“A warrior may change his metal,
but not his heart.”
-Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars
The trek to Nanase’s home was a watercolor well of greens and browns of which Sousuke was only half aware. He walked numbly behind the jewelry-maker, following like an abandoned boat being tugged to port. They cut away from the main road past a sparse smatter of other houses with tented thatch roofs. Reedy grass bowed with the breeze at their ankles. The village hummed with activity that seemed to freeze in time as Sousuke was led by.
Nanase stole backward glances at him often, as if Sousuke were a specter that might blink out of existence just as quickly as he’d appeared. They spoke little. The jewelry-maker had been on his way back from the market that morning, and Sousuke offered to carry the sack of fresh rice for him, hefting it easily over a shoulder. He assured it was purely out of courtesy, and not for the subtle limp he noticed when the other man walked. Nanase had ever been on the thin side, but now that Sousuke towered over him, he seemed almost wispy, and frail.
“Ah, Mitsu should be home soon!” Nanase took the left path at an unmarked fork. “You remember my wife, don’t you? Boy, is she in for a shock.”
Sousuke caught his toe in a ditch, and stumbled to catch himself. “Wait, both of you made it out alive?”
“Careful! These trails are gonna kill somebody one day, I swear…We did, yes.”
“How is that possible? Were you not on the ship south?”
The front gate whined on rusted hinges as Nanase kneed it open. “How about we swap stories inside when we’re all three together, yes?”
Sousuke agreed. He could wait. There was no place else to go, in any case.
Violet morning glories still in bloom sprawled up the front of Nanase’s house, reaching for low, sturdy-looking eaves. The roof was pointed like two giant hands in prayer, with a wide base and lofty attic. A quaint storage shed was raised in the side yard, beneath which a garden of cabbage was sprouting, and a stray cat was watching them lazily from the shade.
The jewelry-maker kicked off his shoes in the genkan, ushering Sousuke inside after him.
“Ah, Mister Nanase? where would you like the rice?”
“I’m sorry?” Sousuke removed his boots and set the bag in the open cedar bin.
“You’re grown now. No need to ‘Mister Nanase’ me. If I use your name, you can use mine.”
Nanase’s warm laugh soaked in bone-deep.
The man busied himself depositing his grain, and mulberry leaves for the silkworm trays in the attic. “Now sit down and rest. You sure look like you need it.”
“Thank you.” Sousuke didn’t argue, wilting cross-legged onto a cushion next to the low table.
The living area was spacious and earthy—bright where netted windows fluttered open to air out Kioshi’s workshop. There were whittled ornaments mounted along the walls, and paintings of nature expressed in his loose hand. Sousuke hadn’t spent much time in the jewelry-maker’s old shop as a kid, but the scent of his trade was still familiar: fresh-cut wood, dye, and cool, wet clay.
“Can I make you something to eat, Sousuke? Bet it’s been a while since you’ve had good saba nitsuke.”
“No, thank you. I’m not hungry.”
Nanase’s brow tightened with concern. “Just tea, then.”
He filled a ceramic pot, and lit the stove. Sousuke let the sound of him bustling about the house melt into the atmosphere, trying with everything in him not to think about Rin.
The entrance to the backyard scraped open, and a woman padded lightly inside.
Nanase Mitsu looked almost exactly as Sousuke remembered. She was a diver—tan with a round, kind-looking face, and large hands. An indistinct serenity emanated from her that the years had left gracefully untouched. She tugged her hairband loose, shook out her damp chin-length black locks, and set down her catch basket in the kitchen. She froze when she spotted Sousuke, dusk blue eyes jumping wide for a moment only. Then she relaxed with a nod, and a mild grin.
“Ah, Sousuke, Mitsu’s back!” Kioshi crossed the room again, wiping his hands dry on a rag. “Love, look who I found wandering around near the beach. If you can believe this, it’s—”
“Yamazaki,” she said with a narrow hint of surprise—as if she’d only seen Sousuke yesterday. Her voice was rich, expression mildly assessing. She knelt down and craned in awkwardly close for a better look at her guest. Sousuke held his posture rigid, letting her take in his whole existence at her own pace.
“Ten years is a long time,” she said at length, and curled an arm over his shoulders—gentle and unhurried, before settling across the table from him. The scent of salt water lingered in her wake. “You really look like your father. Prettier, though.”
Kioshi shot her a panicked ‘you can’t say that!’ sort of look which reminded Sousuke fondly of Ai. Mitsu breezed by the hint. She set three ceramic cups on the table. Sousuke took his graciously. This whole situation was dreamlike in its strangeness.
“What happened?” He curled his palms around his cup, dryly aware that he’d employed the same comfort for Rin mere hours ago. “How are the two of you here?”
“Ah, right. That…” Kioshi rifled through his box of tea leaves, scooping some into the pot with popped kernels of brown rice. “Suppose some explanation is in order.”
Sousuke waited patiently for the man to gather his thoughts.
“After you ran off, we blocked ourselves inside the shop.” Nanase frowned hard, drawing the memory out of a stitched seam. “There was a lot of shouting, screaming. Fire outside the windows. Our roof collapsed on us.”
Shifting back, Nanase hiked up the hem of his robe, baring aged burn scars that streaked across his calves, and sprawled upward beneath the fabric. Skin over his right knee had healed glassy and taut. After a quick glance, Sousuke averted his eyes politely.
“I don’t remember much after the house came down, but Mitsu dragged me into the creek. We swam down past the west bridge, and hid in the gutters until the storm burned itself out.”
Their water hissed to a gentle boil. Mitsu fetched it from the stove and fed it to the teapot, leaving it carefully to steep. Sousuke was certain her recollection of that night must be far more vivid than her husband’s, but she seemed content to leave it buried. He couldn’t blame her.
His gaze wandered awkwardly along the shelves, over Nanase’s half-finished driftwood sculptures. “Then how’d you end up here in the middle of nowhere?”
“Not much to that, I’m afraid.” Kioshi stroked the ghost of stubble around his jaw with a thumb. “In the days after, we and a few others salvaged a boat, and set out for Iwatobi. They would take us in, if nowhere else could. But winter waters had other plans; we wound up here, and just stayed. Laid low, and made a life.” He traded knowing nods with his wife. “Things were hard at the start, but dust settles. It’s been…good.”
Sousuke sensed Nanase’s eyes tracing over his jaw, collar mark, and down—the guilt in them dragging like dull claws.
“I’m…so sorry, Sousuke. Last time I saw you, you were headed for the beach, so I thought you must have been…” he floundered for the rest. “If we’d known you were alive, we would have gone after you.”
“It’s ok,” Sousuke assured. “Even if you’d known, there wasn’t much that could be done.”
“Still…” Nanase trailed off. He frowned at the window, his cheeks hollowed in weary chiaroscuro. “When it was all done with in the morning and everyone was gone, the whole bay was so…deafeningly quiet. I don’t think I’ll ever forget what that felt like.”
Mitsu reached under the table to take her husband’s hand. Sousuke wondered if the Nanases missed home as much as he had. A decade was a long time apart.
Sousuke offered to help serve the tea. Warm roasted scents, and mellow wisps of steam cleared his mind some when he brought the cup to his lips.
“So Minizaki,” Nanase cleared his throat, and leveled his tone. “Tell us what you’ve been up to. Married yet?”
Sousuke coughed into his cup. “You’re asking me that first?”
“I have to ask you something first. Might as well start with the easy part, right?”
“Then, no. I’m…not married.”
Not likely I ever will be.
Nanase leaned his chin into his palm with a smirk. “But there is someone, I can tell.”
“There is.” Sousuke admitted it without a blink of hesitation. “His name is Rin.” He paused suddenly, acutely aware of the reaction this name could yield. “Emperor…Matsuoka Rin.”
Kioshi’s brow creased slightly, his lips pressing firm. The man glanced over Sousuke’s coat, then the grip of the serpent sword at his feet. “You didn’t come here by ship, did you?”
“Hm,” he resigned with a thin sip of tea.
Sousuke chewed his lip, and waited for the pair to toss him out for such betrayal.
Instead, Nanase beamed with an honest, if a little disbelieving, smile. “Well, tell us about him. What’s he like?”
Tears of relief stung Sousuke’s eyes.
“He’s…incredible. Passionate, smart, selfless, and…Gods he’s gorgeous. I love the way he laughs.”
It was impossible to talk about Rin and not imagine him. Sousuke blushed up to his ears, heart aching; his arms felt empty. The Nanases were biting back sympathetic snickers at the state of him.
Sousuke grimaced. “But then I said something that hurt him. So he left me here.”
Retelling his life was an uphill mess; stories and speeches did not come easily. Sousuke forgot things, rushed others in too late, shrouded years with terse words. Even so, the Nanases listened, and fit the half-formed shards together. The Valley, the sakura tree, his first kiss at the festival. Then six years in the stadium compound, and his enigmatic sponsor. The Mikoshibas’ trial, the Hazukis, and the Silver King’s friendship. Most everything circled back to the beautiful boy that he’d spent half his life longing for. The love that he’d poisoned with his own wrath.
Watery remnants of tea puddled lukewarm at the bottom of the pot when Sousuke had finished. He took a long drought of it, biting down the bitterness, and checked his audience for the last time.
The Nanases’ stares were blank; silence stretched like spider silk.
They shared a look.
“You’ve been quite busy, then,” Mitsu noted finally, her tone cloudy.
Sousuke tensed, anxiously wetting his lips. “Are you really not angry with me for this?” He plucked at the dragon-tooth embroidery of his uniform.
“Angry?” Kioshi snapped himself back to life. “You rebuilt yourself, survived.”
“But Rin is—”
“—The love of your life. And an amazing person, from how you talk about him.” Nanase raked a hand through the smooth hair that swept over his ears, winded. “Honestly, I don’t even know what to say to a story like that.”
Sousuke hung his head. “I miss him.”
Kioshi swirled his clay cup, absently finding a chip in the paint with a fingernail, and smoothing over it.
“I’m sure that Rin misses you just as fiercely; and when he flies back here, you both can make things right.”
Rin’s return was not a guarantee. Sousuke couldn’t stand to think about that.
“I’m not even sure Rin wants me back,” he wrung out painfully. “He’s so strong, but he chooses to be kind. And I’m…just violent.”
“I hurt him when he needed me most. I made him think I had no faith in what he stands for, all because I still can’t forget what happened.” Saying it aloud to someone else was cathartic, after echoing the words between his ears so many times. “I just can’t let go.”
A soft gust clinked the wind chime outside.
Mitsu looked up from her tea to lock Sousuke with a sad, simmering stare. Her distant demeanor sharpened, dark eyes zeroed in on him with alarming depth.
“Demons drowned our son two months after his first birthday,” she said quietly. “We thought there could be no greater loss to bear in one lifetime. Then eleven years later, the dragons came. It was natural to want retribution. For the sirens, the Matsuokas…but wishing death on them would not recover what was taken. The present would not change.”
“But things could change. It’s what’s right,” Sousuke seethed. “If I have the chance to win justice for everyone who died, I can’t leave it.” That kind of peace was simply not in him, and his own nature was tearing him in two.
“Win justice…” the diver mused. “When you say ‘justice,' you think of a hammer, or a brick wall—something hard and absolute, but it’s the opposite. It slithers, and warps, and withers with venom. Every man thinks he knows it, and that he is owed it, but to fight for justice is to fight only for yourself.”
Sousuke bristled hot. “Rin’s uncle is going to kill him. If stopping that man cold isn’t the right thing to do, then nothing is.” Embers of his fight with Rin earlier were reigniting.
Mitsu was unfazed. “I didn't tell you not to stop him.”
Sousuke scowled. This cryptic advice was fucking impossible to deal with. “Then what.”
“Not that you should stand down before your enemy, of course not. Only…consider what really drives you toward him. What you do it all for. That’s what will be left, when all is over. When you know this in your heart, I think you’ll find that justice, and vengeance have no part in it whatsoever.” She took a delicate, meditative sip of water. “If that helps to calm the battle inside of you.”
Midday warmed the room in bright blooms.
Sousuke hunched beside the table, feeling like an upended bag with the contents of his whole self spilled out in a mess on the Nanases’ floormats. He probably looked as bewildered as he felt.
“I’m gonna take a walk,” he blurted clumsily. “Just…need to think.”
“Of course,” Kioshi nodded. “Take your time.”
Sousuke pushed to his feet, and let sensation needle back into his numb legs. “Thanks, I won’t be out too—”
A roar pierced the shell of calm from outside.
It filled the rocky village basin, vibrating in the clay walls of Nanase’s house, and rippling the surface of Sousuke’s water cup.
He bolted for the door on pure instinct. That cry could only belong to one creature. Sousuke didn’t bother with the front gate, vaulting the low fence, and turning skyward.
His heart was jumping into his throat. He prepared himself for the sight of Rin landing at the end of the road, already waiting for him to dismount, and meet him with open arms. There was so much to say.
“Wait!” Nanase barked from inside. “Minizaki, wait-!!”
The cry belonged to a dragon, though not the one Sousuke was expecting. The beast soared too high to see clearly, but low enough to rustle the pines, and send clotheslines nervously astir.
Thick skin spanned across the bones of its wings, midnight black—so dark, no light filtered through them; the village was plunged into a fleeting eclipse. Sousuke stared, petrified, until the monster was lost behind the clouds.
“Ah, you saw him!” Nanase jogged across the yard, stopping at Sousuke’s side with a hand on his shoulder. “We have a dragon on the island; I probably should have mentioned.” He adjusted his robe where it had shifted askew. “Thing must’ve got here a few years ago now; just appeared. Trust me, I feared the worst that first season, but it’s never bothered with us. Got bigger, juicier things to eat. If anything, the water’s been safer than ever since it—Sousuke?”
“I know him.”
Nanase blinked expectantly, but no clarity followed. “You know the dragon. As in, you’re friends with it?”
“Not sure I would say friends.” Sousuke tore his gaze from the sky, surging with resolve. “Where does he live?”
“Around the other side of the island.…Why do you ask?”
“I can’t believe I’m being forced to watch you sprint to your death again, Yamazaki. You’re just the worst.”
Nanase’s brush dipped into his palette, and back to Sousuke’s face.
“I’ll be fine.” Sousuke was sure of that. Mostly.
“Mhmm. Exceptionally common last words. Stop moving your mouth a moment.”
Sousuke squirmed at the wet touch of Nanase’s brush painting dots and lines over his cheekbones. Impatience welling, he struggled to sit still. Before, there had been nothing to do. Now there was everything at once, and he was already late. As soon as Mitsu returned with the neighbor’s horse, Sousuke would set out.
“Do I really need this?”
“If you’re going to challenge a dragon, you should wear Jinbei’s face.” Nanase refilled his brush, and paused there. “You are the last to wear it, after all.”
Sousuke dissolved any more complaints.
When he was done, Kioshi angled a mirror up. Coal-black warpaint formed a stripe across Sousuke’s eyes, fading into grey, and then spots of white—night stars on the whale shark’s back, reminding him he would never face the enemy alone.
“Here. Take this as well.” Kioshi looped a string of fitted hemp and green shells around Sousuke’s neck. The beads clacked together as he thumbed over the designs. It was odd to be wearing something at his throat again, but this time, not unpleasant. The past stared back at Sousuke through his own steely face in the dusted silver glass.
He had a dream once, too, just as Rin did. The years had washed it out, like a faded song that cycled through his head, though he’d forgotten the words. Who he’d wanted to be, and what he fought for—none of it had changed.
His purpose was to stand between evil and his home—wherever, whomever, home might be. This, he knew.
All else, he let go.
Nanase checked over his work with an appraising nod.
Sousuke returned the mirror. “It looks amazing, thank you.”
“You’ll have to let me sketch you when I see you next.” The jewelry-maker rinsed his hands in the basin, and sat back fondly, just as a horse whinnied outside. “Looks like it’s time.”
Mitsu was leading the borrowed mare down the street by her reins. The horse looked healthy, her coat a cool grey with bright spots dappling her back. She bayed and stamped, as if she knew Sousuke was leading her somewhere she wasn’t going to like.
“Suppose there’s no point trying to convince you to stick around,” Kioshi started. “But if you change your mind, just…come in. No need to knock.”
“Thanks.” Sousuke meant it, deeply. He hoisted himself into the saddle on a swell of rekindled hope. “But I have to get to Rin. He needs…No, I need to be with him.”
Mitsu stood aside, leaving the road wide open. “This Rin is a lucky man; I hope he knows that.”
Sousuke smiled as he secured the woven belt that crossed over his chest. “I’ll always be the lucky one.”
He thanked the Nanases for everything, and waved them goodbye.
Catherine’s flying was reserved for nighttime hours after her first launch. She would be easier to hide from curious eyes then, as the Rockhoppers steered through the tall twists of Tottori Canyon toward the ocean.
“Once we’re further out, being airborne helps us avoid eyes in the water too,” Ikuya warned. Thus Asahi had them split into two crews: Nagisa, Rei, and Ikuya (plus Haru-chan) at night, Asahi, Makoto, Haru, and Kisumi during the day. There was only one cabin, and five beds, so arrangements were tight. Makoto struggled to find sleep in such cramped quarters. The feeling of walls so close around him, and the ceiling suffocatingly low made his skin crawl; it felt like being stuffed into a toolbox. If this continued, he might ask Haru to sleep on deck under the stars with him, when the winds died down.
Asahi assumed the role of captain, naturally. Ikuya was first mate; the pair knew seafaring better than anyone else here. Night watch, was Ikuya’s unspoken task, and Haru was loath to let the boy do it. But Ikuya had spent two years voyaging, off and on, and hard experience won out. He was vehement about filling the position—almost strangely so. Haru pouted about it the first night, and Makoto had to lock him in bed with heavy arms to stop him trying to chaperone.
The second day was darkening, and the night crew had only just begun their shift. Evening hues painted everything warm. Kisumi was perched coyly on the rail with his long legs crossed, telling a story that made Asahi laugh from his core while he checked the wings. The spirit was in a loose, plain shirt from Aomori, with no jewelry save his bright teal earrings. Without all of the gold, and layers of white silk, he looked much smaller—lighter, and relaxed in a way that didn’t feel like he was forcing it for others’ sake.
Haru spent his downtime with Ikuya when their shifts overlapped. They were talking quietly on the rear deck as sun weighed the sky down. Makoto smiled to himself to see them reconnect.
Rei and Nagisa were at the bow while the sorcerer flew the ship, bickering over something about dinner.
“Soup is a meal,” Rei said with conviction. “Meals are to be eaten.”
“It can be a drink, too,” Nagisa parried.
“No, it cannot. That is odiously illogical.”
“If I pour this soup into a flask and drink it, it becomes a beverage. Watch!”
Rei shrieked. “NO! STOP!! STOP THAT!!!”
“Next, I’ll dump the apple juice into the bowl, and eat it with a spoon. Now it’s apple soup.”
Makoto shook his head and left them to it, but Rei caught him on his way out.
“Makoto-san!” The apothecary was ground down to his last nerve. “Would you please help me quell Nagisa’s anarchic inclinations and explain to him soundly that soup is food!?”
Makoto stifled a laugh.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thank you.” Rei stormed past him, and made for his lab.
Nagisa was letting the wheel spin untended while he steered with one arm, sunset dripping hot amber down his back as if it were melting from his hair. His wrist swept like a chorus instructor’s with the wind—the only outward sign of his efforts. Makoto announced his presence with a warm chuckle.
“You and Rei get along well.”
Nagisa snickered with his mouth full. “He’sh sho much fun. Worriesh heaps, though.”
The boy could use a little of Rei’s caution, though, Makoto thought. He folded his arms heavily, searching outward at whatever Nagisa was seeing. Their group was making impressive time moving east across the continent. Sandstone walls sailed by on either side of the ship, shaped by rivers and lacy waterfalls that spidered over them and spilled from the sheer faces. From here, it almost looked as if the cataracts were moving slowly, or not at all, even though Makoto knew they raged with force enough to smash the vessel apart.
He peered sidelong at Nagisa, and spoke up.
“Ikuya told us who you are. Where you’re from.”
The boy didn’t react. He hummed, taking his time. “Did he? Guess you must have some questions. I’ll warn you though; good runaways are first-class liars.”
“No questions.” Makoto approached with caution. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry you had to flee your family. And it’s very brave of you to be out here doing this.”
The boy scoffed. “You don’t need be sorry, Mako-chan. Not like I have any other friends to annoy.”
“I mean it,” Makoto insisted. “Once it’s all done with, you won’t have to wear any more disguises. You can be Nagisa, and Iwatobi can finally know you.”
The boy faced Makoto, looking for the first time, unsure of himself. He kneaded a response with his tongue, then turned away. “Yeah, I…maybe.”
There was something else hanging here, out of Makoto’s reach. He knew when he was being shut out. Haru had done it too many times.
“Well,” he resigned. “We might not have known each other long, but if you ever need someone to talk with, you can always come see me. It doesn’t have to be important, or…have to do with the quest. We can just talk.”
Nagisa went sharply quiet, and Makoto feared he had overstepped a boundary.
“Okay,” he said at last. “Sure.”
Asahi broke into ebullient song inside the cabin, joined by Kisumi in his sugary voice. Their music lifted the mood along with it, and Makoto was grateful. They sounded good together.
Nagisa lit with energy as though it were contagious. “Hey! you ever play ‘Five Fingers?”
Makoto curled a wide smile. “How do you play?”
Haru’s hazy morning whispers were close to Makoto’s ear, but not urgent.
“Mmmm. What’s wrong, Haru?”
“Nothing wrong. I wanna show you something, so get up.”
The siren was already out of bed, wearing his shoes and one of Makoto’s outer robes, prettily disheveled.
The cabin was dark, and vibrating with the snores of the night crew. Faint dawn seeped in under the door. Day shift must be starting soon. Makoto checked the stone in his bag, then stuffed it back under the bed.
Nagisa was sprawled on his stomach in his raised bunk, mumbling his way through a dream. Ren used to sleep like that, when the twins had strung up hammocks in the house once. He’d fallen out during the night and bruised his elbow. Sighing, Makoto stretched the tightness from his back, and pushed out of bed. He was careful not to step on people’s clothes as he crept across the cabin floor to nudge Nagisa’s leg away from the edge.
When he turned back to Haru, the boy was smiling in that soft, knowing way he did sometimes.
Haru slid into Makoto’s space. “Follow me.”
His expression gave little away, but his grip was burning. Makoto caught his heel on the door frame, and stumbled onto the front deck. Facefuls of crisp air hit them immediately. Asahi was already at the wheel, the sails were flushed with wind, and a strange noise all around echoed like an infinite exhale—quietly loud.
“Look, Makoto.” Haru whirled to face him, brimming with emotion. “I’ve always wanted to show you.”
Makoto stepped into the open, and a gasp hooked in his lungs.
Water, stretching as far as he could see into a clear lilac horizon. It had the presence of a massive living body, and the boat was moving atop it, gently rising and falling.
Oh Gods, it’s the ocean.
Makoto hurried across the deck, taking in the grand sweep of blue, Haru's hand still in his. There was only water in all directions, unending.
“It’s…huge,” Makoto whispered. “I never even imagined…” The majesty of it made him shudder. Wonder was quickly freezing into apprehension. So much pure, powerful unknown was terrifying. He hoped Haru wouldn’t pick up on his insecurity.
The siren trailed a reassuring touch up Makoto’s arm, past his elbow.
“When I first came to the forest, I was scared too,” he said calmly. “People were yelling, the earth was strange under my feet; it didn’t want me. I was sure those ten years would hold only misery.” He leaned in a little—a gentle weight that fluttered Makoto’s heartbeat. “Then you were there. And I thought, even if I never belonged in that place, maybe I could belong with you.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of the ocean, Makoto.”
Makoto’s trapped energy bubbled up into laughter. Haru stilled with a question in his eyes; he wasn’t sure what to think.
Then Makoto whisked down to kiss the seam of his mouth, and smirked against it. “Do you want to go swimming?”
“I’ll…stay up here with you.” Haru blushed.
“What if I want to go swimming?”
“You don’t. It’s too cold.”
“Sure, I do.” Makoto peeled his nightshirt up and off. “You don’t have to come, Haru-chan.”
He swung over the rail and leapt off the ship before any second thoughts could stop him. He was seized by an urge to prove something; he wasn’t entirely sure what. Hitting the water was an icy full-body shock. He caught the slipstream shape of Haru diving in after him, then broke the surface with a shivery, gasping laugh.
“Bleugghh! Salty! Why is it salty?!”
Haru shot him a flat stare. “The salt.”
Snorting, the siren slipped under, and teased his fingers over Makoto’s legs. A firm, two-handed squeeze on Makoto’s ass startled a sharp yelp out of him. Haru resurfaced, looking unfairly pleased. Makoto had never felt the siren’s happiness with so much intensity—as though it surrounded them in the rolling swell of every wave.
It was too cold to stay still, so Makoto took a breath and swam under, kicking hard. Haru surged up from beneath to meet him there. Strong hands framed Makoto’s shoulders as Haru anchored himself, and warm, soft lips collided in a flurry of bubbles. Makoto held his exhale a moment so he could see Haru clearly. Sunrise in motion filtered feathery silver against the siren’s face. Makoto had to keep treading or they would sink, though Haru made no effort to help. He draped an arm over Makoto’s back, spreading a hand behind his head to hold their kiss in place fiercely, pouring all of himself into it.
Makoto jumped up for a full breath, then dropped back to where Haru was waiting. This time, he did not bother trying to keep them afloat. He enveloped the siren like honeyed amber, and let them drop. The water grew colder. Light dimmed overhead. Makoto was scared; he was powerless here, but he found all that mattered was Haru’s body flush with his, their heartbeats melding into one. His arms were fitted tight around narrow shoulders, and Haru tucked his face into the dip of Makoto’s neck as the deep swallowed them both.
Pressure pulsed against Makoto’s ears as he sank farther, his life in Haru’s hands. When his stream of bubbles thinned and his lungs ached, strength circled around his middle, and swam him upward.
They shattered the surface together, and Makoto gulped air hungrily, light in the chest with love burning all over him. Haru’s smile was blinding as full sun.
Breathless, Makoto fell onto his back, and Haru did the same. The current carried them gently and cupped their ears in little splashes.
“It’s deeper than the lake, isn’t it?” Makoto faced the brightening sky.
“Yes.” Haru reached an arm upward to trace silky shapes with a finger. “See those clouds? The space between us and them.”
“In some places, the water runs deeper than that. The sea floor is so far down, even I can’t reach it.”
Back home, Makoto’s whole being was rooted in purpose. Sprawling and ancient though the forest might be, he was an important part of it, grown deep into its fibers. Keep the garden healthy, be a strong brother, a good son. Protect them all. Here, he and Haru were drops in an ocean that spanned the earth, and sank into depths he couldn’t fathom. The sea would be here still when the woods withered, the mountains crumbled, and humans were but memories. To live in this expanse was to exist completely for yourself—swimming raw and unfettered until the day you died, sank to the bottom, and that would be all.
“I don’t regret my choice,” Haru said over the roaring silence.
“Really? This is so much to give up.”
“It is. But I don’t regret it.” Wet fingers wove between Makoto’s, still sending sparks up his arm after all these years. “Freedom is meaningless without you.”
The surface was calm. Makoto thought of a tent, a nest of blankets, a blue glass lantern, and how even in this universe spinning unhinged, some good things were just constant.
“The ship’s going to leave us behind, Haru.”
“Hm. I’ll swim us there.” Haru murmured, unworried. His eyes were still closed in bliss. “Or we’ll make Kisumi come get us.”
Makoto laughed heavenward, and let go for just a little while longer, floating with Haru on this vast in-between of a world that was hopelessly, eternally, too big for them.
Riding a horse felt strange to Sousuke after long days spent on Tora’s back—like they were slogging up the trail with weighted ankles, unbearably slow. Rin was flying further out of reach; the hours were trickling down a drain. Sousuke urged the mare faster.
This path was easy enough to follow. It scooped around dense coastal undergrowth, wove across the beaches, then crawled steadily higher. The waves here waged war upon the cliffs, raging into hungry sea hollows. A fitting home for a wild dragon. Sousuke climbed his gaze up the side of the rock shelf, puzzling out a course for himself. He could walk up at least halfway, but where the footing steepened, ascent would be dangerous.
At length he reached a narrow, jagged stretch, and the horse could carry him no further.
“Get home, go.” Stowing the reins, he directed the mare back around. “Thanks for the practice, girl.” She trotted off without a fuss, tossing her head once to the side as if to tell him he was mad. She was probably right.
Black basalt towers speared out of the ocean into heathery curtains of mist. Sousuke could see now where the dragon must roost: a high cavern mouth that delved into the cliff. Even from this distance, he could make out marks around the entrance where claws had dug into the ledge. No birds nested here, and the stark absence of their calls flushed a chill over Sousuke’s skin. He hiked the trail as it snaked severely uphill, steepened, and petered out. It would be a climb from here on.
One hand before the next. A leg, pull, another hand. All he could do was keep going, and for the love of everything living not look past his boots. Footing was unpredictable. The rock formed feathered columns near the bottom, forcing him to edge around them and search out patches of rough surface—some of it wet where low clouds kissed the heights. He could rest where he needed, but not for too long. The sun was sinking.
Sousuke reached a stretch of rock that bowed in slightly, the shelf jutting over a drop. He numbed his nerves, and just moved. The pull of his bodyweight dragged leaden as he grasped a handhold and hauled himself up, dangling over the ledge until he found purchase for a foot. There was no way to climb back over that. Whatever fate awaited him when he reached the top, this would be a one-way trip. The knowledge sent a rush of recklessness through him. He heaved up onto a thin outcrop, and squinted ahead.
Clinging, catching his breath, Sousuke felt a vibration in the stone where his hands were splayed against it—a rolling noise like thunder and the earth groaning, its bones shifting. He wet the dry walls of his mouth with a swig of water.
Tamotsu was this dragon’s name—the lumbering, surly creature that Tora had known since she was a hatchling, and wanted for her lifelong mate. Sousuke had thought him difficult and unsociable at best, downright aggressive at worst. But Rin saw something in him to love (of course he did), so they tolerated one another begrudgingly.
Today Rin was not here, and this dragon was feral. He was bigger than Tora, and fiercely territorial, even as a teenager. His willingness to attack was what got him into trouble in the first place, and Sousuke dreaded what kind of beast he would face once he reached the cave. Confronting a wild dragon without Rin present was going to be a dice-roll with death.
Evening fog was ghosting upward in gossamer layers. What scarce heat the rocks had absorbed during peak day was leaching out quickly, and the cold seeped in under the sweat-damp neckline of Sousuke’s shirt. He was going to run out of sunlight if he didn’t hurry. Somewhere over the water, he hoped Rin was making camp, curled up under Tora’s wing, warmed and safe. Whether or not he ever wanted Sousuke back, he was worth all of this.
Sousuke’s arms were scorching with exertion as he heaved himself onto the final precipice, and collapsed against the wall. The cliff above him was torched black in places, then clawed with brutish X-patterns: a dragon’s boundary marking, not to be crossed under any circumstance.
Wind moaned into the cavern gullet, and something shifted, deeper inside—something breathing and colossal—the shudder of muscles flexing, and claws scraping across loose earth. Sousuke gulped hard. This thrumming surge of adrenaline was not unlike those moments waiting for stadium gates to screech open. There was no other way to Rin in time.
The smell of burnt coals and fresh blood poured from the cave mouth, and Sousuke strained to adjust his eyes to the well of darkness ahead.
He waited for his voice to sink in, feeling smaller with each passing second. Every sound echoed intimately around the lofty space and into the back of his skull.
A body moved in response—enormous, snaking, smoldering. In the mire of shadow, a single glacial blue eye snapped open.
And found him.
Sousuke’s heart froze into ice pins; he wanted to run, though there was no place backward to go. He breathed deep, and willed his limbs into motion. If this was going to work, he could not waver.
“Tamo? I’m…Sousuke. Rin’s friend. Do you remember?”
The beast’s nostrils flared and huffed, snaring Sousuke’s scent in the air. Recognition took a moment to settle in.
“I’m here because I need your help.”
Tamo drew away—a dark mass of untamed power. Sousuke could hear exhales steaming through bared teeth.
“Will you listen?”
A glow lit the dragon’s throat, filling its mouth like an iron caged lantern. The fiery brightness glinted off of his scales, and splashed flickering shadows over the walls.
Then Sousuke saw his face. Tamotsu’s left eye was milky white, and dead. Scarred-over claw gashes trenched from brow to lip, where the skin was slashed in a permanent grimace. Patches of scales around the base of his throat were mangled in the tracks of another’s fangs, the sheen warped where scorch marks smeared.
Sousuke swallowed his horror. He wondered if he should stare—if the creature wanted him to see. He got the grating sense that his life depended on whatever he did next. Stealing a lungful of courage, he advanced.
“I know it’s been a while. But I remember you. We used to be alright.” Sousuke skirted the ledge artfully, eyeing the burns beside the entrance. The dragon glanced around him, unsure of how to react. His anxiety buzzed electric in the air. He’s looking for Rin.
“Rin’s not here. It’s just…It’s just me this time. He’s far away.”
The nervous pupil stopped roving and narrowed to a needle.
Sousuke’s insides lurched. Walls quivered as the dragon reared back, towering up to the ceiling of the cave like a massive cobra-
Oh, fuck fuck fuck—
-and he lunged. Sousuke had a blink to register what was coming before diving sidelong out of the cave. Right. Go right. He skidded down the ledge. A foothold extended just far enough that he could steady himself there, scrambling for his balance. There was no way down, and no cover to duck behind. The scuffs of pebbles he’d knocked loose were lost in the fog, and he could not stop himself thinking their end could be his. He slammed his back to the rock; this wasn’t over.
Tamotsu melted out of the cave mouth like a tongue of tar, and snaked his head down, searching. Steam jetted from his slitted nostrils, and Sousuke stifled a cough. By some divine stroke of good fortune, sea winds were scattering his human scent in the opposite direction. Flicking its head left, the dragon brought itself closer to the cliff. The unblinking blind eye was level, only a leap away. It was now or never, and Sousuke didn’t come all this way to fail. He launched off the ledge and crashed onto the creature’s head.
“Listen to me!” He bellowed. Clawing for an anchor, he found the spines at Tamo’s neck. The beast growled, and thrashed, but Sousuke threw a leg over in time, twisting so one arm could loosen the long knife from its belt. Tamo’s roar erupted, fire crackling furiously in the hollow of his throat. Sousuke flicked his blade steady, hovering over the blue iris, and the dragon froze.
He intensely did not want to stab Tamo’s remaining eye out, but prayed the creature couldn’t tell that.
“I said LISTEN,” Sousuke fumed. “Rin’s out there, and he’s about to be in a lot of trouble. They both are.”
The thin pupil dilated at the mention, and a clear eyelid shuttered over it. Compassion was fighting to resurface.
“I need your help to get to them.” Sousuke lowered the blade. “I wouldn’t be asking if there was any other way.”
Rage was forced to a low boil, and the dragon coiled back inside with Sousuke balanced carefully on its head. The moment Sousuke’s knees hit sold earth, Tamo’s foot was on him, pinning him flat between two taloned toes. Sousuke cursed and writhed under the suffocating weight. The creature made a simmering grumble into his face, exhale like the swelter of a blacksmith furnace. Sweat beaded at Sousuke’s hairline, and slipped over his jaw.
“I know uugghh fuck… I know you understand me,” Sousuke gritted.
If the dragon wasn’t moving, he was paying attention, at least. He wasn’t rearing to kill.
Struggling to pull a breath, Sousuke wormed his arms into position under the massive foot and pushed back. Tamo was punishing him—toying with his catch just to watch it resist, like an enormous stray cat.
“Rin’s…ugh…going to fight his uncle.” Sousuke did not have time for bullshit. “Would you fucking let me talk, you giant ass?”
Tamo paused, then eased the pressure off, as if stubbornly impressed by the insult. Sousuke heaved to his feet.
“You know exactly who I’m talking about,” he rasped. “Rin and Tora are planning to challenge him alone, and we need to get to them now. Go with me, and I’ll tell you where.”
The dragon hissed defiant embers.
Why not? How can he be like this?
Sunsweet recollections gathered behind Sousuke’s eyes: Rin teasing him as they played in dappled-light river shallows, giggling because he thought Sousuke and this monster were similar. Both stubborn and stony, repelling each other like matching poles of two lodestones. Sousuke hadn’t seen it then, but he did now: the doubt, loneliness, rage, regret—all spearing through layers of shadow in a violent ice-blue mirror. We’re the same.
He hoped that Tamotsu realized it, too. And if Rin had been right about that after all this time, only one thing would rein his damaged soul in.
“They looked for you, you know,” Sousuke said, strong enough to ring clear through the space. “Missed you, waited. For a long time, they searched everywhere.”
He knows now, how the emptiness rakes you hollow when you are the one left behind. He inched nearer. “But they still hold out hope that you’ll come home.”
Tamo’s eye darted, all of him on edge. Sousuke’s nerves were pulled like warp strings. “You ran from them because you’re ashamed to go back. You think that you’re broken, and undeserving of your place.”
A rumbling growl, and a jet of hot steam.
“I know because I’ve been there, and I’ve been wrong.” Sousuke walked forward, this time unchallenged. “So trust me. They love you. And she’s not better off without you.”
No human could ride a dragon without the wild in their veins. There could be no bond, Sousuke could never read what the creature was saying to him, nor be partners in the way that Rin was with Tora. He and Tamo were just two broken, scarred exiles; but perhaps they didn’t need magic blood to know one another.
“We both made our mistakes, but we don’t have to leave things in pieces.”
Even if Rin never forgave him, Sousuke’s purpose was stone-set. “No matter what happens, we can be there for them the way we’re supposed to.”
The sun slipped lower, filling the cave with dull, dying light.
“So what do you say, Tamo? Can we be a team, just this once?”
The dragon seethed from the torn side of his mouth, heat distorting the air. He blinked with his clear eyelid, then the second. His throat tightened. Sousuke waited at his feet to either be accepted, or burned alive.
He took one deep, measured breath.
Like a tidal wave receding, Tamo retreated, extinguishing the atmosphere around him. He lowered into a crouch.
Sousuke was still pinned in place by that searing blue eye.
He had come all the way here to ride on the dragon’s back, but now that Tamo was actually letting him do it, the task loomed surreal. Stiffly, he rounded on Tamo’s good side, and cautioned a hand out to touch him. The dragon flinched at his cold palm, the muscles tensing in rejection. Then he settled, and Sousuke pulled himself up.
The sensation of an unbonded human on his back must have been uncomfortable for the creature. Tamo writhed and Sousuke felt every tiny flex under the dragon’s thick hide. There was no belted saddle this time, nor reins to hold. He would have to keep his ass here with whatever remained of his own strength.
Finlike spines speared down the beast’s back in three rows, some just long enough to be an awkward handle. Tamo grumbled at having them gripped; Sousuke imagined it must feel like having his hair tugged. Whispering curses through clenched teeth, Sousuke flattened onto his stomach, and arranged his legs at the juncture of neck and shoulders. This was as secure a seat as he could hope for. Part of his mind was still stuck on the ground, unable to believe this was happening.
Fuck, what now…
There was something Rin did to make Tora to take off—a set of touch signals he used when the wind was too loud to hear over. Three slaps to the left side. Or was it the right….Would a dragon with no rider even know them?
“Uh. Alright, I think I’m—”
Tamo dove out of the cave. Sousuke’s grip nearly jerked loose as the dragon dropped into swirling mist without warning, plummeting outward with his wings tucked to keep from snagging them on the crags. Curving above the tide at last, he threw them open, and rose with a long, thundering cry that left Sousuke’s ears ringing.
“Shit! SHIT!! Slow down!”
Tamo sped up.
Sousuke clung on harder, tucked his head down when the wind hit. Doing this without Rin in his lap was an entirely different experience. He dared a look backward, and vowed not to look again.
They coasted past the edge of the island, and Sousuke remembered his end of the deal.
“North!” He shouted. “They’re flying north to Tajiri!”
Tamo snorted a hot flare, and swerved in the right direction.
Lights were coming alive in the village basin below—scattered and flickering like beached stars. One of those hearth fires must be the Nanases’ house, and Sousuke waved as he sailed out of sight, chasing the fading edge of twilight.
Indigo dawn raveled into being with the distant roar of water. Sousuke’s whole body ached. They had flown hard all night, stopping only briefly for food, and he prayed that this push would close the gap.
Today. He felt it in his core. They would find Rin today.
He trusted that Tamo knew the way. Where the others took their meals, they dropped gnawed bones, and scraps of prey. Gulls and sharks formed seaborne beacons where they converged to scavenge the discards of larger hunters. Dragons left a bloody trail when they traveled in numbers, and Tamo locked onto it with instinctive ease. His eyesight, now halved, did not measure up to his keen nose. Anything too far in the distance would be on Sousuke to spot first.
A louring cloud bank was rolling in from the far north horizon. It was crawling across the ocean, dragging its belly as pregnant storms did; they were going to pierce right through it. Sunlight cut off in a hard-lined curtain at the edge. Straining, Sousuke delved his gaze into the gloom. Smears of motion reared into range: A smoky pillar spewing up sick and misshapen from a dark mass of land. Thunderheads were funneling into it as shapes circled in a wide berth. They almost looked like birds from this distance, but Sousuke knew better.
“There they are!” He bellowed. “Ahead and right, that’s them!” He flattened himself against the dragon’s back, locking his hold.
Tamo responded with a flare of strength, and sped into the shadow.