“Rin, wake up.”
Sousuke felt something mumbled into his shirt.
Across the room, sand was spilling onto stone in a smooth hiss.
Rin stirred. “Sousuke…? ’Sit morning? S’dark…”
A loud, splintery crack rent the air, and Rin startled alert. Sousuke sensed the frantic jump in his pulse, his muscles tensing in the grip on his arm.
“What is that?” The mattress dipped as Rin pushed himself up. “Shit, it’s them, isn’t it? It’s that woman.” He swallowed hard, breaths quickening when he heard the hinges squeak. “We have to hide you.”
“No, Rin, you don’t—”
“Wait in the closet. I’ll handle this.” Rin leaped off the bed, slinging Sousuke’s arm over his shoulders, and hauling him to his feet.
Sousuke shoved him off. There wasn’t time. “It’s me they’re here for. You need to leave.”
A beat of silence passed as Rin placed the pieces. He lunged.
“What in the hell—” His fist twisted into Sousuke’s shirt. “—are you not telling me?”
Metal screeched as silt worked its way into the lock.
“I’ll explain it all later, but you have to get outside. Call for Tora, and go anywhere else.”
“You think I’d fucking leave you here?”
“I’ll be fine,” Sousuke said.
Rin sounded about ready to give him a black eye.
Rin snarled. Then, to Sousuke’s complete surprise, he strode over to the balcony doors, unhooking the latch, and nudging them open with a foot. Sousuke hoped for one divine moment that Rin had made the wise decision for once—that he was going to listen. Moonlight sliced through the gloom onto Rin’s silhouette, catching in defiant red, and that hope left him in equal parts adoration and fear. Rin kept the door ajar, storming over to his wall, and taking hold of his two long knives, one in each hand.
“Rin, no. I’m begging you to go.”
A simmering glower sent in Sousuke’s direction told him the argument was over.
He recalled that single strand of red hair on paper, and didn’t think he’d ever come so close to panic before a fight.
The last lock holding Rin’s doors bent, and the wood creaked apart.
Rin swooped behind his folding screens.
Straightening, flattening the dagger against his thigh, Sousuke forced icy arrows of dread down his throat and into the ground. Cool air from the hallway hit him full in the face, rank with the stink of smoke and lavender perfume.
The voice was smooth, and dripping sugar-sweet, soft in the unlit stillness of Rin’s room.
“Did you get my letter?” A candle flame flicked alive, illuminating the pearly, porcelain complexion of Hazuki Kyo. “I thought it was pretty clever.”
Sousuke only hardened his expression in response.
“You’re a difficult man to find, you know.” She toed into the room on soundless feet. I was looking everywhere for days. And here you were all along, holed up in the Emperor’s bedroom…”
This time, the sorceress had brought her two sisters with her, and they hung back, the dancing light glinting in their gemlike magenta eyes. The smallest was straw-blonde with round cheeks, and a syrupy smile that bared a gap in her front teeth. She was biting her bottom lip, bouncing on her toes like a sparrow. Behind her was a stern woman with ochre locks braided evenly down one side of her neck. She leaned into the doorframe, throwing most of her lanky form into shadow. Both of the other girls seemed ready to let their sister do the talking.
Kyo opened her hand, leaving the candle dish to float there unattended. Bathed in its glow, she looked even more dangerous than she had under the stars on the palace wall. Though tonight there was something off about her—something savage.
“Shigino’s a resourceful bastard, isn’t he?” She purred. “Wouldn’t have guessed his bodyguard was also his champion.” Her lips curved into a rakish smirk. “And the Emperor of Samezuka’s childhood sweetheart. What a story.”
Sousuke tuned his senses to Rin’s presence behind the folding panels, swearing on his life to do anything for any god, if Rin would just keep himself hidden.
“Where is our brave young liege, by the way?”
“He’s out riding his dragon.” Sousuke tipped his head toward the open balcony door. “Won’t be back until after dawn.”
“Is that so?” Kyo pressed her full lips into a pout. “Pity. I was really planning on him being here. This would go a lot quicker if he were.”
Sousuke’s fingers twitched against his weapon. “What do you want?”
“Nothing you can’t do without.” Her manners fell flat, and she circled the bedside. “You’re gonna tell me where Shigino flew off to.”
“Why do you need him?” Sousuke kept his voice level, reflecting the steel of her stare, even as it hurt him not to glance to the side at Rin.
The sorceress flicked her thin wrist, and the pile of sand near the doorway converged. It molded itself into a long, sifting whip, slithering over the rugs toward Sousuke. He didn’t dare break his stare with the Hazuki woman, but he felt the hardened mass wind around his left leg like a hungry python—
—and constrict. It spiraled upward with excruciating force. Sousuke tightened his throat to keep from making any sound that might draw Rin out.
“I don’t know,” He managed.
“Really? Funny, you two seemed like good friends.”
“We don’t know each other that well. I was an investment, not a friend. He doesn’t tell me anything.”
“Hmmm.” She leered through curled lashes. “Let’s just make sure, then.”
Kyo pushed outward with the thick of her palm, and Sousuke was flung across the room. His back struck the wall hard beside Rin’s table. One of the iron sconces unwound with a tinny scrape, curling around his wrist, locking him there.
Rin moved faster than Sousuke could see. There was a shrill cry, and the sorceress spun around. Rin’s teeth were a sharp glint of white as he bared them, livid, anger steaming from him in waves of heat. Sousuke had never seen him like this before.
Fierce crimson irises ignited in the candlelight. “Release him now, and get the fuck out.”
His long blade was at the throat of the youngest sister. She was stone-still, terrified.
“Ah, what a nice surprise,” Kyo sang.
A low, rumbling growl tore from somewhere deep in Rin’s chest. “Let him go, or she dies right here.”
“Oh? Go ahead then, Your Highness.” She snickered. “Do it. See what happens.”
“Kyo!” By the door, the last sister pushed off the wall, bristling, incredulous, with one arm out.
“It’s fine, Shun. He won’t.”
Merciless metal was at the smallest girl’s neck. Her breaths came in fast and short. One sure cut, and it could be over. She couldn’t have been much older than Gou, Sousuke thought. Rin tightened his jaw, his stroke hovering over thin skin.
He paused, and that moment of indecision was enough.
The knife fell out of his hand with a clatter as he was hurled to the ground at Sousuke’s feet. He coughed, knocked breathless by the blow. Solid sandstone closed over his legs, and around his wrists, pinning him flat on his back.
Kyo clicked her fingernails, disappointed. “I knew it. All those sharp teeth, and no bite.”
Sousuke thrashed against the metal ring. “I’ll fucking gut you like a fish.”
The sorceress laughed.
“Finally, we can get somewhere.” She arced an arm out to the wall, tearing out a large slab of stone. It hovered over Rin, the blade-sharp, craggy edge of it in line with his head.
Rin stilled, cursing and squeezing his eyes shut.
“NO!” Sousuke’s voice came out cracked and strangled.
Terror wrapped in frenzied wrath ripped through the length of him, coiling his muscles, and locking his eyes on his target. He flashed through half a dozen ways to kill her.
“What happens to him is entirely up to you.” The sorceress folded her arms with brutal certainty. “So, about my question earlier.”
Whatever the woman was after, Sousuke could tell by the way she moved—vicious, unstable, like a wounded predator—that she would be willing to do anything to get it.
“Oh, and you can try to lie if you want.” She sneered. “But like I said, it’s all up to you.”
The cracks in Sousuke’s armor split wide, and broke him down. He loved Rin him so much.
“Please.” He shattered, slackening against the bind. “Please don’t.”
“Aaaahh. There we go.” Wickedness was smeared over her mad grin, and she kept the rock floating where it was. “Speak up, handsome.”
“The forest.” A sick loathing churned in Sousuke’s gut. “Kisumi told me he was going to a forest.”
It was about as vague an answer as there could be, but the woman’s face washed over with understanding.
“Was that all?” She dangled the rock lower. Rin’s breath hitched.
“And something about a cat!” It came out in a terrified rush as he pulled madly against the restraint. “That’s everything I know. Now leave Rin out of this.”
Hazuki Shun raised an eyebrow, severe, watching her sister for a response.
The room was so quiet, Sousuke could have heard a feather fall.
Kyo’s ruthless gaze raked over him, to Rin, then back—before she spoke.
“Alright.” She curled her fingers. “I believe you.”
Iron shaped itself back into the wall fixture, and Sousuke was down on his knees the second his arm was free. He seized his dagger off the rug, and ground it into the base of Rin’s stony bind. It wouldn’t budge.
“No!” Rin shook his head, eyes darting to the stone overhead, pleading. “Leave it, Sousuke!”
“Though honey, you did lie to me once tonight. And this little spitfire could be trouble…”
Above them, the sharp slab of cut rock hung unmoved, a guillotine waiting for release. Sousuke’s reflexes made his decision for him. He heaved himself on top of Rin, caging Rin’s head beneath. The Emperor’s teeth were clenched hard over a cry.
“Sousuke, don’t!” Rin’s back arched off the floor with a desperate jerk. “Get away! Fucking leave it!”
“Sis…?” The youngest girl piped. “He told us. We’re going to back to Iwatobi now, right?”
Sousuke turned to see unbound madness blazing in Kyo’s eyes.
“SOU, GET OFF!”
The stone dropped.
In that fraction of a moment, Sousuke wondered where on his back it would pierce. And if he would die in an instant, or have a few spare seconds to tell Rin the secret he’d guarded in his heart more fiercely than any other.
His breath stilled in frozen lungs.
But the impact never came.
Inches above them, the rock hovered, suspended in dusty air.
“It’s been a trying night. There’s no need to be excessive, Kyo.”
Hazuki Shun slipped lightly into the moon beam. She knelt, dissolving Rin’s binds, and pushing the stone back into its place on the wall as if it were no heavier than a layer of bread dough.
“We have what we wanted.” She slid a sidelong look down at Rin. Stare fixed on him, the sorceress brought a hand to Sousuke’s bad leg. In one smooth stroke, she trailed her palm over the length of the wrecked, sand-crusted linen wrapping. He flinched at the utter strangeness of it. Quick as she’d come, Shun rose and joined her sisters at the door without another word.
Kyo rolled her eyes, tongue kneading the inside of her cheek. “Fine.” She turned to Rin and Sousuke to blow them a careless kiss.
“I can be patient.”
Rin’s door ground shut, and the darkness lifted. Starlight trickled in from the balcony window, the sky outside a misty predawn violet.
Sousuke let his head fall onto Rin’s shoulder as he held himself there, gasping, forcing his wild heartbeat under control.
“Fuck…” Rin’s voice wavered on the edge of a sob, and he heaved his arms around Sousuke’s neck. Sousuke’s elbows buckled, and the strength leeched out of him. He lay over Rin like a blanket, his friend’s hoarse exhales loud in his ear. Rin’s hold on Sousuke’s shoulders, and the damp heat of his skin was blessed proof that he was still here.
“Damn it, Sousuke. Fucking damn it.”
Sousuke shuddered each time air hitched in Rin’s throat, both of them struggling to come down.
He craned back. “Rin. Are you alright?”
Rin’s face was a mess. He choked on his answer, and dragged Sousuke back, clinging to him as though trying desperately to hold together something broken.
I put him in danger.
And on top of it all, he had led a powerful enemy to one of his oldest, truest friends.
They curled into a tangle on the wool rug, Sousuke’s arm over Rin’s shoulders, hand cradling the crown of his head. Stray grains of sand had stuck into the silky red locks, and Sousuke combed them out with his fingers to keep his mind present.
Wordless and weary, they waited for daybreak to drench the Samezuka horizon.
Rin shut the door to Gou’s bedchamber, taking Sousuke by the arm to bring him down the hall toward his private garden. He was in dire need of the morning air.
Sousuke was walking. Rin stole a glance downward at his best friend’s leg. The wrapping was gone, and nothing was left of the wound save two long scars. Hazuki Shun had done it—healed skin and muscle through the fabric in a few short seconds. Rin recognized a gift of gratitude when he saw one. Sousuke went silently, his expression vacant. His body moved slow, but easily in any direction Rin led him—like he didn’t care where he ended up.
He’s just drained. Tired, Rin told himself.
Sousuke had his glassy purple orb in his other hand, rolling it absently with his thumb, trying to reach their friend, an entire ocean away. Rin couldn’t imagine how he must feel.
Locked in his sister’s room, hands cupped over steamy bowls of spice tea, they’d listened while Sousuke had told them both everything. The night at the banquet—Kisumi and his wings, the sorceress and her monster on the wall—things Rin wouldn’t believe if he didn’t trust Sousuke more than the sureness of sunrise. Gou had nodded along, tapping her nails on her knees. It was all concerning, though none of them could say for certain to what degree. Nothing was solid enough to act upon before the public.
Rin was bursting with questions, ready to take the matter to King Serizawa, and hear what the hell he had to say for himself. But Gou was against it.
“Serizawa likely knows all of this already. They serve him, Rin,” she warned. “I have a feeling the king of Iwatobi isn’t the man you want him to be.”
Wobbling under the strain, Rin leaned up against Sousuke while they walked.
“I’ve had the crown for ten days.” He sighed. “All of this in my first ten fucking days. I have no idea how I’m gonna do this.”
Rin brought Sousuke out to the small vista, where he would come to read sometimes, and watch dragons skim the Samezuka skyline. It was lush, and private—a refuge from the constant bustle. He swiped clusters of white lilac blooms off one of the benches, and eased them both down. Sousuke’s gaze wandered over the city, his lips tight, eyes distant, like he was seeing something behind them Rin couldn’t. His empty stare rested on a red star over the mountains, twinkling faint, and alone.
“Hey.” Rin bumped his shoulder. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Fine. Please don’t worry.”
“Of course I worry about you! You were going to—!” Rin growled. “So stupid, Sou. I wish you hadn’t done that.”
Sousuke’s hand was resting loosely on his leg. It would be easy for Rin to slip his own into it, and he wanted to—but found himself wondering if he should. His memory steered back to the night before—how they’d fallen asleep wrapped in each other. Heat flushed in his face.
They needed to talk.
Rin scooped up a pile of ivory flowers. Autumn lilacs were supposed to bring good fortune to any who cared for them, and if he could pick a time to bank on that luck, it would have to be now. Today, Rin was ready. He’d come too close to death, too close to losing Sousuke, too many times. There wasn’t a shred of doubt left in him—he was in love, and every moment Sousuke lived without knowing that was precious time wasted. Rin brightened with the dawn on his cheeks, and gathered his courage like wind in his sails.
“Rin.” Sousuke drew away, and met his gaze at last. “I can’t stay with you.”
Rin’s hand went slack, the lilac blossoms fluttering forgotten to the grass.
A single spot of red blinked amidst curling clouds. It sat far off in a patch of sky between branches overhead. The Dragon’s Eye—a star that shone ceaselessly, day and night. It pointed the way east to a burning land, rife with war. And today, it helped Makoto toward the end of his journey.
Humming quietly, he set a steady pace, just ahead of Haru. He halted to run his hand around the width of a fir, closing his eyes, and pressing the plane of his palm into the bark as though checking a pulse. If the trail of magic ran too deep aground, Makoto could find it in the trees.
They had long since left the road behind, cutting across a wide thicket of underbrush. Travel was slow, but Makoto’s spirit was light with the thrill of adventure, and the warmth of someone to share it with. He pushed his staff out to bend back a sprig that hung in their path, and stood aside for Haru to walk beneath it. Once the Tear at the end of the trail granted him his power, the plants would recognize him, and this sort of thing would go far smoother, he hoped.
Haru chased a blue butterfly into a sunny glade ahead. The grass was up to the siren’s waist, and he pushed gracefully through the field with his arm outstretched to graze the tops of each blade. Brightness dripped over his inky hair, and down his narrow shoulders. Makoto watched from the shade for a moment. Sometimes he couldn’t believe someone so breathtaking was his. These last eight days were a taste of the rest of their lives, Makoto realized with a jump. He wondered if Haru was happy like this.
“Makoto. You’re not watching the trail.”
He followed Haru into the open air, laughing.
The rest of the day they spent dipping into the glen, stopping to wash and swim in a stream that ran cold, and clear as glass.
Haru caught a pair of trout for dinner while Makoto searched for a place to stay the night. He traced the water until it dropped over a steep cliffside, and fell in a white rush to waiting jaws of stone below. The woods reached into the haze of the horizon, as far he could see. It was a rippling, rolling rug of evergreen, threaded with yellow and garnet, and soaked in the warm rose of sundown.
An eagle glided above the vale on dark wings, soaring, surveying the forest below. From here, he was hardly larger than a dragonfly, but Makoto knew each of his wings stretched longer than his own height. Eagles would be allies in his lifelong watch, once this test was complete.
He ran his fingertips fondly over Haru’s carvings.
“Don’t stand so close to the edge.” Haru padded up to him, dried and dressed. He tugged on Makoto’s sleeve to bring him in.
Haru caught sight of the great bird as it rose with an updraft. “It would be nice to fly.”
“Really?” Makoto giggled.
“Yeah.” Haru shrugged. “He looks very…free.”
Scanning the rocky height, Makoto spotted something he’d missed on their way in from the other side. Carved into the cliff face, and built up over the ledge, was a weathered sandstone tower. Figures and patterns on its facade were worn smooth, grass sprouting from every crease and cranny. It lay wrapped up in tree roots and moss, as if the forest was folding it back into the land.
“We could stay there tonight.” Haru adjusted his pack, and nudged Makoto for approval. “All temples have travelers’ rooms, right?”
Makoto squinted, searching for any sign of the Aomori sacred emblem. “Sure…”
Cautious and curious, they approached the facade. There was no white gate over the entrance, nor any outdoor shrines. Temples were usually kept up by monks and migrants, but this building looked like it hadn’t been used in decades. A pair of dragons loomed before the door, menacing wardens sculpted from a red-veined rock Makoto had never come across before. Their angry snarls faced outward, and he nodded to their majesty as he and Haru passed between them.
“I don’t know what this is, Haru-chan, but it’s not a temple.”
Makoto’s voice sang back to him from the reaches of an empty chamber.
“No one here, huh…” He ducked under a vine to pass through the doorway, carrying his staff aloft in front of him.
“Good,” Haru huffed.
The inside was warm, bright, and airy, but shielded from the gusts that crashed up the cliffside. They stepped into a domed rotunda. Tiles fanned out in flowering patterns from a dais in the center. Tall, spiked sconces circled the perimeter, and Makoto tried to imagine what this place would look like lit up, wreathed in fire. He tipped his head upward with a quiet gasp. No building in Aomori had a ceiling this high.
There was just enough daylight left, cutting in through the open lookout, to reveal timeworn murals on the walls. Paint was chipped, and crumbled in patches, but Makoto could make out the shapes of flames, leathered wings, and human warriors with flowing red hair and jaws full of pointed teeth.
He shivered. “Incredible…”
Haru set his gear down, and joined Makoto beside one of the murals. He ran pale fingers over the weathered fresco, silent in awe.
“I’ve never painted with a color like that before.” Haru stopped before the figure of a man with sharp eyes a deep jewel carmine. “I wouldn’t even know how to make it.”
They had dinner, searing the fish over a fire pit nestled in an apse near the balcony. There was an echoing sound that thrummed through the space—air whistling through hollowed holes in the rock walls. It was musical, and soothing, like the structure was an ancient ocarina for the wind itself to play.
Dusk was dimming the sky, and Makoto unlaced their deerskin bedroll on a spot of clean tile. Haru had been a ball of restless energy since they’d found this place. There was unmistakable heat in the siren’s gaze, trailing down Makoto’s back as he stretched to lay out their blanket.
“Here?” he laughed, stumbling to his feet.
Haru’s quick hands darted to the tie at his waist. “It’s been over a week.”
“Haru, we can’t.”
“Why not?” Undeterred, fingers nimbly working the knot open, Haru blew Makoto’s bangs out of his face. “You said it’s not a temple.”
“Well yes, but—”
“Then, it’s fine.” Haru plunged beneath Makoto’s waistband without another idle second.
“Aaahh! Wait! We don’t know what this place is.” Makoto threw a look over his shoulder to the open entrance. “And there’s no door. Someone might come!”
“Haru.” Makoto grasped Haru by the wrists, and eased his arms down with patient restraint.
“We really shouldn’t.”
Midnight blue eyes rolled up at Makoto, swimming with want, and that perfect mouth pressed into the tiniest pout.
Makoto had Haru hoisted up onto a broken slab of stone, slim legs wrapped around his waist, hands in his tunic, breathing hard in his ear. He’d forgotten where they were, and why he’d ever been against this in the first place.
“What’s got into you tonight?” Makoto breathed. He kissed a rapidly reddening ear.
And got a rough stroke in retaliation.
Wind snaked through the rock, louder now, with more force. The notes drove Haru’s hips forward, and, no this wasn’t a temple.
Air from the cliff was sounding in the dome, filling the chamber.
“What is it?” Haru leaned away, brow furrowed. The corners of his mouth were spit-shined, his expression still hungry.
“The wind…” Makoto said. “It’s not coming from the cliffs anymore. It’s…blowing from inside.”
Haru’s puzzling frown was the last thing Makoto saw before the space was flooded with light.
Hot, and radiant, like the bloom of a giant paper lantern, it lit up in the center beside the dais.
Haru ducked his face into Makoto’s chest to shield his eyes. A tornado of embers swirled where the light hit, and when they settled, a lone bird was perched on the rock. Impossibly long ivory feathers swept out from its wings and tail, framing its swanlike neck with a fiery glimmer.
Makoto’s mouth fell open.
The creature hadn’t spotted them. Stretching once, it wrapped its wings around its lithe body. When they unfolded, the bird was no more. In its place, was a man.
He looked like a man, though his features were almost too supernal to belong to a human. A long face, peony pink hair, and keen eyes that were sharp as cuts of amethyst. His wings flexed lazily, catching the scant sunlight, and holding it captive. The stranger brushed dirt off his sleeves, gold jewelry on his wrists jingling with every swipe of his hands.
“I can’t believe she let the place grow over…It’s only been, what seventy years?”
Makoto could do nothing but watch, and Haru peeked around his shoulder.
The visitor's scrutiny traveled up the walls, and around the chamber--
Makoto felt the pierce of his gaze like a whip of wind. The man’s attention wandered to Haru perched on the stone slab, then down, and his eyebrows shot up behind rosy curls.
Awareness came barreling back.
Makoto yelped, snapping his arms out of Haru’s tunic.
“Well, hello!” The man’s voice was buoyant with amusement.
Makoto had to reach down, and scramble to pry Haru’s hands out of his pants himself, barely managing not to choke on his own tongue.
“No, no, don’t stop on my account!” The man leapt down over the side of the dais. “By all means, finish up! I’ll wait outside! Just sort of yell my way when you’re done!”
Makoto could hear himself screaming inside his own skull, his face burning like a sun. Tucking his tunic back into place, he bowed in apology, too mortified to string a sentence together. Haru pursed his lips with a prick of frustration. Lilting laughter chimed upward, bouncing around the lofty ceiling.
The man bounded over to them. “Name’s Kisumi!”
A strange name. “…Kisumi?”
“Well, since you asked!” The spirit sprang forward, and landed a quick peck on Makoto’s cheek.
He jumped, hand flying to his face. His skin tingled where the spirit’s lips had been. Makoto had never seen Haru’s killing stare, but it probably looked something like this.
“I’m Tachibana Makoto. This is Tachibana Haruka.” Makoto bowed.
“A pleasure!” Kisumi made to throw a friendly arm over Haru, but the siren ducked deftly out of the way.
“I don’t like being touched.” Haru’s expression was flat.
“Really?” Kisumi smirked, twinkling with mischief. “You seemed fine with it a minute ago.”
“Aaaaahh!” Makoto waved his free hand in a flurry, like he could fan the subject away forever. “I-Is there something we can help you with, Kisumi? What’s brought you to Aomori?”
The man brought a thoughtful hand up to his chin. “I take it you’re familiar with your forest’s spirit, yes?”
“The White Cat?”
“That’s her!” Kisumi nodded, his feathered earrings swinging with his enthusiasm. “Gatekeeper of Iwatobi.” He grinned, and swept a hand up toward himself with a grand flourish. “Samezuka has one, too.”
Makoto stood stunned as Kisumi skipped around him, and back up to the dais.
“And I actually did come to do something here. So if you’ll both excuse me—”
The last traces of day caught in his wings, and stray fringes of his hair.
“You two might want to stand in the middle of the room.” He dusted his hands together. With no further warning, Kisumi slammed his hand onto the tablet in front of him.
His wings flexed again, and the chamber roared. Molten white and gold blazed through every design on the ground, snaking up the length of the torches.
Makoto curled an arm around Haru, guarding him close.
One by one, fanning outward, the giant torches lit themselves, their basins full to bursting with fire. The ring of them closed, overwhelming the chamber with dazzling light. Relief figures on the ceiling swirled in the ripples of heat steaming upward. Flames crackled and swayed to the wind’s tune in the hollows, throwing shadows onto the ground out from the center in brilliant rays.
Kisumi drew his hand back, and stretched. “Aaahh, it feels good to do that.”
Haru scowled. “What was that for?”
“You’ll see!” The bird spirit glided down from the pedestal, and twirled past Makoto toward the lookout.
“She’ll be here soon.”
The fires settled into a calm flicker beneath the dim veil of night. Makoto was asleep on his side, arms outstretched, and waiting for Haru. It made the skin on the siren’s back tingle with longing, but he couldn’t join his lover yet. Not when a suspicious stranger was sitting just a few steps away.
The spirit was deep in thought, quiet for the first time since they’d met him. He must have felt Haru’s exacting attention, and perked up.
“So,” he said. “Shoreborn, hmm?”
Haru’s skin prickled.
“Oh, it’s not a problem. I felt you the second I got here.” He waved a dismissive hand. “And I don’t want to be rude, but I am dying to know your story. What’s got you out here, so far from home? In such…unconventional company?”
Haru shrugged, sieving his memories for a way to tell his tale in the shortest way possible. “I was given here as a ward, when I was a kid. And I decided to stay.”
He peered at Makoto as the man shifted in his sleep. When he turned back to Kisumi, a satisfied grin was splitting the spirit’s face.
“You’re that boy! I’ve heard of you, Haruka! A lot of people have. Didn’t know you came back. That’s…I never would have thought…”
“Do you know where you’re from, then?” Kisumi asked, leaning in. “Where you were born, I mean. Sometimes they remember where they took you.”
Haru tipped backward to maintain his buffer of space. “Some place in Samezuka.”
“Oh!” The spirit stirred with interest. “Where?”
“I don’t know.” Haru picked a twig off the ground, twirling it in idle fingers. “I went to see it, several years ago, and there was nothing left to see. It was all burned, or…something.”
The spirit bent even closer, and searched Haru’s face. His focused energy made him nervous.
“I see it. I see it!”
“Sorry.” Kisumi was giddy over some kind of private joke. “It’s just…The hair, the eyes… Of course you’re from Tokitsu!” He chuckled.
“Be quiet. Makoto is sleeping.”
The spirit held his finger to his lips in surrender. “Did you get a chance to talk with anybody, when you were there?”
Haru thought back to that shore. Bleak, blackened, empty.
“There was no one. Kurou said the people all died.”
“Hmm. They did die.” Sympathy pulled at the spirit’s delicate mouth. “But not all of them.”
Haru shot up straight.
“If you want, Haru, I have a dear friend back in Sano I can introduce you to someday.”
“You know a survivor?”
Kisumi’s laughter puffed behind his knuckles. “If there was one word I’d use to describe him, it might be that. Because ‘lovesick fool’ is two words. Anyway, I know he misses it sometimes. So if you ever feel like learning what sort of life you might’ve had as a human, I’m sure he could tell you all about it. It’d probably be good for both of you.”
Haru had no regrets about the choice he’d made, and the events that led him here, to the man he loved. But he still found himself nodding with irrepressible enthusiasm. “What’s his—”
The ring of torches dimmed suddenly, snuffing out all but the faintest glow of light. Haru’s scales slicked over his arms, and his hand flew protectively to Makoto’s back.
“Ah,” said Kisumi. “Took her long enough.”
Haru followed the tilt of the spirit’s chin. Grass rustled around the frame of the entrance, a breeze whistling through the walls from a new direction. There was something padding down the roots, around the lowest branches.
White. A cat no larger than the shrine cats Haru had grown up with, but blindingly white, like the moon at its peak.
“Haru-chan…?” Makoto sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He blinked once, twice, then he was stumbling to his knees.
There was flash of light, rustling the leaves on every branch. A young woman was standing where the cat been. She was petite, with full hips, and a kind face. Her eyes were soft and gentle—like Makoto’s. But where his were bright with wonder, hers were heavy— steeped in the wisdom of many human lifetimes.
“Haru that’s—!” Makoto’s whisper tickled Haru’s ear. He let himself be enveloped in Makoto’s nervous arms.
The woman spotted them huddled on the ground, awestruck, and nodded sweetly. Haru squeezed his lover’s arm.
Kisumi was already striding across the chamber with his arms thrown wide. “Miho!” He ducked in and kissed the woman’s cheek, light and fast before her hand came up to swat at him. “It’s been too long!”
She hummed. “And who’s fault is that? Remind me again, which of us flies?”
The bird spirit stuttered.
“Your human enterprises keep you busy, no doubt.”
Haru watched the pair embrace each other and trade insults like old friends. He could feel the excitement humming through Makoto’s body, hugged flush against him.
“No one back home will believe this, Haru.”
Leaving the spirits to their private discussion, he and Makoto huddled back onto the bedroll. Haru let Makoto hold him a bit tighter than usual, their noses brushing, pulses beating comfortably in tune with one another’s. Though he wasn’t aware of it, Makoto always had a need to cradle Haru near when his emotion spiked. Haru wrapped a contented arm over his waist, happy to share this moment with him.
The spirits deliberated late into the night, voices rising and falling like the tide.
“Your human poisons dull the mind.” The Cat’s melodic voice floated into the roof. “This is not possible. It was an illusion.”
Kisumi loosed his frustration in a drawn-out growl. “You think I can’t tell what an illusion feels like? Look, not that I hadn’t been drinking…but I know what saw!” A torch nearby flared with the spirit’s temper. “It was a damned real monster. It shook the ground, it breathed.”
The Cat was unconvinced. “I don’t care how powerful this woman’s magic is, a human cannot produce the essence life. No one can. Listen to yourself.”
“I know how crazy it sounds, but I swear that’s what happened!”
The Cat’s impatience leaked out in a sigh, and their voices dropped as they argued to and fro in whispers.
Hazy echoes and comfortable heat from the fires eased Haru into a dreamless sleep.
He woke to Makoto’s voice. It must have been late. The sky outside was still pitch dark, though the torches burned steady.
“K-Kisumi?” Makoto called across the space. “I don’t mean to interrupt your conversation. I’m very sorry. But there’s a—a light? In your pocket…”
Haru twisted around in bed to see the spirit hop backward, and plunge a hand into his robe. “Oh, my!” Lightly, between his thumb and forefinger, he held up a small, translucent orb. It pulsed purple with an urgent rhythm. The spirit’s mood soured.
“Things are worse than I thought.”
Minutes later, Haru stood with Makoto, watching Kisumi’s orb flashing beside the dais.
“That friend I was telling you about, Haru—this is a thing I use to call him when I need him.” Kisumi raised the orb up to his face, so that its light blinked bright in his irises. “He’s warning me.”
Makoto edged inward. “How do you know your friend isn’t asking for help?”
“That’s not something he does.”
Kisumi’s features drew taught, and the swift loss of his humor hit Haru with a wave of unease. He dropped the stone back into his pocket, and trotted to the lookout. The woods beyond were a dense cover of shadow.
“The two of you should head out.”
“Now?!” Makoto seemed to forget himself in his shock. “Why? What’s happening? Kisumi?”
“I can’t say.” The spirit spun back, his figure stark alabaster against the night outside. “Someone is looking for me, and it’s very important that they don’t find me. This is the first place in the forest they’d look. So it’s best if you were on the road.” He paused. “Actually, it’s best if you were in Aomori Shrine. I’ll take you there.”
“No! I—I have to find it,” Makoto pleaded. “We’re close to it, I can tell.”
Kisumi shook his head. “Not a smart idea.”
“Hmm, but you are quite near.” The Cat stepped closer. Her presence was a divine draft of calm. “Very well. Finish your trial, young one.”
The bird frowned, resigned. “Whatever, Miho. It’s your forest. But when you two get to the Shrine, stay there. Got it? Inside, you’ll be safe. Now hurry.”
“Wait! What about Haru?” Makoto’s arm tightened around Haru’s waist. “Will he be able to…? Since he’s a…”
“He will. If he enters with you.” The woman nodded at their linked hands, and smiled. “You already have the right idea.”
She brought a delicate hand up to cup Makoto’s jaw. “You were one of the easiest choices I ever made, Tachibana Makoto.”
In a few short minutes, Makoto and Haru packed and shouldered their things. Brumal night air crept under their clothes the moment they stepped outside, biting after the blissful warmth of the torchlit beacon. Kisumi had insisted on at least flying them down the cliff. Flashing into the valley wrapped in a spirit’s magic was the most peculiar sensation Haru had ever felt—though it was over quick enough to forget.
“You know where to go,” Kisumi said. “Wait for us there.”
“We will. I promise.” Makoto called after the spirit. “It was nice to meet you!”
The bird grinned in their direction. “Same to you both, Makoto. Haruka.” He stretched his wings wide with a wink. “Be seeing you soon.”
The sky was still lightless, and fog lay thick as smoke on the ground ahead. Ancient trees loomed out of the grey like ghostly columns raised from the underworld. Makoto shivered, and Haru could tell his entire body was drawn tight, breath quaking with every clouded exhale. Makoto never traveled at night.
Haru tapped him on the wrist, weaving his thin fingers between Makoto’s large ones, and grasping tight.
“My hand’s cold.” He stared flatly forward.
Makoto’s grateful laugh left his mouth in a misty puff. “I’m glad you’re with me, Haru.”
They were virtually blind more than twenty paces in any direction. Haru knew this place must be beautiful in the daylight. But in the dead hours of night, it was a setting sprung straight out of Makoto’s nightmares. Haru’s thoughts circled back to the same shallow regret.
We should have let Kisumi take us.
A cut of clarity through the gloom, Makoto walked forward with a determination that made Haru’s heart flutter. The tap of his staff on damp ground was a soothing beat—the music of happier trails.
An hour or so passed, quiet, and calm. The soft rush of a river came from somewhere nearby behind the curtain of murk. Suddenly, Makoto halted at the sight of a shape just ahead. He led Haru into a small grove, and approached something straight and tall planted firmly in the earth.
“It’s a staff.”
He was right. The carved staff of a Guardian was stuck squarely into the soil. Around its base, traces of thin roots were beginning to grow outward into the grass.
Haru crept up to see it for himself. “It’s like yours. What’s it doing here?”
“When a Guardian dies, their staff remains.” Makoto looked on with a note of sorrow. “It will take root, and grow from where they lay to rest. While their spirit returns to the forest.”
He circled the mound, lowering his own staff. “One of them died here.” He knelt, brushing the roots with careful fingers. “Recently.”
“Very recently. A few days ago, even.” Makoto lay his staff across his lap and began to say a few words in reverent prayer, thanking his fallen comrade for their vigilance.
Haru studied the surrounding area. Some of the plants were wilted, burned in a circle. The grass grew taller, and greener in spots. Makoto told him that a Guardian’s power often left traces like that after using the magic in the earth. But there was no blood, and no sign of a fight.
Keeping close, Haru skirted back toward the path, beyond a tall, jutting stone slick with wet moss. There was a tiny clearing blanketed by short grass, rimmed by reeds.
And two more staffs.
His breath shorted. “Makoto, we need to keep moving. We have to get to the Shrine.”
“Wait, Haru-chan. I’m almost done.”
“No, we shouldn’t stay here.”
The mellow air current changed direction.
Scarcely a whisper of it sifted beneath the canopy to where Haru stood over Makoto on the empty trail, but it was enough.
Makoto went rigid. He could sense it, smell it hanging rotten in the mist, though his brow furrowed with question.
The stench closed frigid fingers around Haru’s heart.
“Makoto, look at the ground.”
“Look down, right now.”
The cold spell Haru had felt earlier worked its way into his bones. It was a cold unlike any biting wind, or iced-over snow. It came from the inside, wringing, clamping down on every beating organ.
Haru firmed their hands together.
Thankfully, Makoto didn’t need to be told twice. He jerked Haru with him, and leaped ahead for the trail.
And then Haru heard them: Hisses hungry and murderous rattled in the air, swirling in the fog. Voices he knew. They seemed to come from everywhere, and Haru could see the instant effect they had on Makoto. His arm shook, fighting the force of manic fear, moving his body when all it wanted to do was freeze, and wait for death.
“What are they?!” Makoto bit out.
“Sirens,” Haru whispered. “The others.”
Trees closed in around them as they ran, space shrinking, the forest swallowing them whole into a grey unknown. The unknown was a safe refuge from what slithered through the brush behind them, after them, and Haru clung harder to Makoto’s palm.
“Keep your eyes down!” Haru panted.
So this is a hunt.
This is what it was like to be prey, a mouse caught helpless in the clutches of a hawk. He’d only once left the den to watch the others massacre humans. And of all the times, of all the humans—
He could hear them screeching like rusted iron hinges, their voices raspy and shrill:
“There’s only so far you can go, shoreborn.”
“Give up the human, H A R U K A.”
They were voices he remembered, the shredded remains of another life—echoes drowned in seawater, and caverns pitch-black, and bloodstained. What were they doing here? Why had they followed him?
“They know you!” Makoto curved around a bend. “You might be able to—”
“No.” Haru was certain. “They’re not like me. And they didn’t come here to talk.”
He threw a glance backward. Shadowy shapes were moving in the gloom, darker as they closed the space between.
Blue. Eyes were flashing up the trail at them, savage, unblinking. Haru snagged his own gaze on a pair of them, and the sting needled in the back of his head. Forcing back tears, he stumbled forward, all of his trust in Makoto’s lead. If Makoto caught even one of them out of the corner of his vision, he was dead. The thought racked Haru’s insides with raw panic.
Makoto could outrun them. He was fast on foot, and he knew the way. Haru twisted his hand in his lover’s hold. If anything, he could keep one or two at bay long enough for Makoto to escape. Makoto sensed the intent before Haru so much as loosened his fingers, tightening grip over Haru’s wrist.
They were lost.
Blood thundering behind his ears, Makoto sprinted into the gloom, pulling Haru with him—and he was lost.
Cries rent the air behind them, all around them, and it was so hard to tell how close the monsters were when every sound caught in the fog like flies in a cloudy web. Tracing the earth’s magic took a level of concentration Makoto was nowhere near capable of in this state.
He tried. Again, and again, he searched for threads of it in the soil, but he and Haru were moving too fast, his jagged nerves shocking his body like lightning at every bone-rending shriek. Panic prevailed. Makoto’s thoughts raced unhinged. It was all he could manage to keep his limbs from locking up, and his heart from stopping altogether. Because this. This was what he’d imagined in his darkest daydreams. Years of telling himself it would never happen, that he was silly to be afraid of the unseen, crumbled in his wake as he tugged his lover by the hand into the dark—aimless, blind, with death screaming at their heels.
Haru was holding tight with the strength of his unwavering faith, and Makoto was leading him nowhere. Makoto tried again, raking the ground for the trail, but another cry shook him to the core, and he dropped the trace.
“Makoto!” Haru wheezed. “How—How far?”
He couldn’t tell Haru a lie. “I don’t know!”
“Haru, I can’t—” Makoto dug his heels into the ground abruptly, and Haru crashed headfirst into his back. He threw an arm out to steady them both, balancing on the precipice over a ravine so steep, the bottom was buried in mist.
He could hear the slow rush of the river below, but how far down…
“We have to jump!” Haru’s voice was thick with anguish. “There’s water at the bottom; I’ll pull us. Just tell me where to go.”
The spitting hisses were creeping louder.
Makoto whipped his head away from the trail, squeezing his eyes shut.
Somehow, he always knew he would go this way.
His eyes fluttered open to meet brilliant blue—a familiar hue that he lost himself in every single day. It was dangerous, but it was Haru. Haru was still here.
As long as they had each other, for Haru’s sake, he wouldn’t give up. It took half a nod for the siren to read him, and squeeze their palms flush. Makoto dove forward, and locked their mouths together—rough, desperate, grateful. Haru groaned into his throat, and kissed back with the force of a wave crashing against mountains.
“Together?” Haru whispered.
Makoto’s stomach pitched in freefall. He gripped Haru’s forearm, all of his focus on the boy’s slim wrist, the pulse he could feel there, thrumming. However he landed, no matter what, Makoto would keep hold of him. He remembered who he was, then. Who he wanted to be.
They say in books that sorcerers command magic. They take what they can, and do as they will. But Guardians ask.
And the earth gives.
Hurtling through the brume, the river roaring below, Makoto held his breath, gripped his staff, and asked.
They hit the water’s surface, and the whistle of air was cut off in a gulp of silence as the impact exploded through their bodies. It took several seconds after for Makoto to simply hurt. He opened his eyes underwater, and saw the silvery mist between white, bubbling crests, high over his head. Every bit of skin stung, the space between his eyes throbbing.
Haru’s irises were lucent and haunting in the churning water. Beautiful.
Hands still locked together like they’d been carved from one single block of wood, they kicked until cold air and the spray of restless water hit them.
And suddenly, the water gave Makoto his answer. The trail was back. He could find it, feel it, flowing all around them in the river. Its current pulled insistent, an unstoppable power that they rode while the shrieks of sirens were left to the night, fading in the distance.
“The river, Haru.” Makoto almost laughed. “It’s taking us there!”
Haru, somehow, looked like he believed it.
The current evened out, carrying them gently, swiftly. Its water was far from warm, but Makoto readily welcomed this brand of cold over the one they’d just escaped.
Staff resting on the surface in one hand, Haru’s clasped in the other, Makoto let the river lead. Night was deathly quiet, shores on either side veiled by fog that looked thick enough to cut with an axe. Wisps of it swirled up at the sandbanks.
The sirens’ voices were far behind, but Haru’s fingers still twitched.
“Don’t look at the shore.” His voice was low, and clear. “Or the water. Close your eyes.”
“Haru, I think we’re safe. I don’t hear them anymore.”
“Please.” Haru squeezed his hand under the water, and Makoto could feel the siren’s muscles still tense as a drawn bowstring. “They can swim faster than they run.”
Trusting in the current, and in Haru swimming out in front, Makoto let himself be swept through darkness.
That couldn’t be it. Haru knew, it wasn’t over.
The others never came ashore like this. Beaches, ships, and caves were the only places they ever ventured above water, so to come here…
How they’d made it so far aground, Haru couldn’t say. There had to be a reason.
Currents were pulling at the water, rippling the surface so that it was hard to spot any movement below. He dipped beneath to check.
At the bottom of the river, in calm water, the floor was alive with movement. Carp twice the length of their bed back home were swimming around each other, bodies twisting and sliding past one another with a kick of strong tails. Their crescent scales glowed faintly, bluish silver, and some flecked with gold around their thick girth. Haru wished Makoto could see them.
He may not have Makoto’s abilities, but even Haru could sense the change. The atmosphere was charged, growing, like a breathing being, as they neared the heart of Iwatobi’s power.
After a long, silent stretch, the depth gave way to a gravelly shore. They trudged heavily up the embankment on shaky legs, panting for breath. Exhausted, Haru tipped against Makoto, who wound a strong arm around his middle, and took as much of his weight as he could.
“We’re here.” Haru shook his hair out.
Makoto smiled, eyes still dutifully shut. “I know.”
Haru wasn’t sure what he expected the most important building in the land to look like, but it wasn’t this.
Aomori Shrine was no more than a narrow doorway, tucked into a tall rock, overgrown with vines and wildflowers. Trees grew in a perfect circle around the entrance. They were unlike any others Haru had seen in his fourteen years here. Tall, wide, with bark that was marbled and incandescent, as though the plants had starlight for blood. Even in the gloom, he could tell their leaves were a deep, rich sapphire.
Upon closer inspection, patterns on the bark looked like images—flowers, houses, people—symbols of a person’s story. Symbols that, Haru was sure, had once been carved.
“You should see this.” Haru whispered in Makoto’s ear. The white spirit gate lofted over the road in front of them. He threw a glance over his shoulder.
“Here’s the…” Haru started. “Where I might not be able to follow you.”
Makoto took the lead this time, lacing his fingers with Haru’s as they approached. “You can if I can.”
He bowed his head, and they passed beneath. Haru had steeled himself, preparing for the worst. A demon couldn’t possibly enter the most sacred place in Iwatobi—
But he did. And he walked in a humble guest.
The front of the shrine was clear of mist, and Haru snuck a final look at the treetops, their shapes a reverent crown around the moon, before plunging through the doorway.
That modest exterior belied an inner hall so beautiful, Haru could barely believe it was real.
Makoto opened his eyes at last, raising his head to take it in. A path sloped down from the door, trailing underground, and they made their way forward, driven on by a comforting, inexplicable pull of being welcomed.
Hauyne lanterns shaped like lotus blooms lined the dirt path, but there was no room in them for fire. Instead, lilies sprouted from their stony confines, petals yawning open when Makoto approached. Each flower glowed in shades of blue, bathing the walls and rounded ceiling in soft light.
The shrine had no openings to the outside, yet the air was fresh, like a rain-soaked garden before dawn. The sound of water trickling was sweet in their ears.
Roots reached into the earth from above, weaving like lace over the wall, and across the grass-grown floor to a platform in the center of the shrine.
Makoto stilled as he sucked in a breath.
“There it is, Haru.” His voice rocked on the edge of laughter, crackling with anticipation. “It’s beautiful.”
Makoto descended the rest of the way in an dazzled trance. He led Haru to circle the dais with him—to behold the living core of Iwatobi.
The stone rested on a pedestal. It was no bigger than a water pitcher—smooth, and curved like a bead of dew. Light pulsed in the center of it, and Haru understood now why people and spirits alike devoted their lives to its safety. It glowed in a kaleidoscope of stars, making no sound, but humming with a melody like the bubble of streams and the swells of waves.
“Amazing.” Haru gaped.
Makoto smiled down at him, the Tear’s magic twinkling in his irises. That light had always belonged there, Haru was sure.
He gave Makoto’s hand a gentle, proud squeeze, laughing a little when he felt it returned.
A gravelly hiss from somewhere in the forest brought them crashing back to the present.
Haru shuddered. “They’re here. Right outside the gate.”
Makoto let Haru’s hand slide out of his grip, standing tall over the Tear, raising his staff high. “They can’t get in.”
The sounds were chilling, even in the safety of the sanctuary.
“Still.” Haru slipped back onto the path. “I’ll watch the door.”
“Just to be sure.” Haru lifted himself up on a root, and kissed Makoto’s cheek to seal his resolve. “I’ll wait for you. Finish your test, Makoto.”
Murmurs of Makoto’s prayer song sounded around the shrine, and Haru wished the music could ease the creep of dread in his veins. Makoto’s voice always did that for him, but tonight…
Tonight, evil was waiting at their door.
They can’t come in. They can’t come in.
Haru spun the words over and over like a windmill in his head. He believed Makoto, and he believed the Cat. But some small, nagging part of him didn’t.
They can’t come in.
The sharp tingling of his scales flushed over Haru’s arms and back, racing up his jaw and past his ears. Whatever he’d felt at the trailhead back home—that piercing, penetrating chill—was back, and stronger.
Haru felt him in the air.
Like a gathering of shadows, looming, darkening the doorway, was a form Haru hoped he’d never lay eyes upon again.
“Hello, Haruka.” Kurou breathed a raspy, spiteful laugh. “How have you been?”
A hellish grin cracked the siren leader’s sallow face—an ivory slash beneath dank locks of hair that hung dripping down his scaled back. His sharpened blade of human bone flashed in his left hand, grazing the tips of grass as he strode forward, careless, over the sacred path.
“Demons can’t enter.” Haru edged sideways, blocking the way to the platform.
“No, they can’t. Only if a chosen one welcomes them in.” Kurou snarled a laugh. “And for that, I thank you.”
Haru’s hand trailed numbly up to the pendant at his throat—his only memento of the ocean he left behind. It broke off with a snap, and he flung it to the ground. Colored glass shattered, salt water soaking into soil.
Perched on the moss, shining silver, was one of Kurou’s scales.
Makoto circled the platform, running through verses in his head, singing softly as the Tear’s power flowed up the length of his staff and into to his veins. It felt cool, like a stream over his bare feet in the summertime. This was a gift, Makoto remembered. And he would receive it with utmost humility.
The Tear’s serenity was warding off the monsters’ chill, Makoto knew. Their evil had no sway within the ring of trees outside.
And yet Makoto sensed it, crawling inward—a noxious blight on the hallowed ground. Sharper—so strong that he had to stop moving.
“Haru? Do you feel…” Makoto spun around-
-to find Haru staring across at the Lord of Demons.
“Shut your eyes!” Haru barked. Fear festered low in the hall, wrapping around every living thing as the siren leader approached.
Makoto clenched his weapon, and did as his lover said. He kept one hand steady, the pulse of magic uninterrupted before him even as terror clung thick to the walls of his lungs.
“Move aside, Haruka.”
“You think the humans will forgive you for tonight?”
Kurou was bulling forward, inch by inch, Haru stumbling back with each advance.
“It was you, not me.”
“Will they care?”
Even to another siren, the presence of their leader was completely overpowering. It grew harder to breathe with every heavy step the creature took forward.
“You’ve done me a great favor. And for that, I am more than willing to leave you here. To let this human live, so he can keep you leashed like a pet for the rest of your wasted days…”
“…But if he stands in my way, I can promise you nothing.”
Haru rooted himself there.
An angry rattling sound gnarred from Kurou’s thick chest. “The young are such fools.”
Haru had no words for him. He narrowed the passage of his throat and bared his teeth, pushing his voice out in a way he had never let himself do before. A hiss raw, hoarse, seeped in fury and desperation pierced the air of the shrine. Throwing is arms out to block the way, Haru bent forward to challenge the siren leader to a fight he wasn’t going to win.
Kurou gave him an answering growl, and squared his shoulders for an easy victory.
“Truly a shame.”
The pupils of Kurou’s eyes constricted, and Haru had all of a second before the only thing he knew was agony.
Locking that gaze with his own, he pushed back with every ounce of his will. Kurou couldn’t get through, he couldn’t. Fighting him felt like staring into a ravenous sun—blinding pain, being skinned from the inside, swallowing dry ice. He strained against the urge to pull away, choking as he felt that power begin to crush its frigid claws over his life force.
Digging his heels into the moss, he battled for it back.
This was for his family, and for Ikuya, happy somewhere in the big city far from here. It was for Makoto, and he would never stand down.
Somewhere, the man he loved was screaming for him, his sweet voice miles away.
Darkness leaked around the edges of his vision.
The last thing he saw was a beautiful, consuming ray of white and green.
The crisp scent young ferns, and damp soil.
Swooping songs of birds in the treetops, and the unending chirring of insects.
Haru’s head pounded with a dull ache, and his throat was raw, and scratchy.
He blinked his eyes open.
He was on the bedroll, under their tattered canvas covering.
“Ooh! Look who’s back with us!” A familiar voice chirped from nearby, and Haru’s view sharpened into focus.
Kisumi was crouching beside him. His hair was matted, fine robes torn and stained in spots, but the spirit’s face was bright with unmistakable relief. “Makoto! He’s awake!”
There was a dull thump as firewood was dumped on soft dirt, and then Makoto was falling to his knees at Haru’s side. Haru could have cried right there, he was so happy to see him.
“Haru! You’re alright. Gods, I was so worried.” He cupped Haru’s cheek tenderly, and the emotion directed at him was so intense, Haru had to stop himself from hiding his face in the pillow.
“So was I.”
Blue leaves peeked over the canopy not far away. They were near Aomori Shrine. Though Haru could feel no vigor in the late morning atmosphere.
“What happened?” Haru glanced around.
“Aah, don’t sit up too fast!” Makoto helped him up with a solid arm at his back.
“A lot happened,” Kisumi said.
Haru took the cup of water Makoto handed him, and drained it gratefully. “Where’s Kurou?”
“He ran.” Expression solemn, Makoto rose up on his knees.
From where Haru gazed up at him, he was tall against the clear sky. There was something different about him—his presence was overflowing, his body surging with power.
“But he did what the sirens came to do.” With leaden limbs, Makoto reached into his bag, and dropped something on the grass beside Haru’s lap. Smooth, and crystal clear, but empty.
“It’s dead. The Tear is dead.” Makoto sank to run his fingers over the leaden shell of a stone. “He tore the life from it. And I couldn’t see him. I…couldn’t stop him.”
Haru nudged the Tear to one side, stunned. It’s light was gone, and it was so quiet. His insides ached in a way he couldn’t describe. The loss left him hollow somehow—drained, and sad. One glance at Makoto told him that his lover felt it, too.
“What happens now?” Haru asked in the spirit’s direction.
Kisumi sat with his head buried in his hands, staring at the ground between his feet.
“The Tear was the heart of Iwatobi.” He spoke slower, his voice dragging. “It controlled the magic in the earth, the flow of its blood. And without it, a new force will have sway over where that magic goes.”
Haru leaned in. “Like what?”
Kisumi let out a heavy breath. “Like who. And the answer is, people who should never have access to that much power.”
Getting answers out of this man was like wringing a dry rock. “What about the Cat? Won’t she be able to… ”
Makoto’s expression twisted with grief, and he angled his face away. Kisumi fixed a scowl on the ground, working down pain Haru caught in the tightness of his brow.
Makoto’s shoulders dropped. “I failed,” he said. “I passed my test. But I failed Iwatobi.”
Shame was swirling deep in Makoto’s voice, sinking into his spirit, darkening his eyes. It broke Haru’s heart to see it.
“You couldn’t have done any more than you did. It wasn’t your fault.” Haru thumbed at the spot on his chest, where his seawater pendant once rested. He’d been an instrument in the sirens’ plans from the beginning.
Haru loved this place, his home, where he’d wanted more than anything to belong. And now—
“Haru-chan.” Makoto pried his hand away, and brought it to his lips, speaking through a careful touch:
“It’s not your fault, either.”
“We’re going to fix this. Together.” He kissed the stretches skin between Haru’s fingers, one at a time. “Kisumi says there’s a way.”
“There is! Which is why we’re leaving!” Kisumi piped, shooting up from his seat. A smile suddenly sparkled across his cheeks. Haru wanted to hit him.
“I’ve already agreed, Haru.” Makoto’s green flashed sure, and determined.
“See?” The spirit hopped into the sun, and flexed his back. “There’s lots to tell you both. And a long way to go. So let’s talk more on the road, yes?”
Haru straightened, Makoto’s hand still at his back. “Where are we going?”
Kisumi let his wings unfold with the next casual stretch of his arms.
Rin sat in the council room, slumped in his lofty chair, watching the hall empty as the meeting adjourned. People and colors, voices rolling in and out in bleary waves—it was like floating through someone else’s dream—detached, numb.
“I can’t stay with you.”
Under the table, in the rich folds of his robe, Rin closed his hand over the only thing keeping him lucid:
a tattered, worn, strap of leather.
When he needed it, he would take it with him—holding the collar curled up in his palm. The scent of his best friend had faded over time. But the leather was soft, and when Rin brushed the surface, he could almost imagine the tickle of Sousuke’s hairline on his fingertips, his skin always so warm after a day in the sun.
Though he never looked at it. The rough inscription he’d made as a child was a sore wound, even now. Especially now.
Sousuke hadn’t said where he’d be going, or when, or if he had any kind of plan at all. He’d just decided to leave.
He had disappeared to the practice yard that morning, while Rin remained on the bench, early breeze blowing straight through him, unsaid words cold on his tongue. It was nearly evening now, and Rin hadn’t seen him since.
Ai was in front of the chair.
The boy’s mouth was moving, and there were sounds coming out of it, Rin could tell. His assistant’s frazzled hands were everywhere, and he looked especially apologetic for whatever this was about.
“Ai.” Rin kneaded his temple. “Slower, please. And with less words. It’s been a fucking long day.”
“S-sorry, Your Highness!” The boy snapped to attention, inhaling deep.
“Sousuke-san is leaving.”
Panting for breath, robe askew, Rin skidded to a stop in the hallway to his bedchamber.
He wasn’t a moment too early. Sousuke was dressed in travel clothes: a dark, simple hanten over his shirt, and the bag of his belongings slung over one shoulder.
His eyes were distant and dulled.
“Ai says your leaving now.” Rin scanned him up and down, gathering the answer for himself.
Sousuke let silence hang for a moment, gaze roaming the ground at Rin’s feet.
“Where? Why?” Rin’s face twisted. “You weren’t even going to say goodbye.”
A shudder ran down his middle at how deep that cut him.
“I left you a letter on your desk.” Sousuke blinked hard, and turned away, hiking his bag up higher. “It explains it…better than I could say in person. You can read it later, once I’m gone.”
“A letter?” Seething, sweat glistening at his neck, Rin bared his hurt in a look that made Sousuke stumble a step backward.
He collected himself, shuffling on heavy feet. “I won’t go too far. I’ll be here for you, Rin. When you need me. I just can’t be…with you. This is the way I’d planned to do things from the start.”
Rin widened his stance in the center of the room, making Sousuke swerve around him to reach the exit. “This is because of last night.”
Sousuke stiffened, and it was all the response Rin needed.
“Don’t you fucking dare blame yourself for that.”
“I’m not blaming myself.” Sousuke ran a tired hand through his hair. “But the woman wouldn’t have come if I wasn't here. She’d never have even bothered with you.”
Rin’s temper flared, but Sousuke held him at bay with a shaky palm.
“You wouldn’t have risked your life at Momo’s trial. Or made a target of yourself in your own home.”
Rin growled. “Those were all choices that I made!”
“But you wouldn’t have made them if I hadn’t come back! It’s dangerous for you if I stay!” Sousuke was fighting to keep his voice from shattering. “It always has been. I hid all that time for a reason. And it’s clear I should have remained that way. I just—”
Sousuke flicked his gaze upward, sparkling blue beneath coal-dark lashes, and Rin’s ire stuttered out. Sorrow shone hot with something fathomless and indescribable. He brought his hand near, and as natural as anything, Rin let his eyelids fall shut to welcome its touch on his cheek.
“I’m sorry for everything.” Sousuke withdrew.
He had disappeared around the bend before Rin’s thoughts could catch up.
“Wait!” Rin hurtled into the hallway after him.
Sousuke was already nearing the staircase. He answered Rin’s crazed glare with another silent apology, and then the bastard took off running.
“Sousuke!” Cursing under his breath, blowing past the sentries, Rin dashed after him. Sousuke was faster than anyone who’d spent so long in bed had any right to be.
Rin kicked off the beaded slippers that slowed him on slick tile, beating barefooted around a sharp corner. Sousuke was gaining distance. He rounded into another narrow passage—retracing all of the paths Rin knew he remembered.
“Sousuke!” Rin pleaded between gasps. “Come back!”
Rin followed on his heels, chasing the back of Sousuke’s coat and hard beat of his footfalls.
The situation was unearthing a memory Rin had spent six years clinging to, even while he tried to bury it beneath sunsets and sakura petals. Sousuke’s back as he fled into the night was the last glimpse of him Rin thought he would ever see. Petrified, Rin had just watched as the darkness devoured him, the boy never knowing how much Rin had wanted him to stay.
He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
The fabric of his shirt was too heavy. Rin unlaced the tie, and let the robe slide off his shoulders to the ground, startling a gasp from several court members as he barreled half dressed through the hall.
The staircase emptied into a grand vaulted arcade. Sousuke charged straight through it, along the current of a mosaic seascape laid over the wall on one side. Petals of light cut between the lofty columns from the open side, licking over his back in golden flashes.
As teens, they would race down this corridor, one end to the other, as fast as they could. Rin could almost feel the ghosts of their past rushing over his arm with the breeze, urging him on. He wouldn’t let them go. Energy flared through Rin’s legs, and he surged forward.
Rin knew he was faster in the short run. He always had been. A burst of fireworks, a shooting star—Rin was an explosion of speed and power, and he beat Sousuke at sprints almost every time. But Sousuke burned steady. He could keep going, tireless, until Rin’s legs failed him.
If Rin fell behind, he would never catch up.
The longer this went on, the steeper his chances of catching Sousuke plummeted. Ahead of him, Sousuke sped up and pulled away, his broad back slipping farther out of reach.
Rin’s push wasn’t enough. Sousuke was nearly across the arcade. Rin was losing him.
The burn of fatigue was building up in his muscles, and he could already feel himself surrendering ground.
Despair boiled in his throat with the acid scorch of a defeat he refused to taste twice.
“Sousuke!!” Rin choked. His voice was drowned in a sob, Sousuke’s dark silhouette blurring and bleeding into the tiles as tears spilled over. “Sousuke, please!”
Rin kept up his maddened pace, riding the momentum to his destination.
The anguish in Sousuke’s face slowed him to a halt, a few short paces away. Sun beat down from the outside, warming Rin’s naked skin.
Sousuke was a still, severe shape in a bar of shadow. Blues and greens from the mosaic ocean reflected like the prism of pool water against the side of his body.
He was cautious, anxious— waiting for Rin to say something.
Rin hadn’t thought this far ahead. He cleared his throat, ignoring the tears rolling down his face in earnest.
“If you want to go, Sou, you can.” Rin panted. “I won’t stop you.”
Sousuke turned to face him, silent, breathing hard.
“You’re not a prisoner here anymore. You’re free now, and you can live however you like.” Rin forced a smile. “I’ve…always wanted that for you.”
He did. Even if it would tear his own heart, broken and love-sodden, from his hollow chest. He drew his arms up, holding himself together.
Sousuke’s full attention was on him, and Rin knew how well he could listen.
“I just want you to know—” he blinked, and held his chin high, “—that with you here—these have been the best days of my life in a long fucking time. And that even if you keep secrets—even if danger hounds us ’til we die, it would all be worth the risk to me.”
“None of it would hurt half as much as losing you again.”
Tears were dripping off the side of his chin, emotion drowning out shame as he stood bare, breath ragged, in the open walkway.
Sousuke fractured, his ice melting, and breaking him apart. “Rin…You don’t know what you’re—”
“I mean it,” Rin said.
“So before you go, I want to ask you one last thing.” Rin met Sousuke’s bewildered look with solid certainty.
“Will you fly with me?”
Sousuke gaped. “You—you can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I am. Right now.”
“I doubt that’s allowed.”
“Actually, it is.” Rin glowed with a faint smirk. “And even if it wasn’t, I’d ask you anyway.”
“Because it’s something I’ve wanted to do with you for a long time. And I…” Rin took a small step closer. “Last night, I told you I had something to say.”
Sousuke flinched with a sting of surprise, a faint pink blooming on his cheeks. “I remember.”
Rin breathed a fluttery laugh. “So…instead of talking about it, will you let me show you?”
He extended his hand to his best friend.
Sousuke peered warily at Rin’s palm as it waited, open and flushed with promise. Rin was every bit as scared as Sousuke looked. If he recoiled now, Rin knew the wound would never heal.
Then slowly, Sousuke dragged his own hand into the slat of sunlight to take it.
The rough heat of his palm became the axis of Rin’s entire world. He tugged, and Sousuke let himself be led from the shade.
“I guess this might count as a goodbye,” Sousuke said.
“If…you want it to.”
Sousuke slipped his hand out of Rin’s grasp, only to drop his bag, and shrug off his light hanten. Rin’s gaze followed golden sunlight as it poured over bronzed arms. A gentle weight on his shoulders told him the coat was being wrapped around his bare back. It was worn soft, and warm on his skin.
Rin’s nerves were catching up with him, and he was close enough to feel the heat of their chase radiating from Sousuke’s body. He couldn’t look his best friend in the face with his own so raw.
A steady thumb wiped under Rin’s eyes.
Rin laughed despite himself, his relief was so overwhelming. He raised his head again to see Sousuke there, strong and present, all around him.
“Don’t cry, Rin. Please.”
“M’not crying,” Rin croaked. He kicked a knee out to nudge Sousuke’s thigh.
A smile curled the corners of Sousuke’s mouth—fond, if still a bit unsure. Rin’s heart beat a little quicker with the need to make him sure. He cupped his fingers over Sousuke’s hand, bringing it down, and reclaiming it in a grip that tightened with his kindling anticipation.
He turned to face the horizon when a beckoning breeze sighed over them, ruffling their hair. The sky was calling.
Rin beamed with a grin from ear to ear.
“Come with me, Sou.”
and Sousuke followed.