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A Warrior's Heart

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Good luck charms were strung outside of Haru and Makoto’s house, swinging from twine cords that bowed with the collective well-wishes of adoring neighbors and friends. There were so many of them, Haru thought for one silly moment that the roof might cave in.

It was the first moon of the season, and tomorrow, Makoto would be leaving on the most important trip of his life.

The eve of Makoto’s Guardian test was winding to a calm close, and visitors were gathering their children, leaving their gifts as the cook fire dimmed. Makoto was just around the side of the yard, his head wreathed in a crown of golden maple leaves. He was radiant, surrounded by classmates and several enamored youngsters. Fondness fluttered up from Haru’s chest to his ears as he watched a little girl loop a chain of clovers around his lover’s wrist.

Regardless of what they thought of Haru, the people of Aomori loved Makoto—this he knew beyond doubt. And how could they not? The scared little boy Haru had lived with for fourteen years had matured into a strong, handsome, indescribably compassionate young man. He tutored the children when they went scouting, cut firewood for the old woman down the road, and stopped to play with the shrine cats every morning. Whenever Haru decided he couldn’t possibly love Makoto more, his heart swelled, and stretched itself wider.

 

“Going to be a hard couple weeks for us, isn’t it?”

Haru felt Mrs. Tachibana step up beside him, her presence a grounding steadiness at his back.

Lying to her would be a waste of breath. “Yes.”

“We’ll all just have to be strong together.” She unfolded her arms to place a kind hand on his shoulder. “If you get lonely, Haru, you come right home and see us.”

“I will.” Haru nodded. He meant it.

Dusky clouds were rolling over the forest, and Haru could taste moisture in the muggy air. It was going to rain soon.

He watched an elderly couple from near the lake hang a charm up on a low string of twine. The fisherman and his wife.

“Tell him good luck for us as well,” the man chuckled, eyes wrinkled in crows’ feet at the corners. “I remember when he was no taller than a pine sprout! Such a talkative kid. The both of you have grown so fast.”

Smalltalk didn’t come as easily to Haru as it did to Makoto. And though he didn’t want to seem off-putting, friendliness was a struggle more often than not. Still, it was worth putting out the effort.

“Thank you.” Haru gave the couple a curt bow. “I’ll tell him.”

 

The sky above rumbled, and finally burst. A drop of rain fell on the steps to the door. Then another, and another, pattering down through gaps between the trees in wet pearls. One of them rolled onto Haru’s cheek, clinging to his jaw.

The old couple flinched as if stung by nettle, and Haru didn’t miss it. Subtly as they could manage, they had both looked away.

Cerulean scales were beginning to bloom on Haru’s face in the water’s wake. More rain tickled his forehead, and he blinked, knowing his irises were brightening and expanding to engulf the whites of his eyes. He met Makoto’s gaze from across the yard.

I’m going inside.

He didn’t wait for Makoto to acknowledge, leaving the fisherman with another brief nod, and making for the porch in long, restive strides.

Haru cracked open the door to the house, slipped inside, and shut it behind him with a comforting clatter.

Happy as he’d been to come home to the forest, residents of Aomori didn’t all share the same favorable opinion of him as their friends did. There was no metal brandished in his face the second time, but the rooted fear of him had never completely worn off. Hints of it still rattled in people’s voices when he shopped at the market, or gave directions to pilgrims from the capital.

He couldn’t say he faulted them for it, either.

The other sirens swam, hunted, killed, fought, and tunneled like roaches through the dank underbelly of Moyajima. Fueled by hatred and a sickening thirst for murder, they were the purest form of cruelty alive. The luminescent blue of their eyes made widows and orphans, and plagued the nightmares of humans on every shore.

The same blue shone in Haru’s own eyes, that vile power lurking dormant. It would take more than one peace-loving shoreborn to erode thousands of year’s worth of terror, he supposed.

Haru let his clothes drop to the floor in a pile where he stood, and padded over to the bathtub in the corner, toeing into the cool water, and deflating into liquid bliss.

The bright blue glass pendant Kurou had given him floated at his neck, bobbing in shallow ripples. He took it between his webbed thumb and forefinger, rolling the sphere and watching the faint slosh of seawater inside.

The sea was a part of him, in a way he was certain had nothing to do with being a siren. He missed the pull of the waves, and the silent, unhinged freedom of the open ocean.

But each time that longing clawed at his heart, he remembered that the taste of salt water would never compare to the sweet savor of Makoto’s mouth. Being with him was a freedom of its own sort—the surety that Haru could love, with all of himself.

Makoto loved him back, just as ardently. Haru had come to accept that they were a pair—matched, and fated to stay this way, side by side, for life.

Haru knew this. He did. Yet sometimes, when he was reminded of how different they were—he thought he might have been selfish to return. Haru had left the den, and the others behind. It was a shadow he was happy to bury in the tomb of his past. Though somewhere lodged deep down, was the fear that he’d brought that darkness back with him.

He leaned against the wall of the tub, sinking down to let the water tickle his chin, then swallow the rest of him. Stretching a pale arm toward the surface, he spread his hand so that the webbing caught the light from the hearth.

 

He wanted Makoto to hurry and come home.

 

_____

 

Makoto was tired and teary-eyed after saying his goodbyes to Ren and Ran, and his parents. They had so much confidence in him—they always had. For their sake, he could convince himself that he was ready for tomorrow.

He hung his cloak on the rack near the door as he entered the house, searching for Haru with a kindling fervor.

There was no movement in the living room. Makoto was about to check behind the wall to their bed, when he caught the slight rippling of water in the tub, and a grin broke over his face. Stealing around the edge of the bath, he stretched an arm out, clasping his fingers over Haru’s spread hand.

“Haru-chan.”

Haru’s eyes snapped open underwater to look up at him, and Makoto waved. The siren scooted back and sat up out of the water, shaking out his hair.

Haaaru-chan. Thank you for putting up with the neighbors for so long.” Makoto giggled.

A tight pout firmed Haru’s pretty mouth.

Makoto knew it wasn’t always easy for Haru to spend time at gatherings. He was quiet, and found socializing arduous. Despite that, Haru always tried, and Makoto appreciated it more than he could describe. Affection swelling, Makoto leaned in to nuzzle Haru’s neck, lips grazing over the scales at the boy’s nape.

Haru stiffened at his touch, angling his head away.

In the six years they had been lovers, Haru had never once given himself to Makoto with his scales on. He would say that he didn’t want to get the sheets wet, or that it might not feel quite as good, but Makoto knew the real reason: Haru was ashamed.

Makoto had tried countless times to tell Haru that it made no difference what he was, or where he’d come from—he was still the kindest, most talented, beautiful person Makoto had been fortunate enough to know.

“Haru?” Makoto back prickled with concern. “Did someone say something to you? If they did, tell me who, and I’ll have a word with them.”

“No. It’s nothing.” Haru cut in. “Just wait a bit, and I’ll dry off.”

Makoto nudged the side of Haru’s head, sliding his hand down Haru’s chest. The siren drew in a shivery breath, and Makoto felt his desire stir. His fingers trailed around and under the water to tenderly stroke Haru’s side. “You don’t need to.”

When his hand found the slick patch of scales at Haru’s ribs, the boy shied away.

“I want to be dry.”

Haru rose from the tub, water running in ribbons down the tight planes of his body. He stood, waiting, as Makoto wrapped a towel over his narrow frame.

Something was bothering him. His eyes were restless, his arms rigid. Makoto wished Haru would open up, but it was best not to push him.

Makoto was more than willing to help Haru wrest his mind from the gloom, and blow away any doubt that he wasn’t the most precious thing in Makoto’s world.

It would be their last night together for a while, after all. He pinned Haru’s arms to his sides under the towel and tugged him close, dusting tiny kisses over Haru’s eye, on his nose, and at the corner of his pursed mouth.

“We don’t have to,” Makoto whispered into Haru’s bangs.

This seemed to bring the siren to attention. “I want to.”

“Are you sure?”

Haru nodded, shaking out stubborn droplets from the tips of his bangs. He was mostly dry now, scales faded completely, and his eyes a deep sapphire. Even Haru’s human eyes were unearthly in color—like no others Makoto had ever come across in Aomori. He’d never seen the ocean, but in his mind, Haru’s irises were tiny windows into its endless expanse. Each time he gazed into them felt like making a new discovery.

Makoto was going to ask once more if Haru was truly in the mood for it, but the siren dragged his head down roughly, and sucked the question off of his tongue.

“Alright.” He grinned onto Haru’s cheek.

Makoto took Haru’s hand, and led him to their bed, seating him neatly on the edge. Haru still squirmed where he sat, clearly unsettled. Makoto reached into the bedside basket and extracted a strip of wool cloth. Haru’s eyes widened, then snapped shut eagerly. Makoto huffed a quiet laugh, and tied the fabric over his lover’s eyes.

Blindfolding Haru had always been a sure way to help him unwind. It quelled his thoughts, made him focus on feeling. And something about the pure trust that came with stripping away the most dangerous part of him lit the fire of arousal in both of them.

The moment Makoto finished the tie, Haru’s arms went around his neck, bringing him in.

I don’t want you to leave.

With Haru unable to see him, Makoto could smile at that as widely and teasingly as he pleased. “You don’t need to worry,” he whispered. “I’ll be back to you soon.”

It wasn’t the only thing on Haru’s mind, but it was a start. Makoto could work with that.

He skimmed his fingertip up Haru’s elegant neck, tilting the siren’s head up and locking their lips together. Whatever warmth was in him, Makoto hoped would spill into Haru like this, and he felt a thrill as the siren reached down his front to tug urgently at the hem of his tunic. Haru was eager tonight.

Makoto broke the kiss to pull his clothes up and over his head. Haru’s hands boldly roamed over rapidly heating skin. Letting the towel slide off, Haru lay back, and opened up beneath him. Makoto’s excitement spiked. Perhaps it was the explorer in him.

Lips skimming lightly down the boy’s throat, Makoto stopped at his collarbone before mouthing down his primrose-pale chest, taking his time like they had all of eternity to spend in this bed.

“Nnnn, ah. Mako—” Haru sighed and shifted on the sheets, hands drifting up to bury themselves in Makoto’s hair, the strands still damp from the rain. His fingers curled, but didn’t tug. Haru had his own tiny, tender ways of spurring his lover on during gentle foreplay, and Makoto treasured all of them.

He ran his hands down Haru’s thighs, humming happily as he felt the muscles relaxing. Haru made an appreciative sound when Makoto’s palms came up to massage his ass, asking, working his legs apart.

“Haruka.” Makoto leaned up to whisper beside Haru’s ear. “You look incredible right now.”

Haru blew air into his face.

Giggling, Makoto bent to kiss his lover’s eyes over the blindfold. Haru was shy with his affections around people they knew, so private time like this was cherished immeasurably. They had the rest of the night, and Makoto planned to use as much of it as possible to show Haru how much he was loved.

Nuzzling back up to Haru’s mouth, Makoto worked his tongue between the boy’s lips, feeling Haru’s fine-boned hands dance over his shoulder blades.

“Taking—too—long.” Haru huffed between kisses.

“Nuh-uh.” Makoto teased. “There’s no such thing as too long with you.”

Haru nipped at his lip like a playful cat, canting his hips upwards.

After a light peck on the nose, Makoto slipped down Haru’s torso again, licking and kissing his way down the line of the siren’s smooth stomach. In the first couple years of their time as lovers, after diligent, affectionate experimentation, Makoto learned that the spots on Haru’s body where his scales appeared were extremely sensitive. Never one to let observations go to waste, Makoto memorized them all. He found the patch of skin at Haru’s lower back, rubbing with one hand as the other traveled lower.

Haru arched in response, his supple form moving like a river’s current. He was already panting beautifully, writhing, and wrinkling the sheets. Makoto drank in the alluring image, his face hot with lust and love, his underclothes growing tighter by the second. But patience had always been a strength of his.

When his mouth finally reached the slim V of Haru’s hips, the boy was hard. Haru’s cock was delicately curved, flushed a pretty pink.

“Makoto, please,” Haru breathed.

It would be a shame not to use the blindfold to his advantage. With a hot breath and a confident grin, Makoto wet his lips and kissed down between his lover’s legs, mouthing at the base of Haru’s shaft.

“Aaaah!” The siren’s thighs squeezed together, pressing at Makoto’s shoulders.

Makoto kept one hand rubbing circles at Haru’s lower back, the other sliding up to cup Haru’s balls, and massage the tender skin, savoring each needy sound Haru made for him. Haru thrashed backward, tossing his dark, damp hair onto the pillow. His heels dug into Makoto’s back desperately.

“Makoto—!”

With his body bared, eyes blinded, and legs fallen easily open, the raw vulnerability Haru was trusting him with felt like the greatest gift Makoto could ever hope to receive.

Muscles coiled with want, Makoto fought to keep his calm. He pulled away, reaching over to the basket on the bed table to flip open the box of slick paste. They were running a bit low, but there was enough for tonight. He coated his fingers in it, tracing his hand down between Haru’s thighs, massaging the sensitive strip of skin just above his entrance. He circled—and pushed inside.

Haru gasped at the breach.

Dutifully, sweetly, with his mouth latched onto Haru’s throat, Makoto loosened his lover. The siren’s grip on his back fumbled, searching for a place to hold on. Makoto registered every brush of his needy hands acutely, drunk with the joy of feeling Haru’s soul stripped bare.

Haru’s hand came up around his head, and pulled him up for an urgent kiss. He missed, landing his spit-slick lips on Makoto’s cheek in his blindness. Makoto swallowed a laugh, and took mercy, pressing their hungry mouths together himself. Immediately, Haru seized control, licking into Makoto, running his hot tongue over teeth, tangling and tasting every corner of him in all his favorite ways. They moved like this, reaching into each other in a steady, sensual ebb and flow.

Finally, when he deemed Haru ready, Makoto withdrew his hand. He stroked the inside of Haru’s thigh before coating his own length in lubricant, and lining himself up at the foot of the bed.

“Wait.” Haru said, breathless. “I want to see.” He pressed a hand to his arm to still Makoto’s movement. “Want to see you.”

That pulled a small grin over Makoto’s face. He wanted to see, too. With his other hand, he tugged the blindfold off, and placed it on the bed.

Haru blinked, holding him arrested with desirous eyes. The boy sat up to reach a deft hand down and guide Makoto's cock inside. He slid in to the hilt easily—his lover practiced, relaxed, and welcoming. The silky pressure around his cock, and the rush of being connected tore a low growl from Makoto’s mouth. He felt Haru tighten at the sound.

“So good, Haruka,” he chanted. “I’m so lucky you’re mine.”

Haru loosed a shaky whine that shot down Makoto’s back, to his hips, driving him in further.

Makoto rocked in and out in slow, circular motions, coaxing labored breaths, and drawn-out moans from wherever Haru kept them hidden away. He was drowning in Haru—the smell of him, and the taste of his skin, sinking to the bottom of a lake and filling his lungs to capacity with the siren’s bewitching voice.

Shifting his hips, and angling his thrusts deeper, Makoto brushed over that spot. Haru whimpered, forgetting himself, and digging his fingernails into Makoto’s shoulders.

Hard as his lover might try to hide his misgivings, Makoto saw through him, clear as a shallow stream. Haru broke himself over things he couldn’t change. He doubted his worth, was blind to his own breathtaking beauty.

He had given up the ocean forever—to be here, in a small cabin in the woods with Makoto.

Makoto couldn’t give Haru the sea. So he’d give him his body, his heart, and all of the happiness the siren gave him. Haru deserved it all.

“Makoto.” Haru yanked him down roughly by the shoulders, straining to keep a frown on his reddened face.

“Yes, Haru?”

“You’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Yes…?”

“So I want to feel you when you’re gone. Tomorrow. And the next day.” Pulling his lover close enough to that he could hiss into ear “And the day after that. Give me something to think about.” With a throaty grunt, Haru bit Makoto’s ear, and lay back, teeth bared.

Makoto didn’t know how he’d thought for any amount of time that he’d been the one running things. Haru’s demand bolted through him, and he drew back, his plans for the next hour dashed like the rain on their rooftop.

He gave Haru what he’d asked for.

Makoto thought Haru looked fragile sometimes—all slender limbs and soft skin—but it was nights like this that reminded Makoto he definitely wasn’t. Makoto built up the pace, driving hard into Haru, pounding him into the bed, wits skirting the edge of control. Sweat was gathering at his neck, and dripped off his collarbone onto Haru’s heaving chest.

Haru gave every inch as good as he received. He wrapped his legs around Makoto’s waist, matching his rhythm, their synchronization spun from a lifetime of intimacy. Through the craze of his lust, Makoto kept his aim sure, hitting that spot inside every time he thrust in, giving his lover as much pleasure as was possible for him to give. Haru’s cries pitched higher and higher, until he was screaming.

Makoto was glad they’d built their house with a generous cushion of seclusion.

With Haru shouting his name shameless and filthy, flexing around his cock, Makoto felt utterly consumed, as they climbed faster, closer to the summit. This was Makoto’s favorite part.

They drew back, and with soft eyes, parted lips, and silence, exchanged three words.

Makoto inhaled, filling his chest with Haru’s passion, and the heady heat of sex. He slammed forward a final time, deep.

 

We’re together. We’ll always be together.

 

Haru came with a shrill cry, back arching, and arms pulling Makoto’s hair until his head bowed into the siren’s neck. Nothing in the world could overcome him like the sight and sound of Haru’s ecstasy—the gorgeous mess of him as he surrendered to love entirely. Makoto followed barely a second later, with Haru’s beautiful name wrenched out of the back of his throat.

For a minute, they were still, breathing hard, limbs going slack.

In a colossal show of effort, Makoto heaved himself up. Gently, he eased out of Haru, and wiped them clean, then noisily fell onto the bed.

Makoto and Haru floated on waves in the aftermath, panting in a happy, sated heap on top of the sheets. Outside, the storm was beating down on the house, rattling the wooden charms.

“Good thing I fixed that leak.” Makoto sighed into Haru’s inky hair, stroking the siren’s leg with his knuckles.

“Hm.”

They were quiet for a while longer, both of them blissfully warding off the waking world.

“Haru, do you want to tell me what was bothering you earlier?”

There was a small shift in Haru’s weight as he snuggled closer. “Mmmm I forgot,” he mumbled.

Makoto could sense Haru falling asleep from where the boy’s back was fitted against him. Before he did, there was one thing Makoto had wanted to ask.

“Haru.” He said, brushing the black strands back from his lover’s ear. “When I, if I pass my test, I’ll have to travel a lot, as a Guardian. When I’m on patrol, I’ll have to live somewhere else for months at a time, I’ll be gone…”

Haru twitched, then rolled onto his side to lock Makoto in fathomless indigo. “I know. You told me that.”

“I just wanted to make sure that you—I mean I’m giving you a chance to change your mind about staying with me when I go. I know you like it here closer to the lake, and you like the house—”

“Makoto.” Haru’s tone was firm and final. “Where you go, I go. That’s how it is.”

“Okay, Haru-chan.”

__________

 

There was a small, buzzing cluster of people gathered at the head of the trail to see Makoto off at dawn.
Haru waited in the short grass with their family, selfishly clinging to each minute that drew his lover’s departure nearer. Their mother was raised up on her toes, embracing her son, and placing a tiny flower in his hair from her garden. Mr. Tachibana hurriedly checked Makoto’s bag for the third time, making sure he had all the tools he would need.

The rain had come and gone, leaving the ground fresh, soft, and sodden. Haru nodded a greeting at a lone weaver spider, her lacy web beaded with droplets that sparkled in the dappled light. Burnished golds brushed against verdant greens at the crisp start of autumn.

Haru had dragged himself out of bed that morning by the waist of Makoto’s pants. He could admit now that he would chase his lover’s kind warmth wherever it went.

They had exchanged goodbyes in private, with their lips, and hands, leaned in with their foreheads together. Even so, Makoto stopped in front of Haru to say it one more time.

“See you soon, Haru-chan.” He stood tall in Haru’s view, framed by the giant, painted white gate at the head of the path.

“Yeah.” Haru ran his quick fingers lightly up the length Makoto’s staff, over the images he’d lovingly carved into the wood.

I’ll be with you.

Makoto smiled, fond and excited. “I won’t forget.”

He dipped down and pecked Haru on the cheek before turning on his heel and starting for the muddy trail. It hadn’t been nearly enough.

Ran and Ren, with a few of the other young neighbors, sang, and tossed the petals of ivory flowers over the entrance. Makoto strode through them, laughing through the flurry, as the petals fluttered in the air, and stuck to his hair. He stopped a moment, just under the gate.

It loomed high above him, ancient and imposing. With a final huff, Makoto bowed, and walked beneath it.

Haru kept his eyes trained on Makoto’s wide, sturdy back until his lover disappeared behind the girth of a hemlock.

 

Over a decade of training had led Makoto to this day, and Haru had no doubt in his mind that he would come back with the forest’s power coursing through his blood. Though Makoto never seemed to think much of himself, he was stronger in body, and more observant than any person in Aomori. He noticed when the jays cawed louder before a storm, and picked up on the whims of the breeze—just as he noticed when Haru’s cloak was unlaced, or his nerves were on edge. Makoto would make an excellent Guardian.

Haru waved goodbye to his family, promising to be there for dinner. With heavy limbs, and an already impatient heart, Haru began the walk back to the house, keeping his shoes clear of the most inviting puddles. Their lovemaking the night before left his ass aching, and his cheeks warmed at the memory.

 

It will have to last me.

 

Suddenly, he really wanted another bath.

He’d barely taken three steps, when something stopped him in his tracks.

A shock of cold crawled down his chest and settled like tar in his stomach, sending gooseprickles over his arms. He whipped around.

Everyone had returned home.

Alone on the damp dirt path, Haru’s unease pressed in around him. The air grew thick, and for a passing moment, hard to breathe.

A blade of sun cut through the branches, and the feeling burned away like morning mist.

 

Haru glanced back down the trail.

 

_____

 

Makoto loved the smell of the woods after it rained. The trees and springy underbrush sang with life renewed. It amazed him that this place—older than humans could fathom, still flowered with things young and lush, as changing as it was eternal.

Aomori’s magic tied every tree in the forest together. It pulsed in their branches, and in the earth, winding beneath the ground like veins of living silver. Makoto could feel the power in his fingers— giving, taking, protecting.

Lifting his head up toward the canopy, Makoto filled his lungs with the essence of the forest, and continued down the path of his destiny.

Haru and the rest of his family were behind him. They were waiting for him, and depending on him.

The test to become a Guardian of Aomori was simple in objective: All one had to do was follow the trail of magic in the earth to the spot where the Blue Tear was hidden away, deep in the thick of the woods.

Though once you left the safe circle of the settlement, the forest itself grew wild. No two paths to the Tear were the same, and Makoto would have to find his own.

He was as eager as he was anxious.

The journey ahead would not be an easy one. Makoto had an imagination like a crawling vine of ivy: vibrant, enduring, and occasionally, suffocating. As a kid, all it took was one ghost story, and he would be huddled up sleepless against Haru for nights on end. The mention of a troll, or a one-eyed ogre just outside the woods would have him checking over his shoulder every time the birds got too quiet.

It was the kind of senseless fear kids were supposed to leave behind with their first set of teeth. But here he was, twenty-one summers old, and still haunted by the images of evils he’d never seen. When the sun went down, and the darkness closed in, he would look off through the tree trunks, and picture horrors creeping out of the shadows. The harder he thought about them, the more difficult it was to keep moving.

Makoto wondered why, of all people, the Cat had selected a person like him to hold one of the most important positions in Iwatobi. Guardians were fearless defenders, and he was anything but. The forest spirit must have mistaken him for another, he was sure.

Mistake or not, this future was still his.

He checked the clouds before setting off, noting their leisurely southward crawl.

The trail of Aomori’s magic was strong beneath his feet. It snaked in line with the beaten path, tracing between the thickest, oldest trees. Makoto followed it, one foot in front of the next, excitement building with each push forward.

Morning wore away, but the canopy’s shade kept the road cool and damp. A chorus of chickadees sang out from the branches above, joined by a steady hum of insects, and Makoto was glad for their company. Hopping over streams and runnels, he gauged the shrubs, and growth of moss patches on wet rock, letting the forest lead him gently north—deeper into the center.

Afternoon was waning. There were still a few hours of daylight left, but he’d have to start keeping an eye out for a spot to camp.

Stopping at the top of a low climb, Makoto felt a familiar shiver.

He peered back the way he’d come, down the fern-lined empty trail.

He’d spent the better part of the day occupied with his tracking, but the tingle of attention at the nape of his neck was unmistakable.

There was someone watching him.

 

Someone he knew.

 

“Haru-chan.” Makoto called out behind him. “I know you’re there.”

There was a long pause, and then a sigh. Shrubs rustled just off the road, and Haru moved like water, sliding around a wide root onto the path.

“You followed me?” Makoto thought he should sound angry, but he’d never been good at pretending—especially with Haru.

“I was worried.” Haru frowned, looking completely unapologetic. “Makoto, I…I felt something strange. Back at the gate. Something dark.”

Makoto winced.

There was no easy way to explain it.

As they’d both grown older, and Makoto had attuned himself better to the flow of magic in the natural world, he began to sense Haru in a way he couldn’t before. It didn’t happen all the time. But occasionally when Haru approached him, he felt an icy shiver slither to the bottom of his stomach.

The sensation had scared him at first, and he’d kept it from his lover. Time rolled on, and he noticed less and less. It was a part of being with Haru, and if that was the case, he would happily weave it into his life.

“Haru-chan, that’s…it’s you.” Makoto shifted his weight onto the staff, sagging under his guilt. He’d meant to keep this to himself as long as possible. It was one more thing for the siren to feel bad about, and Makoto didn’t want that. “Sometimes when you come near, it feels…like that chill you get after a gulp of water that’s too cold.”

Haru’s face twisted in horror.

Already regretting his admission, Makoto snatched Haru’s hand. He feared for a moment that Haru would yank it back, but he only watched, curious.

“It’s not your fault! I know it’s not. But it’s because, ah…”

“—of what I am?”

“It doesn’t bother me. I love everything about you, Haru.” He drew Haru’s hand up tenderly, spreading the siren’s fingers, and touching his lips to each patch of blue skin between them. Haru sucked in a tiny breath, and flicked his face to the side to hide the dusting of pink on his nose.

“If that’s the case, then why haven’t I felt it before now?”

“I don’t know, Haru. But it’s nothing to get scared over.”

“You should have told me.” Haru scowled. “Still, I don’t like it. I’m coming with you.”

“What!”

“It’s fine. I won’t help you. Just don’t talk to me.”

Haru.” Makoto rolled his shoulders, exasperated. “You can’t.”

“Fine,” Haru said. “Then I’ll walk home by myself. It’ll be night soon.”

“No!” Siren or not, the idea of Haru wandering around lost in the woods was too terrifying to imagine. Makoto folded with embarrassing ease. “Alright. You can come along with me.”

Haru perked up in an instant. It was so cute, Makoto had to stop himself from laughing. His shirt tightened when Haru grabbed a handful of his collar and tugged him into a victorious kiss. Smiling into Haru’s mouth, he wound an arm around the siren’s trim waist and brought him closer. Haru’s skin was always so wonderfully cool at first contact.

Before the heat flared too high, he broke away. Haru chased his lips, landing a last impatient peck on the bottom of his jaw.

Testing tradition shouldn’t taste this sweet.

Makoto had long since resigned to the fact that Haru could bend and mold him any way he wished with no more than a few softly-spoken words. Though happy as he’d be to have Haru along, there was something still gnawing at the foundation of his confidence.

“Did you plan to go after me all along?”

Makoto had a tough enough time believing he’d be fit to fill the role of a Guardian. But Haru had always had faith. He’d been so sure Haru thought he could do it…

“If I planned on it, I wouldn’t be sore.”

Makoto stopped walking, mouth agape, a hot flush spreading over his entire face. Haru brushed past him with a blank expression and a noticeably stiff back.

 

 

_____________________

 

 

The council meeting had drudged on for three mind-numbing hours, and Rin had never been more ready to leave a place.

Listening to questions, mediating disputes—it was hardly the stuff of childhood fantasies. A part of him wanted to call it off now, because he was the Emperor, and who was going to scold him for it? But he had claimed the position with the strength of his own resolution, and would fulfill it with everything he had.

It was late by the time Rin had finished dinner with the military counselors, and dismissed them. Exhausted, he let out a stale sigh as soon as the tall brass doors to the reception hall screeched into place behind him.

His uncle Akira had sat across the long table from him, silently assessing his every move. Rin had felt the man’s exacting gaze on him the entire evening, heavy and sharp, hanging over his head like an executioner’s blade.

Though cruel, and unforgivable to Rin, nothing his uncle had done broke any of Samezuka’s laws. Rin wished he could be angry—wished it were as simple as furious condemnation—but he found that mostly what he felt was sad.

It was the familiar, gutting pain of losing a family member. And gods knew he had few enough of them left.

“Done for the day?”

Gou was waiting in the hall, hair loosely tied, wiry arms folded over her chest, her foot tapping on the tile to sieve off her excess energy. She was a welcomed sight. Rin let his shoulders drop, meeting her beside the marble column and starting toward the royal quarters.

He had gone himself to release her from her imprisonment immediately upon his return, and Seijuurou was pardoned without incident. Momo had lawfully won his brother’s freedom.

They walked in companionable silence through the lavish galleries and waiting rooms. Everything in this palace had been built up, won and wrought by their ancestors. Within these firelit stony halls and chambers were the stories of every Matsuoka since the birth of the empire. Someday, it would house the two of theirs as well. The enormity of it all made Rin’s head spin.

“I’m really proud of you.” Gou nudged him with her elbow.

“Not much to be proud of yet.”

There may not be much to be proud of, ever.

“Well.” She started. “Word’s getting out that you torched an ancient sea giant. That’s certainly endearing you to the crowd at large.”

“Yeah?” Rin couldn’t deny it was incredibly encouraging to hear that.

“Yep! And you personally rescued a publicly-adored champion.”

He prickled at the reminder.

Speaking of whom…” Gou laced her fingers together innocently behind her back. “I dropped by to see him earlier.”

“That’s good.” Keeping composed abruptly became a conscious effort for Rin. “How is he?”

“Tired.” Gou shrugged. “But alright,” she added quickly.

 

Rushing around the halls of the palace the rest of the day, Rin hadn’t had time to let the earlier events truly sink in until now. Sousuke, his Sousuke, had fought his way through hell, back to him. Everything he’d ever watched Jinbei do, all that had happened in the last few days, was crashing over him in a dizzying flood of understanding.

Rin’s anticipation climbed with each step up the stairs. It took everything in him not to break into a run. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do, or say, or where things were supposed to go from here. There was so much he’d missed—so much he didn’t know about Sousuke now. The trench of six long years was wide and unknown, its depth hidden beneath a layer of shadow.

Rin’s lone pillar of certainty in all of the madness, was that he had fallen in love with the same man twice.

How Sousuke felt, though, remained a mystery just out of his reach. He’d fostered affection for Rin once, when they were kids, but there was no reason he still would.

“So what are you gonna do?” Gou piped. There was no demand in her voice—just bubbling curiosity.

“About what.”

“You know what.

“Nothing.” Rin did his best to sound unaffected. “He needs rest, and I’m not going to bother him with…something like that, when he’s stuck in bed.”

The princess hummed. She nodded good-night at the sentries as they entered the royals’ private wing of the palace. Gou had that look on her face, like she was about to prove to Rin yet again that yes, she was always right, but seemed to think better of it.

Flames swayed and licked in the toothy jaw-shaped sconces they passed. Rin counted two, three, four, and his door was just ahead.

“Before today,” he said, “before he was Jinbei, before he ran away—he was my best friend. And I just…want to see if he still is. You know?”

“I get it.” Gou nodded in that selfless, knowing way that reminded Rin so painfully of their mother.

The door to his bedchamber was open wide enough for Rin to walk through, but he halted where he stood.

Tora had snaked her head through the balcony entrance, resting her jaw on the ground. Sousuke was on the mattress, propped up against the headboard with a book forgotten in his lap, stroking the top of her snout while she rumbled in contented bliss. His dark hair was bed-mussed, and a lazy smile was curving his lips. Rin’s heart stuttered.

He hadn’t realized how long he’d been staring until Gou clicked her tongue beside him. She was folding her lip over a grin.

“That’s…I wasn’t—!”

“Good night, brother. I hope you sort things out.” With a quick pat on the small of Rin’s back, she skipped down the hall toward her own chamber.

“Rin?”

Bright eyes raised to meet his from the bed across the room, widening slightly in surprise, then going soft. They were different from the ones in his memories. Colder. But still familiar, and still able to melt him down like nothing else could. Rin stepped forward into his bedchamber almost involuntarily. It was as if his body was drawn in by some force of magnetism he didn’t know he’d yielded to.

“Hey.” Rin answered hoarsely.

Sousuke visibly relaxed as Rin approached, running his hand over the small, beadlike scales of the dragon’s head. “She remembered me.” He said. “And she got big.

“Of course she did. You’re not the only one who’s buffed up in six years.” Rin chuckled, reaching down to scratch under her ear. “And of course she’d remember you. She missed you, too.”

Tora shot a stream of warm air from her nose, and tipped sideways to encourage the pampering, but Rin tapped her on the neck.

“Oi! No rolling over in my room!”

The last time she’d done it, Rin had to explain to Gou why her favorite tea set now looked like clay patchwork. “Come on, you know better.”

With a miffed growl, Tora scooted her rear backward on the balcony. She touched Sousuke’s arm with her snout once, nudging a laugh out of him— before drawing her head out the door.

Rin had grown alongside his dragon since the day she hatched, and he supposed that made it easy to overlook her majesty. He watched her flex her wings and take off with renewed appreciation as Sousuke marveled quietly beside him.

“Congratulations, Rin.”

“Huh?”

Sousuke was beaming up at him. “I said, Congratulations….or, you know. Something.”

“O-oh. Right.” Rin had heard that said in varying capacities at least a dozen times today, but hearing them from Sousuke sent a blast of heat through his body. “…Thanks.”

 

Rin was suddenly unsure of what to do with himself. He shuffled around, and made his way to the wardrobe to change, too aware of Sousuke’s keen attention on him.

“Have you talked to your uncle yet?” Sousuke straightened, in the way that told Rin he was listening.

A cool tension swirled in the air at that, the energy in Rin’s room shifting.

Of course Sousuke would want to know. Rin untied his robe, and pulled it off, feeling increasingly naked in more ways than one. He wished he had more to tell.

“No.” he answered. “I don’t…think I’m ready to yet. He’s…he’s waiting. Watching me.”

Something icy and dark, eerily unreadable, passed over Sousuke’s hard features, but it was gone fast enough to make Rin doubt he’d seen it at all.

 

“So, how are you feeling?” Rin hacked through the silence with a blunt axe.

Sousuke gave him a pained smile that didn’t quite reach his weary, half-lidded eyes. He’d thrown the sheet over his torn leg. Hiding it, Rin noted with a pang of guilt.

“I’m good. Thanks.”

Their reunion in the ship cabin earlier in the day had been floating above Rin’s thoughts all evening, and the memory broke over him again in full force. Their closeness then had been instinctual. But now that they were here, together, the enduring emotion was making his skin hot.

Sousuke set the book aside, and coughed. “You uh, put me in your bed.”

“Yeah. I did.” The decision seemed obvious at the time, but Sousuke saying it aloud had Rin rubbing at his wrist bashfully. “It’s one of the safest places in the palace. And I can…you know. Keep an eye on you.”

“…Oh.”

Rin watched Sousuke fumble to pull at a collar that was no longer there. His fingers slipped clumsily over bare skin.

The quiet was growing heavier by the second.

Sousuke scooted forward, and an item caught Rin’s eye. The leather sheath of a dagger peeked out from beneath his friend’s pillow.

Their time apart had shaped more than Sousuke’s body. He’d been tough as a boy, but now he was deadly. Rin had borne witness to that himself.

That trench had never felt deeper.

The light Sousuke had once was almost gone—carved out of him, and ground into blood-soaked sand by the heel of battle until only sparks remained.

But few as they were, those sparks were still there. Rin had seen them—honest and undimmed in the bed of the ship cabin. He would cup them in his palms and nurse them like a garden. No matter how long it took him, he would put the stars back in Sousuke’s eyes, one by one. They could do it for each other.

Rin saw no reason he shouldn’t start now. Washed and dressed in his nightclothes, he eased himself onto the far edge of the bed.

“Sousuke.”

“Hm?”

“Good night.” Rin grinned wide, holding his dancing flame up to the wall of ice.

Sousuke’s frown faltered. He smiled back, and hung his head, ears a pleasing shade of pink.

 

Now that their heightened emotions had ebbed, and the bed afforded them both ample space, Rin couldn’t think of a good enough excuse to sink back into Sousuke’s arms. With a twinge of regret, he slid under the covers on the other side, blowing out the candle, and leaving a cowardly gap between them.

Sousuke fell asleep almost immediately, leaving Rin to lie awake and wrestle with reality.

Yesterday, he’d been a lovestruck prince, waiting to watch Jinbei win his freedom. Tonight he was Emperor of Samezuka, sharing his bed with the friend he thought he had lost forever.

Rin sensed the creeping stranglehold of grief in his throat, and shifted on his side to stare at the man’s dark silhouette. Sousuke was here with him—scarred, cut up, and bruised—but alive, looking like he’d fallen straight out of Rin’s loftiest, most wishful daydreams. It left him reeling.

Rin wanted to pull him in again—to feel his solid heat, and the thrum of his heart. The longing made Rin’s muscles twitch, but he didn’t know how to ask.

He threw an arm out across the expanse of empty mattress, stretching as far as he could reach.

 

__________

 

Sousuke was alone when a hot gleam of daylight roused him, and he sat up, groaning and groggy. He’d hoped to wake up with Rin, even if he was far at the opposite end of the bed. The Emperor’s mornings were doubtlessly busy.

Rin was out there in the palace, unprotected, unknowing, at the mercy of that woman, and the wrath of a tyrant. Sousuke’s sides clenched with sickening, mounting frustration. He’d fought so hard to be there with Rin. Instead he was stuck here, a dead weight on the Emperor’s already burdened shoulders.

He growled aloud and glared at his bandaged leg in rank disgust. It was his choice to fight in that trial, and he’d been indescribably glad to see Momo home alive, but the feeling of uselessness still crushed his brittle spirit into the dirt. Something innate, stained into ever fiber of him, was repulsed by it.

All he could do was sit here, stewing, and wait for Rin to come back.

The numbing salve the doctor had applied the day before was wearing off, and the bone-deep stinging in his thigh was starting to get uncomfortable. After roughly throwing back a cup of water, he glanced around.

Sousuke had been in Rin’s bedroom dozens of times before, but he’d never paid much attention to the details.

The chamber was warm and cozy in a way that was pleasantly at odds with its size. Tapestries covered the stone walls, their metallic threads twinkling where sun hit them. Candles were placed on every surface, dyed, and scented with citrus peel.

At the far end of the room was an open doorway to his wardrobe, and an ornate folding screen. A sakura tree sprawled across the panels, inlaid with pastel pink and abalone.

There was a mirror flanked by bottles of perfumes and glass jars of herbs. Rin had smelled so nice that night in the Sano training yard. It seemed he’d picked up a taste for finery. Absently, Sousuke wondered what other things Rin had come to like—what else he’d missed of his best friend’s life.

A fireplace sat empty on his side of the room, a sofa, and Rin’s thick, ornamented desk on the other. The desk was laden with parchment and stacked books, all straight and neat. Sousuke knew Rin was fond of old adventure stories, and—though he would gnash his teeth if made to admit it—love poem anthologies.

Sousuke hadn’t understood the appeal of them when he was younger. He’d failed to see how a person pining at the window for a paramour made for good reading. Though looking back in on his own story, he thought of how long he’d spent wanting— and how strongly his love for Rin had shaped the turns of his life. Maybe he’d been the romantic one in the end.

 

By evening, Sousuke sat waist-deep in poetry compilations. He was pulled from his reading by the sound of feet clacking on the tile outside.

Many feet. He heaved his legs off the bed, hurrying to stand.

A buoyant flurry of voices was bubbling in the lofty hallway, nearing the chamber. Seconds later, the door was swinging open, and Rin was in the room, smiling and out of breath as if he’d sprinted to get there first.

“Sou, you’ve got visitors.”

“…Visitors?”

Before Rin could respond, a callow figure was stumbling into the doorway. Bouncing on his toes, brimming with enthusiasm, was Momotarou. His eyes lit like candles when they landed on Sousuke.

“JINBEI!!”

Momo bounded past Rin, nearly tripping himself on the edge of a rug.

“YOU MADE IT!!” With the force and coordination of an oversized puppy, Momo barreled into Sousuke, circling his arms around his middle and trapping him in an embrace that was far stronger than Sousuke was ready for. The boy’s joy was infectious, and Sousuke’s arms moved on their own, squeezing him back.

“What do you know? Guess you are a good swimmer.” Sousuke’s chest swelled with pride.

Momo hung back, glowing. There was a scrape under his eye, scratches on his hands, and blotched bruises darkening his elbows and forearms. But the boy was whole, and after all he’d been through, still light with an innocence resilient and unspoiled.

It had been worth the risk.

Momo seemed to catch sight of the bandage beneath Sousuke’s robe, and the laughter died out.

“Your—”

Sousuke flicked him on the back of the neck, and the boy snapped back up with a pout.

Gou, her handmaiden, Chigusa, and Rin’s mousy assistant, Nitori filed in quietly behind Rin, carrying bouquets of flowers from the Mikoshiba orchard. Another voice was making itself heard from the hallway.

Booming, and big.

“MOMO!! Is that that him?! Is this the guy?!

A large hand was on Momo’s shoulder, and Sousuke felt the boy’s mass pried off of his chest.

He found himself staring across into wide, electric pools of gold he never thought he’d see again.

“You! You’re….” The man had grown slightly taller, and broader, but the same flaming red hair still spiked up from his forehead the way it had that night he’d tugged a knife out of his belt, and saved Sousuke’s life. Sousuke couldn’t believe he’d missed the similarities in Momo.

They scanned each other up and down like a pair of curious wolves. The man’s attention flicked to the scar on Sousuke’s shoulder, and back to his face, body shocked still with disbelief.

Sousuke was completely at a loss for what to do next.

At last, breaking into a broad, sunny grin, the golden-eyed man threw his head back, and barked a laugh so loud, it scared the birds off of Rin’s balcony. When he turned back to Sousuke, he was shining with gratitude.

“Thank you.” The man croaked, his voice cracking. “Thank you.”

Bone-crushing shows of affection ran in the family, it seemed. His arms went over Sousuke’s shoulders, hauling him in, holding on so tightly, getting enough air became a challenge. The man rocked back, and Sousuke’s heels lifted off the ground.

“You…too.” Sousuke wheezed into the man’s ear. “Thanks for…what you did.”

“Oh, you’ve definitely repaid me for that,” the man let Sousuke down gently, and wiped at his cheeks with the heel of his palm. “And then some.”

Gou sidled up and rested a hand on the tall man’s back. “This is Seijuuro, my betrothed. I’m glad you two have met already.”

“You stole him, Sei! Not fair!” Momo flopped against Sousuke’s shoulder, effectively fencing him in on both sides.

“You two!” Rin barked. “Careful with him!”

The younger Mikoshiba released Sousuke—only to reach out and bodily pull Rin down to join them. The Emperor looked ready to scold the boy, but was finding it impossible to stay angry.

Gou popped up like a tulip bud, cheery and laughing beside Rin, and he relented.

“Chigusa! Nitori!” She shouted across the room. “Get over here!”

The two assistants wriggled in under Rin and Seijuuro,—Nitori loosing a string of heartfelt apologies—until all seven of them were huddled in a cramped, lopsided semblance of a circle. One could only imagine what they looked like should someone walk in.

Sousuke’s head was wedged into Seijuuro’s neck, and Momo was bumping against the bruises on his arm, but he was so thoroughly happy, he couldn’t spare enough thought to mind. This was a different kind of excitement—a new feeling that he hadn’t encountered before. It wasn’t the nerve-searing rush of battle, nor was it the aching exhilaration of loving Rin—it was the feeling of being connected. He was a part of something amazing, and it was shared.

Swept into the center of this whirlpool of emotion, Sousuke let himself tighten his hold on the brothers, and dip his face in with this strange group of friends and family that had brought each other back together.

Gou and Chigusa were bickering playfully with the Mikoshibas, and Sousuke let the sounds encircle him, searching out Rin in the giddy, perfect mess.

Rin was already looking his way with the brightest smile Sousuke had ever seen on his flushed face. He stole the rest of Sousuke’s breath as easily as ever.

The group broke apart eventually, standing near the fireplace to piece their story together, starting all the way at the beginning.

Rin retold their part, and Sousuke was glad to let him. All eyes were trained on Rin, as they always should be, Sousuke believed. He spoke with so much feeling—drawing people in, throwing himself open, and sharing the wealth of his passion with everyone listening. The dips and swells of his voice were enthralling, his presence magnetic. It was like being helplessly swept up into the wind, and Sousuke couldn’t look away.

Sousuke couldn’t have said before what made an inspiring leader. And maybe he still couldn’t put it into words, but he could say for certain that whatever it was, was shining right here in front of him.

Unburying the past was stirring up memories that lodged in Rin’s throat. It was pure reaction that brought Sousuke’s hand up to rest between Rin’s shoulder blades, soothing the storm, and easing the quake from his voice. Rin breathed in deep, and leaned closer.

 

The half-charred wood in Rin’s fireplace was burning low when Gou finally suggested they take their leave.

There was another round of tight (very tight) embraces, and vows to see one another soon. Sousuke had locked himself into a personal tour of Momo’s insect house as soon as his leg healed.

Seijuurou gave Sousuke a parting smack on the shoulder as he turned to go. “You’d better be at our wedding, you got it?!”

He strode out arm-in-arm with Gou, sneaking a wink at Rin before shutting the door behind him.

 

 

The excitement in the chamber floated down with errant specks of dust as the group left.

Wood was crackling in the hearth, steady and comfortable. Sousuke felt both drained, and peacefully full.

“So,” Rin huffed. “how does it feel to be the newest Mikoshiba brother?”

“It feels like having cracked ribs.”

Snickering, Rin fixed him with an unabashed, affectionate expression that not even his teeth could sharpen. It felt something like fondness.

No. Something else. Maybe—

“Sou, you’re pale as a sheet!” Rin rushed forward.

“Huh?”

“You were standing the whole time! The doctor said to keep off your feet!”

Pain in Sousuke’s leg surged with a vengeance as he came down from the high. He sank backward onto the bed. Despite his best effort to keep the weight off his left side, blood pooling downward hadn’t done much to lessen the piercing throb. Rin was with him in a sweep of black silk.

“Moron!” Rin knelt and lifted Sousuke’s leg up onto the bed, sliding a cushion beneath it, cradling his shin in the pads of his palms. The careful attention sent warm sparks to Sousuke’s fingertips.

“Look at it…” Rin ground his teeth, brow drawn, as he ran his hand around the swollen limb.

“Sorry.” Sousuke laughed. “It’s not that bad.”

“Bullshit,” Rin growled. “Lay back.” He shoved at Sousuke’s shoulders until he gave up, and fell onto the pillow. “Why the hell were you even standing in the first place?”

Sousuke chose not to give him an answer.

Rin didn’t seem to expect one. There was a lingering sorrow in the way he glanced down at Sousuke’s injury, and back up to his eyes. He rolled his sleeves back with purpose.

Tenderly, like Sousuke was something treasured, Rin stroked his fingers over the linen wrapping. His touch was butterfly-light. Sousuke resisted the urge to flex his knee, shivering at the quiet intensity of Rin’s care.

“Rin, it’s fine. Don’t bother—”

“—Shut up.”

Rin worked his hands over the thick of Sousuke’s calf and up his thigh, massaging the muscle, encouraging the flow of his blood.

Sousuke groaned through gritted teeth at the relief as he dissolved, grateful and boneless in Rin’s hands. He watched as his best friend took his time, mindful of every knead and twitch of Rin’s fingertips.

Rin’s shirt was bunching up around his waist, baring an expanse of perfect skin and muscle from collar to stomach, and Sousuke wondered if it felt as smooth, and firm as it looked. Hair was falling over Rin's gorgeous eyes, his expression hard and focused.

That razor-sharp ruby gaze cut sideways, and caught Sousuke staring.

“What.” A pretty flush was painting its way over Rin’s cheeks, spreading up to his hairline.

“Nothing.” Sousuke said. “I was just…just thinking, you haven’t changed much.”

Rin snorted, but the shadow had long since lifted. His mouth curled into a grin—faint, but hopeful.

“Neither have you.”

 

__________

 

Sousuke’s days began to shape themselves into a pattern.

He watched Rin leave the room in the morning with a wave and a promise.

Later, the doctor would come in to check his leg, and replace the linen wrapping. It was healing as well as one could hope, she told him.

Just not nearly fast enough.

King Serizawa was being hosted in the eastern wing of the palace, and the Hazuki sorceress was at large. Thinking about it made him miserable. When his restiveness welled up, Sousuke would heave himself off the bed, crossing his bad leg over his good one to lose himself in repetitious exercise. His palm yearned for the grip of a weapon.

Tora would spread her wings on the balcony in the afternoon, sunning herself like some unholy big cormorant. Rin’s dragon may have shot up in size, but her inquisitive, affectionate demeanor remained astoundingly intact. Sousuke was infinitely grateful that she’d been here in Rin’s darkest hours—loyal and constant.

Gou stopped by to keep him company, too. It was her bold rebellion enacted from within a prison cell that had led Rin to him and Momo. He was grateful, and frankly, still floored by how mature she’d grown. The princess was wise and resourceful beyond her years, yet she still crackled with that same Matsuoka fire.

In the evening, Rin would return to his chamber—weary, but cheerful. When he lumbered through the doorway, his chest rose and his complexion would brighten in an instant, like a morning glory greeting the sunshine. It was beautiful to see. Sousuke wished he could take some amount of credit for it, but that was hoping for far too much.

If Rin was early enough, they had dinner together on the sofa. They had hot tea before bed, talking and trading stories until Sousuke forced Rin to crawl under the covers and rest. Though when the candles were put out, they lay awake, whispering in the dark, until one of them dropped off to sleep.

One night after another, the two of them began filling in the cracks and corners of the expanse that had yawned open in their years apart.

Rin would lay out a day’s worth of worries, and Sousuke did his best to lighten the load for him. He told Sousuke about the dragons in the Valley, and his riding—how he could stand in the saddle now, if they weren’t flying too fast. And he could certainly go fast. Gou was set to be married in the spring. He was scared for it, but so proud—Sousuke could tell with each loving word he spoke.

Rin had spent so long in pain. He’d been frustrated, crippled by doubt, and fiercely lonely. It made Sousuke’s chest ache to learn how long he’d suffered.

Sousuke was less inclined to talk about his life, though he supposed it was only fair he did. Wringing his scarred wrists, Sousuke recounted his time in combat school, how he’d met Kisumi, and trained himself on his own. It had never seemed like much, but Rin treated each story like a gift.

Rin demanded to hear about every victory in the arena, even if he’d already seen them all. And he wanted to know about Sousuke’s losses, too—the nights he’d spent homesick and choking on anger, facing ahead with nothing but a wasteland at the end of the road. Rin would lean in to listen, leaving Sousuke feeling fragile and transparent as cracked glass under his full attention.

It was frightening and freeing all at once, and Sousuke was again left staggered by the magnitude of how much Rin cared. Where his own heart ran a hard, narrow course, the sea of Rin’s love was boundless. Each new crash of waves tore down another stretch of his walls.

He had long since come to realize that the memory of Rin could never compare to being with him.

They would settle in to bed, and Sousuke noticed that Rin had scooted toward the center, just slightly. Closer to him. He smiled, and shifted a few inches in.

Each night, the empty spot in the middle grew smaller.

The two of them were sleepless together on the seventh night with barely half an arrow’s length between them. Sconces and candles had been doused, and a mild autumn chill was creeping into the chamber with the cold white of a young moon.

Under the covers, nestled in the middle of Rin’s bed, Sousuke couldn’t remember the last time he’d been warmer. Rin gave off heat like a firepot that Sousuke could feel all around him in their pocket of the blankets they shared.

“Sousuke,” he whispered. “You awake?”

“No.”

Cold toes tapped Sousuke’s shin, and he muffled a laugh.

“I want to ask you something.”

“I’m listening.” He was always listening.

Rin rolled his lips. “It was your birthday a little while ago. So…” His voice faltered, slipping away.

He found it again. “Did you think of…something you want? I owe you, remember?”

Sousuke’s spine stiffened. The blankets were stretched taught as Rin strained to keep still.

The promise. He could hardly believe Rin remembered—but then, of course he would.

In his time alone, he’d thought of a thousand things he could ask for. Each time he’d seen Rin watching him from the stands of Sano Stadium, he would dream up a dozen more. Then he’d let them float out of his hands like tufts of dandelion seeds—all of them impossible.

Sousuke hissed through a bitter smile. He couldn't recall a single one. Though he could think of something he wanted now.

 

Come closer.

 

“…Well?”

“How about…I want pork for dinner tomorrow.”

A pillow came down on his face, and he definitely deserved it.

“You fucking promised me!” Rin snarled. There was no real bite to it. Only a bitter trace of disappointment. “You’ve had enough time.”

“I know.” Sousuke pushed the pillow off. “I know that. Just…give me a bit more?”

“Fine. But I’m still holding you to it.” Rin grumbled. “It better be fucking good.”

Sousuke felt Rin’s knee knock his thigh under the covers.

 

__________

 

Rin hovered his quill over the blank sheet of parchment flattened on his desk. He loved writing, but speeches had never been his prose of choice.

Midday sun was streaming into his room from the open balcony doors, and the fall breeze was cool and encouraging. He was meeting in the afternoon with several nobles from Sano to discuss irrigation maintenance, so he thought he’d come get at least some of his address written while he waited.

The first week of Rin’s rule as emperor had been taxing. There were so many decisions hinging on his judgment, choices that affected the lives of thousands—and he didn’t feel ready to make any of them.

Before the council, the nobles, his uncle, and his citizens, Rin couldn’t show even a blink of his own insecurities. It was hard enough to be taken seriously as things were: He was young, impetuous, and lacked the undaunted ferocity that people had respected his uncle for. There was an ever-present sentiment that he didn’t deserve to be there; he could pick up that much in the courteous half-smiles tossed his way from the corners of every room.

He was completely out of his depth. But he supposed that just meant he’d have to swim harder.

 

At least, no matter how toilsome his duties were, he had something precious to come back to.

 

“Can’t think of an introduction?” Sousuke craned over him, sonorous voice smoothing a shudder down Rin’s back.

Sousuke could move around now, with the aid of a pair of wooden crutches. He’d been eager to have some mobility again, though Rin could tell it still hurt him to keep upright for too long.

All things considered, Rin was thrilled that the wound was healing well. There was a mile-long list of things he wanted to show Sousuke, and places to take him, once the splint was off. His mind ran wild with anticipation whenever he thought about it.

But in order to spend serious time with Sousuke, he’d have to finish his own work first.

Rin groaned and collapsed against the backrest of his chair. “This is the speech, Sou. I’ve got a few minutes to prove to people I’m serious about this, and fire them up. It’s not easy.”

“You have a while. Two months at least, for word to get out to every territory, and the magistrates to roll in for the coronation.” Swinging his bandaged leg out in front of him, Sousuke made his way to the edge of Rin’s sofa, and lowered himself carefully.

He rolled the ache from the crutches out of his shoulders, screwing his eyes shut, and tilting his head back with a long, rumbling exhale. A bead of sweat slipped from his hairline over his throat. Rin chased it with captive eyes into the deep cut of his chest until it disappeared beneath his shirt. The sight was heating Rin’s blood, and pulling it downward with frightening urgency.

The past week was turning Rin inside-out, driving him half crazy for his best friend.

Growing closer to Sousuke, rekindling their friendship, had Rin’s heart soaring. And with that friendship came the desire for something more. Every night in bed, he imagined what it would be like to run his hands up Sousuke’s powerful body, then around the back of his neck—to cradle his head, look him straight-on, and watch the fire catch.

He curled his lip in to wet it with his tongue. This was distracting.

Rin kneaded his forehead, sensing the pinch of a headache on the horizon.

Sousuke coughed into a fist and cleared his throat. “I’ve uh, I got something, then. For the opening.”

“Oh yeah?” Interest piqued, Rin twisted around in his seat. “Let’s hear it.”

Drawing himself up, pushing out his strong chest, Sousuke lorded over his audience of cushions at the end of the couch.

“People of Samezuka.” He swept an arm out for emphasis, and Rin felt a grin prickle at his cheeks. “It is my great honor to accept rulership of this magnificent empire. I am your new Emperor, Matsuoka Rin.”

Sousuke paused, stone-faced.

“….It’s a girly name….but I’m definitely a boy.”

Rin’s jaw fell open. He met Sousuke’s eyes, twinkling with humor, lips pursed to force down a smile. For a long moment, they simply sat there, charging the silence.

“Oh I don’t fucking think so.” The chair scraped and squeaked as Rin pushed out of it, and crossed the rug to the sofa in three long strides.

Sousuke erupted into laughter when Rin crashed into him and wrestled him down onto the pillows.

“Why the hell do you remember that!?”

“It was one of the first things you ever said to me.” The bastard could hardly get a breath in. “It was so funny, how could I forget?

“You fucker!”

Joy was bubbling up from Rin’s core, irrepressible, bursting into bloom like the first blossoms of spring after winter’s frost. Sousuke threw his arms up in defense, but Rin grabbed them, and pinned them over his head. The two of them hung there, giggling, Rin stretched over Sousuke and laughing through a snarl.

Sousuke was pushing him, teasing him, lighting withered wicks inside of him that flickered to life and sparkled like firecrackers in the streets at midnight.

The sensation hit like a waterfall.

An overpowering surge was slowing them down, and building them up. Their laughter quieted, smiles loosening. Rin became imminently aware of how close he was to Sousuke’s face. He stared down into wide eyes vivid and so clear, fixed on him with unguarded awe.

This was his Sousuke, as he’d always been, and Rin loved him.

 

There were only a few breaths between them, crackling with energy and uncertainty.

 

Sousuke’s pulse was racing at his wrists. His face was perfectly still, but Rin caught the way his throat worked beneath the strong ridge of his jaw. The lower Rin dipped, the more enticing Sousuke became.

 

Rin had always liked the shape of his lips.

 

There was a shrill squeak, and the telltale sound of feet scuffling from the doorway.

 

Rin snapped his head up, and Sousuke peered beneath his arms across the chamber.

“Ai, it’s fine. You can come in.” Rin pulled away slowly, trying to will the heat from his face, and the needles of irritation from his voice. He knew the boy couldn’t be blamed for it, but Ai had the worst timing.

Nitori shuffled inside, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else.

“P-Prin—ahh, Your Grace!” Nitori stuttered. “I’m s-so sorry to interrupt, but your guests arrived early, and you said to tell you immediately.”

Rin relinquished his grip, trailing his fingers a few inches down Sousuke’s forearm, relishing the way it made the man’s elbow jerk.

“See you tonight.” Rin rocked backward, holding onto the sight he was leaving behind for as long as he possibly could, until he reached the doorway, and whisked out of the chamber.

 

__________________

 

Gou and Seijuurou made their way through the palace, heading to the Mikoshiba house. Seijuurou had been taking breaks in his patrols to check on Momo during the day, and bring him food and other small things he enjoyed. The boy seemed fine, but after the horror he’d lived through, Seijuurou wanted to make completely sure.

Gou loved that about him.

Rin passed them in the hall at a cross-section, storming toward the reception hall. He didn’t even notice them. His face was flushed, hair sticking out of place, and Ai was fluttering behind him with an expression like he wanted the floor tiles to open up and devour him whole.

The princess had several guesses as to what that was about.

Seijuurou chuckled beside her, and bent down to whisper into her ear.

"I have a theory, Gou.” His whispers were easily as loud as most people's speaking voices. “I think your brother and his friend might have a thing for each other.  A more-than-friends type of thing." 

Gou stopped walking, and blinked up at him.

Seijuurou was smirking, smug and expectant.

Giggles stirred in her throat, threatening to escape. She trapped them in her cheeks, and schooled her voice into something that sounded like genuine surprise.  

“Really?”

“Yeah! Noticed the other day. I’m onto something, huh?”  He winked.

Gou hit her limit.  She sprinted ahead, cackling into the vaulted ceiling.  

“What?!" Seijuurou jogged after her, and his honest confusion was endearing beyond words. “What’s so funny?!"

She ran under the marbled archway, leading out into one of the palace’s lounge chambers, Seijuurou affectionately on her heels. Colorful patterns laid into the tiles formed a straight path ahead, leading into a walkway lofted above the lounge.

Gou spared a look downward over the balustrade. The chamber was grand and opulent, with high ceilings, and rows of delicately wrought hanging lanterns over tables and plush sofas. The room was built to leave a lasting impression on any of the palace’s guests.

A few of them were seated there presently.

King Serizawa was with his Guard Captain, Kirishima, poring over a record book the size of a small table. In a cluster of chairs a short distance away, were three women—sisters, if Gou remembered correctly—studying quietly on their own. Kirishima was seated squarely between Serizawa and the three of them, so close to his king, their legs nearly touched.

Serizawa lifted his gaze from the page he was reading, and met Gou’s hardened crimson across the vast chamber. He was well within earshot of a greeting, if she were to shout. But she remembered Iwatobian custom frowned upon that sort of thing.

He smiled at her, polite and gentle.

The princess returned the gesture, making sure her eyes crinkled at the corners. That was what smiles were supposed to do. She curtseyed, and continued over the walkway.

“Gou, is something wrong?” Seijuurou may be dense when it came to reading most people, but he was well-attuned to her.

“Don’t you think it’s odd?” She glanced up at him, not slowing her pace.

He frowned, waiting for her to answer his question unasked.

Gou took his cue. “Serizawa comes here, hell-bent on speaking to my brother.” She started down the flight of shallow stairs, steps light and quick with pent-up unease. “Uncle Akira is attacked. And the next thing you know, Rin’s on the throne.”

Seijuurou parted his lips to argue.

“—I know how you feel about my uncle, Sei.” She raised a hushing finger in his direction. “But an attack on him was still an attack on our family.”

Gou dropped her arms, and reached out to take Seijuurou’s hand, feeling the warmth of it through his glove. “It would have got you killed.”

He gave her fingers a light squeeze. “So…what are you saying?”

“I’m saying it’s worth looking into.” Gou reached the foot of the stairs, stepping into the looming shadow of a carved jade dragon. “Because if the Silver King thinks he can make pawns of us, he’s severely mistaken.

 

__________________

 

Sousuke leaned up against the balcony doorway, shifting on his right foot, taking in the distant crawl of the capital at twilight. It shone over the palace wall, the busiest streets carving blazing paths through the shadow.

He’d thought for a moment that Rin was going to kiss him that afternoon. The intent had seemed plain enough, whether or not Sousuke could truly bring himself to believe it. Rin had done it once in Sano. Although, Rin flirting with a champion pit fighter didn’t mean he liked Sousuke.

The flash of Rin’s petrified face on the night Sousuke ran away from him resurfaced with new vigor, searing behind his eyelids. Even if Rin seemed to have forgiven him for that misstep, the shattering sting of rejection ran deep.

 

“Mister Jinbei, sir? I have a letter.”

Sousuke looked inside to see Nitori Aichirou making his way across the bedroom.

“Just ‘Sousuke’ is fine.”

“Y-yes, of course.”

The boy held out a sealed roll of parchment. Rin’s assistant was growing increasingly comfortable around him, Sousuke noticed. He was willing to bet Momo had something to do with that.

“Rin’s getting changed.” Sousuke said. “He’ll be done soon.”

“Actually, it’s for you, Sousuke…sir.” Nitori handed him the letter.

He took it with a question on his face.

“From one of your admirers, I’m told,” The boy retreated, tucking his hands into his sleeves. “It’s been passed along, so I did not see the sender myself, but they asked that it be given to you personally.”

It wasn’t the first time Sousuke had received letters from people who’d found something to appreciate about his exploits in the arena over the years. There had been a regular stream of them, actually. As much as he liked to hear some of the kind things people wrote, he couldn’t bring himself to care what most thought of him. Managing them had been bothersome, so Kisumi had thankfully had them all sent to Shigino Manor. His sponsor seemed to enjoy reading them more than he ever would have.

Rin’s sparkling laugh rose up from the corner of the room. He unclasped the sash at his waist, and shrugged off his robe, tossing it over the side of the changing screen.

Nitori gasped, shielding his eyes. He bid them a brisk good-night, and scuttled out of the chamber.

“Open it, Sou!”

Sousuke turned it over once. Crisp and unmarked. He cracked the wax seal and unrolled the stiff parchment. The pungent smell of lavender assaulted him as it unfurled.

In the middle of the page, letters penned in a neat, clear hand were scrawled in rich purple ink:

 

Found you!

 

It was signed with nothing but the imprinted kiss of a woman’s lips, stained berry-red on the paper. Hands steady, Sousuke pulled out the rest of the parchment.

A strand of maroon hair, the length of his hand, slid from the letter into his lap.

Nauseating waves of dread roiled in his gut, and narrowed his vision to Rin’s single hair, blood drumming behind his ears.

He knew exactly who it was from. And exactly what she was after.

The bounce of Rin scrambling onto the mattress jerked Sousuke back into awareness. Rin snatched the parchment out of his hand with a giggle.

“Rin, wait—!”

“Oh come on, Jinbei. Is it good? Is someone asking for your hand in marriage?” He flattened the paper on the covers, and Sousuke’s insides flipped.

Rin’s expression hardened. After checking the parchment up and down, he released the edge, letting it curl back.

“It’s blank.”

Sousuke leaned in to check for himself. Only the lips remained on the page.

Rin brought the paper up to his face, and took a long drag of the perfume. His mouth pressed into a thin line as recognition set in, eyes going sharp. Rin held the letter aloft by his nails like it was dripping with venom. He watched it there a moment, unmoving.

Then tore it in half.

“Rin?”

“That letter was from an Iwatobi sorceress.”

Sousuke sat up in abject shock.

“I met her in the library.” Rin took the parchment shreds, dipping them in a candle until the paper caught, and dropping them into the fireplace. “And I just got this…feeling from her, and her sisters. All three of them.”

You have no idea.

“After what happened with Seijuurou, I…” He swallowed. “I don’t know the story, but Serizawa doesn’t seem to trust them, and neither do I.”

“They must want something from me.” Rin ran an anxious hand past his ear, watching the parchment blacken and surrender to the fire. “What could they fucking want?

His wrist jittered. “Using you to…”

Sousuke had to marvel at the objective comedy of the situation. He’d laugh if he was less terrified.

“It’s probably nothing, Rin. Trust me, I’ve received weirder mail.” Sousuke pulled the covers back in reassuring invitation. “Sentries are outside. You should get some rest.”

The last thing he wanted was Rin investigating the Hazuki sisters, but it was looking like an increasingly inevitable outcome.

Sousuke rolled back to put out the last candle, and settled into his spot. Reluctant, chewing on the inside of his cheek, Rin joined him under the sheets.

Their knuckles brushed. Sousuke had no room to move his arm, but the contact of Rin’s skin was both a comfort, and a torturous shard of heaven. His arms flexed with the unbearable urge to take hold of his best friend, and Rin seemed just as rattled.

They lay restless, watching the sliver of moonlight splashed onto the tapestries. It could have been five minutes, or fifty, Sousuke couldn’t tell.

At his side, Rin was awake, fear rolling off of him like clouds of steam. Rin was strung tight with misplaced worry for him, and Sousuke wasn’t sure if that made him happy, or miserable.

Unable to stop himself, he turned inward.

“Rin—”
“Sou—”

They started in unison.

Sousuke stared across the gap in their pillows at the shape of Rin, unmoving in the dark. Rin’s intensity was firing back at him, and maybe, maybe they needed the same thing.

Wordless, Rin rose up onto his elbow, pushing his pillow out of the way, and Sousuke understood. He pulled his own out between them, and extended an arm. Easily, instinctively, Rin ducked in, and lowered his head onto Sousuke’s shoulder.

The wash of relief was almost instantaneous.

Rin snuggled eagerly into Sousuke’s side, draping a protective arm over his middle, hand gliding up his ribs. He loved the way Rin’s hair felt on the raised skin of his scar. The Emperor’s silk night clothes were so thin, Sousuke could feel the heat of his body through the fabric.

Sousuke burned madly with the desire for even more of him.

Reckless, waiting to be shoved off, rejected—he moved his hand from where it was curled around Rin’s shoulder. He ran it downward, rubbing his thumb in tender circles over the muscled ridges of Rin’s side, and into the dip of his waist.

There was a short pause, and then Rin breathed a loud, sleepy, pleased sound. The noise tickled Sousuke’s ears, and melted his bones like hot wax.

He sucked in a shaky breath at the brush of fingers on his chest.

Rin was sliding a hand in through the front of his shirt.

Lightly, Rin pushed the hem open, gliding beneath the wrap until he reached skin. His hand was clammy and cautious. Sousuke closed his throat over a sharp gasp, holding the air in his lungs as Rin explored, finally resting his palm where Sousuke’s blood beat the strongest.

Oh.

Wrapped in each other, they let the tension unwind itself. Rin hummed another low, contented sigh that breezed over Sousuke’s collarbone.

He shouldn’t. He really shouldn’t. The pull was like its own force of gravity. Sousuke angled his face downward to plant a kiss to the top of Rin’s head, breathing in his scent, mixed with traces of flowery myrrh. If he was quiet enough, if he held his breath, maybe—Rin wouldn’t notice.

His lips made a tiny, slick sound when he lifted away, and Sousuke was caught.

Rin hiccuped. The sound excited Sousuke as much as it scared him.

An apology formed in his mouth, but Rin’s hand remained where it was. Rin twisted, raising his head.

The skin of Sousuke’s scar was less sensitive than the rest of him. It was thick, and slightly numbed—like it had been welded on, but had never quite belonged.

Rin pressed his lips to it, and the nerves flared to life. His mouth was soft and wet, his touch tired and messy, barely there.

He did it again, and again.

Sousuke clenched his jaw shut, heartbeat spinning out of control. He was paralyzed, terrified any movement would ruin it all, whatever this was.

One, two, three more times. The final kiss was lasting and sweet, with the smallest prick of Rin’s front teeth. When he was done, he dropped his head back down, nuzzling into the base of Sousuke’s neck.

“Rin?”

“Tomorrow.” Rin murmured into his chest. “Tomorrow…”

Within seconds, Rin’s body went loose, sinking under the spell of sleep.

He was heavy, and hot, and perfect. The weight of him was the most natural thing Sousuke had ever felt in his life. They were two lost halves of a puzzle, fit into place and locked together in the center of Rin’s bed.

Sousuke’s thoughts were flying in circles, tying themselves in clouded knots.

He would never have Rin’s love in the same way his best friend would always have his. He knew that, and yet… The way Rin was wrapping around him, pressing so impossibly close—was forcing him to rethink all he’d been sure of.

He craned his head back, letting the flock of his questions float somewhere else—and closed his eyes, “tomorrow” ringing in his ears.

 

 

__________

 

 

Sousuke jolted awake.

The room was pitch black, as though the windows were covered, and the starlight shut out. Rin was still deeply asleep, sprawled on top of his chest, and snoring lightly.

A sound reached his ears from the door to the hallway: scratching, sifting, pooling.

Sand.

Sand pouring in through the crack above the door.

Sousuke cradled Rin tighter, and snaked his hand under his pillow, fingers closing around the cool grip of his dagger.