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A Warrior's Heart

Chapter Text

Rin squirmed in his seat at the head of his council table, glassing over six people whose festering enmity felt thick enough to swallow the sunlight.

Samezuka’s war chamber was built for conquerors, and carved to intimidate. Colossal dragons sculpted in gilded black crystal snaked around one another along the walls, their fearsome jaws wide open at the floor in four smoldering hearths. They breathed out a steady heat, closing in on the council at the center. Rin had always found them rather calming, but he imagined an enemy might feel differently. How many spirits had been broken here over a millennia, he could not guess.

Serizawa Nao was seated primly at the opposite end of Rin’s mapped table, looking miserable. He was dressed in all blue—an embroidered mantle over the silk robe Rin had given him—like a polished sapphire in a bed of hot coals. Kirishima was an armored pillar beside him, warily sizing up every person present. Rin couldn't help but feel a bit sorry for the two of them, even as peace wavered on a tightrope.

Gou was wound tight on his right side as she and Seijuuro glared daggers in every direction but his. And to his left sat his uncle, and High Commander: Matsuoka Akira. He was watchful, and inhumanly still, with his long hands laced to a neat point. Rin felt Sousuke’s bloodlust steaming from behind his chair.

Something heavy was looming, gathering like thunderheads. Rin couldn’t shake the coiling presentiment that things were about to explode out of his control, and he just wasn’t ready. It must have been obvious, and the firm press of Sousuke’s hand on his shoulder anchored him back to home port. Sousuke kneaded the muscle reassuringly before retracting his arm to stand on guard. He left lingering warmth in his wake, and Rin slipped him a grateful smile.

“So, Your Highness.” Rin began. “I take it this isn’t about border negotiations.”

Serizawa raised his eyes to meet Rin’s. The king was frightening in his own way. He was quiet and modest, but had a keen sting in his stare, and a knifelike wit. “No. No, it is not. It never truly was.”

“And you didn’t come here to be friends, either.” Rin shot.

This gave the king a pause. “I …It is…complicated.”

Rin slumped against the stiff backrest, his scowl scathing. He hoped he could hide on his face how much that hurt. Serizawa had spoken to him on equal grounds, valued his potential, shared good taste in poetry. It was all a means to some end; of course it was.

Betrayal burned sour in Rin’s mouth. “Do explain. We’ve got plenty of time.”

The king cleared his throat, ironing out his nerves. “Actually, I am not sure that we do.”

 

Ai readied his stack of parchment, taking his seat at the dark mahogany scribing desk against the wall. He was a happy distance away from the table, and glad to make himself invisible. Rin was nice to talk to on a good day. He was a source of strength, and guidance for Ai—a dear friend. It was easy to forget sometimes, that he was now the most powerful man in the world. And he was trusting Ai to make record of history unraveling in this room. Stretching out the ache his knuckles, Ai shifted on his stool. The desk said, “Ah!” when he straightened his legs, and he slid his ink jar into place, turning the edge just so. Ink, fresh tools, a glass of water, and—wait.

Ai ducked his head under the desk.

“Momo!?”

The boy smiled up, his loud features beaming in the dark space beside Ai’s knees.

“SeisaidIcouldcome.” Not even he looked convinced by that.

“That’s definitely a lie, Momo-kun.” Ai frowned, about to continue, but another familiar face appeared beside Momo’s. “Miss Hanamura, you too!?”

The girl shushed him, and wormed into a more comfortable position. Her hair had collapsed, the seashell flower pins dangling comically askew. Ai snickered a little. On the inside.

“Gou would tell me everything anyway, so I’m just saving her the trouble.” She paused. “And checking her bullshit.”

There was probably a fair amount of truth to that, Ai supposed. He looked up to make sure the council was absorbed in introductions. Still, “You two aren’t allowed to be here.”

“Outrageous.” Chigusa blinked sweetly. “You mean this isn’t my assigned seat?”

Momo crouched forward on all fours like one of those toads he kept in the garden pond. “We have to know, Ai. It’s important. What if they…” He gulped. “What if they go to war?”

Ai froze. No matter how close they’d grown, Momo’s earnest nature still managed to hurl him right off center. Whatever this “warning” turned out to be, might very well lead the Matsuokas off to battle. And if the Emperor flew out, the Black Pearls were not far behind. Momo could lose his family, Chigusa her childhood friend, if it came to that. Ai settled back into his seat, and dipped his quill in the inkpot. He’d been ready to record the words, not truly letting their reality take solid shape until now.

Serizawa started speaking again, and Ai snapped back on task, tucking his legs in to give Momo and Chigusa more room.

 

“I arrived with three women in my retinue,” the king started. “Perhaps you noticed them. My personal sorcerers.”

Rin’s eyes narrowed. Sousuke seemed to be sharing his cloud of thought, one tight hand wringing the shaft of his glaive.

“Hazuki.” Rin glowered. “We met. They’re very charming.”

He remembered how easily the woman had hurled Sousuke across the chamber, stripped the rock from his wall, would have crushed them both on no more than a whim.

“All three are unparalleled magical geniuses,” Serizawa said. “They’ve dammed rivers, leveled mountains. We owe the safety of our sea routes to them. Back home, they are championed symbols of victory. But their real intentions are…darker than most would believe.”

Rin leaned in. “Seeing as they busted into my bedchamber a few nights ago to threaten us, let’s say I do believe. Dark how?”

Serizawa stiffened, shock stuttering his stream of thought. A question was flickering on his tongue, Rin could tell. But the king knew the rules of this game. He would have to explain before he could ask. He cleared his throat and took a shallow, nervous sip from his cup.

“Our story is long,” he said at last. “And we owe it to you in full.”

Morning burned away, while clouds peeled over the mountaintops and dissolved like paper in warm water. Shadows shortened as Serizawa unwound a battle of fourteen long years. Kirishima would interject where his account was clearer, his energy sparkling back and forth between them.

They reached a chapter of their tale that had Sousuke strained—his mouth tightening, and throat bobbing. Rin reached over the armrest up to take his hand, and press their pulses flush. Sousuke squeezed back hard, and did not let go.

Akira frowned with acknowledgment, but not remorse.

The king and his captain recounted the slow erosion of Iwatobi’s foundation by three gifted young girls who were too strong to restrict. Serizawa’s grandfather had grown them, nurtured them, only to find that he had poisoned his own garden—rotten down to its very roots. The Hazukis were loyal to no leader. They valued absolute power and nothing else, blazing quiet destruction across the land in their own pursuit of it. As their influence mounted, they had stolen the largest warship in the royal fleet, tucking it away inside an island they had gutted. The king was certain that when they deemed the time ripe, they would overtake Iwatobi entirely to rule it as they pleased.

And, he explained, they were not likely to stop there.

Hazuki Kyo was cruel in the deepest parts of her soul, Kirishima believed. A world beneath her foot would be a world doomed to suffer.

“They will grind my throne to rubble, and build themselves a higher one,” Serizawa concluded. “Even higher than yours.”

Walking in, Rin was not entirely sure what the king meant by “a warning.” Here was his warning, desperate behind electric, steely green.

Rin said aloud what he already guessed. “You need me to destroy them.”

“If there was another way, we would not be here, asking.” Serizawa glanced about the chamber, over the statues and fire pits. He turned to Gou, then Seijuuro, Akira, Sousuke, landing on Rin again. “There is not. The Hazukis are too strong for any other sorcerers in Iwatobi to contend with. And the only ones on earth with the kind of raw power it would take to overcome them…is you.”

The dry scratching of Ai's quill on paper was all they could hear. And then nothing.

Rin licked nervously at the points of his teeth. He could feel the crushing weight of a decision bearing down on his back. It was overwhelming. He should say something—ask a question that made sense. Unwittingly, he glanced to his side to seek out his uncle’s experience. Akira sharply accepted the wordless request.

Unfolding his hands, the former Emperor sliced through the silence. “Your situation is lamentable, Your Majesty. And this news is grave, indeed. But the risk you’re asking Samezuka to bear is not a small one.”

Nao regarded him squarely.

After a sip from his cup, Akira went on with gliding indifference. “You would point us to an island in the middle of the ocean, where your most powerful weapons could well be waiting for us—forgive me if this sounds a little too convenient. Faith in your word is a tall order after an attempt to murder me, I would say.”

“It’s not a trap!” Kirishima bristled at the accusations. “And that was them at the banquet, not us. I swear it.”

Gou’s face twisted with disgust. “So you did know,” she steamed. “You knew your sorceress sisters framed Sei for the attack. And you never saw fit to tell us until now?”

The king winced in apology. “I…I didn’t mean—”

“Instead you sat in the stands and sipped wine while Momo and Sousuke were nearly shredded alive for it. When you could’ve stopped the bloodbath with a word.”

Serizawa’s veil of politeness faltered. “Oh, spare me the blame for your own primeval practices! How was I to know what would happen to your betrothed? The Hazukis followed me here to watch me. Had we exposed them at that time, you would have attacked, they’d have fought back, we’d have a significantly larger bloodbath at hand.”

He raked steady fingers through his undone hair. “It’s why I hadn’t told you about them sooner. Inside the palace without your dragons, they would have crushed this place like an ant hive, and then where would we all be? They likely thought the debacle would make it difficult for you to trust me if I came to you. And behold, it has.”

Rin’s mind was grappling to tie the threads together. Every turn of trouble since the banquet was tracing back to one place. “What’s changed, then?” he rasped. “Why come to me now?”

“They left.” Serizawa shifted in his chair, distracted. A sheen of sweat beaded at his hairline and trailed down his jaw. “…to Gods know where. And I did not dismiss them. They’ve never defied my orders so openly before. That can only mean at this point, they do not care about what happens if they do.”

Already exhausted down to his marrow, Rin fell against the hard back of his chair.

“They serve me to spy on me,” Serizawa said. “Anything I told you, they would find out. I thought we had longer. I thought we could…build something, forge a friendship.”

“Oh, a friendship, was it?” Bitterness was boiling up from Rin's center, heating his speech. “So you could manipulate me onto my family’s throne, and have me fight your battle for you?” Serizawa remained cool as still water. It was infuriating. Humiliating.

“I was only trying to encourage you.”

“Because I’m an easier ship to steer than my uncle.”

“Because I heard about you, and I thought you might save us!” Emotion cracked the king’s mask. “They said that you helped knead the dough in street-side bakeries, that your best friend was a slave—that you were different. Was I mistaken?”

Rin fumbled for a response.

“I’m sorry.” Serizawa spoke to the entire group assembled. “I’m sorry that I misled you all. And for the mess that I dragged to your doorstep.” He found Sousuke across the table, face raw with guilt. “I’m sorry that my mistakes have cost you so much.”

“I want my citizens to have the freedom to live their lives as they will, and to run on the beach in summer without fear of war, or demons. In nearly half my lifetime of trying, all I’ve done is fail them and fall short.” He glanced with inspiration at his captain, openly, for the first time all morning. It was painfully honest, and it struck a cord in Rin’s chest. “I just…I can’t give up like this. You might not trust me fully, but you understand that, don’t you?

Ai stilled his writing.

Rin stood and walked around the table, as all eyes followed him, stopping where Serizawa was hunched in his chair.

He knew what defeat felt like when it soaked you through to your core, and reshaped you from the inside. The taste of hopelessness, and helplessness were familiar flavors. It wasn’t so long ago that Rin’s own life was plummeting out of his reach—when he’d had the will, but no means to right things—then the means, but an empty heart. Now his heart was fit to burst, and all of the power was his.

He decided that he was ready to use it.

Rin held a hand out to the king of Iwatobi. “I do understand. And I know that you can’t win this alone.”

 

___________

 

Sousuke stationed himself beside the door, watching Rin build a plan of attack with the king. Gou was there with him, and Seijuuro looming at her back, shading her from the sun’s glare. Fires in the hearths had burned down to a mild orange glow.

Rin’s jaw clenched, and the muscles tensed in his strong forearm as he glided an ivory figure around the map. Serizawa added a piece of his own, Ai taking note of any significant move. They’d been at it for near an hour. A lock of hair fell into Rin’s face as he craned over the board. Delicately, he tucked it back, eyes flicking up to meet Sousuke’s for a only a moment. He looked tired. Sousuke fought the desire to cross the chamber, and gather him up. He needed the contact as much as he longed to give it.

His own thoughts were difficult to order—like chipped bricks that didn’t stack together anymore. Lost, was the feeling. Or it would have been, were he alone.

As the council finally adjourned, Ai whisked his records together. The boy shook out his hand, and stretched his back. Somehow he had managed to make a cluttered mess of his desk during the meeting. Sousuke strode toward him to lean over it. “Now would be a good time for you three to scoot out, if you want to be sneaky about it.”

“What? I—!” Ai stammered, then nodded in gratitude. He wasn’t even going to try pretending.

The boy knocked the side of his desk, and Chigusa crawled from beneath, stepping clear of her dress hem. Face blooming red, she bowed to Sousuke, straightened her skirts, and scuttled around the corner out the door. Ai followed respectfully. At last, Momo stumbled out and jogged to a stop in the hallway.

“Jinbei?” There was a hollowness about him that didn’t belong. His cuts and scrapes from their trial together were long since healed, but fear left a deeper scar in him than Sousuke had thought. “What’s gonna happen?”

“Are you all leaving me?” Is what he’s asking.

“I don’t know, Momo. I wish I could tell you.”

 

Captain Kirishima was hovering clumsily around the far edge of the table. His vigilance had eased up once Rin’s hand was extended, but he was still watchful on his feet, glancing at Sousuke across the room. He had been doing it all morning long, and was nowhere near as subtle about it as he seemed to think. Sousuke shot him an answering glare. Their eyes met, and for a second, Sousuke thought he’d caught something he wasn’t meant to see.

Hearing the two of them talk about Tokitsu brought on a wave of homesickness he thought he’d left dried up for good in the Sano compound. It was strange. He remembered their visit, and the two Iwatobi ships docked in the harbor. They were gigantic things—heralds of hope. His parents had even mentioned the two teenaged boys who orchestrated the whole alliance over dinner, though at the time, Sousuke couldn’t be bothered to go meet them.

It hadn’t occurred to him that those boys had grown up—that the nervy little prince was now the king. Fate was strange, the way it turned and tangled.

Just as Sousuke was about to dismiss the distraction completely, Kirishima pushed away from the table. His presence was just as impressive up close. Strong hands, and a sure step. They were quiet. Sousuke could feel the man’s intent to speak to him bubbling in the air. Twice, Kirishima opened his mouth as if to try, but couldn’t seem to thread his words together.

He gave up.

A gentle hand came to rest on the captain’s shoulder. Serizawa was there—his face peaky, but posture regal as ever. They left together, walking a little closer than they had coming in.

Seijuuro gathered several guards stationed in the hallway. “Escort them to their rooms. Or, the library if they wish. Rin says they aren’t to leave the palace.”

“Yes, Sir!”

The chamber emptied. Gou and Seijuuro brushed by with solemn nods. Akira exited without so much as a look. Rin was left alone beside the table, holding himself up by the edge. Slowly, he raised his head.

“Get over here.”

Every second it took to reach to him was one too many. Sousuke heaved the door shut, crossed the room, and swept him into a tight embrace. Rin clung on like a drowning man, burying his face into the swell of Sousuke’s chest.

“Rin. You doing alright?”

He groaned against Sousuke’s shirt. It was answer enough. Tipping his head up, Rin searched his lover’s face for pain. “Are you?”

“I am now.”

Sousuke rocked them side to side, as if to music. The tips of Rin’s hair tickled his collarbone. For a long, quiet spell, they stayed that way—flush together, strength rebuilding.

 

“Tajiri,” Rin murmured at length.

“What?”

“Tajiri. It’s an island northwest of here. One of ours, actually. It’s where they...where I’d have to go to find them. To settle this.”

“…Oh.”

The idea that Rin was flying into battle was still almost too hard to stomach.

“I told Serizawa about Kisumi, too. The monster on the wall, and the forest.”

“What did he say?”

“The forest is Aomori. It’s like a…holy place, for them. But how it figures in, and any of the rest, he didn’t know what the hell I was talking about.” Rin sagged with disappointment. “I gave him access to the archives to look into it.”

Sousuke’s hope drained. If Serizawa didn’t have answers, there was no one in Samezuka who would.

“You remember what they did.” Rin craned upward, framing Sousuke’s jaw with a gentle hand. “And what they said. Once they take Iwatobi, they’ll come back for us.”

“If what Serizawa tells us is true, then I have to do something. I might be heading into a trap, but either way, I just…feel this is right.” His shaky laughs sank into a sigh.

“I’m coming with you,” Sousuke said. It wasn’t up for debate.

Rin held onto him tighter, like he was melding them into one.

 

______________________

 

 

Aomori was beginning to wither.

Haru could see it, and he knew Makoto had sensed it, as they left the center of the forest. Magic in the earth had already begun to drain—pulling out east, and no living body survived long without blood.

Traveling home with a Guardian was a strange experience, Haru was discovering. Flowers tipped to follow Makoto as he passed, branches pulled aside to let the group through, and bird songs pitched higher in the canopy. Everywhere they walked, it was as though the forest recognized Makoto as its protector, and was showing him thanks.

Four butterflies lingered in a halo over Makoto’s head before flitting into the shade. The light in his eyes shone even more brilliantly than before. Haru found himself speechless, and Makoto reeled with worry.

“It’s all sort of odd, but I’m still me!” He strode up to take the siren’s hand. “I’m the same…” There was such an earnest fear there, Haru almost broke into a laugh.

“Of course you’re still you,” he rolled his eyes, huffed, and tapped his green boy on the nose. “Stupid.”

 

Kisumi retold what he could of that night as they trudged up the remaining stretch of trail back to town. Beasts had descended upon the cliff after Haru and Makoto left: winged horrors made of glassy black sand. Where they’d come from, and why the sirens had attacked, he would not say.

“I have a guess,” He reasoned. “But I need to know for sure.”

Haru’s throat bobbed. Guilt, helplessness, anger—it was difficult to say which coursed strongest in him now. He’d been nothing but primed bait tossed out to pry open the world for evil. And he was through with it. Makoto was, too.

The villagers’ explosion of congratulations stripped them both to hollow husks. Haru couldn’t bring himself to face them, though he could feel Makoto’s shame tighten the vice of his grip. A whisper of bareness at Haru’s collarbone was a reminder of what they’d seen, and done. Moyajima’s sirens were moving. And if Kisumi was right, there would soon be no place safe from them. Haru’s halcyon days in this forest had run out.

They spent only a night at home—gathering supplies, and warning the villagers of what might be to come. They hadn’t believed him at first. It was difficult to process that four hundred years of peace had been uprooted in a single night.

“Sirens have killed in Aomori.”

“What do they want?”

“How could we have let this happen?”

Haru was prepared to run. They would chase him out of town, banish him for this, at best. But the villagers offered only sorrow and sympathy, and it wrung his heart empty. He lived here. He was one of them, and beneath any lingering sentiment, maybe he had been all along.

“It was my test, and my fault. Not Haru’s.” Makoto faced the wave of murmurs as people crowded the road. “I was weak, and a coward. Now the Tear, and the Cat are dead.”

“Makoto—” That wasn’t true at all.

“But we’re going to fix this,” his voice steeled. “Please forgive us; we’re going to save Iwatobi.”

 

The next morning, Aki joined the rest of town to see the trio off. She was still short, and slight, and smelled gently of larch leaves. Her staff was thinner than Makoto’s, and strapped to her back to free her hands for climbing. She looked them both over with wide, brown eyes.

“I…don’t even know what to say. Other than good luck, I guess. We’ll be praying for you.”

“You may need to do more than pray,” Kisumi warned. “Aomori is bursting with rare materials that some might deem valuable enough to attack you for. If word spreads that the Tear is dead, and we hope it doesn’t, then you’ll want to stay on your guard.”

Aki nodded vigorously, still flustered by the concept of speaking with a spirit.

Makoto leveled her a pleading look. “Will you watch over our family?”

She placed a hand on Makoto’s shoulder. “Of course.”

The Tachibanas had beamed with pride watching Makoto leave, not two weeks ago. They were teary and heartbroken now as they waved their boys over the bridge. Haru couldn’t help but feel he’d betrayed them—he’d ignored the rules, gone after their son, and put him through all of this.

“Wait!”

Haru spun around.

Ran and Ren jogged up the planks. Ren’s momentum nearly carried him straight into Haru. “Wait.” Catching his breath, he opened Haru’s hand, and folded a small bag into the siren’s palm. Haru worked the pouch open. Inside were two whittled songbirds, the paint still lovingly intact.

He shook his head. “These are yours. I made them for you.”

“I know. So return them.” Ren’s freckled cheeks lifted in a smile. “And keep them together for us. You’d better come home.”

Makoto walked backward slowly, almost like he was straining at the end of a rope. He watched the twins until they shrank into dappled shade. His heel hit the edge of the bridge’s last plank, and he paused. Haru waited for him. Filtered sun dusted his strong back and shoulders. Hope was building in him as a breeze kicked up, and Haru was hit with a sudden yearning for his paints. But they were packed away, and all he could do was commit Makoto’s beauty in this moment to memory.

Mustering his courage, Makoto stepped forward onto the path, leading the way toward the great outside.

 

Kisumi explained their quest in pieces, as he could.

“There’s a stone in Samezuka like Aomori’s Tear. “Dragon’s Heart,” is what some called it once. Before it was hidden.”

Makoto’s step bounced. “Another one?”

“Of course! All magic stones come in pairs, you know.” Kisumi plucked his purple orb from somewhere in his sleeve, and tossed it in his palm. “They help one another, balance each other out. So if we bring the Tear to its partner, they will be as two halves of a whole. Red will heal Blue, magic returns to normal, Iwatobi will be saved.”

Hope illuminated Makoto’s face. “Does it have Guardians to look after it, too?”

The spirit pondered aloud, tapping his fingers on his elbow. “Of a kind. My methods were a bit different from Miho’s. Samezuka Shrine is much more…independent. Anyone can enter. It’s just damn hard to find, and impossible to reach without me. As for the Guardians of Samezuka, they are—” he whirled around to walk backwards, “—rather large, and scaly.”

Haru shot up instantly. “Mackerel?”

Kisumi’s expression blanked. He threw his head back and shook with laughter.

 

The spirit’s ability to wrap them both in his wings and leap across miles was granting them a speedy advantage. Even so, Kisumi could not repeat the action infinitely. So while his wings rested, they traveled on foot.

Tiny seed tufts floated up from honey-gold fields as they trekked across a highland plain. Lumbering horned creatures were huddled grazing in the distance. Trees here were sparse and small in the grasslands, and Haru felt inordinately exposed. He tugged his hood up to shade himself from unforgiving rays of day.

Haru had come this way on his trip back to the coast. Bits and pieces he recognized, but traveling with good company was like discovering it all for the first time. They passed through a limestone gorge that whistled, and moaned. Locals claimed it was haunted, and Makoto despaired, clinging to Haru like a giant starfish. Haru traced the sound to its true source: a cavernous nest of peculiar birds, whose calls had echoed, amplified by the winding rocks.

Another day, Kisumi stopped them to rest at “Lovers’ Willow” beside a lake so clear, you could see all the way to the bottom. Haru thought it was a ridiculous name for a tree. Or he did, until Makoto looped him beneath the lush green curtains, and kissed him breathless. In the morning, Haru went swimming in the calmest water he'd ever felt. He made Kisumi fly over and fish him out when they needed to leave.

Makoto was wonderstruck by every swath of unfamiliar land, and Haru soaked in the earth’s beauty with new eyes alongside him. Dire as their adventure might be, Makoto stole joy in places Haru would not think to look for it.

A thought surfaced as Haru swam along the bottom of a lagoon. He popped up beside Makoto, who stood washing his hair.

“I want you to see the ocean,” Haru said plainly. It was such a long time coming.

Makoto laughed and dove in, paddling out toward the deep center to float on his back with Haru a little. Sun streaked down through the trees, and shimmered all around him. “I can’t wait.”

 

___________

 

Today, they were pitched atop a rocky, broken hillside overlooking the road. Their trail was visible for a mile in each direction, and a dense brush offered them generous cover. Even so, Kisumi still kept a wary lookout. The spirit would chatter and joke, but there was a thin edge to his every move. He was running from something. A sorceress, he’d said—though he wouldn’t explain why, nor what would happen if she caught him.

Kisumi had fallen unusually silent after dinner, slouched on a fallen fir, absently plucking a song on his phantom instrument. Haru observed him from behind the cook fire as shadows licked over the hollowed planes of his face. He might not be the best at this, or even good at it—but Haru felt they should say something. Anything. Locking glances, Makoto shot him an unspoken agreement. He eased down onto the log, just the right distance away.

Somehow Makoto always just knew what people needed. It was moving, and fascinating, and left Haru in awe.

“You knew the Cat well, didn’t you?”

Kisumi’s grin crept back, but weaker now that he’d been caught without it.

“We go back a ways, sure.” The spirit’s gaze skittered outward. “Should I add more wood? Getting a little chilly, isn’t it?”

Makoto pinned him with a frown, refusing to leave it there. “Kisumi look, I know you’re a…an ancient spirit, and we’re just people. But you feel grief and loss just like anyone else; we can see it. So don’t think that you have to suffer alone. You never do. We’re friends, and we’re all in this together.”

A robin’s evening song trilled from the treetops.

For a moment, Haru was sure Kisumi would clamp his shell shut again. But Makoto was asking, so the spirit hung his head, and relented.

“Miho was my master. Mentor.” He scowled at the net of stars across the plains as he strained to remember. “I was her apprentice when we were humans. A very, very long time ago.”

Makoto and Haru stilled to listen.

“It’s funny; we never got along that well. We were two very different people, with perpendicular philosophies. But it never crossed my mind that she would die.”

“Spirits aren't gods,” he said, “nor are we completely human. It’s a weird place to live, in between. Cities sprawl and burn. Everything changes, and everyone leaves you behind. We’re islands in a sea of endless birth and loss. Even if we barely saw each other, Miho was the one constant in all of it for me—the friend I knew I could always come back to in the end. Now that she’s gone it just feels…” the spirit trailed, “…a little bit…”

“Lonely?” Haru set dinner down to roast, and made his way over.

Kisumi chuckled bitterly. “Yeah.” He swallowed. “It’s that.”

Haru didn’t know what more there was to say. He sat on the spirit’s other side, locking him snugly in the middle. The three of them watched the fire flicker.

“Maybe we can get her back, too,” Makoto offered at length.

“Maybe.” The optimism snapped Kisumi back into himself—even if he didn’t seem to believe in it. He leaned in, and slung both arms over his companions’ shoulders. “You’re wrong, by the way.”

“Huh?” Makoto puzzled.

“You said you two are ‘just people.” Flames glimmered in bright violet irises. “There are no such things as ‘just people.”

 

______________________

 

Iwatobi’s capital city was even more terrifying than Makoto had imagined.

 

Negura. Eagle’s Roost, it was called. Though the great birds were elsewhere, scarce above gloomy streets at the base of Tottori Canyon.

“Move it.” A vendor shoved past, rolling a rickety covered wheelbarrow, and Makoto pulled Haru out of its path, nearly bumping into a drawn wagon.

“Get outta the road!”

“Sorry…!” Makoto called out. “Sorry about that!”

It seemed like regardless of where they stood, they were in someone’s way. There were so many people, and sounds, and wrong turns to take. Bridges lifted for boats to pass, and fireless lamps dotted the busier roads. There was a clock tower with a dial that seemed to move on its own. Makoto pressed a palm to the stone of a building, searching. Magic was everywhere. Channels of it still coursed through the ground, but it was extracted, warped, wrought by humans into things strange and unnatural.

Sorcery.

Eventually, they swerved away from the main road, down a side avenue, and onto a ferry out of town.

Nestled a ways down the river, this distant arm of the city was, as Kisumi helpfully phrased, “more a spider’s nest than an eagle’s.” Here, the sun touched down only a scant few hours each day before surrendering to the ominous shade of overhanging canyon shelves. The roads were shadowed, chilly, paved with cracked cobblestones, and sodden with a stubborn stench. Moss and mushrooms crawled up the sides of buildings like ivy, thriving in the lightless street ends. Thankfully, it was quiet this time of day. The district was asleep—waiting to spring alive with dealing halls, dueling rings, and brothels, steaming in every strain of sin under the shroud of night. Kisumi warned they’d best be gone by then.

Makoto had long since given up on friendly gestures after receiving nothing but thorny scowls in return for them. People here were dour, and defensive.

“Don’t let it get to you.” Kisumi noted. He kept his attention trained ahead, counting turns and lampposts as they advanced down the dingy boulevard. “The dark district is just…a different kind of place.” Harsh laughter boomed from a second-story window, followed by the ring of shattering glass, and howling.

Haru winced. “I’ll say.”

Drawling moans and tight squeals spilled into the street from a different establishment. Kisumi gasped in feigned distress, and clapped his hands over Haru’s hood.

Oh nooo! Shield your ears, my sweet woodland sprites!”

The siren batted him off. “We know what sex sounds like.”

“I bet you do.”

You two!” Makoto swiped his gaze anxiously over one shoulder. “I thought that sorceress you talked about lived nearby.”

Kisumi clicked his tongue, unruffled. “Huh? Oh yes, she lives here. In this city, actually.”

“Then why are we here?!”

The spirit hopped over a gutter, and dodged dripping rainwater from the edge of a roof, making it all look like some kind of dance. “Because the safest way to Samezuka is by ship. And the fastest of them sail from the capital.”

“Besides,” he added, “she’s abroad.”

Kisumi steered them through the street, sidestepping carts, and puddles of muck. “That said, it’s still best we avoid the main harbor. I’ve an old acquaintance here who owes me a favor, so we should be nice and cozy aboard a ship to Samezuka before the night’s up!”

Makoto couldn’t help but wonder how much of Kisumi’s cheer was genuine at this point. Though in any case, it was welcome. He trailed close behind with one hand on his linen-wrapped staff, the other fitted securely around Haru’s back. The siren had the hood of his cloak up, delicate webbed fingers curled into the hems of his sleeves. Makoto quietly wished there was more time to appreciate how cute that looked.

Somewhere in this towering metropolis was Haru’s shoreborn brother, Ikuya. Makoto wished they had time enough to meet him, but the boy lived too near the palace.

The trio passed another gloomy lane, and shivers pricked Makoto’s spine. He slid a sidelong glance into the alleyway.

Only a crumbled heap of scrapped brick.

“Do you feel it again?” Haru lifted the tip of his hood. “Is it…me?”

Makoto hadn’t sensed the other kind of cold since that night in the shrine. It had been kill hunger, Kisumi taught them—leaking through the seawater pendant around Haru’s neck. Kurou’s scale was gone now, and Haru fostered no such lust.

“No, Haru. It wasn’t that.” Makoto smiled down warmly to reassure him. “It was more like…”

…Like we’re being watched.

 

“Here we are!” Kisumi swung his arm out to present a street corner tavern as though it were fine sculpted art. The building was battered and cracked, foul-looking burn stains scarring the weathered front. Haru got the feeling that this place was damaged at such regular intervals, the owner deemed repairs a futile investment. Sinister clouds of lavender smoke were curling up from somewhere under the roof tiles, and Haru scrunched his nose at the smell. A painted sign hung swinging on rust-crusted hinges over the entrance: The Harpy’s Hollow.

“It’s nicer on the inside.” Kisumi winked. “…Or maybe the lights are just dim. Anyway, I have to see to our ride. Once we’re at sea, there should be less to worry about. Before then,” he cast around down the road in both directions. “we can’t be too careful.”

To its credit, the place’s interior was nicer, if not the cleanest. Makoto grimaced as he toed over slate tiles sticky with spilled ale. The tavern’s walls were curved and rough, decorated with a pastiche of mounted nautical instruments and other outlandish objects. There was probably an attempt made here at some kind of theme once, but that had obviously been abandoned in favor of eclectic chaos.

A bar stretched across one side, smattered with people— some in engaged company, others dismally nursing lonely flagons. Conversations were wafting upward, melting together into a muffled stew of sound. Even at this time of day, it was lively. Purple fumes billowed from an area near the far end, trailing from the tips of long, lacquered pipes. The stuff stained the smokers’ mouths deep violet, and hung thick in the air. Muggy heat festered from the amber light of two giant sloppily-welded iron chandeliers, and the mellow crowd of patrons.

Makoto checked on Haru as they shuffled deeper into the place. The siren already looked absolutely miserable. He hoped this would be a brief stop.

Kisumi flagged down one of the serving girls with a foxy smile, and slipped a few whispers in her ear. She regarded Makoto and Haru with open surprise, and blushed hard. Setting down her handful of empty mugs, she she showed them to a small stone table in one of the alcoves along the far wall. It barely fit there, tucked away between the brick inlet and a small window. She wiped it clean with a rag, and had two mugs of house cider brought in. Kisumi sent her off shy and giggling with a few extra coins, and a peck on the cheek.

“Sit!” He motioned. “You two wait here. I’ll try not to be long. If I’m not back in….say an hour, I’m probably dead, and you should run.”

Haru accepted his seat. “I honestly can’t tell if you’re joking.”

The spirit just laughed, which Makoto didn’t find reassuring at all.

Kisumi leveled them a stern look. “Really though, just…stay out of trouble? And try to keep your frisky fingers to yourselves.”

Makoto sputtered into his cup.

The spirit stole a gulp of Haru’s drink, and folded himself into the crowd.

Haru shrugged. “I didn’t promise him anything.”

They exchanged a loaded look across the cramped table. Makoto was too tall for it, and his legs were forced to straddle the base of Haru’s chair. It had been a long day, a longer week, and they were spectacularly out of their depth. This brief spot of rest was a blessing, and they basked in each other’s nearness as they shared it. A dirty jar with two wilting daisies in it made a doleful centerpiece. Stems cut, and far from their garden, Makoto felt sorry for them. He reached over and brushed the petals with his fingers. They perked up prettily.

The cider was good. A tinge sour, and much stronger than the few Makoto had tried in Aomori. But it was cold, and sweet enough to savor. Haru sipped his gingerly, brows pinched, the way he always did when he sampled something for the first time. Makoto folded his lips over a laugh. Being close to Haru was a sensation he wished he could cup in his hands, and bottle for later.

If there was one good thing about the table’s confines, it was that Makoto could lean forward on his elbows, and meet Haru halfway. Foreheads nearly touching, they let each other’s emotions tide to and fro between them.

“Haru.” What’s bothering you?

Blue eyes narrowed at the pair of daisies. The siren wet his lips. “I’ve been thinking….that there’s something off about the way Kurou killed the Tear.”

“It’s what he does, isn’t it? Take life…”

“Sure, but…” Haru nudged a petal with his sleeve. “See this flower? It’s alive.”

“Yes,” Makoto followed.

“But I can’t kill it. I could glare at it all I want, and it won’t die, because there are no eyes to pull its essence from. The Tear is a rock. So how did he do it?”

“I…don’t know. I didn’t even think of that.”

“It worries me.”

Makoto hooked a foot around Haru’s shin under the table. “It doesn’t matter how he did it. We’re going to fix it before he hurts anyone else. One thing at a time, Haru-chan.”

Haru gave him a soft smile.

They weren’t often alone on this trip. It wasn’t as if Makoto didn’t enjoy Kisumi’s company, or couldn’t cap his affections, but he realized he’d been taking the forest’s quiet seclusion for granted all these years. Haru peered up at Makoto over the rim of his mug, sleeves still folded over his hands. The desire to be intimate pulled like a wave back to sea. The siren quirked the tiniest smirk, and edged forward.

“Haru-chan, don’t you dare.”

Makoto choked down a squeak at the press of Haru’s foot between his thighs.

“Don’t I dare, what?” The siren massaged with the balls of his toes, and Makoto couldn’t decide if he wanted to curse him or kiss him. Both, he’d wager—in that order. Haru rolled his heel.

“Th-that—!” Makoto watched condensation beading, dripping down his mug of cider, and he’d never felt such bodily kinship with a cup before. “Not here!” Haru was snickering through his nose, though it barely showed on his face. Makoto supposed it didn’t matter much that they were hiding in the corner of a dicey tavern, on a desperate quest—they still had each other, and if Haru was laughing, Makoto was happy.

Biting his own smile, Makoto snapped his legs together under the table, wrestling Haru’s foot down. “Would you like a glass of water?”

“Yes.”

“Be right back.” Makoto pushed up and made a line for the bar as Haru realized he’d just been baited into stopping.

Haru peeked casually out the window while he waited. It was caked with grime around the sill, and slightly fogged from moist heat inside the tavern, but he still had a view of the wide shipment alley, clock tower, and avenue outside. Citizens ambled by about their business, oblivious to his scrutiny. Someone stopped suddenly against the stream, and Haru sucked in a gasp. A lanky young man with dark robes, pearly skin, and a head of deep green hair that Haru recognized immediately.

Ikuya?

The other siren turned, and spotted Haru through the window; it was undoubtably him.

Haru jumped to his feet, and instantly searched out Makoto. His lover was still at the bar, and when he checked the street again, Ikuya was gone—like a wisp, swept into the current of people. Haru sank back down, and took a swig of cider to quell his nerves. Its odd taste burned a stripe down his throat. He saw me. What was Ikuya doing in a place like this?

“Lonely today, are we?”

Haru startled away from the window. A burly man pulled out Makoto’s chair, and noisily made himself comfortable. He thumped his stout hands on the table.

“No.” Haru said flatly, though his body tensed. “That seat is taken.”

The stranger’s fingers were gnarled and scarred as if from chemicals or fire. He had course features, but sharp eyes, and a wicked air about him. He licked his lips in an obscene circle, mouth glistening a sick-looking purple.

“Sure it is, sure.” The chair legs scraped as he dragged closer. “The big guy won’t mind if I borrow it for a bit.”

Haru shifted away, and leveled him a disgusted glare. “I mind.”

The man had a copper-brown tunic on under a wool coat, and Haru saw something glint from behind folds of rough fabric. The siren’s gaze flittered across the tavern to where Makoto was chatting with the barkeep, waiting for their water.

Hurry up.

“Ain’t seen you around here before.” The man was crowding him over the table now. Haru caught a nose-full of smoke on his breath, choking back a dry cough.

“I’m easy to miss.”

“Oh, I don’t think you are. Just look at those gorgeous blues, boy.” Careless, the stranger picked up their jar of flowers and held one out for Haru to take. “Here. For you.”

He wants to see my hands. He knows. Makoto, he knows…

Haru could not guess how it was possible, or how the guy knew what to look for in the first place. Fear spiked as he sensed the stranger’s focus closing in on him. He drew his arms in closer.

“Leave.”

Leave? Already, eh?” Violet lips warped into a vicious grin. He retracted the jar, and reached into it with one leathery finger. The water within swirled and lifted away from the sides like wet clay, clinging to his hand in the air. “How cold.”

Haru knew it was coming, but he wasn’t fast enough.

A flick of the man’s wrist sent the water splashing into the siren’s face. He sputtered and stuffed his hood down. Scales were slicking over his tightened jaw.

“There you are, demon.”

“Makoto!”

Pain shot through Haru’s scalp as the hood was ripped back, and he was yanked up by the hair. Someone screamed, though he couldn’t tell from where. There was a quick clink, and the man whipped a glass vial from under his coat. He uncorked it with a pop. Poison. Acid. Haru tore at the iron grip, but it clenched him in place with redoubled strength.

“Was told you’d be green, but to hell with it. I imagine they’ll be happy enough with ya.”

Wood splintered, ceramic smashed, and Haru staggered free. Momentum hurled him into the brick wall, and his head spun from the impact. He cracked his eyes open to see Makoto looming with the high end of his staff leveled at the the hunter’s throat. Broken bits of the vial lay in a puddle of fizzling liquid that had eaten clean through the floorboards. Makoto advanced. Haru had never seen his lover like this—all crackling intensity, and anger. It sent a frightened thrill shocking over his scales.

“Fuck right off,” the man seethed through stained teeth. “Don’t care if you saw him first. I’ve been waitin’ all month for the little devil. His nasty head’s mine.”

Makoto’s scowl hardened, and he jabbed his staff into the hunter’s chest.

“Not on this earth.”

Tied as he was, the man refused to abandon his prize so soon. With his free hand, the hunter pulled on air, straining until the stone table lifted off the ground. Makoto swerved aside, and it narrowly missed him—colliding with the window, and shattering the glass in jagged sheets. The move threw his balance. Sneering, the hunter jerked the staff until Makoto stumbled forward—and raised a fisted hand. Makoto drove his elbow in with staggering force before the hit landed, and they collapsed backward, grappling, tumbling out the broken window to the alley below.

Haru heard them land with a crunch, and his chest seized. Bar patrons were hollering, and grouping into a stressed mass. He nearly forgot his scales were still plainly visible to all.

He flew to the sill. “Careful! Makoto, his coat! He uses magic!”

Makoto pushed to his feet. Mind racing, Haru scooped the Guardian’s staff off the ground, and swung up onto the wooden frame. He spared a last glance into the tavern. People ducked away from him, shrieking and tripping over each other for an exit. Haru caught only a glimpse of Kisumi, staring dumbfounded and a little pissed off from the rear of the bar before leaping down into the alley.

“Haru—!” Makoto wailed. “Stay inside!”

“No.”

Haru thrust the staff at Makoto, and took his place beside him. There were no further protests. Makoto recognized wasted effort. A short distance away, the hunter collected himself with a pained grunt.

Makoto squared his stance, grip firming on his staff. “Who are you? What do you want with him?”

He gaped at Makoto for a beat, then shook with a gut-churning laugh. “What do I want with him?! The question is, why do you want him?!”

Haru finally noticed the blood on Makoto’s shirt. Thin swipes of red beaded on his hands and arms where broken glass had cut him in the fall. He was balanced heavily on his left foot.

The man hocked, and spat on the ground. “Don’t think anyone puts up much fight when the sweepers squash a roach in the gutter.” He curled his arms in. “Same idea. Only this roach happens to be worth quite a bit more.” Shards of window glass lifted and rallied to him from where they lay scattered in the alley, glinting with reflected sky as they floated dangerously overhead. “So run along, mountain kid. Unless you fancy being a pin cushion.” Every sharp edge was angled toward Makoto.

Blazing fury flooded Haru’s veins—feral, and untapped.

How dare he.

This could all end now. The human’s face was twisted with ruthless intent to hurt the one Haru loved with everything he was. Anger swirled into a sick strain of desire. He drew in a rattling gasp, pulling the atmosphere inward, and his scales crept higher.

Makoto gave a stiff shudder at his side, and Haru remembered himself like a slap across the face. He reeled back, ashamed.

Haru shook himself clear, and sprang into view to block his lover’s body with his own. The hunter swore as he was forced to tear his eyes away. Unable to aim, he let the glass shards clatter to the ground.

Haru swelled with victory, and Makoto seized their chance. He forced his lungs empty, and thumped the base of his staff on the ground. As he dragged in a full breath, the earth beneath him came alight. Veins of magic that wound under his feet shone white and green, like midday sunlight filtered through the canopy in Aomori. Haru stared in wonder.

“Shit.” The hunter backed away, eyes blown with terror-tinted regret. He flipped back his coat to snatch a vial from his belt, but too slow.

Makoto whirled his staff outward, and the glowing roots of ichor coiled forth around the hunter’s arms like hungry vines. Haru sensed the earth flowing under his feet. It sent an oddly calming tingle up his legs and over his shoulder blades, as he squinted through the brightness of it. Another push, and Makoto sent the man flying through the air. Yelling something foul, the hunter landed with a wet-sounding thump in a garbage cart outside the tavern’s side door.

Gasps and murmurs leaked from the broken tavern window, and chorused in the street.

They waited.

After a brief rustling, the hunter heaved himself up, and out. He was plastered in unspeakable filth, and sped away the instant his feet hit solid ground.

Makoto leaned back with a heavy exhale. The roots dimmed, and soaked back into the ground without a trace. Haru and Makoto snapped together immediately, scanning one another head to toe.

“Haru-chan, are you ok?”

“Obviously.” Haru reached up to angle his lover’s face to the side, and grimaced at a trail of blood near his right ear. “You hurt your foot, too.”

“A little. I fell on it funny…”

Behind them, the crowd was getting unruly, and the ruckus finally pulled their full attention.

“HEY!” A commanding voice boomed. “What’s going on over there?!”

Haru panicked. “City Guard.”

Makoto lowered his staff, eyes roving over the gathering throng for Kisumi. They couldn’t be caught by the guards. The lifeless heart of Iwatobi was an insistent weight in Makoto’s pack, and there was no easy way to explain why. With the fight over, they were lost again—two lonely leaves carried on a current too far away from home.

“Excuse me. That’s very nice, but it’s in my way, sorry—” Kisumi had wrestled a path to the window. He jumped, and landed lightly on his toes, looking harried. Haru loosed a begrudging sigh of relief to see him.

“Amazing, Makoto!” Kisumi huffed, brushing off his robe. “You use your sacred gift either fending off ultimate evil, or scrapping around in gutter fights; there’s just no in-between with you, huh?”

Makoto whined apologetically. He leaned on Haru’s shoulder, keeping his weight off his right side. “Ah, Kisumi, did you land us a ship?”

“Not in ten minutes I didn’t!”

Haru found his patience fuse worn dangerously short. “Whatever, we need to go. Do the wing thing.”

“Oh sure, let’s just do that here in front of fifty people—”

CRACK!

Smoke exploded into the alley with a whistling snap.

Makoto crashed into Haru to cage him against the closest wall. The fog poured from a point on the ground—impossibly thick, and spuming with dust like billows of fine sand in shallow water. Haru wheezed into Makoto’s robe, and tested his eyes open to peer though the haze.

“Over here!”

Tears were welling up, blurring Haru’s vision into muted smears of color and motion. But that voice was unmistakable.

“Ikuya?!”

The other shoreborn was a darkened form crouched behind a hedge of empty barrels.

There would be time for questions later. Affirming, the boy pushed on the drainage panel of the opposite building, sliding it back to reveal a passage large enough to duck through. He threw out an eager arm to beckon them inside. Alarm bells rang somewhere in the corner of Haru’s mind. Makoto stifled a hurt noise, and he ignored them.

In the alley, the smokescreen was already thinning. Haru pulled Makoto through, pressing a hand on his head to make sure he cleared the low entrance. Kisumi swooped in after them. Ikuya heaved the door shut, banishing both light and sound. Adrenaline was still hammering through Haru’s system. Their ragged breathing was loud and immediate in total blackness.

“This way,” Ikuya said, voice fading as he tramped ahead. Three clicks sounded from where he walked, and then they had light. A lopsided stone the size of a cypress cone glowed between his fingers like a tiny flame. “Come on! We can do introductions and explanations when we’re safe enough away from here.”

The siren turned on his heel and started walking, not pausing to check if they followed. The light of Ikuya’s stone didn’t afford much visibility beyond him, but stacks of pried-open crates, barrels, and cracked clay pots told Haru they were in some kind of warehouse facility.

Kisumi craned in close to him, one eyebrow cocked in question.

Haru paused, but nodded yes, and they filed after the other boy. Haru bolstered Makoto’s weight on the injured side as they went, moving carefully as he could manage. He prayed his shoreborn brother was leading them somewhere he could treat the wounds. Ikuya was even taller now—as long-limbed and graceful as Haru remembered from four years ago. Though he was walking with a jaunty bounce in his step that was markedly new.

“S-so you’re Ikuya, then?” Makoto beamed. “I’ve heard a lot about you!”

“Likewise!” Ikuya came to a fork in the passage—one staircase leading up, the other below. He considered his choices, eyes darting between them, before plunging down the second.

Air cooled as they descended. Stairs leveled off, and the tunnel gradually lost its definition, becoming rougher and rougher-made. Other walkways veered off elsewhere, labeled with numbers and words etched in an unfamiliar alphabet. Rusty water stains streaked down the walls, and trickling sounds tickled Haru’s ears from nearby. He guessed from the direction they faced coming in, that they were delving straight into the canyon shelf. Ikuya was humming a tune under his breath, which Haru found strangely comforting as they trekked into the abyss. At least he knew where he was leading them.

“Huh.” Kisumi glanced behind, and sniffed the air. “I didn’t know the old smugglers’ burrows were still being used.”

“They aren’t.” Ikuya snickered. “Which is why we’re using them.”

“Ikuya. That bounty hunter was after you,” Haru stated. “Why?” The rush from earlier had worn off, and he was growing impatient. Ikuya had never been secretive.

The other siren tossed his firestone and caught it again, mindlessly jostling the shadows. “I can tell you in a bit, yeah? Once we get where we’re going. Almost there, I promise. ‘Kay, Haru-chan?”

Haru’s blood ran cold, and he ground to a stop.

“Ikuya doesn’t call me that.” Haru bit down on his panic to swallow it raw. “He’s never called me that. Who are you?”

The boy stilled, then shrugged his shoulders.

“Aaaww, he doesn’t? Drat. He should!”

The light winked out, plunging them into total dark. Makoto shrieked, and jerked Haru closer. In a second it burst back to life, and the other siren had vanished. Haru blinked hard to adjust as he felt Kisumi’s wings spread behind him. A boy with fine golden hair stood in Ikuya’s place, rolling the firestone in his palm. They faced down the passage into round red eyes, and a devilish grin.

 

______________________

 

Rin blew out the last candle at his desk, sighing into warm wafts of spiced citrus wax, and lingering smoke. It was finished. His speech lay written and waiting, ink dry, rolled neatly beside his cup of cold tea. Penned into that address were the first decrees in his legacy as ruler. Come his coronation day, magistrates from every pocket of the empire would bear witness. He was excited for it as he was nervous.

Here he would leave it, in Gou’s capable hands.

An order was out for the Imperial Fleet to sail at first sun in three days’ time for Tajiri. When the ships left port, so would he.

The day had left him worn as a wrung-out rag. He kneaded bleariness from his eyes with the heel of his palm, tired gaze wandering to a tapestry above his bed. The first Matsuoka Emperor and his winged dragon were blazing down its length in bright red and metallic threads, triumphant amidst a wreath of flames. Mountain devils burned screaming before them, as the legendary partners lifted evil from Samezuka. It was Rin’s favorite story as a little boy. His father had read it to him so many times, he knew all the best verses by heart. Afterward, he’d go to bed babbling to Gou with his head full of stars, knowing that someday he could—no, he would be a hero like that. Protecting Samezuka was going to be his purpose, so pure and simple to him then. The years since had taught him better. His reign was already mired in doubt and betrayal. The future was hard as it was hopeful.

Though not everything was so complicated. He stood and stretched his back, dredging up a yawn from somewhere deep. Sousuke was melted onto the sofa where he’d dozed off waiting for Rin to finish writing. A sailor’s log was open flat on his chest, and one leg and his free arm hung lazily over the side of the cushions. Rin crouched down, smiling to himself. He lifted the book away, and combed gentle fingers through dark, coarse hair. Sousuke’s guarded glower was smoothed over, his face soft in the hearth’s pulsing glow. Rin stole the occasion just to watch—like he did all those afternoons Sousuke would fall asleep cloudspotting in the grass with him when they were giddy teenagers. Irrepressible happiness welled up within, expanding in Rin’s chest and sweeping out to his fingertips. Rin wanted to wrap him up, and keep him here safe forever. But Sousuke would never have that. If Rin went diving after danger, his beloved would stay by his side.

Recalling their morning diversion in the spare room flushed Rin’s face rosy, and quickened his heartbeat. The need to touch again became a pressing ache that he gave into without a second thought. Sousuke’s lips were warm and pliant, and Rin brushed them with his own until they kissed him back. A hand glided up his spine to tangle in his hair, deepening the kiss until the two of them were a laughing, twisting heap under the covers of their bed. Teeth and tongues teased over blushing skin as they breathed each other in, intoxicated and unhurried.

Finally, Rin broke away and rolled onto his back, panting lightly. They were both exhausted. He let Sousuke get comfortable before settling into the space over his scarred shoulder. Sousuke looped a leg over, stroking Rin’s calf with a heel. Nothing, and no one had ever made him feel so present, and fiercely treasured. Rin hummed, eyes fluttering closed.

Outside this bed, his world was constricting, crumbling down in a landslide; nothing made sense.

But of this, he was absolutely certain.

 

______________________

 

It has to be you.

 

He woke up in a lonely place.

Rin had never been here, though he felt like somehow he knew where it was. A temple—cavernous and dark inside, but light enough to see his breath puff out in frosty wisps. The ground swayed beneath his feet, and a colossal creaking sound stirred the lofty walls.

He lifted a hand to call out.

“Hello?”

Rin’s voice echoed back to him. There was a distant fluttering sound, like a bird’s wings in the domed ceiling, but no answer. Wind howled through tunnels, singing a hollow ballad. This hall was ancient; he’d never felt so young, or so small. Hugging his arms in, he shuddered, and plunged into the misty unknown. His feet were bare, and the stone seemed to leach the very heat out of him with every step forward.

There were roots on the ground that twisted up into springy saplings with leaves like lapis. Rin had never seen such trees in Samezuka before. Curious, he followed them along cracks in the tile to their base. There he found a staff—alive with tiny carvings, that had planted itself upright. The sight was strange and beautiful. Though it made him sad, for a reason he couldn’t explain.

He edged around it in reverence, until his toes pricked on something sharp and grainy. Black sand. It was scattered and shallow, but a steady hiss from somewhere nearby told him it would not be shallow for much longer. Hurry. He had to be here for something; there must be a reason. Urgency piling higher, he looked around.

Nothing.

Nothing.

There.

A tenebrous silhouette darkened the eddies of grey. Tall, and proud, and magnetically familiar. Rin’s heart dropped like an iron ball. He tore across the distance.

“Sou!” He skidded to a halt. “Sousuke…?”

Red. Blood stained Sousuke’s hands, up to his elbows, soaking into his shirt. Rin couldn’t tell if it was his. He skimmed his lover’s body for wounds, but found none.

“Oh gods, no...”

Sousuke’s face was pale, lips parted, eyes open and unfocused. Rin cradled his cheeks, and searched for him, but the sparkling sea green was colorless, and dim.

“Say something, Sou. I love you, Please—

There was no response. Dread froze into claws, and raked against the inside of his ribcage.

Sand was flooding in, devouring, creeping toward them over the blue roots like a disease.

“What should I do?” Rin wondered to no one.

 

It has to be me.

 

There’s no time, there’s no time—

 

Reality breached the surface like a gulp of air after an icy dive. Rin lurched awake. He blinked up at the canopy of his bed, his muscles locked, and blood pounding. The back of his night robe was damp with sweat. He tossed around, scrambling for his bearings.

“Rin?” Sousuke mumbled into red hair. His voice was the only thing Rin really needed to hear right now. “What is it? What happened?”

Rin craned up to see Sousuke’s face. Worried, heavy ocean eyes met his, still bright in the morning gloom.

“Nothing. Just a bad dream.”

The arm around Rin’s back stirred, and rubbed clumsy circles into his shoulder.

“Tell me about it?”

“I…” The nightmare was already washing away with each pull of the present, slipping through Rin’s fingers as he grasped for its memory. Fleeting images, fear, and something about running out of time…

“…I forgot.”

Rin was intensely awake now. He sat up and checked the windows. Dense, fleecy blankets of fog had unfurled themselves over the city, swallowing the distance in an eerie haze. Something felt off. He peeled the covers away, and hissed as a sunless chill nipped at his bare legs.

Sousuke pushed up on an elbow with messy hair, and a pout. “Time to get up?”

“Not yet.” Rin dipped to kiss him once on the forehead. “Still early. I’ll be right back, Sou. Keep the bed warm for me.”

“Yes, your Highness.” Sousuke collapsed onto the pillow, back asleep in seconds. A surge of affection drew Rin down to hike the covers over him on the way out.

 

Cracks in the wood had been filed away, and Rin’s door made no sound when he closed it. The drop in temperature was dramatic once he backed into the corridor. Ghostly blue filtered in from windows to the private garden at the end of the hall. Crisp stillness was loud in his ears.

A stark figure was making its way to the doors. Rin blinked away the shock.

“Uncle?! Where are you going?”

The man halted. He clearly hadn’t expected to be seen. It was too early to fly, even for him. Slowly, he faced Rin, recognition steeling his strong features.

“Away,” he replied coolly.

“Away where?

Akira had his coat on, and his riding pants. A light pack was strapped over a shoulder. “It doesn’t matter. Go on and crawl back into bed with your whitethroat pit boy, nephew.”

Anger flared up like a lit torch, and Rin seethed. “Don’t talk about him like that.” He walked out into the center of the hallway, and faced his uncle squarely. “Tell me where you’re going.”

Voice dripping disdain, the man resigned. “I am taking Sango and her family, and we are flying to that island. When we arrive, we will melt the mountain over the witches’ heads before they are within even a hundred miles of here.”

Rin reeled.

“There are six thousand people living on Tajiri! Our people! Citizens who don’t even know the Hazukis are using their land!”

“Unlucky casualties.”

“You don’t get to decide that.” Rin raged forward. “Our duty is to protect them. We will clear them out—get everyone to safety on the fleet before we attack. You’re not going to kill them all. Not again.”

His uncle rolled his eyes. “And how long will it take you to evacuate the island? Hours? A whole day? If it was not a trap before, it will be should we grant them that chance to prepare for us. You’ll lose the fleet. You’ll lose everything.”

“We’ll find a way,” Rin growled.

Something sparked in Akira’s stony countenance. “Is that so? Or will you jeopardize the safety of twenty million for six thousand?

“It’s not that simple. Human lives can’t be boiled down to a fucking math equation!”

“You still don’t understand. When you rule over the largest empire in the world, that’s exactly what they are.” Akira retreated a few paces away. “And there is no room for mistakes.”

He rounded, and headed for the door.

“I’m the Emperor, and I forbid you to go,” Rin commanded. “One more step and this’ll be treason.”

“Nephew, if you won’t defend Samezuka, I will. Whether you permit me to, or not. So if you want to stop me, you had better kill me yourself.” He snarled, baring teeth that were longer than Rin’s, and sharper. “Or can’t you?”

The look he gave burned under Rin’s skin. There was anger, pity, poison, and a challenge. Just outside, the gigantic shadow of Sango darkened the window in dusky garnet. Akira threw the door open wide, and wind whipped into Rin’s face.

“STOP!” Desperation was clawing to the surface, but he couldn’t back down. Rin rushed forward.

Akira’s thin sword was unsheathed with a tinny scrape. Eyes trained on the steel point, Rin realized mid-step that he was in his night clothes, and completely unarmed. He sprang aside, stumbling backward into something warm. Rin had not heard Sousuke come up from behind. Before he could right himself, a strong arm maneuvered him out of harm’s way.

“Wait!” Rin curled around Sousuke’s waist.

“Rin, stay back.”

Sousuke was simmering with quiet fury, dagger in one hand, balanced on Rin’s word. All the years Rin had known him, this wrath had been there—buried like permafrost in the bones of a little boy who had lost everything. Serizawa’s story had doubtlessly torn the wound open anew.

Akira’s mouth pressed into an unforgiving line. He tapped the point of his sword to the floor, each clack of steel on black marble reminding them which blade was longer. With the difference in their reach so great, the odds were staunchly in his favor. Rin’s world was narrowing, the pressure pulling him apart. He wrestled Sousuke’s arms down. It was like bottling a hurricane.

“This is for Samezuka.” Akira held Sousuke’s stare. “As it always has been.”

At that moment, crackling heat blew in from the open doorway. Sango landed on the balcony, and lowered herself to let Akira climb up into the saddle. She dipped her head, baring long fangs smeared with gore from an early hunt. The dragon’s breath fumed inside, stinking of smoke and charred remains. Three slaps to her scales, and she hurled her massive body over the balcony. After a few beats of her wings, the pair disappeared into a heap of thick fog.

Sousuke wrenched out of Rin’s hold. “The fuck was that for!? I could’ve stopped him! I—”

“No.”

“No?”

“I’m not risking you like that.”

Sousuke’s protest dissolved before Rin’s naked fear. His face slackened, arms dropping uselessly to his sides.

Rin moved forward, cautious. “But I’m not about to let my uncle kill those people, either.”

Shafts of dawn speared through fog over the mountains, pale gold glistening across the tiles. Rin was going to fight two battles instead of one. He reached down and pried open Sousuke’s vice grip on the dagger, replacing the weapon with his own hand. “It’s not gonna happen again. I won’t let it. We won’t let it.”

Sousuke’s eyes flashed with determination, though Rin could not say for what. He wasn’t entirely sure that he wanted to know.

“Your Majesty!” Three sentries sprinted from the stairway into a halt. “We heard shouting! Is everything alright?”

“Yes.” Rin was terrified of what this meant. Even if he’d seen this fight coming, he was still facing down his own family. “Tell the armory and the storehouse keepers I want my armor packed, as well as three weeks’ provisions for both of us. Have my saddle ready on the wall as well. We’re heading out as soon as we can.”

One of the guards tipped her helmet up, confused. “Your Majesty, I thought your departure was set for—”

“Three days from now, yeah,” Rin clipped. “But circumstances have changed. The fleet proceeds as planned.”

The sentries swooped to bow their understanding before sweeping back down the stairwell. Their footsteps and the soft echo of metal spiraled into silence.

Rin shivered as a north wind slithered through the open doors and crept under his night robe. Fire in the air had burned itself cold. Sousuke was faced away from him, searching over the city where the mass of clouds glowed a haunting crimson. Rin remembered his nightmare in icy clarity.

 

___________

 

“Good morning, Princess.”

Nao set his book down. Natsuya was sprawled atop a pile of cushions in a sunny alcove, and scrambled to his feet. They hadn’t expected to see anyone this early in the palace library, much less the princess herself.

“Your Majesty. Captain Kirishima,” Gou acknowledged. “Might I have a quick moment with you, King?” She motioned to her handmaiden, and the girl settled cheerily beside Natsuya.

“Of course.”

Natsuya tensed, but straddled his unease. Winking sugar-sweet, Chigusa placed one hand on his knee and kicked up a playful conversation. The princess led Nao a few paces away, within view but out of earshot. Able to see him at least, Natsuya relaxed.

“How might I help you, Princess?” Nao smiled.

Gou did not.

“My brother is riding out this morning.” Her eyes were hardened ruby. All of her heat was sharpening, crystallizing in the shrinking space between them.

“Ah.” Nao swallowed, and battled his urge to back into the book shelf. “That is…I thought he was leaving in—”

“He’s leaving now. They are staking their lives on your word, King.” She waited, her stare severe and unwavering.

“You still don’t believe me,” Nao confirmed.

“I want to believe you. I was moved yesterday too, don’t read me wrong. But we both know that trust is a luxury not all can afford.” There was a dragon fang knife at her belt, worn openly, and sheathed in gold. “If my brother doesn’t come home, his throne falls to me.”

“I am aware.”

“Then let me make you aware of something else.”

The princess leaned in close, tilting her chin up to his ear. “If I find proof that you’ve set us up after all,” she circled around to his other side, stalking like a predator. “If Rin dies out there from some trick of yours…” Gou directed Nao’s gaze to Natsuya, who was laughing about something, golden and glowing against the window light. “…then your lover will burn.” The princess dropped her voice to a whisper. “And you will watch every agonizing second.”

Nao’s response lodged like thistle in his throat.

“So now is your last chance to tell me, King. Are you lying?

Wordless, they saw through each other’s glass walls in that moment: two young people who had grown up too fast, and borne far too much on their shoulders. The princess was scared to death for her brother.

As were they all.

“Everything I told you in that meeting was the truth.”

“Good.” Relief sighed into her voice. “I’ll let you get back to your studies, then.”

The pair returned, and Chigusa flitted back to Gou’s side, some joke still on her tongue. With a quick nod, and a last fleeting glance, the Samezuka women left.

Natsuya kicked his legs up and reclined against the cushions again, absently uncapping another scroll. “The hell was that about?”

“I love you.” Nao let it tumble from his lips.

The parchment in Natsuya’s hands skittered to the floor, and curled. His shock twisted Nao’s heart. Even if Nao thought those words every day, he could probably count on his fingers how many times he had said them aloud.

“I love you, Natsuya. I don’t tell you that enough.”

Nao walked closer, his senses a blur around one single point, and sank into his lover’s lap. Natsuya circled his arms over the king’s back, burying his hands in threaded silver. Nao clung to him, and vowed to never let go. The baton had been passed to another; it was out of their reach now. Their long struggle would soon be over, whether in victory or devastation.

A piercing, thundering cry rent the sky over Samezuka Palace, reverberating in tremors through Nao’s ribs. The Emperor’s dragon touched down on the rampart.