’t be here; I can’t leave the island, and I’ll never belong here.”

The air left Haru as Makoto held him tighter.

“Yes you do,” Makoto breathed. “It’s your home as much as anyone else’s. You’ll always belong here with us, and with me.”

Hope was a dangerous thing to keep, and he knew there was little of it where he was going, but Haru let himself surrender to Makoto’s unshakable optimism. They made love under the quilts, keeping the night’s chill at bay, drinking each other in and savoring every moment like the last berries of summer. Sleep settled over them as the candle flickered out.

 

The morning of Haru’s departure came as surely as any other.

An official escort from the capital had come to fetch him, and Haru recognized the general with the sideswept blond hair from the first time he’d made the trip. His family, friends, and a few of the neighbors he knew (Aki, and Mrs. Tamura) were all gathered beside the main road to see him off. Ran and Ren were bawling, hanging onto his shirt until Makoto sympathetically pried them off. Haru had said his farewells to his family. There was no way he could ever thank them enough for what they had given him. But he thought he would try.

Haru made Mrs. Tachibana a comb painted with vines and hydrangeas. They were her favorite flowers in the garden. For Mr. Tachibana he carved noble fir and pine trees along the edges of a box, so he could have a place to put his small tools he would always lose around the shop. To Ran and Ren he gave a pair of birds he had whittled out of birch.

“You should keep them together,” he said. “They’ll get lonely without the other.”

After the family and townspeople had returned, only Makoto was left.

 

“I have something for you too, you know.” Haru reached into the brush where he’d hidden his gift for the person who meant more to him than he could put into words. He handed the finished staff to Makoto.

“Haru I don’t know what to say. Thank you. This is…it’s gorgeous.” Makoto held it reverently, smoothing his fingers over the intricate, polished, impossibly smooth carvings of leaves and waves. A pod of dolphins swam next to a vine of ivy one side, and an orca encircled the other. And cleverly hidden in the foliage was a pair of hands, holding onto one another.

“I’m glad you like it.” Haru smiled. Their gazes met.

So I can be with you in the forest, even when you think you’re alone.

“Thank you,” Makoto whispered. He cupped Haru’s cheeks and leaned in, the way he had the first time they kissed in the lake that rainy morning. The kiss was as slow as they could make it, both of them locking the taste of the other in their memories.

I love you, they told each other in silence.

 

Haru turned to leave, suddenly aware again of the many eyes of the Iwatobi soldiers on him.

“Come home soon, Haru,” Makoto called out to him.

“Yeah.”

He couldn’t bear to look back as he made his way toward the cage held open for him. It was easy to forget what he was to the rest of the world when he was with Makoto.

“Wait.” The blond captain stopped him before he entered. “Why don’t you ride up front with me this time, kid?”

Haru settled on then carriage bench, and started on the road back to the sea.

 

 

Ikuya was standing on a rock overlooking the island when Haru returned.

He cut a tall, dark silhouette against the white spray of waves breaking on the low cliff. It had been ten years, and he wasn’t little anymore. Haru approached him, and there was so much to say, yet when he reached down for the words to begin, he came up empty.

“Hi, Haru.”

Ikuya’s eyes were red, when he wasn’t in the water. Haru had barely ever seen them like this, but they stared at him now, and he thought absently that their hue matched the rust-colored leaves on the forest floor this time of year. Ikuya was changed, like he was, he could tell. Where before his hair had hung into his face like the other sirens’, it was now short—cut just above his ears and baring his slim neck. He looked human.

“Hi.”

Haru stopped a few steps away. The two shoreborn sirens stood mute, neither one knowing how to move forward from here. Before he could stop himself, Haru had closed the gap and gathered Ikuya in a tight embrace. Ikuya’s arms came up around him, over his shoulders because the kid was taller than he was.

They stayed like that, swaying slightly, letting the wind ruffle their dry hair. Haru wanted to hear about Ikuya’s stay with his humans, and tell him all that he’d done and learned in Aomori. Tell him about Makoto, and how much family meant to him. They had time.

Slowly, they broke apart and settled onto the rocks, watching the push and pull of the ocean. A pod of dolphins swam past, jumping over the water with a flick of their tails.

“I found my older brother, Haru.” Ikuya said. “My human brother.”

Haru turned to him, shocked.

“He came by the Shiina house one day, where I lived. And Asahi introduced me to him. He didn’t want to talk to me at first, because he hated our kind so much. Said that they sank his family’s boat, years ago. And I don’t…we don’t look much alike, but somehow I knew.”

“Did you tell him?” Haru asked.

“Yeah. After a while.” Ikuya smiled at the ground, poking at a barnacle in the tide pool. “He believed me right away. I think he knew too, if that makes any sense.”

“His name’s Natsuya, and he’s big, and amazing.” Ikuya gushed. “He’s the best swordsman in all of Iwatobi, Haru. My brother.”

Haru huffed a laugh. “I bet your haircut looks like his.”

Ikuya sputtered and shoved Haru off the rock.

 

Life in the den was as if no time had passed at all. Sirens came and went, speaking little to each other. Haru caught mackerel again, and how he had missed the taste of it. Though he asked himself what it might taste like seared over the fire pit in his and Makoto’s house.

Does Makoto cook for himself now, without me?

Suddenly his appetite was gone.

 

The others were forbidden to hunt in Iwatobi, but they occasionally found other shores, or vagrant ships to plunder. Each time they would return in high spirits, adding new bones to their mounds in the island’s caves. It made Haru sick.

They were murderers—hateful, evil. He could see that clearly now, and wanted no part in it.

This existence wasn’t for him, and he knew Ikuya felt the same. They spent more time together, recounting their experiences and the places they went on land. When they weren’t talking, they would drift under the filtered bars of sunlight near the surface, gazing up at the world they now knew was a bigger part of them than the one below.

“I’m cold, Haru.” Ikuya said one morning.

It was late spring, and the water was warm, but Haru thought he understood. He decided to stop drifting.

 

Haru waited with Ikuya for Kurou to come home from a hunt, watching as the clan leader emerged from the dark water at the tunnel entrance. The chief of the sirens was thick and muscled with a hard jaw, broad features, and dark hair that clung to his face like kelp. No creature’s hatred for humans burned hotter than his. To most, he was terrifying in his unrivaled ability to tear the light from the living—but today Haru would have his answers.

Blocking Kurou’s path to the den, Haru met his deadly eyes. A faint green shimmer from the water below the cave passage played on the sirens' faces, and the craggy walls.

“Why did you take me?” Haru demanded.

Kurou bristled, his pupils narrowing dangerously at Haru’s display of insolence. But he must have decided the boy’s bravery was worthy of a response.

“You ask what you know already.” Kurou said. “Our numbers were low, so I made shoreborns. Simple. Now, move, fry.”

But Haru wasn’t finished. “You robbed me of my childhood, my family, my home—twice.

“And? What do you want from me? An apology? You waste my time. We gave up all of Iwatobi waters to spare your lives, you ungrateful leech.”

“I want you tell me who my real parents were, and where I came from.” Haru clenched his fists to steady himself. “You stole it from me, and you owe it to me.”

The boys held their breath, and for a moment, it looked like the siren chief was going to attack him. But again, he settled.

“Fine.” Kurou glanced venomously at the two boys. “If you want to know that badly, then follow.” Kurou dove back into the water.

Haru stood motionless on the rock a moment. He hadn’t expected Kurou to give him what he asked for so easily, much less agree to take him in person. This wasn’t the time to hesitate, he knew. But what would he do if his parents saw him? If they rejected him? A hundred questions to ask them converged in his mind.

“Haru.” Ikuya put a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Shall we go?”

I don’t have to make the journey alone.

Haru gave him a quick nod.

 

Hours rolled by, and Haru and Ikuya kept pace behind Kurou, following the spidery black of the siren leader’s hair. The sand was miles below them now, the quiet of the open ocean surrounding them.

It was nearing sundown when the sea floor rose up again to meet them, rocks and reeds visible below. Haru’s gaze lingered on the wreck of a ship as they passed.

At last Kurou stopped, treading in the water and sparing a glance behind him for the first time since they had left Moyajima. He swam upwards, and the boys followed, breaking the surface in quiet bursts. It was nearing dusk. The three sirens floated near a stony outcropping where the water swirled around the bits of dark rock above the rising tide.

“Over this boulder is the human city we took you from.” Kurou said. “Go on, then.”

Haru swallowed. Fear of absolute rejection tethered him to the water as he looked up at the rock. He wished Makoto could be here to tell him it would fine, it would all work out no matter what happened.

“Lend me your strength, Makoto.” Haru said under his breath. “I need it for a little while.”

He pushed out of the surf up onto land. Cool evening air chilled his wet skin, making him shiver. Stepping carefully over the jagged stones, he made his way up the rock as he heard Ikuya trail after him. On the other side of it was the place he could have lived, and his family. Just below the crest of the rock, he halted.

Ikuya waited at the foot of the scarp behind him. He smiled reassuringly.

Haru grinned back, and with a final pull, heaved himself over the rock.

What he saw froze the air in his lungs.

The beach before him was completely empty, bleeding into a blackened, barren desolation that reached up the mountainsides of an entire crescent-shaped bay. Nothing but the leaden bones of houses and buildings stood upright, the rest of the seaside state laid waste in bleak onyx heaps.

Haru was sliding down the rock before he was aware of himself. There was a path leading into the town from the beach, and he started walking, one foot in front of the other. Ash was sticking to his legs, and he nearly tripped over the shattered remains of a statue. A gust swept over the naked hillside, and he coughed.

Numbly padding up a wide street, he came upon the stone frame of what was likely a house. It might’ve been his family’s house, he thought. He stopped and seated himself on the crumbled edge of the structure’s foundation. Without turning, Haru felt Ikuya sit down beside him, a comforting presence at his hip.

“Find what you were looking for?” Kurou stood on the path leading up to the house, his body a menacing, shadowy form in the low light.

“What happened?” Haru rasped. “Where is everyone?”

“Fire.” Kurou said. “Dragons.” He waved a lazy hand over the ruined bay. “The humans all burned. Your parents, probably. And likely you too, had we not taken you.”

Haru looked out once more over the charred city he could have grown up in, and any hope of meeting his human parents went up in bitter smoke. They had died without ever knowing him.

“They can’t all be dead.” Ikuya persisted. “There must have been survivors. They could be somewhere else—”

“If any survived, they’re gone.” Kurou’s voice was stern and even. “I don’t know where. But this place has long since been empty.”

Haru knelt and buried his fingers in the ash piled up against the stone he sat on. This house had been lived in—people had laughed and loved here, like he had in his family’s cottage in the forest. He thought of all the memories he had made in Aomori, how every person here must have had their own, and now they were nothing more than heaps of grey dust.

The shoreborn sirens sat in silence, mourning the deaths of humans, and watching the tide creep higher up the shore with every push. Kurou waited, never lifting his gaze from the two of them.

“You can’t go back.” The siren leader said at last.

Sitting up, Haru frowned. “Can’t go back where?”

“You can’t live as we do. Not anymore.” Kurou replied. “So I am releasing you.”

“You’re…” Haru wasn’t sure he was grasping the meaning of this.

“I said I’m releasing you. It’s clear the two of you are of no use to the rest of us. If you want to crawl back onto land and find the humans you love so much, you’re both free to go.”

“We—we can just go?” Ikuya clambered to his feet incredulously.

Kurou had started the trudge down the hillside, back to the ocean, his voice still loud over the crashing of waves on the beach. “For what little it’s worth, I still thought of you both as my own.”

The siren leader continued down the street, leaving Haru and Ikuya to gape at each other in disbelief.

 

We’re free.

 

_____________________________________

 

Haru leaned out over the side of the carriage and inhaled. Pine, wet leaves, grass, and soil rich from recent rain. The scents of Aomori reminded him of a lively house, a wood shop, and kind eyes greener than the brightest leaf in the forest in spring.

The carriage rattled over the wooden bridge as it was pulled into the city, and Haru’s hand flew to the pendant on his neck.

“Take it.” Extending his thick arm, Kurou placed the delicate blue necklace in Haru’s hand. “So that you’ll always have a drop of the sea with you.”

He could feel the salt water moving around inside the glass, and even if he would never forgive Kurou, he appreciated this piece of the ocean he still loved. He had parted ways with Ikuya where the road split into north and south. The other boy was on his way back to the capital of Iwatobi, to live with his brother and the Shiinas.

“We’ll see each other again soon,” Ikuya said, wrapping Haru in a tight embrace. “Asahi’s always wanted to visit the sacred forest, so you’ll have to show us around.”

Haru huffed a fond laugh. “I’d love to.”

 

When they rolled into town, Haru jumped off and pulled his hood down over his eyes as he strode through the street. He would greet everyone properly again, in due time. But there was someone he needed to see before he did anything else.

The excitement built up in his chest, and he ran, hopping over the pinecones scattered on the path to their house.

Makoto was there in the garden, heaving a stack of logs into the pile for firewood. He was facing the other way, but suddenly he stopped, back straightening as if he sensed Haru coming.

Slowly, he turned around.

Haru was utterly unable to contain his joy, letting it spill over and leave his face too open, and his stealing his breath. Laughing unreservedly, he sprinted down the path and into his lover’s waiting warmth. Makoto lifted him and twirled him around, repeating his name over and over.

Makoto finally let him down, but kept his strong arms around Haru’s waist.

“I’m home, Makoto. For good.”

“Welcome home, Haru.”