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A Warrior's Heart

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An array of blades fanned out on the floor of Rin’s chamber with Sousuke quietly indecisive at the center of them.  Thunder in his veins from earlier that morning had dulled to a throb, and ferocity festered in the lull. 

He curled his hand around the grip of a sword, and lifted, testing the weight.  A sea serpent snaked around the hilt of it, eyes piercing blue sapphire.  These blades had belonged to bygone Matsuoka royals, forged in dragonfire infernos; one would be hard-pressed to find better tools for killing.       

Even so.  The sharpest spears in the most capable hands did not save Whale Bay from Akira ten years ago.  Neither would they be a match for the golden-haired witches whose magic could uproot whole houses like garden weeds.  Before the might of dragons and sorcerers, Sousuke was a bug with a sewing needle.  He could not delude himself; he wouldn’t be able to protect Rin, in the larger scope of things.  But that sure as hell wasn’t going to stop him from trying.  

He rose to fit himself with a warm shirt for riding, and leather bracers.  They would not face Matsuoka Akira today.  With a start like this, and an army to muster, the chase would be hard.  Preparations and packing could be sped up, but not skipped altogether, with two battles laid out like waiting spring traps ahead of them.    

A decade ago, Sousuke had been marched up the main road of Samezuka like a prize, stripped of family and future.  Blood-red banners lined the streets that day, the sun blazing onto them like columns in the halls of hell at the Emperor’s homecoming.  Drums barked, and horns blared as if the murderer had won something.  Sousuke had loathed this place: The Matsuokas, their beasts.  Everything about it, and everyone in it.  The Dragon Emperor’s life would be his to take.  It was likely he’d die for the effort, but he was alright with that.  When he turned himself inside-out, he found there was nothing that he liked enough to grow old for, anyway.  

Then he met Rin.  

That bright, ridiculous, beautiful boy—who had crashed through Sousuke’s barriers and claimed his entire world.  Suddenly, unwillingly, Sousuke had let an enemy become the light of his life.  Rin showed him love that took no sides, and knew no cages.  That love was loud, and all-consuming.  It shouted over his anger, pushed him ahead toward happiness in a future he never thought he’d have another shot at.

But when the lights went dark and he was alone, Sousuke admitted that his rage was still there—lurking cold and unresolved.  Rin’s life was threatened, his parents’ bones lay unburied in an ashen graveyard.  

He had never been quite ready to let those demons expire.  

Slowly, he fastened his bag, and yanked the tie closed.  He didn’t have much in the way of personal belongings:  A few changes of clothes, his cleaning set, a carving knife, dagger, whetstones, and the illicit potions Kisumi had given him for his birthday.  He’d bundled the glass tubes up in felted wool for travel, stowing a few choice ones just in case.  His hand stilled as it closed over something small and round.  

The glassy violet orb his sponsor had given him the night of the banquet shone between the pinch of his fingers.  He’d all but given up on it ever working again, but Rin still held out hope, and he couldn’t bring himself to leave it.     

Footsteps clacked in the hallway—satin-light and spaced too short to be Rin’s.  Sousuke startled. 

“Gou?” 

Samezuka’s young princess leaned against Rin’s doorway, her lips set.  “Will you take a walk with me, Sousuke?  I have a favor to ask of you.”   

Gou steered them out of earshot of any window.  Sousuke let the princess stay a hand on his arm, and lead him out to the garden, down the leaf-littered stairs and stepstones.  

It was probably proper to let her speak first, but the princess remained pensive and silent, the soft rattle of beads on her dress chiming with every step.  Sousuke waited; the tension was gnawing at his patience.  He cleared his throat, and said what he already knew.    

“You’re gonna ask me not to kill your uncle.”  

Gou slid a thoughtful sideways glance at him.

“No. I’m not.  You may have to kill him; that’s really not for me to say.”

Sousuke opened his mouth with a question, but when he reached for it, the thought was vague and unformed.

“My brother’s leaving me with his coronation address,” Gou offered.  “Which I read this morning.  There are a few things in it that are changes he’s wanted to make here for a very long time.”

Sousuke prickled with interest.  “Like what?” 

“You'll have to wait for him to give it!” 

"Ugh."  Sousuke scoffed, leading her between the rows of swordplants along the waterside.  A pair of wrens chased each other through the tree branches above, punctuating the spell of quiet.  

“You never had the chance to meet our father,” Gou mused.  “Rin is a lot like him, in some ways.  Dad was a dreamer, too.  A traveling writer and a singer, when Mom fell in love with him.  Insufferable romantics, both of them.  When we were little, he used to read us these stories that he’d picked up on his trips, and Rin adored them.  I’m sure you know that much.”

 “An understatement.” 

She nudged Sousuke’s arm with her elbow.  “Sometimes Dad would reach the end of one, and the heroes would die for some misstep or injustice.  Every time, Rin would be so mad.”  She bit over a breathy chuckle, aglow with the memory.  “He couldn’t stand to see bad outcomes befall good people.  Dad would say, ‘that’s how it is, son.  That’s the story; things don’t always turn out the way they should.” 

Gou sighed, and continued.  “So of course, Rin would go make up an alternate ending, and stuff his paper full of scribbles into records that were hundreds of years old.  Just in case the regular ending made someone else sad.” 

It was impossible not to laugh.  Sousuke shook his head.  “I can see that.  Rin’s always marched to his own tune.”  He felt a swell of adoration.  “The concept of ‘That’s how it is’ is just never going to cut it for him.”

“Nope,” Gou agreed.  

They rounded a corner, startling two ducks into the stream.

The princess lifted her skirt hem lightly as they descended a flight of shallow steps.  “I think I knew early on what our roles had to be in this palace.  Rin would lead the empire, and I would help him manage it.”  She traced her gaze over the contours of her family’s stronghold, then up to Sousuke, with guarded intent.   “I understand my uncle’s choices.”

Sousuke’s spine went rigid.

“Not agree with them all,” she clarified, “but I know why he thinks the way he does.  Sometimes I wonder if I might turn out the same.  Spend long enough in our court, and you begin searching for the ugliness in people's hearts before anything else."  She skimmed a fingernail along the bridge rail as they crossed together.  “You and I are much the same in that way.”  

Sousuke seethed an agreement. 

“Rin’s different, though,” he said.

“He is.”  There was a smile in Gou’s voice, as she faced into the trees.  “My brother sees the very best in people, even when they can’t see it in themselves.  When you think there’s no light left, he finds it, and holds onto it.”  

Sousuke knew it better than most.  “It’s one of the things that I…love about him.”      

Gou squeezed his arm gently.  “But that compassion has brought him no small amount of pain.  People take advantage of it.  They lie to him, abandon him, stomp him down.”  

A flare of anger jumped up Sousuke’s throat, and tightened his jaw.  

Gou met his eyes again, calmly burning.  “That spark of hope in my brother that used to ask our dad for happy endings, that lets him keep dreaming for something better—is precious.  So I’m asking you to protect that.  I don’t know what you’ll have to do.  But please protect him, Sousuke.  That’s the favor I’m asking of you.”  

A chill wind swept over the grass to tease their hair beneath the canopy.  

Stunned, Sousuke dipped his head in a solemn promise. 

“Rin’s strong,” Gou said, her composure loosening.  “He’ll be as strong as he needs to be, for everyone.  But with you, he…” She turned to Sousuke, peering up thoughtfully, gratefully.  The rest of her sentence sank in unsaid.

 

They hit the end of the garden’s walking loop, slowing to a stop at a pair of overgrown lanterns.  They were rainwater birdbaths now, and tadpoles chased each other around the basins.       

Gou let Sousuke’s hand drop, tipping her chin up to see him straight.  “You have Rin’s whole heart in your hands.  I know that it’s heavy, and it’s fragile.  So please be careful with it.”  

“He’s everything to me,” Sousuke said.  It was a little forward, maybe.  But true. 

A smile like wisps of dawn clouds curled the corners of Gou’s mouth.  “I know.”  She pulled him down to press a kiss to his forehead.  

“Gou.”  Sousuke leveled the princess a calm look.  “What would you do right now, in my place?” 

She fell back on her heels.  Sousuke sensed the turbulence of indecision.  The question had caught her off-guard, though he knew it must have occurred to her before.  After a beat, Gou formed a response for him, and leaned in.

“Gou!  Sousuke!  There you are.”  Rin brightened the shadow of a ginkgo as he crossed the lawn.  “Thought you got lost on the way back from the armory or something.  You packed?”  

The princess retreated, and Sousuke knew he would never have her answer.

“Guess so.”  Sousuke joined him, untangling a stray leaf stuck in Rin’s fine hair.  He straightened, and stilled trustingly, until it was tossed back to the wind. 

“Saddle’s loaded, Tora’s waiting.  Sooner we get out there, the better chance we have at catching him in time.”   

Something intangible passed between the three of them.  They knew goodbyes were in order; It felt unnatural to hold them in.    

Then the princess placed one arm on each of them.  “Come back whole, you two.”  

They left Gou in the garden, a solitary slash of crimson silk in the nest of green.  Sousuke peered back a final time to see her greet a mule-sized dragon that had perched on the lawn, whispering in its ear before sending it off with a wave. 

“Ah.”  Rin giggled through his teeth.  “Gou’s calling her boy home.”   

 

They trudged their way up the last few flights of stairs to the top of the palace wall.  The steps spiraled upward, with room for only one at a time.  

Rin stopped at a break in the stairs, one flight from the exit.  Sousuke almost tripped into him.  A grated lancet window brightened the space, letting outside air in, and warming the bricks that would have been dark and cold without.  Sousuke stopped one step below, and Rin towered above him.      

“What did my sister want to talk to you about?”

“She’s just worried about you, that’s all.”   

“Hm.”  Rin’s gaze swept out the window over the land, and lifted on a current.  “She does that too much.” 

“Well.  Given where we’re going, I can see why she might be uneasy.”

“Are you sure you want to come with me?”  Rin was refusing to make eye contact.  A shadow of doubt hung about him, and maybe something heavier.  

“What are you saying?”  Sousuke pushed up to Rin’s level to share the step with him.      

“I just think that maybe you coming along’s not the best idea.  It’s gonna get crazy, and—”  Rin shifted, distracted and unsteady.  His voice was small.  “What if you get hurt?”  

“Then I get hurt.” 

Rin bristled, and Sousuke stayed him gently.  “But I will try my best not to.”  

He curled an honest smile, and Rin looked like he might either cry, or bite.

“I’m being serious, you ass.” 

“So am I.”  

Sousuke leaned down, and dissolved any further protests.  Rin squirmed in his embrace; Sousuke knew he wasn’t getting off this easy; the conversation wasn’t over, but they needed to go.  He cupped a hand over Rin’s jaw, and coaxed his mouth open, urging inside with a low groan from the back of his throat.  Rin’s breathing quickened in response.  Sousuke’s other hand traced up Rin’s spine, making him arch forward into his arms.  He gave in, and pinned Sousuke up against the rounded wall.  Their muffled heavy exhales, and the scuffle of their feet echoed loud in the stairwell.    

They parted with a sigh, and Sousuke grinning against Rin’s cheek.

 

Seijuuro saluted at the top of the rampart, directing his men at attention.  They formed a straight path to escort the Emperor to his dragon.  Ai and Momo were antsy, waiting at the end of it.  Momo was still in his nightclothes and wearing plush house slippers, as if he’d sprinted here straight from his bed to make it in time.  Both of them bowed to wish their good-lucks.  Momo had even brought two large beetles with him in a paper box which, he tried to convince them, would be helpful.  But battle was no place for the poor bugs; Rin promised to come back for them.   

Lastly, somewhat surprisingly, King Serizawa and Captain Kirishima were there to see them off, and bid them godspeed.  Most visitors were a shaky mess standing this high on the wall, but the Iwatobi emissaries seemed utterly at home.  They had abandoned all pretense, with their hands clasped together, blue robes fluttering loosely in the breeze at the top of the platform.  Serizawa’s collar was undone, as was his immaculate braid.  His elbow-length silver hair shadowed his face; he looked haunted.

Tora was ready, with a new saddle strapped to her back, and fire in her eyes.  Rin craned forward to stroke her face, and level his gaze with hers.  She shifted on her feet, grinding her claws into the rock, and releasing several sharp huffs of steam. The dragon was nervous, and her anxiety buzzed in the atmosphere.  She was not the largest dragon in Samezuka, and far from the oldest, Rin said.  A battle call was no small test of faith.  

He leaned into her.  “Let’s go, girl.”

Rin mounted the saddle, and pulled Sousuke up behind him.  He raised a hand, and the soldiers on the wall gave a shout in response, clattering the butts of their pikes on the tile.  Tora thumped her heavy tail, loosening dust and and gravel with each strike.  The air stirred as her muscles flexed, and she pushed off the platform.  

 

Samezuka Valley was every bit as vast and unknowable now as it had been when Sousuke first beheld it.  Only the edge of its expanse brushed with civilization.  The treetops whispered, leaves and fronds swaying, saturated with bird calls and insect trills.  Beyond this valley lay the uncharted wilderness from which no rider had returned.  This was no place for humans.  Yet, it would ever be their salvation.  

They glided along the rim of red mountains as Tora roared from deep inside, her voice driving like thunderclaps into the land’s ancient bones.  She tipped her jaws up, and set the sky ablaze with a signal that could be seen for miles around.

They hovered, gliding in a wide circle as they waited.  She expelled more steam.      

An answering call.  

Then another, and several more spaced from within the caves, and along the river.  

A whoosh of wings, and the gravelly scrape of claws on rock, trees shifting—Samezuka was coming deeply, ferociously alive.  One by one, other dragons peeled away from the cliffs, and lifted off from the wetlands, falling into formation behind their new alpha.   

“They’re coming!” Rin whooped.  “Look at that, girl, they heard you.”

Ten minutes later, Tora sliced through the clouds with a triumphant growl, and seventeen dragons in her wake.  

Some were smooth and sharp like she was, others rough with armored sawtooth skin, horns, and massive tails.  Several hailed from the tropics to the south: thin-limbed and brilliant in color, with patterns on their wings like dyed silks.  Some had frilled fins, or heavy jaws that could bite a building in half, others round eyes like polished gems.  A few were of Tora’s breed—sleek and quick, with opaline flecked scales that shimmered with every roll and flex of lean muscle.

Sousuke twisted around to see more dragons join her with booming, barked battle cries.  The sight of them all racing forward with such speed had him clinging a little tighter to Rin’s waist.  

Samezuka’s mammoth war horn bellowed from the city plaza.  Three times it sang, the sound sinking into the capital, shaking the stone, heating its blood molten.  The empire’s eyes were turned skyward, and Rin’s spirit soared with their voices underwing.

As a child, Rin had bounced around at his balcony, and watched his uncle depart the city to the sounding of that horn.  People seldom knew where the Emperor went, or what he did out there.  But they cheered, and they knew that he did it for them.  

Tora and her flight circled over the capital in a cyclone, their colored shadows swimming over rooftops.  Drums beat out from the Grand Temple to rattle the walls of every avenue.His city was enormous, and beautiful, and beating in tune with his own heart.  Rin would see that it stayed that way.  He steered Tora out of the air tunnel, and toward the rolling reach of ocean.   

 

 

________________________

 

 

 Water was dripping from a passage behind.  Misty drafts were blowing in from the air shafts.  And Makoto was stopped dumbstruck in the dark, before a full-blown sorcerer.

“Pretty wings!” the boy chirped.   

“Thanks.”  Kisumi’s answer was more reflex than response, as he folded them into thin air.  The kid must have mistaken them for some conjuration, and Kisumi was sharp enough not to let a good lie go to waste.

It was hard to see much of the sorcerer in the weak glow of orange from his firestone, but his silhouette was slight against the cave wall, his movements springy.  

Haru tensed under Makoto’s arm.  “Who are you, and how do you know Ikuya?”  

Mmmm can we walk and talk?  It’s gross down here, and I’m getting hungry.”  The boy sauntered ahead, pulling a handful of candy from the pocket of his vest, and letting silence settle behind him in electrified eddies.  

“Name’s Nagisa though,”  he said over his shoulder between crunches of sugar crystals.  “I may not be Ikuya, but I do live with him.  And I’m sure he’ll be over the moon to see you, Haru, once we get home.”

The siren brightened with hope.  Makoto knew that, for better or worse, they would be seeing this through. The glowing stone was being tossed between nimble fingers while Nagisa popped candies into his mouth two at a time.  Makoto watched him nearly mix them up and swallow their only light source.  This kid was a strange one.      

“Dang, I almost had you guys, though.  So used to hearing Ikuya use ‘chan, haha!”

Haru frowned.  “-chan?”

“Yeah for Haru-chan.” Nagisa supplied. “He named his cat after you.  You’re kind of his hero, y’know.  Don’t tell him I said that; he’d be mad.”   

They pushed on.  Makoto’s ankle throbbed; it was probably sprained.  Haru hiked his arm higher to support more of his weight.

“He spoils that cat like you’ve never seen,” Nagisa chattered.  His gestures fluttered all over.  “Catches him fresh fish every morning, brushes him at night…”  

One of his hands was outfitted with the strangest piece of jewelry Makoto had ever seen: a bracelet and five jeweled rings—one on each finger, unique in their color and style, and attached by a star of thin chains.  The metal jingled softly as he danced quick fingers along the wall.  Laughing, he scooped up a handful of dust, set it alight in pale violet, and tossed it behind him to float into tiny stars along the ceiling.  

It was beautiful, Makoto thought.  But never had he witnessed someone use their magic this way—like a distraction, a toy.  Sorcerers were a different sort.  Aomori lessons taught that they were arrogant and irreverent people, wasting the earth’s blood for warfare, pleasure, and money.  Makoto had no right to raise judgement here, but watching Nagisa, he was finding it difficult to ward off the whisper of old enmity.   

Nagisa motioned at them to wait, and skipped ahead a few paces to check the route again.

Makoto seized the opportunity and huddled his trio together in the shadow.  “So,”  He gulped, checking that the kid was still busy.  “Do we trust him?” 

“Probably not,” Kisumi whispered.  “Look at him, he’s too…chipper.” 

Haru made a face.  “So are you.” 

“Exactly.” 

“This wa—-y!”  The sorcerer whistled, pointing emphatically. 

All they had to do was keep close together.  Kisumi snuck them a reluctant nod, and they continued.  Another twenty minutes passed.  Then all at once, Nagisa’s singing cut to a stop.  The slam of silence sent chills spidering up Makoto’s arms, and his ears prickled.  

Dust settling, water dripping.   

A deep thumping vibrated from somewhere beneath them, followed by a swirling hiss.  Kisumi spun around at the rear, searching hard into the gloom.  The way these tunnels wound and dipped like an anthill, the sound could have come from anywhere.     

“Was the hunter alone?” Nagisa brightened the light, and shone it down the passage they’d come. “At the tavern.”  

“Yes,” Haru answered.  “Far as we know.”  

“Hmm…” 

The sound faded, and the boy relaxed, but not all the way.  “Let’s keep moving then, friends!”  He hovered the firestone, and quickened their pace.

“Wait!” Makoto panicked. “Who else could that have been?  What was it?”

“Doesn’t matter!” Nagisa sang. “I’ve got enough charms rigged around the house that we’ll be nice and safe when we get up there.”  

Makoto spared a moment to register Haru fitted against his right side, Kisumi behind him, and a relic beyond measure of value stowed in his pack.  Their options at the moment were few.

The shortest way out of the smugglers’ labyrinth was an old lift with a busted pulley that shot seven hundred meters up a narrow shaft into sooty shadow.  All four of them crowded into it, shut the rusted iron door, and the sorcerer sent them rocketing to the top.  Solid ground was long out of sight beneath them now, and Makoto’s gut did a somersault every time the mechanism ground over a notch in the chute.  Haru shifted uncomfortably under his arm, tucking himself closer.  Makoto wondered if Kisumi even had room enough to unfold his wings in here, should they need him to.  But Nagisa was unfazed.  He cleared his throat, and kept his arms flexed, concentration converged on his task as he floated the lift up.     

They shuddered to a stop, and hurried to disembark.  Makoto’s ankle smarted sharply with the added pressure of haste, and he could feel it swelling in his shoe.  Haru had been taking part of his bulk this entire time, and he knew it was no easy task.  The siren’s brow was beaded with sweat, and his breaths were short as he tried to level them off. 

Nagisa walked his fingers over the surface of the surrounding wall of the landing platform, chains jingling with each flick of his hand.  He found what he was looking for.  Easy as carving a stick of butter, he pushed the wall outward.  Street sounds seeped inside.  “Follow me!  Giants watch your heads!”  

Makoto assumed ‘giants’ referred to him and Kisumi, and they were careful to duck.  Light blared into their eyes as they emerged onto a lofted walkway.  Below them, a quiet city avenue pulsed with pedestrians.  Small shops and apartments were cropped up on either side, curving out of sight around the corner.  The place was lit by dim purple lanterns, and cutaway openings to the sky outside.  Noise vibrated with an intimate echo, contained and safe in this carved-out haven.  Crisp evening air whisked in through crystal sky vents, and Makoto breathed deep, chest light with relief to be out of the tunnels.

“What is this place?” he wondered aloud.  

“Uuh, the street?” Nagisa popped the firestone back into its slot on his ring.  He swerved ahead, and beckoned them forward.   “You guys are easy to impress, I like that.”  

In full light, Nagisa looked much less threatening: shorter than most, but athletic, dressed in loud pinks and violets.  He exuded an unapologetic carelessness that Makoto sometimes feared Ran might catch in her teenage years.  

The scent of something hot and garlic-spiced wafted from one of the apartments below, reminding Makoto that they hadn’t eaten a proper meal since that morning.  He felt like a withered candle wick, but they weren’t out of the water yet.  He could keep going as long as he needed to.   

“Here we are!  Not so bad a walk, right?”  At last, Nagisa halted below a door that was fixed into the stone, roughly two meters above their heads.  It opened into nothing, like some kind of dumb prank.  

Makoto scanned their area for a ladder before realizing what he ought to have learned by now.  The tile beneath their feet loosened with a turn of the sorcerer’s wrist.  Kisumi gathered Makoto and Haru closer to the center as they were lifted straight upward to hover neatly at the doorstep.  

“Watch your feet.”  Nagisa twisted two fingers to click the locks open, and knee’d the door ajar.  “And shoes on the shelf, please.  Rei will kill me if he finds gunk on his imported rug.”

Still a little disoriented, they filed in after the kid.  Makoto noted the rows of footwear along the entrance—all different sizes—some were boots worn and mud-caked, others spotless slippers trimmed with lace.  How many people…?  

The house was cavernous, wrought in seamless sandstone striations, as if by the flow of water.  Chunks of crystal punctuated the walls, and they brightened like glass torches with a snap of the sorcerer’s fingers.  A wide, oval-shaped living room opened before them, with a plush rug, hearth, and a long sofa.  Cushions were strewn about—glittering with beads, metallic threads, and colorful stamped silks—mismatched, collected, but all beautiful.  The place was clean, but lived-in, and shared.  It was beyond doubt, a home, and the feeling put Makoto a little more at ease. 

“Rei-chan’s in the kitchen, probably.  I’ll introduce you~”  Nagisa whispered, and winked.  He pinched two fingers to still a hanging chime over the back door, then led them into the house.    

Makoto pushed aside a curtain that hung over the doorway, mindful not to catch his staff in it as he ducked.  It was rude to snoop about a stranger’s living space, but he couldn’t help himself.  Peering around, he noticed a stairway that sloped down to a quaint storefront.  Shelves reached floor to ceiling, stocked with boxes all ordered by color, cases, and books.  Rows of glass jars lined the shelves nearest the counter.  The whole place smelled pleasantly of mellow herbs and vanilla.  In passing, he caught the skirt of the outdoor sign:  “Butterfly’s Trove,” hanging over the street.    

Something soft brushed insistently at his shins, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. A robust black cat with a healthy-looking coat, and bright lime-green eyes rubbed his face affectionately against Makoto’s leg.  A rush of adoration almost made him coo out loud; the cat was so cute.  

‘That’s Haru-chan,’ Nagisa mouthed.  He hushed them with his finger to a grin as they passed through a hallway, and into an open kitchen area.  Echoes of manic laughter were coming from somewhere inside.   

On quick tiptoes, Nagisa made his way to the open pantry door.  “Rei-chan, I’m home!!”

“NYAAAAUUGH!”  A distressed yell blared from inside the larder, followed by a clang, thump, and the drawling hum of round objects rolling across the floor.  “Nagisa-kun you agreed to ring the bell when you come in the rear way!” 

The boy reached an arm back to ring the hanging chime in the other room.

“It’s too late!!”

“But Rei-chan, ringing it ruins the fun surprise.” 

“THAT IS EXACTLY THE POINT.” 

An exasperated man stumbled out of the pantry and dusted the starch from his shirt.  He was flustered and disheveled, with a half-empty basket of apples under one arm.  Two tiny windows shielded his eyes, the wire frame skewed oddly left.  The squared glass magnified his surprise, as he made a sort of choked squeal at the guests in his kitchen.  

“Hello!” Makoto waved apologetically.  “So sorry for the intrusion.  I take it you’re…Rei?”  

The man looked the group up and down several times over, then startled awkwardly to life again, pushing the crooked lenses straight.  “Yes!  Yes, I am!  Ryuugazaki Rei.  A pleasure to meet you.”

Kisumi sparked with recognition at that name, but he kept the reason to himself.  

Makoto could practically hear Rei’s mind filing away notes as they shook hands.  “You must be friends of Nagisa’s, then?” 

“Yes!” the kid piped.  “Well, Ikuya’s, but he can share.”

Rei was a gracious host, and more than a little impressed by Makoto’s station.  Guardians seldom travelled this far afield, and he was the first one Rei had ever seen.  If Ikuya lived here, Haru figured it would be fine to show his hands when Rei shook them, and the man marveled at the bright blue hues, where Ikuya’s were green.  

Rei was a vivid splash of color against the sandy chamber walls—robed in rich, vibrant purples and powder blues.  His back was rigid as a soldier’s, though nothing else about him called to a military background.  Twilight blue hair stuck out in wisps, and inky stains smudged his fingertips and the outside of his hands.  He was an apothecary by profession: a master at the mixing of soothing salves, sleeping drafts, incense, and shelves of other materials. His goal was, in his words, “to make life a more beautiful experience.”  Makoto thought he could get behind that, even if Rei himself was rather frantic for a man who bottled calm for a living.

“I apologize for any trouble Nagisa might have caused you.  I know he’s quite…lively.”

Nagisa didn’t argue.  He searched the kitchen and the living room, swinging around corners and banging through open doors. “Where’d they go?  Still in the shop?” 

“I believe so,” Rei guessed. “I’ve only just closed the storefront.”  He faced his guests.  “Your friend Ikuya and Asahi are out building, but they should be home before dark, in a couple of hours.  Please, make yourselves at home.  I’ll fetch you some salve and a roll of linen, and we’ll see what we can do about that ankle.”  The apothecary set to it, rummaging through his shelf, ticking by alphabetized jars and boxes, snatching things into a bundle.  

Makoto leaned toward Kisumi.  “How long should we stay?” 

The spirit shrugged.  “We don’t have a ride at the moment, and it’s probably smart to lay low for a little while at least.  They actually seem…alright.”  

“Ah!” Rei’s sharp glance whipped over them, processing every detail.  He smiled, and “Why don’t we acquaint ourselves later over dinner?  I’m sure our guests could use some privacy for the time being, and a chance to wash up.  Nagisa, show them to the bedrooms, if you would.”

“My pleasure~” The sorcerer skipped ahead. 

A row of several chambers opened up along the hallway, and Nagisa let them choose.  The building had been an inn before Rei bought it, though most of the extra space was used for brewing, fermenting, and storage of his wares.   

 

Haru shuffled them gratefully into one of the spare guest rooms.  Rei brought in a bowl of water and a few labeled jars.  There was a large bed against the far end, two chairs, and —praise the gods—a bathtub.  Nagisa didn’t even ask if they wanted it filled.  He unstopped a fixture in the wall, let the thing run until water filled the deep basin, and pushed it back into place.

Makoto kindly turned down additional help with, “This is more than enough, thank you.” 

Kisumi was shown upstairs to a lofted bedroom above the study.    

Quiet was a sweet relief when their door was shut, leaving them alone at last.  Makoto sank into the chair next to their dresser.  With the mayhem long settled, he bowed over himself and let his tension bleed out.  He was practically folded in half, head held up between his knees like he was going to be sick.  Haru knew that he wasn’t a fighter.  Even as his Guardian training required some base proficiency in combat, he avoided violent confrontations with others as often as was possible.  The stress had him a wilted wreck in the seclusion of their room.   

“Do you think I hurt that man badly?  When I threw him in the dumpster?” 

Haru dropped to his knees.  “I hope so.”

Makoto chewed on the moment, but let it go.

Lightly as Haru moved, a little discomfort was inevitable when the sock came off, and Makoto winced as he freed the swollen ankle.  Haru cradled the foot tenderly, blowing cool air on the hot skin.  A dark bruise was purpling over the knob of bone. It looked incredibly painful, though Haru hadn’t heard so much as a whine about it.   

“Stupid.”  Blue eyes narrowed.  “Be more careful.  Don’t just go jumping out windows.  What if the glass had cut you? ”  

Makoto sighed a laugh. “Sorry…I got a little caught up.”  His expression was fond, but hard around the edges; unforgiving.  That hunter was going to kill you, and I would never let that happen.’ 

Haru wrung one of the washcloths damp in the bowl, and set to work.  The water cooled his hands, as scales flushed smoothly up his arms.  He pressed the wet cloth to Makoto’s foot, smirking as the man released a grateful exhale.    

“Heavens that feels amazing,” he murmured.  “Thank you, Haru-chan.”     

They’d brought a bundle of herbs from home that Haru had tucked in his belt pouch.  He unclasped the flap to make something for the pain.  Not to mention the jars Rei had left on the table.  The labels were penned in an impeccably neat hand, but Haru didn’t recognize any of the names.  He supposed he could just smell each one for components.    

“Wait—”  Makoto pushed up on his elbow.  “Let me have a go at it first?”  

Haru wavered, uncertain.  “You’ve never healed anything before; what if it gets worse?”

“Still better that I test on myself, right?”  

Haru scowled his opposition, but Makoto ignored it and reached around him for his staff, excited.  He tapped its base to the ground, and began to whisper a hymn under his breath.  It was too soft for Haru to pick out any of the words, but the melody was cycling, soothing.  He lost himself gazing entranced at Makoto’s mouth as he tried to follow along.  A light from below drew his eyes back.  

Vines of energy sprouted up to wrap lovingly around Makoto’s ankle.  Smaller roots unfurled like fern fronds, encasing his foot in pulsing light.  When they retreated, there was no trace of the injury. 

“I did it!” Makoto rolled his ankle in happy circles.

Amazement and relief washed over Haru.  “On your first try.”  

Spurred by impulse, Makoto swooped down to steal the smile from Haru’s lips.  He stayed there, leaned in close enough that Haru could see the tiny flecks of mint green peridot glinting in his irises, and feel his elated bursts of breath.    

“Those are new, Haru.”  

“Huh?”  The siren snapped back into himself. 

“Your scales.  You have a few new ones around your eyes.  I don’t remember those being there.”  

Haru froze.

“Riiiight here.”  Gentle as a midsummer breeze, Makoto brushed his thumb over a patch around Haru’s cheekbone.       

“Ah—”  Haru held his breath under the touch, his senses amplified to focus on the spot.  The skin was slippery there, and more sensitive.  Makoto was right.  “There are.”   

“Part of getting older, maybe.  They’re very pretty.”  He tipped in to kiss them for the first time—left side, then the right.     

The playful nuzzling tickled, and Haru twitched.  “You need a bath.  You smell like that bar.”  

Ouch—” Makoto just deepened his teasing, and Haru huffed. 

“Getting your stink all over me.” 

“I think we’re both gross, Haru.” 

Haru glanced back at the bathtub in the corner, and wondered if it was big enough to fit the two of them together.  

They would make it work. 

 

An hour later, Haru remained soaking in the tub, utterly disinclined to get out.  Makoto dried himself off, taking his time with a towel around his waist, and another on his head.  His skin had a glow to it that Haru loved—warm, and earth-toned.  The plane of his back rippled with strength as he toweled off his hair.  Basking in the sight from behind, Haru kept his eyes above water.  He had half a mind to grab his lover, and drag him back into the bath.     

Rapping at the door broke their spell of comfort.

“Pardon me,”  Rei’s polite voice came in muffled from the other side.  “I presume you’re both tired, and I hate to bother, but Asahi and Ikuya are home for the evening!  We shall all be in the kitchen preparing supper if you would care to join us.”     

“It’s no bother, Rei,” Makoto assured.  “We’ll be out shortly, thank you.” 

Rei’s steps faded down the hall.  

Haru was actually a bit nervous.  He sank beneath the surface.  Ikuya’s maturity after their decade apart had come as something of a shock.  In the four years since their return to the human world, they had done little more than exchange letters, at the beginning.  But after the first year or so, Ikuya stopped writing, and Haru wasn’t one to push him.  Now the boy was living with sorcerers, on the run from assassins.  He dreaded what kind of danger enveloped Ikuya’s life now.  

They had drifted apart when he wasn’t looking.  

“Ready?”  Makoto’s voice came in muted and watery from above the surface.  Haru could make out his hand open, waiting.  

He exhaled a tired stream of bubbles, and took it. 

 

They met Kisumi in the corridor.  His peony hair was still damp, and he smelled of flowers and warm bath steam.  He noticed Makoto’s healing work instantly, and gushed his congratulations.  Grating as Kisumi’s personality could get sometimes, Haru was glad for his unfailing positivity; the spirit lavished Makoto with the sort of loud, open-armed praise that he deserved to hear. 

Regrouped, they trailed Rei back to the kitchen.  The apothecary’s mess was tidied, and an array of ingredients spread unpacked beside a simmering pot of broth.  Haru’s stomach growled with renewed impatience. 

“Yo!”  Nagisa hailed them from a stool near the other door that was clearly a spot he occupied regularly.  “This is my shame chair.”  He wiped off an invisible tear.  “I’m not allowed to help with dinner anymore.  They just leave me out; isn’t that cruel?” 

Rei grumbled a sigh.  “You know what you did, Nagisa—” 

“Hey loser, you’re back early.” 

Haru’s ears perked up at the familiar voice.  Footsteps, followed by the lanky, but composed shape of Ikuya.   

“Did you find the hunter?”   

He was clearly older now, Haru noticed—hair grown out longer, and his features more severe. Dark lashes heightened the sharpness of his eyes as he narrowed them warily in Nagisa’s direction.    

“Don’t I always?” the sorcerer crowed.  “I had help this time, though.” 

“What do you mean ‘help?”  Ikuya puzzled.  “From who?”  

Makoto was stamping down laughter, and Haru couldn’t stand it any longer.  He curled his finger, and flicked the back of Ikuya’s head with just enough force to make the boy jolt.

“Haru?!  What the—” Shock was schooled into shallow disapproval.  “Oh fuck off, Nagisa.  Nice try.”  

Nagisa doubled over, giggling.  The other siren craned in to observe Haru like he was some kind of temple artifact.  “Looks perfect, though.  Exactly as I remember; like it’s…really him.” 

“It is me, Ikuya,” Haru pressed in.  “And what’s with that dirty mouth?”   

Emotions on Ikuya’s pale face shifted like chameleon skin. He gasped, and flung eager arms around his shoreborn brother.  Haru let himself smile hard into the boy’s shirt while Ikuya grabbed fistfuls of his cloak, rocking them by the shoulders, overjoyed.    

Ikuya’s smile was bright when he pulled away at last.  “What are you doing here?” 

“Long story.”  Haru said wearily.  “It’s good to see you.”   

Relaxing his hold, Ikuya glanced over Haru’s shoulder.  “Is this—” He ignited with approval.  “Built like a tree, handsome, green eyes.  Is this your Makoto?”  

Heat seared up Haru’s cheeks, and he angled away before the man in question could notice.  “Yes, this is him.” 

“Aah, hi…” Makoto reached down to clasp hands, caught a bit off his guard.  “It’s great to meet you, Ikuya.  For real this time, I think.”  

A dull thump followed by gnashed curses came from behind the curtain.  Having spent fourteen years with the Tachibanas, Haru knew the sound of someone hitting their head on a doorframe with certainty.  Groaning, a man nearly Makoto’s size stormed into the kitchen, rubbing a tender spot on his forehead.  Haru took in his wild red-orange hair, scar stitched across one eyebrow, sunburst smile, and knew exactly who this was.

Ikuya had told Haru everything about his best friend in the capital.  Asahi Shiina was the son of a famed master shipbuilder and an estranged mistress.  The boy had been raised in a dark district brothel with his mother until Lord Shiina elected to fold him into the household in order to pass on the family trade.  At seven years old, it was a tough transition for Asahi.  But around the same time, the Shiinas took in Ikuya as a favor to the king.  The kids had become easy friends—both of them outcasts at home, largely left to their own mischief. 

Asahi introduced himself enthusiastically (clasping Kisumi’s hand a few seconds too long), and the room was brighter for his presence.   

 

Preparing meals was a team undertaking.  Ikuya, Rei, and Asahi flitted like hummingbirds around the kitchen.  Haru knew that Ikuya had his own life in the big city just as Haru had his in the forest, but observing it in person stung him with a cold wrench of outsiderness.    

Nagisa rocked backward in his chair, watching it all with a toothy grin.  “Gee Rei-chan I wish I could help you guys out; if only I wasn’t banned from the kitchen.” 

“It’s a ban you deserve,” Ikuya jibed.  He pushed a knife and some purple carrots in Haru’s direction on the counter: an invitation to join them.  Makoto slid Haru an encouraging look, and nudged him gently.  

“Go on, Haru-chan.  You know him.”

Cautiously, bottling his reservations, Haru stepped up to the counter beside the other siren, and accepted.  Ikuya relaxed in an instant, a faint smile teasing at the corners of his mouth as he cut into a pear.  Haru did know him.   

Makoto was leaned up against the wall, radiant with pride.  That soft-eyed look was going to make Haru blush in the middle of the kitchen if he wasn’t careful.  He scoffed, a little annoyed at that, and snapped back to his task.   

“Makoto is also banned from cooking.” 

“Haru!”   

Haru made quick work of the carrots.  “One night, I told him to fetch shiso leaves for our grilled fish.  He brought back an entire stalk from the garden, and instead of soaking it for later, he dropped it on the griddle whole.”

Aaahhh there’s no need to tell this story—!”

“The branch caught fire and almost burned our house down.”  

Ikuya had to set his knife down to laugh, and Nagisa leaned his head into Makoto, cooing, "it’s ok, Mako-chan, the exiled can stick together.  If I sit on your lap, we can share the shame chair.   

This whole room felt right somehow, Haru thought.

He couldn’t place why.

 

The dining chamber opened up to a glorious view of the canyon that wrapped around the curved walls.  A snap of Nagisa’s fingers flicked a perimeter of quartz light fixtures alive, and the place glowed in honey prisms.  At the heart of the room was a circular table with a plate in the center that spun each dish around to share.  Pheasant stew filled the pot in the middle, flanked by bread, onion cream, mixed fruit, and sweet potato.  

“Make sure to eat enough.”  Makoto spooned a larger serving of soup into Haru’s bowl.

Haru rolled his eyes, but ate it all the same.  It was good, he’d admit, even if there was no fish present. 

Makoto sat to Haru’s right, Ikuya his left, then Rei, Nagisa, and Asahi, who was already chatting animatedly with Kisumi. 

They ate.  Conversation lifted, then lulled.

The pot cooled.  

And Haru’s question was eating him alive.  Finally, he took a long drought of water, and rounded on his shoreborn brother.  

“Why’s there a bounty out on your head?”  

Ikuya’s expression tightened, and he fell silent.  But he seemed to be expecting this; all of them were.  

He inhaled, exhaled.  “Haru, I’m sorry that happened.  I’ve been…well, things have changed since we saw each other last.”

Obviously.  “Who was he?”   

Ikuya’s eyes darted to the window, where Haru-chan was watching buzzards circle the rooftops a quarter mile down.  “He was…a mercenary.  Recruited by a sorceress who...would rather I disappeared.”  

Haru’s mouth pressed into a line.  The whole table had gone mute. “Explain.”   

“I know something about her that I shouldn’t, and she wants the information to die with Asahi and I.  Before we can bring it to the king.”

Kisumi set his cup down soundlessly.  “What sort of information?”   

Ikuya mulled over his options for a beat.  “What do you know of the Hazuki sisters?”

“Some,” Haru said.  “There are three of them.  They’re mad, and they’re up to something awful.”  

Across the table, Nagisa laughed, a twinge stiffly.  “That about covers it!” 

“Right, well…” Ikuya started. “Their ‘something awful’ is a violent overthrow of humanity that almost no one believes will even happen, or is willing to do shit about.”     

“….Oh. Okay,” was all Haru managed.

“My brother Natsuya, and Nao—er, the king, had been fighting hard against them, but they weren’t gaining any ground.  They couldn’t.  There were so many moles at court, and in the military.  Anyone able to oppose the sisters was too afraid of them to make a move.”  

Ikuya pushed the remaining food on his plate into a neat pile.  He flickered with embarrassment, and Haru glimpsed the shy little shoreborn boy he spent his first years with.  “After I came home from the den, I…I was kind of…inspired by you, Haru.  The way you stood up for yourself in the face of the enemy.  I thought it was time I did something brave, too.”  

Makoto brushed his heel playfully against Haru’s ankle under the table.

Ikuya drew his height up and cleared his throat.  “So Asahi and I took his first ship out to find the Hazukis ourselves.  Nao had narrowed their locations down beforehand.  He’d worked out the area they’d have to be hiding in; it was just a matter of getting close enough to be exact.”  

Asahi put his food down for the first time that night.  “And we did find them!  On this tiny island in north Samezuka called ‘Tajiri’, inside an old volcano with the warship they jacked.  We booked it home, and warned Nat and Nao.  So they know where to attack when the time’s ripe.”

Makoto was incredulous.  “Just the two of you?! That’s extremely dangerous!” 

Asahi shrugged, but couldn’t fake being sorry.

“One expedition yielded that valuable bit of help so,” Ikuya gulped, “naturally, we went back for more.”  

Ikuya and Asahi laid out the rest of their story—how Asahi had stayed the ship safely a kilometer out, and Ikuya plunged in to swim the rest of the distance.  Underwater tunnels bled directly into the mountain, and the siren surfaced inside unseen.  Spying from the periphery, he saw things that made his gut roil just to remember.

When he’d gathered enough, and tried to leave, he found his exit blocked off; he was stuck inside the volcano.  Days edged by, and there was no way to get out undiscovered.  

“I told Asahi to leave me and go home if I wasn’t back by second sundown,” Ikuya huffed.  “But uh.”

“No way in hell would I do that,” the shipwright blurted.  “I docked, walked up there, and—”

He’d set off a barrage of flare fireworks at the front gate.  

The madness he stirred up was barely enough, and Ikuya slipped out from under it.  They raced onto the ship, with two of three sorceress sisters on their heels.  

“We weren’t gonna make it home,” Asahi shook his head slowly, “And then this guy shows out of nowhere, sneaks us out right under the Hazukis’ noses, and our asses were saved.  We got pretty damn lucky.”              

The sorcerer pressed one hand to his heart.  “I’m blushing.”   

“He was on his way out, and recognized us from a party at my dad’s place ages ago.  Without him, we probably wouldn’t be here.” Asahi was brimming with energy now.  “So, we trudged into the city, in hiding, with nowhere to go, and no way to get our message to Nao.”  

“We were stuck in the street, basically,” Ikuya said. “Then by some miracle, Nagisa found Rei wandering around near the docks acting like he’d never seen dirty water before, on the market for an excursion ship.  Asahi offered to build it for him, and Rei was kind enough to let us stay here while we carry out the contract.”  

“It’s no trouble,” Rei tidied the collar of his shirt, and smoothed the buttons.  “The building is a small inn, after all.  There was ample room.” 

Nagisa scoffed.  “You tell it like it wasn’t a romantic encounter for the ages.” 

“You were not subtle with your advances.” Rei remembered with a pinched frown. “But yes, I was happy to take them in, given the situation.  They’ve built me a fine ship as promised, and…are quite…an amazing group of people, I’ve come to realize.”    

“So there you have it,” Ikuya finished, throwing an arm out for dramatic presentation. “The origin of our fresh band of undercover weirdos that Asahi’s lovingly named, ‘The Rockhoppers.”  

Nagisa clapped. 

Haru let that soak.  Like downing a strong gulp of cider, he let the events sink in, wash over.  It sounded like a complete story, but he knew that it wasn’t.        

Kisumi seemed to share the same gnawing curiosity, and was less willing to put up with it.  “That’s great and everything, but…What was it that you found?” He crowded over the table, unworldly rings of light in his eyes that Haru had seen only the night they met him.  “Why are the Hazuki sisters hiring magic-wielders to murder you two?” 

Asahi and Ikuya gave the request a spell of consideration.  Makoto sat drawn and silent with captive energy that Haru could feel, almost hear.

Nagisa’s gaze hardened, as he resolved to hand the truth over cold.  “The Hazuki sisters are building a living horde.”  

The spirit was shocked into silence, and slumped back down.

Haru wondered at that that.  He didn’t know much about sorcerers, or magic’s use outside the forest.  Makoto treated magic like something sacred to be borrowed and returned.  Here, it was difficult to say.  He looked to his lover for a reaction, but Makoto appeared to be just as lost.  Nagisa picked up on their bemusement.  

“Sorcerers use magic to change stuff.”  The boy spidered his fingers, letting his jewelry flash dangerously.  “We move, transform, enhance, deceive.  There are loads of ways to use it, but no matter what, we can’t create anything real.”  He swiped his napkin off the table, folded it once, and opened his hand.  It fluttered gently over to land on Rei’s finger with dainty wings.  Rei let it perch there fondly.   

“I can make the cloth fly,” Nagisa illustrated, “but without me, it’s just a piece of cotton.”  He dropped his hand, and the napkin slid down to the table, shapeless. “It moves because I move it.”

Makoto cut a solemn silhouette as he observed the imitation of life before him.  These pieces were forming a picture he did not like.  

Nagisa noted Rei’s disappointment, and reanimated his linen butterfly. “The sisters wanted life to move without their control, yet still definably beneath it.  They wanted an army with which to conquer, made up of…things that don’t exist anymore.  That shouldn’t exist.”  

“Only the gods can do that,” Makoto reeled, openly appalled.    

“Pure, true creation is impossible, sure.”  Nagisa swallowed hard.  “But they don’t make life, exactly.”  The atmosphere constricted and thickened around them as the sorcerer fixed his gaze on Haru and Ikuya.  “They use what’s been taken.”

A craggy beach fought its way up from the depth of Haru’s memories.  Corpses of Moyajima sirens lay strewn about the rocks, their leader humbled in surrender to those three young girls with golden hair and fine dresses.  Five-year-old Ikuya’s hand was shaking and clammy in Haru’s own.  Kurou had been afraid, he thought, as the boys were bargained away like some sort of princes. 

That truce had been a lie—all of it, down to its flimsy bones.  Demons did not stay their hunger for peace.  There had never been a treaty.

Only an alliance.    

“Of course.”  Kisumi seethed.  He was blanched, crumbling; Haru had never seen him so tormented.  “The sirens have been helping them all this time; of course.  That explains the ogre on the wall, the attack on Aomori-”  

Ikuya winced. “Once a siren drains the life from someone, that essence can be given over somehow and manipulated like anything else.  The witches can put it somewhere, use it to fill a new vessel that they make out of any material they please.”

Rei pursed his mouth primly, as though remembering something foul.  “They’re very capable of producing the ‘vessels,’ if you will.  Hideous things…”  He cupped the butterfly protectively.  

“They’ve never been artists.” Nagisa grimaced.  “It’s all uncomplicated in theory, less so in execution.” 

“In short, Kurou has been helping the Hazukis acquire power for fourteen years,” Ikuya explained, “so that they can use that power, and that army to wipe out the greatest enemy that evil still has.  They both win, and everyone dies.”

“Honestly, if we’re lucky, we die,” Asahi added.   

“But!”  Nagisa snapped his fingers for impact.  “They would need tons of magic to build up an army strong enough to wipe out the dragons, and they don’t have it.  I can’t see them finding the means anywhere, so we’ve got a bit of time to figure something out.  A few years, at least.”  

Haru met Makoto in a look of shared horror.

“No we don’t,” Kisumi said softly.  “We don’t have any time at all.” 

Makoto reached into his bag. Preciously, painfully, he produced the dead heart of Iwatobi, and placed it on the table. 

 

Haru leaned up against the window, absorbing the view of lower Negura at night.  From here at the top, he could see the canyons plateau into rolling sand dunes that smoothed out into faint stars on the horizon.  Greenery crawled up the precipices, and thrived in the cradle of the river, as if the desert had cracked open and bled life.  Tiny lights clustered at the bottom of the canyon, settled there like glowing piles of sand up against the cliff face.  Each light was a window—a house, workshop, or a tavern like the Harpy’s Hollow.  Inside those buildings were people at their desks or kitchens, with their families, enshrined in their own worries—all of them unaware of the darkness that gathered.  

The outcome of it all was looking bleaker, and more hopeless by the second.

With the Tear displaced, the sisters would be able to draw out every drop of the land’s magic, and use it to build their horde of ogres, giants, and gods only know what else.  Together with Kurou and the sirens, they could rain immeasurable suffering. 

“We have to get to Samezuka as soon as possible,” Makoto said.  “We’ll tell the royal family what you’ve found, and warn them to guard their stone with everything they can spare.  If we’re fast enough, we can stop all of this from happening.”  He rounded on the Rockhoppers.  “Where can I find a fast ship?” 

Asahi rubbed his chin.  “I mean, the fastest ships are small ones.  But…taking a small ship over that route is dangerous as hell.  Unagi will eat you for a midday snack.  And I don’t know of any cargo galleons leaving to Sano…” 

“Take her.”  Rei said.   

All eyes converged on the nervous apothecary. 

“Take Catherine.  She’s faster than anything on the water.”    

Asahi gaped.  “I mean…she would get there quick alright.  But…she’s your dream boat.  You wanted to see the world in her someday.”

“I know.”  There was no doubt in Rei’s decision. “And I will see the world.  With all of you, as we save it.”  

The group processed what that implied. 

“Thank you.”  Makoto said, clear and captivating.  No part of the sacrifice was lost on him.  “Truly, thank you.”  Light emanating from the walls washed him in gold, and Haru thought in that moment, that he fell a little more in love. 

“We can leave as soon as tomorrow,” Asahi suggested.  “Sooner the better, right?  When we get there, we’ll find a way to tell everyone what we’ve found.  Tajiri is crawling with sirens, and a whole lot of other freaky shit.  If Nat and Nao are out there rubbing elbows with the Matsuokas, and Nao tells them to leave now, he'll be sending them straight to hell.”   

The table clattered.  Rei’s bell chimed over the back door.  

The moment petrified.

Haru skidded out of his seat just as a solid mass collided with the house—an impact that made the whole structure shudder.  Lights flickered, and went out.

He didn’t remember getting there, but Haru was shuffled up against wall farthest from the window, breath trapped, and Makoto’s arm across his chest.  Nothing moved, but something was there; he could feel it.  They were mice in a cage.

“I thought you said there were charms on your house,” Makoto hissed. 

“There are.”  Nagisa materialized next to the table, a stark shape against the hazy deep blue.  “And they’re working.”   

“Well then what is that?!” 

As though in response, a tenebrous shape oozed over the window glass.  Its full form was hidden, but heard—a noise like the rattling tails of a thousand snakes. The breath of the whole room hitched as it slid down, sludge-like and languorous.  Rei choked on a cry.  Makoto reached under the table to curl a fist around his staff.

Then the thing detached from the wall, and slammed onto the cliff outside Asahi’s room.    

“Ah, it’s one of these,” Nagisa mused, his back to the rest of them.  “Nice timing though; I gotta give it that.  We were just talking about ‘em!”   

“That’s what we heard in the tunnels.”  Haru shot. 

“Wouldn’t bet against it.”  Nagisa wiped his mouth with someone else’s napkin, drained his glass of water, and whisked toward the back door.  “Stay inside, and try to keep away from the windows.  I’ll see you all in the morning!”  

He swept out of the chamber.

“Ikuya,” Haru shattered the silence hotly.  “Who is that guy?  You didn’t just find him, did you.”

The glow of Ikuya’s eyes answered Haru in the dark—like blue fire burning behind red glass.

“…No.”   

 

Makoto chased Nagisa to the doorstep, where the boy jammed his shoes on without untying them. “Wait!  Nagisa, wait.  I’m coming with you.”

The ceiling creaked, and dust trickled down to pool on the carpet. 

“Mmm offer’s appreciated, but that’s a bad idea.”  Nagisa stopped him with a finger.   “No worries, okay, Mako-chan?  Someone’s gotta do my share of dish duty before we leave tomorrow.”  

Makoto’s big brother instincts flared.  “You are not going out there alone.  You’re just a kid.” 

Nagisa sparkled with amusement.  “Just a kid?  How old do you think I am?”  

“I…dunno, fifteen, sixteen?”  He couldn’t be much older than Ran and Ren 

“Try twenty.” Laughter trilled at Makoto’s expense.

“You’re twenty?!” 

Humming, Nagisa emptied the dust from his pouch, and flung it high.  It settled and formed around his face, melting like wax over the rest of him.  When he checked his work in the wall mirror, he wore the skin of a stranger.

Makoto gaped, then remembered himself.  “I’m still going to help.”

The sorcerer fixed Makoto with a piercing stare.  His irises still flashed a dangerous fuchsia under the blocky brow of his disguise.  Makoto felt a full-body wave of something grip him by the blood in his veins—his own magic responding to the measured release of another’s.  It wasn’t pain, nor a threat.  Nagisa pressed a hand to his arm.  

“Thanks.  Really.  But I’ve got it, Mako-chan.”  

The door clicked shut, and Nagisa vanished.

Makoto wrestled with his nature in the unlit room.  He wavered by the door, bite gritted, already reaching for the handle.  A roar and a hiss thundered outside.

“Hey.”

Kisumi rested a firm grip on his shoulder.

“If he says he can handle it, let him.”  The spirit pushed Makoto’s bag into his hands with calm insistence.  “He has a way to hide, and you don’t.  You know what your real task is.”  

“Makoto.”  Haru appeared in the hallway.  Makoto let Haru draw him away, sparing a last look at the back door.     

 

Asahi lead Kisumi up the stairs, and pulled back the curtain to the loft for him to walk through.  With all the excitement, he figured he could do at least this for their guest.  Their gorgeous, smart, unworldly guest.   

Questions were chasing each other through his head as he struggled to make sense of this man he’d been talking with over dinner, who’d just appeared in his kitchen.  The whole spirit thing had come as a shock—though he supposed it made sense, seeing how beautiful he was.  It wasn’t often Asahi lost his nerve with people, but being around this guy damn near immobilized him with shyness.  Every sharp glance he matched felt like being caught in the street without his trousers or something.  He just hoped it didn’t show.   

Kisumi moved like wind into the room, shrugging off his outer robe, and settling into the desk chair.  “So you’re really sure it’s no big deal?” 

Asahi jolted.  “Oh! The uh, golem?  Yeah, it’s nothing to sweat over.  We used to get worked up too, but…I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nagisa really…struggle with anything before.”  It sounded a little odd, when he said it aloud.  

“Hm,” Kisumi hummed thoughtfully.  “If you say so.”  

There was something unsettling about him, but magnetically so;  Asahi couldn’t look away.

Kisumi stretched, and pulled the lantern to him across the desk.  “Might I borrow a quill and ink, please?  Sorry to trouble you.”  

“Ah, yeah, no trouble.  There’s actually some of that stuff in the bottom drawer next to you.”  Asahi was sure Rei wouldn’t mind.

“Fantastic!”  Kisumi extracted Rei’s scribing set with care. 

This was probably the cue to leave, but Asahi stalled instead, standing ungainly in the middle of the room.  “Wh-what for?  Sending a letter home?” 

“Leaving one, actually.  My parting letter, instructions and all that.”  

“Oh, cool.”  Asahi backpedaled.  “Wait, what?!” 

“Mouse voice please,” the spirit hushed, one long finger to his lips.   

“Sorry.”

“The entity Nagisa is fighting outside killed a dear friend of mine,” Kisumi said evenly.  “One that I knew for a very long time.”   

A pause stretched.  “And I’d rather not lose any more friends.”  He flattened the leaf of parchment on the bedside table, and popped open the ink bottle.

“Wait! You can’t leave!” Asahi wanted to suck the words back into his mouth the moment he’d said them.  Momentum had carried him across the room, up to the desk.     

Kisumi’s eyes flicked upward.  “And why’s that?” 

“Uh….”  Asahi said intelligently.  He hadn’t actually thought this far ahead.  “I…mean, you shouldn’t go.”  

Kisumi cut him an interested look.  What’s it to you?” danced in the coy quirk of his brow.   

“It’s dangerous out there, and—you just got here…”  Asahi stumbled. “ ’Least stay the night.”   

Confusion warmed into humor, and Kisumi set down the quill.  “Are you trying to seduce me into staying?”  

“No!  I mean, not saying you aren’t worth seducing, but I— Is it working?” 

“Kind of.”  Kisumi pushed away from the desk, and drew up to his full height.  He stood nearly at eye level with Asahi, who suddenly felt every bit the mortal that he was.

“I’m only saying, those monsters have mucked around here looking for Ikuya and me a bunch of times before.  Who even knows if that one’s after you?”  

“And…”  Asahi lowered his voice. “It may not be any of my business, but Haru and Makoto—you’re like their guide, and they’ve come all this way because they trusted you, right?”  He was sweating now; he had no idea where he was going.  “Don’t…don’t you owe it to them to stick around ’til the end?”

A full five seconds crawled by at a snail’s pace.  Ten seconds.  The paper snapped back into a curl against Kisumi’s hand when he released it. Asahi felt the spirit studying him, really looking at him for the first time that evening, and baring a bit of himself in the process. 

“I was too quick to flee,” Kisumi lamented at last.  His shoulders slumped, and he settled heavily on the desk.  “Again.”

“H-hey,” Asahi mumbled.  “We all make mistakes, right?”

“I think I’ve made a few more than most people.”

Perched on the edge of the desk, Kisumi was comfortably close now; Asahi could reach up and rub a hand on his back to console him, and it would be a natural thing.  He looked like he could use it.  Asahi inhaled, hovered his arm, and touched his hand down between the spirit’s shoulder blades.  Indisputably natural, and not in any way stiff or awkward.  

Kisumi paused, then huffed.  “Thank you, Asahi.”  

“Anytime.  I mean, you know.  Only if you’re not gone.” 

“I’ll keep it in mind.” 

Hand still light on Kisumi’s back, Asahi changed the subject.  “D-do you hear people’s prayers?”   

“Wh—”   Kisumi smothered a snort.  “No, I don’t.  I’m not a god.” 

“Ah, ok.  I mean, that’s great.  That’d be kind of embarrassing, if you knew what I’d…yeah.” 

“Oh, really?” Kisumi mused.  “Well.  Good thing you’d never say anything embarrassing out loud.” 

“Yeah—HEY! 

Giggling, Kisumi snagged Asahi’s collar, and smacked a kiss on his cheek.  

The shipwright staggered back, floundering.  He sputtered for a response with all the grace of an overturned turtle. 

Legs crossed lazily, Kisumi pursed his lips, savoring the taste.  There was a light flush creeping up to his ears, beneath rose curls.  “I’ve always had a weakness for freckles.”

A feathery feeling lingered on Asahi’s cheek; he covered it with a hand to keep it from fading.  

Kisumi breathed an airy laugh.  “I’ll see you in the morning, Asahi.” 

Asahi let Kisumi’s curtain fall closed behind him, and thunked against the outside wall.  He tensed, sensing someone.  

The unlit hallway cleared into focus, and he finally noticed Ikuya was there—with a cup of water and a late snack of apple slices that he’d stuck between his finger webbings like bear claws.  He blinked.  Then curled a wicked smirk.   

“How much of that did you hear?”  Asahi fumed.  

Ikuya took an infuriatingly slow sip, and waved at Asahi with his apple hand.  “Enough to know that you’re the only source of comedy I will ever need in my life.”

Asahi lumbered after him around the corner to their rooms.  With his nerves in knots, and Ikuya’s taunts in his ear, he missed the blast of a single explosion against the distant cliffside.  

 

________________________

 

Sleep skittered out of Makoto’s reach as he stared dead-eyed up at the ceiling.   

The rumbling had faded into the distance some time ago.  

He rolled over what Ikuya said.  

He’s their little brother.” 

Haru was fitted peacefully in a perfect moon against his back, thankfully untroubled.  Reluctant, Makoto slid out of his arms, and padded out of bed.  He toed into the dark hallway, using muted reflections on wall crystals to lead his path.  

The front door clicked shut.  With a jolt, he flattened himself against the wall and into the shadow. 

Nagisa.  The boy removed his shoes quietly and emptied them of sand, using the dim glow of his rings for light.  His disguise melted into his belt pouch, and he straightened with a stuttering inhale.  Fear was frozen over his features.    

Makoto watched him disappear down the opposite corridor, and into his room.

 

________________________

 

Haru was sitting content with his back against the headboard, braiding a tiny good luck charm.  A blessed sight to wake up to.  The siren’s fingers wove intricate blue and green dyed cords in the sunless room; he needed no light to see them.  Voices jumped and hushed in the living area already, but he wasn’t willing to give up this peace just yet to mingle with the group alone. 

“Good Morning, Haru-chan.” 

He stopped weaving, and peered down gently.   

“Hm.” 

Makoto moved a lazy hand up Haru’s leg, teasing the edge of his night shirt.  Haru’s skin was impossibly soft and warm beneath the covers.  The muscles of his thigh tensed, but he kept tying his knots.  The charm between his fingers looked vaguely fish-shaped.  Feeling bold in his murky state of half-wakefulness, Makoto kept going, trailing his hand higher.  Heat pulsed in the space between Haru’s legs as the siren stole a sharp inhale. 

“You’re brave first thing in the morning,” Haru relaxed and let his thighs fall loose.  

“Maybe,” Makoto hummed. “I do like waking up with your perfect legs next to my face.”

They shared several long, slow breaths.

Events from the day before amassed like starling flocks above them; they’d have to get up now.  Haru ran his hand through Makoto’s hair, brushing the fringe aside.  He let his fingers sift through the soft strands, adoration playing in his dark eyes.  

Ruefully, they heaved out of bed.    

 

Makoto and Haru joined the others for breakfast, awestruck by the volume of belongings Rei had stacked at the doorway to bring along. 

“Ready to go, lovebirds?”  Nagisa was as bouncy as he’d been the evening before; no sign of a fight marked him.  Makoto wondered for a blink if he’d only dreamed it all.  He let his nightmares seep into reality more often than he’d be willing to confess. 

Venturing outside, though, it was obvious that something violent transpired.  Black sand was piled up along the path to Asahi’s workshop.  It was coarse, and crunched under their boots like charcoal eggshells.  One of the handrails along the stairs was splintered in half.  A few paces away, Makoto noticed a sizable crater of soot on the smooth rock, as if something large had been burned.  

Haru gave him a look, and they left Rei’s house behind. 

The shipwright’s makeshift workshop was secretive and spacious—filled into a natural hollowed-out cavern.  Every sound bounced off the high walls, and the air was peacefully still.  Drawn notes and designs were pinned up everywhere:  boats, diagrams of birds, dragons, bats, butterflies.  The reason for them all soon made itself apparent.

“Isn’t she beautiful?” Rei gushed dreamily.   

Catherine was mounted with majesty on a scaffold in the middle of the shop: an elegant trekking vessel,  painted in swirls of blue, her sails neatly furled—

—and wings outfitted into her hull.  Four of them.  Two larger, two smaller, with stretches of thick canvas over hinged steel frames. Asahi jumped to work collapsing them into their proper compartments.      

Rei was already hauling his luggage up the gangplank, followed by Ikuya toting Haru-chan in an excessively fluffy padded box.    

Haru looked suspiciously at the ship, then the water below the scaffold.  “Do those things actually…”

“Work?” Asahi chirped.  “Of course, probably!  And we’ll get to Samezuka in a fraction of the time it would take something on the water.  So hop aboard, and hang onto somethin’ big!”

Haru curled a hand around Makoto's bicep, expressionless.

“I got something big.” 

“Haru…”

A thought emerged.  “Nagisa, how are we supposed to get the ship down from up here?” 

“Down?”  Nagisa skipped onto the bow, and spun on his heel. “Who said anything about getting down?”

 

“No.  We are not doing this.”  

Makoto clung to the mast, frowning at pure, undiluted insanity.  

Catherine was in the water now, ready to leave.  A curved, smoothed track lay out ahead of her from Asahi’s shop, that carved steeply down the rock, terminating into empty air and a sheer, gut-churning drop over the lower city.

Makoto was making himself dizzy visualizing how high up they were.  “You think we’re just going to plunge off a waterfall?!” 

“Don’t worry, Mako-can I’ve done it before,” Nagisa assured breezily.  “This is our second run.  Well, third run, but second success.” 

“Why is success a given?!” 

“I just need a push to get us in the air, is all.”  Nagisa stretched and hopped a few times, like he was warming his muscles for a morning stroll, and not gearing up to fly an entire ship over Tottori Canyon.  “It’s hard to dead lift off from the water at sea level.  Especially with Rei-chan’s luggage, seven people, and a fat cat.” 

“He’s just got a lot of fur!” Ikuya yelled from below deck.  

Asahi thumped heavily onto the starboard side, hammer over his shoulder, face smudged with dirt, and looking even more excited than Nagisa to do this.  “All set!”

“Aye, Sir!” Kisumi saluted from the top of the main mast.  Makoto hadn’t even noticed him fly up there.  He was perched with two lengths of rope lashed to the ship like a bucket handle, to help with lift-off.  Though Makoto had to wonder if it wasn’t so he could lift himself off should things get dicey.  

Asahi grinned skyward at him, trying to wipe the dirt from his cheek, only to smear it over his nose.  

Rei was loading his trunks into the hold, practically floating on his enthusiasm.  

Makoto took a deep breath.  This was lunacy.  But there was no turning back. 

Everyone packed the cargo, and secured themselves to the ship with knots that Asahi checked, and double-checked.  Rei was already rattling off a safety brief that had morphed into a history lesson in less than a minute.  His eye glasses were tucked somewhere safe into his coat, and he blinked at his blurred surroundings.  Makoto envied him a little.  This might be easier if he couldn’t see the sharp drop-off ahead quite so clearly.  Haru was lashed by the waist tightly at his right, unperturbed.  

“Makoto.”  he prodded.  “Don’t be scared.”  

“I—”

Haru’s fingers found Makoto’s hand, and twined together.  “Do you remember when we jumped into the river a little while ago?” 

“Yes…” 

“This isn't that different.  We could’ve died then, but we didn’t.”  

Makoto stilled.

“You asked the water.  And we lived.”  

So, ask.   

Nagisa untethered the ship, bounded to the bow, and spun around with his arms thrown wide to welcome adventure.  He beamed toward the passengers.    

“Rei-chan, start the countdown!”  

Rei jumped at the chance to list things. 

“Everyone ready?  Five!” 

Haru oh gods—

“Four!” 

We’ll never get to Samezuka if we’re dead—

“Three!”  

The ship pushed off the dock, and exploded through the dam.  

“NAGISAAA!!”  Rei’s scream ripped through the rush, “THAT WAS ONLY TO THREEEeeeeee—!!”  and trailed above them as they hurtled downward with the surge of water.  

“Doesn’t everything go on three?!” Nagisa teased over noise.

“NOT IF YOU’RE COUNTING DOWN FROM FIVE!!”

“My bad!” The sorcerer ducked, and spread his arms, digging wind up from below, and behind.  There was dirt in the cargo hold that he was using to steer.   The ship groaned under the strain twisting on its way down, and nearly knocking into the rock buffer before Nagisa could correct its course. Every turn and pitch had Makoto’s insides constricting as he braced for impact.  

“Almost clear!” Nagisa warned.  “Aaaannd here we go!!”  

Makoto could feel the keel scrape against stone as they mounted the precipice.  And tipped over the ledge.  

Keeping his eyes open was a mistake that nearly cost him his breakfast.  Catherine creaked as the horizon climbed higher and gravity swung in a nauseating limbo.  The distant base of the canyon was dead in front of them.  He turned to Haru, who was perfectly still, with a sour frown.  Makoto thought it a little bit funny; he must be going crazy already. 

NOW!  Asahi bellowed.  He and Ikuya heaved their weight backward against the levers, and the four enormous steel-framed wings unfolded outward from the ship’s sides.  Kisumi yanked up on the ropes in his arms, beating his own wings hard and fast.  Shutting his eyes, Makoto sang a tune under his breath.

A mounting gust surged up from the canyon.  Catherine rose with the updraft, and Nagisa latched them onto its current, cheering loud.  They were airborne.   

Kisumi slid down to the deck.  Rei strapped his eye glasses on at last, gasping in wonder at the city disappearing behind them, far below.    

“YYYEESSS!!” Asahi exploded with triumph.  The wings he’d designed were spanned out, sailing just like the diagrams in his notebook, and the models in his workshop.  He leaped to one side of the deck to admire them, then the other, slapping palms with Ikuya and throwing his head back to shout.  “I’m a genius!!  HAHAHAHA WE’RE FLYING!  I’m a fucking GENIUS!!” 

Makoto laughed so loud, it made his head spin.  Haru was shaking with high-pitched giggles as the wind whipped his bangs around his smiling face.

There were worse ways to travel, Makoto thought.

  

________________________

 

  

The brackish northern ocean churned like bedsheets on a sleepless night.

Tora skimmed low through the cloud of steam she’d made, and dipped her head to collect her seared meal.  Heat from her fire warped the waves, and burned the evening chill away, warm on Rin’s cheeks.  The fish in her maw was as big as a full-grown bull.  She took the thing in her front claws and tore into its fleshy flank, barely losing speed as she did so.   

“Does she cook everything like that?” Sousuke said over a cough through the smoke.  

“Mhmm.” Rin leaned back into his arms in the saddle, pulling on the new belt strap.  This one was made to fit around the two of them.  

Other dragons plucked out meals from the school of tuna, smoke curls dripping off their wings as they rose again.  

Six days, and five nights, they’d been chasing the former Emperor of Samezuka.  At the rate they were flying, the group would overtake him in barely two more.  Fresh scorch marks on the rocks, and bone scraps piled under a tree told Rin the gap was shrinking.  They were closing in.  

How they would stop Matsuoka Akira once they found him though, was its own question.  Rin planned to call his uncle down to settle human matters with human means.  But if the man would not dismount—if he chose to fight with fire… 

Tora’s flame was hot enough, and there were none her size more agile in the air.  Though where she was sleek and quick, Sango was a wall of solid muscle.  Akira’s dragon remained the largest of the winged giants—her teeth were longer than Tora's, her back mailed with scales like red diamond plates.  Rin thought about that jaw snapping shut over his girl’s neck, and felt his gut lurch.

The other dragons would jump in to help if he asked them to.  But if they joined the conflict, Sango’s clan would follow.  It would be an ugly, bloody battle whichever side claimed the victory, and a loss too great to bear.  Should Rin arrive at Tajiri with a meager force after that, the Hazukis might very well wipe out the rest.  He could not involve them.

“Hey.  You alright?”

Sousuke seemed to know the answer was ‘no,’ but it helped to hear his voice.

A weight nestled onto Rin’s shoulder, and the strong arm around his middle hugged tighter.  Sousuke slipped a hand under Rin’s shirt, and massaged firm circles into his wound-up shoulder, working up to his hairline.  Tension loosening, Rin sighed into the kisses against the back of his neck. Rin gathered the reins into one hand, and rubbed the other gratefully on Sousuke’s knee. 

He scanned the infinite folds of ocean as they sped onward.  

“Don’t look at the water.”  Sousuke lifted Rin’s jaw.  “Please.  It’s getting late.”  

Rin peered back, a tinge annoyed.  Sousuke had grown increasingly unsettled as they flew closer to the gulf.  His reasoning was sound, but they were riding a dragon, flanked by twenty more.  They shouldn’t need to worry about a gaggle of screechy fish creatures.  If only to put Sousuke at ease, Rin urged Tora higher.   

The day waned, and a few of the other dragons were trailing behind as they ate.  Now was as good a time as any for a break.  The chase might be dire, but Rin knew better than to ride to war with his army starved and exhausted.  

They made camp at the next island that they saw—a dusky, crescent shaped slice of volcanic land with room for the flight, and mountains to conceal them.  After a wordless dinner of tough bread, salted beef, and dried peaches, Rin had Sousuke help him remove Tora’s saddle.  They covered it, and unrolled their bedding beneath it to sleep while the campfire flickered and died outside.

Sousuke’s heartbeat was steady against Rin’s ear as they lay in silence.  Rin ran his finger up and down his lover’s arm, absently tracing the veins and curves of muscle.  He skimmed over the inside of Sousuke’s elbow, making him twitch.  It was cute for some reason, and set Rin off.  His eyes welled with emotion.  

I can’t lose him.        

 

Sousuke grunted, and kneaded the crick in his scarred shoulder while he waited for their water to boil.  It was the side Rin liked to tuck his head against, and the bed mat hadn’t quite padded out the unforgiving soil beneath.  Another long day of riding ahead wouldn’t afford him much relief either, but having spared Rin this discomfort was consolation enough.   

Early morning clouds strangled the island, curling around jagged mountains, smothering the foothills in a grey, wet chill.  A few of the dragons were out flying already—gliding below the mist where visibility was good enough.  One of them eyed Sousuke lazily.  It was heavy-set with plated scales, and spikes that made an earth-shattering mace of its thick tail.  Another nearby groomed its wings with a vivid violet tongue.  Spiny frills crowned its head and trailed down its back: a breed that spat venom in lieu of flames.  The dragon noticed Sousuke struggling to keep the campfire strong against wind from the mountains, and extended a wing to shield it.

Sousuke could see Rin a ways out, threading alone between the rocks, with a blanket cloaked around him.  He wandered absent and unsteady, his eyes on the ground.  For the third day in a row, Sousuke had woken alone.  Heaving a sigh, he set to work on breakfast.  As much as it pained him, he knew Rin needed this time to sort out his thoughts.  Rin was hunting down his own family, before a battle with the most powerful sorcerers in history.  If he lost, and Samezuka fell, the rest of the world would not be far behind.  Failure on either front was not an option.    

When Rin slogged back to camp, haggard and wan, dusky circles rung under his eyes, it was pitifully clear that he hadn’t slept nearly enough last night.  Sousuke’s heart ached helplessly.  He was cupping candle flames in a blizzard.     

“Tea?” Sousuke blew the cup, and nested it in linen.

Rin blinked in Sousuke’s direction to float his gaze on some vague shape overhead.  “Oh.  We…have to go. We—”

“I know.  I already packed up while the water was heating.  Drink. And eat.” 

Rin’s fingers were stiff and wind-chilled when Sousuke pried them open to push the cup into his palms.  The orange spiced steam tickled his chin, and warmed color back into his face.  This journey was wearing him thin.  When they flew today, Sousuke would make Rin sleep against him in the saddle.  He could manage the reigns for a while now, and Rin needed the rest. 

The cup rested still in Rin’s hands, his food untouched.  A distant numbness clung about him.  Sousuke cupped one cheek and kissed the other—leaving his lips there a couple seconds longer than usual. 

“Come on, love.”  

It worked, and Rin sighed a laugh, finally locking eyes, a little shy to be caught so out of sorts.  The rest of him glowed back to life, and he sat to finish breakfast.  

“Thanks.”

“Want me to feed you?”  Sousuke was only half joking.

Rin scoffed, and kicked at his ankles.

“Eat it, though. Please.”  He swept Rin’s stray fringe behind his ear, and left to pack the last of their things.  

 

The food was flavorless.

Sousuke was a good cook, and Rin was sure breakfast tasted fine, but it ground like dry cotton in his mouth.  He needed to bathe.  He was so tired.

Tora flexed her wings, heating herself as sea water steamed off of her body.  The saddle was already fastened on her back.  For a moment, Rin puzzled at that.  Getting it on was usually a two-person job.

“You put her saddle on alone?”  

“Hm?  Ah…”  Sousuke tied up the bed mat, and stowed it.  “A couple of the others helped me with it, actually.”  

Rin’s chest warmed at the thought, and he finished breakfast.    

Sousuke sat under a stripped tree beside one of the smaller dragons, sharpening a sword he’d brought.  The whetstone sliced expertly over one blade, then another, the scraping sound sending chills up Rin’s back and into his skull.  

One more night at most, Rin figured, and the flight would overtake their target.   

Neither of Rin’s weapons had ever tasted blood.    

Sousuke’s eyes flicked up to meet his.  He froze, and pocketed the whetstone.  

The air thickened with unsaid words.     

“Look Rin, I….I was thinking.”  Sousuke began.  He leveled an unreadable look.  “I know it’s gonna be hard for you to fight your uncle.  He’s your family, you’ve known him all your life, and it’ll be no easy thing to face him.”  He shifted, and Rin felt it like a hairline crack in a glacier.  “So let me do it.”

The ice shattered, and roared into an avalanche.   

What?

“Let me kill him,” Sousuke repeated.  “And you won’t have to.” 

“Are you being serious?” 

“Of course I am.  It would hurt you…to have to do that.  You don’t want to, and—”

“And you do.”  

The bolt of bare loathing in Sousuke’s eyes told Rin all he needed to know.  

“When he dismounts, just say your peace, and step aside.  You don’t have to watch.”

“You want kill him.”  Rin murmured.   “That’s why you came with me, isn’t it?”

“I’m here to protect you, and stop that man from torching an island of innocent people.”  

“No you’re not,” Rin said evenly.  “Look me in the eyes, and tell me no part of you came to get revenge.”  

Sousuke matched him, his blue stare hard as diamond.  “He burned my parents alive, Rin.  I watched him do it; I can remember the sight, the sounds. He killed everyone, and you’re out of your fucking mind if you think I’ll forgive him for it.”

“I’m not asking you to forgive,”  Rin argued.

“Then what?”  Sousuke’s patience tightroped on a knife edge.  “He wanted you dead. 

“No he didn’t.”  Rin ran a weary, shaky hand through his unwashed hair.  “He’s never wanted to kill me, he just…thought that he had to.”

Unbridled disgust twisted Sousuke’s face.  “Listen to yourself.”   

“Look, I’m telling you I want to talk to him, and learn what I can.  He could still help us against the Hazukis.”

“Why.”  There was so much spite in Sousuke’s voice, Rin could taste it in the back of his own mouth. “Why are you giving him a chance?”    

“Do you have any idea what murdering him would seem like to the people I preside over?  They’d see me claim the throne, and kill my uncle not even a month later?  That’s insane.  It looks like incompetence, instability,” Rin reasoned.  “I think you forget that most of this empire still trusts and respects him.” 

“Who cares?!”  Sousuke threw his hands up, tight with tempered fury.  “The Emperor’s job isn’t to be liked by his people; it’s to protect them.” 

“I care, Sousuke!  And I don’t believe that I have to choose one or the other!  I thought you understood that.  Uncle will listen to sense; I know he will.” 

“That man doesn’t deserve your compassion, or your mercy.  He deserves to watch steel twist in his gut.  To leave this world screaming, helpless, and afraid, the way everyone died beneath him.”  

Sousuke loomed closer; Rin had never felt the towering presence of him with such force.  

“And yes, Rin. I’d love to kill him myself.” 

Rin swallowed hard.  A well was pooling—deep, icy, simmering.  This wasn’t battle spirit before him—when the enemies lunged for your veins, and you found theirs first.  It was calculated and exacted in cold blood.  Sousuke was a killer, and he wanted to be.   

“I should’ve known you would be like this,” Rin stormed, rounding on Sousuke.  “If you wanted to solve everything with slaughter for the rest of your fucking life, then you should’ve just stayed in the pits!”

Sousuke reared backward like he’d been kicked.

That was cruel.

Why would I say that to him? 

Anger was blinding as wildfire, and Rin forced out all else. 

Sousuke collected himself, collapsing the universe inward around him. 

“He’s right about you, isn’t he?” 

Armor pried apart, Rin felt the words like a knife between his ribs.  His head swarmed into a mess of hurt and fury, all of it boiling over with nowhere to go but out.  He curled a fist into Sousuke’s shirt, and slammed him with bruising force against the tree trunk.  Sousuke grimaced.  Uncaring, Rin crowded forward, baring his teeth like a wolf before the killing lunge.  The side of Rin’s face tingled, awaiting Sousuke’s retaliation—

But it did not come.

Sousuke went still, stone-faced, and swallowed Rin’s outburst like bitter medicine.  Rin watched it sink in all the way, saw the tendons of his neck tighten, that hard jaw set as Sousuke closed himself off.  

There was blood on his hands, and death in his eyes.      

“Fine, then.”  Rin unhanded him. “Stay here.  We’ll pick you up on the way home.”  

Tears seared cold against his heated face.  He wasn’t sure when they’d started, but to wipe them away was to admit they were there.  He edged the distance wider, every footfall a new crack in the earth, and turned his back.

“Rin—!”  

Sousuke called out after him.  He could godsdamn yell all he wanted.  Rin gathered his weapons, and left the spare supplies on the ground.  This was his family, his fight, and he could resolve it alone.  Clumsy and rage-numb, Rin climbed his dragon’s flank, swung into the seat, and gave Tora the signal to fly.

She stalled.  

“The fuck are you doing, I said let’s go.” 

The dragon ground her claws into the dirt, and growled her dissent.  He didn’t need her giving him hell, too.  Sharp red meeting deep violet, he shot her a scathing command.  He never commanded her.  They were partners.  Friends.  It hurt to be like this with her, but he was leaving, and they could not waste another second here.  Any longer, and Rin feared he would change his mind.

Tora glanced around.  The other dragons were watching.  To defy her partner before the group was to shake the foundation—to bare weakness at the core, and Rin knew she would not do it.  Her eyes flicked to Sousuke, and to back to him, hooded with sorrow.  Then she faced ahead, unfolded her wings, and called the others to depart. 

“Rin, wait!”  Sousuke’s ire was abandoned; he despaired.  “Don’t do this!  I’m trying to help you!” 

“I get it!  You think I’m weak!  Just as Uncle, and everyone else does.  Well fuck you, I am the Emperor; I’ll do this my way.”  He fastened the strap, pulling it tight.  “And I don’t need the kind of help you came to give me, Sousuke.”   

Tora crouched, and beat her wings hard.  The force of it was enough to blow Sousuke backward, where he braced himself against the tree.  His voice was drowned out in the storm of wind and dust as the flight took off all at once, and Rin was thankful that he couldn’t hear it.  He’d never been more in need of the sky’s embrace. 

They caught an updraft into the clouds, and the island diminished behind them.  The saddle felt empty. 

Blinking away the sting in his eyes, Rin pulled his cloak tighter, and faced forward.          

  

________________________

  

Sousuke stumbled down the trail on feet that didn’t want to carry him.  Pieces of himself cracked away like brittle bark, and scattered into oblivion.  Aimless, he followed the untended path as it plunged downhill, weaving between jaggy, sheer-faced rocks jutting out of the dirt that he could twist an ankle on if he wasn’t careful. 

Rin would never see things as he did, and couldn’t even make the effort to try.  The boy’s father had died young, too; it was a tragedy Rin still wore like a scar.  But Sousuke’s loss was carved in the shape of murder, and somehow he’d always known he would need blood to fill it.  For all Sousuke thought he and Rin fit together, in this they were reaching for one another in a void.

Sousuke wanted to protect him, and fight for him, and if he could deal evil the justice he was owed, there was no good reason he shouldn’t.

“Fuck.”  He stumbled over a wedge of stone.  

“—should’ve stayed in the pits!” 

Sousuke had no idea where he was, where to go, or what to do next.  

“I don’t need you.” 

Venom was bleeding into his ears.  He wasn’t even sure anymore, if those were Rin’s exact words. 

“I DON’T NEED YOU.”

It was true.  Rin had wanted him there, maybe, once—but Sousuke was a paper lantern to Rin’s inferno.  The longer he stewed, the more his molten anger with Rin cooled and hardened into a shell of frustration with himself.  

He was angry.

In love. 

Desperate.  Why can’t Rin understand?

The fight played back in his head again.  And again.  

He’d pushed Rin away, made him feel worthless; of course Rin got mad.  That promise he’d made to Gou only took him six days to blow to pieces.  Regret burned like a gulp of acid.  What the fuck is wrong with me?

Loose stones dotted his path, and he kicked one clear into the sloping gorge below.  It did less than he’d hoped to divert his anguish.      

An urge to check the sky became a nagging itch that Sousuke had stopped resisting.  He checked twice every minute, scanning the empty blue, straining his ears for the drum of Tora’s wing beats.  Maybe Rin had changed his mind, turned around and flown back for him.  He loathed how pathetic he sounded, wishing for that—but found himself waiting all the same.  Though setting the course back to retrieve Sousuke would allow Akira even further out of range.  

After two hours of wandering, Sousuke was forced to admit that Rin had really, truly left him behind.  His love would return a victor, or not at all.  

Gulls and murres crowed in a throaty refrain, dipping in circles and flocking along the cliffs.  Sousuke’s instinct had drawn him to the ocean.  The roiling crash of waves against dark crags was a soothing wash of noise as he walked.   

A village reared into view.  The settlement was tucked around the towering elbows of rock, smattered with modest houses of wood and thatch reed roofs.  Patchwork gardens fit together like a motley quilt—perfectly imperfect, and strung with net to keep out the birds.  Curious eyes followed Sousuke down the road through town.  Doors and windows clattered shut with his advance, and it occurred to him that he must make for a menacing sight, belt brimming with weapons, and the Matsuoka jaws loudly emblazoned on his coat. 

He passed through the gate to observe the quiet harbor that opened up ahead, where boats were swaying, tethered to a narrow dock crusted with limpets.  Washed-up seaweed heaped in grimy tangles on the shore over gnarled knobs of driftwood.  Not even one of the boats looked like they would get him anywhere far, or fast enough to be of help to Rin.  He was stranded here, useless, rusting in his own rancor.  

Sousuke wandered along the sea wall.  It was low, gull-stained, and rough-hewn—the edges skirted by sand.  Coarse, young sand—not the sort of beach to walk barefoot on, so he hoisted himself onto the lookout rail, and let his mind drift on rolling white caps.

They roared toward shore, only to waste themselves splayed out in foam lace on the beach.  

 

In, out.

 

In,   out. 

 

He imagined the salt water swallowing him whole.   

 

 

“Excuse me?  Sir?” 

Gritty, uneven footsteps and a curious voice drew Sousuke away from the ocean.  A thin, dark-haired man in a patterned juniper robe was making his way over.  He looked confused—scared even, squinting at Sousuke as if trying to place him.

Remembering his attire, Sousuke supposed he should introduce himself as a soldier of the Imperial Guard, but the man didn’t seem interested in hearing that sort of thing.  He approached, mouth slack like he was staring at a ghost.

“Do I know you?” Sousuke puzzled. 

“……Sousuke?” 

He stumbled back.  Expelling the fog from his head, Sousuke hopped down and inspected closer.  A long nose, laugh lines, ears pierced all the way along the shell.  He’d seen this face before, somewhere.  Many times.  Though he didn’t remember it being so drawn and sallow, nor the stubborn black hair salted with so much grey. 

The answer struck him like a hammer blow. 

 “Mister Nanase?!   

The man gasped.

“Minizaki?! It’s really you, isn’t it?  You’re alive!”  

The jewelry-maker advanced, blanched with astonishment.  He scanned Sousuke head to boots, boots to his blue-green eyes.

“Gods above you’re big,” he breathed.  “You look so much like your father.” 

Sousuke allowed man closer, still not entirely sure that he wasn’t dreaming.  

After a beat, the man, Nanase, asked, “How on earth are you here?”  

“I…”  A dozen explanations fragmented and shattered like broken glass.  Sousuke fumbled. 

“I…..”

I was abandoned.

I broke Rin’s heart.

I don’t know. 

“I’m lost.”  

Nanase’s deep indigo eyes jumped wide, and softened.  He reached a quivering hand out, taking a grounding hold of Sousuke’s arm—  

And then crushed them into an embrace.  The jewelry-maker was slight-framed, and the top of his head barely grazed Sousuke’s chin, but his grip was strong, and Sousuke crumbled into him.  Heaving, he threw his arms around Nanase’s back, clinging on like the wind might scatter him out to sea if he didn’t.

“There there, boy,”  Nanase cooed.  

Hold unrelenting, the jewelry-maker craned back, the sides of his face wet. He motioned behind him, toward the town.   

“Come on, Yamazaki.  Let’s go inside.”