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Anthropocene

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There is a legend that circulated in the ancient world, that while Alexander the Great was alive, a captured pirate was brought before him for punishment. Alexander was outraged by the man’s depredations and asked what right he had to trouble the seas. “The same right you have to trouble the world,” the pirate replied. “Only since I do so with a small ship, I’m called a robber; you use a great fleet and are called a ruler.”

—James Romm, Ghost on the Throne


The suite door bangs open.

Standing in front of his wide, ruby-encrusted mirror with two attendants fiddling with the fourteen layers and pieces to his outfit, Haruka doesn’t turn around. “Can’t you knock?” he asks, keeping his eyes on his own face.

A distant, razor-sharp grin hovers in the mirror behind Haruka’s ear. “Do I need to?”

The attendants immediately abandon Haruka’s clothing and drop into deep bows with mumbles of praise, while Haruka, sighing, remains upright. He buttons his undervest himself, sending a look of disdain to the mirror.

“You can rise,” Rin tells the attendants, easy smile on his mouth. They rebound to Haruka, but with one hand on the undervest’s brocade, he waves them away.

“I’ll do the rest.”

They dip their heads, saying slightly out of synchronization, “Yes, Master Haruka,” and back away. Passing on either side of Rin, they bow again and mutter, “Prince Rin.” Without once turning their backs, they exit the suite and shut the door behind them, leaving Haruka and Rin alone.

In the mirror, Rin approaches Haruka’s bed and flops spread-eagled on his back with a whoomph . The springs creak underneath his weight, and wrinkles pop up on the maroon bedspread.

“Ugh,” he groans, staring at the ceiling. “I’m so bored.”

Done with the vest, Haruka ducks into the cupboard perpendicular to the mirror and picks out a long sleeved robe. He steps in front of his own image again, Rin still ironed out on the bed behind him, and pushes his arms through the light silk.

As if seized by a sudden thought, Rin sits up on his elbows, the mattress bouncing under him. “Want to spar with me?”

He’s dressed casually today; a neat, velvety black robe draws a V below his sternum, red trim and sash jumping out, and black trousers tuck into polished hide boots. Neck and spine crooked, red hair hangs loose, tousled with charm and purpose. A gold dragon pendant glitters around his neck, frozen in a perpetual roar.

Reaching up to adjust the fall of the robe on his shoulders, Haruka replies, “Pass.”

“Ah, come on,” Rin complains, pushing off his elbows to sit up perched at the end of the bed. “Nothing’s going on and everyone else is busy.” A wry smile tugs his mouth. “And anyways, you’re the only one who actually puts up a challenge against me.”

“If you want to be beaten, then ask Colonel Mikoshiba,” Haruka remarks, drily.

“Shut up.” Rin’s expression sours, and he grumbles as an afterthought, “He’s been restationed to Ito, anyway.” He huffs and twists his lips. “Fine, I’ll up the stakes. How about we put money on it?”

“Can’t,” Haruka says, fingers tightening the inner drawstring in his robe, “I’m busy.”

Rin squints, skeptical. “What are you busy with? Lazing in your pond doesn’t count.”

Haruka skirts his gaze and says nothing, stepping into the cupboard again to retrieve his gold belt. He busies himself with finding the exact right spot to place it where the robe will flow smoothly underneath, making micro adjustments along his hips and lower waist, and centers the clasp under his belly button.

Rin’s eyes narrow and he studies Haruka in silence for a couple of moments, leaning forward in curiosity, before he sighs and brushes back a lock of hair, his weight settling into his opposite arm. “Jeez,” he says, and it sounds like an acknowledgment of defeat. Understanding silence bridges the two of them, and Rin bounces his leg in agitation for a moment before pushing himself up to stand. “Well, I guess I’ll wander around town, then.” The clack of his boots lead outside Haruka’s vision to the door, pausing only for a second as Rin adds, “See you later, Haru.”

Haruka smoothes out wrinkles. “See you.”

The door wheezes open and snaps shut, and Rin’s footsteps trail away, echoing down the cavernous hall.

Haruka is left with his reflection. His arms fall to his sides, done with playing with his clothes, and he stares at himself. The luscious maroons and golds of his robe overwhelm his image, so violently colorful that what little is exposed of his own skin, eyes, and hair seems unsaturated and lifeless. He looks important, imposing; a young man with power surging his veins, a product of careful education and training, to soon command something of the world. He looks like Nanase Haruka, the fifteenth in a line of cold, calculated business entrepreneurs, the perfectly groomed heir of the trading company that bears the Nanase name.

He does not, however, look like Haru.

Shoes swishing on marble floor, Haruka whips around and exits his suite. He passes through the hallway and the following staircase, geometric red lacquered beams watching him from the ceiling. He escapes out the door to the garden, blinking away late morning sun as he steps outside. Birds chirp from maples, and beyond trim bushes, a small stream dribbles in the distance, stones and moss lining its path. Manicured grass rustles under Haruka’s feet as he plows through a short grove of trees, the manor shrinking only a little behind him, until the trees disperse and he hits a dirt path. A snippet of city pokes up from beyond the estate gates to his left, but he keeps forward, following the path to the large wooden building with NANASE STABLES printed over its entrance.

He steps inside, immediately struck with that familiar, invading smell of musty hay, that which, no matter the strength of cleanser nor the frequency of cleaning, refuses to die. It mingles with soap, forever an unresolved battle in Haruka’s nose. Sniffing with a twitch of his nose, he ambles down the wide corridor, passing orderly stalls containing horses either for show or for racing, and a couple of stablehands bow and greet him from the middle of their work.

The second to last stall on the left comes into view, and his pace quickens just to reach the windowed door. He stops, head and shoulders above the door, and softly clucks his tongue. With a puff of recognition, Kuroime, a dapple gray mare, turns and approaches him. She drops her head through the window, and Haruka reaches a hand and strokes her muzzle, feeling the hot stickiness around her nostrils. He moves higher, smoothing down her nearly white forehead, then slides his palm along the ashy speckles on her neck. Her mane, hindquarters, and legs are all dark charcoal, while puffy rainclouds sponge the rest.

Kuroime allows him to pet her for a little while, but eventually tires and settles back out of his reach with the company of hay. Haruka leans into the door, resting his chin on folded arms, content to watch her and be in her presence. She was his thirteenth birthday gift, and he considers her his best friend (which he reminds Rin of often, just for sport). With her, he’s won a couple of riding competitions at his parents’ request, but lately, he’s done nothing more than take her out on random excursions. She is mild-mannered and deathly loyal to him, as he to her, and she too enjoys his company more than the company of her own.

With the huffs of horses and scrapes of stablehands’ work in his ears, Haruka feels a buzzing calm, his nose adjusted and now unable distinguish the stable’s distinct smell. To Kuroime, he’s just a dust speck, there but not noticed as she chows on her feed. Time passes; Haruka keeps his mind blank.

But inevitably, a voice echoes down the corridor, “There you are!”

Haruka’s head jerks up. The open entrance illuminates Amakata, curled tendrils of hair bouncing on either side of her face as she advances towards him, heels thudding on tile. A smart raspberry colored robe with capped shoulders sways with her gait, just barely grazing the floor. She comes to a stop with folded arms about ten feet away, her youthful face framed by chin-length bangs, the rest of her hair pulled back into a medium height bun.

“Skulking, I see,” she says, pursing her lips. Eyebrows arched, her expression is both parts exasperation and pity, a tight smile stretching her mouth. “Come along, Master Haruka.”

Reluctantly, Haruka peels himself from the stall door. He steals one last look at Kuroime before trudging to Amakata, who waits to move until she’s sure Haruka is coming with. She marches back down the corridor and out into the sun, Haruka a few steps behind, and retraces Haruka’s earlier path back to the manor. As they enter through the garden door and head up the flight of stairs, dread seeps into Haruka’s bones, and he lags behind Amakata’s brisk pace. Her shoes thunk louder on marble as she leads him down the second story hallway, stopping for a second for her to slide open her office door.

After shutting the door behind them, Amakata turns her attention to her small desk, sifting through papers and files. The room reeks of her flowery perfume, laden like a cloud, and Haruka’s eyes sting as he takes his place at the dainty round table.

“Alright,” Amakata says, sitting down opposite him, with sheets of parchment and small portraits in her hands.

Haruka sinks deeper into his seat and swallows down his thoughts.

It begins. Each time, she slides him a portrait and tells him a name he won’t remember. He doesn’t touch the portrait and only glances at it, briefly meeting each girl’s eyes, only to end up staring at the table while Amakata lists stats. A general’s daughter. A magistrate’s. A professor’s. An actress’s. A diplomat’s. Their family worth. The girl’s individual worth. The girl’s talents. Singing. Poetry. Debate. Archery. Bending.

The oldest is just a year younger than him at seventeen. The youngest is fourteen.

Insides knotted and squirming, Haruka notices only one portrait left on the table, leaving, he suspects, the best for last.

“Now,” Amakata begins, flipping the portrait face up, “I don’t think I need to say much about her.”

She pushes the portrait to him.

“Matsuoka Gou.”

Kou! her voice corrects in his head.

Familiar maroon eyes glare at him.

Amakata lies her parchment notes down on the table and rests clasped hands over them. “Master Haruka, you know her better than I do, so I’m sure you know your own advantages and disadvantages in marrying her, but may I remind you that currently, she is the only one of your choices above you in social standing…”

Haruka cranes his head to the thin rectangular window, eyes searching for the stream. Its lazy dribbles flicker and reflect the sun and sky, and he stares at it, imagining it rushing over him, covering his eyes, his mouth, his ears, his nose…

“…and should something ever happen to Prince Rin, Princess Gou would become Fire Lord, and considering that she is a non-bender, it is more likely that you would assume the duties of a traditional Fire Lord. In addition to that, there is also the possibility that Prince Rin may be unable to produce heirs during his reign, in which case offspring produced by you and Princess Gou would be next in line. It is entirely your decision, Master Haruka, but you could completely change the history of the Nanase bloodline. After you and Prince Rin are dead, who’s to say whose blood will end up on the throne?”

Fog blots out his thoughts, and the perfume curls its fingers around his throat.

“Excuse me,” he says, pushing out his chair and standing up.

He lurches to the door, innards writhing, and freezes as Amakata barks, “ Haruka!

He looks back at her, her face contorted in humiliation at forgetting her place. She inclines her head. “Forgive me, Master Haruka,” she implores, regaining her calm. Her chest convulses with a shaky breath. “It is just that your parents expect a decision from you when they return.”

Limbs alight with dull buzzing, Haruka drops his eyes to the floor. “I’ll decide,” he says, his voice echoing and detached in his skull. “I just need to think.”

Amakata lowers her head more, completely exposing the part of her chestnut hair. “Of course, Master Haruka.”

Without another look at her, he slides open the door. He doesn’t bother shutting it behind him and flees down the hallway, blood roaring in his ears as his feet pound the floor. The staircase whirs by. He escapes to the garden again, this time following along the little stream, careful not to slip on slick stone and moss. The stream leads him back into a circular thicket of trees, and the water opens up into a small pond. A willow on the opposite bank curves over the pond, its droopy green mirrored in ripples. Lilies ride with the current, bobbing lazily.

On the bank, Haruka crouches over the water. His hand dips in and swishes back and forth, testing it out. The pond is a little cool for his liking, not quite warmed by the sun yet, so he flicks droplets from his fingers and stands up. His lungs swell with a great inhale, and in a sharp movement, he lunges forward and shoots a jet of fire out his palm. With a hiss, the fire dissolves as it hits the water, the surface bubbling for a second before settling back into stillness, a tiny trail of smoke spiraling up to the sky. Haruka waits a moment and kneels down again, and this time, the water is warm around his fingers. At least firebending is useful for something, he thinks.

He rises again, and unlike how he dressed himself, he rips his clothes off with careless hands, casting delicate silks to the grass behind. The second he’s completely bare he slips into the pond, the water gurgling in welcome, and his feet brush the rocky bottom as he ducks under. Water presses into his ears, muting sound, movements and splashes foggy and distorted. Bubbles of air flit from his nose and climb to the surface. Too soon he feels his lungs strain, and he must break his head through the surface. He gulps a couple breaths, warm air cool on his now dripping face and hair, and quickly drops back under.

For some time, he’s adrift, deliberately thinking of nothing but absorbing as much water into his skin as possible. The pond is a blanket over reality; the water is silk more comfortable and befitting than any robe he can buy; the earthen walls are ones which he can leave.

However much further into time, a tremble rattles the stones beneath his feet and the water’s placid surface as Haruka is fully submerged. He doesn’t immediately react, not fully registering until the earth groans again with more intensity. His head pops up, parted mouth swallowing air as he scans the grove, looking for the source of the disturbance. Nothing is unusual; the sun hangs a little closer to the west with the passing of time, and his lungs pump heavy breaths, but he’s still alone.

Then— in the distance, in the direction of the city. Crashes. Shouts.

What is that?

The volume flares up and down, wild and unpredictable, and Haruka squints uselessly into the trees. Ears pricked, Haruka tries gather clues, when furious thumps of running come from the path along the stream, moving closer to him.

“Master Haruka!”

The head estate guard, Seda, bursts out from the trees and skids to a stop on the bank. She pants, her eyes flashing alarm.

“Master Haruka, come back to the house,” she orders.

Haruka doesn’t move. “What’s going on?”

She does not answer and instead steps to his discarded clothes, bending over to pick them up. “Here, put these back on and come inside.”

After staring at her a second, Haruka slowly heaves himself out of the water and takes the clothes from her hand. He puts them on without drying off, Seda’s back turned to him until he’s dressed. The second he is, she rushes back along the stream, Haruka stumbling to catch up, booms and shrill voices still sounding in the city. They practically run back to the manor, and Haruka snatches a half-second of the city and flashes of fire before he’s ushered inside. Servants and staff huddle on the first floor, the entryway abuzz with speculative conversation.

Haruka overhears a young maid with a round, childish face intimate to her friend, “ I heard it was a coup d’etat.”

With a single look of I will hang you out to dry if you say another word, Seda cuts off the maid mid-gossip and absorbs the surrounding chatter, the staff stilling into wired, unnatural quiet, forty pairs of eyes boring into her and Haruka.

Seda sighs. “Go up to your suite,” she says, waving a dismissive hand to Haruka. “We’ll inform you if there’s something you need to know.”

No you won’t.

Haruka silently accepts the order and trudges up the stairs, dripping hair leaving a trail of water droplets along the floor. His damp robe clings his skin, fragile fabric probably ruined by now. He pads down the third floor hall, the servants resuming the hubbub from below, and enters his room, locking out their voices behind him with his door.

After a few seconds of staring about his room, curiosity pulls Haruka to the window, and he looks out, trying to catch something of the action. His window hangs over one of the distribution factories, an intimidating, sterile building caged by poplars, with the city on the right just beyond the front gates. He can’t see anything past the black arches, but dull thuds and tremors suggest chaos is out of sight. There seems no end to them.

A coup d’etat, huh?

With possible hours alone in here looming ahead, Haruka steps away from the window and to the space in between his bed and shelf, scanning over the scrolls for something to pass the time. His eyes briefly rest on the first place calligraphy award he won in school when he was fifteen. His lips flicker into a smirk. The award hangs there not for his own personal pride, but to annoy Rin, who had burned his third place award to a crisp in a fit of anger and regretted it twenty minutes later. Throughout the years, Rin’s threatened variations of burning Haruka’s copy, shredding it, feeding it to a dog, and chucking it out the window, but Haruka knows it’s all bluster and no action, and he delights in goading him. He shares this hobby with Kou, who sometimes sneaks her second place prize in Rin’s door when she’s bored.

Haruka yanks his thoughts from the calligraphy award and browses the scrolls, fingertips brushing along each distinct parchment texture. Some are nearly white; others brown and crinkled. Some Haruka’s never read; others he could recite word for word. His hand stops on a scroll with a navy ribbon. He plucks it out and undoes the ribbon, letting it drop to the floor. A damp, aged odor wafts as he unfurls the parchment; it’s so worn and old it feels like cloth in his fingers, with familiar smudgy black characters announcing the title at the top. He backs into his bed, settling down into the mattress, and begins to read.

It’s a Water Tribe story by an unknown author; his parents acquired it on one of many trips to the north but showed little interest in other than its collection. A waterbending boy in a small village finds a hobby making ice sculptures. He starts off small with easy, simple sculptures of daily objects, learning as he goes, and he gradually makes bigger, more spectacular sculptures, of people, spirits. They arouse attention, and his family and village shower him with praise. But people begin to request from him: quicker sculptures, more complex ones, more meaningful ones. “You have the skill,” they say, “You should use it to its fullest.” The boy just makes sculptures because he likes to, not to impress anyone or say anything with them, but he wants everyone to be happy and duly takes in suggestions, churning out fast ones, detailed ones, ones related to specific themes. However, for every person he pleases, he displeases another. Conflicting requests and accusations pepper him, so he whips out more and more, for this person, for that person, for anyone who asks. He thinks of what he would sculpt for himself, and nothing comes to mind. So finally, one day, he slashes all of his sculptures to pieces and runs from his village. That’s all. Nothing of where he goes, what he does, the village’s reaction to his final gift and his disappearance.

“And so, forgetting the ruins of his life, the boy set his sights on the horizon and imagined what lay beyond.”

Haruka reaches the last sentence and hovers on it a moment, its cadence ringing in his ears, before his held breath finally snakes out and movement retakes his body again. With dawdling hands, he rolls the parchment back up and grips it in his right hand. He bends over and plucks the ribbon from the floor with his left hand, neatly winding it around and tying it while keeping the appropriate tension to maintain the roll. A sigh flits out his nose, and he stands and approaches the shelf, arm raised to slide the scroll back in its place.

He pauses.

A thought grabs him.

He stares at his hand, fingers coiled around the parchment, blue veins bursting through pale skin, wrist sheathed by silky maroon. Blood surges up and down veins, his pulse tapping faster and hotter. The scroll crackles as his knuckles tighten.

I can’t.

The city sounds as explosive as ever. No footsteps taint the hallway.

What’s to stop you?

The blue ribbon trembles in rhythm with his shaky hand.

The fissure cracks, and Haruka’s swallowed.

He wheels around, fist clenched around the scroll, and flies across the room to his desk. Clumsy fingers fling open his little trunk and dump out his personal stash of gold pieces onto varnished wood. Tossing the trunk aside, he rips open a drawer and takes an empty brown satchel, popping open its unused latch. He scrapes the gold from the desk into the satchel, little plops hitting his ears as mineral meets fiber. Once the gold is all in, minus the few that dropped to the floor in his hurry, he wriggles out a colorful map of the nations and crams it in along with the Water Tribe story.

His mind jumps, and he drops the satchel and lurches to the closet, rooting around until he finds the simple navy robe he never gets to wear. He pulls it out and throws it to the desk, tearing away his cumbersome robes like he’s ripping away a bandage. Intricate, delicate stitching breaks and frays at his hands. When his skin can breath again, he retakes the navy robe and puts it on, his ribcage free underneath just a single layer of durable, practical cloth. He secures the sash around his hips and lets out an exhale.

His hands find the satchel and sling it over his shoulder as he marches to the door. Inching it open, he wills his breath to slow and pokes his head out. Eyes darting from side to side and ears prickling for footsteps, he creeps out of the suite, sliding the door shut behind him. Voices continue to murmur from downstairs. He backs away from the staircase and tiptoes to a room down the hall from his. Years of boredom equal an extensive knowledge of the manor’s secret passes and hideaways, so it takes him no time to slip into a dark, rickety staircase and make it to the ground floor. The passage comes out in a tea room, and with no door leading outside, he pries open a window and clambers out.

His feet meet grass.

Intoxicated with adrenaline, he rushes a circuitous route through the surrounding trees, wanting to remain invisible from those inside the manor, until he finds the back door of the stables. Silence suggests the stablehands have taken refuge in the main house as well. Jostling the finicky door, Haruka cracks it open.

The stable is dark, and soft knickers puff from stalls alongside Haruka’s footfalls. He stops at a stall door and unlocks it. It swings wide.

“Kuroime,” he says, hand extended. “Come.”


“The third time I failed was not my fault—stop laughing , Yasuo—they changed the test, and suddenly there was a section on history! I did study this time for all the honor and position stuff, but how was I supposed to know the seventh Fire Lord of the Oe Dynasty? What the hell?! Who knows or cares? I mean, I don’t think even you know the seventh Fire Lord of the Oe Dynasty, Prince Rin.”

Rin’s hand plays with the dragon pendant about his neck. “Lord Tanyu.”

“Hey, don’t make fun of me!”

Smirking, Rin drops his hand and says, “Read a history scroll sometime.”

Lieutenant Mikoshiba Momotarou bristles and jabs blunted insults, enraged by both Rin’s nonchalant attitude and Lieutenant Yasuo’s unending snickers, until he turns his nose up and folds his arms, stalking half a body length ahead in an attempt to ignore them. Lieutenant Yasuo and Rin share an amused look as they trod behind him, knowing the silence won’t last long.

It doesn’t; soon he’s recapturing the moment when he finally passed the military exam. On the fourth try.

Rin wonders, again, why Momotarou is posted to him as one of his bodyguards. Surely if Rin were in danger, Rin alone could handle the situation better than three of him. He admits he harbors fondness for the hapless Lieutenant, but questions how anyone allowed him in the military and gave him a position where the second most important person in the nation is his responsibility. His lineage must be his passing ticket. General Mikoshiba Hidenori is one of the Fire Nation’s most distinguished living soldiers, showing a brilliant mind for tactics and teamwork, his forty year career still in deep in progress. The elder Mikoshiba brother, Seijuurou, follows in his ranks, recently making a name for himself in an unexpected win in the Shangto Valley against the Northern Water Tribe’s battalion in the ongoing battle for trade routes, and in the past year was promoted to Colonel.

While Mikoshiba Momotarou is… here. A mere Lieutenant, and a sloppy, hasty one at that.

If Mikoshiba Seijuurou is a chip off the old block, then Mikoshiba Momotarou is a dust speck.

Momotarou jabbers on while they pass through the front gates, pausing through a brief security check, and Rin loses track of what topic he’s on. Scorpions? His friend from training, nicknamed ‘Pincer’? It doesn’t matter, because as they follow white cobbles and cherry trees along the palace court, someone steals Momotarou’s attention.

“H-Hey!” he shouts, frantically waving an arm. “Princess Gou!”

Gou’s petite form traipses the path up ahead, clothed in wine robes, her long maroon hair tucked into a sleek bun at the back of her head. She glances back and lifts an unenthusiastic hand in reply.

Momotarou’s arm whips back and forth like a joyous dog’s tail, his face flaming a beet red.

Pressing his fingertips to his forehead, Rin sighs. Momotarou’s futile campaign to get Gou to like him is many parts entertaining, many parts sad. Even if she likes him (and that’s an if the size of Rin’s ego), with his low standing and general lack of achievement, they could never legally be bound by something like marriage.

“Alright,” Rin interjects before Momotarou can assert his idiocy to its fullest, “I’m not about to be assassinated. You two can scram and do whatever the hell you do without me.”

Momotarou wilts, while Yasuo turns on his heel without complaint. Rin stills pointedly as Momotarou lingers in tenacious hope, waiting until he finally slumps after Yasuo, scuffing his shoes along the ground. Shaking his head, Rin sends a sad smile to Momotarou’s slouched back. He turns and breaks into a jog, catching up to Gou’s purposeful pace.

“Yo,” he breathes, jumping beside her. He slows to match.

“Hey, brother.”

“How were classes?” While Rin’s time is now divided between bending practice and tutoring, Gou attends the best school in the city full-time.

“The usual,” she replies, readjusting the scrolls braced in her armpit. She flicks him a coy smile. “I got in an argument with Wakatake again.”

He snorts. “What was it this time?”

“Okay, so we’re discussing Lin era philosophy right now, which is all about existence and whether it can be proven or not, and we read this one treatise by some crusty old guy,” Gou begins, waving away her hand, “I forget his name. And this crusty guy said something like, ‘Well, if I can see my hands, then they exist.’ It’s not exactly an airtight argument and I have my problems with it, but you know what Wakatake said?” She kicks aside a pebble. “Teacher Uratsu asked what we thought about it, and Wakatake leaned back in his chair and, in the most melodramatic tone, said, ‘Some two thousand years of philosophical thought came to a grinding halt with this argument.’”

Rin breaks into laughter, tilting his head back. “Ah, he sounds like fun.” He smiles at Gou, lifting his eyebrows. “I imagine you couldn’t just let that die.”

“No,” Gou sniffs, raising her chin. “I may not agree with crusty guy’s argument, but I can’t let Wakatake walk around thinking he’s so much better and so much more intellectual than everyone else, when actually, he skips class all the time and makes mediocre scores.”

“Did Uratsu do anything?”

“She just kind of sat there and let me have at him. I think we’re all sick of him.”

“Sounds like a good day.”

Gou tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “Any day I beat down Wakatake is a good day. Anyway.” Sighing contentedly, she focuses back on Rin. “What did you do on your day off?”

“I went to see Haru.”

“Oh? And how is he?”

Rin splays his hands. “Man, I don’t know even know. Something’s up, but he won’t tell me anything. I mean, it’s not like he’s ever been particularly forthcoming anyway, but lately it’s worse. He ignores questions now, instead of just giving vague answers. I think he thinks that if he doesn’t say anything, then I can’t know that something’s wrong. Like I don’t know him well enough to be able to read his expressions.” His lips press into a tired line. “Whatever. I could tell he didn’t want me there, so I left and went into town instead.”

“Hm.” Gou’s expression turns thoughtful. “His parents are off on a business trip in… Ito, right?”

“Yeah, like usual,” Rin sighs, scratching the back of his neck. “Jeez, I guess I’ll just have to let him stew until he eventually comes out with it.”

Facing forward, Gou gives a short nod. “I suppose that’s all you can do.” They fall into easy silence for a couple of strides, the steps to the palace entrance just up ahead, before her voice refills the gap. “Hey, it’s still early; don’t tell me that’s all you’re going to do today.”

“Shut up,” he chuckles, nudging her in the shoulder. “Who do you think I am?”

“A lazy jerk,” she answers loftily. “ I don’t have days off, unlike some people.”

“Hey. I do much more physical activity than you, and the body needs time to rest in order to function properly.”

Her eyebrows arch. “A convenient excuse.”

“I was going to practice bending by myself later tonight anyway .”

“Mm-hm.”

They fall into the shadow of the palace’s yawning entrance; it’s a deep, varnished red like the maw of a dragon. Guards bow as they pass. An elaborate carpet from antiquity muffles their steps, leading up into the dragon’s gullet with hazy golden lanterns lighting the way. The chamber splits two ways, wide stone corridors at opposing ends, and directly in front looms an imperial burgundy double door that stretches all the way to the ceiling.

Footsteps come from the right corridor.

“Ah, Rin! Gou!” Their father appears, smiling, donned in business robes. Dark hair unlike theirs is knotted at the crown of his head.

“Father,” the two reply, respectfully.

Crinkled red eyes find Rin’s. “I’m sorry I couldn’t spar with you today,” Lord Toraichi apologizes, clasping his hands behind his back. “Those council meetings get in the way.” He smiles again. “The day wasn’t too boring, I hope.”

“No, Father.” Rin shakes his head. “I know how busy you are.”

“Well…” Lord Toraichi glances to the window, checking the sunlight’s status. “I have a meeting with the generals soon, so maybe we could squeeze something in afterwards?”

A grin pricks Rin’s mouth. “Yeah.”

“It’s a deal, then.” After a breath, he blinks and peers at Gou. “And how was school, Gou?”

Gou slides out her scrolls and clutches them in her hands. “Good!” she chirps.

“Good,” Lord Toraichi murmurs, head bobbing. The window pulls his attention again, and with an apologetic cock of his head, he lays a hand on the burgundy door. “I should probably head in,” he says, voice curling with a smidgen of disappointment. He recovers it and chuckles. “Enjoy your freedom while it lasts, Rin; being Fire Lord involves a lot of meetings.”

At least I’d be doing something useful, Rin thinks to himself, but he nods and laughs. “I’ll try. See you for sparring later, Father.”

“Of course.” His father raises a hand in farewell and cracks open the enormous double doors, the floor shuddering with a thunderous squeal. He slides in the slit and shuts them behind him, a resonant click echoing as they latch.

Rin and Gou exchange a look, and silently both take the left corridor. In similar tempos, they follow along halls and doors until another split comes before them, and Gou takes the right, and Rin takes the left, parting on a casual “see you at dinner.” Rin passes lion embroidered tapestries, flickering torch light coloring their dark patterns, and he reaches the door to his personal chamber. Opening it, he steps through the threshold and presses his shoulder blades into the heavy cedar until it thunks closed. He leans there for a moment, his quiet breaths billowing in the still, exceptionally neat chamber, before he jerks his weight back onto his feet. At his sides, his fingers itch.

His room is wide and tall; a cave of reds and blacks, with murals of battles from throughout the dynasties on every wall. The nation’s heroes have watched over him his whole life, some with eyes of courage and pride, some despair and longing. Wood slats only let in a tiny stream of outside light onto his red and gold couch, while shadows shroud his bed and the rest of his furniture. Ornate cupboards and dressers line the walls, stuffed with garments for any scenario: casual days, trainings, meetings, coronations, wars, mournings. Most of which have never touched his flesh.

Rin approaches a shorter dresser and leans over it, sliding his hand down the gap where it lies parallel with the wall. Blind, he feels around, the dresser’s sharp edge digging into his hip, until his fingers meet what he’s looking for. He snags it and carefully drags it up with a small screech against the dresser, and when it’s free, he sets it directly on the dresser. He sneaks out a couple of knives from a usually unused drawer, and takes his stance halfway across the room. With a single inhale, he lobs a knife.

No one knows he made his own target to practice knife skills. Since his life of training has yet to teach him to wield a weapon other than himself, he plays with knives in his free time. Personally, he thinks it irresponsible and impractical to be the future leader of the nation and never learn forms of combat alternative to bending.

The first throw lands slightly off-mark with a thwack. Disappointed, Rin hurls the second, but it too falls short of center. He retrieves them from the target and tries again. And again. And again.

The target bears many puncture wounds.

Muscle memory overtakes him, knife after knife sinking into the target’s tender fabric.

Mid thirty-somethingth throw, an almost invisible scuff sounds behind him. He freezes, aim off. The knife clatters to the floor. An eerie sensation whispers at his neck, like cat whiskers tickling his nape.

Something sharp pricks his neck.

He slaps a hand to his skin, fingers finding something protruding just above his shoulders. He yanks and places it under his eyes; a small wooden dart with a black tip. Whirling around, he scans his room. He stands frozen in suspicion, blood thumping in his ears.

At the other end of his chamber, a tall armoire looms. An ajar door, wide enough to show a strip of black from within.

Fight wins control over Rin’s body and he surges forward, hands raising to fry someone if needed, but mid-stride, his muscles give out and his legs collapse under him. He crashes to the floor, arms unable to break his fall, bones painfully colliding with stone. Twisted at an unnatural angle, he stares at the tiny window of ground before him.

He can’t move.

Thoughts incomprehensible and swarming, Rin lies there, skin sizzling with sweat, his only movement the unregulated inhales and exhales of his breath. He waits. A minute? Two? He can’t focus to count his heartbeats.

What was in that dart?

A slow creak of the armoire door. Feet step down onto the stone floor and mince around him, flashing before his vision for a moment as unremarkable brown boots. They stop, their owner surveying over Rin.

Questions fill Rin’s throat. Who are you? What have you done to me? What is going on?

If they somehow hear his thoughts, they do not care to respond, and instead, they lean forward, their clothes as indescribable as their boots, face hidden by a smiling gold mask, and with spotless white gloves, they toss a burlap sack over Rin’s head.

Movement gone, vision gone.

Just sound remains.


Sunset.

Bloody crimson smears the sky, orange clots burning closer to the west. The sun falls to the horizon, soon to be swallowed by the earth, but Haruka doesn’t look to the sun; he heads northwest. Kuroime’s hooves plod along the mountain’s dark soil beneath them, carrying him to the crest of the mountain. Instinctively, Haruka pulls on the reins, and Kuroime stops before they can begin the descent.

Haruka twists and gazes over his shoulder.

In the crater, spurts of fire light up the city. He’s too far to feel any shakes of the ground, but he can see them. Smoke plumes swirl from ravaged buildings and houses in the city’s center, but even from this distance, Haruka spies the palace upright and sturdy as always, a walled-in oasis in the desert.

He watches the light show for another moment, hypnotized, before he swallows and slaps Kuroime’s reins. Her weight shifts and she begins the walk down the mountain path.

The city disappears behind the earth. Haruka turns forward.

Chapter Text

Silver in the hand was worth little because it could buy nothing where nothing was.

—Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth


 The ground beneath Rin murmurs.

He lies spread on his back, petrified, his vision completely black no matter how wide he stretches his eyelids. Just a tiny bit of touch left in his lifeless limbs informs him that he is in motion, on some sort of carriage or cart. How long he has been here, he can’t tell, the churning of wheels and the trots of horses all he has to go by, with the occasional chatter of humanity as they pass through towns, cities. The occasional sniff and shuffle alerts him to the presence of his captors, at least two, and he figures they must be communicating with visual aid so he doesn’t overhear them. At a certain interval, a sharpness pricks his neck, likely the concoction that keeps him useless.

The temperature steadily drops in line with the trip. He shivers, his body reacting even though he cannot. Fingers and feet nearly ice over, while his breaths are hot and suffocating inside the sack covering his face. He aches.

Finally, the rumbling halts and they are still, Rin’s body buzzing with the echoes of movement. Hands grab his shoulders and lug him up to a sitting position, one hand bracing against his back to keep his doll-like body from collapsing. They lift his arms and slide them into sleeves of some sort, and tug fabric to clasp before his chest. Instantly, he is much warmer. Once he is dressed, they grasp around his arm sockets and drag him across the floor, his clothing adding friction and slowing their efforts.

Someone scoops him up into their arms, unable to hold back a grunt as they do, weight shifting as they take steps forward, his head lolling with their momentum. Their steps change from stale thunks to deep crunches with some change in landscape, and they only take a couple of steps before stopping and setting Rin down on the ground. Whatever lies beneath him sinks and crackles under him.

The footsteps recede into the distance, and with the crack of a whip, feet and wheels fade into oblivion.

Rin, now alone for all he can gather, collects little notes of information from his surroundings. A large body of water of sorts must lie to his right, as waves roll and crash, not gentle enough to indicate a pond, but not wild enough to indicate a storm ravished sea. Unfamiliar birds caw from all angles, harsh and loud. Farther away, there is tinkering and thudding, perhaps from construction of some sort, but any human voices are lost in the unyielding slight wind that whips at Rin’s body and clothes.

Gradually, painfully, he begins to regain consciousness in his extremities. His fingers and toes come first, tingling, and he wiggles them, slow at first. Then, his hands and feet, forearms and shins, upper arms and thighs, all the way until his core and spine are unfettered at last.

He lurches up, ignoring his weak and achy state, and fumbles with the cloth sack over his face. With cold, quivering fingers, he tears it from his head and hurls it as far as it will go. Icy air stings his lungs and eyes, and he squints, blasted with blazing gray light.

It takes a moment to process; he sits beneath a sunless sky, clouds smudged from horizon to horizon, his ass resting on top of a thick canvas of blinding snow. It’s no mere pond to his right, but, after a near drop from a cliff, a seemingly limitless ocean, dark blue waves stretching to the opposite horizon. The cliff cascades into a hill, dropping to a little valley-like shore several hundred yards away. At the shore, Rin can’t distinguish where the snow ends and the sand begins, until it all turns to a murky gray. Merchant ships of various shapes and sizes bob in the shallow waters, and little ants of humans swarm around them, apparently pulling apart the ships, not building them. Finally, to his left, a dense black forest, where a path of wheels in the snow vanish.

Rin is very far from home.

Swiping away snow from clothing, he propels himself to his feet, groaning and stumbling on feeble legs. Once his balance settles, he eyes his situation, flipping from the wheel path to the ship deconstruction. Odd curiosity wields him, and he takes steps toward the ships, down to the height of the hill before it descends, where he can watch the scene unfold from a safe distance. He crouches down to make himself less conspicuous in his blacks and reds against white snow, scouring for answers.

Like the snow or sand around them, the workers are all a similar shade of dirty gray, any skin or hair tone lost in the sludge of oil permeating the shallow waters they wade in. The oil drips from a large merchant ship being hacked to pieces, and Rin frowns at it, wondering what exactly the point of tearing it apart is. His eyes travel upward, and now that he’s closer, he can read the name painted onto the ship’s side.

A jolt of recognition.

NANASE TRADING CO.

Rin squints, raising a hand to shade his eyes. What is that doing all the way here? Where am I? He studies for another couple of moments watching workers chip away from on top of the ship to below it, dropping his hand. Deciding there doesn’t seem much more to learn from this site, he stands and goes to turn in direction of the forest.

Shouts from below ensnare his attention.

A large metal chunk of the ship’s hull breaks free and drifts downward, almost in slow motion. Sound pauses for a moment as the metal hangs in free fall, directly above four workers.

Rin flinches with the crash.

After the impact, the water smooths out and workers rush in, rooting beneath hull. Breath stilted in his throat, Rin can’t rip his eyes free as the workers search for their coworkers. Mangled and bloody limbs surface. The others drag lifeless frames to shore and dump them, and once all four bodies are no longer interrupting their progress, the remaining return to work, carving the hull into manageable pieces.

They don’t turn back.

Numb, Rin stands rooted, hair whipping across his face. He can move now, but he doesn’t for a couple of moments.

Then, his feet carry him away, and the black forest swallows him.


Running away has lost its luster.

Haruka isn’t exactly sure what he imagined, but he had some idea of beautiful, foreign towns and enjoying freedom for once, only so far, the towns all look the same, in decreasing states of cleanliness and attractiveness, and with no regulation, no others with him, he has no idea what to do. He wanders through these disorganized towns, which still hold onto Fire Nation color schemes and architecture, though houses are the size of the servants quarters, arches and pillars are crumbling, once lusty reds and golds are dimmed with time and neglect, and cobbled roads nonexistent, with heavily tread dirt, trash and rot littering underfoot. Haruka prepared himself to hear something of the coup d’etat, but either these people don’t know or they don’t care, because he hasn’t caught a breath of anything.

Traveling isn’t as fun or freeing as he imagined. He’s never spent so much time under direct sunlight, and after two days traveling, he bought a sun hat in a village, but the damage was already done; now his skin is inflamed and pink, raw to the touch. He aches from sitting atop Kuroime for days, so when returned to his own feet, he hobbles around on burning, shaky thighs like an old man. At night, he settles in whatever inn happens to be available in whatever village he’s in, and sleeps on rickety, mealy cots, sweating and slapping away thirsty mosquitoes. He tells himself not to scratch his mosquito bites, yet his fingers find the raised skin and scratch anyways, desperate fingernails breaking the skin and drawing tiny bloody welts.

So far, the horizon has not unveiled anything new about him.

Under the shade of his gigantic hat, Haruka rolls into another grungy, unremarkable village, which, according to his map, lies near the border between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. Unlike some villages he’s seen, which produce crops and goods, this one seems to produce nothing but dirt. Mud caked horses and oxen plod behind their owners, clods of loose earth flying into the air from their hooves’ impact. No farmland lies nearby, and a smattering of ancient, unfashionable buildings constitute as the village. Traditional hip-and-glide roofs do not shine like they should, the only visible glitter from curious eyes on dilapidated awnings and front steps, peering at Haruka from dull faces.

Noting the dim rumble from his stomach, Haruka scans the buildings, eyes falling on JIRO’S KITCHEN . He guides Kuroime aside and hops off, tying her rope to a post. Once she’s settled, he steps to the kitchen doorway, where a dark maroon tapestry hangs. With a hesitant hand, he pushes underneath the tapestry and enters.

When his eyes refocus, through murky light he spies a couple of tables, two grizzled men looking up at him with flat expressions from one across the entrance. Untailored facial hair swathes the men’s cheeks, their eyes sinking behind dark waxing crescents on the skin below. Haruka’s simple navy robe singes at his skin, its fabric and stitching far more elevated than anything on them. They regard him for a moment, eyes narrowed, ignoring their bowls. Haruka selects a table facing a window, Kuroime just in sight outside. Along the other side of the room, a linen sheet blocks out the cooking area from the tables. Lowering his hat, Haruka trains his eyes at a corner of the rough hewn wood table, feeling his presence flashing like a beacon.

“Can I help you… sir?”

His head snaps up. A boy no older than twelve stands before him, youthful skin pinched in confusion, hands clutched behind his back.

Haruka blinks and sits up straighter. “Um… What do you serve here?”

“All we have is rice or mushroom broth,” the boy answers, and as he opens his mouth, Haruka notices a few voids where teeth should be.

“Oh,” he says. “I’ll have rice then, I guess.”

The boy’s head bobbles on a reedy neck. “Yes, sir.” His weight shifts onto his heels, but he stays fixed to his spot.

Haruka watches his expression, unable to settle with enveloping hazel eyes on him. “Anything else?”

The boy throws out, “Aren’t you going to pay?”

Haruka’s skin prickles with the attention of the two men again, and his sunburn radiates heat. “Oh…” He shoves a hand into his satchel, and grasps a single gold coin. “Here,” he says, offering it to the boy.

The boy’s eyes bulge out, glinting for an inhale, before recovering objectivity as he plucks the gold out of Haruka’s hand. He slips it into the pocket of his jacket. “Your rice will be out soon,” he says, and turns and disappears through a slit in the linen.

Dust particles drift in the dim light, aimless in the kitchen’s still air. Indistinct words in the boy’s voice and a deeper voice waft from behind the linen, as do the sounds and smells of food cooking. The two men opposite him gulp down their meals without conversation, and when they finish, they leave their cleaned bowls on the table and remain glued to their seats. Haruka rests his chin in his hand and avoids their eyes. His stomach voices discontent again.

Haruka isn’t sure how long he waits, but the sun is nearly all gone by the time the boy reappears from the slit, bearing a white bowl of steaming rice. He plops it before Haruka, a couple of grains popping out and falling to the table, and reaching in his pocket, he withdraws a pair of simple chopsticks and lays them beside the bowl.

Haruka takes them and goes to dig in, but stops. His eyes flicker to the side, and once more, plaintive hazel eyes consume him. Shiny black pupils toss his own face back, and he sees his faintly rumpled hair, his hat’s drawstring around his neck, and the neat collar of his robe.

His hand hovers over the bowl. “Yes?”

“You have to pay for the time you used the seat,” the boy says, clinically.

Haruka’s jaw ticks. In his cradled hand, the hot bowl scalds his palm. His gaze bores into the boy’s for another couple of seconds, before he reluctantly rests his chopsticks atop the bowl’s rim and pulls his hands to the folds of his satchel. He snatches another coin and drops it into the boy’s hand, but the boy merely shakes his head.

“It costs more than the meal to rent a table.”

Pressing his lips together, Haruka gives him one more coin. The boy deems this the appropriate amount and deposits them in his jacket pocket.

“Enjoy your meal, sir.” He smiles.

Haruka doesn’t return the smile.

Once more, the boy turns and vanishes through the slit.

Haruka takes his time eating, with nowhere else to be, mulling on slow, aimless mouthfuls. The rice is crude and lacks flavor, but the warmth along his throat is comforting, at least. Chair legs squawk across the floor as the two men stand and leave, while Haruka busies himself with observing the murky white grains ooze around the bowl. With his chopstick tip, he prods lone grains clinging to the walls of the bowl back down to join the mass at the base.

With an eye on Kuroime, Haruka stops eating and sets down the bowl and chopsticks, leaving the mushy sludge of the last of the rice uneaten. Running his tongue along his gums to catch loose grains, he stands and slips on his satchel again, leaving his bowl unattended on the table. He passes under the tapestry and breathes in early nighttime air, which is just as sticky and humid against his skin as it was indoors.

Kuroime stands waiting for him, and he takes a step to meet her—

Foreign hands snatch him from behind and ram him into the kitchen’s wall.

Breath stops. His cheek grinds against splintery wood, his throat swallowing against the threat of a dull knife. Pulse thundering and eyes stretched wide, Haruka doesn’t move, unable to see more than wood panels, and lets hands paw through the contents of his satchel.

There’s an indistinct exchange of words between two different voices, before his satchel swings free and light around his shoulder.

Lightly digging the knife, someone leans into him, breath hot on his ear, and murmurs, “Sorry.”

With a shove, Haruka tumbles to the ground, getting a mouthful of dirt. Feet dash away into early night.

Lying still, Haruka heaves, his limbs boiling with adrenaline. After a couple of moments, he tenderly picks himself back up, arms trembling beneath him, and sits back. A glance over his shoulder reveals no muggers, so he returns to the front, shoulders slumping. He brings a hand to his face, grazing over stinging scrapes and dirtied blood, and winces. Kuroime knickers from her post a couple of feet away, lowering her head down to his height. Exhaling, Haruka drops his hand. Adrenaline tapers away and cools, now just a residual quake in his hands and heavy exhaustion in his eyes.

His attention shifts to his satchel, and with uncertain fingers, he opens the flap.

The satchel is empty.


Following on the carriage trail in the snow, Rin can’t decide whether demons lurk within these woods, or whether he’s gone around the bend.

Perhaps, these woods are mystical and enchanted, for he’s been stomping through them with no apparent finish line in sight. The dark pines knit close, blotting out everything but parcels of light. Snow, upturned by his hasty feet, turns blue as hours (or what he assumes are hours) pass. Around every trunk and branch, apparitions send his already racing pulse into flight, and sounds and steps other than his own have him playing ping pong with his eyes. The pads of his feet ache from following the carriage tracks, and his hands are almost as icy as the snow, but he can’t stop, for fear of both a demonic wolf spirit (that of which he, when of sound mind, would categorically not believe in) possessing him, and the bitter cold eating him alive.

And also, maybe, because he can’t be left alone with his thoughts at the moment.

Rin prays this is not some delusion, because he would delight in nothing better than placing a good punch on the nose of whoever is responsible for his being here. If this is all but an elaborate dream or hallucination, that makes his desire very awkward for himself.

Hoo.

Reeling and stuttering over his steps, Rin almost ascends his corporeal form. He thrusts out a fist and slides into a fighting stance, poised to incinerate any demon who dare attempt to collect his soul. However, the forest is quiet, and he is, again, quite alone.

Hoo.

His arm drops, embarrassment raining down on him, and he slouches back into his march. It’s just an owl, you fucking baby. Watching his feet carve through the snow, he gulps down the apprehension in his throat. Calm down. Long inhale, long exhale. Returning his arms by his sides, he sets his sights forward, hoping to find some town or shelter before night takes over day.

Smothering his fears, Rin slips into a monotony of steps and cold. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot, right, left, right, left. The crack of ice. His exhaled breath in clouds of warmth. The whistle of wind in the branches.

Rin passes a tree.

A whizz of a projectile, followed by a thunk as it hits wood. Rin hurtles around, mania alight again. Unless he is mistaken, there is an ice shard, crafted like a knife, lodged in the tree at the height of his stomach.

He whirls to the direction of its origin, and through the trunks, he spots something. Someone.

Hey!

Without waiting for a reply, fire escapes his palms in a thick stream. A shriek of surprise echoes across the snow, and a quick wall of water rises up to deflect Rin’s shot. Rin sprints forward, slowing only to swoop his arm forward into more coiling flames, his opponent squeaking by with another splash.

Once in range, Rin sees but hardly processes the appearance of his attacker, who is slight and boyish, and certainly no match for his own physical power. He advances forward with untamed, uncalculated kicks and punches, pushing the boy into the defensive, putting out Rin’s fires as they catch.

With a jab from his hand, Rin flings a serpent of fire to coil around the boy, trapping him. The boy swirls his arm in an attempt to cut through the wall, but fire absorbs away the snow on the ground, and his only source of water hangs in the air as skimpy sips. Nevertheless, he whips at Rin’s flames with what he has, frenzied in realized futility.

Roaring blood blotting out his thoughts, Rin brings his hands to his midline and casts away the ring of fire, scorching nearby trees. In the confusion, he rushes in and seizes the boy’s neck, pushing and stumbling over two pairs of feet, snow, and tree roots to slam him into a tree trunk.

“Who are you working for?” Rin snarls, digging his fingernails into exposed skin, feeling the heat and tick of the boy’s life in his hands. “What do you want from me?”

Eyes blown wide and forehead marred in fear, the boy gives a slight jerk of his head, storm gray hair quivering. “That’s—that—you misunderstand—”

Rin tightens his fingers, eliciting a voiceless squeak. “What is it this time? Power, or money? Why not get a fucking job and earn your keep, you useless—”

An ice shard flies from their side and stabs Rin’s hand.

Erupting in an agonized groan, Rin drops the boy and doubles over, clutching his hand. His vision blurs over the shard projecting from either side of his hand, the side of entry smeared red. Taking advantage of Rin’s distraction, the boy scuttles out of reach and eyeline, retching, and Rin’s eyes swerve to trace him, following to a taller and more imposing figure framed by blue snow. With a snarl through bared teeth, Rin melts the shard, steam exiting his wound with a sharp hiss, and charges towards them.

The taller figure raises his hands in what Rin thinks is anticipation for an attack.

Rin stops.

Every part of his body is screaming to go forward, to move, but it is as if the blood within his veins are surging the opposite direction. Flailing within his own stubborn container, Rin wheezes faster and faster. Only his head retains autonomy, and he gapes in horror at the taller figure and his outstretched, bracing hands.

A bloodbender.

Rin has met and fought many waterbenders, and has pored over paragraphs and paragraphs of dense historical text on waterbending, but never has he met a bloodbender, nor has any more knowledge of the outlawed practice than a couple of lines in one or two scrolls.

For the second time in one day, his body is not his own.

Stop! ” he screeches. “Release me!”

The bloodbender returns Rin’s appeals with no movement. “Who are you?” he asks, his voice a deep, dangerous temperature. A few feet behind him lurks the boy, kneeling in the snow with his hands protectively placed upon his neck.

“Who am I ?!” Rin repeats. “How dare you talk to me like that! You already fucking know—I’m goddamn Matsuoka Rin! Who the fuck are you ?!”

The bloodbender’s eyes narrow, just indistinct slits in darkening light. “I don’t give a fuck who you are, if you touch Ai again, I’ll kill you.”

“But he was trying to kill me ! He shot at me! I’m just trying to figure out what you assholes want!”

“It’s true,” the boy, Ai, pipes up, and the bloodbender turns to him in surprise. “Well…” Ai’s expression is sheepish. “When I was hunting, I got kind of desperate, so when I sensed movement I just sort of… shot blindly.”

“Are you fucking serious ? You think I’m going to believe that bullshit?” Rin spits. “I get kidnapped from my home and dumped in the middle of fucking nowhere, someone tries to shoot me, and it’s just an accident ?!”

“I swear, I didn’t—”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up! ” Rin’s scream reverberates across the snow, and Ai and the bloodbender stiffen. “What is wrong with you?! Why do you fuckers have to mess with my life?! I just want to go home and be with Father and Mother and Gou and Haru—” He breaks off, eyes swimming with wetness, and his voice breaks. “What did you do them? What happened? Why am I here?”

Silence stretches over them, and Ai and the bloodbender share a baffled look.

“We don’t—”

Throat closing in on itself, Rin chokes back a swallow. “Just let me go,” he hisses, squinching his eyes shut and squeezing out fat, hot tears. The seconds tick by, and no one moves. Rin’s eyes spring open. “I said, let me go!

He opens his mouth and spews out a jet of fire, jerking the other two into action. The bloodbender drops his hold on Rin and hurriedly waves his arms to catch the flames with a protective wall of water, Ai weakly joining in on the effort. Rin’s freed legs buckle beneath his weight, and he flops into the snow, barely registering swirling water taming his fire.

Grasped by sudden exhaustion in the new quiet, Rin sits there, burning holes into the snow with blank eyes. He breathes ghostly clouds, which hang in his vision for a moment before drifting up and dispersing into tree branches.

A crunch of snow.

Ai’s voice tempts the quiet. “Um, do… do you—”

Leave .”

Ai’s voice catches, and it sounds like a torrent of words wait at the back of his throat, but he falls quiet again.

The bloodbender murmurs, “Come on.”

Slowly, two pairs of footsteps trail away into the night, and Rin is left alone, dissolving into pathetic, indulgent, full-body sobs.

Wind picks up, kicking clouds of powdery snow into the air and clawing at Rin’s motionless body with icy talons. Gradually, almost all light disappears from sight, and the snow before Rin taking on a deep indigo, only visible in the contrast between it and black trees and night. Rin shivers uncontrollably, but he hardly notices, preoccupied with exhausting all the liquid his body has to offer from his eyes. He’s quick to cry, sure, but normally, also quick to stop.

Eventually, some indefinite time later, he wears himself out, and his tears dry cold on his cheeks. He lights a small fire and draws his knees to his chest and hugs them tight, garnering a little more heat. His wounded left hand throbs, oozed blood and pus congealing tight as they cross arctic air, fingers numb and limp.

Burrowing his forehead to his knees, Rin presses out a shuddering breath. He’ll just have to hunker down here and hope he doesn’t die in his sleep, so come morning, he can find out a way to return home.

Distant footsteps.

Rin’s head pops up.

A gleam of light steals through tree trunks.

Unable to distinguish form in its glow of a single torch, Rin squints, watching and waiting, until, with measured steps, the bloodbender comes into view. Tame orange flame meets his fire and radiates into a little bubble surrounding them, lighting the snow between them into a neutral zone.

The bloodbender and Rin’s eyes meet; Rin looks away.

“Ai was worried.”

Digging his chin into his kneecap, Rin does not respond. The animal pelts and dark blues of the bloodbender’s clothing flutter with the chill wind, and a strand of Rin’s hair flaps over his eye.

Then, calculated, “You’re going to lose that hand if you stay out here all night.”

Rin inhales. He glances down and instantly regrets doing so, innards writhing at raw, open flesh, white bone poking out among slick muscle and tendon. Tremors rack his paling fingers. A couple of moments pass, Rin in consideration, the bloodbender in wait. Finally, with a drawn-out sigh, Rin unfurls his legs and arms and pushes himself up.

“Sorry for attacking Ai,” he mumbles, brushing snow from his clothes, but he remains in place, not quite ready to test the space between them.

The bloodbender dips his chin, also stationary. “Sorry for stabbing you and using bloodbending on you,” he returns.

The torch in his hand flickers, extending palm-like fronds to above with a thin plume of smoke. Warm light morphs incessantly, and every time Rin tries to gage something from the bloodbender’s expression, his face changes with the light.

Finally, Rin pushes himself forward, extinguishing the fire on the ground, and once he moves, the bloodbender turns back to where he came, allowing Rin to catch up before beginning the trek. They fall into contemplative silence, pacified. Feet shuffling through chilled snow, Rin sneaks a couple of looks at his new companion, now that they’re at eye level and illuminated by torchlight. The bloodbender has a couple of inches of height on Rin and is perhaps a bit broader, the only exposed skin of his face and hands deeply tanned. Close cropped black hair contrasts with piercing teal eyes, and the beginnings of stubble trail along a hard, clenched jaw. His presence emanates a sort of rugged integrity, as simple but deadly as a home-sharpened arrowhead.

“You really don’t know who I am, do you?” Rin asks, mind clear after his cathartic cry.

The bloodbender exhales a puff of air from his nose. “Not a clue.”

“Matsuoka Rin?” Rin prods, furrowing his brow and peering into the bloodbender’s disinterested expression. “Of the Matsuoka family? The royal family of the Fire Nation?”

The bloodbender fixates on Rin with a distant relative of curiosity. “You’re related to the Fire Lord?”

“I’m not just related to him, I will be him,” Rin boasts. “Well, when my father steps down.”

With a slow nod, the bloodbender returns his eyes forward.

Rin scoffs. “Seriously, did you not know who the royal family was? What are they teaching you here in—where is this, exactly?”

“Rasu,” the bloodbender answers. “Most northern tip of the Earth Kingdom and the mainland continent. The Sashir Sea is north of here, and the Northern Water Tribe north of that.”

Rin’s stomach drops. I’m in the Earth Kingdom? How long have I been gone? “Ah,” he says, smoothing over his spike of nerves. “Then is this your hometown? Or area, or whatever you call it.”

“No.” There’s a note of finality in his voice.

“Ah… So, uh… Your name, then?”

“Sousuke.”

“Ah,” Rin parrots, scratching at his temple with his good hand. Holding a conversation with this guy is like trying to wring water from a dry rag. “So… Are you and Ai related?”

A morsel of sentimentality strikes Sousuke’s face. “Not by blood.”

“I have a friend like that, too,” Rin offers, turning his face to highlighted snow. Sickening worry hits him in the gut, mind flooding with images of Haru’s dry, unasked remarks and his weird, near obsessive adoration for his horse. A lump rises in his throat, but he swallows it down, determined to keep himself together, and falls silent, allowing quiet between them.

They walk for a few minutes, both withdrawn within their own minds, cleaving through unbroken snow, before Sousuke abruptly halts.

“What?” Rin asks, concerned by the intense concentration on Sousuke’s face as he gazes into the woods.

Sousuke’s pupils bounce around for a moment, coming to rest to the woods on his right. He swerves and changes direction. “This way.”

Rin blinks, processing, and has to clomp through the snow to catch up. “Oi, have you been leading me in the wrong direction?”

Lips pressed into a sharp line answer the question.

“What the fuck? How could you mess up following your own footprints?”

“Shut up.”

“Seriously, I can’t believe this. How dumb are you, anyway?”

Fuck off .”

Rin crumbles into ugly, miniature cackles, while Sousuke glowers. Eventually, Rin silences himself and restrains laughter while a smile still plagues his lips, and they finish the rest of their walk, a few more minutes passing until a puny shack comes into view.

Its badly constructed design and dark wood makes it like the kind of place Haru would tell ghost stories about, a place haunted by a vengeful spirit who was wrongfully given capital punishment in life. Rin was absolutely not scared of ghosts for an extended period of his childhood and young adult life, nor did he ever cry at the end of one of Haru’s stories in sheer terror, nor does he still wake up in a sweat from occasional nightmares inspired by them.

“We’re here,” Sousuke announces.

“That?” Rin points at the shack. “You live there?”

Sousuke turns on him. “Something wrong with it?”

Rin’s nose scrunches. “It’s so… small.” And creepy, his mind supplies, but he shushes it. The shack could comfortably fit into his palace bedroom six times over and would be considered inhumane for even the lowest of palace servants.

“It’s just me and Ai,” Sousuke says, gruff in defense. “You’re welcome to sleep outside if it doesn’t meet your standards.”

Rin flicks back a scowl and haughtily sweeps a hand through his hair. “It’s fine.”

Until I can find a way back home.

Sousuke pries open the creaky door and enters, Rin following behind. The inside is rectangular, with thin vertical beams of wood along the walls in support of the roof, and hoarded paraphernalia litters the planked floor. Anything from chunks of glass and metal to animal skins and bones hide most of the floor in a chaotic fashion, and Rin’s discomfort rises at the disorder and his fingers itch to organize everything. A small fire pit rests in the center, alight, with two pitiful excuses for beds on the ground behind it. Something cooks in a pot over the fire, a waft of rising steam stirring Rin’s tastebuds and stomach. Ai’s back faces them, but he turns and opens a nervous smile.

“A-Ah, you’re back!” he chirps, his flimsy expression just barely cloaking the tension that riddles him at the sight of Rin. He is maybe a little younger than Rin, with clear, sincere blue eyes incapable of shielding his thoughts. Along his thin neck, imprinted purple on pale, translucent skin, are Rin’s fingers.

Sighing, Rin raises his eyes from Ai’s throat and stares deep into Ai’s face. “I’m really sorry about earlier.”

Ai shakes his head and waves his hands in a flurry. “Oh, no, no no, don’t worry about it! It was just a misunderstanding!”

Rin lets his arms hang free by his sides. “No, I completely overreacted,” he says, gravely, mouth twitching into a sympathetic grimace. “I didn’t want to harm you.”

Removing an outer layer of fur, Sousuke settles on a cot behind Ai and the fire, omnipresent lidded eyes on Rin.

Ai nods, smiling slipping a little, before conceding, “Thank you. I appreciate that.” He visibly deflates, shoulders sinking with a sigh. The fire crackles in a short lull, with all three of them unsure of what to say, before Ai regains his chipper smile and gestures towards Rin’s left hand. “Can I see?”

Rin checks down his sleeve and quickly looks back up, the limited contents of his stomach swelling up to the back of his throat. He nods and steps forward into the shack, noting how cold clings to the walls and warmth huddles to the center, and stretches his hand to Ai.

Ai, gingerly touching Rin’s frozen skin with warm fingers, inspects it with ease, humming in concentration. “Here.” He drops Rin’s hand and ducks around, procuring a shallow basin, water sloshing around as he sets it on the ground before him. “I can try healing it for you.”

“Oh, thanks.” His skin now feeling tight with heat at the proximity of the fire, Rin goes to peel off his outer coat. As he shoulders off one side, he notices a pocket in the lining, with a sliver of parchment poking out. With this coat his only tangible connection to his captors as of yet, he fingers it and plucks it out. One fold down the middle. He opens it, reading just one word in unfamiliar black ink.

Listen.

“Something wrong?”

Rin jerks out of his mind and refocuses on Ai. “It’s nothing,” he says, crumpling the parchment into a ball and chucking it into the flames. He bows his head as he removes his coat, folding it and placing it beside him as he kneels down to Ai’s level.

“This will hurt some,” Ai warns, scooping up Rin’s hand and submerging it in the basin’s cool water. Closing his eyes, he draws a meditative inhale and begins running his hands back and forth in the air above the water. A strange blue wave follows his motions, going from basin wall to basin wall and passing through Rin’s hand. Each lap of water stings Rin’s skin, and he cringes, but with each round, something is rebuilt; a tendon, a muscle, a filament, a vein, until Rin’s hand is intact with a mere discolored reminder.

Ai’s movements slow and come to a gradual stop, and he reopens his eyes and gazes upon his handiwork. “It’s not perfect, and it’ll still hurt, but that should help,” he says as Rin picks up his hand and flexes it, in awe of its subsided pain and relative mobility.

“Thank you, really.”

“Not at all!” Ai’s smile is contagious, and Rin’s mouth reflects it back.

Ai pushes aside the basin and gets a steaming cup of stew from the pot on the fire, holding it out to Rin. After thanking him again, Rin swallows it down so quickly he hardly notices it scald his tongue, warmed from the inside.

“So, um…” Ai begins, settling down opposite Rin, while Sousuke is rooted to his cot.  “What was it that happened to you? You seemed pretty… agitated earlier. I mean, only if you want to talk about it…”

Setting his cup beside him, Rin leans back, resting on his good hand, eyebrow quirking. “Well…”

Figuring it safe, considering they don’t know him, he recaps everything. To his pleasure, Ai reacts with much more interest than Sousuke at him being the prince of the Fire Nation, sucking in a gasp and breathing, “Really?”, and with renewed vigor, Rin smirks and sits up straighter. He describes his last day at home, finding someone in his room, then the whole journey here. Briefly, he’s interrupted by Ai, who drowns in a sudden fit of rattling coughs. While he holds his tongue and waits for Ai to finish, Rin notices Sousuke shift forward in his seat, more attentive to Ai’s phlegmy hacking than to Rin’s talking. Finally, Ai stops and Rin resumes, and Sousuke sinks back down into the cot, shoulders easing back down. Rin tells of waking alone by the sea and seeing the dismantled ships (undercutting the deaths he witnessed), and finally reaches the present, meeting them after wandering in the woods for hours.

When Rin finishes, Ai shares a tiny glance over his shoulder with Sousuke. Rin, out of their loop of communication, can’t decipher the look’s meaning.

“You believe me, right?” he confirms.

Ai returns to Rin, thin brows pinched, and nods. “Yeah, of course! I believe you. Sousuke does too.”

Behind him, Sousuke limply shrugs as if to say, I guess.

“It’s awful that happened to you, I’m so sorry,” Ai continues. “You’re welcome to stay here as long as you need.” He clasps his hands and tucks them between his thighs. “And you really don’t know what’s going on? No idea why someone brought you here?”

“No, everything’s been pretty quiet in the Fire Nation, but I mean—” Rin cocks his head with a bitter smile. “As the imperial family, there’s always someone trying to profit off of our hard work and success.”

A thud as a log shifts within the fire, glowing red with dying embers.

“I’m going to sleep,” Sousuke interrupts, collapsing into his cot and rolling onto his side.

Rin’s pulse ticks in his temples and his fingers coil into fists. He clamps down on his impulse to say something inflammatory, teeth gnashing together.

Ai exhales, and Rin’s eyes follow him as he picks himself up off the floor. “Yeah, we should all probably go to sleep,” he says, stretching his arms over his head and nearly grazing the shallow roof. “It’s, ah, been a long day.”

Rin’s teeth unlock. “Yeah.”

Ai scrapes aside some of the detritus (Rin internally screaming) to make room for a bed on the floor, dumping all of their extra fur skins to give a go at creating the illusion that Rin is not sleeping on the ground. When Rin lies down on the bed, the illusion does not work. Ai extinguishes the fire with a flick of his hand and a swoosh of water, familiar smoke coiling into the air and filling Rin’s nose. Ai mumbles a goodnight as he clambers around in the dark, rustling some before settling into silence.

The shack creaks with the wind, little streams of cold seeping in through cracks of its shoddy make. Uncomfortable with his back on hard ground and chilly with the dead fire, Rin curls into himself, staring up at the black ceiling.

Listen.

His own breaths lull him into sleep.


Only bathing tethers Haruka to some semblance of order.

The streams and ponds he finds are not comparable to the crystalline water of his pond back on the estate, but he’ll take anything to strip away sweat soaked fabric and dirt layers from his skin. At least, with his head underwater, he can close his eyes and pretend away reality. But, he must surface at some point. No matter how long he’s submerged, no matter how forcefully he scrubs, he still feels tainted when he steps onto dry land.

Without map or money, he’s wandered a couple of days with Kuroime through trails and ravines, lost and unable to purchase food or shelter. When the sun slips from sight, he trades beds for grass, and spends fitful hours feeling phantom insects writhing under his skin. He once sees some free kitchen in a village, with a rabid line of people snaking out the door, but despite the painful urgings of his stomach, he cannot make himself step into line, instead averting his eyes and ignoring the saliva on his tongue. A few hours down the road he stumbles onto a tree surrounded by fallen apples, and he inhales their mealy, rotting flesh faster than he thought possible. He takes some with him and they sustain him for a couple of days, before they ran out and he hits a stretch of uncultivated forests where he doesn’t trust himself to judge whether the plant life was poisonous or not.

Now, with a hollow stomach and sleep-deprived eyes, Haruka is in a chain of grassy mountains overlooking a shallow valley. The sun drips behind the crest of the mountains on the opposing side, setting a pink frame for black land. Night is near. In the shadows lie stretches of farmland, while a paltry village nestles into the slope below. Miniscule dots of light burn in the increasing dark, and just a wisp of deep mauve lingers to outline the bowl of mountains.

Haruka nudges Kuroime forward, and they descend.

Not many buildings in the town are lit from within, but from what Haruka can see, rickety brown comprises most of the structures, all aligned along a central dusty path. Only crickets and cicadas talk. Everything is too still, too untouched; Kuroime’s hooves trespass with every thunk on the ground.

In the midst of darkness and placidity, one building burns brighter than the others, light spilling out a single window. Tavern, it reads overhead.

Haruka’s stomach rumbles.

He halts Kuroime and hops off, securing her to a decrepit column on the righthand building before pushing open the wood door. He stands a second in the doorway, absorbing, his empty satchel over his shoulder by habit. Candles glimmer from shabby tables, spread atop a dusty mud floor, and a few people occupy the tables. The walls curve into a dome like an overturned cup, earthy brown in color. A single bartender hovers behind the bar, a grizzled, balding man with a grimy, uncombed beard, leaning into the counter and nearly blocking out the view of his meager selection of alcohol. He looks up, meeting Haruka, making little change in expression before turning to organize something behind the bar.

Of the handful of others in the bar, Haruka notes they appear similarly worn: a older woman with jagged white hair and tattered brown robes, sipping something from a brown cup; a younger man on his fifth drink, face red and eyes unfocused; someone in dark green, passed out on the table, with only their white blond hair poking out of their folded arms. They all sit at separate tables.

Haruka looks around, spotting a couple of empty tables. Deliberating for a moment, he lets his feet take him to the bar, facing the bartender’s back.

“Excuse me.” Haruka’s voice strains from lack of use.

The bartender turns and lowers bloodshot eyes on Haruka, thin mouth tugging into a nonverbal, Well? as he rests his hands on the counter.

“Um.” Haruka blinks, looking at the soiled rag in the bartender’s hand. “Do I have to buy something to sit in here?”

The bartender raises a thick eyebrow. “Nah,” he says, shaking his head.

“I don’t have to pay for the time I used the table?”

He chuckles, a little darkly. “I mean, if you insist, I’m not gonna say no, but you don’t have to.”

Haruka nods, backing away a tad. Without another word, he approaches one of the empty tables and plops into a seat, his satchel settling beside his left hip. He stares at the grubby wall, trying to ignore the grumbles of his cavernous stomach and the heaviness of his limbs. As he sits there, his thoughts drift and swirl, unable to latch onto anything more than his stomach, his body demanding his attention.

Hands trembling, he hunches forward onto the table, using his tucked arms as pillows and shutting his eyes. Splinters prick into his hands and his robe’s fabric.

He does not know how long he rests there. He does not sleep, or if he does, he dreams of this table and the slight stench of alcohol. Either way, he is not truly present, and it almost feels like the physical sensations are just a container for some deeper, more reclusive and true part of himself.

The sensation of existing within a shell prolongs for some time, until the satchel at his hip moves. It takes Haruka a second to rouse himself, but with a flashing inhale, he lurches up.

Someone’s hand is in his satchel. By instinct, he yanks it into himself, and the hand twitches and retracts.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” a voice says. “I didn’t know you were awake.”

Haruka takes in the person before him in a split second; a young man close to his age.

Accusingly, Haruka says, “I don’t have anything.”

“O-Oh, no, I wasn’t— I didn’t—” The young man waves his hands. “Here—” He makes a move forward, hands outstretched to Haruka’s satchel, and Haruka jerks back, tugging it closer to him. The young man recoils. “Sorry! I meant— You can look inside.”

Haruka’s brow crinkles, and his arms loosen. Tentative, he slips a hand in and half expects an asp to chomp at his fingers, but instead, he finds something smooth and approximately round. He grasps it and pulls it out, unveiling a palm sized tomato. It has faint scuffs and a somewhat mottled shape, but through one-track lenses, it nevertheless looks like most refreshing, filling food Haruka has ever seen. His stomach stands to attention and saliva pools in his dry mouth.

He lingers on its red skin for a few seconds, before his mind regains control, and he extends the tomato back to the young man. “I already ate,” he lies.

“Oh! Okay,” says the young man, reaching out and plucking the tomato from Haruka’s hand. He bends forward and drops it into a wooden basket at his feet, Haruka’s eyes tracing the fruit until it’s out of sight. Picking up the basket, the young man straightens up, bracing the basket to his hip with one arm.

Now awake and attentive, Haruka catalogues the young man. Like Haruka, he appears to be on the cusp of adulthood, with a strong jaw simmering beneath youthful skin, though he is taller and more imperious in frame. A polite smile and soft green eyes counter his build, and tanned skin reflects hours in the sun’s rays, as do the dusting of freckles along his face and neck. He is not as woebegotten as some of the other bar-goers, but messy brown hair and rumpled tunic still impress Haruka as unkempt and disheveled. Haruka’s eyes slide over his muscular hand, palm creases and fingernails caked with dirt, jagged electric blue veins about to burst into lightning bolts from his skin.

Blinking, Haruka checks himself, remembering his own sunburn, chaotic hair, scabbed mosquito bites, and bloody scratches on his cheek and reminding himself he looks worse than the young man and just as pitiable as the others in the bar.

“Um.”

Haruka snaps his attention to his face, finding eyes peering at him with curiosity.

“If you don’t mind me asking…” The young man trails off.

Haruka waits for him to continue, and when he realizes the young man actually wants a response before proceeding, he shrugs.

“You’re not from around here, right?”

“No.”

“Just passing through?”

“Mm.”

The young man nods to himself. Hiking up his basket, he continues, “If you need somewhere to stay while you’re here, my family has a farm just down the road. We get travelers here all the time.”

Haruka’s mind flashes images of actual walls and real beds, without bugs chewing his skin and beds of leaves and fungus. It’s so tempting, and he wants to say yes, but he reins back his tongue.

He studies the young man for a moment, trying fish out any hidden agenda. “I don’t want to be bothersome,” he finally says.

“No, really, it’s no worry! We’ve had plenty of travelers stay with us. I wouldn’t have offered, otherwise,” the young man assures, shaking his head. “And you don’t have to worry about paying us. It’s no trouble.” He smiles.

Haruka meets his eyes, and all he sees is clean intent, and for a brief second, with the young man’s attentive eyes awaiting his answer, he feels like his skin is made of translucent glass. Casting his eyes to the dirt, he shoulders the feeling off, and instead imagines spending the rest of the night at this splintering table.

Crickets hum from outside.

A tiny huff of a sigh. “If it’s really no trouble…”

The young man’s smile brightens. “Not at all.”

“I’ll leave first thing in the morning,” Haruka insists.

“That’s fine. We usually get up at dawn, anyway.” The curve of the young man’s lips is omniscient. “Just give me a minute, I have a couple of things to do before I can take you there.”

The young man turns away, heading to the table where the older woman still sits, but her drink emptied. She pointedly keeps her weary eyes to the rim of her cup as the young man steps into her line of vision, and only moves her eyes when the young man procures another tomato from his basket and places it before her.

“Fumiko,” he murmurs.

Her eyes cut into the tomato, flashing with something that should not be unleashed, and beneath the folds of wrinkles on the surface of her face, her jaw tightens. “Take your pity somewhere else,” she hisses, snatching up the tomato and dumping it on the floor.

Haruka freezes from his seat, feeling like an intruder. All he can see is the young man’s back, but the young man does not flinch, and instead, without a word, he bends over, picks up the tomato, dusts it off, and plops it back into the basket.

Fumiko leans her head against the wall, obstinately withholding any more of her attention to the young man, her mouth tugging into a sour frown. The young man hovers for another breath before leaving her and walking to the bar, where the only other person, the bartender, remains in the bar.

The bartender, unlike Fumiko, watches him approach with an inscrutable expression, standing with hands on either side pressing into the bar.

The young man sets yet another tomato on the bar. “Norio.”

Norio does not look at the tomato, and instead bores into the young man’s face. His hands do not move.

Silence weighs down as the two stand like gargoyles, some living thing pulsating in the air. A heartbeat. Another.

The young man breaks the moment with a soft inhale, and he rotates to face Haruka. An unnaturally tranquil smile stretches his lips.

“Okay,” he says, stepping closer and nodding to Haruka. “I can walk you to my family’s farm.”

Haruka slowly dips his head, mind distracted with replays of what he just witnessed. The young man moves toward the exit without another glance to Fumiko and Norio, cricket chirps bursting into the tavern as the wood door opens and the young man passes into the night. Haruka, with unsure feet, rises and trails after, catching the closing door with his hand. He steals one last glimpse over his shoulder. Neither Fumiko nor Norio meets his eyes.

Pushing open the door, Haruka steps into humid air, blind for a moment as his eyes readjust to darkness. The door clunks shut behind him. Once he can distinguish shape, he spots the young man standing in front of Kuroime, hugging his basket to his chest. Haruka walks over.

“Her name is Kuroime,” he offers, standing shoulder to shoulder with the young man and reaching out a hand to brush Kuroime’s forehead.

The young man gazes up into her eyes with reverent wonder. “She’s beautiful.”

A warm breeze churns the air around them.

With a shudder, the young man snaps himself out of his reverie. “Sorry—” He gestures to the stretch of road behind him. “My family’s farm is this way.”

Haruka lets his hand fall from Kuroime and leans away to free her rope from the post. The young man waits as Haruka toys with the knot, and doesn’t move until Haruka holds the rope in his hand and has murmured a command for Kuroime to come with.

They walk; the young man in step with Haruka, flanked by Kuroime. They don’t speak, though curiosity about Fumiko and Norio riddles Haruka’s mind. Their footfalls, plus Kuroime’s light plodding and the distant screams of cicadas all fill the air with enough sensation that Haruka does not want to add his own voice. They move away from the small town and its muted light, ditching sandy roads for high grass and entering a brief thicket of trees on a slight decline. A three quarter moon sheds mellow light, fighting through the overhang of branches and leaves to touch the ground.

As they trudge downwards through the grass, their steps cushioned and swishing, the young man breaks the quiet. “Oh, just so you know. My family includes me, my parents, and my two younger siblings, and we only have two bedrooms, so it’ll be a little crowded. You can stay with me and my siblings. If only we had another room, you could stay alone, but I promise we won’t get in your way.”

Haruka tugs Kuroime closer to his side as they squeeze through the dense concentration of trees. “It’s fine,” he says.

The ground levels off, and the grass shortens.

“Ah, we’re here,” says the young man, looking out through the last trees of the thicket.

A wooden signpost stands before them, its weathered gray many decades older than the pair of them combined. In ancient, faded characters, it reads: TACHIBANA FARM .

Slanted over the original title in fresh, crude characters, is: SELLOUTS!!

Beyond the sign pokes up a tiny mud hut, a flicker of candlelight escaping from inside its walls, and a shed behind it. To the hut’s right and left lies a blanket of farmland, the crops indistinguishable in nighttime. Past the hut, more trees enclose the land, their tall forms dark and vigilant.

Haruka, Kuroime, and the young man exit the thicket and walk with more ease on flat land. As they pass the wooden sign, Haruka lifts his free arm and points to it.

“What does it mean by ‘sellouts’?”

There’s a pause, just too long for it to be natural, and in that pause, the young man does not react, as deliberate in his lack of reaction as in the step he takes. Mildly, he says, “Is that what it says?”

Haruka frowns and opens his mouth as if to complain, That isn’t an answer , before the implication hits him. “You can’t read?”

The young man shakes his head. “It’s not really needed for farming,” he says, eyes scouting out the ground before him. Shoulders rise and fall. “My eyesight is pretty bad, anyway.”

“Oh.”

The young man says no more, and lets the cicadas buzz for him as they approach the door to the hut. Haruka observes him out of the corner of his eye, trying to read his expression, but does not press.

A dog-sized pile of dirt stands in their way, just before the hut. “Ah, what’s that doing there?” the young man mutters to himself, shifting it aside with a brush of one hand.

Haruka prickles with envy at his easy earthbending.

“Oh, you can put Kuroime in there, if you like,” the young man suggests, stopping to point at the shed near the hut. “Unless she’d rather be outside.”

“That’s fine,” Haruka says, walking ahead and tugging on the rope. Kuroime clumps in suit.

The young man steps ahead, dropping his basket to slide open the ill-fitting shed door, revealing a relatively spacious, but musty room full of tools Haruka assumes serve their own purpose in farming. He pulls Kuroime along with him, leaving her untied, confident she would rather stay in here than venture out into the unknown without him. Resting a hand to her flank, he presses into her side, mushing his cheek against her warm down. He shuts his eyes, recharging for a couple of cyclical breaths before telepathically wishing her goodnight. With a final pat, he peels away, mind unwittingly providing Rin’s voice: ‘You’re so fucking weird.’

The young man doesn’t seem bothered by his display, waiting in the open doorway. “I’ll go get water for her after I introduce you and get you settled,” he says, backpedaling outside as Haruka moves to leave the shed. He hauls the door shut behind them, wood scraping on wood, and takes his basket back in his arms again.

With Kuroime safely tucked away, the young man leads Haruka to the hut. Carefully, he cracks open the door, warm candlelight spilling onto their feet, taking a survey before entering and holding the door for Haruka. “I’m back.”

Someone’s voice trickles from a room, and Haruka steps inside. There isn’t much to the hut; a cooking pit sits in the middle of the cramped opening room, crusted over in ash from preparing meals in the large clay pot sat beside it, while various baskets and boxes hug the walls. Two dark doorways, without doors, lurk on their right and left. A single lamp with a dinky candle rests by the opposite wall, transforming the pit and pot into strange, ominous shadows. No tables, no mirrors, no decoration.

Light footsteps come from the left doorway, and a body steps into view. It is an older woman, her wiry, lean form draped in a shapeless muddy green robe, with long brown hair, darker than the young man’s, swooping down to a knot at the small of her back. She looks like a beautiful silk robe that has been worn too many times, with gray striping her hair and wrinkles lining her sun tattooed skin, and Haruka senses she is younger than she appears.

“Ah, welcome home,” she says, her voice pleasant, but a smidgen croaky in sleepiness. Her eyes pass over Haruka, and he realizes she and the young man share the exact same eyes. “Oh, and welcome to you, too.”

“He’s just staying one night,” the young man tells her, leaning over to drop off the basket. “He’ll be leaving in the morning.”

The woman nods. “Sure.” She smiles at Haruka, her eyes crinkling. “We have travelers stay with us all the time, so we’re more than happy to have you. Do you need anything? Something to eat? I hope this one—” she extends a thin finger to the young man, “—offered you some food, yes?”

“Mother,” the young man complains, with no real venom.

Haruka jerks a nod. “I already ate,” he says, tampering down the rekindled pangs in his stomach.

“Oh, well if you need anything, just let any one of us know.” Her attention turns to her son. “Your father is asleep, and I made the twins go to bed instead of waiting for you, but, well, I doubt they’re actually asleep.”

Muffled snickers waft from the righthand room, and the young man and his mother flick mirror copies of the same chastising look at the black doorway. When the snickers come to an abrupt hush, mother and son collaborate in a begrudging sigh.

“Anyway,” she segways, leaning her hand on the archway. “I’m going to go to sleep, then, and you should too.” She bobs her chin at Haruka. “Both of you.”

“Goodnight, Mother.” The young man steps into her and gives her a peck on the cheek, forced to bend down by their contrary heights.

“Sleep well,” she says, patting his shoulder. When he retreats back in line with Haruka, she lifts her hand in a relaxed wave to them. She turns and slips into darkness.

A brief hum of silence hangs over the two of them as they are alone again, until the young man pads across the room and kneels to extinguish the lone candle.

“Ah!” He bounces back up before he can. “I forgot to fetch water for Kuroime—wait here, I’ll be back in just a second.”

Haruka nods mutely, stepping aside to let him through. Once the young man leaves, carrying a medium sized jug, Haruka only waits a couple of minutes, scuffing his feet on the floor and adjusting to the single stream of light, before the door creaks open and the young man returns, minus the jug.

“I didn’t know if she needed food, so I picked some grass and left it for her,” he recounts, arm twisting behind him to shut the door. “She seemed perfectly comfortable, though, so that’s good.” He slides Haruka a small smile. “We’ve had some guests who had really skittish horses and animals, so it’s refreshing to see such a calm horse.”

Haruka hums in agreement. “She’s better tempered than most people.”

The young man chuckles, reaching a hand up to play with the hair at the back of his neck. “I’ll be sad to see her go, then,” he says, eyes glittering with warm candlelight. “Oh.” He crosses the room and finally outs the candle, the hut plunging into darkness with a faint sssss .

Haruka blinks, splotches of orange clinging to his vision, until little pieces of light push into perception, and he can just make out the shape of the hut and the young man’s form.

“Here,” the young man murmurs, ducking into the room on the right.

Haruka follows. Moonlight filters in through the slats of a thatched window, where three distinct pallets lie on the floor, two occupied, one empty.

“Now I know you two are asleep, but just in case you aren’t ,” the young man whispers, his voice barely containing a laugh, “we have a guest, so be accommodating.”

Giggles.

“Hi, guest.”

Haruka mumbles, “Hi.”

“Now shhhhhh ,” the young man says, and giggles rise again. There’s a swish of linens, and he snatches up something before flattening out a makeshift fourth pallet beside the empty one. “Here you go. Sorry it’s not much.”

“Thanks,” Haruka says, hesitant feet approaching the pallet. He stops before it and slips off his satchel and boots, ordering them at the foot. Kneeling, he clambers down onto the pallet on hands and knees, and rotates and flops on his back. The skimpy padding isn’t the most comfortable, but it’s certainly better than the ground alone, and a long held inhale finally releases.

The young man waits until Haruka settles before lying down on his own, his body like a shadow in the dim silvery light. In this tiny room, just a few inches separate him from Haruka.

A whistle of an exhale similar to Haruka’s. “Goodnight.”

Nighttime birds coo from outside the window, haunting and lonely.

“Goodnight.”

The young man and his siblings quickly descend into slumber, gentle rhythmic breaths and snores filling Haruka’s ears as he watches the beams of light shift on the ceiling. He lies awake for some time. It is his first time sharing a room with someone else.

Eventually, he falls asleep, because when he is conscious again, the room is lighter, covered in the fuzzy gray film of early morning. Rubbing his eye with his hand, he glances to his right, where an empty pallet waits, faint pulls in its fabric hinting at a recent inhabitant. He drops his arm and his eyes shift focus, settling on the two pallets across the room, their inhabitants still present. Now, with more light, Haruka can identify a young girl and boy, maybe in their early teens, similar in coloring and features to the woman and the young man. Both show no expression as they hang in sleep, their lanky limbs sprawling and still.

With an inhale, Haruka sits up, swallowing away the dryness in his throat. He can see through the doorway into the main room, but the pot and utensils lie untouched and forlorn, with no one else awake inside the hut. Pushing himself to standing, Haruka puts on his boots and satchel, treading through the hut and heading to the front door. He creaks it open and slips outside, shutting it behind him.

The sky is an eerie grayish blue, with thick mist clutching to the ground and obscuring faraway sights from view. A slight chill hangs in the air, along with a tinge of dampness. Haruka’s boots, sunken in dewy grass, collect droplets of water. The sun has yet to crest and disperse the fog, but a brighter glimmer heralds its future appearance from the east. Different birds croon from all around, intermingling with the incessant chirps of crickets.

Footsteps come from Haruka’s left.

“Good morning,” the young man calls, clutching a jug in either hand. He bends and places them beside the shed. “Did you sleep well?”

“Fine.” Haruka’s voice deepens and cracks fresh out of sleep.

“I’m glad to hear it.” The young man opens the shed door and Kuroime pokes her head out, excited for company, and the young man smiles and strokes her mane.

Standing in the grass, Haruka watches them for a moment. “I’m leaving,” he blurts.

The young man halts, his hand on Kuroime’s shoulder, and faces Haruka. “Right now?” he asks. “Do you not want something to eat before you leave?”

“I want to get going.”

“Okay,” the young man says, slowly, as if unconvinced. He reluctantly withdraws his hand from Kuroime and grabs her rope, pulling her to Haruka. Giving Haruka the rope, the young man adds, “Wait here just a moment before you go, okay?”

He dives into the hut without waiting for Haruka’s response, thunking around for a minute before returning with a small pouch in his hands. He extends it to Haruka.

Haruka’s brow furrows. “I don’t—”

“Just take it, please,” the young man urges. “My mother would never let me live if I didn’t give you something for the road.”

Haruka stares at the brown little pouch for a breath, his hands itching to hand it back. He sighs, and his fingers curl around it. “Thank you.”

“No problem.” The young man’s arms fall listless by his sides. “Well… I wish you the best of luck in your travels.” His smile fades. “If you ever need to stay here again, you know where to find us.”

Haruka ducks his head. “Thank you,” he repeats, the words sounding horribly feeble and thin. Fingers rub anxious patterns into the pouch as he watches the ground, a trail of black ants crawling through a patch of grassless dirt by his feet.

With an impulsive breath, he lifts his eyes and holds out a hand. “Haru,” he offers.

For a second, the young man just stares at him, unblinking, but then his face cracks into a more genuine smile. He takes Haruka’s hand with a gentle squeeze. “Makoto,” he returns.

In the chill of dawn, Makoto’s skin seems impossibly warm against Haruka’s.

After a slow shake, they drop hands, and Makoto steps back to let Haruka mount Kuroime. Once upon her back, he stashes the pouch in his satchel, then draws up the rope and winds it around the saddle’s horn. Leaning forward to unearth the reins from under Kuroime’s mane, he avoids a final look at Makoto before he digs his heels into Kuroime’s sides and slaps the reins. She hurtles forward, his momentum swaying a second behind, and they’re off on the path once more.

Haruka does not turn back.

As they relocate and follow a dusty road through the valley towards the opposing mountain range, the sun finally enters. Light filters through trees, flickering on Kuroime’s already dappled coat. They plod along, Haruka’s stomach aching and his eyes out to the horizon, and the incline of the sun tells him of the time they absorb. The mist releases its clutches on the mountains, and for the first time, Haruka can see the valley in daylight. The mountains encircling the entire valley are a serene blue, like petrified waves of water, with soft edges in contrast to the sharp volcanic mountains he knows well from the capital.

Coming down from a slight hill, the land changes. Black and white replaces green and brown, everything in sight charred and ashen. Tugging back on Kuroime’s reins, Haruka frowns. His eyes dart from scorched tree stumps to dilapidated skeletons of buildings. All vegetation is either destroyed or dead, and the earth shows telltale scars of explosions in crumbly craters. Haruka’s ears ring, searching for something to fill the pervading silence, with no birds singing, no swill of wind, no bubble of water, no cicadas, no life. Just ruined earth.

Haruka looks to the path ahead; it just barely survives through the destruction, leading into unaffected faraway trees, and eventually, he supposes, to the blue mountain signaling the end of the valley.  A mirage from hot, stilted air across the devastation sets the trees and mountain into motion, and Haruka considers the mountain, its deep blue several shades darker than midday sky. It keeps secret what lies on the other side.

Haruka chews on the inside of his lip. Acting of its own accord, his hand slithers into his satchel and withdraws the little pouch. The wrinkled brown and the poor stitching watch him, waiting. Finally, with weak, shaky hands, he opens it and peers inside.

A tomato.

Licking his lips, he pulls it out, its red gleaming bold and brilliant against his pale hand and black and white landscape. He cups it in his palm, his whole body quaking.

If he keeps looking to the horizon and wondering whether what he wants is beyond every mountain, then he will end up scouring the whole world until there are no more mountains left to look beyond.

His fingers tighten around the tomato. Before he can stop himself, he brings it to his mouth and tears away a bite.

Juice bursts onto his tongue, reviving his senses, and he swallows without chewing, only savoring it for a second before his teeth rip into the flesh again. Barely tasting anything, he devours the entire tomato in no time, unable to slow until just a green stem remains. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, and chucks the stem to the dirt. Crackling energy renewing him, he takes up Kuroime’s reins and yanks, rotating her back around to where they came, away from black and white, away from the awaiting mountain, and pushes her into a gallop.

Late morning sun and humidity bear down on them, and by the time they manage to reach familiar farmland, Kuroime slows with exhaustion and sweat drenches Haruka. They pass rows and rows of green crops, thudding alongside, until they stumble upon a cropless plot, where Makoto and his two siblings spread straw along the unfertilized beds.

Haruka and Kuroime skitter to a stop, the others’ eyes turning on them. Makoto, bent over a row in the middle with a long, pronged utensil in his hands, meets Haruka’s eyes and jerks up straight, eyebrows raising.

Haruka slides off of Kuroime and enters the plot, hopping over the risen mounds of dirt to stop just across from Makoto, panting and trying to still his racing blood. The two younger kids are a couple of rows over, watching with intrigue.

Makoto rests his elbow on top of his tool, leaning his weight into the one shoulder. “I thought you were leaving,” he muses.

The tomato’s taste still on his tongue, Haruka breathes with a parted mouth. “Makoto,” he says, sweat pooling above his upper lip, “can I help?”

Makoto blinks, face dawning into a wide smile, and offers Haruka the tool.

Chapter Text

He, sick as he was with his worries,

Masked his expression with hope, kept gloom in his heart, deeply buried.

―Virgil, The Aeneid


 Rin kicks lumpy bedding. “Get up.”

The huddled mass beneath a thick deer pelt does not move, but Rin suspects that has less to do with still being asleep and more with ignoring Rin.

“Come on,” Rin says, kicking again, harder. “The sun rose a while ago. Both Ai and I have been up for hours. Ai went out hunting and hasn’t come back yet, so there’s nothing to do but pester you.”

He folds his arms, finger tapping at just above his elbow, and waits.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.

As expected, the deer pelt shifts with a groggy sigh, exposing Sousuke’s face. He squints open bleary eyes. “What do you need me so badly for?” he grumbles.

“I don’t need you,” Rin tosses back, curling his lip, “but it would be nice if you, maybe, contributed . Like Ai.”

Flat, a repetition: “I don’t hunt.”

Rin rolls his eyes. “Great, don’t! But I am sick of waiting around in this pigsty with your lazy ass, so you’re going to get up and help me organize it.”

Silence ticks, and they share a piercing look of distaste at each other, frozen and resolute. Finally, Sousuke cracks, running a hand down his face, and rolls to sit up, his hair mushed to one side.

To his disappointment, Rin has been forced to stay here for longer than he originally anticipated. For one, whatever toxin or draught that kept him paralyzed left souvenirs of shortened breath, decreased stamina, and pain. After an inspection, Ai requested he stay and heal, and Rin couldn’t find the gumption to say no. For another, Rin discovers that not only is the nearest village far to the south, but there is no reliable transport there and would thus require a multi-day walking trip in order to reach it. Then, from that village, who knows how he would get back to the Fire Nation; if there was some sort of political upheaval back when he was abducted, he might not be able to just waltz right back. Anyone might be his enemy.  

He wonders how Haru’s faring, back home; it’s worrisome to imagine him in that manor alone, and worse, in that manor with his parents.

Here, Ai spends nearly all day out rummaging through the snow for food, as the three of them are surviving on dwindling leftovers from an old deer. With nothing to consume his time, Rin wants to join Ai on hunting trips, but Ai always orders Rin to stay and recuperate, so Rin stays behind in the hut, with nothing to do but sit among the clutter and his boredom. And Sousuke. Who sleeps.

While Rin considers Ai somewhat of a friend now, as Ai shows interest and reaches out to him, Sousuke remains an enigma, refusing to share more than fragmentary statements in the brief time he’s actually awake with an aura that seems insulted by Rin’s very existence. Occasionally, he’s joined Ai in trips outside, just as a companion, but most of the time Rin is stuck with him.

Like Haru, something about Sousuke intrinsically provokes Rin, and he too, except for select things (namely, Ai), does not seem to care about much at all.

Sousuke does not immediately rise from bed, just sits slouched over his lap, half-lidded eyes boring into the deer pelt as if contemplating the horror of his fate. The frayed collar of his inner tunic puckers around his neck and shoulders, exposing a darkened trail of distorted skin beginning above his right shoulder, snaking away to his back and disappearing into his tunic.

Spotting Rin’s eyes on the scar, Sousuke jerks his tunic over it, and Rin swerves his gaze away, stepping back. With a dirty look at Rin, Sousuke snatches his brown coat from the foot of his cot and slips it on, standing without saying a word.

Rin clears his throat. “So we’ll get started, then.”

He kneels to survey the mess, and Sousuke settles opposite, watching Rin rather than paying attention to the task.

“I really want to get this place in better shape,” Rin says, drawing together a manageable pile at his feet. “You shouldn’t live like this.”

Sousuke says nothing, arms resting listless in his lap.

“Like this!” Rin holds up a large chunk of dried sap. “What the hell could you possibly need this for?”

A shrug. “I don’t know. It’s Ai’s.”

Tossing the sap aside, Rin unearths a smooth, flat rock. “And this?”

“Ai’s.”

“And―oh, that is disgusting .” With hesitant fingers, Rin lifts a rotting gourd, its dead flesh alive with wriggling maggots, and cranes away from the stench.

“Ai―”

“I’m throwing it out.”

Rin jumps up and hops over the mess, shoving open the door and taking a grateful inhale of fresh air. Blinking away glistening morning snow, he hurls the gourd as far as he can, satisfied with its crunch of a landing. His hand feels soiled with gourd juices, and he leans towards the snow at his feet and furiously rubs the feeling away into the cold. When he straightens, swiping away snow from his now pink tinged hand, he catches a glimpse of Ai in the distance, returning with something dragging behind him.

“Yo!” Rin calls, raising a hand.

With both hands holding a rope, Ai doesn’t wave back, but his voice echoes, “I finally caught something!”

Sousuke joins Rin outside, stepping off to the side as Ai comes to meet them.

With a yank of the rope, Ai pulls his bounty into view.

Rin’s stomach drops, tightness rushing up his throat. “No!” He rushes forward and kneels into the snow. “Why would you kill a dog?”

He smoothes a hand over its defined ribcage, rust staining white and gray fur. Pointy ears lie flat and unhearing.

From behind, Sousuke says, “Why wouldn’t he kill it?”

Rin whips around, a protective hand on the dog’s scruff. “Because it’s a dog!”

Sousuke crosses his arms and steels himself with an unwavering expression. “So?”

“Dogs aren’t supposed to be eaten,” Rin stresses, scowling. “They’re pets, not food.”

“Why?” Sousuke asks. “Don’t they have meat just like other animals?”

“Yes, but―”

“You eat other animals, right? Why aren’t they considered pets?”

“They’re different! Dogs are loyal, and… and they’re more useful alive than as food, while other animals are hard to manage.”

“So animals deserve to live only if they’re useful to humans and don’t get in our way?”

“What―no―” Rin sucks in a breath through his teeth, his face itching with heat. “Why are you badgering me? You’re the ones killing dogs.”

Sousuke says nothing for a moment, a muscle clenching and unclenching in his jaw. He sighs, deflating, and swallows. “The only people who decide what is considered food or not are the people who can afford to choose.”

With absolutely nothing in mind to counter that, Rin returns to face the dog, his hand sinking into cold fur.

A moment passes.

“Um…”

Fingers curling into a fist full of fur, Rin looks around, where Ai has stepped in between him and Sousuke.

Ai’s eyes are downcast, and he wrings his hands behind his back. “I know, I love dogs too, but…” His head tilts a tiny bit. “We can’t help that there’s nothing else around here right now.”

Hand relaxing, Rin pushes against his bent knee to stand. “Fine, I get it.”

It’s already dead, anyway.

He retreats to the shack, Ai and Sousuke’s gazes burning into his back, and once inside, he slams the door behind him. Among the musk and rot again, he sits down in front of the empty fire pit and glares into the ashes, willing them to burst into flame with his eyes. They remain as they are.

Rin is alone for a few minutes, settling down and blocking out Ai and Sousuke’s voices from outside, before the door creaks open and sunlight casts him into a lumpy shadow atop the pit and assorted garbage. Glancing behind, Rin finds Ai in the doorway.

“R-Rin, um.” Ai’s shoulder props open the door. “I don’t know if you’d… Do you, um, want to learn how to butcher? I mean, since I haven’t taken you hunting and you’ve been sitting around… I figured you’d want to do something , so…” A shaky smile. “Only―only if you want to!”

Faced with Ai, Rin can do nothing but take a deep breath. “Okay.”

Ai perks up, and Rin reluctantly picks himself up again and huffs a sigh. Stashing away his agitation, he follows Ai back outside, where Sousuke stands guard over the treasure, arms crossed and tight against his chest, his shoulders bristling with tension.

“Ah, Sousuke will teach you!” Ai says, far too cheerfully than appropriate for the statement.

“What? No,” Rin blurts without thinking. He reaches up and tugs at the dragon pendant at his neck. “I mean, I thought you were going to teach me.”

Ai shakes his head. “No, I’m not really good at butchering. At least, not good enough to teach it.”

Sousuke shifts, lifting his chin. With the faintest of smirks, he says, “See, I don’t hunt; I butcher.”

Mentally, Rin slams Sousuke to the ground and grips him in a chokehold. Instead, he sets his hands on his hips and sinks his weight into one leg, expression flat. “Fine,” he mutters. “Let’s butcher a dog.”

Ai’s smile twitches, like he is already drowning in regret at this turnout of events. “Um, I’ll go get the stuff!” he offers, dashing off to escape the atmosphere.

Still air burns with electricity as Sousuke and Rin wait in stony silence, deliberately avoiding each other’s eyes, with Sousuke holding on to his intimidating posturing and Rin picking at his fingernails. Thankfully, Ai comes back laden with a hide folded under his arm, several bone knives in varying sizes, a basin, and a couple of bowls. Once he draws near, Sousuke drops his posture and helps, taking the knives and bowls from him and setting them on the snow. Together, they unfurl the hide and lay it flat on the ground.

Leaned over to even out the hide’s wrinkles, Sousuke looks to Rin and jerks his head. “Get the dog.”

Jolting out of observation, Rin turns to the dog, which still lies flat on its side, sunken into snow. With an inhale, he digs his hands underneath it and hauls it over his shoulder, taking a few steps back in response to the new weight. He carries it to where Ai and Sousuke wait with the spread hide, and stops, sliding the dog down his shoulder.

“Careful.”

“I’ve got it,” Rin hisses back, bicep straining and left hand twinging as he lowers the dog as gently as he can. The dog lands with a light plop , and spitting out a breath, Rin straightens up, shaking out his hand.

Ai settles a bit away, still in sight, forcing Sousuke to step up. He sweeps an appraising look over Rin.

“I assume you’ve never butchered anything before.”

Rin bites back the swear words piling up at the back of his throat. “You assume correct.”

“Just do what I say, and you’ll be fine.” Sousuke points to a medium sized bone knife. “Use that for the first cut.”

Rin plucks it from the snow, shaking off chunks of ice, and crouches down before the dog, its stomach facing him. He faces Sousuke, expectant.

“Make a straight cut along the abdomen,” Sousuke instructs, “not too deep, you don’t want to puncture the organs. And watch out for blood―if there’s a lot, don’t waste it, collect it in a bowl.”

Grudgingly dutiful, Rin drags a bowl to within a hand’s reach, and gripping the knife in his right hand, he points the blade to where the dog’s ribcage ends. His hair hangs down like curtains around his face, narrowing his vision.

Moments pass, and Rin does not move, his knife aimed at, but not touching, the dog’s skin. Trembles siege his hand.

For all the times Rin has held a knife, he has never plunged one into flesh.

Hovering in Rin’s sightline, Sousuke waits for several heartbeats. Quietly, he says, “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.”

Eyes prickling with sudden wetness, Rin sinks back into his haunches, the knife falling away from the dog’s stomach. He swallows down his clogged throat and brings the knife to his shirt, the same black one with red trim he’s been wearing for too long, the one he’s been trying to keep clean, and slipping the blade beneath stitched silky trim, he cuts away a strand of red from the v-neck collar. Dropping the knife beside his hip, he takes the freed length of trim in both hands and passes it over his head, tying his loose hair back into a low ponytail.

Rin retakes the knife, sniffing, and sets his eyes on the dog. Leaning forward, he replies, “No, I’m going to.”

The blade tempts the dog’s stomach once more, and Rin fills his lungs with a deep inhale.

It’s already dead, anyway .

He presses, piercing through skin, and carves the blade back in a straight line, stopping at the dog’s pelvis. Red seeps into neighboring fur and glints from the creamy white knife.

An exhale.

Step by step, Sousuke directs Rin through the process with precision, occasionally stepping in when water is needed, but otherwise allowing Rin to do it all himself. Rin gradually slips into a deep focus, tuning out everything but his hands, the dog, and Sousuke’s voice. He doesn’t even notice when Ai slips away for a bit, no longer keeping diligent watch, nor does he notice time racing past, shadows shifting directions and lengths.

Once all viable flesh and organ has been stripped away and set in appropriate storage containers, Sousuke helps Rin wash bones in mutual, easy silence, comfortable in the grips of a task. Sousuke then holds the peeled away fur coat so Rin can scrape away remaining meat from the inside skin, before dunking it in a basin of water to soak. A bowl of blood is set aside to dry, so once solid, as Sousuke says, the blood can be cut into pieces and served in a stew (that on which Rin does not voice his initial thought of ew ). Finally, swooping his hands, Sousuke provides a trickling stream of water for Rin, so Rin steps into him, bending over to scrub the drying red slime from his hands and forearms.

When his hands feel as clean as they’ll get, though still stained pink, Rin shakes the droplets from his hands.

Sousuke swipes away the stream, patters of droplets landing on snow, and lets his arms come to his sides. He stands in silence, watching Rin wipe his hands dry on his clothes. “That wasn’t bad for a first try.”

Rin glances up, eyebrows raised. Sousuke looks at him, serious, and though certainly not offering any warmth, there is a hint of a genuine compliment.

Rin’s face cracks into a grin. “Thanks.”

With a short nod, Sousuke keeps his eyes level. “Don’t let it get to your head,” he says, reaching his hand forward and flicking Rin’s forehead. “It’s big enough as it is.”

He walks away, leaving Rin to stare at empty space.

Inhaling, Rin flicks from Sousuke’s shrinking back to the meat and bone detritus on the ground. “Oi, are you not going to help me carry this?” he yells after Sousuke.

“No.”

Pressing his lips together, Rin sighs, muttering, “Prick,” to himself as he bends over.

Ai and Sousuke collaborate in making a stew from some of the dog meat, freezing and saving the rest for upcoming meals, and Rin sits aside and watches them, curious about food preparation. They dole out a watery broth into a pot, which Rin hopes will absorb some taste once finished, and dunk strips of muscly tissue, spraying flecks of cold broth everywhere, including Rin’s defenceless face. As he wipes them away with his sleeve, grimacing, Ai spews a stream of apologies, and Rin drops his arm.

“It’s fine,” he assures, pushing his now loose hair back from his forehead. “Although there are other things I’d rather have sprayed in my face.”

Mouth parted but devoid of a response, Ai glances back to the pot. “Uh―”

Sousuke bursts into laughter, startling Rin. It’s real laughter, that which Rin has never heard from him, round and honest with no malice. Even Ai jumps, peering at Sousuke with furrowed brows. Rin stares, unsure of whether to feel proud or annoyed, as the line blurs on whether Sousuke is laughing with Rin or laughing at Rin.

Eventually, his laugh peters out, and Sousuke shakes his head. “I bet your parents really wanted you to lose that blabbermouth. Being a future leader of a nation and all.”

Rin cocks his head, crossing his legs. “I obviously don’t talk the same around my parents and subjects as I do around―”

Friends.

Clutching his hands together, Rin rubs his right thumb along the mottled skin on the back of his left hand, back and forth, back and forth.

In the silence, Sousuke leans back, clasping his hands behind his neck. His eyes flicker down to the pot and back up at Rin. “Going to light it?” he asks, nodding towards it.

Releasing his hand, Rin aims a punch of flame to below, igniting the kindling beneath. Wood crackles with glowing orange, blue at the hottest crevices, and the stew bubbles to life, hissing and filling the shack with an aroma that isn’t too unfamiliar from the other meats Rin has eaten in his life.

As the stew cooks and the hours drag on, the conversation pivots from Rin to Ai, who rattles off embarrassing stories from his childhood, growing up in a small Northern Water Tribe village, and both Rin and Sousuke are content to let him ramble, the atmosphere at a warm stasis.

The sun has descended by the time the stew is ready, and Rin’s stomach pleads for attention. Ai dishes out steaming cups to everyone. Nearly the second he receives a cup, Rin cups it in both hands and brings it to his mouth, about to take a gulp, when he stops. Beside him, Ai has his eyes shut and his head bowed over the cup in his lap, silent except for measured breaths. Lowering his cup, Rin blinks around, turning to Sousuke, but Sousuke has also withdrawn within himself, almost peaceful with closed eyes.

Flames lick at the pot, keeping the stew foaming. Rin squirms, eyes darting from Ai and Sousuke. He rests on Sousuke for a few moments, studying his dark features, hands loosely coiled around the scalding cup.

Sousuke’s eyes snap open, dark pupils reflecting moving flame before falling on Rin.

Rin looks down.

Ai also stirs, blinking open his eyes and taking a sip from his bowl after a cough into the crook of his elbow. Now with permission, Rin follows in suit, downing a gulp of hot broth, ignoring the twinge of his tongue. In his periphery, Sousuke begins to eat as well. The stew isn’t seasoned, and the dog meat is lean and stringy, but after a day’s work in the cold and snow, it fills Rin and satiates him.

They do not speak much more, and retire to bed without anything occurring.

The next couple of days pass without much incident; there still isn’t much to do, so Rin tries to convince Ai to throw out some of his extraneous belongings, but Ai refuses to budge, claiming he may need them all for something sometime in the future. Sousuke does not interfere. They make another stew, this time with the dried blood cut into little rectangular blocks, and though strange at first, it is not nearly as disgusting as Rin thought.  

A sudden weight on his chest wakes Rin one morning. Squinting and rubbing his palm alongside his temple, he cranes his neck. Sousuke stands at the foot of his makeshift cot, arms folded, awake before Rin for the first time.

“What…”

On top of Rin lies the dog’s pelt, dried and settled.

Propping himself up on an elbow, Rin touches it with tentative fingers, soft gray and white fur caressing him.

“It’s yours,” Sousuke says.

Rin looks up. “Mine?”

“You did the work.” An inkling of a rueful smile tugs at Sousuke’s mouth. “You can use it for whatever the latest Fire Nation fashion trends are.”

Rin chuckles and sits up properly, looking down at the pelt and running his hands over it. “Thanks.”

When he glances back up, Sousuke’s expression is almost welcoming. Almost.

With a sharp inhale, Sousuke blinks the warmth away, and his face resumes its usual indifference. Jaw tightening, he nods and heads to the door, cracking it open and filling the shack with brief light.

The door smacks shut behind him, and Rin wraps the pelt around his shoulders.


The sun is behind him.

Haruka’s feet sink into porous earth, clods of black mountain soil crumbling and tumbling down the slope. Breath heavy, he glances up to the summit, still so far away for how long he’s been marching. Rivulets of sweat cascade down his back, soaking into the expensive business robes hampering his breath and movement, violent red and rancid yellow silk turning darker shades. Although the sun beats down on the back of his neck, his skin resists burning, gleaming white in defiance. Flicking droplets from his mangy hair, he focuses on putting one foot in front of the other.

A couple steps ahead, a single gold coin rises from the dirt to his right, hovering and spinning. Flecks of light spiral off of it, imprinting on his eyes. He watches it as he passes; it continues to spin, and doesn’t return to the earth.

Haruka blinks away its image once it’s behind him, and checks the summit again, still as untouchable. The sun drops, light shifting to cast long shadows on the mountainside.

A rhythmic scuttling presses into Haruka’s head, and colonies of rat sized ants skitter around him, aiming in the same direction. He twitches, pausing and peering at them for a moment. With a great stride forward, he crushes an ant’s abdomen, severing it from its thorax. He continues his climb, ignoring the sickening splashes of ant guts underfoot.

Spinning, another gold coin floats up on his left. His mission doesn’t slow, and he leaves the coin to spin away into the distance. More ants crunch beneath his feet, his weight mushing their mangled bodies into pliant earth, their graves the shape of his footprints. Eventually, he outsteps them all, and doesn’t have to share the mountainside any longer. Still, the summit avoids him.

Haru .”

He freezes. Skin prickling with a chill impossible beneath the sun’s boiling heat, he slowly twists his head over his shoulder.

The ants are not dead. Not yet.

His parents’ faces peer up at him, as does Seda’s face, Amakata’s, Kou’s, and Rin’s, all conjoined with crushed ant bodies. They marinate in their own life juices, staring up at him with dumb, helpless expressions.

A wave disgust curls his stomach.

Haru ,” they moan as one collective voice. “ Take us too.

Hands trembling by his side, Haruka chokes down vomit. He shakes his head, unable to form a word, and turns away from them.

But he doesn’t have to take a step further; the summit is there, it has come to him, where atop the very crest of the mountain is a final spinning gold coin. He can finally see to the other side, but the other side is just a reflection of the side he stands on, a reflection of him instead in full battle regalia, his face obscured by a plated, horned burgundy helmet.

Crimson drips from his mirror hands, though the hand he waves before him is dry, and after experimenting with the contrast for a moment, he reached out towards his image and steps forward.

The coin stops spinning.

With a jolt, Haruka wakes. Panting, he stares up at the ceiling, mentally flailing to grab ahold of his surroundings. The room is dark and still, other than his heavy breaths. He is in the Tachibanas’ hut. It was a dream.

Haruka turns his head beside him; Makoto is still asleep, barely visible, his chest rising and falling, and the twins, Ren and Ran, are undisturbed on his side. Perhaps a couple more hours await them until dawn, for the night outside is indigo and wild, buzzing with cicadas.

Heart rate and breaths slowing, Haruka returns to the ceiling, drawing a hand to his face to rub his eyes. He lingers on the ceiling a moment more before sitting up. With cat-like precision, he stands and creeps out of the room, stopping only to slip on his boots, and treads out from the house.

Night air welcomes him, and he runs to the sentinel trees along the farmland, ducking under branches and dodging roots until the comforting burble of running water hits his ears. He stops on a clay bank, overlooking the shallow river traveling parallel to the Tachibanas’ farm. Ripples waver like an illusion, only visible in reflection of the sky, fanning out in shades of deep blue. Haruka peels away his robe and trousers and plunges into the water, shivering from the chill. He doesn’t even attempt to use firebending to warm it; unlike his stagnant pond, the current will just carry the heat away.

The sky blooms lavender and pink by the time he exits, soggy and wrinkled, and he rushes back to the hut. Ren and Ran have already lugged their thin limbs to the toolshed, and mumble greetings to him from behind wide yawns, while their mother gets to work mixing fertilizer, using earthbending instead of tools, and the sounds of something chopping and the fizzling of a pot from within the hut indicate their father is preparing breakfast. They direct him to the fourth plot, where Makoto needs help trimming a batch of growing peppers. Haruka snatches a pair of clippers for himself from the shed, says a short hello to Kuroime in a patch of grazeable grass, and heads on his way.

He finds Makoto kneeling among the rows of short, flowering plants, dutifully trimming away. Hearing the crunch of Haruka’s footsteps, he looks up.

“Good morning!”

“Morning.”

Eyes grazing over damp hair and mussed robe, Makoto’s smile dims, but he says nothing as Haruka crouches beside him and begins clipping at leaves.

Tachibana Farm does not belong to the Tachibanas; they are contracted by a Fire Nation produce company, which provides them a small stipend and allowance of rice with each moon, and must pay rent to the actual landowners. Company representatives come by every other week or so to either check up on their production or collect a batch of goods, while the renters come every moon. The ugly, disfigured vegetables are discarded, even though they have the same flavor, taste, and nutritional content as the pretty ones, and the produce company allows the Tachibanas to keep the ugly ones for their own use.

So far, tending a farm has been a mixed bag. Haruka has struggled to keep up with the hard labor, surprisingly weak at lifting things and shifting dirt, and his attempts at help have drawn snickers from Ren and Ran and gentle instruction from Makoto and their parents. But he’s improving, though not without the skin of his hands bursting with pus from red blisters and his whole body aching with a soreness he’s never seen the likes of. Sunburn healed, his skin has shifted a shade darker, not quite to the level of the Tachibanas, but certainly enough to make his old skin look like snow. Out of the family, Ran, Makoto, and their mother possess earthbending, and whenever he sees them move a horse sized pile of dirt while he hacks away at unforgiving earth with a hoe, he can’t ignore the whisper of annoyance.

At least, he’s found some relief in smaller, more detailed tasks. Their father has taught him how to cook rice and vegetables, and he’s assisted their mother in pulling apart and stitching back together clothes to accommodate for Ran and Ren’s growing limbs. He’s never poured so much effort into work before, and even though it’s painful, tiring, and sometimes frustrating, and he wouldn’t exactly say he likes it, there is an interesting satisfaction in looking over a day’s work and seeing the literal fruits of his labor.

Haruka also is growing more accustomed to the personalities at the farm. Ren and Ran are constantly at odds with each other, Ren easily provoked and Ran seeking a scapegoat, yet they both seem to like Haruka for reasons beyond him. Ran’s quick wit and intensity almost reminds Haruka of a young Kou, while Ren’s teetering frustrations reminds Haruka of a young (and old) Rin. Meanwhile, their father is kind and friendly, albeit a bit meek, and their mother, though smaller than all of her children and Haruka, holds the largest and most intimidating presence.

Already building up a sweat, Haruka mops his forehead with his sleeve, pausing on the row next to where he started. Makoto, opposite him, pauses as well, letting the clippers relax in his hands. His eyes flicker up to Haruka’s, a couple of beads of sweat trickling along his eye sockets.

“Are you okay?” he asks.

Haruka ducks his head and resumes clipping. “Fine.”

Makoto doesn’t take up the clippers again, idly drawing circles in the dirt with its tip. “You were gone this morning, so I just wondered…”

“It’s nothing.”

Cracking a breath and smiling as if embarrassed for asking, Makoto scoots one plant over and rejoins the work, tongue poking out in concentration.

They’re nearly finished with the plot by midday, and Makoto’s mother shows up.

“We ran out of candles,” she says, both of them stopping their work to listen. “Would one of you be able to go fetch some from Chiora’s? I’m trying to make sure the cucumber batch is ready to be picked up in a few of days. Haru, maybe?”

His clippers dangle in his fingers. “Me?”

“Sure, I can give you some change and tell you where to go,” she says, with a brisk nod.

A damp strand of hair sticks to his temple. “But I’m not done here yet.”

Makoto says, “I can finish it.”

Glancing from Makoto to Makoto’s mother, Haruka shrugs a yes.

In no time, he’s padding along the main road, sans Kuroime, a handful of silver coins in his satchel and fresh directions replaying in his mind. Not many people are out, and from the shabby buildings available, only a couple actually host businesses or people. Haruka flicks from sign to sign, searching for the name Makoto’s mother told him, acutely aware of the weight of the money she so casually gave him. This outing, more than just an innocuous errand, seems like a test.

Outside an abandoned building sits a familiar elderly woman―Fumiko, from the tavern that first night―her wrinkles even more severe in sunlight, eyes glued to the ground. His walk hesitates for a second, but he pushes himself forward and faces away.

Eventually, he finds Chiora’s Candles, a dusty mud hut wedged between a vacant bamboo shack and some weathered parlor. Dark brown beads hang over the entrance, and they rattle as he steps through them to enter. Inside, there’s a single counter, the atmosphere dusky with no windows, where a scraggly middle-aged woman sits, her hair pulled back by a green bandana. At the sight of him, she straightens up, narrow eyes blinking into alertness.

“Oho, a customer!” she crows, her voice deep and booming like a cavern. “Ah, welcome to Chiora’s Candles, the best and only candle shop in Shangto Valley. I am Chiora, so if you need anything, just ask.”

Haruka nods mutely, the name Shangto striking him as familiar, and turns to the selection of candles displayed on a single wooden shelf. It takes him a second to comprehend the candles, for what constitutes a candle here is nothing more than a dried hunk of wax with a wick sticking out. Face to face with these hideous globs, he can’t help thinking about the beautifully colored and scented candles back at home.

Nevertheless, he picks up precisely four, as instructed, and carries them to the counter.

“That all?” Chiora asks.

He nods.

“Six silver pieces.” As he roots around in his bag for change, Chiora’s eyes sweep over him. “You new?”

“Yeah.” Haruka hands her the silver.

“Got family in the area or something?”

He shakes his head. “I’m just staying at Tachibana Farm for now.”

Like the flip of a coin, Chiora’s face sours, her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing. “I see,” she says, curt. Silently, she shoves the purchased candles back to Haruka, pushing him to leave as if he’s infected with some disease she’s fearful of coming in contact with.

Perplexed, he collects them after a pause and stashes them in his satchel, backing away and exiting without another word.

He passes Fumiko again on his way back.

Purging the moment from his memory, Haruka returns to the farm with the candles and leftover silver, and the rest of the afternoon passes without much incident, just doing chores until dinner. When dinner finishes, Haruka settles back outside and watches the sun set by himself, humidity still smearing the horizon into a mirage.

The clatters of cleaning in the hut coming from behind him, Haruka sighs, sitting on the ground with his knees tucked into his chest. Evening crickets begin to sing as the sun sheds orange and pink rays onto grasses, trees, and crops.

“Hey, Haru!”

Haruka turns to find Ren bursting out of the hut, followed by an equally energetic Ran. As they dash forward, Makoto calmly trails behind.

“You know how to write and read, right?” Ren asks, flopping down into the dirt beside Haruka.

“Mm.”

Ren leans into him, eyes bright. “Can you show me how to write my name?”

“Me too!” Ran choruses, squeezing in between them.

Makoto sits down on Ren’s other side, quietly observing.

“Sure,” Haruka says, dropping his knees into a crossed position. He folds over his lap and plucks up a fallen twig.

Rapt, Ren and Ran watch Haruka demonstrate the characters in the dirt, following along with their fingers. Once he finishes both of their names, they pepper him with other words, and he obliges, scrawling up the dirt into lines and shapes.

At one point, Haruka shows ‘father’ and ‘mother,’ and drawing the final horizontal line in ‘mother,’ 母, he retracts back the stick, mouth quirking into an almost smile.

“When I was in school and learning these for the first time, my friend couldn’t remember how to write ‘mother,’” he recalls, facing the twins with a serious expression, “so I told him that the character almost looks like sideways breasts.”

The twins break into stifled giggles, and Haruka maintains his deadpan, eyes shortly flickering to Makoto’s bemused look.

“Then he blabbed that in front of our teacher and got in trouble, and told on me and got me in trouble.” Haruka presses out an all-suffering sigh. “He didn’t forget how to write it again after that, so what did it matter.”

“You’re terrible,” Ran bubbles, leaning into her arm, Ren convulsing with chortles on her side.

“Mm, probably,” accepts Haruka, rubbing the pad of his index finger along the twig’s bark. “He deserves it. Deserved it.”

Makoto tucks a laugh behind his hand. “Ran, don’t you do the same kind of thing to Ren every day?”

“Yeah, hypocrite ,” Ren trumpets, pushing Ran in the shoulder.

“Whoa, hey―”

Ran elbows Ren back. “You deserve it too, jackass.”

Ran, ” scolds Makoto, sounding scandalized. “Both of you, apologize.”

“If anyone’s a jackass, it’s you!” Ren sneers, shoving his face into Ran’s.

With a sigh, Haruka murmurs, “Easy.” Ren backs down, a little, and Haruka nods to Ran as well. “You shouldn’t be like me.”

Grumbling, the twins eye each other and fold their arms as if relinquishing to the other would kill them. Makoto meets Haruka’s eyes, flicking him a sheepish grin, and Haruka shrugs. Just as the twins seem on the verge of apologizing, the hut door opens.

“Ren, Ran, who did this?” their mother barks, displaying two bowls caked in food remains. “This is not clean.”

Hardly waiting a beat, Ran answers, “Ren did it!”

The brief truce is squashed, and Ren wheels on his sister in betrayal. “No I didn’t, she did!”

Their mother arches an eyebrow. “Both of you, come here and figure this out,” she orders, and her light voice takes a steep dip. “I am not interested in hearing you blame each other.”

Bickering, the twins head back inside, leaving Haruka with a bunch of words in the dirt and Makoto.

Trees rustle and flapping bird wings soar over Haruka’s head, chirps echoing out over the farmland. With Haruka reading over what he’s written and Makoto gazing out towards the vanishing sun, silence ticks for a moment, muffled arguing from the hut behind them.

Haruka inhales and lifts his head. “Do you want to learn your name, too?”

Sitting back with his arms propping his torso up, Makoto looks at Haruka. The sun’s final touch casts his face half in gold, half in shadow. “Oh, okay. Sure.”

As Haruka grips his twig with purpose, Makoto takes his weight from his arms and sits up straight, attentive. Head bowed over his work, Haruka draws out the two characters, the scratch of dirt and the swoosh of wind in his ears. His strokes are slow, methodical, each new one striving to improve on the one before.

Finally, he finishes, withdrawing his twig and inspecting the characters. Makoto, unlike his siblings, has not followed along and copied Haruka’s writing.

His eyes linger on his name for a breath, before rising to Haruka’s. A small smile. “Thank you.”

Haruka nods, dropping the twig. “Mm.”

Direct rays of sun leave them, painting everything into faded pinks and oranges, shadows no longer so distinct and dark in contrast. Silence pervades once more, but it is pleasant and contemplative. Makoto’s eyes fixate on the lines in the dirt, reflecting remaining shards of light, and Haruka surveys his thoughtful expression. Makoto remains perfectly still until a breeze rips through and he resurfaces back into the moment, blinking and glancing to Haruka with a hazy smile. Leaning back on his hands again, he tilts his head up and shuts his eyes, taking in the wind as it tousles his hair and shirt collar.

The wind carries a floral smell, unfamiliar to Haruka but almost intoxicating, better than any perfume his mother has worn.

“Ah,” breathes Makoto, chest rising with an inhale, “honeysuckle.”

“Honeysuckle?”

Makoto opens his eyes. “You’ve never seen honeysuckle before?”

“No.”

“Oh, that’s too bad! Here, I’ll show you,” Makoto says, standing and brushing himself off. He offers his hand to Haruka.

A beat behind, Haruka takes his hand, his blisters pressing against Makoto’s well-worn callouses, and lets Makoto pull him up, dropping his hand once he’s on his feet. Makoto heads towards the line of trees before the stream, pushing aside green fronds as he passes through, Haruka following. Among the trees are carpets of moss, little pockets of leafy ferns, and bushes at human height.

Makoto approaches one of the bushes, where tiny, slender, cream-colored flowers reside with green leaves. He reaches and plucks a flower, delicately pinching the narrow stem between his thumb and index finger. “Here,” he says, extending it to Haruka. Haruka takes it, but does nothing more, watching as Makoto picks another flower for himself. Raising the flower as if toasting to Haruka, Makoto brings the flower to his mouth, stem first, with the splayed petals facing Haruka.

Haruka mirrors the action, placing the flower in his mouth. Holding the the stem stable between his teeth, he sucks. A light, honey-like taste teases his tongue.

“Good, isn’t it?” Makoto prods, taking the honeysuckle from his mouth.

Haruka nods.

“When I was little, I had so many of these, the bushes didn’t even have any flowers left,” Makoto chuckles, letting the flower fall to the ground. “I can restrain myself better now.”

Taking the flower from his mouth, Haruka casts it aside. “Thank you.”

“Of course.” Makoto clasps a hand behind his neck. “And… um, thank you, too.”

Haruka tilts his head. “For what?”

“For being so kind to Ren and Ran, showing them their names and stuff.” Makoto’s hand falls, and his smile fades. “They listen to you, which, well, I can’t help but feel a little envious about, but ultimately, I think it’s good for them to see a little something outside of the farm.”

And what about you?

Haruka drops his eyes. “It’s nothing.”

“Still. Thank you.”

Light is nearly gone, now, and evening blue stretches to win out against orange, dusting the white flowers into a pale blue.

Makoto inhales and sets his shoulders. “I suppose we should head back.”

“I suppose.”

They do not speak any more on the way back, and when they return, the great cleaning debate still has yet to reach a conclusion. Haruka tucks himself out of the line of fire, watching with shielded amusement as the twins have at each other, Makoto and their parents acting as mediators. Eventually, the crisis is solved, though not without Ran bending a giant hole to entrap Ren, and the twins offer begrudging apologies and receive reprimands from their elder brother and their parents. Haruka, a child with no siblings to fight with, only has his tiffs with Rin as a frame of reference.

Nighttime rises and the prospect of finishing up their shipments for this week sends them all to bed.

Crawling into his pallet, Ren says, “You know, Haru, you kind of feel like another brother.”

Pausing while halfway settled on his own pallet, Haruka doesn’t respond. One of the candles he bought today burns in the main room, shooting a rectangular beam through the doorway onto Makoto and Ren’s middle pallets.

“Yeah, you’re like a cooler version of Makoto,” Ran agrees.

Extinguishing the candle in the center room, Makoto makes a noise of feigned shock. “I’m not cool?”

In unison, Ren and Ran answer, “No.”

Now barely visible, Makoto clambers and flops onto his pallet, heaving a sigh. His shadowy form seems to face Haruka. “Don’t tell me you agree, Haru?”

Haruka smirks into the dark. “Sure.”

“‘Sure’?!” Makoto falls flat onto the pallet with a whoomph . “I’m so hurt,” he says, sounding perfectly fine.

“Accept it and move on,” Ran commands.

“Yeah, and just think of us,” Ren adds, “we have to put up with you.”

“You’re all so mean.”

Haruka hides a chuckle and lies down, cloth crinkling in his ears, and listens as everyone signs off with goodnights. Cicadas scream away, now comforting in their insistence, and eyes aching with sleepiness, Haruka sneaks a glance beside him, sensing Makoto’s presence and the cycle of his breaths. His own breaths slowing and evening, Haruka curls into his side, facing Makoto and the others, and shuts his eyes.

When he wakes, the three other pallets are empty. He must have slept too well, for the sun is well in bloom. Wiping sleep from his eyes, he sits up and stretches, yawning, and forces himself out of bed.

Haruka leaves the room and steps outside the hut, prepared for another day of toil, but as he steps into the light of day, an eerie, tingling sensation skitters up his back.

All five Tachibanas stand just outside the hut, their backs to him. None of them notice his entrance, eyes all trained onto the farmland before them.

Haruka’s insides twist.

Their crops—ruined. Stalks slashed, sproutlings uprooted, grown vegetables hacked, entire batches stolen. No plot is safe from manipulation; nothing is salvageable to sell. There is no evidence of a tempestuous weather event or a rampaging animal. Someone did this.

Haruka pads in line with the Tachibanas, tearing his eyes from the devastation and peering into everyone’s expressions. The twins cry without shame, while their mother and father remain stoic, brows creased in exhaustion, but nothing else. Makoto simply stares ahead, his tight jaw the only thing appearing to restrain a tsunami.

In between choppy, snotty inhales, Ran looks to her oldest brother, fingers clumsily smearing away tears. “What are we going to do?” she whispers, bottom lip trembling.

Makoto’s adam’s apple bobs, and he says nothing for a moment. He does not meet her eyes. “I don’t know.”

The sun bears down on them.

Chapter Text

Haven’t I kept telling you that the cloud we have seen hovering over the mountaintops would burst one day like a tornado?

—Plutarch, Fabius Maximus


 The ceiling hovers above, dark with night time, as they all pore over it, willing it to show an answer. Perhaps an hour has passed. But the air is too thick, too apprehensive, too murky for sleep to come for Haruka, and he suspects he is not alone.

Oppressive humidity cloaks the room, and the crickets continue their songs, indifferent to whether they sleep or not.

Ren’s voice is the first to puncture the silence. “…Makoto?”

The pallet beside Haruka swishes, confirming wakefulness. “Hm?”

“Can… can you sing something?” Ren’s voice is small, drained. “I can’t sleep.”

“Me neither,” Ran pipes.

“Sure,” Makoto breathes. “What do you want me to sing?”

“Anything.”

Crickets imbue tempo into the room and Makoto moves in the dark beside Haruka, settling into a different position as he thinks. Finally, after several moments, with a deep, slow inhale, Makoto begins to sing.

Haruka pays little attention to the words—it is a simple, easily memorized lullaby—but instead gets drawn in by the temperature of Makoto’s voice, mild yet commanding, easy yet somber, not asking for attention, but inviting it. His voice is for others, not himself, and though intended for Ren and Ran, Haruka can’t fight the feeling that it is for him too.

After the initial shock in the morning, all of them desperately scrounged around the plots for anything salvageable, but as expected, the dirt held nothing that could be sold. They settled and gave up, and Makoto and his parents held hushed discussions aside, in sight but not in ear of Haruka and the twins. Sitting in the dirt, Haruka kept glancing to them, trying to read their expressions, idly drawing things into the ground as a distraction for despondent Ren and Ran, and waited.

Nothing came of the discussion except they just clean up the plots, gather together the last seeds they have, and hope they can grow something to make up for lost payments. It’s not a solution; it’s prolonging the inevitable.

Makoto continues singing until Ren and Ran’s breaths even out, and his voice softens and drifts, as if aimed at himself for just a moment, before disappearing completely. The twins sleep. Haruka remains wide awake.

Some time passes, Haruka attentive to the sounds in the room. Makoto is silent, but his breath is too short, too aware to be in sleep, and it nags at Haruka, keeping him present.

Slowly, almost invisibly, Makoto moves, sitting up and crawling out of his pallet. Haruka watches, holding his breath as Makoto stands and slips out of the room. Makoto’s feet pad away, and the front door creaks open and shut in the distance.

After a second of consideration, Haruka follows.

Dusty light blankets outside, birds singing all around, and Haruka treads a good distance behind Makoto, far enough away for his footsteps to go unheard but close enough to identify his movements in the dark. Makoto passes under the thicket and takes to the road, apparently heading toward town, and Haruka struggles to keep up through shrouded trees, but once he reaches the dismal stretch of town, light from two buildings makes his mission easier.

Hiding behind a tree, Haruka watches Makoto walk down the dirt road and enter one of the buildings still awake: the tavern. Haruka waits a moment, and when nothing moves, he slinks after, ducking out of sight from the light spewing out the open window. Dropping into a crouch, he presses his back to the tavern’s outside wall, the window just above his head, and clamps down his breath, ears pricked.

“…accuse me?”

Haruka racks his mind to place the voice—the bartender, Norio.

“I’m not here to accuse anyone.” Makoto, and though not flagrantly angry, his voice has a sober chill, unnerving only in contrast to his usual tone. “I just want to talk.”

A pause.

“Well, it wasn’t me.”

“But you know who?”

Wood thunks, and something swishes like cloth. “They’re not going to give back your crops.”

“I’m not asking them to,” Makoto says. “I just wanted to see if I could…”

“Help? Change things?” Norio supplies. He scoffs. “Kid, you can’t get that land back.”

Images resurface in Haruka’s memory of ash and rubble, black and white.

“I know.”

“Then stop trying so hard to change what you can’t. Jeez, I swear, I see your damn face around here more than anyone else. Your parents already realized there’s no point anymore, eh?”

No response.

“Go home. Get some sleep. Without your crops, you’re fucked, right?” Norio seems to laugh to himself, and there’s a clunk of a bottle, followed by pouring liquid. “You know, it’s a shame.” A swig of liquid; an exhale of satisfaction. “I really do want to like you guys.”

A bird screeches from neighboring trees.

Haruka is still in concentration.

Finally, Makoto says, “It doesn’t matter whether I like you all or not, but I… I still do.” Footsteps scuff along the floor. “Goodnight.”

The tavern door to Haruka’s left opens, and Haruka freezes. Makoto steps out, with no expression, immediately setting off the way he came without turning back or noticing Haruka in the shadows.

Once Makoto vanishes down the lane, Haruka picks himself up, not bothering to dust off the dirt from his robe, and rushes after, back into darkness and trees. He catches up, spotting dim light bouncing off the folds of Makoto’s tunic.

“Makoto!” he hisses, swatting aside an overhanging leaf.

Makoto whips around. “ Haru? ” He stops, half turned towards Haru, his face split in light under night sky and trees. “Did you… follow me?”

Haruka halts a couple of yards away, huffing through his nose. “You know who it is.”

“Huh?”

“Whoever damaged and stole your crops. You know.”

Makoto limply raises his shoulders. “I mean, I have a guess…”

“Then what are you planning?”

Brows pinch together. “Planning? Haru, I’m not planning anything.”

“Why? It’s wrong to ruin someone’s crops.”

“I… It’s not that simple.” Fingers curling into his clothes, Makoto lowers his eyes.

Haruka’s jaw ticks. “Then explain,” he demands. “Why do they hate you?”

Crickets chirp from the thick grass at their feet, insistent. A few moments pass as Makoto stares at the ground, wringing his hands, some battle going on inside his head, before his expression sets and he rotates to face Haruka squarely.

“Well… My family has had our farm for a long time,” he begins, slowly, cautiously, as if testing out cold waters with a dip of a toe. “I’ve lived here my whole life; my parents have lived in the valley their whole lives; their parents lived here their whole lives. You get the idea. No one around here used actual money, so we exchanged our foods with others in the valley for favors and other kinds of foods, as a couple of dairy and butchery farms were down the road just a bit. It was fine, and no one seemed to have problems with it.

“But then a couple of years ago, Water Tribe and Fire Nation military troops stopped here and fought with each other. I still don’t really know what all the fighting was about, but I think it had something to do with the land.”

Shangto Valley . Haruka relives Rin’s smug grin, boring celebrations with overflowing alcohol, and someone pinning a badge to newly promoted Colonel Mikoshiba’s uniform lapel.

“The battles destroyed most of the nearby farms and land, which pushed a bunch of people out of their homes, and both sides stole animals and crops to feed their troops. Some people chose to stay behind with their land and belongings, but they… didn’t make it.”

Makoto pauses, swallowing.

“It was only luck that our farm didn’t get destroyed. But even though it wasn’t damaged, the Fire Nation eventually won the battle and the land, I guess, and we had to begin paying rents and taxes to them. The people whose homes were damaged were promised to be paid back, but nothing ever came of that for any of them. For a little while, my family tried to sell our produce to people in the valley to make money, but hardly anyone else had any money to buy anything either, so our vegetables would just be wasted, and making rent was tough. So when a Fire Nation food company offered to pay us for our land and work, we… My parents thought it was the best option.”

A long breath.

“And now our crops feed Fire Nation troops. So, to everyone here…”

They are silent for a moment, but for the buzzing of thoughts.

“You’re the easy enemy,” Haruka finishes, quietly.

Eyes averted, Makoto doesn’t respond.

“You shouldn’t be.” Haruka’s steely tone commands Makoto’s eyes forward. “You’re not directly harming anyone.”

This does nothing to placate Makoto’s muddled brow or tightly wound shoulders, and he sighs, his chest collapsing in on itself and seeming to shrink smaller than it is.

“But whoever took your crops, they are directly harming someone. You and your family.” Haruka prods, “You should report them to the police.”

Makoto shakes his head. “There isn’t really anything to enforce stuff out here, except for rent. Rent is all that matters.” He brushes a hand into his confused hair, hand curling into a fist, strands and tufts poking from between fingers. His arm drops to his side. “And Haru, I… I’ve grown up with the people here. I know them. They’re good people. I know that normally they wouldn’t do something like this.”

“But they still did.”

Tree branches shiver with a breeze, with boat-shaped, waxy leaves reflecting the minimal light back up, little pods of berries at the end of branches along with clusters of white flowers. Petals disband from their place and drift to the ground, swirling and flipping and altering course before coming to rest at the grass at their feet.

Silence hovers for several moments, Haruka looking straight at Makoto, and Makoto looking anywhere else, his eye sockets and cheek deep in shadow. Haruka does not push forward, the space between them impenetrable.

The tree stills.

“Sometimes,” says Makoto finally, lifting his chin just ever so, “it is better to be kind than to be right.”

They stand opposing each other for several rounds of heartbeats, warm air seeping into the pores of their skin. Sweat bubbles at the small of Haruka’s back.

He says nothing.

The moment ends when Makoto puffs out another small sigh, his shoulders drooping, and turns his body away. “Let’s go back.”

Dipping his head, Haruka steps forward, and they fall in step, walking on brush and tenuous silence all the way back to the farm. The farm is exactly as they left it, quiet, empty earth waiting for seeds to nourish. They creep back into the hut, sliding the door shut with utmost care, before returning to their separate pallets.

Electricity froths in Haruka’s right side as he once again stares up at the ceiling, too aware of Makoto beside him. For a while, Makoto is also awake, his breaths restrained and calculated, before he eventually slips away, light snores rising from him and settling into an even rhythm.

Haruka doesn’t sleep for a long time.

When morning comes, Makoto and Haruka do not mention the night before and instead plod on as usual with the rest of the family, taking to the plots to clean up and plant what they have left. They only fill a couple of plots, and the work only takes a few short hours between the six of them, leaving them to wilt around the land for the rest of the day with nothing else to do.

The sky above is a hushed gray, clouds amassing and implying rain. A wind picks up and sways grasses and trees, freed flower petals skittering along the ground as if running from something. Haruka stands, observing, letting the wind stroke at him, the others retreating to the safety of the hut.

Grass rustles.

“You know, usually I look forward to rain,” says their father, stepping beside Haruka.

Haruka turns and looks at him.

Gazing out over the land, he smiles, a sad one that creases the lines of his face. “It does our work for us.”  

His eyes flick to Haruka before he too returns to the hut, and with rising humidity filling Haruka’s nose, he joins him.

They prepare dinner, and little is said as they cut leftover vegetables and use some of their rice ration. Ran goes out the hut to collect some water from the river before the rain can snap loose, while Ren scratches wood together, trying and failing to spark a fire, fingers tense and face screwed in frustration. Makoto, their parents, and Haruka sit situated around the pit, consumed with varying tasks of peeling and cutting.

Outside, Ran’s voice echoes in a shout.

Everyone looks up, jerking out of the lull. Sat across the room from Haruka, Makoto and his parents immediately drop what’s in their hands, standing and racing out the door. Ren follows, and Haruka exits last, eyes readjusting and narrowing onto the scene before him.

“You have no right to do that, bitch! ” Ran’s voice snarls. She stands at the edge of the plot they just replanted in, tiny hands clenched into shaky fists by her sides.

Ran! ” Makoto rushes to her, placing a grip on her shoulder.

A figure stands in the plot’s center, wielding a long stick. “Don’t talk about rights to me, you brat!”

It is Fumiko, the old woman in the tavern from his first night, and the dirt around her is hacked, seeds plucked from gaping holes.

Haruka walks forward, a bit behind and to the side of Makoto and Ran, while Ren and their parents remain just outside the hut.

“Fumiko, please,” Makoto begs, guiding Ran aside as he steps in front of her.

His mother swoops in. “Makoto, just let her do whatever.” She places her hands on both Makoto and Ran’s shoulders, her face gaunt and drained. “There’s no point anymore.”

Makoto ignores her, and shaking her off, he takes another step to Fumiko, who brandishes her digging stick as if warding him off. “You don’t need to do this, if you’d just let us help—”

Fumiko heaves a breath like a bull about to charge. “Your damned help can’t bring back my goats or Dai.”

“I know, but neither will doing this—”

I don’t care! ” Fumiko’s croaky scream embeds into Haruka’s skin. “This is what you get for working with them!

“We ju—”

Fumiko’s eyes cloud over, and she raises her stick.

In the next second, Haruka sees several things at once: Fumiko’s deadset, raw anger; her stick whirling forward; Makoto, just standing there, hands by his sides, willing to accept a blow.

As if acting on separate volition, crackling blue lightning surges from Haruka’s outstretched fingertips, shooting out across the plot and striking Fumiko in the chest. She convulses, a scream billowing out, electricity bounding all through her.

The blue bolts die out, her voice cuts off, and she falls to the ground.

She doesn’t move.

Time ticks forward in the stillness, sounds hollow and distant in Haruka’s ears, hairs rising from his skin. Pants fall from his mouth as he stares, his skin bending beneath the pressure of all eyes on him.

Thunder rumbles in the distance.

Haruka twitches out of paralysis, head flipping around. Ren’s wide eyes, Ran’s open mouth, and their parents’ crinkled awe all push him to take a step back. His focus rebounds and lands on Makoto who, out of all of them, looks the least visibly shocked, is peering into Haruka with something worse than fear or anger—concern.

Spinning away, Haruka runs.

A call of his name warbles from behind, but he sprints ahead, feet taking him from exposed dirt to mulchy underbrush. Trees close in overhead, darkening the already cloudy light, and he thumps across snaking roots, barely hearing the trickle of the stream. He flies despite tightness in his gut and burning in his lungs, his footsteps as fast as his heartrate.

Another couple of rounds of thunder crack, and the sky now swarms with clouds. How far Haruka gets, he doesn’t know, but aching and gasping for air, he eventually slows to a stop. Heaving, he stoops over his knees, propping himself up with hands on his thighs, dizzily looking at the bugs wriggling their way through the dirt at his feet.

Seconds, or minutes, or hours pass to his thudding heartbeat, blood flowing hot in his veins, breaths only slowing a little. Gathering himself up, he looks back, this length of shallow forest and stream unfamiliar. He can’t see anything of farmland through tree trunks and dense leaves, but his mind doesn’t really register any information at all. All he sees is dirt.

He could keep going. Follow the stream until it ends. Reinvent himself, again.

Mushing his lips together and gulping an inhale, Haruka fully turns back and begins to retrace his path. He winds his way back into familiar territory in what seems a much longer time than before, until fragments of earthen plots pop through, now almost black in the stormy light.

Haruka exits the safety of trees, propelling himself out into the open, onto the Tachibanas’ land. He doesn’t spot any of them, but his eyes look for only one thing.

Fumiko lies off to the side of the shed, her limbs neatly reordered and peaceful, as if she has merely tired of work and chosen to nap. Warped burns of fried flesh crawl up from her wrinkled clavicle to her neck, smoky and red. A foul stench already wafts from her.

Haruka grabs underneath her armpits and lugs her across the ground to open dirt that isn’t a part of a plot. He lets go, and she flops back down, head lolling to the side. The first few drops of rain smatter down as Haruka jogs back to the shed, and he wrenches the door open, eliciting a knicker from Kuroime. He does not stop to pet her, rummaging through the tools and snatching a shovel, and slams the door behind him.

The air now full with rain pattering onto leaves and ground, Haruka flits back, fat raindrops flattening his hair and soaking into his clothing. Stopping beside Fumiko, he cleaves with the shovel at the empty ground, ripping it up and tossing dirt into a haphazard pile. Rain pounds down, his tiny hole pooling with rippling, murky water as his arms burn.

From another dimension comes, “ Haru!

Haruka dumps another shovelful aside, back prickling with goosebumps.

Quick footsteps sound from behind, muted in the continuous drone of rainfall, closing in on him.

A hand reaches and grasps at the shovel handle. “Please, let me help.”

Haruka yanks the shovel out of its hold and bears his face down, gritting his teeth as he silently stabs the ground.

Makoto appears in Haruka’s periphery. “Haru, it would be much easier if I—”

“Don’t.” Sludge flies off the shovel.

“Please, I just—”

Haruka’s fingers tighten, and his head twists up. “I said no!

Makoto falters, mouth shutting, his hair plastered to his forehead and his tunic hugging to his collarbone. His hands pull into himself, awkwardly hovering at hip level, but he doesn’t pull away from Haruka’s glare.

After a moment, he places a warm hand on Haruka’s white-knuckled grip.

Haruka tenses. His heated hands and arms quake, and a queasiness boils in his stomach, snaking all the way up to tighten the back of his throat. Glare dripping away, he swallows. His grip slackens around the shovel under Makoto’s touch, and it falls from him, splashing muddy rainwater onto their feet.

Another shock of thunder booms overhead.

Haruka turns and bows his head into Makoto’s chest, fingers tugging fistfuls of his tunic, and presses out a shuddering breath. Droplets pelt the back of his head and neck. Within a couple of moments, careful hands come to brace his back, and he exhales into them.

Rain continues to fall on them, until Haruka slowly draws himself up, his curled fists relaxing but fingers still hooking onto soggy fabric. Bangs mussed, he glances up through them and his waterlogged eyelashes. Trails of droplets travel down Makoto’s cheeks and neck, his tunic collar catching and absorbing them before they can reach farther than his clavicle.

Haruka blinks, and looking down, he steps back, releasing Makoto’s shirt. Picking up the shovel, he offers it to Makoto.

With a melancholy smile, Makoto takes it from him and lays it down parallel with Fumiko. Hands freed, he takes a deep breath and raises his arms in front of his torso, bending a body sized mass of mud out of the ground, and pushes, the mud thudding into a pile beside a gaping hole.

Once the ground is ready, Makoto bends over and grabs Fumiko’s ankles, and Haruka chooses to mirror him, taking her shoulder sockets, and the two of them lift her a couple of inches and scoot to the hole’s edge. Fumiko grows heavier in their arms and they drop her, resisting flinches as she thuds six feet below. They both puff out breaths and crane over the edge, peering into the dark abyss.

Haruka raises his eyes to Makoto, and gives him a short nod. Makoto returns the nod and, widening his stance, he bends and lifts the pile of earth and guides it over Fumiko, evening it to match the ground with waves of his arms. Dropping his arms, he looks at Haruka, and with a tilt of his head as if beckoning Haruka to follow him, he sets off towards the rim of trees and stream. Hands trembling by his sides, Haruka falls behind.

They slosh through puddles and slick grass, rain beating upon their backs, and the sky shifts into dusk, charcoal clouds barely giving off any light. Makoto leads to the stream, which churns more powerfully and frantically with new water. He clambers onto large stones below a short, sharp dropoff. With a hand against the stone face steadying him, Haruka spots the destination: a little stone cavity in the riverbank wall overlooking the stream, shielded overhead from rain. Makoto waits for Haruka to pass and climb in first before sitting down opposite him on dry stone.

Haruka, now out of the rain and utterly drenched to his core, shivers with slight chills, and the stone overhead renders Makoto as little more than a shadow across from him. With a sigh, he looks around himself. Spotting a couple of broken branches, he leans over and nabs them, organizing them into a neat pile between himself and Makoto. He thrusts his hand forward, fire springing from his palm and catching on the branches.

Flame crackles, casting a shifting glow onto Makoto’s face. He studies the fire with an interested, almost curious expression, before he exhales and settles back, legs crisscrossed. Mopping up the thin film of rainwater on his neck with his sleeve, he looks to Haruka. “Thanks.”

“Mm.” Haruka draws his knees into his chest and rests his chin, arms clutched around.

Orange flames hiss and pop, plumes of smoke filling Haruka’s nose and reminding him of a distant, untouchable life. Rain slants outside with a change in wind, and the little fire leans with, but it can’t quite commit to its extinction. Drops have a muted resonance as they hit above their heads and to the outside, bouncing off stone walls and filling the void for several minutes.

“I’m sorry,” breathes Haruka.

Makoto’s dripping hair casts a droplet along the side of his nose. He says nothing, blinking at Haruka.

“I hate firebending.” Haruka’s arms clench. “It’s useless.” He swallows, flames singeing into his eyes. “All it does is harm.”

Makoto leans back, his hands in his lap. “Hm, I don’t think so,” he says, his finger drawing circles onto the cloth at his thigh. “Fire can harm, but it also cooks food, gives warmth, protects. Really, anything can be made a weapon, depending on how you use it.”

Digging his chin into his knees, Haruka stares down with half closed eyes.

“Haru.” Makoto’s hand stills. “Don’t—don’t blame yourself.”

A shake of Haruka’s head. “Who else is to blame,” he murmurs. “This will only worsen everything between your family and everyone else.”

Pressing his lips together, Makoto ducks his chin down. “Look, this… this has been building for some time. It was only a matter of time until someone set it off.” Inhale. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll manage.”

Haruka breathes through a parted mouth, tongue hovering with uncertainty, and Fumiko’s scream bounces around his skull. He lowers his head, resting his forehead on his folded forearms.“You shouldn’t be punished for what I…” His voice stops.

“We won’t be.”

Haruka lifts his head.

Makoto smiles, one that trembles at the edges. “As long as rent is paid, remember? No one… no one will look for her.”

Queasiness twists Haruka’s innards again. “I meant from the others in the valley, not police.”

Makoto’s hand falls. “Oh.” Pulling himself up, he repeats, “We’ll manage.”

The rain subsides into a misty drizzle, everything outside in the blue glow of twilight.

Straightening his spine, Haruka gazes Makoto down, his damp robe sticking to his back.

“How long do you have? Really.”

Makoto deflates a little and raises his shoulder. “I don’t know. I think we have enough money now to get this moon’s rent, but if we don’t have anything to sell, then…  I don’t think we’ll make the next.”

Haruka says, “And you’ll be evicted.”

“…Yeah.” Makoto’s voice is soft, barely there over the spits of fire and surges of water.

Mind whirling, Haruka thinks for a moment, and sets his jaw. “Then I won’t let that happen. And I’ll return your farm to you and the rest of the land in the valley to the others here.”

“Eh?”

Haruka allows himself a calm breath of air, his chest swelling, and says, “My full name is Nanase Haruka, and I’m heir to one of the largest fortunes in the world.”

Chapter Text

Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.

—Sun Tzu, The Art of War


 Sousuke snores.

Rin’s left hand absently fiddles with his golden dragon pendant, his eyes staring off into the shadowy shack. The taut chain presses into the skin at the back of his neck as he repeatedly smoothes over shiny metal. His hand does not hurt, but there is nothing more to clean.

The front door cracks open, and Rin snaps out of his daze.

“Hi,” whispers Ai, poking his head in. He glances around to the back. “Is Sousuke still asleep?”

“Mm.” Rin drops the pendant, casually draping one arm on his bent knee.

Ai nods. “Have you decided what you want to do with your pelt yet?”

“My pelt?” Rin’s eyes lower to the folded gray and white fur on the side of his cot. “I don’t know, a coat, maybe.”

“I can help you make that, if you want,” Ai suggests. “It’s a nice day out, so we could sit out here and work on it.”

Rin figures ‘nice day’ means it’s only the slightest bit warmer with no piercing winds, but an activity is an activity, so he says, “Yeah, sure.”

After leaning forward to scoop up the pelt, he rises and follows Ai out, carefully shutting the door behind him. As expected, the temperature still chills him to the bone, but the atmosphere is static and relatively pleasant in comparison to most of the time here. Ai fetches a knife and what looks like a bone needle before they settle down.

“Sorry I haven’t let you come hunting,” Ai says as he kneels, unfurling the pelt and placing it flat on the ground. “I know it must be boring, especially in comparison to the sort of life you’re used to.”

Rin sits down opposite and snorts. “Sitting around in rooms all day isn’t too unknown to me.”

“Oh, well…” Ai coughs into his elbow. “I mean. I know Sousuke is frustrating for you.”

They slip into a moment of silence, measuring out the widths and lengths of what needs to be cut from the pelt. Ai estimates from Rin’s frame and places notches in the hide where to cut, and hands Rin the knife.

“You know, I have been wondering,” Rin says, ducking over the pelt and ripping the knife through it with difficulty, “how did the two of you end up… here?” He sits back and makes an encompassing gesture to the woods.

Ai’s eyes flicker to the shack. “A-Ah, well…”

Rin tugs another cut. “It’s fine, you don’t have to tell me.”

“No, I just…” Ai sighs, blinking down at the ground. He takes a couple of seconds, watching Rin work, before he draws in a strong inhale. “You told us that after you were kidnapped, you woke up by the shore where ships were being taken apart, right?”

Rin’s fist tightens around the knife handle. “Yeah.”

“Sousuke and I both used to work there. The ship graveyard.”

Rin stops and looks up. “Really?”

Ai nods. “Yeah. I started working there when I was… nine, I think?”

Nine?

“Yeah, everyone is really young there, since once you’re twenty, you join the military.” Ai pulls the furs around his neck higher. “At the time in my home village, everyone was catching mizubara fever and no one had the money to treat it, so a lot of people were dying or too sick to have a job or join the military. My parents had already caught it, but I hadn’t, so they sent me off for the ship graveyard job, figuring that I had more of a chance of surviving if I left.”

Rin stills, holding his breath.

A swallow. “I… I don’t know whether they’re still alive or not. But I was okay, I guess. I still don’t really know why the ships needed to be pulled apart, but we had barracks to sleep in and food given to us. Although our pay basically only covered those costs, so even though I wanted to save up, I didn’t end up with anything.

“I was around twelve when Sousuke started working there. It’s kind of funny now, but back then, ah…” Ai strokes a hand through his hair, smiling. “He terrified me.”

Rin raises his eyebrows.

“I mean… He was two years older, didn’t really talk to anyone, and when he first arrived he was really tall and skinny, sort of like a skeleton, and he just seemed… I don’t know. Frustrated?”

So, little has changed.

“He was probably the hardest working out of everyone, though, which really only made him more scary. He probably knew we were scared of him. I was randomly placed to work alongside him one day, and I was so nervous. He didn’t talk to me much, but as I spent more time with him, I saw that he was surprisingly really helpful and considerate, just in his own way. I began to talk to him more in the barracks, and he started opening up to me a little, and gradually, we became friends. Sousuke…”

Ai checks the shack again, his voice hushed.

“I think Sousuke is very delicate.”

If not for Ai’s earnest tone, Rin would laugh. “Delicate?”

“Mm.” Ai gives a grave nod, mulling over his words. “I think… I think it’s much easier for him to be tough and intimidating than to be open and vulnerable.” A little gust rustles Ai’s gleaming hair. “He still hasn’t really said much about his life before the ship graveyard.”

The knife flips around and around in Rin’s fingers.

“But anyway. We grew pretty close as the years passed, and while the work wasn’t exactly fun or good, we had somewhere to live, things to eat, things to do. And then.” Ai presses his lips together. “It was always a pretty dangerous job, and accidents happened all the time, so people were always coming in and out. When…” His eyes squeeze shut for a heartbeat. “When someone got hurt or k-killed, we weren’t allowed to stop working, except to move them out of the way, or else we would be pun… punished.

“I was fifteen. Sousuke was seventeen. I was working on a different ship, so I didn’t see it, but apparently a mast swung into Sousuke and two other kids. The other two instantly died, but Sousuke was still alive, and they were all dragged to shore without anyone checking them. Sousuke ended up lying there for hours, and I—I didn’t even know until the workday ended.

“He was—he was so close. His ribcage and his lung—” Ai’s voice thickens. “I did what I could to heal him. He lived, of course, but… there was a lot of permanent damage. So much so that he couldn’t really keep up with the work anymore, so the manager told him to leave. We’d both seen this happen before, and we’d always been aware that someone else was waiting for a job and could replace any one of us at any time, but… it’s different when it’s happening to you.

“Sousuke begged them to let him work, but they wouldn’t let him, so I decided to quit with him. He didn’t want me to come, but I was too worried about him to let him go by himself. And well… I did leave for him, but… I guess I’m a bit selfish. I couldn’t work there anymore if he wasn’t there.”

Heaving a sigh, Ai looks around them.

“We settled out here, and it was temporary at first, just for Sousuke to get better, but it’s been two years and I don’t think it’s temporary anymore. Sousuke…” He lifts a shoulder. “It’s kind of too bad that you met him now. He’s very different. Maybe… I don’t know. Maybe he thinks it would have been better if he had died, back then.”

A bird caws over the snow and trees, jostling branches as it flitters through. They sit in silence for several moments.

“I’m sorry,” Rin says, gazing into Ai’s face. “I had no idea.”

Looking down, Ai nods, his throat bobbing. He releases a sharp exhale and raises his eyes, a wobbly smile returning to his lips. “Here, I’ll show you how to stitch this,” he offers, taking the cut portions of pelt.

As the day progresses, they work on cutting, ripping, and threading, light, minimal chatter flowing out with ease. Ai demonstrates how to strategically stitch it so the the dog’s skinned ears and muzzle come out as a hood, and when the sleeves are roughly locked in place, Rin slips it on to gage the fit. Stretching his arms, he tests the sleeve lengths and the pull around his shoulders, plopping the dog’s head on top of his own, snout dipping over his forehead and into his vision.

The shack door creaks open. Rin and Ai turn to find Sousuke propping it open with his shoulder. Hair ruffled, he yawns and blinks at them with drowsy eyes.

“What are you doing?” he croaks.

“I was just helping Rin put together a jacket from his pelt, see?” Ai chirps, directing an arm to Rin modeling the look.

Sousuke’s head tilts as he inspects Rin for a second. “You almost look like you’re from the Water Tribe.”

Rin does not smile.

The next few days pass in little interest, chugging ahead with neither Ai nor Rin mentioning their conversation. The meat and organs they scavenged from the dog begin to dwindle, and anxiety rises up again in Ai and he dives into scrounging the woods. Rin manages to wrangle Ai into letting him accompany him, but there isn’t much to teach about hunting when all they can do is wander.

Rin first notices Ai’s cough worsening with the extra time they spend together, marching through the cold while stopping every few minutes for Ai’s sudden fits, but he doesn’t say anything until the following day, when a permanent flush plagues Ai’s face and dark circles harbor under his eyes.

“Do you have a fever?”

“No!” Ai says, too quickly, shaking his head.

Pursing his lips, Rin reaches a hand forward and slips underneath Ai’s bangs, heat radiating into his fingers. “Yeah, we’re going back.”

“No, I’m fine, I promise!”

“No you’re not, and don’t fight me. I will carry you back if I have to.”

Ai only protests a little more before taking heed to Rin’s words, and the two of them trudge back to the shack. When they arrive, Sousuke sits tending to a pot of what leftovers they still have, a small fire glimmering underneath.

Sousuke looks up. “Why are you guys back so soon?” he asks.

Rin points an accusatory finger to Ai. “He’s sick.”

“I swear, I’m fine —”

“He has a fever and won’t stop coughing,” Rin interrupts, looking at Sousuke.

As if on cue, Ai’s argument dies in rattly hacking, prolonged for a minute or so before dissolving away. Wiping away tears borne in the force of his coughs, Ai places a pleading look on Sousuke. “It’s nothing, really—”

“Lie down, Ai,” commands Sousuke, standing up. His delivery softens as he tacks on, “You don’t want it to get worse.”

“But we’re almost out of food and if I miss a chance to catch something, then—”

“Relax.” Sousuke flicks his eyes to Rin and jerks his chin. “Rin and I will handle it.”

Squinting, Rin cocks his head. “We will?”

Ai cranes back a little. “You will?”

Under both of their scrutiny, Sousuke dips his chin and casts his eyes aside. “Of course,” he says. After a moment, he returns to Ai. “Now go sleep, Ai. I mean it.”

Rin watches in a daze as Ai clambers into his cot, grumbling to himself, and Sousuke dons himself in his outer coat. In a matter of moments, Sousuke becomes his new partner. They leave Ai to rest and return into the cold, the woods golden and sunny with late afternoon, traipsing through the snow at a moderate pace.

It’s not for a while that Rin realizes that was the first time Sousuke called him by his name.

Some time passes with no animals presenting themselves, either because none are nearby or because Sousuke’s thudding pace shooed them off, and the two of them continue to meander in silence, puffing out clouds of air, the sun dripping orange through trunks and branches toward the west.

Beside Rin, Sousuke breathes a bit more heavily than Rin does, looking a bit worn around the edges.

Watching him from the corner of his eye, Rin slows his pace. “Let’s stop for a minute,” he suggests.

Sousuke does not answer, but when Rin stops altogether, he does not argue and follows in suit, exhaling sharply and stepping away to lean against a tree trunk, eyes shut. Readjusting the collar of his new dog coat, Rin observes him, watching his breaths slow and even out.

“You know,” Rin says after several breaths, piercing the quiet, “it’s good to see you trying.”

Sousuke’s eyes immediately open and fixate on him. A beat of silence. “What does that mean?”

“Well, you’re out here, aren’t you? ‘ I don’t hunt ,’” Rin mimics, dropping the pitch of his voice.

Crossing his arms, Sousuke braces one foot against the tree trunk. He simply looks back, offering no more.

Rin says nothing as well for a moment and slides his hands into his pockets, tilting his head. He sighs and admits in a low voice, “Ai told me about your injury.”

Sousuke’s calm mask wavers for a fraction of a second. “Did he.”

“Obviously, that’s awful,” Rin says, nodding slowly, “and I am very sympathetic toward your situation, but—”

Sousuke rolls his eyes. “Oh, you’re sympathetic —” He cuts himself off, working his jaw and looking down.

Rin arches an eyebrow and mirrors Sousuke, folding his arms. “What is it?” he prods. “If you have something to say, spit it out.”

Sousuke is silent, his hands taut on his arms. Finally, his eyes land on Rin and he says, “You really want to hear it?”

“I do.”

“Fine.” Pushing off the tree, Sousuke returns to his two feet and drops his arms. “I don’t want sympathy, and I don’t want advice. Especially not from you .”

Me?

“You think I’m lazy and useless, and that what Ai and I do is unimportant, while you’re so devoted and hardworking —”

“Oi, all I’m saying is that I think it’s sad that you’re just wasting all of your potential by sticking around here,” Rin says. “I’ve been working hard my whole life, taking advantage of every opportunity—”

It’s not the same!

Sousuke’s shout reverberates across the wood, embedding into Rin’s skin and sparking an inadvertent flinch. Rin stares with wide eyes as Sousuke heaves harsh exhales. In electrified silence, Sousuke forcibly evens out his breath and calms his tone before speaking again.

“I don’t care how hard you’ve worked on your bending or your articulate essays on politics; you’ve never had to work hard just to exist.”

Gnashing his teeth together, Rin sucks in a tight breath. “I understand that our upbringings were very different, but that doesn’t change how you’re still giving up and making excuses for—”

“You don’t understand. You can’t.” White knuckles tuck into fists.

“Fine, then help me understand!”

Sousuke’s lips press into a flat line. “I can’t make you understand. You have to do that yourself.”

“This is exactly—” Rin makes a strained noise and runs his fingers through his hair. “You accept things too easily. How do you expect something to change if you don’t try?

“Because I know that even if I do try, it still won’t change,” Sousuke says. “Maybe trying works for you. You probably have power over yourself and others, but someone else always has power over me.”

“But you don’t know things won’t change,” Rin stresses, dropping his hand. “If your life here is so bad and unfulfilling, then you can just leave, go somewhere else, make a new life—”

“It’s not that easy.”

“I’m not saying it is, but—I mean, you have a lot of marketable qualities. You can waterbend, you can butcher; I’m sure you could work your way up somehow in a place and find something.”

Sousuke shakes his head. “You really don’t get it.” He sighs and unfurls his fists. “I can only read about as well as a little kid, so anything that requires a lot of reading is automatically out. If I wanted to butcher, I would have to be trained and certified, and I don’t have the money for that. Just even moving costs money, unless I want to live on the streets and pick at scraps.” His jaw clenches. “And the only jobs I could do that don’t need money or education use minimal bending and physical labor, and I… I can’t do them, anymore.”

Chewing on the inside of his lip, Rin looks down to his feet. Blood pumps hot and fast to his extremities.

“And you’re one to talk,” Sousuke continues, narrowing his eyes. “Why are you still here?”

Rin looks back up, frowning. “What do you mean? I’ve been injured—”

“Barely. You’ve been fine for a while, and you could have left weeks ago. Why not?”

Mouth drying, Rin stammers out, “I just want to make sure I’m perfectly okay to—”

“I think you’re scared to go back.”

“I am not scared—”

“Bullshit.”

“Well at least it’s just me!” Rin spits. “You know that Ai will do whatever you do, and you’re holding him back!”

The second the words fly from his mouth, Rin wants to reel them back in. Sousuke’s mouth twists, his expression hard, and Rin stills. A rocky moment passes, neither of them moving. Despite Sousuke’s frozen stance, fear knifes Rin’s chest, and he resists the urge to back away. His breaths pile up in his chest as Sousuke merely stares at him, a world’s worth of information hidden behind his eyes.

“Do you know,” Sousuke finally hisses, voice barely audible, “that your cushy lifestyle and family name is only built from the lives and work of millions of people who had no choice? But you say I’m wrong for affecting the life of only one person. I know you didn’t give a shit about us or our lives until you considered us tragic and pitiable. Now you only care so you can be our savior and fix our house and problems like you know what’s right for us and what we want.”

Rin’s hands quake.

Sousuke lifts his chin, zeroing in on Rin with a flat, piercing look. “You’re just a self-righteous, ignorant hypocrite, trying to convince yourself that you’re slightly more decent than you really are.”

Rin rushes forward and seizes Sousuke’s collar, digging his forearms and elbows into Sousuke’s chest. Their noses almost touch as Rin snarls through bared teeth, “ Don’t talk to me like that.

Exhale hot on Rin’s face, Sousuke holds his gaze and ground steady. “You hate me because you know I’m right.”

Rin shoves. Sousuke stumbles back a few feet, and Rin digs his fingernails into his palms. Controlling his inhale, he growls, “Get fucked .”

Nebulous air hangs between them and blood roars in his ears. Rin whips away.

The snow moves aside for his disruptive feet, swishing and spraying into the air. Branches reach out at Rin, and he must duck and swerve to avoid them, while dips in the forest floor and rises in roots play with his careless steps. The last slivers of the sun vanish and the temperature drops, a bitter chill seeping into Rin’s burning blood. His eyesight is awash with a faded blue, unable to pick out the details and intricacies of the forest.

Rin was wrong. Sousuke doesn’t care too little; he cares too much.

Rin hurls his arm forward with a grunt, spraying a streak of fire to the snow before him. A strip lights along the white, sizzling before flickering out into hazy smoke and melted water. He pants and lowers his arm, standing and glaring at the newly exposed earth, before stepping back and slumping against a tree.

The moon pokes up by now, nearly full, illuminating silvery bands of a cobweb high above in leaves and branches. No spider.

Rin slides down the tree, friction from the bark and his coat slowing him, and sits down on the ground. He doesn’t care about the chill and wetness of the snow. His head dips forward, fingers sinking into his hair and fingertips propping him up by the temples.

An owl calls somewhere. Rin exhales.

Of all things, Haru and his bending techniques pop into Rin’s mind. Even from a young age, Haru has always had a distinct, unique style of firebending, evasive and indirect, more similar to light footed, quick airbending than grounded, powerful firebending. Haru watches, waits, dodging attacks and sapping his opponent’s energy little by little, before striking at their most desperate, most weak moment. Fascinating to watch, infuriating to fight.

One time when Rin and Haru were around thirteen, they had an open sparring session. Mikoshiba Seijuurou, then a young lieutenant and a mentor to both Haru and Rin, stood on the sidelines, occasionally offering critiques. In the audience sat Haru’s parents, away from Ito to gage his progress, as well as a couple of generals, and Rin’s family. Rin was intimately aware of his father’s presence beside his mother and sister.

As always during their matches, Rin took the offensive, and Haru took the defensive, but even with Rin initiating and placing the shots, Haru was in control, taking advantage of Rin’s increasing frustration and flipping the fight on Rin again and again.

When Rin, dripping in sweat, thudded to the ground, officially bested by a quick attack to his blind spot, he ducked his head and shielded his face from sight. His eyes stung. He hoped that it was from sweat, but if not, he’d blame it anyway. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to look up, finding Haru looking down on him with what, for Haru, could only be described as pity.

Rin picked himself up, and swiping away his sweat, he strode past Haru and left the practice chamber. Someone called his name behind him—Mikoshiba, it sounded like—but he sprang into a run, flitting the through all of the winding corridors and staircases until he reached his bedroom chamber. He slammed the door and crawled onto his bed, burrowing his face into his pillows. His sobs made it out only as muffled, quieted versions.

Some time later, when his face had dried, the door creaked. Turning, Rin found his father standing in the doorway, still decked out in his formal robes with an apprehensive look on his face.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

Rin sat up, face turned to the side, and silently nodded.

The door clicked shut behind his father, and he approached Rin’s bed, sitting down at the edge and rocking it a little. He said nothing for several moments, letting Rin get accustomed to his presence.

“Rin,” he said finally, looking up. “I don’t want to… impose on you.”

Then don’t, Rin thought to himself.

His father tapped his fingers on the bed, glittering rings spraying colors with changing light. “To me, it seems like you are trying too hard to win.”

A puff of annoyance. “I’m supposed to win,” snapped Rin.

His father blinked, showing no signs of hurt, before sighing. “Rin, Haruka wins because he is not trying to win.”

Rin glowered.  

“He…” Rin’s father thought on it for a second. “He allows events to unfold organically, and reacts to each action individually. Whereas you are so caught up in the end result that you don’t pay attention to the person and reality before you, only doing what you think will be effective; what you want to be effective.

“See, Haruka fights you , but you fight your ideal image of Haruka, not actual Haruka. And I know that your current attack style works well on plenty of opponents. But what works on one opponent will not work on another. You must be able to adapt. And being able to adapt requires you to know your own weaknesses and limitations, to acknowledge when your typical course fails. If you can understand and accept yourself, and then you can do the same for your opponent.”

His father smiled and reached up a hand to ruffle Rin’s hair. “Just try this for me, okay? Next time you’re fighting Haruka, or anyone, really, don’t focus on winning. Instead, let the fight manifest and pay attention when you lose. Why are you losing? What is Haruka doing that you are not? What is Haruka not doing that you are? Don’t be afraid to lose; I promise, if you keep your eyes open, you will learn more in losses than you ever will in wins.”

The owl calls again in the distance, and Rin lifts his head from his hands. He sighs, breath taking flight as a ghostly cloud in cold air, and tilts his head, pressing his cheek and ear to the dog fur at his shoulder.

Listen.

The cobweb above trembles with a swoosh of wind, a dark, thick, eight-legged shadow clinging to it.

“Fuck,” groans Rin, softly.

Raising his head, he pushes his hand and back against the tree to stand up. With light almost entirely absent, he holds a palm sized flame before him, eyes seeking out his footprints. He traces them back where he came, and his trail eventually leads him into view of Sousuke. Sousuke sleeps with his back to the base of a wide tree. Rin’s stomach prickles in a peculiar fashion. His steps slow, unsure, creeping forward so not to immediately broadcast his return and wake Sousuke.

He stops a couple of feet away, standing over Sousuke, and he watches Sousuke’s peaceful, cyclical breaths, mulling over the smoothness between Sousuke’s brows in sleep that is so rare in wakefulness. After a few breaths, Rin steps in and lets go of the fire in his palm, peeling off his dog pelt. He leans forward and carefully drapes it over Sousuke’s shoulders and torso. His hands hover a moment at Sousuke’s shoulders, but Sousuke does not move.

Rin sits a foot or two away, resting his back against the same tree, and conjures up a tiny fire on the ground before him to combat the biting cold. A short time passes, and he waits, shivering.

With a sharp inhale, Sousuke jerks awake, as if surfacing from the deep waters of a nightmare. Rin tenses, sneaking a glimpse over his shoulder. Sousuke blinks at the fire in front of them and looks down, brows furrowing at Rin’s dog pelt. Fire crackles, and he spots Rin. The air hums between them as Sousuke says nothing, his expression neither pleased nor upset, and Rin’s pulse quickens, anticipating an outburst. But Sousuke just exhales and turns to the fire, flickering orange outlining his strong profile.

Wind jostles them for a breath, then settles.

Rin draws himself up. “Okay.”

Sousuke looks to him.

Casting his eyes down, Rin rests his hands on bent knees. “You’re right,” he says. “You’re completely right. About me.” His tongue darts out to wet chapped lips. “I can’t understand your situation. I haven’t ever lived on my own or had to worry about money. I can understand these things conceptually, but I actually… I don’t know as much as I thought.” He raises his gaze. “I don’t even know what all I don’t know.”

Shadowed eyes stare into him.

Rin pulls his arms into himself. “And I hate that. I hate it. I’ve been studying and training my whole life, every day, every week, and I truly believed I was ready to be a ruler, ready for any challenge. But being here. Being around you and Ai, and seeing and hearing all these things I had no idea about, I—” He falters. “I’m not prepared.”

He pauses, thinking. “But I… I want to learn. And look, it’s not your responsibility to teach me, but it is my own responsibility to know as much as I possibly can. Even when I don’t like the information.” His mouth flickers a bitter smirk. “Especially when I don’t like the information. I have to, if I want to be a Fire Lord worth anything. So.” Straightening his spine, Rin swallows. “I’m sorry I said you’re holding Ai back, and I’m sorry I’m a self-righteous, ignorant hypocrite.”

A pop of fire.

Sousuke flicks his hand, bending a wave of water to douse Rin’s fire with a hiss.

Oi !

Sousuke’s hand clamps over Rin’s mouth. Rin almost sinks his teeth into a finger, scowling at Sousuke, who silently presses an index finger to his own mouth. Quiet fills the air, and Sousuke’s attention switches forward, Rin blinking after.

At first, Rin sees nothing, then—a shift of snow, and a ways in the distance, the gleam of antlers in moonlight.

Eyes wide, Rin nods to Sousuke, breath stunted in his chest. Sousuke cautiously removes his hand and sits back, calculating eyes locked on the deer.

“It’s too far to aim,” he whispers, almost to himself. Without tearing his eyes from the deer, he leans into Rin. “I can flush it out. Can I trust you to kill it?”

Rin bobs his chin.

Sousuke peers around the tree behind them. “Take a place over there.”

After glancing behind to check Sousuke’s instruction, Rin inches up to stand, muscles tensed as he marks the deer’s position and movements. He tiptoes backward, checking occasionally for any obstructions, hypersensitive to every rustle and crunch of snow. His own breaths seem like beacons, but the deer is oblivious, looking the opposite direction.

When Rin’s in position, Sousuke cranes around the tree trunk and makes eye contact, a confirmation. Pushing down the jangle of energy in his chest, Rin slips a hand into the pocket of his trousers, fingers grasping around a knife handle.

Sousuke directs a mass of water after the deer, startling it. It jumps into flight, feet thumping toward Rin. Rin lights two parallel walls of flame, blocking it from going any direction but toward him, with Sousuke’s water chasing from behind. The deer skitters closer, and trailing its path, Rin curls his fingers around his knife.

He throws.

The deer fights for another step, but slides, collapsing down onto its side. It squirms for several moments. Stillness.

Rin swipes aside the fire, heartbeat thudding through his veins. He steps to the deer and comes to stand over it; his knife protrudes from its ribcage, a slick wetness reflecting snippets of cold moonlight. He stares for what seems like ages.

Footsteps.

“Nice throw.”

Rin’s head pops up. Sousuke stands a hesitant couple of feet away, Rin’s pelt in his hand, eyes down on the deer. His expression is neutral, thawed from its previous iciness.

Rin tucks a lock of hair behind his ear. “Thanks.”  

A knot coils tighter in Rin’s chest as he waits, expectant. Slowly, Sousuke meets his eyes.

Several heartbeats.

Sousuke tosses Rin the pelt. “Carry the deer back and we’ll call it even.”

The knot loosens, and Rin catches his pelt, face breaking into a relieved grin.

When they return to the shack, Rin’s muscles shaking from dragging the deer all the way back, Ai is asleep on his cot in the dark. Sousuke freezes the deer so it doesn’t decompose overnight, and the two of them return to bed without speaking any more. Come morning, Ai seems a bit better, pale but with a lessened fever. He emits barely contained surprise that Rin and Sousuke managed to catch something together, let alone a deer. This time, the pair work together in butchering it, and though the deer is much larger than the dog, the process feels shorter and easier. They don’t eat any deer yet for dinner, finishing up the last of the dog scraps.

The fire pit crackles, and the shack, once cold and menacing, is warm and dancing with light. Full and content, they sit in thoughtful silence; Ai upright, occasionally coughing into his elbow, Sousuke reclining back on his elbows, and Rin with arms folded over his lap.

Rin’s thumb presses along the scar on his left hand, his memento from his first night. Rippling skin meets the pad of his finger, no longer painful, just a little ticklish.

“I think,” he says, cutting into the quiet, “that it’s time for me to return home.”

“Oh.” A slight taste of disappointment hangs on Ai’s breath.

Rin nods, almost to himself. “I’m better now, and I need to figure out what happened back when I was kidnapped. I can’t avoid it forever.”

Smoke smears and warps Sousuke’s face from across the fire.

“But…” Rin releases his left hand, flexing it before adding, “I’d like to invite you to come with me. Both of you.”

Wind howls in the distance. Ai and Sousuke share a look, and Sousuke peels himself up and Ai furrows his brow at Rin.

“E-Eh? What are you saying?”

With a sigh, Rin brushes a hand through his hair. “Look. I have no idea what the future holds, even for me. I’m not promising you guys better lives or fulfillment or happiness. All I can promise is change.”

Ai wrings his hands, lips pinched, while the fire holds Sousuke’s numbed attention, his elbows resting around bent knees.

Hand falling to his side, Rin murmurs, “But it’s your choice, so if you don’t want to come, then don’t.”

After a couple of moments, his expression hinting at a combat within, Ai shakes his head. “I-I don’t think we can, I mean, what would we do for money? It costs to travel, especially in towns and cities, and none of us have anything—”

Rin fingers the chain of his dragon pendant. “I’m sure someone will pay nicely for pure gold.”

“Well, okay, but what would we—”

“Ai.”

Rin and Ai whip to Sousuke.

Eyes directly on Ai, Sousuke asks, “Do you want to go?”

Ai blinks, mouth open. “W-Well, I’m just saying that it would probably be difficult to—”

Do you want to go?

The shack creaks overhead.

Ai slumps back, mushing his lips together and ducking his eyes under his bangs. Meekly comes, “I… I guess I’d be okay with a change…”

Sousuke’s eyes switch to Rin, and he offers a curt nod. “Then we’ll go.”

Rin’s eyebrows shoot up. “You will?”

Ai lifts his chin. “We will?”

Sousuke looks aside, muttering, “Don’t sound so shocked.” The corners of his mouth curls up, and he returns to Rin. “You have some sort of plan?”

Rin jerks himself out of thought. “Oh. Yeah, I do.” His fingers tug at his necklace. “Do you know Ito? I know someone there, someone I trust. A colonel.”

Chapter Text

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

―Wilfred Owen, Dulce et Decorum Est

translator’s note: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” means, “It is sweet and right to die for the fatherland,” a reference to a line from Horace’s Odes .


The wavering blue mountains, distant and untouchable from one side, are easy to climb, and to their other side, there is nothing unusual.

Makoto yelps.

Haruka, a couple of steps ahead down the rocky hill, looks back, his outstretched arm tugging Kuroime’s rope. Atop Kuroime’s back, Makoto cringes at her sudden lurch downward, completely rigid with his clenched knuckles on the reins.

“Okay?” Haruka asks, raising his eyebrows.

Makoto’s head bobs. “Uh, yeah, sorry!” He meets Haruka’s eyes and gives him a smile that just barely covers the panic. “Just got a little surprised, that’s all!”

Haruka presses his lips together. “Mm.”

The pair of them are officially outside the Shangto Valley, having left a day prior. After explaining himself and his family to first Makoto and later the rest of the Tachibanas, Haruka proposed his idea: he go to Ito and ask his parents to allow him some of his inheritance to save them from eviction, as well as buy back the land from the Fire Nation. Makoto’s parents attempted to convince Haruka to leave it be and not bury himself deeper into their lives, but he would not budge, stating over and over that he would just go to Ito, talk to his parents, and everything would be fixed.

After listening carefully to both times Haruka proposed the idea, Makoto asked, “Can I help?”

Haruka and the others turned to him.

“I just don’t want you going through all of that for us alone,” explained Makoto. “I want to be useful.”

A denial brimmed on Haruka’s lips, but underneath Makoto’s expression, there was Haruka’s own brand of stubbornness, reflected and wielded against him under the guise of consideration.

Checking Makoto’s parents, who seemed resigned toward Makoto’s will, Haruka sighed. “Fine.”

He did refuse the spare change they offered to him, as he didn’t know the exact distance to Ito, and with rent approaching, they needed money more than he. He had survived before without money on the road; he could do it again, and better.

“I still don’t get it,” Ren admitted, long after Haruka spilled everything, “if you had that much money at home, why would you leave?”

Haruka paused. Lamely, he said, “It’s tiring.”

So he and Makoto left, though not without a barrage of tears from the twins and hugs from their parents. Haruka expected that for Makoto, but did not anticipate it to be directed to him too. Makoto just smiled and offered easy words of comfort to his distraught siblings without cracking once.

Now, they traipse down the mountain Haruka had once gazed upon, grasslands and meadows lie on the other side, endless stretches of greens and golds. Haruka slows to match Kuroime’s loping pace.

Watching Makoto steel himself against Kuroime with a furrowed brow, Haruka thinks, Good thing Kuroime is patient.

“Don’t fight Kuroime’s momentum,” he says. “Allow yourself to relax and flow with her. Horses are very intuitive. Riding one is a partnership; if you follow her, she will follow you.”

Makoto blinks at him, face screwed up in incomprehension, and nods, sharply. “A-Ah, okay! I’ll… I’ll think of that.”

Haruka turns to face front again.

They make their way down the mountain and into high grasses, following a dirt path through the fields. Haruka only has an idea of Ito’s general direction, but knows from Makoto’s parents that several towns are nearby, where he can hopefully find a map and locate it for sure. Hot sun glares on them, but unlike his first trip into the unknown, Haruka is not miserable with sunburn, mosquito bites, and scrapes, his only discomfort the slight stickiness of sweat. Walking and riding are minimal energy chores compared to what consisted an average day at the farm.

Gradually, the sun drops before them, air cooling with it, and they plod along for only a little longer. Haruka provides a light in the palm of his hand for the twilight, before they settle in the protection of a cluster of trees. Makoto seems a tiny bit more at ease with riding Kuroime and hops off without Haruka’s assistance, but still heaves a sigh of relief to stand upon flat ground again. Together, they unpack in the light of a small fire, removing the supplies on Kuroime’s back from Makoto’s parents. Haruka ties her to a tree for safety, procuring a bowl for her to drink from, before he joins Makoto on the grass. In silence, they eat.

While Haruka chews on a piece of mushroom, Makoto shifts beside him. “How long has it been since you’ve seen your parents?” he asks, inclining his head.

Haruka swallows. “By now… Eight or nine moons, probably.”

Nodding, Makoto drapes his arms around his bent knees. “Hm.” With a thoughtful expression, he observes the fire, abandoning his food for a moment. Haruka’s hand hovers over another mushroom slice, and he waits until Makoto inhales and returns to the present again before taking another bite.

Later, when they’ve eaten enough, Haruka extinguishes the fire and they lay out rolled up pallets side by side. Lingering heat luckily makes blankets useless, so no chill takes Haruka as he lies back onto his pallet. The grass below, plus the pallet make for a more cushioned experience than his memory of sleeping outside serves. Makoto rests to his right, just like at the farm.

Eyes tingling with sleepiness, Haruka burrows down and closes his eyes. He expects to pass off quickly, with the sway of wind and grass and the easiness of the day, but he does not, lying awake despite his relaxed muscles and relative ease of mind.

Again, Makoto’s harnessed breaths keep Haruka awake.

With a sigh, Haruka reopens his eyes and turns his head to the side. Makoto is still awake, facing up at the sky with his eyes open.

A breath breaks from Haruka’s chest, and his expression softens.

“You’ve never been away from home.”

Makoto’s eyes flick to him for just a second before darting away. He nods.

From beyond their heads, Kuroime huffs.

Haruka, his head still turned toward Makoto, glances down and reaches his hand across the pallet. His knuckles brush the back of Makoto’s hand, an inquiry. Makoto’s hand twitches, but does not pull away, so Haruka reaches a little farther and gently interlaces their fingers, his thumb resting over Makoto’s. He squeezes.

Shutting his eyes, Makoto exhales, his ribcage decompressing. Slowly, his breaths lengthen and even, his palm warm against Haruka’s, until his fingers relax completely and he drifts off. Lasting only a few minutes longer, Haruka closes his eyes as well, and sleep washes over him.

Come morning, Haruka wakes first. He and Makoto curl in toward each other from their separate pallets, and Haruka’s wrist lies over Makoto’s forearm.

He pulls his hand back and props himself up.

And they travel. Through ravines, past swamps, around ponds, spending the night in grasses, among rocks, in caves, until they reach a little town and ask about Ito. The town has no map for them to check, but people suggest they travel to the merchant village just a ways away, which gets travelers flitting back and forth all the time. So they push on, arriving in the merchant village by sunset.

The village, Panzou, has more of the hustle and bustle Haruka associates with a fully fledged town, its buildings in ancient Earth Kingdom style of green, white, and gold. Traders, business folk, Fire Nation soldiers, and farmers alike mill about the streets, and a permanent chatter fills the air.

Both Makoto and Haruka look around them, Makoto from below and Haruka from Kuroime.

“Excuse me,” Makoto asks as a strapping trader passes by. “Do you know where would we be able to find maps?”

The trader only slows a little, pointing down the street. “There’s a travel agency down that way. Feng Travel, I think. They should have some.”

“Thank you!”

They head in the direction pointed, Haruka checking signs until he spots Feng Travel Agency in loopy, elegant characters. Checking Kuroime at the door, they enter, and to Haruka’s relief, maps line all the walls. A couple of employees hang about, one behind a counter, another showing a map to an older man, while two Fire Nation soldiers peruse the maps, clutching their horned helmets.

Haruka locates a map that indicates Panzou, close to the two soldiers, and scans its lines and place names.

“Man, you ever been to Komukina?” says one of the soldiers, holding up a carry-on sized map.

“I wish,” the other replies, flicking through a booklet titled Best Vacation Spots in Southwest Earth Kingdom . “I feel like I need to experience those beaches some day. My friend from home was transferred to the southwest outpost and said that it was like paradise down there. Lucky bastard.”

“Not so lucky now though, yeah?”

The other hums and puts the booklet back on a shelf. “Yeah, true.”

“Someone needs to find the Matsuokas already and sort this mess out. We’re getting crushed.”

A shiver skitters up Haruka’s back. His eyes stay forward, fixated on ITO , just a couple of days travel from Panzou.

The second soldier sighs. “It’s been three moons. They’re probably dead by now.”

“Hey, unless there’s a confirmed body, let me hold onto hope, okay? Sheesh.” The first soldier plops his helmet on his head. “Come on, let’s head back.”

Their footsteps lead away. Black ink upon white paper absorbs Haruka’s mind.

Makoto breathes, “Haru? Is something wrong?”

Snapping back into himself, Haruka looks at Makoto, blinking. His lips part. “I don’t know.”


“So, what? You’re not going to take it?”

The pawn shop employee grimaces at the golden dragon pendant lying atop the counter between them. “I’m just saying, this is too nice a piece for someone to just have , and I’m not interested in taking something that could get me arrested or killed,” he says, chewing on his lip. “I have had too many run-ins with bandits.”

Rin squints. “Do I look like a bandit?”

The employee grits his teeth and shrinks under Rin.

Sousuke, leaning his hip into the counter with crossed arms, answers, “Yes.”

Rin elbows him. “Not helpful.”

A curl of a smile. “Easy, Jun .”

The reminder of his protective pseudonym needles into Rin and shuts him up. Sousuke had suggested the name, sourcing a pet eel of the same name from his elementary class when he was eight. When Rin asked why his fake name should be one with a pet eel, Sousuke said, “Jun the eel was slimy and obnoxious.”

Returning to the pawn shop employee, Rin sighs, brushing his hair back. “Look, I promise that we didn’t steal this or anything, but if you don’t want to take it, then we’ll go somewhere else. If it makes you feel better, we can take lower than what it’s worth.”

When they eventually exit the pawn shop with a pouch of coins, though lighter than hoped, Rin hands the pouch off to Sousuke. Out of the three of them, he figures, Sousuke is the least likely to get jumped.

They had left the shack as is after waiting for Ai to recover from his cold, surviving through the long stretch of forest until they reached the nearest town. The first town was too small and provincial to have a pawn shop or anything of the like, so they managed to hold out without money until a couple of towns due south.

Already, the temperature rises, ground losing the permanent carpet of snow, and Rin finally feels a bit more comfortable. Neither Ai nor Sousuke has ever plunged any farther south than their shack in Rasu, and are not quite adjusted to the changing climate; Rin, knowing the stifling heat of Ito, looks forward to seeing the two of them battle the humidity with their heavy furs.

Maybe the pawn shop employee’s fear is well founded, for as they pass through the rest of the dinky town, people with predatory eyes litter every street corner and alleyway. Interspersed among them are adverts for chi-blocking. Although Ai and Sousuke flank Rin on either side and his dog pelt hood partially hides his face, Rin’s skin prickles.

They push on away from the town. Tall pine trees and short, yellowing grass and brush lines the road, and other than the occasional carriage or traveler, they are alone.

Ai puffs out a breath of relief. “I’m glad we’re out of that place. It gave me the creeps.”

“Yeah,” Rin agrees. “The signs about chi-blocking really set the mood.”

Ai tilts his head. “Chi-blocking?”

Rin scowls. “Chi-blocking is the worst. It’s temporarily makes you unable to bend or fight.”

“Eh? That sounds terrible.”

“You sound like you speak from personal experience,” Sousuke notes.

“Yeah, my sister Gou can’t bend, so she practiced chi-blocking on me a lot.” Shoving his hands into his pockets, Rin shudders. “Gou is terrifying when she wants to be.”

Sousuke smirks. “She sounds fun.”

With a pointed look that draws a laugh from Sousuke, Rin falls quiet, letting the topic drop.

By evening, they reach a break in the dense forest, voices and smoke hitting them first. The source reveals itself in an open clearing, where a moderate camp of people gather. Raucous laughter and singing fill the air as most crowd around a bonfire, hands clutching cups and bowls. Dozens of tents surround them.

The three of them pause on the outskirts, curious but hoping the fire light doesn’t stretch to them, when a voice cuts over the din.

“Hey!” A figure detaches from the swarm, a young female soldier clothed in traditional Water Tribe military uniform, her hair tucked beneath a wolf’s head.

Rin glances between Ai and Sousuke.

“Yeah, you guys!” the soldier calls again, waving a cup, her voice a little slurred. “You’re welcome to join, we’ve got plenty of drinks to share!”

The festivities increase in volume behind her, as a cluster of other soldiers start up a new song.

“Let’s go,” says Sousuke, turning away.

Rin and Ai trace his movement before making eye contact with each other.  

Rin returns to the soldier. “Sorry, we’ll pass,” he calls back.

The soldier dims in disappointment for just a moment. She raises her cup to them. “Enjoy the evening! And victory to the Water Tribe!”

Rin bobs his head, his eyes following Sousuke’s retreating back, and waits until the soldier turns back to her compatriots before he sets off, Ai at his heels. Once they catch up, Sousuke offers nothing, gaze cast down to his feet. Without speaking, they pad along the road for a little longer, trees closing in again. Eventually, they set up camp aside the road under the shield of branches and nighttime. They eat a simple meal of leftover deer and take to bed, all three crammed inside a tiny tent Ai and Sousuke had fashioned back in Rasu.

Lying on his back, wedged between Ai and Sousuke, Rin looks upward into the dark underside of the tent, his arm folded beneath his head. Ai’s little puffs resound beside him, while Sousuke lies silent, curled onto his side with his back to Rin.

Another couple of days of walking slip by, the balls of Rin’s feet aching and his heels stinging with blisters, and the temperature continues to rise. Sousuke even removes one of his hides, his forehead prickling with sweat.

Pine trees shift to high grasses and marshes, and a collection of agricultural plots mark the land alongside them. A stream flows beneath the rickety wooden bridge they pass over, directing them toward to a field of workers among stalks of green pods.

The pods on this particular plot are vaguely familiar to Rin. He peers at them as they walk, shuffling through his memories and coming up with nothing until they nearly pass it.

Snippets of a diagram from his past studies pops into his head.

from the pods of red Kalambris flowers

prior to processing

popular opiate drug

Kuebiko

The workers filter through the stalks, clipping at the pods and collecting the goods.

Now in understanding, Rin takes a final glimpse his shoulder and shakes his head to himself. Jeez, good thing Haru isn’t here.

They walk on.


Ito.

Might as well be the Earth Kingdom’s capital, for while the capital city to the southwest may host the nation’s official government and monarchy, Ito hosts its business and commerce, and by extension, its power. It absorbs foreign companies and interests, and pumps out new endeavors and products to the rest of the kingdom and beyond. Its most prosperous patrons often build second homes here in order to ease their business transactions, like Haruka’s family did in generations past. Built with no plan on a flat bed of earth, Ito is constantly morphing to match current politics and economies, its buildings and roads a dichotomy of wealth and poverty. One street might be framed by statuesque firms and residences, but turn a corner and the next street is seedy and rampant with crime.

The last time Haruka was here, he was seventeen; about a year ago. A brief visit.

He and Makoto arrive and enter at nightfall, when everything glows out into the darkness and life takes a more untamed edge. As always, Haruka finds the flat landscape eerie, unsettled without the comfort of surrounding mountains, particularly now in direct comparison to both the rocky mountains of the Fire Nation and the gentle slopes of the Shangto Valley. They interweave among fluctuating clumps of people under hazy lantern light, Makoto gawking at the looming architecture. Haruka tugs Kuroime along, both he and Makoto taking to the streets on foot. At every corner, someone is selling something: food, clothing, homes, drugs, bodies.

“You live here?” Makoto manages, getting brushed back in the shoulder by a purposeful businesswoman swooping past.

“Not really,” Haruka says, eyes scanning street signs. “My parents are here more than I am.”

Nodding, Makoto sends him a sideways glance. Are you nervous?

Haruka looks away.

They snake around streets and people, Haruka looking for something familiar. He’s never walked Ito by foot; he’s only seen its streets from the window of a carriage. His grip on where they are spirals away as they end up in a close-knit neighborhood, darker with flickering open torches instead of lanterns, dreary and dilapidated buildings eyeing them. The crowd thins out some, but people still hang among them. They should turn back, but Haruka pushes on, veering a little closer to Makoto, his knuckles tight around Kuroime’s rope.

A couple of minutes pass as they walk and dodge the attention of others.

Footsteps patter their way, and a pack of three saunter into view; two young men, one young woman, all with desperate, hungry eyes.

“Hey, man,” the shorter of the young men says, worming directly in front of Haruka.

Haruka ignores him and weaves around.

“Wait,” the young man says again, jogging to catch up, the other two trailing behind. “What are you two doing down here? Don’t you want something?”

Avoiding their gazes, Haruka says, “Not interested.”

“Oh, come on.”

The young man completely blocks Haruka’s path, forcing him to stop, and the other two fill in the barricade on either side. Haruka inches himself in front of Makoto.

With a smirk, the young man gestures a hand to Haruka. “You with your pedigree horse and nice clothing, like you aren’t here for a reason.” He reaches a hand into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulling out just enough of a wrapped package for Haruka to see before sliding it back out of sight and patting it. “I got some if you’ve got money to spend.”

Expression flat in distaste, Haruka creeps a step back, nudging into Makoto. “I don’t.”

The young man sighs and cocks his head, unyielding. “Look, you—”

A knife bursts through his throat. Eyes wide, he gasps, gargling and wet, as blood drips down his neck and fills his open mouth. Knife lodged in his windpipe and pointing at Haruka, the young man blinks and sways, his sentence forever left hanging, and he collapses to the ground.

On his sides, the other young man and the young woman also fall.

Two figures stand behind them in the distance.

Pulse thundering, Haruka backpedals, pushing Makoto and Kuroime back. He drops the rope and flicks his arm, lighting a crackling wall of flame before his feet.

The two figures approach, their structures warped by smoke and rippling flame.

A deep female voice calls out, “Easy. We’re not going to hurt you.”

Haruka stares back through flickering flame, silent, making no movement in either offense or defense.

Both figures stop at the three bodies. Closer now, Haruka can identify them as women in their mid to late twenties, both fairly petite, with similar enough features and bone structure to imply relation. As one kneels down beside the middle young man, a long blonde braid falls over her shoulder. The other has sandy brown hair in a low bun.

Haruka watches as they casually pry out packages from the pockets of the bodies, collecting them and stuffing them into a bag. When they retrieve all of the packages and safely tuck them away, they both stand and face Haruka, Makoto, and Kuroime.

The one with her hair in a bun folds her arms, focusing on Haruka with deep magenta eyes. “I said we’re not going to hurt you,” she says, eyeing the fire between them. “You can relax.”

Haruka says nothing.

She scrutinizes him for several heartbeats, before leaning to the other woman and whispering something in her ear.

Flicking her blonde braid over her shoulder, the second woman asks, “Either of you know how to fight?” Her eyes are a glittering brown, and her voice lighter and more husky than the first woman’s.

Haruka’s nape prickles. “He doesn’t,” he says, shortly, without turning to check Makoto.

“But you do?”

A shrug.

“Well, I only ask…” She folds her arms. “You wouldn’t happen to be looking for a job, would you?”

Haruka frowns. “A job?”

“It pays.”

Eyes flicking between the two of them, the back of his head hot with Makoto’s attention, Haruka shakes his head. “Not interested.”

The two women exchange a look.

“Well, if you change your mind,” the first one says, “go to the old winery on Guyo Street. Ask for Sasabe and tell him Miki sent you.”

They hang on a few more moments, but when Haruka makes no change in expression, they turn away.

“Have a good night. Be careful.”

They disappear back into the night.

Haruka’s fire continues to crackle, shedding pieces of orange onto the three bodies left on the road.  

Tension ebbing away, Haruka puffs a couple of quick breaths, inspecting the streets for more movement before swiping away his fire. Everyone on the street before has vanished. A bud of wariness lingers in Haruka’s veins, his jaw still clenched tight. He retakes Kuroime’s rope and swerves around the bodies, mental blinders keeping his focus forward.

Makoto’s footsteps follow.

In stiff silence, they wander through the labyrinth. All Haruka can register is the sudden weight of exhaustion upon him, his head bowed down slightly to watch the road. Makoto walks beside him, but lags just a tad behind.

The rope in Haruka’s hand goes taut. He stops and twists around, finding Kuroime with her feet firmly planted into the ground, refusing another step. A needle of guilt pierces him. She’s been carrying them and rushing all the way here, and from the sprinkles of moon and stars overhead, Haruka knows it is much later than when they usually retire. With a small, apologetic smile, he steps into her, patting along her neck and flank. She huffs.

After a couple of moments, Haruka peeks over his shoulder. He finally looks Makoto directly in the face, but Makoto’s expression is neither encouraging nor discouraging. No smile or frown, just shadowy neutrality, his eyes a partition to his thoughts.

Makoto blinks, eyes clearing in comprehension, and he dips his chin, an agreement to save searching for Haruka’s parents for the morning. Haruka looks all around them, landing on a vacant building with a decently sized awning. Jerking his head, he pulls Kuroime to follow with a little difficulty, but wins her back by offering some grain for her to chew on. He knots her rope to an awning column. Quickly plucking what he needs from her back, he clambers onto the awning and places a pallet up against the building’s outer wall.

He sits down, pressing his back to the wall with an exhale. Shutting his eyes, he leans his head back, digging into the wall a little.

Rustling and Kuroime’s chewing.

The space beside Haruka fills with movement and breath as Haruka senses Makoto sit beside him, and several moments pass in quiet.

Hesitantly, Makoto rests his head on Haruka’s shoulder. Haruka’s eyes open, and he twists his neck to look down at his shoulder. Makoto’s eyes are firmly shut, but after a second, he scoots his torso a little closer to line up with Haruka’s.

The added weight and warmth tug Haruka into sleepiness, and sighing, he deflates and closes his eyes. Sleep comes.

In the morning, Haruka’s own head lies atop Makoto’s, his cheek pressing into Makoto’s hair. He raises his head, smothering a tiny yawn with his hand, and despite the crick in his neck, waits until Makoto stirs to stretch out. Rubbing his eyes, Makoto does not comment, and in silence, they both rise and eat what they have available.

With the assistance of sunlight, Haruka identifies landmarks much better, and they turn through city streets until they finally reach the imperious front of his family’s second home. Makoto stares with barely restrained awe at the gleaming white outside, lush green roof shingles, and shining gold trim, while Haruka stares at the maple door, turbulence swirling up his insides.

He’s back.

When a couple of moments pass, Haruka immobile, Makoto places a hand on his shoulder. He squeezes. Straightening up, Haruka forces down a deep inhale. He slides out from Makoto’s hand to walk forward and tug the outer bell.

Dull ringing from within. A couple of minutes.

The door cracks open.

His parent’s head guard, Byakko, appears, mouth opening with an automatic, practiced, “Yes?” before processing who stands before him. His eyes widen. “Master Haruka? W-What? You’re―”

Haruka gestures toward Kuroime. “Could you have someone put her in the stables?”

“What?” Byakko nods. “Oh, of―of course! Just give me a―here, I’ll take her, you come in.”

Handing off the rope to Byakko’s jittery hands, Haruka steps inside, Makoto a beat behind. The entryway is exactly the same, with high, arching ceilings and a sunroof, before the golden, curving staircase. Makoto looks all around, absorbing it all, his mouth parted slightly.

They stand there a moment, any shift of their feet echoing throughout, until footsteps ring down from the staircase.

Haruka looks up―his stomach sinks.

A tall, lithe figure halts as Haruka also comes into view. A head of insufferably pink hair ducks down to squint. “Is that… Is that Master Haruka I see?”

Haruka grinds his molars. “Shigino.”

Face lighting up, Shigino Kisumi bounds down the rest of the stairs, two steps at a time, offering only a casual bow before tossing an arm over Haruka’s shoulder. “Who would have thought? It’s so good to see you!”

Haruka cranes his head away.

“What have you been up to?” Shigino prods, perky lavender eyes on Haruka. He’s clothed in an effortlessly messy blue and purple tunic suit. “I heard from your parents you went missing. And at the same time as Prince Rin! Did someone find you? There was some huge search, I hear.”

“I wasn’t missing,” Haruka grumbles. “I knew where I was.” He slips out from under Shigino’s arm and purses his lips. “Rin too, you said?”

“Ah, yeah, the whole family! Him, Princess Gou, Lady Miyako. Terrible stuff.”

Haruka’s chest constricts. “Oh.”

“And what’s this?” Shigino switches his gaze to Makoto, quickly losing interest in Haruka. “New friend?”

“A-Ah, hello,” says Makoto, clumsily bowing. “I’m Makoto.”

“A pleasure,” Shigino replies, returning with a luxurious bow. “I’m Shigino Kisumi, a longtime business partner of the Nanases. I purvey certain desirable goods.”

Eyes aside, Haruka’s attention zeroes in on a potted plant with vibrant red flowers.

“Oh, well…” Makoto scratches the back of his neck. “It’s nice to meet you.”

Shigino’s head bobs fervently. “Well, sadly, I have to go, but I hope to see you both around!” He backs up to the front door, facing them. “And Master Haruka,” he says, with a sly smile, “one of these days I hope I’ll get you as my customer.”

Haruka drills holes into Shigino’s retreating back, hanging on the door as it opens and shuts behind him.

Scarcely a moment after Shigino’s exit, the door reopens and Byakko returns. “Your horse is stationed away as promised, Master Haruka,” he says, clasping his hands behind his back. “I see Shigino has left, so your parents aren’t seeing anyone as of now. You can see them, if you like; they’re in the meeting office.”

Byakko ducks off into the vestibule, leaving Haruka to choose for himself. He looks to Makoto, who gives him a little smile.

“I’ll wait here,” Makoto says.

The corners of Haruka’s mouth curl up, and without another word, he turns and ascends the golden staircase, footsteps wavering away from him. Once onto the second story, he travels down a wide hallway before an emerald door appears before him.

A sneer of an engraved dragon looms over him as he stops within hand’s reach. His pulse ticks along his neck, keeping time as he waits and prepares himself.

He exhales, and knocks.


Rin’s stomach growls.

He sighs, sat in a high backed chair, his eyes forward. No chains tie him down, yet somehow, he knows he cannot leave his chair.

Before him lies a magnificent spread of foods on a red satin tablecloth, consisting of everything he rarely is allowed to eat: steaks dripping in sauce, beautifully grilled fish filets, fried vegetables with rice, fluffy breads, honey cakes, cherry wine. A thick aroma rises from the table, almost visible as it wafts to him. He draws a long, desperate inhale, fruitlessly trying to fill the void in his stomach.

A door, which wasn’t there before, opens, and in comes his father, clothed in casual garb, his hair loose around his face. He makes no notice of Rin, instead approaching the table, back to Rin.

“Father!” Rin calls.

His father turns, flashing a surprised smile. “Rin.”

Rin nods at the food. “Can you please get me something? I’m starving.”

“Oh, sure,” his father says. He raises a bracing hand. “Just wait a minute, okay?”

Rin nods again, and his father returns to the table. Picking up a chalice, his father pours himself a healthy cup of cherry wine and chugs it down in one go. He sets the chalice down. The second it clunks onto the tablecloth, his height decreases, his body shifts in proportion, and his hair lengthens and turns the same shade as Rin’s. His hand reaches out, now small and slender, and drops a slab of steak onto a plate.

“Gou!”

Rin’s sister turns, plate in hand. “Brother!” As she walks toward him, she rips away a bite of steak with her teeth, sauce dripping onto her fingers.

“Can you get me something to eat?” he asks.

Chewing on her steak, Gou thinks on it for a moment. Swallowing, she answers, “Not if you keep calling me Gou.”

“Wait, I didn’t—”

But she is already gone, her long hair gleaming viciously as she bounces back to the table. She plops her plate down, and again, her appearance changes. Her hair shrinks back to her skull, turning black, and her height and frame grow just a little. Long, pale fingers pick out a filet, placing it on a fresh plate.

“Haru!”

Disinterested blue eyes turn on him, and from a distance, Haru cocks his head as if to say, What?

“Get me something.”

Hand absently pushing the filet around the plate, Haru narrows his eyes and flicks them aside. “Get it yourself,” he mutters, wheeling away.

“No, please—”

Haru dumps his filet on the table, and while his hair remains a similar color, his size jumps and his skin tone deepens. He stands before the table, head turning back and forth, deliberating on what is available. With an exhale, he turns to face Rin.

Rin blinks. “Sousuke?”

Sousuke opens his mouth—but instead of his voice, a dog’s bark falls out.

Rin jerks awake.

The barks don’t stop, extending on from the dream. Yapping comes in bursts between howls, sounding like a scuffle between two dogs, nearby but not imminent. Still half asleep, Rin mentally swirls with no sense of time or place.

An echoing squeal, and silence. Moments pass.

Now fully awake and left with his rattling heart, Rin isn’t sure what he just heard was real at all.

Once his adrenaline settles, he glances around the tent, maybe to see if the others had the same experience. To his one side, Ai sleeps on his stomach, completely dead to the world, his mouth gaping open and leaving a pool of saliva on his folded jacket. But to his other, Sousuke is not there.

Rin sits up, wiping sleep from his eyes, and lays his hand flat where Sousuke should be. It’s cold.

He listens, but other than a gentle wind and the occasional bird, there is nothing.

Picking up his dog pelt jacket, he slips it on and crawls out of his bedding, tentative to ensure Ai doesn’t wake. He pokes his head out of the tent flap, checking both ways for Sousuke, but seeing nothing but grass and wood, he steps out completely and stands.

The waning moon overhead offers minimal light, and as Rin swivels to look the opposite way, relief frees his chest. A little ways away from the tent lies a fallen tree trunk, and atop it, with his back facing Rin and the tent, sits Sousuke.

Puffing out an exhale, Rin walks forward, his feet swishing through grass. “What are you doing out here?” he asks once closer.

Sousuke looks over his shoulder, watching Rin stop on the other side of the trunk. “What are you doing out here?”

Rin purses his lips into a half-smirk. “I was woken up,” he says, stepping a foot on top of the trunk and clambering over to sit down beside Sousuke. “You heard that, right? What was it—dogs?”

“Coyotes, probably,” Sousuke muses, eyes sweeping over the woods.

“Yeah, that,” Rin says. “Coyotes.”

Sousuke looks forward again. While nothing like the cold back in Rasu, the night has a pervasive chill, and Rin tucks his chin into his coat, digging his hands into the pockets.  

“So?” he says after a moment. “You didn’t answer mine.”

With a huff almost like a chuckle, Sousuke drops his eyes to his lap, running his thumb over his knuckles. He glances to Rin. “I sleep great during the day. Not so great at night.”

A whiff of a breeze flutters through, ruffling their hair and clothes.

“You never said.”

“You never asked.”

Rin arches an eyebrow. “What, do you have to be asked everything?”

“No, but we don’t all spew free information like you do,” Sousuke retorts.

Rin pushes Sousuke’s shoulder. “Shut up.” Despite himself, a little smile tugs at his mouth, and his hand retreats to his pocket.

Silence overtakes them for a couple of minutes, comfortable and peaceful, with no pressure to fill it. Rin slouches and plays with a frayed strand in his pocket, rubbing back and forth against lush fur.

“You know, back home,” he says, sitting up. “My best friend is… well. Sometimes—” He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, “—okay, most of the time, he’s infuriating and obnoxious, but he’s also brutally blunt and sometimes, he says things that take me a while to think about.

“Around last year he said, flat out, that he doesn’t understand me, and that I don’t understand him. I was pissed, at first. But then he said the reason why we are close is because we understand that we can’t understand each other.”

Tapping the heel of his boot against the tree trunk, Rin allows a couple of breaths, and then looks squarely at Sousuke. “Before, you said something about how people always have power over you, and you don’t have any power over your own life.”

Sousuke waits.

“I know our lives have been completely different, and I’m not equating my experiences to yours. But.” Rin withdraws his hands from his pockets and leans back on them. “I may not understand you , but I think I can understand some of your feelings.

“Yeah, I’m the prince, and I’ll be the Fire Lord someday, and that does come with certain powers, but I was born into it. I didn’t choose it. I had no control over being the prince. Look, I barely have control over a couple of servants. There are so many rules I have to follow, so many customs, so much responsibility, so many expectations, that I… I don’t think I’ve ever really done anything I wanted. For me. I mean, I’ve done things I’ve wanted for my career, for my family and name, but I don’t know. If the circumstances were different, if it had been a choice…

“It’s the feeling of—” He breaks off, hunting for the right word. “Pointlessness? Like I’m putting all this time and energy, waiting around for a future day when it will all be worth it. A day when I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself, when I can do what I really want. And I’m scared that day will never come, that it will never be worth it, and I will live an unfulfilling and disappointing life, because I could only do what was available to me.”

Rin shuts his mouth, ducking his face down. The outpouring words hang like a miasma for a couple of moments. “But that’s me,” he finally says, lifting his head. “Am I wrong?”

Peering back at him, Sousuke is pensive. His mouth flickers into a miniscule smile. “No.”

With a small nod, Rin leans over his legs, propping his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands together.

They say nothing for another stretch of time, too immersed in their own thoughts, dotted under the moon’s sporadic reach through leaves. Rin considers heading back to the tent.

“Rin, I—”

Sousuke clenches his jaw. He stares down at his feet, a frown pinching his brows. Slowly, he looks to Rin, as if forcing himself.

“Look, I—I can’t stand the military.”

Hah? The military?”

“Not the people in the military, just—” Sousuke rubs his right temple with his palm. Dropping his hand to his thigh, he heaves a harsh exhale. “Look, the main difference between me and Ai is that he’s accepted that things are shitty, because his whole life has been shitty. He could never have survived by dwelling on it or complaining. He had no choice but to accept that at an early age.

“But, well. Not me. Growing up, I wasn’t rich or anything, but my family did just fine. It was me, my parents, and my grandfather. My parents ran a small butchery in our town, and I went to school and learned waterbending while helping the butchery at home. It was fine. Simple.

“Then the trade route war between the Northern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation began. You know. Initially it was just about securing land and pathways to sell and buy more across the nations, but for the Water Tribe, it became a weird loop. Suddenly all the money from education, health, housing, and us , regular people, was funneling into the military, and people were killing and dying in the military to bring in more money. But all the money went to the chiefdom and private companies, and it still does.

“Anyone over twenty could be drafted, but there were no requirements to join and there was the incentive of some pay, so a lot of people willingly joined and stayed. I didn’t really understand all of this at the time. I was just a kid, but even so, I could still tell something was up. My parents were against the war and the military in general, so when they were drafted when I was around eleven, they refused to go. This lasted for a couple of weeks, but one day, I came home from school… and they were gone.”

Sousuke’s throat bobs.

“My grandfather was still there. He was too old to join the military, and he had a hard time seeing and moving around. I left school to keep the butchery alive, but no one would buy meat anymore. We could barely pay our supplier, so they just kept giving us lower and lower quality meats until they eventually backed out. So we closed, and the government picked it up to supply food to the military. And the two of us were out on the streets.

“There wasn’t any work, let alone for a kid with half of an education and an old man, and neither of us could join the military. I almost considered pretending I was older just so I could join and make money, but there was no way anyone would believe I was twenty. But it wasn’t just us. Other kids stopped going to schools, businesses closed, people lost jobs, and almost everyone who could go went to the military. It was just kids, old people, and everyone who couldn’t participate in the military leftover.

“I don’t… I don’t really remember many details from then. It’s in bits and pieces. Grandfather and I just roamed around, scavenging for anything to eat. It scared me to see Grandfather’s face shrink, to get bruises because of how close my bones were to my skin. I can’t really explain that feeling. That hunger and exhaustion… I…  

“I’m not sure how long this lasted. I do remember lying on the sides of streets some day. We were both close. Grandfather, he… he told me he would rather I live over him, and it didn’t matter to how. And he died.”

Sousuke’s eyes bore down, his hands trembling.

“I laid there beside him. I could barely move. I knew I was going to follow him soon. The hunger was just. So much. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think—I couldn’t think about anything but—”

Dropping his head, he runs his hands over his face, blocking his expression from view.

“I cut away a piece of Grandfather’s flesh—”

He stops.

The air stills, and nothing more comes from Sousuke for prolonged, heavy seconds except his shaky breaths, small and quiet, suppressed.

Seconds pass. Centuries.

Slowly, Sousuke’s hands smooth down his face, and he gathers up a big inhale. Still, his eyes don’t meet Rin’s, but they have an odd sheen.

When his voice takes the air again, it is soft.

“I sort of lost myself after that. I left my hometown, and I would bloodbend people so I could easily steal food. I kept moving from town to town to avoid getting caught, but I hated it. I really don’t like using bloodbending on people. But I was too desperate to really do anything else, so I just continued like that for maybe a year or two.

“Then I heard about the shipyard job. I guess I took it as a sign to get my shit together and try to live honestly again, so I left the Northern Water Tribe and came to Rasu, where I met Ai, and… And while I don’t really think I ever enjoyed the job, I had Ai and something to work toward. But.”

He rests an unconscious hand on his shoulder.

Silence.

Rin swallows thickly, a lump lodged in his throat. He angles his face away and wipes at his eye with a hand. A couple of breaths, and he faces Sousuke, who doesn’t look at him.

“I’m…” Rin begins, but he trails off. He presses his lips together. “Thank you. For telling me.”

Sousuke makes no response other than a slight dip of his head.

Rin’s tongue wets his lips. “You should tell Ai. He would want to know.”

“I know.”

Sitting before Sousuke, Rin can only scan him over, tracing the defeated slouch of his back, the flexion of tendons as he wrings his hands, the dark eyelashes that shield his downcast eyes.

There is nothing Rin can say.

Wind breaks through, setting leaves and branches into motion, like an icy poltergeist passing by. Tree trunks groan and creak in complaint.

Rin raises his hand and cups Sousuke’s cheek. Sousuke’s head whips up, his jaw filling Rin’s palm, and he finally meets Rin’s gaze with wide eyes. Stroking the pad of his thumb along Sousuke’s warm skin, Rin stays, and for just a flash, a moment Rin would miss if he blinked, Sousuke is laid completely bare.

And like a puff of smoke, the moment disappears; Sousuke tenses, jaw muscles tightening under Rin’s hand.

Instantaneous queasiness churns Rin’s stomach. He pulls his hand back. Looking away, he places his hand flat against the trunk’s bark, the grooves making indentations in his tingling palm. Heat blooms up his face from his neck.

A murky lull fills the space between them, agonizingly slow and quiet.

Rin stands up. “I should go back to sleep.”

He remains rooted for a moment, arms stiff by his sides, unable to check Sousuke’s expression, and when no verbal response comes, he climbs back over the tree trunk and sets off back toward the tent.

When he slides back inside, Ai is still entirely gone, brow peaceful and unmarred. Rin flops down on his back, hair splattering around his head, and stares up at the shallow ceiling.

Only birds sing in the distance; no coyotes.

Rin digs the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.

Chapter Text

Humans do not live in a state of nature, they have risen from it.

—Jonathan Marks, What It Means to Be 98% Chimpanzee


 “Come in.”

Pressing his lips together, Haruka places a hand to the green door and pushes it open.

There, behind the glossy cedar table like always, a neatly folded package resting before them, are his parents. Their heads pop up. They both look exactly the same: his mother with her shiny dark hair pulled into a tight updo, her youthful oval shaped face similar to Haruka’s; his father with shorter hair than him and a squarer, tighter jawline.

Silence.

His mother’s mouth drops open. “ Haruka?

Haruka lowers his eyes to the package. “Still buying from Shigino.” It is not a question.

In a rapid flutter of blinks, his mother shakes her head. “Haruka, don’t you dare, ” she chides, swerving around the table to stand directly in front of him. “Where on earth have you been? Were you taken by someone? Were you with Prince Rin? Why is your skin so dark?”

His father trails behind, a bit slower, adding, “We hired investigators to look for you.”

Haruka turns his head away. “I left,” he says, barely moving his mouth.

“Look at me, Haruka,” his mother commands, and reluctantly, he meets her eyes, close relatives in shape and color to his own. Her brown pinches. “You left? What do you mean, you left?

“No one forced me to,” Haruka says. “I just… went.”

“What? Where? Why?

He shrugs, limply.

She presses a hand to her temple and takes a deep inhale. “I can already tell this is going nowhere,” she says, almost to herself. “Fine, enjoy being cryptic, Haruka.” She sighs, dropping her hand. “At least you’re back.”

“So then, have you finally decided who you want to marry?” his father asks, folding his arms. “It’s been months, and you’ve had plenty of time to think it over on your little escapade.”

“…No.”

His parents share a look.

“Haruka,” his mother begins. “You know how important continuing our family line is for our business and legacy. It’s a duty to all your past relatives and your father and I for providing you with the best life we could offer. We’ve given you everything you could have wanted or needed. This is completely unacceptable.”

Haruka rubs his thumb around his knuckles.

“I know you have reservations,” his father says, “but this isn’t about just you.” Arms still folded, he dips his chin. “So why did you come here, and not return home, if you didn’t have a decision to tell us yourself?”

Fingers stilling, Haruka looks up. “I have something to ask.”

“Then ask.”

Haruka chews on his lip. Quietly, he says, “Can I have my inheritance?”

“Your inheritance?” Lines deepen on his mother’s face. “I can’t believe this.” Her eyes flatten and she shakes her head. “Haruka, you know you can’t have your inheritance until you get married. That’s what we’ve been doing for generations, and we’re not just going to stop it now because you suddenly want yours now .” She purses her lips. “And what could you possibly want it for, hm? You never have before.”

“It’s… not for me,” Haruka admits.

“And who is it for?”

He exhales, eyes darting aside for a moment. “While I was away, I spent some time in Shangto Valley. After the battle between the Fire Nation and the Water Tribe, the people there have had their land taken away from them and have a hard time paying rent. They were promised compensation for the land and damage, but they never got anything.”

Another look between his parents.

“Oh, Haruka…” His mother shakes her head again. “It’s a shame for those people, but there’s nothing we can do.”

“Yes there is,” he insists. “My inheritance would help.”

“What do we do when they spend it all, hm? Your inheritance won’t last forever, and they will always have rents and bills to pay.”

“But—”

“And we can’t get involved with military affairs, especially with private money. That could get us into some issues of legality.”

Like legality has ever stopped you before.

“And remember, we’re a business, not a charity.”

“Why do you want to help the people in Shangto Valley, specifically?” his father interjects. “There are plenty of other cities and regions in much worse shape. How do you justify assisting Shangto Valley instead of them?”

Haruka’s mouth dries. “I—”

“Even if you tried to help all of them, you could only spare a little bit of money to each, if that, which wouldn’t do anything to fix any of their problems. And if you did that, you’d go bankrupt within months.”

Hands filling with lead, Haruka lets them fall to his sides. “I made… friends,” he forces out.

“See—” his mother places her hands on her hips, “—this is why we have told you again and again to not make decisions based on emotions. It clouds your judgment and vision.”

Haruka clamps his mouth shut, heat quaking through his veins.

“Sorry we can’t be of more help, Haruka, but it’s just the way it is.”

And that’s the verdict.

His parents lose interest in the topic and the air holding Haruka there breaks, his father retreating to scoop up their package.

Silenced, Haruka follows them as they leave the room, barely paying attention to their exchanges. They place the package back in their private suite and lead Haruka all the way back downstairs to the first floor. Once Makoto, standing alone in the atrium, comes into view, Haruka’s parents freeze.

“Who are you?” his mother barks, expression tightening. “How did you get in?”

“He’s my friend,” Haruka says from behind her.

She shoots a look at him as if to inform that she knows exactly what he’s up to. “Oh, I see,” she says, turning back to Makoto’s paled face, her expression calm and her voice instantly light and pleasant.

Striding down the last of the steps, his parents sweep before Makoto. Makoto, though taller than both of them, shrinks. Haruka lags behind.

With a hasty bow, Makoto chokes out, “N-Nice to meet you!”

“Thanks, and you. Your name?”

Makoto lifts his head, eyebrows raised, and the rest of his torso follows. “Oh. Makoto.”

“And what exactly do you do, Makoto?”

“Oh, um, my family has a vegetable farm.”

“Oh, really?” Haruka’s mother drawls, extending her syllables far past necessity. “I bet that’s quite a bit of hard work, hm?”

Makoto noncommittally raises a shoulder. “A bit, I suppose.”

Haruka’s father clasps his hands behind his back. “How did you and Haruka happen to meet?”

“Ah, he stayed at our farm and helped us,” Makoto says, eyes dipping to Haruka for a second.

Both of his parents lower curious looks on him, and he dodges their eyes.

“Did he, now?” His mother arches an eyebrow as she turns back to Makoto. “I hope he was helpful.”

“Absolutely!” Makoto assures, smiling. “Haru is very—”

“Master Haruka.”

Haruka can’t help a sigh.

Makoto blinks. “What?”

“Please refer to Haruka as Master Haruka in this house,” his mother instructs, voice devoid of any melody.

Haruka mutters, “Rin and Kou call me Haru.”

“Prince Rin and Princess Gou are the imperial family, and therefore can call you anything they like,” his mother says, tersely, barely glancing at him over her shoulder. She nods to Makoto. “Please, continue.”

Rigid, Makoto pulls himself up a little. “Um, yes… Ma—Master Haruka—”

Haruka’s insides curl.

“Master Haruka is very considerate and kind,” Makoto finishes.

From behind his parents, Haruka meets Makoto’s eyes for a glimmer, and Makoto offers a miniscule upward turn of his mouth. Haruka looks away.

“Maybe you can help him be more considerate toward his parents?” his mother says, without waiting a beat.

With a nervous laugh, Makoto reaches up and scratches his nape. “Ah, um, okay! I can try.”

This concludes the interrogation, and Haruka’s parents give orders to Byakko to prepare a guest room for Makoto and to tidy up Haruka’s suite. In passing, his father comments on Makoto’s clothes and offers some of his old suits and robes (as Haruka’s are too small for Makoto). Makoto accepts and spews a stream of gratitude, but Haruka just watches with no input, knowing those clothes were just going to be burned. His mother forces Haruka to change from his “ratty” old navy robe, and put on one of his “good” ones, so he does, contained again within the confining layers.

The day passes. Much of it is spent showing Makoto around, to all the nooks and crannies his parent’s clients wouldn’t get to see. Makoto is in awe of his private guest room, with its full bed and arching windows, even though it is the smallest and worst of their guest rooms. Haruka’s father’s clothes look strange on him; not bad, but unease and dissonance strike Haruka every time he sees the expensive deep red silks against Makoto’s tanned skin.

At one point, Makoto steals a peek at Haruka. “Did you ask them? About getting your inheritance?”

Haruka commands his focus forward. “Not yet,” he lies. “I will.”

Makoto nods and does not press any further, switching his attention to the wide, airy hallways.  “So what do you usually do, daily?” he asks.

Haruka thinks a moment. “Nothing.”

During dinner at their grand dining table, his parents pepper Makoto with questions about his life and farming. A good sport, Makoto politely answers each one in between bites of an immaculate fish dish. Haruka keeps his head down and pushes his own food around his plate, stomach too unsettled to feel any hunger.

Post dinner, nighttime comes, and his parents return to their suite. Haruka walks Makoto to his guest room, and they both hover at the door for a couple of breaths, before Makoto says goodnight, and Haruka parrots it. When the door shuts behind, he goes to his own suite.

Unlike his suite at home, this one has none of the comforts. No shelf of scrolls, no calligraphy awards to remind him of times with Rin and Kou. Just a bed and wardrobes full of sterile clothes. He slips out of his cumbersome business suit and into a lighter gold robe for sleep, and clambers onto the plush bed. Lying there, he notes how much more comfortable this bed is than anything he’s slept in for a long while.

And yet, sleep evades him.

He lies there in the darkness a long time, too deeply submerged in his own mind. Fed up, he sits up.

A job.

He hops out of bed. Sliding on his boots, he trades out his light silk for his “ratty” navy robe and exits his suite, shutting the door behind him. He tiptoes to his parents’ study and digs out a map of Ito before creeping down to the main floor, checking for movements in any direction. He takes the servants’ door out.

Ito is still relatively lively in the streets, despite the high hang of the moon. Keeping his face down at his map, he wanders some, until his feet eventually bring him to Guyo Street. Within a merchandising area, Guyo Street hosts businesses and factories, intent on selling products. Most of them are closed. Haruka spots Kogane Wines among them, and even though no light shines from within, he approaches its thin wooden door and knocks.

A minute or two passes. Footsteps, and a latch.

The door cracks open just a couple of inches, enough for Haruka to see a man’s eye.

“Who are you?”

“Miki told me to come here and speak to Sasabe,” Haruka answers, keeping his voice low.

The man narrows his eyes. “Miki did, huh?” Cracking the door a little more, the man comes more into view, his hair a sandy blond and his facial hair in an intriguing pattern. “Well, I’m Sasabe.”

“Oh. She mentioned… a job?”

“Hm.” Eyes passing down over Haruka, Sasabe stands in silence a moment. He checks the street before opening the door to Haruka. “Come in.”

Haruka finds himself ushered into a nearly pitch black emporium, large barrels of wine dotting the earthen floor. Dust tickles his nose, and he fights the urge to sneeze.

Sasabe walks across the room. “I don’t do interviews,” he says, and with a sharp flick of his hand, he bends aside some of the earth to reveal a secret entrance to a tunnel beneath the floor. He looks at Haruka. “Miki is out, but someone should be around.”

Haruka’s eyes flicker between Sasabe and the floor entrance. Setting his jaw, he walks forward, coming to peer over the edge. A void of black. With no final glance to Sasabe, Haruka slides in, blood rushing as he free falls for a split second. Earth comes to meet him and he lands on his two feet. He exhales and regains his balance, and straightens up to look above. Nighttime light comes in from the circular entrance. He looks forward.

Black.

Alone with his breaths, Haruka wills a little flame in the palm of his hand, just enough to see the crumbly tunnel before him. No sounds, no clues as to what lies ahead. The roof is shallow, reaching just a couple of inches past Haruka’s head before stopping, and the walls are curved, products of bending.

Eyes watching the shadows, Haruka treads forward, twisting and turning through the long, snakelike tunnel, sensing that he is descending deeper and deeper into the earth. He can’t tell how long he walks; maybe five minutes, maybe an hour. Eventually, the tunnel widens, and he finds himself in a dingy chamber, with smaller, separate tunnels leading off into four different directions. A candle lamp on the ground meets Haruka’s fire.

Haruka stops, turning to look between the tunnels. Little pieces of light flicker from all of them. Distant voices murmur from all around, indecipherable between which tunnel.

Swallowing, Haruka calls out, “Hello?”

Nothing moves or changes for several moments, then—

“Just a second!”

The voice echoes down the second tunnel to Haruka’s left. Footsteps patter, drawing closer to Haruka until they sound upon him.

Someone steps out.

“Oh!” A small, wiry young man stands there, similar in features to Miki and the other woman Haruka met the night before. Big, inquisitive magenta eyes blink at Haruka for a moment from under honey blond curls. “Hiya!”

The young man bounds forward, and Haruka shrinks a step back. “Welcome to the office!” he says with a theatrical gesture at the surrounding tunnels. “I’m Nagisa.”

Haruka holds off a few seconds. “Haru.”

Noticing the flame in Haruka’s hand, Nagisa exclaims, “Whoa, you can bend fire?! That’s so cool! Can you like, create really big bonfires? Are you a really good cook, or do you just burn everything? Is it true that firebenders are really aggressive?”

Haruka’s brow furrows.

“Do you have a pet dragon? I’ve always wanted to ride one, they’re just so cool! Phoenixes are pretty cool too, I guess, but dragons are just the best, you know? I heard that someone once was able to train a dragon and have it fight in—”

“A job,” Haruka interrupts.

Nagisa raises his eyebrows. “Eh?”

“I’m here for a job,” Haruka says, slowly, as if weighing them back down to reality. “Miki told me to come here.”

“Oh, I know, she told me,” Nagisa assures, waving his hands. “I just want to get to know you better, that’s all! So did you grow up in the Fire Nation, or—”

“What’s the job?”

With a baleful sigh, Nagisa twists his lips. “Meh, you’re so direct,” he complains. He clasps his hands behind his back. “Well… Do you know kuebiko?”

A couple of heartbeats.

Haruka’s jaw ticks. “You’re a dealer.”

The longer Haruka looks at Nagisa, the less he feels like he knows. Haruka cannot tell which one of them is older; in one moment, Nagisa looks sixteen, and in the next, twenty-six. His aura places a strange spell on Haruka, like a trickster god of old. Haruka doesn’t trust him, but he doesn’t distrust him either, caught in a strange paradox where where he understands that most of the words from Nagisa’s mouth are falsehoods, yet all the same, he still wants to believe them.

Nagisa tilts his head in response, upturned lips never slipping.

“Am I supposed to become a dealer?”

Nagisa shakes his head. “No, no, no! I’ve just been wanting someone to keep me company. My sisters were just nice enough to help me look.”

“A bodyguard?”

“Mm-hm.” Nagisa’s head bobs. “And don’t worry, you’ll get paid nicely.”

Silence beats for a couple of moment; Haruka absorbing and mulling it over.

“Just one question, though,” Nagisa tacks on with a quirk of a grin. Scooting back, he splays his hands out.

The ground rumbles and sloshes in a circle around Haruka, blinding him with a crackling orange glow. Haruka inhales sharply. A moat of churning lava entraps him.

Haruka slowly brings his eyes back to Nagisa, who still smiles cheerily at him, arms outstretched and controlling the lava.

“Do you work for Shigino Kisumi?” Nagisa asks, the lava casting a morphing light to the underside of his face.

Fingertips slither up Haruka’s back. “Shigino?”

The lava gleams brighter.

Haruka quickly shakes his head. “I don’t work for him,” he says, as evenly as he can manage.

“Hm…” Nagisa’s expression turns thoughtful. “Does he know you?”

Clenching his jaw, Haruka drops his eyes. His flame in his palm dims as he nods.

Nagisa’s eyes glitter with interest, but oddly, he lets the topic slide and shifts his hands. The lava surrounding Haruka cools and crackles back to a solid form, just a little warped. Nagisa rocks back on his heels and flicks Haruka a friendly grin.

“Well, we’ll get you a mask or something so you’re not recognized,” he says, voice easy before taking on a staged, exaggerated tone. “Hey, it’s pretty late, what are you still doing up? Are you a night owl?”

When Haruka doesn’t respond, Nagisa suggests, “Well, in that case, you can just work at night, if that’s okay.”

Haruka shrugs.

“Oh!” Nagisa chirps suddenly. “Hold on a second!” He dashes back into the tunnel he came from and disappears. Within less than a minute, he pops back out. “Here,” he says, tossing something to Haruka.

Haruka catches on instinct. A small pouch weighs his hand down more than expected, jingling with coins.

“Consider it an advance.” Nagisa beams. “I look forward to working with you, Haru!”

In a fog, Haruka gets pushed out and travels the whole length of the tunnel back, leaves the tunnel and the winery, and again finds himself out on the streets of Ito. This time, his pocket burns brightly with gold.

With wary eyes, he rushes all the way back to his parents’ house. The servant entrance remains unlocked as he left it, and he reenters the silent mansion, his footsteps echoing across the cavernous rooms. He heads up to his room and quickly dumps the money and map under the linings of a drawer, feeling pressured to get them out of sight as soon as possible. Once the wood covers them, he shuts the drawer and turns to face his dark suite.

His heart ticks.

Instead of climbing into his bed, he leaves his room and descends the staircase, feet leading him to the hallway of the guest suites. He finds the final door at the end of the hallway, and with a careful hand, he slides it open.

The room is dark, and he shuts the hallway torchlight out behind him. He toes off his boots, and once barefoot, pads toward the bed. Just a rumpled shape, Makoto hugs to the right side of the bed, his back facing in toward the bed’s center. Holding his breath, Haruka pries up the silky blanket and slips in. He tries to shake the bed as little as possible as he lays his head back onto a pillow.

The incriminating rustles die down and Makoto does not move. The ceiling far above is a deep indigo; the air empty from animals and crickets. After a couple of moments, Haruka shuts his eyes and lets out his held breath. Gradually, sleepiness pokes at Haruka’s eye sockets, and he curls onto his side, prepared for slumber.

That is, until Makoto shifts, rolling over onto his back and laying a folded elbow on Haruka’s head. Haruka stiffens. With the sudden existence of another presence, Makoto sniffs, shifting again and digging his upper arm along the side of Haruka’s head. Makoto’s breath stutters and turns conscious.

“…Haru?” Makoto lifts his arm and squints, head turned toward Haruka. His voice cracks a little.

Haruka readjusts his head on his pillow, saying nothing as he swallows down the heat trailing up from his stomach.

Makoto flops in to face Haruka, bending his arm in front of him, his hand coming to rest under his own neck. His brow crinkles before he exhales and his mouth curls up somewhat. “I don’t think your parents would be pleased if they found you here,” he whispers.

Haruka closes his eyes. “Let them.”

With an exhale that almost sounds like a laugh, Makoto falls silent.

Comfortable silence fills the room, both of them half awake, half asleep, their breaths merging into rhythm.

“Makoto?” Haruka breathes, his eyes still shut.

“Hm?”

“Don’t call me Master Haruka.” He licks his lips. “Please.”

Nothing for several seconds.

“Okay,” Makoto replies, softly. “I won’t.”

In the hazy darkness, they both sleep. But inevitably, morning comes and light returns, blazing and harsh.


Rin’s been to Ito; yet, being in Ito, he has a creeping sense that he’s never been to Ito.

Warm sunshine, so welcome after weeks and weeks of snow and chill, spills out across bustling roads and alleys. His eyes can barely process the constant movement and bursts of color, a full rainbow of clothing and physical attributes everywhere he looks. Every street has someone urging him to buy something, whether it be as simple as a bowl of rice or as complicated as a bear sized tapestry. Voices call out from every direction, a permanent buzz in the air, and smells of foods, perfumes, animals, and people travel with the wind.

What he remembers of Ito is boring foreign embassies and Haru’s stuffy second home, not this.

Sweat slips down between his shoulderblades. He had forgotten just how pervasive the humidity here truly is, given that the Fire Nation experiences more dry heat and the northern Earth Kingdom experiences more dry cold, plus he still wears his dog hood to partially obscure his features and retain some anonymity. He’s doing fine in comparison to Sousuke and Ai, though, whose faces are sheeny, their furs completely counterproductive now.

Rin’s right side is wide open, exposed to the world, as he doesn’t stand between Ai and Sousuke as they amble. He stands on the end, with Ai to his left.

“Man,” Rin says. “I have no clue where anything is.” He glances down the streets. “I wish my friend were here. He knows Ito much better than I do.”

“You said there are Fire Nation troops stationed here?” Ai asks.

“Yeah, but I’ve never been to where they’re stationed.” Huffing out a breath to unstick the strand of hair clinging to his forehead, Rin stops and puts his hands on his hips. He squints around for the familiar maroons and golds of the Fire Nation military uniform, but catches nothing. His feet are worn from their trip. “ Fuck, ” he mutters under his breath. Sucking it up, he sighs. “Well, I guess we could—”

When he turns, Ai and Sousuke are no longer beside him. His stomach lurches. Eyes darting around, the tension breaks as he spots them across the way among outside tables displaying miscellaneous merchandise. With a sharp exhale, Rin follows after, swallowing away the jitters crawling up his throat.

“Oi,” he calls out to them. “Don’t just walk off like that.”

Sousuke looks up, his arms folded. “I was following Ai,” he says, monotone.

Narrowing his eyes, Rin checks a smart reply and flicks his eyes to Ai, who says nothing as he pores over something on a table. Rin, frowning, pushes past Sousuke to come look over Ai’s shoulder.

“It’s just like the ones back at home!” Ai points at what looks like some sort of hooked ivory spear. “Except ours are wooden.”

Rin steps aside. “Yeah, I’ve seen lots of people back in the Fire Nation carrying those around.”

Ai furrows his brow at Rin over his shoulder. “What for? Do they fish?”

“Nah,” Rin says. He shrugs. “I guess people think it looks cool.”

With a muddled expression, Ai looks back down at the spear, slowly stroking his thumb along the blade. He stands there a moment. Inhaling, his expression clears and his attention jumps to other goodies littered atop the tables. He breaks away from Rin and Sousuke again, Sousuke immediately trailing behind.

An impatient breath breaks from Rin’s mouth, and he remains rooted where he is, cautiously scanning the open market. Plenty of people peruse the items: a mother and daughter clothed in vibrant yellows admire glass figurines; a young bespectacled man flicks through piles of shirts, occasionally holding one up to his body; an older man with piercings through his ears, eyebrows, nose, and lip digs through scarves; two teenage girls test out different necklaces. A middle aged shopkeeper watches the proceedings with hawkish eyes.

Ai stops in front of pottery, gazing at the colorful bowls and cups with wonder. A couple of feet away from him stands Sousuke, vigilant. Pursing his lips, Rin ambles over to them, barely glancing at the merchandise he passes. Neither Ai nor Sousuke turns to him. Rin folds his arms, eyeline drifting. On the other side of the pottery table are the selection of clothes and the young man with spectacles, who unfolds and shifts around a couple of tunics, and Rin catches a burst of pink fabric.

Wordlessly, Rin weaves around the pottery table. He slows before of the piles of clothes, offering an, “Excuse me,” as he reaches in front of the young man and snags a tunic. Pinching the tunic’s shoulders, Rin unfurls it. He snorts.

Retracing his steps, Rin approaches Sousuke and holds the tunic up to his shoulders. “I think you should get this,” he says, smile tugging at his mouth.

Sousuke barely glances down the front of it before laying a flat look upon Rin. “I don’t think so.”

The tunic has a tropical feel, with palms and leafy fronds, but the main focus (or only focus) is a glittery, gauzy flamingo with a eerily human-like smile.

“What? I have no idea why you wouldn’t want this,” Rin teases, raising the tunic closer to his eyes. An actual laugh slips out as he assesses the horror. “Man, this is hideous.”

“Find something less terrible,” Sousuke says, leaning back into the table.

Rin smirks, lowering the tunic. “If you insist.”

He returns to the clothing table, and after neatly folding it, places the tunic back among the stacks. As he begins to root through the other robes and tunics available, the young man to his side makes a bold statement by picking up the flamingo tunic and placing it in his arms. Holding back a comment, Rin focuses on the fabrics before him and flicks through them. Halfway through the stack, he pauses on one in particular, and slips it out.

Ai still deeply absorbed in the pottery, Sousuke watches from aside in the same spot. Rin steps back to him, reattracting Sousuke’s attention away from Ai, and stops and holds up the second tunic.

Hovering just inches from Sousuke’s shoulders, the tunic is one of deep contrast; dark, almost black teal makes for the base color, with little linings of pale marine jumping out and trailing into a V-shape to emphasize shoulder width. Velvety fabric, sturdy but soft, lies between Rin’s fingertips.

With almost no expression, Sousuke awaits Rin’s reaction, his eyes squarely on Rin’s face. Rin meets his gaze for a second. He blinks quickly and scans over the tunic again, heat rushing up his face. Swallowing, Rin drops his hands and turns away, tucking the tunic under one arm.

His brain buzzes, but not with words.

Rin stops next to Ai, who rolls a light blue bowl around over and over in his hands. “That’s nice,” he offers.

Ai doesn’t respond, transfixed. As he rotates the bowl to the underside, Rin catches the price scrawled at the bottom.

“Whoa, that’s really cheap,” he says before he can stop himself.

Ai looks up, halting with the price facing up. “What does it say?” he asks.

“It’s thirty silver pieces.”

Ai squeaks. “Thirty?”

“I mean…” Rin clamps his mouth shut. For me.

Looking back at the bowl, Ai holds it with lax fingers, no longer spinning it round.

Rin clears his throat. “Hey, we should probably get going,” he says. “We’ve used up enough time here as it is.”

Silent, Ai puts the bowl down.

Rin walks around the table once more and tosses the tunic to the clothes pile without bothering to fold it back up. He’s about to walk away when his eyes fall on the young bespectacled man’s current clothing, a deep emerald uniform with purple trim. Vague memories resurface.

“Hey,” Rin says. “Excuse me.”

The young man whirls around, hands still clutching that flamingo tunic. He straightens up and gives Rin a curious frown. “Yes?”

“Are you a police officer?”

The young man nods, puffing out his chest a little. “Yes, I am.”

“Do you know where the Fire Nation contingent is stationed?”

Purple eyes flicker over all three of them. “I do,” he says. “Do you need assistance in finding it?”

“Yeah, can you tell us how to get there?”

“I can do you one better,” the officer says, pressing back his spectacles. “I can walk you there myself.”

Rin pauses a second. “No, you don’t need to, we can find it oursel—”

“Nonsense, if someone needs my assistance, then I will give it to my fullest capacity.”

Helplessly, Rin glances over his shoulder. Sousuke says nothing, and Ai shrugs. Rin’s head returns forward. “Ah, well… thanks,” he forces out.

With a pompous smile, the officer brushes back his styled blue hair. “Just give me one moment, and then we can be on our way.” He parts from them and heads directly for the shopkeeper.

Rin and the other two wordlessly watch as the officer withdraws coins from his pocket and hands them to the shopkeeper in exchange for the tunic in his arm. Within moments, he returns to them.

Rin’s eyes are locked on the tunic. “Yo, why would you buy that?” he blurts.

Stopping, the officer tightens his arms by his sides. “I beg your pardon?” he says, glaring at Rin. “You speak of this?” He unfolds the tunic and thrusts the flamingo into Rin’s face. “Clearly, you clearly have no understanding of true craftsmanship. Can you not see that this is entirely, painstakingly hand stitched? I doubt you have the skill to create something as intricate as this.”

“You’re right,” Rin says. “I also doubt I could create something that ugly.”

The officer’s eyes widen behind his spectacles, and his mouth gapes wide and voiceless like a beached fish. After a moment, he quickly adjusts his spectacles. “ Well, ” he scoffs, voice a bit pinched in defense. A beat of silence. “Shall we?”

Rin gestures a hand forward. “Lead the way.”

The officer sets off, shoulders tense, and following behind, Rin sends a look of amusement back at Ai and Sousuke. Ai doesn’t react while Sousuke shakes his head at Rin, despite the corners of his mouth curling upward.

Trailing away from the outdoor shop, the officer leads them into the swarm on the street. Ai and Sousuke catch up and file onto Rin’s side, but they all have to speed up some to match the young man’s sharp, purposeful pace, which is oddly more akin to Rin’s old walking speed; this is the first Rin notices that he’s been slowing down these past months to match Ai and Sousuke.

After maybe a minute of wading through the crowds, the officer looks to Rin. “So, what business do you have at the Fire Nation compound?” he asks, a glint of humor in his eye. “Going to gloat?”

“Gloat?”

“Yes, didn’t the Water Tribe just defeat the Fire Nation on the southern Earth Kingdom port Komukina? You three are from the Water Tribe, are you not?”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Rin recovers. “I mean, we are from the Water Tribe, but we’re not going to gloat.”

Rin’s mind races. Fire Nation defeated?

“I see.” The officer’s head bobs. “I figured you all were tourists; I can always tell.”

Rin resists rolling his eyes back into his skull. “Good for you.” He, as they walk, cannot justify why he does not like how he and the officer are nearly the same height and build.

There is barely a minute of silence as they twine through people before the officer breaks in, forcibly casual, “Then if you are from the Water Tribe, are any of you waterbenders?”

Rin tips his head toward Ai and Sousuke. “They are, but I’m not.”

“Do they speak, too?” the officer asks, smirking faintly, “or are you just their mouthpiece?”

Rin mashes his teeth together.

Ai emits an awkward laugh.

Sousuke snorts. “We speak.”

“Ah, good to know!” Briefly checking the road ahead and twisting out of the way of an oncoming pedestrian, the officer pushes back his spectacles yet again. “Oh, forgive me, I never formally introduced myself. I’m Ryuugazaki.”

Ryuugazaki locks eyes with Rin and waits, as if egging him on to speak first.

Tongue pressing into his cheek, Rin mumbles, “Jun.”

A spark of mischief. “A pleasure.”

When Ryuugazaki’s eyes move beyond Rin, Ai raises a weak hand. “Oh, I’m Ai.”

“Sousuke.”

“A pleasure,” Ryuugazaki repeats with a broad smile. “You know, it’s just so wonderful to meet others from different nations. I am truly so lucky to live here, in Ito, where people from all walks of life converge and interact. There is so much to learn from other cultures that one can’t just get from one’s own.” He readjusts the flamingo tunic under his arm. “I really enjoy the Water Tribe’s whole mythos; so quaint and primitive.”

“Uh-huh,” Rin mutters, trying to tune him out.

“The emphasis on spirits and spirituality is really quite fascinating, the deeper you delve into it. There are some intriguing parallels between a lot of ancient airbending texts, which I highly recommend anyone read if they get the chance, like the themes of energy usage and awareness. Of course, there are differences, most notably in that the Air Nomads refrain from eating animal flesh, while the Water Tribe’s diet is comprised of mostly meat—”

Man, Rin thinks to himself. This guy must have a small

“I myself do not consume any meats because as an airbender, I believe that animal lives should be valued just as highly as human ones. I had the fortune to attend an airbending school, so I read the original texts—”

“You’re an airbender?”

“Yes,” Ryuugazaki says, “as I was saying—”

Rin squints. “You don’t seem like one.”

“Well,” Ryuugazaki says, loftily. “Appearances can be misleading.” He sucks in his cheeks. “Didn’t you learn not to judge a scroll by its ribbon?”

“Doesn’t airbending training last for a long time? What are you doing here, as an officer?”

Ryuugazaki doesn’t answer for a few moments. “At the suggestion of my airbending instructors, I am on indefinite leave from my training.”

Rin raises his eyebrows. “You were expelled?”

“I said an indefinite leave from —”

“Yeah, expelled,” Rin says, shaking his head in awe. “Damn. What for?”

Ryuugazaki takes the opportunity to fall silent as they turn down a new street, somehow busier than the one they were on. Finally, he says, “Anyway . What was I saying? Oh—I read about how the Air Nomads once encountered the great whale rescuer Usondi and they worked together to keep back the Fire Lord—her name is on the tip of my tongue… Fen Dynasty, I think—”

“Lord Vashun?” Rin suggests.

“Yes! Lord Vashun—keep her from killing the whales and marketing their skins. What an interesting piece of history. Usondi was such an impressive man, it’s no wonder the Water Tribe still recognizes him to this day.”

Almost invisibly, Ai pipes up, “I’ve never heard of him.”

“What?” Ryuugazaki leans forward a little to peer around Rin. “How can you not know who Usondi is? He’s a part of your history.”

Recoiling a little, Ai looks to Sousuke for support. “I… I don’t know, I never learned it, I guess…”

Ryuugazaki looks at Ai like Ai’s a pet fish that suddenly gained the ability to change the color of its scales. “Huh. Interesting.”

“Didn’t Usondi eventually go insane and murder his father, though?” Rin asks.

“Well, yes, but no one wants to hear about that,” Ryuugazaki accepts, checking down a split in the street before turning toward the left hand side. “People like to be inspired; they don’t care about the reality. So that tidbit tends to get left out of most texts.” He levels a scrutinizing look on Rin. “It sounds like someone has read some rare works.”  

With a small, arrogant smile, Rin admits, “I’ve read some history.”

“Did you ever get the opportunity to read Treshki’s treatise of peace? Most people couldn’t name her with a knife to their throats.”

“Yep. Humanity isn’t naturally peaceful, but can learn to be, right? Although that’s not as obscure as Riku’s histories of Xan era rulers.”

“Riku’s histories? I read those when I was eleven. If you really want to get obscure, read Ashitaka’s war logues. No one knows those.”

“Come on, don’t you know Ashitaka made most of those stories up? In Geng’s diary—”

Sousuke sighs. “Can you two stop measuring your dicks?”

As Ryuugazaki gasps, Rin shoots a withering look around Ai.

Oi, ” he hisses. Sousuke stares right back, expression resolute, and after gawking at him for several seconds with no comeback on his tongue, Rin shuts his mouth and faces forward. His skin prickles.

Grumbling, Ryuugazaki haughtily pulls himself up and flicks back his hair, yet nevertheless shuts up.

They continue to walk in stilted silence, the crowds around them thinning slightly and allowing some room for thought. The sun, approaching midday, sizzles on Rin’s back.

“How far is the compound?” Rin asks.

“Maybe another fifteen minutes,” Ryuugazaki answers, eyes ahead. Sweat builds at his temples, and he lifts a hand to swipe it away.

“Great.” Then we can ditch you.

The streets blur together, winding, hot, and a bit stifling. All conversation runs dry, and the four of them walk without speaking. Rin scans each pathway and street for familiar clothing and people, but they still have yet to stumble upon any Fire Nation troops.

Up ahead, the earth bears a large crack, perhaps from a seismic event or perhaps a bending event, too deep and wide to jump over, separating part of the city from the other. A wide golden bridge crosses it, but the crowds up ahead part around it and avoid the crack altogether. Ryuugazaki leads them to the end of the street and steps onto the bridge first, checking behind to make sure they follow.

Rin goes to step onto the bridge.

Voice seized by a stricken tone, Sousuke blurts, “Rin, don’t—”

Wind catapults Rin up into the air. Ground spinning away from him, he sails for a second before crashing back down, his arm taking the brunt of his weight. Another body slams into him with a pained gasp. Dizzy, Rin looks up.

Reorienting his swaying vision, Rin captures snapshots: Ai stirs beside him; the pair of them sit on the other end of the bridge; Ryuugazaki stands with his back to them on the other side, dispelling a gust of air.

The gust of air sweeps away from Sousuke, who crumples to the ground.

Sousuke!

Ai scrambles up, catching Ryuugazaki’s attention. He barely gets a few limping strides before Ryuugazaki bends his breath from his lips, stopping him. Dropping to his knees, Ai gulps, face paling as his breath is stolen from him.

No! ” Rin growls, jerking up and shooting a sloppy blast of flame.

Surprise is his only savior; Ryuugazaki jumps into defensive, forgetting Ai for a moment as he barely deflects Rin’s shot. Rin stands, rushing forward to stand in front of Ai. His left arm swings free and feelingless by his side; with his adrenaline, he can’t gage how serious the injury is.

Rin layers on another punch of flame; two; but now focused, Ryuugazaki flips out of the way, landing in a crouch. Stepping forward, Rin kicks out another shot. Ryuugazaki flicks his hands and disrupts the air at Rin’s feet, knocking Rin off balance and sending him sprawling to the ground.

Rin propels himself back up, holding in a wince at his aching spine and bones. He manages another one handed weak spurt of flame as he attempts to get closer quarters, but Ryuugazaki casts it away with a swirl of air.

Ryuugazaki somersaults right into Rin, and Rin knees him in the shoulder, hurting himself more in the process. But Ryuugazaki merely accepts the blow, his focus past Rin, and he jerks his arm sideways.

Insides seizing, Rin spins around. Ai, swept up in a gust, tumbles off the bridge with a shriek.

Ai! ” Rin shouts, dashing after. His stomach mashes into the protective barrier as he cranes over the edge. There is no Ai below.

Rin turns on Ryuugazaki, but he is already too late. He has no breath. With careful curls of his hands, Ryuugazaki bends a slim trail of oxygen from Rin’s open mouth and nose.

Rin, vision coiling with black spots and whorls, makes near blind shot of fire, but Ryuugazaki must escape it, for his lungs continue to shrink. The bridge swirls. Rin collapses to his hands and knees, losing connection to his limbs. His head sears with pain, and he swallows desperate dry gulps down his throat.

For a second, his eyes flick up. Ryuugazaki’s wavering form is somewhere before him, but behind him, safe on the bridge, is a mush of silver and blue.

Rin slips from consciousness.

Gray ceiling. Reeling headache. Soreness riddling his muscles. Thump of a pulse in his arm.

Squinting and blinking, Rin slowly regains his mind. His head and body rest on a hard, flat surface, beneath gloomy stone walls and ceiling. He cracks his mouth open, lips chapped and dry, and swallows. After a moment, he sits up with a groan, rubbing a hand along his temple.

A heavy ache weighs his entire self down, particularly concentrated in his stiff left arm. He goes to move it, but shooting pain and binding fabric stops him. Pausing and hissing out a breath, Rin looks down at himself. His clothing—his old suit from home, his dog pelt jacket—are gone, replaced by a nondescript gray robe. His right hand tentatively pulls back his left sleeve, exposing a tightly wound bandage around his forearm. The bandage likely used to be white, but is now stained yellow and rust.

Rin flexes his fingers, and again, pain spikes at him.

His arm… Broken?

He pulls the sleeve up higher for more clues, finding his bare skin mottled blue and black with bruises, his upper arm crusted with a long. bloodied scrape. Dropping the sleeve, he tugs the collar out from beneath his chin; his chest is a similar story, dotted with uneven bruising and scrapes.

Rin lets his arm fall to his lap with a sigh, his eyes lifting to scan the room around him. From his place upon a cot, he can see its entirety, small and dour, entirely stone with a little bit of light sneaking in from a tiny, high window and an eye-level slot at the door.

Gritting his teeth, Rin slides off the cot, muscles flaming as his feet take his weight. The window in the wall too high for him too peer out, he hobbles to the door. He tries to pry it open with his good arm, but it does not move. Through the tiny slot, all Rin can see outside the door is a dank hallway, with other closed doors lining the opposite wall. Two guards in identical green uniforms patrol down the hall in slow silence.

“Hey,” Rin calls, voice cracking. He bangs on the door with his hand. “Let me out.”

One guard glances his direction, but ignores him and continues her walk.

“Hey!” More banging; Rin’s hand stings. “Wait!”   

She disappears from sight, and Rin swears under his breath.

“Let me out! ” he yells, slamming his palm. Heaving, he steps back, and jabs his hand at the door.

Nothing.

Eyes bouncing between his hand and the door, Rin does the same movement again to the same result: no fire. Frantic, he tries a different hand position, and another.

Ache within his veins coursing like a poison, all Rin thinks is, Not again.

He pushes up against the door, shouting, “ Oi! What the fuck is going on?!”

No response, but small, echoing through the hall, comes, “Rin?”

Rin holds his breath. “Ai?”

“Rin!” Ai’s voice calls again, appearing to be coming from the right. “Are you okay?!”

“I—I don’t know,” Rin calls back. “I can’t bend.”

“I can’t either.”

Rin swallows. “Do you remember any—”

“Hey.” The guard reappears and hits Rin’s door with her hand. “No talking to other prisoners until recreation hours.”

Rin avoids her eyes. “Is—”

Hey. ” The guards raps on his door again. “I will move you to a different cell if you can’t shut up.”

Pointedly pressing his lips together, Rin says nothing more. Ai’s voice goes silent as well. The guard steps back, with a final stony look to Rin, and continues her parade down the hallway. Quick heartbeat and breaths fill the tiny cell as Rin lingers at the door.

The guard’s feet plod back and forth. Sousuke’s voice is absent from the hallway.

Chapter Text

In killing, I use the sword I wear at my side. Am I the only one who kills people? You, you don’t use your swords. Sometimes you kill them on the pretext of working for their good. It’s true they don’t bleed. They are in the best of health, but all the same you’ve killed them. It’s hard to say who is a greater sinner, you or me.

—Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, In a Grove


“And then Miki and Juchika stole the pastries, and Yui began to cry, so I began to cry…”

It’s too late for this, Haruka thinks, lifting up the mask Nagisa gave him from his face to rub his eye.

“Then Miki got angry and told Yui it was her fault, and then Juchika said it was mostly my fault, and Yui was just going along with what I thought, and it was a huge mess.” Nagisa shakes his head and sits forward, tucking his hands under his thighs. “I didn’t talk to them for a whole week, and after that only Miki apologized.”

They are in the midst of night; Haruka snuck out once everyone was asleep at his parent’s mansion again and accompanied Nagisa on a stakeout, with little information other than Nagisa saying, “I’m going on a stakeout!” Who they wait for and why are unknown to Haruka, but he’s fine to sit and stare out a window with the lure of money at the end.

However, he thought sitting on the second floor of an abandoned building on the outskirts of Ito and staring out a window would have more silence. Instead, Nagisa has been on a near unending stream of talk, and Haruka now knows far more about Nagisa than he desired to ever learn. So far this night, he’s said a total of two words: “Hello,” and “Okay,” but he now knows Nagisa’s favorite color (pink), age (twenty-three, somehow older than Haruka), favorite pastry (those sticky buns sold for cheap in the Ito marketplace), his sisters (Miki, Yui, and Juchika, all older) and his okay at best, disastrous at worst relationship with them (despite apparently working together as dealers).

Eyes flickering to the window, Nagisa shrugs and tilts his head. “How’s your family, Haru?”  

“Fine.”

“Do you have any siblings?”

Overlain images of Ren and Ran, Rin and Kou. “No.”

“Aw,” Nagisa coos. “Lucky.” His eyes dart to the window once more, and resettle on Haruka with a frisky gleam. “So what about romantic relationships? Got a girlfriend? Boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Hey, no shame,” says Nagisa. “Then what’s your type?”

“Why do you need to know?”

Nagisa pouts. “I’m just curious.”

Haruka’s smirk is lost beneath his mask as he says, “I like people who don’t ask a lot of questions.”

Hey.

Smiling to himself, Haruka leans back on his hands.

Nagisa sighs and drops his mock-offense. “So if you don’t have any siblings or a significant other, who do you fight with?”

Haruka allows himself a moment to think. “My friend, I guess.”

“Oh, your friend,” Nagisa says, with an odd pull in his voice. His expression smoothes out, though a small smile hangs onto his mouth.

Nagisa doesn’t seem to have anything more to add to that, and he doesn’t need to anyway, as he checks the window again. “Oh! Showtime!”

On the street below, two people pass under.

Nagisa’s head whips back to Haruka. “Let’s go, Haru!” he chirps. He pops up from his seat and waits for Haruka to stand. The second Haruka does, Nagisa is gone in a flurry, hopping down the staircase.

After briefly checking his mask and black clothes are in place, Haruka follows.

The two of them enter the outside with a wave of heat. Nagisa’s buzzing energy tamps down, and he turns quiet and focused. Unable to hear any footsteps, Nagisa shuts his eyes and stomps his foot, evidently sensing the direction of his targets. Opening his eyes, he points down one avenue and they set off. Nagisa’s face is bare to the world, which dimly strikes Haruka as odd, but they creep forward, holding their breaths, until movement appears out of the stillness of the buildings.

Nagisa splits off from the main road, Haruka in step with him. They pass along buildings through a back alley, Nagisa checking as they go for their targets, until they catch up and pass them completely.

Turning, Nagisa tiptoes back in toward the main road, hugging close to a shack wall. Haruka lurks behind him, listening, waiting.

Footsteps draw nearer.

Two forms appear out on the dirt road, oblivious to Nagisa, seven feet away.

The ground at the targets’ feet bends, glowing and churning with a blinding orange. Shrieks ring out as the flow consumes their legs. Sinking hip level in lava, they flail miserably, trying to claw themselves out, but to no result.

Faces lit from the lava, one chokes back a sob while the other screws up her face in silence.

The lava solidifies, trapping them.

Haruka stands, motionless, like a dumb stone, watching as Nagisa casually ambles forward. He kneels down on the freshly hardened earth beside his whimpering captives. His hand reaches and pats around the guy’s chest, and after two or three pats in the same spot, it slips into the guy’s jacket. When his hand returns to view, it clutches three little brown packages.

Sliding the packages into his own jacket, Nagisa rises and scoots over to the young woman. He does the same to her, fishing out four packages to add to his collection. He stands up again. He’s stationless, arms loose to his sides. Haruka stares at the back of his head, as if to see through his skull to his expression.

With a sigh, Nagisa swipes his hand up. Two sharpened chunks fly up from the ground below, impaling the two’s necks in a squirt of blood and flesh. Silenced, the two torsos go slack, folding and hunching toward the ground at their hips.

Nagisa turns around, smiling. “Ready?” he asks.

Haruka’s pulse thumps in his temples. After a couple of beats of him staring blankly, he nods.

Immediately, Nagisa launches into a brisk walk, and restarting his muscles, Haruka drags on behind.

As they walk on into the city, brazenly passing people and businesses, Haruka never fully catches up to Nagisa. The air between them fills with a jaunty whistle from Nagisa, but from Haruka’s perspective, Nagisa’s face is hidden, morphing the tune into a ghostly, disembodied ringing.

The few people around them allow a wide berth for Nagisa’s path.

They turn a street corner, and the whistling cuts short.

“Oh!” Nagisa squeals, rushing toward something. “Look at you!” He crouches down and extends his hand to a puffy white dog with droopy ears perched on the side of the street. The dog does a preliminary couple of sniffs of Nagisa’s hand, before relaxing and letting its tongue loll out. When Nagisa scratches around its ears, its tail swishes a delighted rhythm along the ground. “Aw, so cute!”

Haruka hangs back.

The dog pants and squinches its eyes shut, while Nagisa ruffles the white fur along its neck and sides. “What a good buddy!” sings Nagisa, grinning. He pulls his hand back for a second, and the dog butts him with his nose, laying a few licks of its tongue on Nagisa’s open skin. “Oh, thank you,” he says, with a final cuff around the ears.

He stands, wilting a little. “Wish I could bring you home.”

With a glance over his shoulder to Haruka, he falls back into his walk.

As Haruka passes the dog, it whines. He looks forward.

Nagisa returns to whistling as he leads Haruka not back to Guyo Street, but to the street Haruka’s parent’s mansion rests on. Haruka’s insides clench as they pass its familiar, stately front, dim torchlight burning from the windows. But Nagisa does not pay any attention to it, and continues on, approaching a different mansion several doors down. With no hesitation, he plunges straight to the front door, stopping and rapping on the forest green veneer.

After a couple of moments, a servant answers, and recognizing Nagisa, allows him and Haruka inside. They wait in the stone foyer for a couple of moments, before presumably the owner of the mansion, a crisp, elegant elderly woman, appears. She lights up at Nagisa’s presence and rushes forward to give him a sophisticated hug. Haruka stands aside as the two of them exchange menial chatter like old acquaintances. Eventually, Nagisa hands her two of the stolen packages, and she gives him a small pouch. They hug again and part, Nagisa offering a wave over his shoulder before he leads Haruka back outside.

Nagisa whistles again.

He only stops once they stand on the steps of Kogane Wines and he raises a hand to knock. The door cracks open, and as usual, Sasabe peeks through.

“Hiya!” says Nagisa.

Sasabe, eyes clearing in recognition, opens the door fully and lets them in. “Ryuugazaki is here,” he says to Nagisa, shutting the door behind him and Haruka. Sure enough, another form stands with them in the winery.

Nagisa visibly lights up. “Rei!” He dashes forward, throwing a hug on a young man with blue hair.

“Please don’t call me that,” mutters Ryuugazaki, or Rei, stiffening. Spectacles on the bridge of his nose flicker with dim light.

After a couple of uncomfortable seconds, Nagisa pries himself away, but leaves a hand on Ryuugazaki/Rei’s shoulder. “Sorry, Haru,” he says. “This is my friend, Rei!”

Lifting his chin and pulling himself up like a bird ruffling its feathers, Ryuugazaki/Rei says, “We are not friends.” He pushes back his spectacles. “Please call me Ryuugazaki.”

“Uh-huh,” mumbles Nagisa, mindlessly. “Rei.”

The pair of them dissolve into bickering, while Haruka stands there, invisible. Ryuugazaki/Rei wears a deep purple robed suit that presents a facade of simplicity and humility, yet its stitching and folds betray to Haruka how expensive it really is. Ryuugazaki/Rei’s crisp, immaculate presentation puts him out entirely of place in this dusty, fake winery, next to the ever rumpled and messy Nagisa and Sasabe. Looking more, something about his carriage oddly reminds Haruka of Rin; he too seems conscious of precisely how much space his body takes up at any given moment, his movements exact and performative.

“...this is purely a business relationship, so you may not use my first name willy-nilly.”

“Hah, willy.”

Hazuki.

“Meh, fine, Ryuugazaki .” Nagisa crimps his voice around the name. “So what’s up?”

“Oh, yes,” says Ryuugazaki, blinking as if trying to recall. “I have a matter to discuss with you.” His eyes flicker to Haruka and Sasabe. “In private.”

Nagisa looks back. “Haru, you can go if you want,” he says. “I’ll be here, so I won’t need you.”

Haruka’s gaze darts between him and Ryuugazaki, shielded from sight by his mask. He shrugs. “Fine.”

“Oh wait, I’ll get your pay!” Nagisa whips around and bends open the secret tunnel, jumping in and vanishing.

The other three wait for his return in stuffy silence. Ryuugazaki folds his arms tight over his chest, index finger tapping an impatient rhythm on his arm. Haruka eyes his finger.

“Alright!” Nagisa’s voice finally echoes. He clambers back out, hand clenched around another small pouch. Once he’s on his two feet and he’s brushed off the front of his clothes, he tosses it to Haruka. “There you go.”

It jangles and weighs down Haruka’s arm. Looking down it for a breath, he stashes it in a pocket.

Nagisa smiles. “See you tomorrow night?”

“Yeah,” Haruka says, dipping his head.

He turns and leaves, but not without a last invisible look to Ryuugazaki.

The whole way back to his parent’s home is quiet. No one approaches him.

As he steps onto the servant’s landing entrance, he finally peels off the mask and pulls down his hood, shaking his sweat-dampened hair free, and shoves the mask away into the fold of his robe. He reenters. The whole house is relegated to conspiring shades of blue and gray, with only the occasional golden torch to dispel the gloom. Haruka pads his way up the golden staircase to his third floor suite.

In his room, alone, he opens one of the bottom drawers, prying up the fake bottom to reveal the first coins Nagisa had given him. Taking the new pouch from his pocket, he upends it, pouring in his new coins. He tosses the pouch aside and looks down at the mask in his hand.

Nagisa gave him the mask. It’s a deep emerald, offset by white lines delineating the face of a dragon. Snaggletooth fangs hiss at him, thick brow furrowed, and whiskers flying away.

Haruka puts the mask in the drawer with the coins, and replacing the fake bottom, shuts it.


Rin’s intermittent and unfulfilling sleep, filled with swirling, incomprehensible dreams, ends with his cell door banging open.

Popping up, Rin blinks, trying to push away the mist of sleep. Daylight pokes in from the high window, reaching three green-clad guards entering his cell.

Rin scoots back on his cot, furrowing his brow and glancing between them. “What?”

“We’re here to administer your dosage,” one says, and Rin sees an injector for liquid medicines in his hand.

Rin’s pulse climbs up his throat. “Huh? Of what?

“All bender inmates have their bending powers muted,” the guard continues. “It’s just standard procedure in prisons nowadays.”

They crowd closer, blocking his movement.

Rin says, “You think I’m going to let you do that?”

The guards do not look frightened or surprised by the threat. A couple of beats of silence.

They lurch into him, scrambling for limbs to pin him down with. In the flurry of grappling, Rin kicks and elbows anything he can. But in his defense, he forgets his broken left arm, and accidentally jams his elbow into one guard’s chest. The shudder of white hot pain blots out everything else and he reels for just enough time for the guards to pin him down onto the cot and jam the injector into his neck.

With sharp exhales, Rin goes a little slack, grinding his teeth. Once satisfied, the guard removes the injector and all three of them lessen their grips on him. Tightening his expression, Rin shoves one of them with his good hand, but they are already leaving.

Once they’re fully gone, Rin steams, unable to fall back asleep.

He paces around the room some, until eventually, someone brings him a dish of bland rice gruel and chopsticks. He tolerates it, mainly because he’s hungry and he has no other options. When he finishes, he resumes pacing, too overflowing with energy and thought to stay still.

Later, perhaps in the afternoon, his door bangs open again. A guard stands in the doorway. “Recreation hours,” she says, stepping out of the doorframe to make space.

Rin blinks at her a moment, ears catching the rustle of other voices and footsteps in the hallway beyond. Hesitantly, he comes to the door and looks out. He barely steals a glimpse of guards organizing prisoners into two parallel lines along each wall of the corridor before the guard beside him yanks him all the way out and tugs his cell door shut behind. She then steers him into the closest line, behind a prisoner with a dark buzzcut.

The rest of the prisoners, clothed in the same dusty robes as Rin, are eerily silent as the guards round everyone up, and once everyone is in place, the lines begin to move forward. The guards trail along in between the two lines. Rin reluctantly follows, not sure what to look at as they turn through dimly lit stone halls.

His insides untwist a little. Up far ahead his line is a head of silvery hair.

He wants to call out to Ai, but the oppressive silence keeps his tongue in check. The hallway eventually brings them to a pair of large doors, held open by two guards, with SHUZO RECREATION HALL written overhead. As the prisoners enter the recreation hall, they begin to speak to one another.

Rin watches and waits for his turn to enter, trying to keep an eye on Ai’s head through the throng. Finally, it’s his turn, and the second he makes it inside, he calls out, “Ai!”

Ai, sandwiched in a cluster of other prisoners, flips around, eyes wide. Immediately, he pushes his way through, mumbling apologies, and dashes to hug Rin. Rin jerks back a little in surprise, but exhales and returns the hug with his right arm.

After a couple of moments, Ai releases him and steps back, forehead scrunched. “Rin, are you okay?” he asks.

Rin shrugs, lifting his bandaged left arm an inch. “I guess,” he says. “Are you?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Ai says. His eyes soften on Rin’s arm. “I’m so sorry about your arm! I’d heal it if I could bend right now.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Rin reaches up his good hand to ruffle Ai’s hair. “That’s not your fault.”

Ai nods, looking unconvinced, and chews on his lip. “Do you… Do you have any idea why we’re here?”

“None.” Rin glances around, checking for eavesdroppers. “I don’t know if it’s me. No one has told me anything.”

With a slow nod, Ai doesn’t say anything more, eyes falling down.

The hall abuzz with prisoners’ talk, a lull spreads over Rin and Ai for a moment.

Swallowing, Rin rakes his fingers through his hair. “Have you seen Sousuke at all?” he says, quietly, dropping his hand.

Ai raises his eyes. The slight downward press of his mouth is enough, but he shakes his head anyway.

“We’ll ask around,” Rin assures.

They turn to the room surrounding them.

Tens, hundreds of prisoners chat and joke within a cavernous domed room, lit only by dozens of flickering torches high out of reach on the walls. Guards line the walls, and above their heads is a secondary railing where even more guards patrol and oversee. No one seems to pay any attention to Ai or Rin in the chaos.

Rin jerks his head toward the prisoners near them. “Come on,” he says, with a small smile to Ai. “We have to start somewhere.”

At first, they stick together, asking people as a pair, but then decide to split up, though they don’t stray so far that they can’t keep an eye on the other.

It becomes a script—

“Excuse me—”

To several large, muscular guys with interesting tattoos of mythical imagery.

“—have you seen—”

To an older woman and a couple of younger women, all somehow still attaining an air of glamor in their drab robes.

“—a guy—”

To a couple both with raw, reddish scars on their faces.

“—tall, dark hair and blue eyes—”

To a lanky, serious guy and a short guy with a mohawk.  

“—named Sousuke?”

Each time, it’s a variation on the same answer: “No.”

After talking to what Rin imagines a whole village is composed of, he pushes his way back to Ai, who talks to four middle aged women.

“—oh, well, thank you,” Rin catches Ai say as he comes in earshot. Ai bobs his head and leaves them be. Finding Rin, he shakes his head as he watches him approach.

Rin stops before Ai with a tiny sigh and presses his lips together. “We’ll keep asking.”

Ai nods again.

The throngs of people show distinct alliances and groups, evident now that Rin has spoken to some of them and now stands on the outer ring of the room, looking in. Almost none of the people in this prison seem to be doing it alone.

To Rin and Ai’s left stands a young man. There is nothing particularly remarkable about him; he is of average height and size, maybe about Ai’s age, with strawberry blond-esque hair and blue eyes. Even the jagged white scar cutting through his lips is hardly anything to look at. Rin has already seen multiple scars, spectacular in sizes, shapes, and colors.

But this kid stands alone, as if an invisible force repels all in range.

Rin waits and watches in hopes of uncovering why nobody approaches this one kid when far more intimidating and fearsome prisoners have people flocking to them. Ai too notices the kid, and after a moment of thought, he sets his face and makes to walk towards him.

Rin catches him by the wrist. “Wait,” he says in a low voice. “We don’t know what’s going on.”

For a couple of seconds, Ai looks back at him with an unrelenting expression, before he flicks his attention the kid once more and drops his shoulders. His wrist slides from Rin’s hand, and a smidgen of disappointment hangs on his features. He says nothing.

Rec time ends, and the guards usher all of them back to their cells, calling out and threatening all those who talk outside the recreation hall. Rin files into line with a final glance to Ai, and clamps his mouth shut as he trails back through the gray hallways, a guard to his side. Once they reach his cell, Rin enters without complaint.

The guard shuts him in.

Later in the evening (he figures, since the light has dimmed from his window), Rin is brought his dinner, and he again tolerates it. Alone.

When guards call lights out and extinguish all but the most needed torches, Rin reclines back onto his lumpy cot and stares up at the dark ceiling.

His cell is tiny, barely more than a closet. Yet, without Ai and Sousuke, it is enormous.

The next day is much the same, but this time Rin does not fight against his injection in the morning. During rec time, he and Ai meet up again, milling through the other prisoners once more. In the corner, silent and by himself, stands the young man with the one scar again. Still, Rin and Ai receive more and more Nos to their questions, and futility begins to numb Rin.

With another “no” hanging in his ears, Rin turns and weaves through, eyes searching for someone he hasn’t asked yet. Ai follows him. They pass a group of three prisoners, composed of an older man with graying hair, a black haired woman, and another woman with a shaved head. Rin slows, eavesdropping on their conversation to find an opening.

“—going to fuck up all of our lives,” the man says.

“Even more so than now?” asks the woman with a shaved head. “You can’t know for sure, it might just fizzle out now.”

The black haired woman raises her eyebrows and shakes her head. “Please,” she interjects. “The Fire Lord may be dead, but that doesn’t mean his darling military and his vulture companies aren’t—”

“Excuse me,” Rin hears his voice say. He feels three pairs of eyes on him. “What did you just say?”

The black haired woman scowls, scanning him over. “You mean the sentence you just interrupted me in?”

“About the Fire Lord.”

“That he’s dead?”

Rin’s blood runs cold and sluggish.

Their eyes wait for him.

He shakes his head, stammering, “Why would you—He’s not dead.”

“Come on. Haven’t you heard?” says the woman, pursing her lips. “A couple of months ago, some military generals and the Fire Lord were all killed in a coup d’etat.”

“No,” —Rin keeps shaking his head— “there hasn’t been a political assassination in the Fire Nation for over two hundred years—”

“Yeah, there hadn’t been.” The woman shares a bemused look with her two companions. “Don’t try to instruct me, kid.”

His tongue feels dry, heavy. “Well, what the hell would you know?! You’re a prisoner in here.”

She cocks her head. “What the hell would you know? You’re a prisoner in here. And I’ve only been in here for one month.”

“Well, you’re wrong, then.”

“She’s not,” interjects the other woman. “All the generals and the Fire Lord—what was his name? Toru… Tore…”

“Toraichi?”

“Yeah, him. They’re dead.”

His vision seems to spin way far away, out of focus. “No, you’re all wrong… I don’t believe…”

“I’m tired of this.” The first woman waves a dismissive hand in what looks like slow motion. “You can believe whatever you want. Unless you have something more to say than just telling us we’re wrong, go annoy someone else.”

Somewhere, a hand squeezes Rin’s shoulder. “Um! Sorry about that!”

The hand wheels Rin away, and Rin’s legs accept the change in direction.

“Rin?”

Ai’s voice is soft, distant. He comes to stand in front of Rin, but Rin cannot see him.

Rin.

“It’s not… It can’t…”

Clenching his fist, Rin doesn’t notice his injury.


Mask and money safe in his drawer, Haruka lies on his bed. His eyes ache, but yet again, he can’t get to sleep. Maybe an hour has passed since he returned; he can’t decide whether to classify this indeterminate time as late night or early morning.

Pushing aside his sheets, he lets out a frustrated sigh. A couple of minutes go by, and he gives in, sitting up and slipping out of bed.

He finds himself at Makoto’s door again, listening for the sound of life in the otherwise silent house. Once more, he opens the door and creeps in, shutting it as slowly a he can behind him. He approaches the bed, sliding in. Makoto lies more to the center this time, so Haruka accidentally knocks into him and corrects himself by scooching to the very farthest outside, nearly about to tip to the floor.

But the damage is done, and Makoto twitches with a sharp inhale. “Haru?”

Haru says nothing, sliding down and burrowing his chin below the sheet.

Swallowing thickly, Makoto readjusts on the bed, allowing Haruka more space. He flops down on his back with a puffy breath, head dampening the pillow below. Haruka quietly shifts a little bit closer to the center, also spreading flat on his back.

He shuts his eyes, and a couple of minutes pass, making him almost think Makoto has fallen back asleep.

Slight intake of breath. “Haru, you don’t have to wait to come here if you’ve been awake this whole time.”

Haruka opens his eyes. Silence.

He rolls onto his side, turning his back to Makoto, and settles in, curling an arm under his pillow. Listening, he waits, until the sheets rustle beside him and Makoto sighs.

Haruka shuts his eyes.

When he wakes with a jolt, the room is lighter, his body alight and primed for movement with his heart pounding against the bars of his ribcage. Persisting images of a dream churn in his head, changing and foggy; bubbling lava consuming a body, and Fumiko’s scream.

With a drawn out breath, he checks beside him. Makoto is still asleep, facing in toward him.

Too energized to fall back asleep, Haruka picks himself up and slides out of bed. He slinks out of the room, closing the door after, and takes the staircase to the ground floor. Without spotting a servant or one of his parents, he exits out the servant door once more, but this time he stays on their property, entering the adjoining stable to the back. This one is smaller and cozier than their one in the Fire Nation, hosting only a handful of horses as opposed to a dozen or so, but that matters little to Haruka, for he only comes to see Kuroime.

And there she stands in the third stall, munching on hay from a trough. She doesn’t stop when he comes to lean on the stall, and he watches for several minutes as she completes her meal.

Finally, she finishes and comes to him, sticking her head over the stall door. Early morning light sets her grays into blues, the lighter white speckles sticking out like stars of early evening. Haruka rubs his hand along her neck, brushing under her charcoal mane, her short coat smooth and soothing beneath his skin. He halts at the beginning of her flank, eyes unfocused. Curling his fingers into the ends of her mane, he leans into her and presses the side of his face against the base of her neck. He shuts his eyes.

At some point, light warms his closed eyelids, and feet shuffle in. He resurfaces, opening his eyes, and turns, finding a stable hand, who, spotting him, immediately bows. Haruka’s arm droops away and lands atop the wood stall door as he turns back to Kuroime. The stable hand moving and working in his periphery, Haruka doesn’t move, just watching Kuroime in the almost silence.

Maybe more time passes. Another set of footsteps encroach upon the stable, slower and less assured.

“Haru.”

Haruka’s head flicks to the door, and there stands Makoto, smiling politely, as if asking permission to enter.

“Your mother said you would be here.”

Haruka pries himself a little from the stall, leaving one arm hanging on. With a little dip of his head for the shallow doorway, Makoto steps in, flashing an acknowledging smile as he spots the stable hand, who ignores him. He stops at Kuroime’s stall beside Haruka and reaches up a hand to brush against Kuroime’s forehead. Haruka lowers his eyes to Makoto’s shoulder.

Makoto drops his hand and looks back to Haruka. “She told me to tell you that they’re having breakfast now and that they’ll be busy with meetings all day, so they’d like us to join them.”

Exhaling out his nose, Haruka turns his face away. Unsurprising his mother would use Makoto as a messenger, knowing Haruka’s chances of agreeing would be higher if it came from a friend.

Hand still on the stall, Haruka digs his nails into the wood. “I’m not hungry,” he says.

“Oh,” Makoto says, with a tiny nod. “Well, they’ll be in the dining room for the next hour or so. If you start to feel hungry.”

A splinter spikes into the skin under Haruka’s nail. “Okay.”

In the corner of his vision, Makoto leaves, and his footsteps trail out of perception. Haruka pets Kuroime again, submersed in thought, absently stroking back and forth. Unwittingly, an image pops into his head of his parents and Makoto, alone, sitting across from each other.

He sighs, tugs one final time on a lock of Kuroime’s mane, and leaves the stable.

When he enters the dining room, his parents have their backs to him at the long, polished table, so they don’t see him approach. But Makoto, across from them, faces the doorway.  Chopsticks in hand, his eyes raise to Haruka and he freezes for a second, before a pleased and knowing smiles spreads over his mouth.

Shifting his gaze to the ground, Haruka steps in and reluctantly walks around the table to sit a couple of chairs down from Makoto.

“Ah, Haruka, good of you to join us,” says his father, setting down his cup of tea.

“Mm,” Haruka grumbles, focused on the table in front of him.

The servant across the room, noting Haruka’s presence, immediately exits and returns with a plate of food and a cup of piping hot tea. Makoto’s eyes follow the servant as he swerves around the table to lay the platter and cup before Haruka, and follow him again as he takes his place against the wall.

Haruka stares at the slab of fish draped atop stilted rice.

“Oh, Haruka.” His mother swallows and places her chopsticks flat on the table. “I’ve been meaning to ask—should we put on a late celebration for your birthday, now that you’re back?”

Haruka frowns. “My birthday?”

She tilts her head, ruby earrings swinging. “Yes, your birthday. It was a month ago. Did you lose track of time while doing farm work, or something?”

Clasping his hands on his lap, Haruka falls silent. So he’s survived another trip around the sun. All this means is he’s the same age as Makoto now.

“Well?” his mother prods.

A listless sigh. “There’s no one I would invite.”

“I know Prince Rin and Princess Gou not being around makes this less enjoyable for you,” his father says, “but you’re nineteen now. It’s your last year before you’re an adult. You should celebrate that before responsibilities get to you.”

Haruka plucks up his chopsticks and takes an evasive bite of fish and rice. “I’ll think about it.”

For a little bit, calm fills the table for Haruka while he eats, with Makoto quiet beside him and his parents commenting on and pointing to something in the news scroll unfurled between them.

Rolling up the scroll and setting it to the side of her plate, his mother fixates on Makoto. “So, Makoto,” she begins. “Do you have any siblings?”

Makoto pauses, brows inching up. “Oh, um, yes! I have a younger brother and sister, they’re twins.”

“Ah, I see.” Haruka’s mother glances back and waves a flippant hand, inviting the servant to swoop in and take away her plate. She leans back into her chair, crossing her arms. “See, it’s common for those with legacies to protect to have multiple children in case one dies or is unfit to take the helm, but we decided on only Haruka because it is also common for there to be sibling competition when all of them are healthy and capable.”

Resting his chin in his hand, Haruka draws invisible pictures onto his plate with one chopstick. Why are you telling him this? Why would he care?

A twitch of a hesitant smile. “Oh,” says Makoto.

“But I wonder—I wouldn’t know—what is it like for your family?” Haruka’s mother continues. “Is one of you promised the ownership of the family farm?”

Makoto shakes his head. “Ah, no, it’s not quite like Haru’s situa—”

Haruka’s mother’s smile goes flat.

Realizing his slip, Makoto stammers, blinking and ducking his eyes down.

Through tight lips, Haruka’s mother begins, “I believe I said—”

Haruka’s chopsticks drop to the table with the clatter. He straightens up fully and stares down his mother. “It’s my name,” he says, clenching his jaw.

Behind his parents, the servant lingers, halfway turned toward them, holding his mother’s plate. Outside and below, the distant clopping of a horse and rolling of a carriage punctuate the silence.

His mother matches his gaze, her youthful face in stark contrast to her sharp, lidded eyes.

Haruka turns his head to Makoto, whose looks like someone about to be executed for a crime they didn’t commit. As a piece of reassurance, Haruka offers a short nod.

Quick, imperceptible, Makoto’s eyes switch back and forth between Haruka and his parents. He swallows and recollects himself, resettling back into his chair, hands still pinching unused chopsticks. “A-Ah, well.” He scratches the back of his neck with his free hand. “I was just going to say that my family’s situation is very different from, um, Haru’s. Our farm is contracted, so my parents can’t pass it down to me or my siblings.”

“Oh, I see,” says Haruka’s mother, polite smile back on her lips. “Interesting.”

With a couple more minutes of mundane small talk under their belt, Haruka’s parents depart for whatever meetings and things they must attend to, leaving Haruka, Makoto, and the servant in silence.

Noticing Makoto’s empty plate, the servant leans to touch the rim, swiping it up.

“Oh, ah, thank you!” Makoto chirps, twisting to look over his shoulder.

The servant ignores him, already approaching Haruka. “Finished, Master Haruka?” he says, pointing a finger to Haruka’s half-eaten meal.

Haruka sighs. “Yeah.”

As the servant takes away the two plates, one clean and one dirtied with neglected rice and fish, guilt needles Haruka’s chest.

There is nothing to do but waste the day away; Haruka shows Makoto all the interesting places in the mansion he’d left out in their first tour, content to wander the halls with Makoto’s light chatter filling his mind. They stumble onto Haruka’s favorite room, the poorly lit, dusty closet that serves as the library for some of his parents’ collected scrolls. Nose tickling, Haruka resists a sneeze and scopes out the choices from the brown shelf, occasionally pulling out one to check its title. There are a few he hasn’t seen before.

He stops, fingertips grazing coarse parchment, and checks behind him. Makoto hangs back, light from the single tiny window hitting him from behind and setting his expression in shadow.

Dust particles coast through peaceful air.

“Do you want me to read one?” Haruka asks, pinching a scroll between his fingers.

Makoto observes his expression for a moment before shrugging. “Only if you want to.”

Haruka’s hand curls around the scroll. “There’s nothing better to do,” he says, sitting down cross legged with his back to the shelf.

As Haruka unties and opens the scroll, Makoto takes a seat beside him, close enough to peer at the characters over Haruka’s shoulder, but far enough away to establish a distinct boundary.

Haruka begins to read. His late nights catch up to him a little, and he has to tuck several yawns away. The story is nothing too intellectual, just a tale of an Earth Kingdom rogue who leads a revolution against an oppressive king. Back in school, Rin always teased Haruka for his sterile, monotone reading voice, but what did it matter how Haruka pronounced the words of a dull, stuffy piece of literature for a class he didn’t care about? Yet now, Haruka senses his reading is a performative act, though he does not deliberately change how the words naturally flow from his mouth.

When he finishes the story, beats of silence take the place of his voice.

Haruka smoothes out the scroll on his lap, fingers hovering on the parchment. Reopening his mouth, he murmurs, “I’m sorry about my parents.”

Makoto’s hand rests on his thigh. Veins twine as his fingers curl into his palm. His head tilts. “They’re nice.”

“No, they’re not.”

After some thought, Makoto replies, “They’re centered in a very specific world.”

Without looking Makoto in the eye, Haruka rolls up the scroll, ties it, stands, and replaces it back on the shelf.

The rest of the day is tedious, and with Haruka’s parents out at some dinner event, Haruka and Makoto eat dinner alone. All throughout, Makoto keeps checking the servants attending to them with an unreadable expression. Nighttime hits, the mansion lit by torches and lanterns, putting kinetic shadows onto every solid surface. Haruka and Makoto laze on separate couches in a sitting room, exchanging minimal conversation until it is appropriately late enough to retire to bed.

Haruka could head straight up to his own room on the third floor, but he walks Makoto to his guest room on the second anyway.

A single flickering wall torch warps the folds of Makoto’s tunic as Makoto stops, facing his door. Silent, he rotates around, placing his eyes right on Haruka’s.

“Haru,” he says finally, “if you’re going to come anyway, you can just stay.”

A tugging in Haruka’s gut. He blinks, flattening his expression.

“Goodnight,” he answers, turning away.

Once he’s back in his room, he lies on his bed in the dark, listening and waiting. His sheets and pillows are cold, unforgiving. A long time passes before his parents finally come home, their steps echoing up the staircase. His mother’s unmistakable shrill laugh, a product of her kuebiko high, infects the halls and slips into his room. Haruka cringes. Their voices, slower and less thought out than when sober, move and fade into the background as their suite door thuds shut.

Haruka waits until all has been quiet for some time, then leaves his bed, changes into black, unearths his mask from his drawer of gold, and slips out into the night.

His feet take him to Guyo Street again, and knocking at the winery door, Sasabe lets him in and opens the tunnel entrance. Taken by habit, Haruka walks the whole length of the tunnel in the light of a handful of open flame, until he comes out into the atrium-like area, multiple tunnels shooting off in other directions.

Someone stands with their back to Haruka, and when they turn, Haruka recognizes the eldest sister, Miki. She blinks at him, appearing to mentally process his presence.

“Oh, it’s you,” she says, tucking a falling lock of sandy hair back toward her bun. Head jerking to the side, she points to one of the tunnels. “Nagisa’s in there.”

“Thanks.”

Haruka leaves her, ducking into the smaller tunnel. It is short, and he can already see light at the end of it, so he lets go of his own flame. Stepping out onto the other side, he enters a small cave, a personal room, where a pile of unfolded garments lies on the floor with hoarded foods on one side. On the other is a small pallet.

Atop the pallet, sprawled out in a fashion that cannot be comfortable, is Nagisa.

His head pops up, hair mussed. At first, his expression is inert, but within a second, he beams. “Haru!” he chirps. “Come in, come in!”

Dipping his head, Haruka steps beyond the threshold, inching forward to loom over Nagisa.

Nagisa readjusts himself into an equally unergonomic position. “I’m so glad to see you,” he gushes, “I’ve been so bored .” With a long, dramatic moan, he drops his head back to the pallet. “I was told to lay low for a little while.”

“Lay low?”

“Yeah, I can’t go out for the time being.” He sighs, the corners of his mouth turning down.

“Oh,” Haruka says, shifting his weight. “Then do you need me? If you can’t go out—”

“No!” Nagisa’s head jolts back up, a sudden urgency to his voice. Quickly pressing out a smile, he says in a calmer tone, “I mean, you should probably stay here, it’s always possible someone could get in.”

“…Okay.”

A couple of seconds of silence.

“Well sit ,” Nagisa says. “Make yourself comfy! You look awkward just standing there.”

A little uncomfortable with being exposed like that, Haruka tentatively plops down on the dirt floor, crossing his legs.

More silence.

Nagisa rolls to face Haruka, propping up his head with his hand. “Want to hear about the time I got lost in a brothel?”

A small smile pulls at Haruka’s lips, surprising him. “Okay.”


Cold, murky water sprays out, splashing Rin. He steps in its path, goosebumps bursting up and a chill swooping down his bare skin. He holds his injured arm away from the stream, letting the water beat on the back of his neck. Stained bandages still wrap around his arm, but he hasn’t yet pulled them back to see the full damage.

Eyes unfocused, he stares at the wall. He does not move to rinse out his hair.

After a minute of standing, he impulsively rips off the dry bandage, wincing as it sticks to his dried blood and pus. The break is in the middle of his upper arm, and though someone had realigned it for him while he was unconscious, a rusty puncture shows where bone won against skin. It’s swollen. Puffy and bruised.

Rin’s head swims, but he can’t look away.

Slowly, moves his arm under the icy water. Stinging, burning; his body trembles, weak. Yet he does not let himself pull back, gritting his teeth and ignoring the nausea boiling up his throat.

A loud slam against the shower stall door—Rin jumps.

“Five minutes are up!”

Squeezing his eyes shut, Rin takes one more second before stepping out from the water. He pushes open the stall door, where two guards wait for him, one holding his gray uniform robe. Behind them is a tail of other prisoners waiting for their turn to wash themselves, but Rin cares little about them all seeing him.

The guard shoves the robe into Rin’s arms pushes him out of the way.

“Next!”

Rin still clutches his now soggy bandage, and scooting out of the way, he silently puts on the robe without drying off.

He’s guided back to his cell, and finds himself lying on his cot once more, robe uncomfortably clinging to his damp skin and his damp bandage rewrapped around his arm. It is nighttime, or at least, early evening, and the outside torches (insults to him with no bending) are the only source of light, peeking in through the tiny slitted window. The rest of the cell is in gradients of cobalt and indigo.

He shivers, and pulls his robe higher up his neck. Its starchy fabric is so unfriendly in comparison to his soft dog pelt.

Guards voices echo outside his door, embedded in shuffling footsteps.

Other than running his thumb over the scar on the back of his hand from where Sousuke had stabbed him, Rin is still.

He waits— expects

Yet his eyes are still dry.

Sleep eludes him for a long time, and after he finally drifts off, he’s woken again by guards barging into his cell. Again, Rin just sits up and passively accepts the dose to dampen his bending. When they leave and he is alone again, daylight barely creeping in through the tiny window high on the wall, he sits in the same spot without moving. A bowl of rice gruel waits for him on the floor just inside the door, but he has no hunger.

Hours pass.

A guard opens the door and informs him that it’s recreation time. Rin picks himself up and follows out, stepping over the bowl of rice gruel to line up with the rest of the prisoners. Once they weave through the corridors and enter into the big recreation hall, Rin stands to himself a moment, barely registering the rising volume and chatter swarming around him.

Pushing through the crowds, Ai finds him.

“Hey,” he says softly, with a hesitant smile.

“Hey,” Rin returns, his voice lower with lack of use.

Ai does not say anything for several moments, his smile falling away. “Um. How are you… doing?” His expression is caring. Pitying.

Rin looks away.

Blinking quickly and flushing, Ai stutters, “A-Ah, well.” He clasps his hands in front of him and wrings them. “Should we continue asking about Sousuke?”

Why? He’s not here.

Rin sighs, eyes cast down to the ground. “Yeah.”

They poke around together, trying to pick out people they haven’t yet asked. Rin lags behind Ai in a fog, letting Ai talk for him, and they move at a much slower and less desperate pace than the day before. At this point, neither of them expects a “yes” anymore.

Pushing out of a cluster of people, Ai and Rin end up on the outskirts of the hall again, where the crowd dies away except for that one kid with the scar, who again stands alone with an expression of boredom.

Ai pauses, head turned over his shoulder to look at the kid. After a couple of moments of internal deliberation, he breaks away from Rin.

Startled into awareness, Rin hisses after him, “ Ai!

Ai ignores him and walks straight up to the kid, who blinks and recoils, blue eyes flashing with alarm. Almost immediately, a slight hush falls over the other prisoners closest to them, and Rin stands frozen, back heating up with the attention of multiple sets of eyes. Swallowing and running a hand through his hair, Rin pads after Ai and stops behind him.

“Um, hi,” Ai says to the kid with a shaky smile.

The kid doesn’t return the smile. “What are you doing?” His eyes are unable to decide between Ai or Rin.

Ten feet away, the rest of the prisoners lose interest and resume their talk.

Ai says, “I just wanted to ask you something, if you have a moment.”

Frown lines marr the kid’s forehead, too deep for someone his age. He frantically checks around them before whispering, “Do you not know who I am?”

Rin raises his brows and puts his hand on his hip. “Should we?”

Looking at a loss as to how to answer that, the kid just stares back at Rin. Slowly, he shakes his head. “I don’t… I don’t know.” He tilts his head. “I’m… Shigino Hayato?” This comes out as a question, barely voiced.

A couple of seconds of blank silence.

Ai scratches the back of his head. “Um… We’re not from Ito…”

Rin is about to blurt, ‘ No one cares who you are, ’ when his mind tickles with recognition. “Wait, Shigino?”

The kid—Shigino Hayato—nods.

“Shigino,” Rin mutters again to himself, eyes trailing away in thought.

The name bounces around his skull, spoken to him by a voice that isn’t his own. Haru’s voice.

“Hold on—like Shigino Kisumi?” Rin asks, refocusing his eyes on Shigino Hayato.

Shigino nods.

“The kuebiko dealer?”

Eyes checking behind them again, Shigino nods once more. “He’s my brother.”

Rin frowns.   

“I just assumed…” Shigino twists his lips, his jagged scar stretching. “But I guess since you two aren’t from Ito… You don’t want to get involved in the feud between him and the Hazukis…”

Rin raises a shoulder. “The Hazukis? Who the fuck is that?”

“The family that also deals kuebiko…”

“Look, I don’t buy kuebiko. I don’t know these things,” Rin retorts, shaking his head.

Shigino’s eyes don’t waver from Rin’s face. “Everyone from Ito knows these things whether they buy kuebiko or not.”

Rin doesn’t know how to respond to that.

“Well,” Ai cuts in after a moment. “I don’t know anything about a… feud, or what, but I just meant to ask. Um. Have you seen someone around here, tall, black hair and blue eyes, name’s Sousuke?”

Rin’s insides tighten, and he weirdly expects Shigino to say yes.

But Shigino shakes his head. “I don’t think so, sorry.”

“Ah, well… Thank you for your—”

“If your brother is Shigino Kisumi,” Rin says, overriding Ai, “then does that make you a kuebiko dealer as well?”

The slight drop in Shigino’s features answers the question for him.

Ai gently rests a hand on Rin’s shoulder. “Rin, we don’t need to bother—”

Rin barrels on. “Where is he, then?”

“Not here.”

“Ri—”

“Isn’t kuebiko illegal?” Rin prods, unable to stop the torrent of questions. “What happened? Why are you here and not him—”

Rin. ” Ai digs his fingernails into Rin’s shoulder, and with a sharp inhale, Rin breaks off and finally meets his eyes. Jaw set, Ai looks at him with an unfamiliar strictness. “Let him be.”

Rin chews on the inside of his mouth, gaze flickering to Shigino before he forces down a slower breath. He locks his mouth shut.

Lessening the grip on Rin’s shoulder, Ai turns back to Shigino with a smile. “Anyway, thanks for letting me ask, um, Hayato!” His head tilts. “By the way, your hair is a really nice color!”

Shigino says nothing in reply, frowning as if insulted, and watches as Ai leaves, dragging Rin with him.

With a glance back at Shigino, Rin stumbles after Ai, and the rest of the prisoners look their way as they rejoin the swarm. Ai leads them into the middle of the room, deeply surrounded by noise and people before he lets go of Rin’s good arm. He places a look on Rin that Rin can’t quite decipher, but it is not positive. Rin looks away.

They wait out the rest of rec time in tense silence, though several times Ai looks like he’s about to say something and decides not to. Rin dodges his watchful eyes, numbness solidifying in his bloodstream.

Finally, the guards call for time up, and Rin immediately files into line without caring whether Ai follows him or not. He allows himself to be guided through the corridors. His mind is blank.

Amidst the people and echoes of footsteps, a guard up ahead peels away from the other guards to speak to someone whose back is toward Rin and the procession of prisoners. Rin’s eyes glide over them, seeing but not processing, until blue hair comes into view.

Rin’s blood stops.

The person, wearing uniformed robes similar to the guards yet a deeper emerald, turns slightly, and torchlight reflects off of a pair of spectacles.

The rope snaps.

Hey, ” Rin growls. “Ryuugazaki!”

Ryuugazaki’s head snaps toward him.

Without waiting, Rin jumps out of line and storms in Ryuugazaki’s direction.

Down the corridor, Ai’s voice echoes, “Rin, no!”

Rin ignores him. “Where’s Sousuke?!”

Immediately, guards rush to grab at his arms. He thrashes against them, pain bursting from his left arm.

“Answer me!” he yells.

Ryuugazaki regards him with no expression.

Answer me, you coward!” Rin screams, lurching forward and yanking the guards with him.

A hand twists Rin’s left arm—he inadvertently goes limp with a groan. Taking advantage, the guards slam him face down to the ground, wrenching his arms out of the way. Rin’s face screws up, cheek grinding into the floor.

Coward, ” he repeats, voice trembling.

Shooting pain and pulsating blood consume his mind. Distant footsteps tap closer and stop.

In Ryuugazaki’s voice: “Sedate him.”

When Rin is dumped back in his cell, he lies on the cot, immobile, glassy eyes toward the ceiling.

Still, he cannot cry.

Chapter Text

Protecting me
Protecting you
Carving away our fingerprints out of our fingertips until they're smooth

Lie awake
I sleep awake
I sleep with one eye on my royal flush
The other on the take
I sleep awake

―Mother Mother, Sleep Awake


 Rumpled clothes and half-eaten pastries linger on the floor of Nagisa’s small cave of a room, lit by a single candle lamp.

“Ugh,” complains Nagisa, lying on his pallet and staring up at the shallow earth ceiling. “Haru, tell me a funny story.”

Sat across from him, Haruka shrugs. “I don’t have any funny stories.”

“Everyone has funny stories!”

“Not me.”

Nagisa sits up, propping himself up by his elbows and placing a razor sharp look on Haruka. “Hey, this is no time to be humble.”

Maybe he’s right. It’s the second night of Haruka keeping Nagisa company, and Nagisa has exhausted all relevant subjects of chatter, again all surface and casual, and Haruka has barely managed to pay attention, his mind loath to drifting and slipping. They’ve somehow sat in utter silence for the past half hour or so.

“Come on,” Nagisa presses, “you can’t not have something interesting to talk about. I don’t care. Anything!”

“I’m not a storyteller,” Haruka protests.

“So what?”

Haruka presses his lips together. With an inhale, he sits a little taller. “Fine.”

Nagisa pops up and sits forward, eyes reclaiming their gleam.

Haruka ransacks his mind for something to talk about. “Well,” he begins, a little disordered with his voice as the only sound within the little room. He pauses, collecting himself. “Back where I grew up, my friend and I had families that were relatively… well known. Our homes had a lot of security employees and protocol. Once my friend bragged about how his family’s security was much better than my family’s and that no one would be able to get past it or get out with any of their belongings.

“I didn’t really care whether his family’s or mine was better, but I wanted him to shut up about it, so I suggested we try to break into the other’s house and steal something to see whose was better. At first he said no because he was worried about the consequences, but he changed his mind pretty quickly after I hinted that he was a coward.” He smirks at the memory.

“I didn’t tell him that I didn’t plan to do anything because I didn’t think he was actually stupid enough to actually try to break into my family’s house, but he did. He only got to the first floor before being caught. My family freaked out, and told his family, who also freaked out. I watched him try to explain himself to them before eventually admitting it had been my idea.”

Nagisa looks absolutely delighted. “Haru, you’re awful.

Haruka raises his shoulder. “Maybe. We both ended up getting in lots of trouble, so it’s not like I let him take all of the blame. At least not for longer than a day.” He wraps his arms around his knees. “But even today, my parents still don’t really trust him. Or me.”

The stilted underground air hums with silence as his voice retracts once more. Haruka looks at the crumbly ground; Nagisa’s old snacks draw an audience of ants and gnats.

Nagisa bobs his head, wearing an odd expression that seems a combination of interest and understanding. He allows silence for a few minutes. “Are you still friends with that guy, now?” he asks, resting his chin in his hand.

“Yeah.”

Nagisa whistles. “It’s nice that you’re close enough with someone who is still your friend after that!”

Haruka dips his head.

“What about your other friends? Any good stories about them?”

“Other friends?” Haruka flips through his short mental collection. “I’m not really that close to anyone else,” he lies, stomach twisting a little.

“Oh. Then what more about your one friend?” Nagisa’s tone is calm, but a subtle hunger clings to the edges of it, just noticeable.

Haruka fills the time and room with more about Rin’s most amusing and stupid moments, such as when he told Rin to remember the character for ‘mother’ by imagining breasts as well as how he and Kou continuously remind Rin of how they both beat him in the calligraphy competition. An avid listener, Nagisa stays silent throughout the whole time Haruka speaks.

Eventually, when Haruka’s pool of tidbits runs dry, Nagisa yawns. “Well…” he says. “It’s been a while, you’re probably tired.”

Haruka’s eyes feel like they’ve been rolled down a hill in a sack full of rocks, but he merely shrugs. He doesn’t want to return to his parent’s mansion yet.

Nagisa gets up, pays Haruka, and flops back onto his pallet. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” he says. He rubs his forehead. “I mean, later today. Tonight. Whenever.”

“Okay.” Reluctantly, Haruka stands, brushing off the dirt from his black robe, and picks up his green dragon mask. He slips it on and hovers, watching as Nagisa heaves a loud sigh. Then he ducks into the tunnel.

Once in the main atrium, he passes by Nagisa’s sister Yui and two other dealers of theirs. She nods her head at him as he leaves. He makes his way back down the long tunnel to the light of his own fire, which he extinguishes once he reaches the end and the exit Sasabe guards. With the light of the low hanging moon, he leaves the winery and steps onto the dark and quiet street.

Bag of payment heavy in his pocket, Haruka turns up the street. He takes a few steps on the cobble, glancing up at the sky to check how late it is. Dawn has yet another few hours, probably.

But his feet stop in their tracks. His mind blanks; he’s sure that he’s telling his legs to move, yet they resist him. An eerie sensation of his blood disobeying him spreads over his body. He can’t move forward or back. Or anywhere.

Panic rushes up to tighten his throat and chest.

“Are you Hazuki Nagisa?”

The voice comes from outside Haruka’s line of vision, deep and masculine.

Haruka swallows. “No.”

“Are you lying?”

“No.”

“I’ve heard his hideout is around here. Where can I find him?”

Haruka’s saliva simmers hot and stubborn in his mouth. “Who asks?”

“Someone who could easily kill you right now.”

A long pause.

Haruka feels not the weight of his own life upon him, but Makoto’s, the Tachibanas’, Norio’s, and Fumiko’s.

“I can bring you to him,” he offers.

Silence as the bloodbender mulls it over, then: “I don’t recommend trying to trick me.”

With that, the bind on Haruka’s blood releases, and he stumbles forward. Regaining his breath, he straightens up and revolves around, blood pulsating faster in anticipation. He can’t make out individual features, but a tall, broad form intrudes upon the space around him.

Grateful for the mask over his face, Haruka cautiously weaves around the bloodbender to head back to the winery. As he steps up to the front door, he checks back, finding the bloodbender following a few feet behind. Facing the door again, Haruka takes a deep breath. Knocks.

Sasabe opens and gives him a peculiar look.

“Nagisa told me to bring him,” Haruka says, blindly referring to the presence behind him.

Sasabe’s eyes rise over Haruka’s head, squinting in distrust. Haruka bubbles with thoughts over whether the bloodbender will have to use more forceful measures to get in. Several moments pass in silence.

Luckily, Sasabe opens the door fully, and Haruka slips in, the bloodbender at his heels. Sasabe uncovers the tunnel entrance for them with a brush of his hand. Haruka hops in first, and looking up, backs away from the hole. After a moment of hesitation, the bloodbender lands in the dark beside him, his landing louder and weightier than Haruka’s.

Lighting a small flame in his palm, Haruka quickly turns to the tunnel and leads the way. All the length of the tunnel, there is tight silence, only footsteps echoing away. The bloodbender never comes in line with Haruka, staying behind and tailing him the whole distance. Haruka remains wound and finely attuned to the bloodbender’s presence behind him, which only truly exists in the crunch of his footfalls and the second shadow along the tunnel wall.

They reach the main chamber―Yui and the others have moved to one of the smaller rooms, judging from muffled voices―so Haruka turns to the tunnel leading to Nagisa’s room. When he pops out on the other side, Nagisa is exactly as he left him, flat and despondent on his pallet.

“Haru?” Nagisa sits up. His eyes widen as the bloodbender files into the room after Haruka.

Before Nagisa can get another word out, the bloodbender lifts his hands, seizing control of Haruka again. Nagisa too goes limp and inhales sharply.

Ooh, ” Nagisa crows after a moment, strenuously casual. “That’s super cool! Hey, would you happen to be looking for a job?”

“No,” the bloodbender answers. For the first time, Haruka can get a good look at him; short dark hair, tanned skin, icy blue eyes, heavy clothes of deep blue and brown animal hide. His expression is calculated and stony, thick brows pulled together and jaw clenched. A dry, bloodied scrape trails along the side of his face, and he must stoop somewhat under the ceiling that is comfortable enough for Haruka. “You’re Hazuki Nagisa, right? The kuebiko dealer?”

“That’s me.”

“I hear you’re friends with the police officer, Ryuugazaki.”

Nagisa visibly perks up at this. “Yes! Rei is my friend! What about him?”

The bloodbender’s gaze flickers between Nagisa and Haruka. After a moment of thought, he says, “I think he arrested my two friends for no reason. I want to find them.”

“Ah.”

“Do you know anything about that?”

Nagisa shakes his head, blond curls fluttering as a distraction. “Mm, I don’t really know… Rei doesn’t tell me about every arrest he makes. You should ask him yourself.”

“And how would I do that?”

“Haru can take you to see him!” Haruka again feels the load on his shoulders as Nagisa looks up to him. “I would, but right now I’m, uh, sick.” He weakly fakes a cough.

There’s a couple of moments of silence, where the bloodbender judges over the both of them, before his expression hardens. “Fine. Just don’t try to trick me.”

Nagisa’s eyebrows creep up. “Now, who would do that?”

The flimsy attempt at levity flops, drawing no reply. The bloodbender lowers his arms and Haruka’s blood surges back under his control, making his head briefly spin, and Nagisa slumps, letting out a whoomph.

“Oh, hey, Haru,” he says, extending his hand out and petting Haruka’s arm. “Do you know where the police captain’s mansion is?”

Haruka thinks a moment, mentally placing himself along the grid lines of Ito. “Is it the one on Ikkapiki Street?”

“The blue one? Yep. Climb up the servants’ staircase on the side and find the second doorway to the left on the second floor. That’s Rei’s room. Got it?”

Second doorway to the left on the second floor. “Yeah.”

To the bloodbender, Nagisa says, “I hope you work everything out with your friends.”

The bloodbender ignores him and lowers his eyes to Haruka. Even though he doesn’t quite match Haruka’s eyeline since Haruka’s face is obscured, his gaze anywhere near Haruka’s sets a spindly chill down Haruka’s back. “Let’s go,” he grunts, backtracking and ducking into the tunnel.

Back out again, through the tunnels to Haruka’s light, up and out of the winery, and onto the street yet again, this time with the pair of them. Thinly stretched silence looms overhead as Haruka leads the bloodbender through winding pathways and in between buildings. Slowly, the sky begins to lighten, taking on a morose, ashy blue, and Haruka checks it again and again, nervously estimating how much longer he has until dawn breaks.

Eventually, they make it to Ikkapiki Street, which is just a street over from Haruka’s parents’ mansion. The stately mansion they seek sits behind an imperious walled gate, distinctive blue color lost in the early morning light. Haruka and the bloodbender halt in front, looking up at the impenetrable gate; nowhere to climb, and too high for anyone relegated to the ground.

Beside him, the bloodbender shoots Haruka a look, almost to say, You do know how to get in, don’t you?

Prickling with irritation, Haruka studies their options. His attention hops around, scouring for weaknesses, before he lands on the house beside their desired mansion. Its six floors hang high over the gate, with no barrier to keep them off the land.

Haruka jerks his head and sets off to the neighboring house. The bloodbender lags behind. Once closer, Haruka notes the protruding hip and glide landings that denotes each separate floor, with short wood beams open overhead. He comes to stand under the short roof and stares for a second at the one directly above his head.

He jumps, latching onto one of the beams and hanging in the air by his tight grip. Building up a swing with his legs, he propels himself up and around, letting go of the beam and flipping onto the slanted second story landing. He holds still a second, dizzy rush fading, and then peers over the edge to check the bloodbender.

The bloodbender, meeting his eyes from below, sets his jaw and shifts his focus to the beams below where Haruka now crouches. He copies Haruka’s movement, jumping to hang from one of the beams, but he stays swinging for a longer time, looking unable to generate the momentum to flip himself over. With his more solid and sizeable frame, he’s not as agile as Haruka.

Exhaling, Haruka lays himself flat and offers his hand over the edge. After some consideration, the bloodbender grabs his hand, and with some awkward work, they somehow manage to get him up onto the second story. The second it is no longer necessary for his safety, the bloodbender drops Haruka’s hand.

They take a couple of moments to recollect themselves, reordering their breaths without saying a word. From their higher position, the gate is not so imperious anymore. Haruka pulls himself together and stands up, judging the distance and angle for a second. He leaps, landing painfully with his torso halfway over the top of the gate. Slides down a couple of scary inches with gravity―he digs his feet into the wall and scrapes the palms of his hands raw as he muscles himself to stay there. Pulse shuddering through his limbs, he carefully scooches himself up to come to sit atop the gate.

Again, the bloodbender repeats his movement to jump onto the gate, and again, Haruka helps haul him up, and again, they exchange no words.

They turn to face the inside of the gate, toward the captain’s mansion. Edging himself off the top of the gate, Haruka slides down, rolling onto the plush grass of the police captain’s land. He stands up as the bloodbender hops down with a much less graceful landing. Hot blood oozes from the opened skin of Haruka’s palms. He presses his hands to his robes, grateful he’s wearing black instead of blue.

As the bloodbender swears to himself and clumsily picks himself up, Haruka surveys where they have landed. Lush, groomed grass and a couple of tall, winding trees surround the mansion, the side of which faces them. Up the side is less a staircase and more of a ladder, rising all the way up to the third story.

Wiping his hands clean enough, Haruka sets forward with an eye for any movement from around them. He grabs onto the ladder, tucking in a wince from his damaged hands, and begins to climb. Once to the top, he heats the lock on the window with a hand and cracks it open. Pushing the window open, he pulls himself into the open sill and stands his two feet once more. The bloodbender follows behind, and then they are both standing in a dark, small sort of entryway.

Second room on the left on the second floor.

Haruka pads forward and pauses at the wooden door leading into the house; no footsteps or voices outside. Carefully, he slides it open and creeps out into a hallway that splits, one direction leading down a wide, magnificent staircase. They select the staircase and descend to the second floor, where a magenta rug lines the hallway, following along to the left. The second door is ornate, featuring an inlaid carving of some mythological scene.

Stopping again for a moment, Haruka slowly opens the door. Inside, he can only gather a little from the dim light, but it is a large room, meticulously arranged. A king sized bed rests under an lavish gold headboard, and the rumpled form of a body curls under the bedspread.

Haruka and the bloodbender enter fully, and the bloodbender closes the door behind them. Looking back at the bloodbender, Haruka raises his finger to where his lips are underneath his mask and tiptoes closer to the bed. A head full of short blue hair nestles in among puffy pillows.

Cautiously, Haruka reaches out his hand and covers Ryuugazaki’s mouth. Ryuugazaki’s brow furrows and he shifts, cracking his eyes open. He jolts up with a sharp inhale and tries to skitter away from Haruka’s hand, but bangs his head on the headboard behind him. Grimacing, he stops moving and glares at Haruka wordlessly.

Haruka peels his hand away, and Ryuugazaki coughs and sits up properly, smudges of rust on his face from the not yet dried blood of Haruka’s hand.

“You nearly gave me heart failure,” Ryuugazaki says, shaking his head. His hair sticks up in odd directions and he looks bare without his spectacles. “You’re Hazuki’s, ah, employee? Could it not wait until morning? I have to get at least seven hours of sleep.”

Haruka says nothing and steps back.

Ryuugazaki’s eyes widen as the bloodbender approaches him, and as the bloodbender raises a hand, Ryuugazaki goes rigid under his bending.

“Thanks for leaving me on the side of the street,” the bloodbender growls.

“A-Ah,” Ryuugazaki chokes out. “You―you can―ah, Sasuke, was it?”

Through tight lips, the bloodbender says, “Sousuke.”

“Oh, that’s―that’s right.” Ryuugazaki furrows his brow. “What are you doing in coordination with Hazuki?

A thick pause.

“What the hell do you think I’m doing?” Sousuke’s adam’s apple bobs. “Where are my friends?”

Eyes flicking to the door, Ryuugazaki hisses, “Keep your voice down. You’ll wake my father.”

Sousuke leans downward. “ Where are they?

Ryuugazaki pales, his gaze darting elsewhere. He admits in a sheepish voice, “In Shuzo Prison here, in Ito.”

“Why? And why am I not with them?”

“I, ah.” Ryuugazaki’s tongue twitches out to wet his lips. “I had reason to believe that they were a part of a… kuebiko dealing.”

“That’s bullshit, and you and I both know that.”

Ryuugazaki opens his mouth, shuts it, and opens it again. “A-Ah, well I―”

“Listen to me.” Sousuke inches into Ryuugazaki’s face, forcing Ryuugazaki to look at him. “Whatever the hell you’re trying to do with them, you can’t. You can’t.” He pauses a moment before adding, “Because my one friend is the prince of the Fire Nation.”

Haruka’s stomach swoops.

Pardon? ” Ryuugazaki scoffs, arching an eyebrow. “The Fire Lord was assassinated and the rest of the family disappeared months ago. Why do you think I would believe that?”

Haruka swirls. Rin’s father was assassinated?

“Exactly, they’ve been missing,” Sousuke agrees, “and the prince ended up where I live.”

Ryuugazaki eyes him dubiously. “Just because your one friend is an arrogant firebender, that does not mean that he’s―”

“His name is Matsuoka Rin, his father is Fire Lord Toraichi, his mother is Lady Miyako, and his younger sister is Gou, but she prefers to be called Kou,” spills out Sousuke. “He was born on the second of the second moon eighteen years ago, and he was coached in bending by Colonel Mikoshiba, who is currently here, in Ito, and we were trying to visit him when you showed up.” He lets out a loud breath. “You can check those facts, but I know I’m right. And you said it yourself; he knows a lot of things that most people wouldn’t.”

A stretch of silence.

Buzzing fills Haruka’s brain. Rin.

“I don’t think you would want to do any harm to an actual ruler of a nation,” hints Sousuke.

Ryuugazaki purses his lips, prideful. “I will see what I can do.”

Silently, Sousuke aims his focus down at his outstretched hands for a second and returns back to Ryuugazaki’s face.

Understanding clouds Ryuugazaki’s features. “I will do something,” he corrects.

Sousuke does not smile. He straightens up and thinks a moment, looking back to Haruka as if obtaining permission. “I’ll stay with Hazuki, so you know where to find me.”

Unsure whether it’s within his power to allow, Haruka raises an indecisive shoulder.

Sousuke returns to Ryuugazaki. Barely audible, he murmurs, “You don’t want me to have to come and find you.”

With that, Sousuke turns on his heel and exits without looking once at Ryuugazaki, but Haruka shadows him slower, hesitating at the door. Over his shoulder he captures a final picture of Ryuugazaki, alone on the bed in his huge, beautiful room, his defensive pride caving in to reveal earnest uncertainty underneath.

Haruka shuts the door.

Up the steps Haruka rushes to catch up to Sousuke, fully expecting someone else within the mansion to take notice of their presence, yet their hurried footsteps are the only ones that ring out. To Haruka’s side, Sousuke breathes heavily, harshly, something raw and uncontrollable squeezing his lungs. Clambering up to the third story, Haruka spies at him out of the corner of his eye, but Sousuke wears a solemn mask that cannot be easily scrubbed away. He avoids acknowledging Haruka, and as if reading Haruka’s thoughts, clamps his mouth shut, shushing his laborious breaths.

Down the ladder along the side of the mansion, up a tree, and again up and over the walled gate.

The sky overhead morphs from a blue to a grayish lavender as the sun begins to wake from slumber in the east. Haruka moves as fast as he can, dragging a slower Sousuke behind. Knowing dawn is coming too soon, Haruka glues his eyes on the horizon, his thoughts replaying what he just heard.

He has so many questions for Sousuke, but poses none of them.

They return to the winery, snaking back to Nagisa’s personal room.

“Oh, you’re back!” Nagisa chirps when they enter. “How did it go?”

Sousuke emits a noncommittal grunt, and Haruka tilts his head.

Nagisa’s large eyes pass between them, probing.

His heartbeat thudding through his veins and reminding him of every passing second, Haruka points to Sousuke. “He’s staying here. I have to go.”

Somehow, Nagisa hears the desperation in his voice and gives him a soft smile. “Of course, of course, Haru,” he says, waving his hand. He stands and rustles around in a basket before handing off another pouch of coins to Haruka. He winks. “Here’s a little extra for all you did tonight.”

Sousuke, slouching under the shallow ceiling, watches the exchange of funds with sharp eyes.

Haruka waits a moment, pouch hovering in his hand, and in return he watches Sousuke. Wariness builds inside him, but Nagisa, however, is totally at ease, leaning back on his hands, his shoulders loose and free.

“It’s fine,” Nagisa says to Haruka, somehow correctly reading his hesitation. “I need to get acquainted with my new friend!” He smiles at Sousuke, who doesn’t return the gesture.

With a last view of tight-lipped, tight-shouldered Sousuke, Haruka thinks, Better Nagisa than me.

Outside, the sun has begun to crest the eerily flat horizon, light slipping in between buildings and falling onto the streets, and Haruka runs the length back to his parents’ mansion. Golden light heats him up to a near boiling point.

Pulse thundering and breaths short and painful, Haruka only slows as he reaches the mansion and slinks up to the servant’s entrance. He peels off his mask and shoves it into the front of his robe, exposing his flushed face and sweaty hair to the air. He closes his mouth and quiets his breath as he leans into the door to listen for movement. Nothing.

Haruka cracks the door open and pokes his head in. As silently as possible, he sneaks inside, following along shorter corridors to exit the servants’ quarters and enter the main, booming atrium. Every step echoes no matter how slowly he does it, so checking for no one else, he breezes across the atrium to the stairs. Just up three flights and he’s free.

Footsteps.

Haruka ducks around the stairs, pressing his back to the sloping underside and holding his breath. Closer the steps draw. His traitorous heart bangs against its confines, as if wanting to send out an alert of his presence. Further the steps recede. Then, silence.

He waits a couple more moments for good measure, then peeks around the stairs. The atrium is empty. Anticipating footsteps to return at any moment, he steps out and scurries up the staircase, not slowing until he reaches his chamber and shuts the door behind him.

Glaring sunlight steals in through the long windows, staining the floor.

With his adrenaline dropping, Haruka stuffs away his mask and money into the lining of his drawer, and finally, he has the space to reconcile the dull exhaustion in his eyes. He steps out of his boots and his black robe set and changes into his navy robe before slipping under his bedsheets and flopping flat onto his back.

Even with his eyes shut, sunlight paints an orange glow over his vision.

He lies there for a few minutes maybe, but his heart rate can’t seem to settle and his skin burns with a guilty heat. Almost petulantly, he sits up and shoulders out of his robe, throwing it to the floor. He crashes back down into pillows, his bare skin in contact with his sheets, and squeezes his eyes shut.

Cooled down some, Haruka slips in and out of consciousness, his mind never letting him fully submerge in sleep. Some time passes, though he can’t comprehend how much.

A faint knocking comes into his awareness. Swallowing, Haruka shifts, hands tugging at his sheets. The knocking ceases and his door creaks.

“Haru?” Makoto’s voice, barely above a whisper.

Haruka lifts his head and squints, his room even brighter than before. The door is ajar, and Makoto’s head sticks in.

Spotting Haruka, Makoto opens the door a little more and says, “Oh, you’re awake.” He steps in and shuts the door behind him, but does not tempt any farther into the room. “It’s late, so your parents wanted me to check on you.”

A pinprick of annoyance stabs through Haruka’s fog; yet again, his parents weaponize his own friend against him. He sighs and lets his head fall back without saying anything.

After a pause, footsteps come closer to Haruka’s bed. “They wondered whether you’re not feeling well.”

Haruka turns his head and looks at Makoto, who stands at his bedside. “I guess.”

Maybe it’s delirium from lack of sleep, but what little is visible Makoto’s of skin radiates with an intense warmth. Almost cold now without his robe, Haruka wants to reach out and test it, but he doesn’t know what it would do to him.

Makoto’s eyes waver, unable to stay on Haruka’s gaze for longer than a fraction of a second. Too tired to feel any discomfort, Haruka lies there only dimly aware of his exposed skin and the sheets covering just his lower half.

Heavy silence presses down on them.

With a shy blink, Makoto finally raises his eyes. Haruka stares back, unable to read the expression laid on Makoto’s face, yet unbothered. After a couple of heartbeats, Makoto lowers his eyes, an admission, not shame.

Haruka’s insides seize as he suddenly remembers the bloodied, ripped up skin of his hands, and as Makoto’s focus rests on Haruka’s arm, Haruka can tell that Makoto notices. Yet, Makoto is quiet, and in the silence, his hand drifts forward.

The tips of his fingers graze the inside of Haruka’s forearm.

Haruka yanks his arm into himself. With a stuttering breath, he cranes his head away, looking off into the room. “I’m sick,” he lies.

No response for a couple of moments, then, with a tight inhale, “Oh, right.” Makoto shifts his weight. “Well, I’ll let you rest, and I’ll see about getting you some food and water.”

Haruka clenches his jaw, incapable of looking back up, and waits for Makoto’s footsteps to ebb away.

Once more, the door opens and the door shuts.

Chapter Text

It hath been taught us from the primal state
That he which is was wished until he were
And the ebbed man, ne’er loved till ne’er worth love,
Comes dear by being lacked.
―William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra


 If there were something to do.

Rin paces his cell. By now, he’s likely walked the whole length thousands of times, and could probably draw a replication from memory, despite the fact that his drawing skills are and have always been average at best. There’s the chip in the wall facing the door, an ominous stain along where the adjacent wall and floor meet, a tally of days scratched in just above the cot, and dusty crumbs littering one corner.

What he sees is gray, dull. Even beyond the stone walls, the splotchy bruising and red and yellow of his injured arm is colorless. He sees the colors, knows they’re there, but they do not make it all the way to his brain.

After his almost attack on Ryuugazaki, he hasn’t been allowed out of his cell yet for either recreation or bathing. The paralyzing sedative wore off quickly, but it’s not like being free to move has much significance here. Only a day or so has passed.

The door cracks open and Rin stops. A hand drops off a bowl of rice gruel, and the door thuds shut, leaving him.

Rin stares at the bowl. Steam swirls up from the gruel, rising up into the room and vanishing. Ghostly. Rin looks away and resumes pacing.

That night, aching in his arm pushes sleep away for some time, and he lies there in the black, eyes so heavy with exhaustion but so wide nonetheless.

After what feels like centuries, Rin drifts off.

He stands in the center of the old bending practice arena in the palace; no one opposes him on the wood mats. The ceiling’s deep red beams watch over him.

Scuttling from behind him.

Rin whips around. He squints at nothing, beginning to relax, until more scuttling comes from his side. Again, he follows the sound, and again, finds nothing. The scuttling pops up at his feet, and he looks down.

A gray beetle of some sort, about the size of the palm of his hand. It skitters off and disappears.

“Oh, you want to hide?” Rin taunts, creeping in the direction of where the beetle disappeared. “Where are you, you ugly bastard?”

Language.

Rin’s head jerks up. He has an audience of his parents and Gou in the rows of seats, all three dressed to their best in ceremonial robes. His mother shakes her head at him, eyes flat.

“Sorry, Mother,” he amends.

He returns his attention to the matter of the beetle, and again, scuttling comes from around him. Wheeling around, he spots it and lunges after it, but misses, scuffing his knee on the mat below. He heaves out a breath and picks himself up, hazarding a look at the audience. Gou has left, and now just his mother and father watch him.

The beetle continues to torture him, its little patters coming from all directions.

Eyes flicking back and forth, Rin grumbles, “Ah, come on.”

Finally, he sees it, and he rushes after it, hands outstretched to capture it, but again, it dodges. “ Shit.

Hoping the word went unnoticed, he checks the audience. His mother is no longer there to reprimand him, and his father now sits alone, letting Rin’s language slide.

Rin clenches his jaw, insides stirred up. Frantically, he storms around the practice arena, scouring every corner for the damned beetle, but the arena is silent. His father’s watchful eyes restrain him from kicking the wall.

With a tight exhale, Rin stops. Nothing.

Then―

Scuttles behind him.

Flying around, Rin scrambles to the ground and grabs. Wiry legs tickle the inside of his hand.

“Hah!” he crows, popping up to face the audience. He raises his hand. “Got it!”

His father does not smile. “Did you?”

“Yeah, of course I―” Rin blinks. He can no longer feel any movement in his palm. Looking down, he slowly unfurls his hand.

It’s empty.

“But―but I―”

When he looks back up, the words disappear from his mouth. His father observes him, expressionless, and opens his mouth wide to allow the beetle to crawl out.

The scene changes; now Rin lounges alone on the imperial throne, clothed in his finest, most expensive silk and velvet ceremonial robes. His finger taps a lonely rhythm on the engraved armrest, the beat somehow spreading to echo deeply throughout the gigantic throne hall.

After about ten taps, the huge double doors facing the throne creak open. A single person enters and walks forward along the strip of maroon carpet, too far at first for Rin to recognize.

Rin sits up straight. “Sousuke.”

Sousuke saunters forward, foregoing proper etiquette and climbing up the short staircase to the throne without a bow or a greeting. He stops and stands right in front of Rin, wearing that teal tunic Rin had found back at the marketplace in Ito, and looks down at Rin in the throne as opposed to the other way around.

A moment of stillness.

Sousuke steps into Rin, pushing his knee between Rin’s legs and pressing Rin’s back flat to the throne. Squirming a little, Rin is hot with Sousuke’s closeness. He studies Sousuke’s face, but Sousuke does not meet his gaze, hand smoothing down Rin’s chest.

Sousuke drops his other hand from Rin’s shoulder and tears the fabric at Rin’s chest with both hands.

“Oi,” Rin breathes, “do you know how much that―”

A hand over his mouth shuts him up, and Sousuke continues ripping all the way down Rin’s torso and hips, exposing his bare skin. Taking away his knee, Sousuke reaches and grabs Rin’s cock. Rin jolts back with a sharp inhale. Sousuke slowly drops to a kneel, hand lazily stroking Rin in the meantime before he braces a hand on Rin’s thigh and takes him in his mouth.

The details grow fuzzy. Rin keels, whines, digs his fingernails into the armrest, until gradually, Sousuke slows and stops. Still a ways away, Rin refocuses on Sousuke before him, little pants falling from his mouth.

“What?” Rin asks.

Finally, Sousuke meets Rin’s eyes. He says, “I don’t taste anything.”

Rin wakes.

His blood thumps treacherously. He swallows, throat dry, and runs a hand over his face, frantically shooing away the feelings brought forth in his dream and readjusting to the black cell. He shifts on his cot and attempts to settle back into sleep, where he hopes the dream won’t follow.

But a familiar sensation haunts him, forcing him awake. He’s hard.

Rin ignores it for a few minutes despite knowing the repercussions, and as discomfort and need grows, sleep only travels farther and farther from reach. With a sigh, he slips his hand beneath his robe and takes himself.

Eyes squinched shut, Rin moves quickly, clinically, all while obsessively not thinking about Sousuke’s mouth around his dick. He isn’t in the mood to want to derive any enjoyment, so it ends soon enough. Once he’s somewhat gotten himself together again, he lies there, staring up into the dark. He can’t decide whether he would prefer to slip back to sleep and tempt more dreams or to stay awake and live with the reality of the disgust he feels.

The latter wins out for a while, but eventually, he descends into sleep, which is swarming with misty, indecipherable dreams. When he wakes, the sense of taint has not left him.

With the new day, Rin takes his dose to remove his bending as a piece of routine and receives another bowl of rice gruel. He wills himself to sit and choke down several mouthfuls as he knows he should, for he feels light and weak, but he can barely swallow down more than three gulps before he can’t take any more. Setting the bowl and chopsticks down, he wipes the back of his mouth. The gruel has even less flavor than he remembers.

Later, the door opens again. “Recreation hours,” says a guard, holding the door open for him.

Guessing his isolation is over, Rin follows and lines up along with the rest of the prisoners. To his relief, Ai is still in view up ahead, but once they travel all the way through the corridors to the recreation hall, Rin loses sight of Ai in the masses.

Rin pushes past bodies and chatter as he searches the hall, insides tightening. Finally, he catches a snippet of silver through the heads surrounding him, and he rushes through, hardly bothering to offer an apology to everyone he shoves aside.

Ai stands on the outer rim, deep in conversation with that kid―Shigino Hayato.

Facing toward Rin, Shigino spots him first, expression turning murky.

Ai looks around. “Rin!” he calls, breaking away from Shigino and hugging him.

Rin pats one hand on Ai’s shoulder, but he doesn’t sever eye contact with Shigino.

“What happened? Are you okay?” gushes Ai, pulling away. “Did they do anything to you?”

“It’s fine,” Rin says. “I was just in isolation, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Minutely, Ai scans over Rin as if he doesn’t believe him. “That’s good, then!” Latching onto Rin’s good arm, he drags him closer to Shigino, saying, “Hayato and I were just talking.”

Rin has no response for this, and once the two of them come to a stop, there is a long, sticky pause.

“A-Ah, well,” Ai stutters, letting go of Rin and focusing on Shigino. “You were saying? About―about your friend?”

“I… don’t remember.”

“Oh.” Ai’s shoulders sink a little.

Attention shifting between the two of them, Rin watches as Shigino chews on the inside of his lip.

With a tiny sigh, Shigino pulls himself up. “Oh, well,” he mutters. “I was just going to say… You’re a waterbender, you said. Well, when I was younger I had a friend who was a waterbender. Um. That’s all.”

Smiling, Ai perks up a little. “Oh, I see! That’s cool! What is that friend doing now?”

Instantly, Shigino closes up again, eyes ducking down. “I don’t know. We don’t… talk anymore.”

“Oh…”

Awkwardness clouds over the three of them, too thick to penetrate for several minutes. Both Shigino and Ai find much to capture their interest in the floor.

“You know,” Rin says, cutting through the gloom. Both heads pop up, but he looks at Shigino. “It’s hard to make friends when you’re really well known, isn’t it?”

Shigino says nothing, yet his eyes imperceptibly narrow.

“Back home, my family and I are very well known,” Rin continues, unsure where he’s going, “so most people treated me like I was special and were overbearing in their kindness because they wanted something from me eventually, maybe years down the line. I had friends, I guess, but they were shallow friends. They liked my circumstances more than they liked me.

“But growing up, there was this one kid who never tried to impress me. He was really quiet and didn’t really talk unless forced to, so I never truly interacted with him until this one day at school when I was maybe seven or eight. I had a dragon figurine that I always played with during free time, and no one ever touched it because it was just assumed to be mine. But one day I came over and there this kid was, my dragon figurine in his hand. I told him him to put it down, but he just ignored me and kept playing with it. I even tried to grab it out of his hand, and he just held it out of reach and said, ‘I will be done playing with it when I’m done playing with it.’

“Kid me was so shocked. No one had ever refused me like that before. I flipped shit, obviously, and yelled at him and tried to fight with him about it, but he absolutely would not hand the figurine over and just let me wear myself out. After that I kind of hated him, and built up some sort of story in my head that he was my nemesis.” He chuckles to himself. “He didn’t care enough about me or my family to actually be my nemesis. Gradually, it changed to the opposite of what it had always been: instead of him wanting to impress me, I wanted to impress him.

“So when I was playing with the dragon figurine one day, I noticed him sitting by himself, but I could tell he could see me. I tried to think of what I could do to surprise him. So I took the dragon figurine and stomped on it and broke it. Everyone was shocked, and while that kid didn’t really react much, he definitely looked surprised, for him. I guess that changed his opinion of me, because he gradually started warming up to me and we eventually became friends. Now, I consider him my only true friend from back home.”

Rin swallows and pauses as he thinks. “But, yeah. I guess… It’s disheartening to have people like or reject you just because of something beyond your control.”

Several breaths of silence. Rin can perceive the barest bit of tension evaporate from Shigino.

“Yeah,” Shigino murmurs. Nodding slowly, he inhales. “Actually… My old waterbender friend.” His voice is soft. “She stopped talking to me when I started dealing kuebiko.”

“Oh,” says Ai, frowning. “That’s terrible.”

“My brother and I needed the money, that’s all,” Shigino spills, voice gaining confidence. “And it’s not our fault things got violent, the Hazukis started it.” This last part seems directed at someone other than them.

Ai and Rin exchange a look.

“But the Hazukis are all friends with the police here, so none of them ever get arrested,” Shigino grumbles, voice pinched.

“What, how?” Rin puts his hands on his hips. “They’re dealers too, aren’t they? It is illegal.”

Shigino shrugs. “I don’t know, I guess the Hazukis have been around for so long that the police have no choice but to be nice to them. They go back generations or something. Not like me and Kisumi.” He sighs, muttering under his breath, “I’ve never even done kuebiko.”

Rin blinks in surprise. “Really?”

“No way.” Shigino shakes his head. “I could never afford it. Only rich people do kuebiko, but no one ever bothers to arrest them either.”

Guess that makes sense, Rin admits to himself, thinking of Haru’s parents.

Little by little, conversation opens, and both Shigino and Rin relax and rely less on Ai to facilitate the interaction. They share casual talk, moving on from kuebiko to less charged topics, lasting until the guards call for the end of recreation.

Before filing into line, Rin nods his head at Shigino. “Well, ah. It was good to talk to you… Hayato, was it?”

Hayato nods back, a genuine smile without nerves spreading over his mouth.

They all fall into their respective places and trail the way back to their cells.

The accomplishment and comfort drip away once Rin is alone in his cell again, the gray and the contamination resurfacing from under his skin. He resumes pacing to distract himself.

Outside, the corridor hardly becomes quiet after the prisoners all return to their cells before Rin’s door opens again. Two guards come in.

“Come with us,” one says, gesturing to the corridor.

Rin doesn’t move. “Why?”

“We are required to use force if you do not willingly come.”

A tired exhale. Rin mumbles, “Fine,” and steps to them.

The three exit the cell, one guard shutting the door behind them, and the guards flank Rin on either side and guide him in the opposite direction of the recreation hall. They eventually reach a cramped stone staircase when the cell doors end, and they go up one flight, ending up on an even more dark and desolate hallway. As they pad down the hallway under minimal torchlight, Rin notices that all the doors along the walls are windowless.

They reach a door numbered 214 and enter. It’s a small, dingy room lit by torch, barely larger than Rin’s cell, with no cot and instead one chair facing them.

Closing the door, one guard extends a hand to the chair. “Have a seat.”

Rin examines the chair. Reluctantly, he follows the instruction and sits himself down on the rickety wood. “What am I doing here?” he asks.

Neither answers, coming to stand on either side of the chair. They face the door like him, hanging back in his periphery. Huffing, Rin sinks back into the chair with arms crossed over his chest. His finger taps a fretful rhythm on his injured arm.

They wait for maybe ten or fifteen minutes in complete silence other than Rin’s quick pulse and the crackling torch.

Voices draw nearer from in the hallway. The door opens.

Rin’s mouth falls open. “ Colonel Mikoshiba?

Mikoshiba freezes, reflecting Rin’s shock back. “ Prince Rin? ” After a heartbeat of standing stone still, he recovers himself and drops into a bow.

With Mikoshiba bent before him, Rin can see Ryuugazaki standing rigid behind Mikoshiba, eyes bulging and barely contained behind his spectacles.

Mind swirling, Rin doesn’t realize how Mikoshiba has been bowing for far longer than necessary. “Please, stand up,” he quickly says, “you don’t need to…”

Mikoshiba rises, pulling off his horned helmet. “Forgive me, Prince Rin, I―” He glances over his shoulder at Ryuugazaki. “If I had known, I…”

“Don’t worry about it,” Rin assures.

Several seconds of silence, in which Rin can properly assess Mikoshiba. It’s been perhaps a year since they’ve last seen each other in person, and while Mikoshiba looks mostly the same, now he harbors dark circles under his eyes and his stubble is partially unshaved on one side.

“I, um,” Mikoshiba begins, pressing his helmet to his torso. “I am so relieved to see you are alive. I just… What are you doing here, of all places?”

Rin’s eyes flicker to Ryuugazaki behind him. Without relenting his gaze, he says, tightly, “That’s a good question.”

Ryuugazaki clenches his jaw.

“Ah…” Mikoshiba says, shifting his weight. “Well, anyway.” His face softens and he dips his head. “I am truly sorry about the Fire Lord, Prince Rin.”

The confirmation burrows deep and hollow in Rin’s chest. He says nothing in response, lowering his eyes; the floor beneath Mikoshiba’s boots is dusty, dirty, and Rin dimly wonders if a thin film of dust and detritus lines the bottoms of all of their shoes.

Rin raises his head. “How is your family, Colonel?”

“Ah, well, my father was in Komukina and couldn’t attend that general’s meeting that day, so he is still well,” Mikoshiba says. “But I… I haven’t heard anything from Momo.” He peers into Rin. “He was there that day, wasn’t he?”

Quietly, Rin replies, “Yes.”

Mikoshiba bobs his head and looks down, his fingers turning white on his helmet.

“I’m sorry,” Rin murmurs, and he knows it is inadequate.

Nevertheless, Mikoshiba meets his eyes, the gold of his own dull and flat. “Thank you.”

They both turn to stare at the ground, locked within their own minds.

“Do you know what’s going on in the capital, then?” Rin finally asks. “Since the coup?”

Mikoshiba straightens up and puffs out his slouched shoulders. “Right now the coup leaders are in control, since neither Lady Miyako, Princess Gou, or yourself are there to take responsibility. I don’t really have much information on the coup leaders, but all I know is they tried to order the military to ceasefire a couple of months ago. Most of the troops followed along just out of fear, but some of them didn’t, like my father and his troop in Komukina, though that didn’t go well for them.” An almost rueful smile twists his mouth. “I have to hand it to the coup leaders. They managed to take out the people they somehow knew would destabilize our government without much damage on civilian life. All they did in the main city was destroy some property as a distraction from the assassinations going on. It was very well organized.”

Rin nods, feeling like ground beneath him sways. “I see.”

“Prince Rin,” says Mikoshiba, almost entreatingly, “you are going to return, right? I mean…” He checks back at Ryuugazaki again.

Ryuugazaki’s expression is blank.

Rin presses his lips together. “I… I plan to.”

Mikoshiba seems to search into Rin’s expression for greater meaning, but he lets it go and bows again, this time remaining on his feet. “I will be looking forward to your return,” he says, “Fire Lord Rin.”

Rin’s fingers curl into his palm.

Placing the helmet back on his head, Mikoshiba faces Ryuugazaki, who twitches back to life and opens the door for him. They both slip out, and Rin can hear their voices in the hallway but can’t make out any words. He sits in silence with the guards for another five minutes or so, when the voices dissipate from the hallway and footsteps pad away.

But the door whips open again―Ryuugazaki slams it after himself. Torchlight casts indecisive shadows on him.

Rushing forward, Ryuugazaki seizes the front of Rin’s robe and hauls him up. “Why do you have to ruin everything?!” he snarls, face inches from Rin’s. “I do everything I’m supposed to and it means nothing because you―” He shakes Rin. “Why can’t you just leave it be?!”

Frowning, Rin has no answers. “What the hell are you―”

“I can’t do this again,” Ryuugazaki hisses, desperation polluting his anger. “I’ve already failed enough and I―”

He blinks, eyes focusing far beyond Rin and the room. “No, wait.” His agita washes away, hands relaxing and releasing Rin’s robe. He steps back. “This is fine.”

Expression smoothing over as he thinks, tongue darting out to wet his lips, Ryuugazaki nods slowly. “It will be completely fine,” he repeats, almost smiling to himself.

Rin resists from backing away when Ryuugazaki’s eyes land on him.

“No one would believe that you are the Fire Nation prince,” Ryuugazaki says. “Especially not from a has-been colonel well known for drowning his sorrows in alcohol or some random homeless waterbender trying to find some fame and money.”

Sousuke.

Tremors rattle Rin. “ You ―”

“And even if anyone did believe them,” Ryuugazaki continues with a smirk, “no one would care. No one likes your family except your military, and your military is crumbling as we speak―”

Rin hurls a punch, making satisfying contact with Ryuugazaki’s nose. Stumbling back, Ryuugazaki flicks a hand. A gust of wind blasts Rin back into the wall behind him, and he crumples to the ground, unable to move a second. He barely begins picking himself up with a groan when the two guards yank him up and hold him still, his arms twisted painfully behind his now throbbing back.

With horror, Ryuugazaki inspects the hand hovering before his face. Blood trickles from his nose, cascading over his mouth to drip from his chin. Disgust replaces horror as his eyes move to Rin.

Lowering his bloodied hand, Ryuugazaki lifts his chin. Tone scarcely disguised as calm, he says, “I will see you at the execution.”

“The what?”

Ryuugazaki looks to the two guards, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his uniform. “Get him to his cell,” he says, voice muffled. “And keep him there.

He leaves.

“The what?! ” Rin shouts after him. “Hey! Hey!

The door thuds after Ryuugazaki.

Rin writhes. Against his will, the guards drag him back into the hallway, where his own voice bounces back at him as he yells again and again for Ryuugazaki. Ryuugazaki isn’t around to hear him.

Torturously, the guards manage to wrangle Rin down the stairs, pain in his arm worsening with every movement against them. Rin does not back down until they shove him into his cell and trap him in.

His voices dies, and he sits on the stone floor. Body churning and violently alive.

If there were something to do.

Chapter Text

Conscience doth make cowards of us all.

―William Shakespeare, Hamlet


Haruka enters Nagisa’s room with some trepidation, mask protecting his face; again, Nagisa reclines on his pallet, but curled along the wall, fast asleep, is Sousuke.

“Poor Sou,” Nagisa hums, sending a simpering look to Sousuke. “He probably needed a rest.”

Sou?

Haruka sits with his back against the dirt wall, facing Nagisa. He barely listens as Nagisa descends into hushed chatter, his eyes unfocused and his hearing muffled as if through walls of cotton. His mind doesn’t inhabit his body and this room; he’s trapped back in his parent’s mansion, Makoto’s fingertips trailing up the inside of his arm.

“Hey, Haru?”

Haruka twitches. “What?”

“I was just curious…” Nagisa leans back on his arms. “Have you ever done kuebiko?”

Resting his elbows on his bent knees, Haruka frowns. “No.”

“Ah, I see…”

Haruka studies him. “…Have you?”

“Once.” Nagisa’s head tilts to his shoulder. “A client invited me to share. It was pretty fun, actually. I see why all those rich people do it.”

The quiet is pervasive.

Nagisa’s eyes simultaneously soften on and drill into Haruka. “Are you okay?”

Panic rises as Haruka contemplates how Nagisa can see him.

“Today you seem a bit… I don’t know. Off?”

An automatic, “I’m fine,” falls from Haruka’s mouth.

“Okay…” Nagisa’s small mouth pinches even tighter. “You just seem awfully caught up on something.”

“Even if I were, it’s none of your business,” Haruka hears himself say.

Blinking. Nagisa’s concern retreats back behind his face. “Oh. Of course.” He smiles.

Haruka opens his mouth, but Nagisa has already laid back on the pallet and curled onto his side. His back stares at Haruka.

Silence infects the room, the only break in it the rumbling of Sousuke’s snore. Haruka can tell Nagisa doesn’t sleep, his narrow shoulders too tense and his breath too quiet below his mulberry tunic.

Some time passes, and Haruka stews in a cocktail of his own making. Sousuke’s snoring peters out some, becoming slow and heavy breaths, mere background noise. Outside the room, voices of the other dealers come in intermittent flows.

“Haru?”

Haruka fishes himself out of his mind again. Nagisa, but still turned away from Haruka, forcing Haruka to look at the back of his hair.

“What?”

An inhale pulls at the folds of Nagisa’s tunic. “Do you think someone like me could have real friends?”

“Huh?”

Nagisa twists his neck to entreat him with a hopelessly hopeful look. “Deep down, I am a good person, right?”

Distant footsteps come closer, echoing through the tunnels.

“Right, Haru?”

Haruka lets out a hitched breath. “Nagisa…”

With a smile, Nagisa shakes his head. “Sorry, forget it.” As the footsteps draw near, Nagisa turns his back to Haruka again.

The middle sister Yui steps out from the tunnel, her long blond hair hanging loose around her shoulders. Taking in the scene of Sousuke, Haruka, and Nagisa, she jokes, “Wow, quite the party in here.”

“Ha ha ,” Nagisa says feebly, sitting up.

She fixes on Nagisa. “Our dear friend Ryuugazaki is here and he wants to talk to you.” Her thumb points the way she came.

Instantly, Nagisa bounces up, blinding Haruka with a smile too wide and too immediate. Without so much as another glance behind, Nagisa follows his sister, their voices drifting away and eventually vanishing.

Haruka’s left alone. With Sousuke.

Sousuke’s snores are all but gone, so Haruka waits in near perfect silence, fingers etching tiny circles into the fabric of his black robe.

A short, muted moan comes from Sousuke, still asleep. He mutters an unintelligible word and follows it up with, “ Ai.

Haruka watches as Sousuke squirms, thick brows clouding over closed eyes.

“Nnn.” Chest rising and falling, Sousuke croaks, “ Rin.

Haruka holds his breath.

A choky inhale. Sousuke jerks awake. His gaze flails wildly around the little room until he lands on Haruka. Pressing a couple of heavy breaths out an open mouth, he readjusts and sits up, quickly looking away. In consideration, Haruka places his attention elsewhere.

They sit.

“Your friend,” Haruka says, ending a long silence.

Sousuke’s head pops up. “Hah?”

“The one you said is the prince.”

Sousuke’s eyes narrow. “What about him?”

“How do you know? That he’s the prince.”

“Because he said so,” Sousuke answers, like it’s trivial.

“And you believe him?”

“Yeah, I do.” Sousuke sighs and drapes an arm over his bent knee. His gaze extends to somewhere not in the room as he mumbles, almost to himself, “Never shuts the fuck up about it.”

Haruka nods and falls silent, accepting the answer.

Sousuke doesn’t let him stray too far. He raises an eyebrow. “You’re talkative, today.”

Appropriately, Haruka refuses to respond, provoking an exasperated huff.

After a minute, Sousuke’s eyes glance to Nagisa’s pallet and wander around the rest of the room. “Where is he?”

Shrug. “Around.”

The conversation ends there, and Sousuke does not fall back asleep, his cold eyes trained to the ground and filled with something Haruka can’t read.

Voices bubble up from beyond the room, and the tunnel crunches with footsteps. Nagisa reenters, alone.

“Oh, you’re awake, Sou!” he chirps, plopping down on his pallet.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Sleep well? You were completely knocked out for a while there!”

Sousuke’s focus flicks up to Haruka. “Fine,” he grumbles, swallowing and squarely facing Nagisa. “Did Ryuugazaki show up at all when I was asleep?”

Nagisa shakes his head. “Nope! I would have woken you. I’m sure he’ll be around soon!” He placatingly pats Sousuke’s shoulder, and Sousuke recoils.

A tight sensation inches across Haruka’s skin.

The rest of the night continues without incident. Nagisa eventually tires of badgering Sousuke and lays back on his pallet, while Sousuke gradually dozes off again, less violently this time. Haruka sits and avoids thinking, though he can tell that Nagisa does not sleep at all. Eventually, the night concludes as Nagisa rises and gives him his payment.

“Goodnight, Haru!” he says.

Haruka longs for the vibrant tone of Nagisa’s voice to feel genuine again.

It’s early morning by the time he returns to his parent’s mansion and crashes onto his welcoming bed after dropping off his mask and gold in his drawer. Rolling onto his back, he looks up at the ceiling for a little while, wishing he had a pond or river to drown his thoughts in. Nevertheless, sleep comes, and with it, visions. First, of Nagisa driving a stake through Fumiko’s chest with a smile, and second, of Makoto resting his head on Sousuke’s shoulder, their fingers interlaced. Sunlight, too bright and too warm, wakes Haruka in the morning, and he lies petrified, slowing his breath and letting the hot sweat on his skin cool.

He forces himself up, knowing he can’t do another day of pretending to be sick without his parents dragging in a physician to confirm he’s a liar with nothing physically wrong.

Out of obligation, he trades in his navy robe for that pretentious red and gold one his mother likes so much and heads downstairs to the dining room. Only his father is there when he arrives, hunched over a news scroll, a yet untouched plate of food, and a fresh, steaming cup of tea. Haruka sits across from his father, who barely lifts his eyes from the parchment to offer a greeting. Immediately, a servant brings Haruka tea and a plate, and in the quiet, Haruka begins to eat, occasionally checking his father’s increasingly troubled expression.

Halfway through his meal, Haruka sets down his chopsticks as his father tucks into the breakfast. Movement in the entranceway catches Haruka’s attention.

Makoto enters. He slows the tiniest amount as he meets Haruka’s eyes, but continues around the table to sit in the seat beside Haruka. Haruka busies himself with a sip of tea, relegating Makoto to his periphery. Voiceless, Makoto also does not look in Haruka’s direction, and once a servant brings him food, he too eats in silence.

Haruka is about three-quarters done with his food, and his father and Makoto about halfway done, when Haruka’s mother finally enters.

Haruka’s father looks up from his meal and swallows before speaking. “Did you see this?” he asks her, offering over the scroll.

Silently, she takes the scroll and unrolls it. As she reads, she slowly sinks into her chair, furrowing her brow. When she finishes, she lets out a small sigh. “Well,” she says, scanning over the words again for good measure, “explains why we haven’t seen Shigino.”

Haruka stops eating, staring down at his plate.

“It’s a shame,” his father says. “People may see him as the problem, but you know the Hazukis have had it out for their competition for ages. Just not so… publicly.”

His mother nods. “And really, it isn’t like taking out the one Hazuki will matter that much. He may be the most sadistic of them, but aren’t there four of them? Plus the parents controlling the kuebiko supply up north? People are just too ignorant to think about these things.”

Throat dry, Haruka opens his mouth. “What’s going on?” he asks, layering his voice thick with indifference.

His mother hands him the scroll across the table. Haruka slowly unfurls it, knot in his chest snapping tight.

Violence at an End? Feuding Kuebiko Dealers in Police Custody

Bits of the article jump out at him―

two well known dealers Hazuki Nagisa (23) and Shigino Kisumi (24) after months of escalating violence between the two and their respective allies growing public fear and frustration captured by police captain Ryuugazaki’s second son (22), ranked an officer public execution scheduled

Haruka’s eyes dart over the paper, the meanings of the words unable to solidify. He senses Makoto peering over his shoulder from a distance.

“―tomorrow,” his father says, his previous words just buzzing to Haruka’s ears. “Should we attend? Feels only proper to give respects.”

“Mm, yes,” his mother replies, drinking from her cup. “Haruka?”

Haruka lowers the scroll and tries to quell his quivering fingers. “What?”

“Would you and Makoto like to come to the execution with us tomorrow? It’s scheduled for noon, so you can’t lounge about for too long in the morning.” She gives him a humorless smile.

Haruka hands the scroll back to her. “No.”

“Well, that’s fine, you don’t have to. Oh, I was…”

His parent’s talk fills the room and Haruka doesn’t listen. His almost-finished meal glares at him, but his stomach swirls too much for food to settle well.

Makoto rests his chopsticks down beside his half-eaten food.

Once Haruka’s parents depart from breakfast, Haruka follows in suit without acknowledging or waiting for Makoto, retreating to the safety of his own room. He wastes the day away on his bed, skipping over lunch and distracting himself with scrolls and little bits of sleep. His parents are gone for lunch, but they return for dinner, making his presence at dinner mandatory. He does not let himself think about what Makoto has been doing all day.

Dinner is much of the same; idle talk between his parents, who occasionally wrangle Makoto or Haruka into conversation, but Makoto and Haruka don’t speak directly to each other. Again, Haruka doesn’t eat much, and Makoto too absentmindedly plays with his food.

Afterwards, Haruka’s parents force them to spend more time with them in one of the waiting rooms, where they have one of the servants perform some operatic pieces. Haruka sits on a couch beside Makoto while his parents sit in armchairs, rapt with the servant’s singing. All throughout, Makoto’s thigh, hugged by cloth and at the perfect culmination of closeness and distance, keeps pulling in Haruka’s attention.

Finally, Haruka’s parents release them from their clutches, though they themselves stay downstairs to request more from the servant. It’s not late, but it certainly is past sundown, so Haruka trails behind Makoto up the stairs to dim, fluctuating evening light.

As they reach the second floor, Makoto peels off, sending a half-glance over his shoulder. He pauses as he calls, “Goodnight, Haru.”

“Goodnight,” Haruka calls back, voice softer than he wants it.

Makoto disappears down the hallway and Haruka takes a couple of steps up toward the third floor.

He stops. Exhales.

Whipping around, he slips back down to the second floor and rushes down the hallway. He finds Makoto just opening his door, and hearing his approach, Makoto turns back.

Skittering to a stop a couple of feet away, Haruka breathes, “Makoto.”

Torchlight frames Makoto’s curious expression in soft orange.

Several heartbeats.

Haruka closes the space between them and kisses Makoto.

All thought runs white for several heightened seconds. Haruka crashes back down into reality, where Makoto’s face is too warm, too unearned underneath his hands. Makoto does not push him away, but his mouth is stiff and his hands remain to his sides.

This isn’t what Haruka wants.

He immediately jerks back, innards tangling even more. Makoto, his cheeks flushed, looks on him with wide eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Haruka blurts. He backtracks and shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

Blood roaring in his ears, he flees. Makoto calls his name, but he scampers up the flight of stairs to the third floor. Makoto’s quick footsteps trail behind him.

Wait!

Haruka rips open his bedroom door and goes to slam it behind him, but Makoto is too fast, edging inside with a shoulder.

Makoto closes the door behind himself. “Haru, what’s going on?”

Haruka’s hands curl into fists. “Nothing.”

“You’ve been sleeping late, you look exhausted all the time, and you’ve been avoiding me,” Makoto rattles off in a flurry. He blinks, collecting himself. “Something is up.”

“There’s nothing. Get out of my room.”

“Don’t say that nothing is wrong. And I am not leaving.”

Mutual stubbornness radiates outward, repelling.

Fine, ” Haruka snaps. “My parents aren’t going to give me my inheritance, and they never were.”

Makoto’s face drops. “…What?”

“The only way for me to get my inheritance is to get married. But even if I… did get married, the process would take too long.”

Makoto doesn’t reply, absorbing.

Haruka’s edge softens. “But…” He pads over to his dresser and checks back at Makoto. “Look.” He slides open the drawer and pulls away the fake lining, gold coins sloshing about at the true bottom.

Makoto follows and peers into the drawer, but instead of the relief Haruka hoped for, faint horror spreads over his face. “Haru, where did you get that?”

“Doesn’t matter. I have enough to―”

Doesn’t matter?!

“―help, so we can leave soon.” Haruka presses his lips together. “There’s just something I need to do, first.”

Makoto stares at the gold, brow pinched.  Slowly, he raises his gaze.

“Don’t worry about it,” insists Haruka.

With the slightest tilt of his head, Makoto does not relinquish Haruka from the look of concern. His adam’s apple flexes in the deep shadows of the unlit room. “Haru―”

Turning around to face the window, Haruka says, “I’m tired.”

A hint of an inhale, as if Makoto goes to continue speaking and stops. Slow footsteps away from Haruka. The door slides open and closed.

Looking out onto the backyard below and the little stable, Haruka stands rooted to the ground. Almost as if detached from the rest of him, his hand lifts, fingers brushing the tingling skin of his lips.

He wheels around and slams his drawer shut.

Evening turns into night, and Haruka bides his time, impatiently waiting for the sounds of his parents returning to their room. Once all has settled for another hour or so, he tosses away the red and gold suit for the black one and reopens the drawer to pick out his mask. Half expecting Makoto to be hiding somewhere in the mansion to catch him, Haruka creeps out with pulsating blood at his neck. But no one is there, and there is nothing to stop him, so he leaves and steps into sticky night air, slipping on his mask.

When he arrives at Nagisa’s room, Nagisa is sitting up on his pallet, babbling away with Sousuke, who sits to himself a couple of feet away. Sousuke doesn’t appear as reluctant to interact as the nights before, his expression a little less sullen and his shoulders a little less tightly held.

“Hiya, Haru!” Nagisa says, just as cheerfully as normal, but there is still a niggling strain in his voice.

Haruka sits down along the wall opposite the both of them.

Almost invisibly, Sousuke regains a morsel of tension at Haruka’s presence, chilled eyes sweeping over him before returning to Nagisa.

They continue to talk, or rather, Nagisa talks at Sousuke and Sousuke responds with the occasional grunt or word or sometimes even the rare full sentence. At some point later, Nagisa lets up on Sousuke for a minute, and the opportunity gapes wide.

“Nagisa,” Haruka says, lifting his head.

Nagisa turns to him with raised brows. “Hm?”

“I need to talk to you.” He is glad his mask shields his flicker of focus to Sousuke. “Privately.”

But even so, Sousuke is not fooled; his eyes sharpen.

Nagisa blinks. “Oh, okay! Sure, we can―”

“What is this about?” breaks in Sousuke.

“Nothing to do with you,” Haruka immediately returns.

“Then you shouldn’t have any problem saying it in front of me.”

Wired silence as they both watch one another, prolonged despite Haruka knowing his silence is a confirmation of what Sousuke is already thinking. Haruka mashes his teeth together.

To Nagisa, Haruka says, “I saw something in the news. Today.”

“Oh?”

Haruka’s eyes invisibly check Sousuke again. “It said that you and Shigino Kisumi have been captured by police, and that you both will be executed tomorrow at noon.”

He swallows. “Shigino isn’t in police custody either, is he.”

Silence.

“Nagisa…” Haruka shifts, awkwardly. “You’re not… You’re not going to…”

Nagisa’s eyes are wide and innocent, but his everything else begins to decay around them.

Color drains from Sousuke’s face. Slowly, his head rotates to Nagisa, and his voice is deathly quiet: “Are you using my friends to stand in for you at the execution?”

Nagisa’s eyelashes flutter as he blinks rapidly. “Sou, I―”

Sousuke lurches and seizes Nagisa by the neck, slamming him to the wall. “ Are you using my friends to stand in for you?!

Surging up, Haruka rips Sousuke away from Nagisa. Nagisa slumps down the wall with a gasp.

Get your hands off of me! ” Sousuke yanks his arm out of Haruka’s grasp and shoves him to the ground with his full weight, pinning him.

Haruka grits his teeth and wriggles against Sousuke’s superior strength and mass. Twisting Sousuke’s arm out from under, he reverses the position and rolls to pin Sousuke.

More barbaric grappling and kicking, and in the scuffle, Sousuke knocks off Haruka’s mask, while Haruka splits Sousuke’s lip with an elbow to the face.

Nagisa cries, “Stop!”

Sousuke grabs Haruka’s collar and heaves him up to smash him into the wall.

“I said stop!

Golden-orange light rises from the ground, and Sousuke springs back, dropping Haruka. A stream of lava marks a divisive line between the two of them, spreading toward Sousuke. It stops and hardens back into solid earth before it reaches him, but before either Haruka or Sousuke can think to move again, identical mounds of earth shoot up to cocoon them where they stand. Dirt up to his neck, Haruka squirms against his new prison. It does not yield.

Nagisa stands in front of them, panting just the same, his eyes alight with mania and his hands protectively held in front of him. With a couple of breaths, the mania wanes, and he straightens up.

Face bare and hair disheveled, Haruka clamps his mouth down on his rioting pulse, eyes falling on Sousuke.

Sousuke zeroes in on Haruka with a piercing look, his bottom lip bleeding. “Why are you defending him?!” he says with a jerk of his head toward Nagisa. “Are you that greedy for money? Is that what it is? Are you that desperate?” His face sours as he spits, “I would rather have no money at all.”

Haruka says nothing.

No one else speaks for a minute, all letting their tempers and breaths cool, before Nagisa sighs and wrings his hands.

“Look, I… I never wanted to have someone executed in my place. It was Rei’s idea.”

I don’t give a fuck, ” hisses Sousuke. “You’re still going along with it.”

“I know, but I―I’ve been trying to help you. I didn’t harm you or stop you, I let you stay here, and I had Haru bring you to Rei’s―”

“Yeah, because you thought I was going to kill you.”

“No.” Nagisa shakes his head. “It’s because I thought your dedication to your friends was really sweet.”

Sousuke expression darkens.

“Look, Sousuke…” Exhale. “I never once thought you were going to kill me or Haru. I think you’re good at acting, but I don’t think you would ever actually kill someone.”

A muscle twitches in Sousuke’s jaw. He growls through his teeth, “You don’t know me.”

With a sad smile, Nagisa tilts his head. “I’m giving you a compliment.”

Sousuke falters, and everything recedes back behind his exterior.

The cave is still for some time.

Nagisa’s smile wobbles. “I know it doesn’t mean anything from me, but… I’m sorry.”

After several moments, his voice hoarse, Sousuke whispers, “I want my friends back.”

A heavy weight lodges in Haruka’s stomach. He can’t bear to look at them any longer.

Chapter Text

Forgive the trickster and the tribe will be happy, but kill the trickster and the tribe will be ruined.

―Yoruba proverb


Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick tick tick tick tick tickticktickticktick―

Rin hasn’t been allowed out for recreation, and there is nothing but him, this cell, Ryuugazaki’s parting words, and his heart beating on through the night as sleep hides from him.

Only parcels of light sneak in from the high window on the wall and the cracks in the doorway, so his image of himself is obscured by shadow. If it weren’t for the tangible rustle of fabric and breath, he might not be here at all.

He sits (probably), stands (probably), walks (probably), breathes (probably), and thinks (likely).

Bizarrely, amidst the swirl of thoughts and memories, Rin’s mind latches on rehashing his short-lived, halfway romantic relationship with Haru from back when they were in school together, despite his usual attempts to dodge any thought of it. At the time, they were each other’s closest friends, young, and lonely, maybe. It seemed only inevitable that they would gravitate toward and cling to each other out of need for something the other could not return. It was weirdly lukewarm; whatever intensity they felt for each other felt dimmed in the quasi-relationship, while their friendship, at least for Rin (as Haru never voiced his thoughts on it), was much more vibrant and substantial. Even now, Rin doesn’t know what he wanted out of Haru, or what Haru wanted out of him. He isn’t sure whether his obsession and fascination with Haru as person was ever truly romantic.

The ending was lukewarm, too. Just a abrupt reversal back to their original friendship, and that was that. Maybe it was too tepid to feel like a real ending.

Maybe like now.

Late night, early morning, Rin lies down on his cot, eyes unseeing in the dark. Images flutter through, all unfinished, half-products. All he said. All he didn’t.

Guards pass, voices and footsteps echoing off into the distance.

At some point, slow footsteps draw up to his door and pause. Nothing. Rin thinks he imagined it.

His door creaks open, torchlight seeping in. Rin sits up and leans into his good elbow.

Ryuugazaki. He presses the door shut, hand holding a personal torch aloft, his expression unnervingly flat. A bandage on the bridge of his nose sets his spectacles a little crooked, just masking the bruising left by Rin’s hand. He looks like an unraveling tapestry.

A silent standoff.

The only thing Rin can think to say is, “That’s a cute look.”

Ryuugazaki pulls in a sharp breath but lets nothing out.

A minute.

Rin grits his teeth and refuses to sit up fully. “ You’re the one who came here .”

Ryuugazaki sighs, looks away, and chews on the inside of his lip. Finally, he says, “I am here to let you know that your execution is tomorrow at noon.”

Tick, tick.

“Well?” Ryuugazaki raises his eyebrows.

“Well what?

“Are you not going to ask why?”

Bitterness twists Rin’s mouth. “Why would I ask? What, are you dying to tell me?”

Behind his spectacles, Ryuugazaki’s eyes glint with tempestuous firelight. Hesitating at first, he opens his mouth and lets words begin to flow out.

When he finishes explaining, a numbing chill creeps down Rin’s throat to settle in his gut.

“So.” Ryuugazaki swallows, puffs out his chest. “There you have it.”

You… ” Rin’s voice comes out as a rasp. He sits up, swinging his legs down to meet the floor, and Ryuugazaki backs away.

“Look,” Ryuugazaki says quickly, holding the torch in front of himself as if to ward Rin off. “As much as I dislike you, it’s not personal.”

Rin’s mouth hangs open, shallow breaths barely making it in. “I don’t give a shit about that. You would drag me and Ai into some gang war that you haven’t fixed―”

“What am I supposed to do?! I can’t kill Hazuki Nagisa or Shigino Kisumi, but I can’t let them continue to live in the eyes of the public. My hands are tied.”

“I don’t know, but it’s not my problem―”

“It is!” Ryuugazaki’s hand clenches into a shaky fist by his hip, knuckles going white. “It is your problem! Maybe if the Fire Nation and the Northern Water Tribe stopped stealing all of the Earth Kingdom’s land and workers, we wouldn’t have to rely on the drug trade for our primary source of revenue!”

Rin sits back. Processes. Tries to restrain the urge to snap.

They stare at each other, electricity crackling over who will speak again.

Running his tongue over teeth, Rin aims his gaze to the floor. “Still,” he says, dismissively. “You’d kill innocent people just protect some illusion of peace?”

Ryuugazaki’s voice comes out steely. “I would.”

The small flames crackle to themselves, lapping at the wood of the torch, still reaching and moving independent to Rin, and they mock him and his inability to harness them.

“Well?” Rin prods. “What exactly was the point of you coming here? I’m still dying tomorrow, right? Just having fun mocking me?”

Any lingering assuredness drips away. “No, I…” Ryuugazaki’s eyes focus far away. “I don’t know.” His brow pinches. “Nevermind.”

He leaves, and the flames wave a taunting goodbye to Rin before their light no longer reaches his skin and clothes.

Darkness, again. Rin’s only here in the boiling of his blood.

In a long time, in no time, morning arrives, heralding desaturated light in from the window to singe Rin’s sleepless eyes. His feet ache from pacing.

Voices outside his door. The door opens. Several guards, and with them his dosage against bending and some other jar of a substance. He accepts the dose, as if it matters much now. One guard uncovers the jar lid, a pale pinkish paste within, and orders Rin to still for a little longer as they carefully smooth the pink paste into his hair.

It’s nice, almost, to have hands in his hair. Rin closes his eyes, where he can imagine the hands belong to someone else.

“It’s a little dark still, isn’t it?” asks the voice of one guard to Rin’s side. “Shigino’s hair is pretty light.”

“I’m not done yet,” snarks the guard behind Rin, “but if you’re such the expert, why don’t you do it?”

The other guard goes silent, and Rin can return to his reverie.

Too soon, the guards deem him accurate enough and tell him to follow them. They leave the cell and head down the corridor to descend a floor, entering what appears to be the basement. When they arrive at a small holding cell, they slow.

“Ai!” Rin calls, ignoring his place.

Sat inside the cell, Ai looks up. “Rin!” He hops to his feet, face contorted with some mixture of emotions.

The guards shove Rin inside alongside Ai. Closer, Rin sees a sunny yellow tint smeared to Ai’s hair in the dim firelight.

Ai’s nose scrunches as his eyes rise to Rin’s hair. “What’s going on?”

The numbness burrows deep in Rin’s stomach. Haltingly, he asks, “Has no one told you anything?”

Ai shakes his head. Rin exhales and procrastinates, formulating his words.

“The two kuebiko dealers Shigino Kisumi and Hazuki Nagisa are supposed to be executed…” Rin’s tone shakes. “You and I… We’re being executed in their place.”

Ai studies the floor, frozen still.

Tick, tick, tick.

They sit and wait in silence. Rin has a violent urge to talk, to let all of his thoughts spill out, yet there’s too much to say and not enough time. Ai is deep within himself.

Some time passes.

“Let’s go,” says a new guard, appearing with three other guards from the hallway.

With a sharp inhale, Ai barrels into Rin, arms tight around his torso. Eyes trained to the floor, Rin pats the back of Ai’s head, absorbing as much he can until the the guards rip them apart and tie their hands away behind their backs.

Ai’s expression has no color.

Once they’re secured, the guards corral them out of the cell, and they all take to a winding, dark hallway with a shallow ceiling. Scuffles and taps of footsteps in competition with Rin’s pulse. As they push on in the hallway, a distant roar of hundreds, maybe thousands of voices slowly grow louder and more imminent. When the voices sound upon them, they reach a door. They halt.

A voice behind calls, “Wait!”

Everyone whips around to meet a guard jogging to catch up. She stops, catching her breath, and gestures for one of the other guards. Perplexed, the other guard peels away from Rin and Ai to join her, and she murmurs furtive things into his ear, out of range for Rin to hear. Both guards’ eyes keep flickering to Rin and Ai, and Rin knows they’re the topic of conversation.

The guards’ discussion finishes and the one guard returns to their side. Making eye contact with both Rin and Ai, he says, “Play along.”

Rin frowns. “Play along? What do you―”

The guard ignores him and heads forward, motioning for the other guards to do the same. He opens the door. Voices intrude in.

Shoved outside, Rin squints in the high noon sun, attention jumping all over the place. He stands on a sort of platform, stage. A mammoth crowd watches him from below, their yells embedding in his skin with their venom and implied violence. They’re kept at a distance, partially, Rin guesses, to keep the illusion, and partially because the crowd is a rabid, writhing beast, shouting for Shigino Kisumi and Hazuki Nagisa’s suffering and death.

Rin and Ai are brought to center stage and held in place by circulation-cutting grips on their arms, the sun beating down on their heads and shoulders. One of the guards steps forward, while the others remain just in Rin’s periphery.

The guard addresses the crowd below: “Today is the execution of―”

The frenzied noise grows, burying bits of the guard’s voice.

“―gisa, for their―kuebiko and―utiple counts of murder―public disturba―”

Rin turns his head, looking at Ai. Ai offers a wobbly smile as tears poke out, and Rin wishes his hands weren’t tied so he could smoothe away the garish yellow from Ai’s bangs.

He can’t quite manage a smile back.

The guard finishes her statement and retreats back; another takes her place, a sharp silver knife reflecting snippets of the sun in his hand.

Behind Rin, the guards holding him tighten their grips as if anticipating a fantastic escape. The guard with the knife steps to his side as shouting from below infects all thought.

Knife cold to his throat. Frantic pulse making up for lost time.

There’s a splatter of liquid down Rin’s neck and chest and a pinch like a needle, but the pinch doesn’t come from the knife at his throat. Instead, it pricks the back of his neck. Almost instantly, Rin goes limp in the guard’s arms and he slides down to his knees.

To cheering, the guards lower him to lie completely horizontal and leave him there.

Rin’s pulse continues without slowing or stuttering. His chest still rises and falls. The sun burns hot on his face. His knees hurt from landing on them.

Still alive.

Immobile, he waits, frantically thinking and listening, unsure whether he’s just in shock and bleeding out, as the crowd quiets a little only to cheer again as there’s a squirt of liquid and a shuffle of feet where he knows Ai is.

The crowd beyond turns jubilant, chanting and clapping while the stage itself goes quiet.

Rin lies there.

Gradually, the voice die down and disperse, hundreds of footsteps thudding and trailing off into other directions, and the sunlight on Rin’s eyelids changes intensity with time. The hard wood under his body digs into his bones. But for the movement and hushed voices of guards around them, the stadium turns silent.

When sunlight hits Rin at a diagonal angle, arms slip under Rin’s neck and legs and scoop him up. His head lolls with their gait as a door creaks open and they fall into shadow. Now inside, Rin can pick out other footsteps along with his guide’s echoing off close knit walls. They walk for some time, going down stairs and then flat land again. Eventually, the person carrying Rin stops and Rin is laid flat on the ground again.

With a minute of scuffles and indecipherable discussion, everything stills.

Every inhale of air Rin takes is somewhat dank and earthy, and he listens intently. A small crackle of distant flame is all that reaches his ears for a while, but after some time, breaths and rustles crop up beside him.

A hushed voice: “Rin?”

Cold fingers test the pulse at his throat. Rin’s eyelids twitch, but the rest of him doesn’t follow the will of his mind. The fingers retract. A sigh.

Gradually, feeling and movement return to Rin’s limbs, his fingers twitching. With a sudden jerk, he opens his eyes and lurches up to sitting. He winces with the ache in his bones.

Ai sits next to him, in the middle of flexing back his wrists to stretch. His face lights up. “Rin!”

Ignoring the twinge of his injured arm, Rin crushes him in a hug. Exhaling deeply, Ai sinks into it.

Rin’s heart ticks forward.

Smiling, Rin pulls back and ruffles Ai’s hair despite the stickiness from that terrible yellow color. “Hey.”

It all pours free as Ai flashes Rin a wide smile.

Hand gently patting Ai’s shoulder, Rin scans around them. “Where the hell are we?”

Ai shrugs.

They’re clearly underground, with domed dirt walls and ceiling closing them in. Two guards protect a single exit, a lit torch hanging on the wall beside them. Along the other wall is a tiny table with three bowls, three cups, and three piles of folded clothing.

Curious, Rin gingerly picks himself up from the ground, teetering on weak limbs. The three bowls are filled with rice gruel, cold by now it appears. The three cups are filled of water. Of the folded piles, the first is something made of salmon and brown colors. The second is Ai’s rugged blue and brown hides. The third is Rin’s old red-trimmed black suit.

Atop the suit sits the dog pelt jacket.

Rin plucks up the jacket with numb fingers and holds it in front of him, thumb stroking along the flow of the gray and white fur. Throat tightening, he hugs it to his chest.

He quickly lets the jacket drop as Ai comes in line with him, almost embarrassed. Ai doesn’t seem to notice, picking up his own clothes with a smile.

“Ah, I missed these!” he says.

Rin notices a dark rust stain along Ai’s neck and the front his robes, yet there is no incision mark on Ai’s throat. He glances down at himself and finds the same.

“And food too.” Ai selects a bowl. His head tilts. “Three?”

With a shrug, Rin reaches and picks up a bowl for himself.

Bowl in one hand and clothes in the other, Ai looks up at Rin. “Does this mean we get to leave?”

“Don’t know.”

Unsure of when he last ate, Rin sits and inhales the rice gruel, Ai joining him in comfortable, if charged, silence. When they both finish, Ai asks the guards at the door whether they can change back into their old clothes, and they take the non-response as a ‘do whatever you want.’ They discover a smaller room lit by a small candle lamp at the back of the little cave, where a large jug of water rests.

Feeling much more himself with the dirtied gray robe gone and the familiar black and red back, Rin wraps the dog pelt jacket around his shoulders. He leans his cheek into the fur with a sigh.

Sense of time gone with no outside light, Rin sits down along the wall, finally sleepy. Ai scoots down next to him, and within minutes, his head falls to Rin’s shoulder and he snores. Rin scooches down a little for a more comfortable head position. His eyes droop shut.

Rin doesn’t know if he sleeps or not, but the next thing he does know are footsteps. He jerks to wakefulness, jostling a grumbling Ai, and focuses on the tunnel in front of them.

The two guards at the door move aside to allow in another person.

“Eh?” Ai chirps, rubbing his eye. “Hayato?”

Shigino Hayato stops short, eyes darting between them. “Huh? What are you two doing here?”

“What are you doing here?”

“I was just told that I’m being released,” Hayato says. His brow furrows. “But I have to wait in here?” Checking around the space, he notices the table with the food and clothes, and ducks over to pick up what must be his old clothes.

Ai glances to Rin, a sentence in a silent conversation.

Hayato plops down opposite them with the third bowl of gruel, diving in. He sidesteps how both of them ignored his first question, and he and Ai chat aimlessly while Rin sits silent.

A heavy lull hangs down on them as conversation drizzles out. Hayato finishes his gruel and sets his empty bowl beside him. Ai plays with the fabric of his clothes. Rin studies the dirt floor, eyes becoming more unfocused until they shut entirely.

He does definitively drift off this time, slipping into shallow dreams. His mother rummages around his old room at the palace and complains how messy it is, despite none of his belongings being anywhere in sight. Gou enters laden with a stack of clothing and dumps them all to the ground. Porcelain shatters as Ai drops pieces of china onto the stone floor. Haru hauls in a barrel and tips it over, dead fish sloshing onto the floor amongst the rumpled clothes and broken china. Watching with arms crossed, Rin’s mother proclaims, “Better.”

Ai’s voice, loud and right beside Rin, infiltrates into the dream.

Rin wakes. Groggy, he rubs his eyes, ready to nag Ai for waking him, but squinting into the room, he spots Ai rushing toward someone and tackling them.

Rin jolts up to standing, wide awake.

It’s Sousuke, squeezing Ai back, his face tucked into Ai’s shoulder with eyes scrunched shut.

After a few moments, the two pull apart and exchange chatter Rin can’t process.

Sousuke’s attention lowers to Rin. Rin is suddenly intimately conscious of his own messy, stained pink hair, the bruises on his skin, and the injuries he’s sustained. He catalogues the new additions to Sousuke’s appearance: the scrape on the side of his face, the smudging of dirt, the bloody split in his bottom lip.

There’s an awkward pause as neither knows quite what to do.

Sousuke inhales and extends his hand out, and immediately, instinctively, Rin clasps it with his good hand.

The corners of Sousuke’s eyes crinkle. “Glad to see you’re not dead.”

Rin smiles crookedly, chest achingly tight, and in a low voice, he manages, “Me too.”

He doesn’t know whether he means I’m also glad I’m not dead or I’m glad you’re alive more.

It is now, as they quickly drop hands, that Rin notices Sousuke is not alone. To his side is a small young man in a pinkish tunic with wavy blond hair and large magenta eyes, cutely handsome in a way that instantly makes Rin wary, and lurking back behind, somewhat detached from the rest of the group, is someone dressed in all black, face obscured by a green dragon mask.

The blond young man scours Ai and Rin’s faces with rabid interest. Leaning in, he chirps, “It’s so good to finally meet Sou’s friends!” before anyone else can get anything else in.

Rin raises his eyebrows at Sousuke. “‘Sou?’”

Weariness spreads over Sousuke’s face. “Don’t.”

Rin laughs, feeling the tension begin to trickle away, and Sousuke cracks a little, the corner of his mouth curling up despite his best effort to maintain his surliness.

The young man’s eyes flip between Rin and Sousuke before settling on Rin. “You must be Rin,” he lilts.

“Must be?”

“And you’re Ai!”

“U-Um, hi?” Ai says, lifting his hand in a limp greeting.

Excitedly, the young man peers up at Sousuke. “You described them so well!”

“Ah, it’s not…” Sousuke mutters, looking away and scratching the back of his neck.

Rin directs to the young man, “And who are you?”

“I’m Nagisa!”

“Wait― Hazuki Nagisa?”

“Oh, so you know me!”

“Of you,” Rin corrects, sharing a fleeting look with Ai.

He’s not sure he could have anticipated what one half of his and Ai’s counterparts would be like, but his assumptions in his image of a skilled earthbender, kuebiko dealer, and killer don’t exactly align with the person before him.

Rin eyes Nagisa carefully. “Anyway.” Clears his throat. “What the hell is going on? No one’s told us anything.”

“Ah, yeah! Rei came and―”

Ai frowns. “Rei?”

“Ryuugazaki,” translates Sousuke.

“Rei came by me last night, or was it early this morning? Pretty late, right?” Nagisa twists and checks with the masked person, who after a pause, nods. “He said he changed his mind about using you two in place of me and Kisumi and that he’d fake the executions and release you.”

“Huh,” Rin breathes. His minds churns as he mulls it over, and for a half-second his gaze switches from Nagisa to Sousuke’s reticent expression. “Where is Ryuugazaki, anyway?”

“Don’t know. He told us to wait here for him, so I guess he’ll show up at some point.”

Sousuke narrows his eyes at Rin. “Do you have anything to do with his broken nose?”

“Maybe.”

“I had a feeling.”

After a moment of thought, Rin cocks his head. “Wait a second, what are you doing with him? ” he shoots back at Sousuke, jerking his head to Nagisa.

“I used the money we got from the pawn shop to get people to tell me about Ryuugazaki,” Sousuke explains. “They all pointed me to him.”

“Yes, he’s been looking for you two this whole time, ” coos Nagisa, grabbing Sousuke’s arm.

Sousuke rips himself free, grumbling, “Shut up.” He avoids everyone’s eyes.

Eventually, Sousuke asks how they’ve been this whole time, and Ai and Rin fill him in on their time in the prison. Ai makes sure to introduce Hayato, who continues to sit on the ground by himself. The line of Hayato’s gaze points directly at Nagisa.

Rin says nothing about his father, and Ai does not volunteer anything.

“Oh, hey,” Ai says suddenly, turning to Rin. “Do you know how long it’s been since we had that stuff to keep our bending away? It might be wearing off by now.”

Rin lifts his hand and concentrates. A weak flame sputters out from his palm. He exhales. “It’s been a while.”

Focusing on his own halfway full cup of water, Ai lifts his hand, and a mass of water rises. He drops it back into the cup. “I could fix your arm with the jar of water from the other room,” he says.

“Are you sure? It’s not too soon for you?”

Ai shakes his head. “I think mine wore off faster than yours.”

“Then, yeah.” Rin nods with a smile.

The two of them split off into the other room, Sousuke trailing behind while Nagisa, Hayato, and the masked person remain in the main room.

“What happened to your arm?” Sousuke asks as Rin sits down beside the jug of water.

With Ai kneeling down in front of him, Rin’s vision is blocked, so he blindly addresses Sousuke. “Broke it when Ryuugazaki captured us.”

At Ai’s command, Rin takes off the dog pelt jacket and shoulders out of the one side of his tunic, exposing his bare shoulder and arm. The damage around the break is worse than he remembers, blotchy purple and yellow, oozy, swollen. Sousuke remains standing, stock still and unflinchingly staring at the injury.

Gently cradling Rin’s arm, Ai pokes around, gauging the severity. Rin winces as Ai presses a tender spot.

“Sorry,” Ai says, touch softening. When done, he looks up to Rin’s face. “This will probably hurt more than your hand did,” he warns.

“Great.”

Ai partially lowers his arm into the open jug, the open skin stinging. Shutting his eyes, Ai moves his hand back and forth, the water glistening and glowing as it passes through Rin’s arm.

A wrenching burn extends to Rin’s shoulder and the pit of his stomach, and he mashes his teeth together and sucks in a breath, trying not to squirm or whimper. His mind is everywhere at once, but somewhere through the fog, he is acutely aware of how Sousuke’s jaw tightens with Rin’s every inadvertent spasm and intake of breath.

Gradually, the worst of it cools to a dull throbbing, and Ai’s movement tapers off, allowing Rin to take a full breath and unclench his fists. Ai carefully lifts Rin’s arm from the water and lies it down, bending away the residual droplets. Appearance-wise, it looks much better, the swelling down and the color more normal, but there is a scar and an ache.

“It’ll hurt for a while, and since you had the injury for a while before it got healed, I don’t think the scarring is going to go away,” Ai says, sitting back.

Rin stares at the reddish discoloration and sighs.

Standing up, Ai advises, “You should rest for a little bit, okay?”

Rin opens his mouth to say he doesn’t want to be left alone, but Ai is already shooing Sousuke back out into the main room, leaving Rin to sit by himself in the little cave. Accepting his fate, Rin shuts his mouth and settles down, the back of his neck digging into the earthen wall. For a few minutes, he absently looks off into the cave, but eventually succumbs, shutting his eyes.

He doesn’t sleep, kept alert by the knowledge of everyone’s presence just beyond the walls, and absently listens to the faint murmurs of Ai and Sousuke’s voices. None of their words make it to him, but he can imagine Ai is telling Sousuke something about him. He blots them out.

Fifteen minutes, twenty minutes. The room is barely there, and Rin himself is barely there.

A footfall, and Rin opens his eyes.

The green dragon mask stares at him from the doorway.

Rin jumps. “ Fuck. ” Rubbing his forehead, he yanks himself out of his slouched position with an explosive exhale. “Jeez, ever heard of knocking?”

No response. The person stands there, unmoving, the grin of their mask leering at Rin.

Rin’s hand drops to his lap. “Can I… help you with something?”

Again, no response, but the person awkwardly shifts their weight.

Frowning, Rin says, “Look, I need to rest, so unless you have―”

The person reaches up and lifts the dragon mask. Sleek black hair. Clear blue eyes. Neutral expression.

Rin’s mouth drops open. “ Haru?

A long stretch of stunned silence.

The first words out of Haru’s mouth are, “Your hair looks weird.”

Chapter Text

That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet is nevertheless at liberty, and from the moment that he is thrown into this world he is responsible for everything he does.
―Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism


“Oh, fuck you―you―you fucking―” Scoffs fall from Rin’s mouth as he gapes, evidently undecided as far as what word appropriately captures the magnitude of Haruka’s transgressions. “Prick! That’s the first thing you have to say to me?! What the hell―have you been here the whole time and just didn’t say anything?!”

Haruka waits.

Bubbling over, Rin shakes his head. “What in the absolute hell are you doing here?”

Haruka lifts a shoulder. “It’s a long story.”

“Fuck, I sure bet it is.”

“Well, what are you doing here?”

Rin rolls his eyes. “Ha ha. Yeah, it’s a long story.”

There’s a silence as Rin’s breaths lose their agitation, the shock wearing off and the reality setting in.

Haruka studies Rin. It is Rin, for sure, but it isn’t a Rin he feels he knows. Rin has always been the only person who Haruka considers more finicky and particular than himself, especially as far physical appearance. Even though Rin generally aims for a casually messy look, every aspect of his appearance, from his clothes to his hair, is always precise and calculated. But there is nothing intentional in the dishevelment of the Rin sitting before Haruka now. That sickening pink color reminiscent of Shigino’s clumps to Rin’s hair, which hangs in lanky locks around his face. Dark circles rest under his eyes. His tunic is only half on, his bare left arm and shoulder visible, displaying a muted scar on the back of his left hand and a fresher red scar above his elbow. He’s definitely thinner than Haruka’s last image of him, his cheekbones sharp angles and his collarbones sitting in shadow.

Below the surface, Haruka senses an uncertainty. Rin is always certain.

Rin’s eyes scan over Haruka, sizing him up. “So, uh… Hey? What’s… what’s up?”

Haruka raises his eyebrows.

“Okay, okay, shut up,” Rin sighs, cringing and rubbing his temples. “I haven’t been prepared for anything recently, and I super wasn’t prepared for this―”

“I can’t tell you why I’m here,” Haruka blurts, “yet.”

Now cooled down, Rin accepts Haruka’s words with a mere frown. “Okay,” he says, slowly.

Quickly, Haruka assures, “I’ll tell you later. After you’ve rested.

“Okay,” Rin repeats, still appraising Haruka with his eyes. He does not press further.

Awkwardness clouds the room with too much ground to cover and Haruka’s fingers draw mindless patterns on the mask he clutches.

Footsteps interrupt the quiet.

Sousuke stops short in the doorway. His eyes narrow, switching between Haruka and Rin. “What’s going on?” To Rin, he asks, “Is there something wrong?”

Haruka grinds his molars.

“Relax, Sousuke.” Pulling on the other half of his tunic, Rin picks himself up and stands. “This is… ah.” He comes to Haruka’s side, and Sousuke’s expression twitches with some dark cousin of confusion. “Haru is my best friend from back home.”

Sousuke stares. “ Him?

“Yes, him, ” Rin says, leaning an elbow on Haruka’s shoulder.

A pause. Some silent exchange between Rin and Sousuke. Haruka feels like he’s being weighed against something on a set of scales.

Sousuke deflates, only a little, focusing entirely on Rin as he says, “I thought you said he was still in the Fire Nation.”

“He was. We have a lot to talk about.”

Feeling beams of Sousuke’s gaze finally on him, Haruka looks away.

Rin lifts his arm from Haruka’s shoulder and shoves him, sending him a couple of steps away to regain balance.

“Hey,” Haruka complains.

With a smile, Rin steps into him and crushes him with a hug. “You thought you could avoid it?” he chuckles, squeezing tighter. “Absolutely not.”

“Oi―” Haruka squeaks, futilely. His arms hover by his sides, not quite sure what to do.

Rin doesn’t move for a moment. Haruka can feel him inhale, exhale. When he peels away, he shoves Haruka again, lighter this time, smiling fondly. The fondness vanishes, however, as he catches a thought and looks to Sousuke. “Ryuugazaki show up yet?”

Sousuke shakes his head.

“Jeez.” Rin sighs and rubs the back of his neck. “Hm. Guess I’ll go sit out there, now. I want to glare at him the second he comes in.”

Tendrils of worry pinch Sousuke’s brows. “Did you rest enough?”

With a rueful smile, Rin says, “As much as I’m going to right now.”

He walks past Sousuke, who immediately turns and follows, leaving Haruka by himself. His hands still hold his mask.

Rin’s voice: “Oi, Haru! Don’t skulk!”

Haruka places his mask into the pocket of his jacket and sets off into the main room.

Along the wall sit Nagisa, the kid Ai, and that other vaguely familiar kid with peach hair and a white scar on his mouth. Rin stands, pacing lightly, while Sousuke leans against the opposite wall, arms folded.

Seeing Haruka without his mask, Nagisa tilts his head in question.

An immense sense of debt hangs on Haruka. “I…” His eyes dart to Rin. “Know him.”

“Eh?!” Nagisa squeals, shifting his attention to Rin. “You’re the Fire Prince, right?!”

Rin stops pacing. In a distractedness that unnerves Haruka, he mutters, “Yeah…”

“Wait a minute,” Nagisa says, head flipping between Haruka and Rin, “then is he the friend you told me so much about, Haru?”

Rin’s brows shoot up. “Told you so much about?”

Haruka fixes on a spot on the floor. “I didn’t…”

“The one who you tricked into breaking into your house? The one who got in trouble for the breast character?”

“Oh, come on. Really, Haru?” Rin’s lips press into a flat line. “Even when I’m not around, you’re still being a jackass to me?”

“Wait, I want to hear these,” pipes up Sousuke.

“Oh, fuck off!”

Nagisa smiles brightly. “I’d be happy to hear them again,” he says, as Rin groans.

Haruka gives Rin a faint smirk and obliges. Rin covers his face as both Nagisa and Sousuke audibly laugh at him being tricked into sneaking into Haruka’s family’s home and him getting in trouble with their teacher for mentioning the character that looks like breasts. Even Ai and the other kid crack a couple of smiles.

“I hate every single one of you,” Rin gripes through his hands when Haruka finishes, voice muffled. He drops his hands. “But especially you, Haru.”

Sousuke teases, “I almost like him more now.”

Rin whacks him in the shoulder. “Listen, the second I’m healthy enough to fight again, I’m going to kick both of your―”

The guards at the doorway move aside and Shigino Kisumi enters the room.

He halts, gaze bouncing around as he processes all attention on him. The room’s temperature drops as he makes eye contact with Nagisa.

“Kisumi!” The one kid Haruka doesn’t know the name of jumps up and tackles Shigino. His familiarity to Haruka clicks in place, a dim morsel of his brain recalling Shigino blathering about a younger brother; information still tucked away in Haruka’s head despite valiant efforts to immediately forget everything Shigino says to him.

“Hayato!” Shigino squeezes back.

Pulling apart, the two of them chat with each other while the rest watch in silence. Shigino smoothes down his brother’s hair and receives a hand batting him away.

“Aw,” coos Nagisa, resting his chin in his hand. With a wide smile, he adds after some thought, “What, you’re not going to say hi to the rest of us?”

Shigino looks up from his younger brother and flashes blazing white teeth. “Of course I am. Good to see you as always, Nagisa.” His eyes flick up, and fully processing Haruka, he cocks his head. “Eh?! Master Haruka?

“Master Haruka?” Nagisa repeats.

Heaving a beleaguered sigh, Haruka mutters through a locked jaw, “Shigino.”

“This is a pleasant surprise!” Shigino steps into him and leans an elbow on Haruka’s shoulder, despite Haruka inching a step away. “What on earth are you doing here?”

Haruka worms free and takes refuge by Rin. “Long story.”

“No worries, no worries,” Shigino says with a wink. “I won’t breathe a word to your parents, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“I’m not worried.”

Okay…

Nagisa repeats, “Master Haruka?”

“Oh, you don’t know?” Shigino faces Nagisa. “This is Nanase Haruka! His parents are very… loyal customers of mine.”

Recognition gleams bright in Nagisa’s eyes as they fall to Haruka. “ The Nanases?”

Rin grips Haruka’s shoulder as if to ground him.

“The very same,” Shigino answers for him.

Nagisa surveys Haruka for several moments, mouth parted a little. “No wonder you’re friends with the Fire Prince, then,” is all he says.

Haruka looks down.

Shigino eventually loses interest in him and settles back next to his brother, finished with interacting with them. The banter falls away and instead tenuous silence plagues everyone. Nagisa remains awake, fiddling with the fabric of his tunic, while Sousuke dozes off. Rin continues to pace, radiating chaotic energy, while the kid Ai sits tight and taps his finger on his knee. Haruka tires of standing and rests with his back to the wall, drilling holes into the dirt beneath him with his eyes.

Finally, footsteps.

Ryuugazaki enters, utterly frazzled, his hair messier than normal and the bandage and bruising still at the bridge of his nose.

Rin makes a beeline for him, stopping to glower at an uncomfortably close distance. “What the hell is going on?”

At the same time, Nagisa and Shigino pop up and crowd him.

“Rei!”

“Ryuugazaki!”

Shutting his eyes and pressing his fingers to his forehead, Ryuugazaki takes a step back. “Please, one at a time,” he begs in a low voice. “It has been a long night, and it’s almost daybreak.”

Paranoia whispers up Haruka’s back. “It’s almost morning?”

Somehow, Ryuugazaki hears this over Rin, Nagisa, and Shigino squabbling over him and quickly says, “Yes, yes, it’s about dawn now.”

Mind working it out, Haruka looks down. “Nagisa.”

“Hm?” Nagisa turns and blinks at him, eyes wide. “What, Haru?”

“I have to go.”

“…Oh! Okay!”

“I’ll be back soon, I just…”

Nagisa waves a hand and smiles. “No worries! I’ll just pay you double when you return.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Rin squints at Haruka. “Are you staying with your parents?”

Haruka dodges the question, feeling Nagisa and Shigino’s interest, and leaves, heading into the tunnel alone.

Out from underneath the ground of the Shuzo Prison, back to flat earth and sky overhead. Lavender and rose streak across the sky, harbingers of the incoming sun. Haruka speedwalks through the streets, barely passing more than the occasional person, and reaches his parents’ mansion just as the sun begins to peek up.

Still, no one is awake yet. He slips up to his room undisturbed and shuts the door behind himself. The bed lies there, linens rumpled from where he left it the night before. It looks so comfortable. However, despite the heavy tiredness hanging over him, he does not crawl in, and instead stands there, absorbing the room as it gradually lightens.

His mask, still in the pocket of his robe, presses against his chest.

Haruka rips it out and tosses it to the floor. He shoots a burst of flame, which latches onto the mask and licks its way around, singing the fabric. Haruka watches the mask burn until it is nothing more than a smoking pile of soot, knowing but not caring how there’s bound to be a mark on the clean stone floor below.

Stepping over the hot pile of ash, Haruka rushes to his dresser and yanks open drawers. He pulls out his old brown satchel and stuffs it with his accumulated gold, then pulls off the black robes from himself to trade them with that ratty navy blue one. He rips out a map and stuffs it in as well. Dressed, bag strap indenting into his shoulder, he leaves the room as is without another thought.

Taking the stairs, Haruka slows at the second floor landing, ears pricked for movement. He pads down the one hallway. The door of the end guest room is shut in his face.

Inhale.

He places a hand flat to the door, as if testing out the temperature.

Slowly, he pries it open, blinking away lingering phantoms of torchlight from his vision. The room is otherwise dark but for the hint of early morning through the curtains. He creeps to the bed, where Makoto is curled in a swath of sheets, breaths slow in sleep. Standing over the bed in indecision, Haruka watches. His hands tremble.

With a puff of an exhale, Haruka touches Makoto’s shoulder. “Makoto,” he whispers, shaking lightly.

Makoto’s brow furrows. “Mm?” He rolls onto his back and squints. Eyes blinking wider, he wipes his expression clean. “…Haru?”

Haruka pulls his hand back. “We need to leave.”

The furrow returns. “Now?”

“Yes.”

Easy wind whistles outside the window, and Haruka half expects Makoto to say no.

No smile, but no frown either. “Okay.”

Haruka moves aside, allowing Makoto to gather himself and his belongings together in silence. Luckily, Makoto does not have much he brought from home, so it’s only a few minutes before he faces Haruka and awaits direction.

Avoiding his eyes, Haruka leads him downstairs, not quite yet rid of the jumbled energy in his chest.

Footsteps echo across the atrium. “Ah, Master Haruka!” Byakko smiles, hands clutching several scrolls. “And Makoto.”

Haruka halts, Makoto stopping behind him.

Noticing the bag on his shoulder, Byakko purses his lips. “Going somewhere?”

Haruka holds his ground. “Yes,” he says.

“I see. And where are you―”

“Wait.” Leaving Byakko hanging, Haruka whips around to the vestibule. He roots through the drawers until he finds a roll of blank parchment, a brush, and some black ink, and he scrawls out a single sentence.

After blowing on the parchment to dry the ink, Haruka rolls it back up and offers it to Byakko, who stands with a dumbfounded expression. “Give this to my parents,” he instructs.

“Master Haruka―”

Haruka turns away.

As fast as they can, Haruka and Makoto duck through the rest of the mansion and out the servant door, Byakko’s calls on their heels. Haruka splits toward the stable. He slips inside and heads for Kuroime, gathering all that she needs and putting on her saddle and reins. Without climbing atop, he leads her and Makoto back outside, beyond the mansion to an alley path Haruka hopes they won’t be followed down. Around them, life is beginning to pick up in the growing sunshine.

They all walk in incongruous rhythms, following Haruka’s back to the Shuzo Prison. Indistinct voices of traders, merchants, and passersby burble from all around, filling the silence and allowing the tornado of change to provide enough of a distraction for a little bit. But eventually, Haruka’s skin prickles Makoto’s attention.

“What did you write?”

Haruka maintains his eyeline forward, fingers turning white around Kuroime’s rope as he answers, “‘I’m not getting married.’”

Tied to a post beside a tea shop, a white dog yaps at their heels. Makoto’s presence beside Haruka is quiet.

They walk on, and Haruka does not look back once.


“Okay, okay, okay,” Ryuugazaki sighs, holding up two bracing hands. “I am unable to tell you what is going on if you all keep talking over me.

As if to prove himself, Rin clamps down on the bitterness at the back of his throat, while Nagisa prattles on with unhearing ears.

Hazuki.

“What? I can be quiet.”

“Then might I recommend you do that.

Nagisa’s mouth curls into a impish smile. “Starting now.”

Ryuugazaki groans faintly and brushes a lock of hair from his forehead.

Rin, Nagisa, and Shigino Kisumi stand and wait while Ai, Hayato, and Sousuke still sit on the ground.

“Alright, so you three―” Ryuugazaki gestures to Rin, Ai, and Hayato, “―have been released and are now free to go, provided you do not speak of anything that has happened here. Granted, the public now believes that the elder Shigino and the youngest Hazuki are both dead, so it is unlikely anyone would believe you saying anything different, but still. I don’t want any frayed ends, yes?”

Unconvinced, Rin exchanges a look with Ai.

“And you two―” This time he turns to Shigino and Nagisa, “―I have specific things to discuss in private.”

No one says anything for a moment or two.

Rin fixes on Ai and Sousuke. “Let’s go, then,” he says curtly, thinking, Not my business.

“Actually, uh,” Ryuugazaki stammers. “Rin.” He coughs and looks aside. “May I speak with you for just a moment?”

Rin levels a blank stare on him, mind incapable of working around the sound of his name in Ryuugazaki’s voice. “I… Fine?”

Awkwardly shifting his weight, Ryuugazaki waves a hand to the back room. “Ah… Shall we?”

Neither wants to move first; relinquishing with a sigh, Rin steps back, and as he turns, Sousuke meets his eyes, questioning. Rin presses his lips together in response and keeps forward, Ryuugazaki trailing behind him.

When they reach the back room, Rin rotates to face Ryuugazaki and crosses his arms over his chest, finger tapping a slow rhythm above his elbow. Ryuugazaki’s eyes remain to the ground. His hand clenches and unclenches.

The other’s voices are quiet, relegated to the background.

“I…” Ryuugazaki finally pulls in a tight inhale. “I just… wanted to apologize. As you know, I changed my mind…”

Seeing right through him, Rin raises an eyebrow. “I’m sure Sousuke is a powerful motivator.”

Ryuugazaki lifts his head. “I didn’t change my mind because he threatened me.”

Mulling over the confirmation, Rin continues to wait.

“Look, I…” Ryuugazaki shifts his weight. “I dislike this all as much as you do. I just… haven’t known what to do. Everyone hates Hazuki and Shigino, but they have brought in so much money and all these people in the Earth Kingdom rely on kuebiko cultivation and trade for jobs, so when I saw you and, uh… Ai, is it? When I saw you two I… I thought I…”

He swallows thickly. “It’s not my fault I can’t do anything real to fix this. The police and local politicians are all paid off to let kuebiko keep going because we’re so reliant on the commerce it brings, so no one ever could have actually killed either of them. But we have to remain in good favor with the public, so we couldn’t just do nothing. I’m just doing what I was told.” His lip curls. “I’m always doing what I’m told.”

He’s quiet for a few minutes, stewing in something that seems like it stings.

“Ugh, it never ends, ” he hisses, sinking his fingers into his hair. “You know, fine! Sure, my brother is just better than me at everything! Fine, he’s a great airbender and now highly revered as such! Great for him that he wasn’t so attached to the material world that he flunked out of airbending school! Glad he didn’t have to return home and work for Father instead! Convenient for him he didn’t have to think of some way to get Father’s good graces back and decide to try to single handedly fix the kuebiko feuds! Good thing he’s not so arrogant that he didn’t listen to what someone told him about the Fire Prince and ended up embarrassing himself! I’m absolutely delighted for him!

“And you know what’s the worst part?” Ryuugazaki jabs a finger at Rin. “I only started listening to you and Sousuke when I found out you were the Fire Prince. I don’t… I don’t know if I would have ended up changing my mind if you really had been just a random person.”

Trying to assuage the visible quivering of his hands, he looks aside.

“Maybe… I don’t know if I want Father’s good graces back if he’s fine with all of this.”

The nearby torch draws deep shadows on Ryuugazaki’s face as he works his jaw.

Rin is silent.

“Anyway.” Plucking off his spectacles, Ryuugazaki goes to rub the bridge of his nose in a moment of forgetfulness and winces as he pinches his injury. His hand flops to his side, and rolling his eyes at himself, he puts his spectacles back on. “I don’t know what your plans are for the future, but it seems like you wish to return to the Fire Nation. If that’s so, I don’t plan on informing anyone of your presence. No one else knows who you really are, and like I said, all of the police are paid off and will keep quiet about this, so you are free to do as you like.”

The sharpness returns as Ryuugazaki’s eyes slice into Rin. “Let me make one thing clear,” he says. “I am not asking for your forgiveness. You are free to hate me as much as you want. But I am going to offer my apologies anyways.”

Rin blinks. With a hitched exhale, he says, “Alright.”

“Good.” Ryuugazaki heaves a cathartic exhale, lifting his chin and stitching his pompous and picky aura back together.

“I have a question, though,” Rin says. “What now? Shigino and Hazuki are still alive; their feud still exists; the kuebiko trade stills exists.”

“Ah, yes… Well, I will have to discuss that with them. I am sure there’s some sort of solution we can find.”

“That they can follow?”

“Against my better judgment, I am hopeful they are capable of changing their ways.”

Rin’s forehead crinkles.

Quiet again, and Ryuugazaki sucks on the inside of his cheeks. “Sorry, this is bothering me―might I make a suggestion to you?”

“…What?”

Ryuugazaki’s mouth pinches like he’s looking at a dead fish. “Wash your hair, please. That pink does not suit you.”

Mouth curling upwards despite himself, Rin retorts, “You should talk to Ai about healing that nose of yours. Those bruises are pretty nasty.”

Ryuugazaki lets out a chuckle, but for once, there is no hidden agenda or derision tucked within it. “I may just do that.” He leaves and goes back to the outer room.

For several breaths Rin remains where he is, working through all the information Ryuugazaki just unloaded onto him. Ryuugazaki’s voice coupled with Nagisa’s murmur from the other room. Rin sighs, pressing the back of his hand to his eyes.

The jug of water still sits there, as if waiting for him.

He steps to it and crouches down, scooping up handfuls of water and dumping the water over his head to scrubs furiously with his nails. Water sloshes onto his clothes and trails down the back of his neck and he continues to douse himself, that ugly pink coming away to stain his palms and fingers.

“Rin.”

Rin jumps, knocking over the jug. “Shit!” he hisses, watching the water scramble free and sink into the earthen floor.

Haru stands in the doorway. “You’re so jumpy,” he notes, looking on the precipice of laughter, a big and infuriating milestone for him.

“Shut up.” Defeatedly pressing his lips together over the lost water, Rin shakes droplets from his hands and stands.

Haru’s not alone; someone Rin doesn’t recognize stands a little behind. What better time, Rin thinks, for Haru and someone new to enter when he’s soaked and dripping, hair hanging heavy and still half pink.

Rin raises a hand in greeting and addresses the newcomer, obligated into a more polite smile. “Sorry, he’s the bane of my existence.”

The guy, taller than both Rin and Haru with light brown hair and green eyes, lets out a small laugh. “So I’ve heard.”

“Oh? I’m sure everything Haru says about me is insulting.”

“Ah, I mean…”

“Knew it.” Rin flicks Haru a narrow look.

Haru is too distant to care or respond.

“You’re Rin, right?” asks the guy. “Do you prefer to go by Prince Rin?”

The questions surprises Rin. “Uh, I mean. It’s not like I’m the prince right now, so. Rin’s fine.” He tilts his head. “You obviously know about me, but who are you?”

“Oh, yeah. I’m Makoto. I’m Haru’s―” His voice rests for a flash, “―friend.”

No input from Haru.

“Well, ah, nice to meet you.” Smile fading, Rin aims his gaze at Haru, willing him to make eye contact. Care to explain? he hopes his look says.

For several moments, Haru’s gaze is trained to the ground, his fingernails pressing indentions into the strap of the bag over his shoulder. Reluctantly, Haru meets Rin’s eyes, and he puffs out a breath.

Quietly, Haru begins to tell of the past few months since the coup; him running away, finding Makoto and his family in the Shangto Valley, traveling to Ito to ask his parents for money and turning to Hazuki when that failed. All throughout, Rin studies him, processing the string of events. He can see them on Haru’s appearance; slightly longer hair, tanner skin, torn up and scabbed hands, but there’s something else, something wild and untamed in his demeanor, some element of simultaneously being at ease and on edge.

It’s odd, too. Haru references Makoto specifically multiple times, yet he never once spares him a look. Meanwhile Makoto listens, completely removed.

When Haru finishes, Rin runs a hand through his hair. “Jeez,” he breathes, blinking. “I don’t even… This is a lot all at once.” He shakes his head, almost in awe. “I knew you were a stubborn ass, but I didn’t know you were stubborn enough to literally work for a kuebiko dealer.”

Haru looks spent with the amount of words he just expelled and does not engage with Rin’s comment. “Your turn.”

“Give me a second.” Rin pulls in a long breath, only somewhat successfully smoothing away the raging river of thoughts.

As is only fair, he tells them his path to here as well. Both Haru and Makoto are visibly more engaged now, actively listening to him repeat someone hiding in his room the day of the coup, waking up on the coast of Rasu and seeing Haru’s family’s ship getting pulled apart, running into Ai and Sousuke, and eventually traveling to Ito to find Colonel Mikoshiba. Since Haru had been present the whole time Rin and Ai had first detailed their prison experiences to Sousuke, Rin stops where Ryuugazaki captured them.

Haru is silent when Rin finishes, face somber. His mouth opens, and on second thought, he shuts it, only to open it again. Softly, he says, “Rin… I heard about…” He never finishes the sentence.

Rin knows from the tone of his voice and the pity reeking from him exactly what he heard. “We don’t need to talk about it.”

A tight period of no speech. Makoto peers curiously between them.

“Oh, excuse me,” cuts in Ai’s voice. The three jerk back into movement, and Makoto steps from the doorway to let Ai in. “I’m just getting some of the water.”

Spotting Rin’s mop of wet hair and the darkened patch of dirt from the spill, Ai kneels beside the fallen jug. A wave of his hand extracts the water from the ground, and he guides it to splash into the jug.

“Going to fix Ryuugazaki’s busted nose?” Rin asks, diverting away the heavy air.

Ai hikes the jug up. “Yep.”

Eyes flat, Haru shoots Rin a look.

“Hey, what’s that for? I don’t regret punching him. He earned it.”

Haru merely rolls his eyes.

Ai goes to leave with the jug, but mind reverting down a road he does not want to travel down, Rin is seized by stifling claustrophobia. He rushes after Ai, saying, “Wait, I want to watch this.”

The two Shiginos, Ryuugazaki, Nagisa, and Sousuke are still out in the main room. Ryuugazaki purses his lips at Rin, evidently overhearing his words to Ai, and reluctantly takes a seat and pulls off both his spectacles and the taped bandage from his nose. Purple and yellow seep from the bridge to the neighboring skin.

Rin posts himself to the wall with one leg crossed over the other, next to Sousuke,. A few steps behind, Haru and Makoto hover where Nagisa sits.

“Must you all stare at me?” Ryuugazaki grumbles.

With a smirk, Rin gets cozy where he is.

Ryuugazaki blinks and looks forward. Ai bends some of the water up out of the jug and to Ryuugazaki’s face, coating his nose. It ripples some as Ai’s hand moves back and forth. A muted inhale, and Ryuugazaki screws his eyes shut, jaw flexing. Absolutely no sound comes from him.

Rin’s smirk slowly drips away.

In less time than he took with Rin’s arm (or maybe it only feels shorter with Rin as an observer and not a recipient), Ai eventually stops and deposits the water back into the jug. Ryuugazaki stays with his eyes shut for breath, chest collapsing in. The strained pull of muscles under the skin of his face smoothe out.

Nagisa scoots over to him. The movement pulls Ryuugazaki into awareness, his eyes blinking open, unusually vulnerable and disoriented.

“Ooh, it looks a lot better, Rei!” Nagisa says, craning around to inspect Ryuugazaki’s face from all angles.

“That’s a relief,” says Ryuugazaki. He picks up his spectacles and puts them back on, testing the weight. “Doesn’t hurt, either.” He looks up to Ai. “Thank you so much, truly. After all of this, you were under no obligation to―”

Ai quickly cuts him off with a wave of his hand and, “Ah, it’s no problem!”

Somehow, this works, and Ryuugazaki dips his head in admission. Pressing against his knee, he stands and dusts off his uniform. “Well,” he begins, eyes trailing over everyone in the room before focusing on Rin, Sousuke, and Ai. “I won’t keep you here, if you want to leave.”

The three share a look.

“Yeah, okay,” Rin says.

Ryuugazaki responds with a crisp nod. “You two, however.” He points to Nagisa and the older Shigino.

Rin is already moving, as are Ai and Sousuke, but Haru lingers with a muddled expression, Makoto beside him.

Nagisa looks over his shoulder and takes notice. “Hey, Haru. Why don’t all of you go back to the hideout? I’ll catch up to you later.”

Haru’s brows draw together. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, no worries!” With a gigantic, sparkly smile, Nagisa looks over all of them. “No offense, but you all look exhausted. Get some sleep!”

“Yeah, I wonder why we would all look tired,” Rin storms under his breath. Nevertheless, he watches Haru, expectant.

“Okay…” Haru says. With a couple hesitant steps, he passes Rin on his way to the exit. Makoto shadows him.

Rin goes to follow, but sensing Ryuugazaki’s approach, he brakes and looks back. Both Sousuke and Ai stop too.

“Ah…” Ryuugazaki wrings his hands, finding much to interest him in his shoes. He inhales and picks up his head, a twinkle of humor in his eyes. “Well. With luck, you and I will never have to interact with each other again.”

“Let’s try to keep it that way.” Exhaling tiredly, Rin sucks it up and offers out a hand. “Rei.”

“That is far too personal for our sort of relationship,” scoffs Ryuugazaki, nonetheless smiling and shaking Rin’s hand. “Good luck.”

“You too.”

And with that, Rin turns his back on him, Nagisa, and the two Shiginos, to trail after Haru and Makoto through dark tunnels.

Eventually, the sun glares overhead, blinding him with its ferocity after being in the prison’s underground for so long. He has no conception of time anymore and feels he hasn’t directly seen the sun in what feels like a lifetime. They make a stop near the exit for Haru to collect that stupid horse of his, and Rin is too delirious to make a snarky comment, but he reminds himself to later.

Haru leads all of them through the streets of Ito, practiced and precise, like he’s walked the path back to a creepy and desolate street a hundred times before. There’s only minimal, necessary conversation shared between the five of them the whole length there. They’re drained, and it’s starting to catch up.

They reach an rickety building with the name KOGANE WINES , and Haru approaches the door first, handing off the reins of his horse to Makoto. Some older guy with blond hair and funky facial hair answers, and recognizing Haru, allows them all to file inside. Somehow, Haru manages to cram his horse into the cramped atrium, though the guy squints at the horse with distrust and confusion.

Almost reluctantly, the older guy bends open a hole in the earth floor and Haru immediately hops into the abyss without any hesitation. Sousuke follows, almost habitual, and Rin peers over the edge.

The ground seems very far away.

Holding aloft a palm of flame, Haru says, “It’s not that far,” reading his mind.

“I never said it was.”

“If it makes you feel better, I can catch you,” quips Sousuke.

Rin tightens his jaw. “Fuck off.”

He slides in. A rush swoops through him as he free falls for a second, but he lands with nothing more detrimental than a little stumble. He accidentally bumps into Sousuke and jumps back to himself, keeping his mouth shut. Makoto and Ai hop in too, and when everyone is present and accounted for, Haru turns to the gaping blackness ahead and continues to lead the way.

Nothing but footsteps and crackles of flame for fifteen minutes.

The tunnel widens into a bigger lit atrium with smaller tunnels shooting off into other directions. A couple of people talk within the atrium and go quiet at their entrance.

A young woman with sandy brown hair focuses on Haru. “Was it successful?” she asks, folding her arms.

“Yes,” he answers. “Nagisa will be back later.”

Another young woman with long blonde hair curls her lip at all of them. “What are we now, a boarding house?”

The first woman elbows her. “Shush.”

Without anything more to say, Haru heads to one of the tunnels, and the rest of them follow, trying to ignore the looks from the others.

The tunnel leads to a tiny cave of a room with a single pallet on the ground. Haru slides off his satchel and peels away to the wall to allow space for the rest of them, while Sousuke immediately claims a spot on the floor at the foot of the pallet. The other three stand and gauge the space, before Makoto sits to himself in the one corner and Ai settles beside Sousuke and almost instantly falls asleep.

A dullness weighs down Rin’s eyes, and he sits down with his back to a wall, adjacent to Sousuke and Ai. He sighs and sinks, readjusting his dog pelt jacket.

Light snores rise from Ai, his hair mussed as his head rests on Sousuke’s shoulder. Rin’s gaze raises to Sousuke’s face. A couple breaths. Sousuke offers a faint smile before he too closes his eyes and rests his head on top of Ai’s.

Rin exhales to himself for several minutes.

As he drifts off into sleep, he doesn’t need his dog pelt jacket anymore.


Everyone goes to sleep; first, the kid Ai and Sousuke, then Rin. Makoto takes longer, staring into the dirt and rubbing absent minded circles onto his hand with his thumb, but he too eventually cracks and slumps into the wall.

Haruka remains awake. Watching Rin breathe slowly, he wonders how much Rin, like himself, left out of his explanation of his life since the coup.

Haruka stands for some time, watching and listening, until he tires of that and sits. He can barely sense the limits of his extremities, and he knows he’s been awake for an absurd amount of time. And yet, he can’t sleep. Not yet.

Amidst the cacophony of varying tones and volumes of breaths and snores, footsteps from beyond make it to Haruka. They slow as they draw closer, and Nagisa pops out from the tunnel, a mask clutched in his hand.

He stops and takes stock of the room, blinking at Haruka when they meet eyes. “Eh―still awake?” he whispers.

Haruka shrugs.

“Hmm.” Nagisa tilts his head.

Haruka’s attention flickers to Nagisa’s mask in question.

“Oh, this?” Nagisa lifts it up and shows it to Haruka, a cheery monkey’s face grinning back. “New policy, I guess.”

“Hm.”

Behind Nagisa, Rin squirms and exhales violently.

“Actually, since you’re still up,” Nagisa says, “want to take a quick walk?”

With nothing better to pass his time, Haruka answers, “Okay.”

Together they pass back through the atrium and into the large main tunnel, where Haruka offers some light. Alone in the middle of the tunnel, far from both the atrium and the outside world, Nagisa’s pace slows, his face eerily sober.

Questions tug at Haruka, but he holds his tongue.

Nagisa stops completely. Haruka continues on a step and rotates back to face him.

Nagisa murmurs, “Sorry.”

“For what?”

“I haven’t been honest with you this whole time.”

Haruka cocks his head. “Neither have I.”

A high-pitched sigh. “Yeah, but, I’m your employer .” Nagisa’s voice coils around the word, as if mocking it. “Look, Haru. I never needed a bodyguard.”

The flame in Haruka’s hand pops.

“It’s just… I see people all the time, but there isn’t anyone I’m close with. I know Rei, and well, you know how he feels about me, and my sisters are okay sometimes, but other than the fact that we’re related and we all work together, I don’t have much of a connection with them. And my parents―”

Nagisa averts his gaze, his thoughts pulling his mouth into a frown. “So I convinced everyone that I needed a bodyguard to protect me from all the people who hate me, even though no one would ever try to attack me.”

His laugh is thin. “Isn’t that silly? Paying someone to be my friend?”

The only movement is of the flame, growing and shrinking, growing and shrinking.

Nagisa shakes his head. “Rei put together a plan between us and Kisumi and Hayato where both of our groups get equal amount of clients and support from the government, as long as the me and Kisumi keep quiet and keep our identities hidden. I hope works, but… it… it feels too…”

They stand there for several minutes.

“I think…” Haruka glances to the short ceiling as he picks his words. “I think you and I are very similar.”

“What?” Nagisa blinks dazedly with an expression that is almost amused. “Where the heck did you get that from?”

“I mean it.”

Still thoroughly unconvinced, Nagisa shakes his head. He mumbles, “ Okay…”

Unable find the right words to defend his case, Haruka says nothing more, hoping his message got across.

He doesn’t think it did, as Nagisa changes the subject. “I like your friends, by the way,” he says, expression lightening. “Rin is really funny, but ah, I don’t think he likes me. And Ma… Makoto, right? He seems really nice.”

Face softening, Haruka dips his head.

“Anyway.” Covering his mouth with a yawn, Nagisa then flicks Haruka a counterfeit smile. “I’m getting sleepy. Want to head back?”

Haruka nods, voice tired. They turn back the way they came.

The room is the same as when they left it, everyone spread out and asleep. Haruka immediately steps aside to retract to his space along the wall, but Nagisa slaps a hand to Haruka’s shoulder and herds him to the empty pallet.

“You need to sleep too,” Nagisa whispers. “We can share!”

“No, I’m fine―”

Nagisa shoves Haruka onto the pallet before he can get the rest of his sentence out and flops down beside him. Wrapping a tight arm around him, Nagisa locks Haruka down, and with a halfhearted squirm, Haruka goes slack and gives up. When he looks down, Nagisa’s eyes are already shut, exhales warm on Haruka’s neck.

Nestling into Haruka, Nagisa murmurs, “Goodnight.”

“It’s not nighttime.”

“It feels like it.”

Gradually, Nagisa’s breath slows and his death grip lessens, but Haruka does not want to move. He closes his eyes and lets his mind go.

For the first time in a while, his sleep is dreamless.

He’s aware of the murmur of voices before anything else, but it takes him time for his mind and body to reconnect. He stirs, rubbing his eyes, and squints into the room.

“About time,” says Rin, arching a brow at him from the foot of the pallet. Beside him sits Ai, and Sousuke beside Ai.

Nagisa pops up from across the room and plops down next to Haruka with a smile. “Sleep well, Haru?”

Propping himself up on his elbows, Haruka mutters, “Yeah.”

Makoto sits by himself along the adjacent wall. Haruka makes himself sit all the way up.

The others return to whatever conversation they were having before Haruka woke, and Haruka doesn’t really listen.

“Oh, yeah,” Rin says suddenly, twisting around to check between Haruka and Makoto. “I’ve been meaning to ask. You two are planning to head back to Shangto Valley, right?”

Haruka allows himself the barest of glances to Makoto. “Yeah…”

“When are you leaving?”

Both Nagisa and Makoto’s gazes burn into Haruka, but he keeps his eyes on Rin. “As soon as possible,” he says, firmly. His eyes fall to the ground.

Rin begins to say something, but Haruka doesn’t hear, mind miles away as his insides lurch. Setting his jaw, he forces himself to look at Nagisa. “Nagisa…”

Nagisa’s large eyes reflect back pieces of firelight.

“You could… come with us.”

Nagisa blinks. “Eh?”  

“Eh?” parrots Makoto.

Rin begins, “Haru, what the hell―”

“You could leave Ito and try something new,” Haruka rambles, ignoring the others. “Or something, I don’t know…”

“Why?” Nagisa asks, genuinely.

“Because you’re my friend.”

A moment of stillness.

“Oh,” breathes Nagisa. Frozen in place, he stares, fat tears welling up. As they slip free, he buries his face in Haruka’s shoulder, arms cinching tight around him. Overwhelmed, Haruka twitches, but he does not push Nagisa away.

“You too,” Nagisa murmurs, barely audible.

Hesitant, Haruka pats Nagisa’s back.

Nagisa needs a few more moments, gripping Haruka’s robe with fists, before he can relax and pull away. Wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, he swallows thickly.

“Well, I―” he sighs, resignation passing over him. “I want to come with you. I really do want to. But… I can’t.”

The answer sinks deep in the pit of Haruka’s stomach. “Okay.”

“Not yet,” amends Nagisa. “Maybe someday.” He smiles, eyes glistening. “If you’re ever in Ito again, let me know.”

“I will.”

Nagisa sniffs loudly, and Haruka’s mouth curves into a small smile.

The others sit in unsure silence; Rin judging over Haruka, Ai blinking with wide eyes, Sousuke faintly thoughtful, and Makoto abjectly neutral.

Rin curtails the moment by interjecting a brusque, “Well, ah, as I was going to say…” He folds his arms over his bent knees. “Shangto is on the way back toward the Fire Nation from here, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, then we―” he gestures to Ai and Sousuke, “―might as well join you guys for part of the way, since we’re all headed in the same direction.”

“You’re going back to the Fire Nation?” Makoto asks.

“Yes.” Rigidity commands Rin’s posture, and in a long pause, his eyes focus far away. “I… I’m going to kill the rebels who killed my father. I have to.”

Deep shadows fill his eye sockets.

Haruka accidentally makes eye contact with Sousuke from across the room; a scarce beat of Haruka’s pulse, where he can’t identify what’s in Sousuke’s vacant expression.

He looks away.

Chapter Text

The Devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape.

―William Shakespeare, Hamlet


 “Ah, what the hell!” Rin hurls his stone to the ground. “Why are you so good at this?!”

“Sorry,” Makoto says, sheepishly, pulling in Rin’s already played stones to add to his disgustingly large collection. Haru, Ai, and Sousuke sit aside, barely paying attention, having given up much earlier into the night on trying to best Makoto at the game he taught them.

“Oh, shut up,” grumbles Rin. He narrows his eyes. “You’re not sorry at all.”

Makoto lets out a strained laugh. He averts his eyes and reorganizes his spoils. “Do you want to continue, or…?”

Sighs. “Yeah, might as well.”

They play until Rin’s eyes ache, and Rin does manage to squeak in a victory (though he suspects Makoto lets him win, so he doesn’t take too much pride in it).

“That was fun,” Makoto says, with his pile of twenty stones to Rin’s one.

For you, Rin thinks, but he admits, “Yeah.”

Makoto smiles wryly. “I don’t think I’ve ever played this many rounds with anyone before. Even my siblings get tired of it after a while…”

“Yeah, well,” Rin says, standing up and stretching his arms overhead. “At least I’m first in some way.”

Makoto laughs.

During the last leg of game, the others dispersed without Rin noticing: Haru sits by the little campfire, solemnly poking at it with a stick; Ai washes out one of his jackets; Sousuke is nowhere to be found.

“Hey, where’d Sousuke go?” Rin calls out to nobody in particular.

Haru points his stick to the tent Ai and Sousuke made. “He said he was tired of watching you get beaten.”

Tension releasing, Rin presses his lips together and mutters, “Ass,” to himself. His eyes dart to the tent for a breath, but he elects to sit down beside Haru instead.

They sit in amicable silence for a few minutes, watching the fire burn away. Sparks sizzle and fly as Haru stabs at a log with his stick. After replacing back the stones they collected, Makoto settles across the fire from Rin, and almost instantly, Haru tosses his stick into the flames and pops up. Rin watches him head to his horse.

Makoto stands, says goodnight to Rin and Ai, and leaves the fire for his empty pallet. It’s just Rin and Ai now.

Exhaling, Rin stands and heads to the tent, slowing as he draws closer. He pulls back the flap. Inside, Sousuke is curled onto his side, back facing Rin and Ai’s spots, and does not move at Rin’s presence. Rin holds his breath and eases himself down into his own spot, demarcated by his dog pelt jacket which is too warm to wear now. He exhales, head flat against the dog’s fur. He knows Sousuke is not really asleep, yet he says nothing.

Crickets hum from all around as Rin shuts his eyes. He can’t drift off until Ai returns and settles down on his other side.

They’re in a low lying grassy region of the Earth Kingdom, on the path to the Shangto Valley after departing from Ito and following along a map Haru stole from his parents. As they move and adjust to this new dynamic between all of them, Rin still isn’t sure what to make of the new additions―he isn’t even sure who is an addition. Neither Sousuke nor Haru should feel like new presences, yet they do, or maybe Rin just doesn’t know who he is with both of them present. Ironically Makoto, who truly is a new addition, has an easiness and likeability to him that persuades Rin to feel like he’s known him for longer than he has.

So far, Rin knows Makoto and Haru are returning to Makoto’s farm to deliver the money Haru acquired, but he hasn’t been able to weasel out a definitive answer as to what happens after from either of them. Rin is still working out Haru’s farewell to the kuebiko dealer Nagisa, with the tears and hugs from Nagisa and the doleful, detached look from Haru. In the goodbyes to Nagisa, for just a moment, Rin caught a bizarre glimpse of fondness in Sousuke’s expression too.

Good thing Makoto was the only one to come with.

They travel, four of them walking and usually one person on Haru’s fuckass horse (the opportunity which Rin has passed up), through everchanging wilderness punctuated by little agricultural and merchant towns.

At high noon, they arrive at a shambling village beside a green swamp, cypress trees rising from the water and filtering the sun’s reach to a soft green on the ground.

A young girl sits at the side of the dirt road before they can enter into the village proper, as if anticipating their arrival. She stands and steps in their way, arms crossed over her ratty clothes.

“You don’t want to come any closer.”

Rin arches an eyebrow and mirrors her, crossing his arms. “Oh?”

“This area infected with mizubara fever, so yeah, unless you want to catch it and die within the next week, you don’t want to come any closer,” she sneers.

Dropping his arms, Rin puzzles over why that sounds familiar to him it for a second. It hits―Ai telling him about his home village, where he escaped from mizubara fever―he checks Ai, whose already pale face is bloodless.

Beyond the girl, distant figures drag bodies out of a building. They lug them back beyond where Rin’s vision stretches, where a pillar of smoke rises up among the green.

Wordlessly, Ai begins to move forward, but Rin catches him by the arm. Ai’s eyes blink at him; wide, disoriented.

Rin says, “We’re on a schedule.”

Rebellion extinguishes as quickly as it had sparked, and Ai goes slack, pointing his gaze to his feet.

Rin tentatively lets him go, waiting to see if he bounds off, before he focuses on the girl again. Behind her hardened face there’s something reeking of desperation and loneliness; he wonders if she knows.

Rin opens his mouth as if to say something. Shutting it, he turns and begins to head back the way they came. He does not look back. Haru consults his map and finds a way around, and they skip over the town as if it never existed in the first place.

That night, no one talks much, and they don’t play any games.


Drenched in sweat, Haruka wakes.

A bluish-gray of early morning bears down from above, only a couple of stars left visible with the sun close by. He presses his hands to his eyes and wills his breaths and heart to slow. Closing his mouth, he checks to his side; Makoto is on his separate pallet, oblivious in his sleep.

Haruka pats away the sweat with his sleeve and lies back down, staring into the sky and wondering if he will reclaim his rest.

Again, despite Makoto’s presence by his side, he doesn’t.

Instead, Haruka eventually picks himself up and wanders around the little cove the group tucked themselves into for the night. Crickets chirp in the absence of other voices, the tent housing Rin, Sousuke, and Ai completely silent. Kuroime, too, is quiet.

Haruka sits down at the base of a tree, watching over the pastoral scene as if as an outsider. The top of Makoto’s head on his pallet is just barely visible through the thin light.

Picking up a twig, Haruka begins to scrawl things into the dirt in front of him.

It’s not until hours later, when Rin steps out of the tent with mussed hair, that Haruka stops. The pattern of their exchanges is the same; Haruka is always the first to rise, Rin is second, third and fourth splits between Makoto and Ai depending on the day, and last is always Sousuke (generally jostled awake by either Rin or Ai).

They set off, today on a windy path up through the forest.

“Jeez,” Rin sighs to himself at midday, swiping away the sweat on his forehead. “Why is it that long stretches of slight inclines are so much worse than short stretches of steep inclines?”

Haruka, holding Kuroime’s rope while Ai rides her, gives Rin a faint smirk. “You can ride Kuroime, if you want,” he offers.

“No thanks.” Rin side eyes both Haruka and Kuroime. “I don’t trust horses. They know too much. And she has always disliked me.”

“She has good taste.”

As Rin rolls his eyes and mutters something, Sousuke focuses on Rin. “Your birthday isn’t for a couple of months, right?”

Rin frowns. “…Yeah, why?”

“Then I have plenty of time to pick out the perfect horse to give you as a present.”

“I swear if you―”

Rin’s voice is drowned out by Sousuke’s laugh, warm and open and nothing like Haruka has heard from him.

Blustering, Rin hisses, “You know what? Fuck both of you. ” He points at Sousuke, who only somewhat covers up his smile, and then at Haruka. “I officially revoke my friendship. Ai and Makoto are my only friends now.”

Sousuke cocks his head. “Who said we were friends in the first place?”

“Oh, shut up―”

Haruka shrugs and interjects, “What he said.”

“Fuck off. You’re both dead to me.”

Eventually, Sousuke still chuckling at Rin’s expense, Rin cracks a grudging smile and whacks him in the arm. A couple of feet away, Haruka feels like he’s intruding.

Rin and Sousuke bicker lightheartedly about something as they continue forward.

Gripping Kuroime’s reins for his life, Ai glances down at Haruka. “Um…” he breathes. “H-Haru…?”

Haruka looks up.

“Oh, uh, I was just curious. How long have you had… uh, Kuroime, right?”

Haruka counts in his head. “Six years.”

“That’s a while,” Ai notes, eyes out over Kuroime’s head. He releases one half of the reins and pets her neck. “She seems nice.”

“She’s my only friend. Don’t tell Rin.”

“Don’t tell Rin what? ” Rin interrupts.

“I just said he can’t tell you.”

Rin blusters and turns on him again, and Haruka flicks a conspiratorial smile to Ai, who cautiously smiles back.

Haruka is made uneasy, though, by how quickly Sousuke’s expression turns cold.

They stop for the night in a grassy clearing in the foot of some hills. Makoto teaches the others how to find edible roots, which they boil and eat all together. Light, comfortable conversation and joking fills the night, with Haruka watching again as if from a distance. He’s relieved, partially, to see Makoto get along so well with Rin (as well as Ai and Sousuke). But at the same time, it’s been so long since he’s heard genuine laughter from Makoto and he wishes he could be the one causing it.

When overhead turns dark, they pack up and extinguish the campfire. Rin, Sousuke, and Ai set up and return to their tent, leaving Haruka, Kuroime, and Makoto outside.

In the presence of the other three, Makoto does address Haruka and mention him when relevant in conversation. But now, when it’s just the two of them, when their pallets are a few mere inches apart, he lies down and curls into his side without a word other than a habitual, “Goodnight.”

He hasn’t said anything, after Ito.

Haruka lies beside him, eyes up to the sky; inky clouds smear over the stars, a few barely poking out.

When his eyes do shut, he still sees Nagisa and hears Fumiko’s voice.


A narrow, flimsy wooden bridge stretches above a surging river, shaking nervously as the five (six, if including Haru’s horse) of them pass over it, single file. No one rides Haru’s horse and Haru pulls her along. Rin is set to immediately blame them if anything breaks, but he is at least comforted that he is between two waterbenders and an earthbender.

One hand on the rope railing, Rin looks over the edge. The dark greenish-blue water bubbles with white as it hurls into rocks and cliff walls, plunging forward into the distance, unrelenting until its path disappears from view. For a moment he imagines what it would be like to be in that water, to feel that constant, unmitigated force, and wonders whether he’d be able to withstand it, to go against its commands.

A nudge to Rin’s back. “Keep moving.”

Rin flicks a short look to Sousuke behind him and steps forward to catch up to Makoto. One foot in front of the other, rough wood plank to rough wood plank. The drone of moving water fills his ears and blots out any other words. They reach the other side, a green meadow, without the bridge snapping or anyone slipping off the side. Gradually, as they continue down a new road, the drone disappears.

Along the road, they pass a merchant town, with tall, narrow buildings, bustling with people flitting from one thing to the next without much of a breath in between. Among the residents in their drab greens and browns are Fire Nation soldiers, ambling at a slower pace, lazing on fences and porches.

Despite the humidity, Rin slips on his dog pelt jacket and puts the hood over his head.

When they take a brief break to refuel and rehydrate, Rin watches as Makoto hesitates for a second to pass over their makeshift water canteen to Haru, who in turn blindly takes it from him without looking in his direction. Rin quickly focuses elsewhere to not draw attention to his intrusion, but he isn’t immune to how they have each other at an arm’s length, tiptoeing around the other’s presence.

That night they stop in a small forest, where the smoke from their campfire fights its way through a dense concentration of leaves. Ai manages to snag two rabbits for dinner, and he and Sousuke teach Makoto the proper way to butcher them while Haru detaches from the rest of them and sits to himself on a log, idly drawing things into the dirt with a stick.

“…so you make a cut here…”

Rin observes the lesson for a couple of minutes, but checking Haru over his shoulder, he sighs and turns to march across the forest floor.

“Not feeling like learning how to skin a rabbit?”

Hearing Rin’s approach, Haru quickly scrapes out the absent-minded figures and tightly wraps his fingers around the stick. Rin plops down on the log beside him, leaning back on his hands. The others, across the clearing, are too busy to take notice of them.

Pops of fire among the crickets. Haru digs the stick into the dirt.

“Everything has been moving so fast, lately,” Rin says. “I… I don’t know if I’ve really said this in full, but… I’m glad we managed to find each other, somehow.”

With a small sigh, Haru stops grinding up the dirt. “Me too.” His eyes extend to the forest floor. “For a while… I thought you might be dead.”

In the distance, Makoto squeaks as he accidentally cuts too hard and flicks blood onto himself.

After a pause, Rin laughs weakly to dispel the heaviness and says, “Good thing I’m not, right?”

“Good thing you’re not.”

Quiet pervades for a little while, the other’s voices murmuring in the distance.

Rin clears his throat. “Can I ask? Uh. What’s the deal with you and Makoto? I mean, I know about the whole finding money to save their farm, but…” He tilts his head and smirks. “He’s hot.”

Haru doesn’t take the bait; he merely stares at his hands, melancholy dripping down his face, and Rin suddenly doesn’t want to tease him.

His smirk fades. “I mean―objectively,” he flounders. “He’s not even my type.”

Taking pity on him, Haru looks at him with distant amusement. “You prefer dark hair and blue eyes, right?”

“Shut up, stop reminding me of one of the darkest periods of my life.”

Haru smiles, but it is the smile of a parent about to carefully and slowly explain something to their impressionable, naive toddler. “I’m not talking about me.”

Rin blinks. Flushes. “Shut… shut up.”

Saying nothing more, Haru tosses aside his stick and leans back onto his hands, careless to how Rin sits there, caught, deliberately avoiding any look toward the others.

Pathetically unable to curb his curiosity, Rin says, “You, uh, spent some time with him when you were working for Nagisa, yeah? What do you think of him? Sousuke.”

“Don’t like him.”

“Jeez, Haru, have you ever been polite, ever, in your―”

Haru shoots him an icy look. “It doesn’t matter whether I like him or not. You like him, and that’s good enough for me.”

Rin’s mouth hangs open a little and the only thing he can think to say is, “I never said I liked―”

Haru huffs and stands. He ditches Rin for the campfire.

Still blindsided, Rin is stuck on the log for several minutes, only dimly perceiving what the others are up to. His insides churn.

With a big inhale, he pieces himself together and picks himself up to follow Haru, quietly reentering the shared space. While Haru has parked himself at the fire, Sousuke and Ai oversee Makoto, who is at the end of his lesson.

“So… well.” Arms folded, Sousuke tilts his head at Makoto’s work. “We’ll work on it.”

Makoto laughs knowingly, blood up to his elbows, splatters on his clothes and face from the clumsy hack job he kneels over. “Yeah.”  

Spotting Haru back, Makoto calls, “Oh, um, are you going to learn how to butcher, Haru?”

“Maybe,” Haru says, not looking up.

Rin watches Makoto’s expression flip to something he can’t identify, before Makoto recollects himself and looks back, smiling at Sousuke. “Thanks again.”

“No problem,” says Sousuke, bending over to begin organizing what Makoto cut up. When he and Makoto gather everything together and make space for the second rabbit, he straightens up. “Hey, Rin?”

Tension grips Rin. “Yeah?”

“Want to help me with this?” Sousuke points to the second rabbit. “So it can go a little faster and so Makoto can watch.”

Relaxing only marginally, Rin answers, “Yeah, sure.” He steps over a fallen branch, pulse thrumming through his veins as he draws closer, and rolls up his sleeves.

Makoto moves out of the way and hands off Rin the knife, and with a muttered, “Thanks,” Rin kneels down opposite Sousuke. The work is easy, no words necessary, with both of their attentions on the rabbit at hand, and Rin is reminded of when he first learned how to butcher all that time ago and how much more skilled he is now. Dutiful, Makoto observes from the side, absentmindedly trying to scrub away the rust from his hands and forearms.

Rin slips deep into his own mind. Out of a desperate, impulsive curiosity, he’d thrown it out there, thrown out that offhanded joke about Sousuke being his friend, lumping him with Haru for security, unsure what he’d receive in return―and Sousuke rolled with it, as if it was nothing to him. Is it enough? Rin wants to ask. Have I changed enough? Can you overlook what was before?

Occasionally, Sousuke points out something to Makoto in how he and Rin butcher and offers advice, but other than that, he is quiet and focused.

They finish up, and with thanks, Makoto heads for Ai to wash off his hands.

Done with rearranging the meat and discards, Rin and Sousuke are in silence with nothing to do.

Crouched down, Sousuke needlessly adjusts the pile of bones. “Thanks for the help,” he says, eyes turned down.

“Yeah.”

They rope Haru into cooking the rabbits, and as the smells of sizzling meat fill the air, Sousuke and Rin wash up in silence with the water Ai had earlier collected from a nearby creek. Sousuke, after scrubbing clean his own arms, bends a little stream of water for Rin to wash his hands in. The cool, clear water only somewhat mutes the red stains, and when Rin’s gotten his hands as clean as they’ll get, he drops them.

Sousuke dumps the rest of the water in the little jug, his own hands still dripping. Deadpan, he wipes them dry on Rin’s sleeve.

“Oi.” Rin jerks back. “Use your own clothes.”

Sousuke winks and turns away.

Blankly staring into the empty space, Rin swallows and wipes his own hands dry as an afterthought.

Dinner is a lighthearted and easy affair. The rabbits’ stringy meat is tasteless between Rin’s teeth.

The next day they push through a stretch of flat land with no trees and scraggly brush that only reaches hip height. Rin happens to glance to Sousuke, who wears a frown. Rin can only laugh to himself, knowing to an outside eye, Sousuke looks angered, but Rin knows that he’s only frowning because he isn’t used to the sun glaring down on him with such a direct intensity.

Sousuke notices Rin’s gaze and frowns for real. “What?”

Rin says, “Nothing.”


Closer.

At the horizon, vibrant in the glow of the sun, are those familiar serene blue mountains, exactly as Haruka and Makoto had left them. They pop up in the distance long before they can touch them, a visual marker for how close they are. Haruka stares at them, naively marvelling how they still are the same in color and shape, yet how much of him and his world can be so different now. He’s seen what lies beyond them.

Meadows and shallow forests lead them closer to the mountains, which grow in size every day. Even when they stop for the night in a brief wood too thick to see them, Haruka still feels their presence. The other three are woebegotten with the cloud of humidity that fills lungs and blood. Sweating and irritable, Rin and Sousuke both glower, while Ai sits listless and quiet. No one lights a fire.

“I’ll go look around for something to eat,” volunteers Makoto with a placating smile, perfectly at ease with the humidity. “If there isn’t anything, we can share the leftover roots I found.”

No one replies, too self-absorbed in the moment.

Makoto’s smile is fixed as he turns and sets off into the woods.

Speckles of lingering sunset reach through branches. After a breath, Haruka jumps up and rushes to catch up to Makoto.

Glancing behind at Haruka’s footsteps, Makoto slows his pace an inhale. “Ah? Haru, you don’t have to…”

Wordlessly, Haruka falls into line at his side, eyes on the forest ahead. Makoto’s dismissals die out and he too looks forward, continuing to walk.

As the sun descends and the last beams of light retract, they pick out some berries and find more of those roots. In hazy twilight glittering with the arrival of lightning bugs, they carry them back in silence, only the calls of birds and their footsteps filling the air.

The others are the same when they return, miserably sprawled out on the ground, only showing a dim hint of recognition. Ai tries to give a tiny smile as Makoto and Haruka dump out what they found.

Sousuke sits up. He tenses. “What the hell is that?”

His eyes are seemingly trained at nothing, but pointing, he says, “There it is again!”

In conflicting rhythms, lightning bugs light up and go dark.

Makoto tilts his head. “Lightning bugs?”

“Lightning bugs?”

Smiling, Makoto reaches out and catches one to show Sousuke. It glows an electric yellow in his palm. “See? Harmless.” He unfurls his hand, watching as the bug retakes the air with another gleam.

A tranquil hush bridges between all of them as they observe the pops of light and color against deepening blue. Ai and Sousuke watch in awe muddied with confusion, while Rin is unusually expressionless, no scowl or smirk anywhere, just calm and removed.

Haruka doesn’t watch the lightning bugs.

When Makoto meets his eyes, his smile slips the faintest amount.

With the prospect of food, the mood snaps between them and the lightning bugs are forgotten. Rin lights a small twig for light instead of a campfire in response to the warmth, and they settle on the mossy forest floor.

Downing a handful of berries, Rin chews and swallows. “Yo, Makoto.”

“Hm?”

“You looking forward to seeing your family? You talk about them a lot.”

“Oh, well, yeah,” Makoto says. His hand curls tight around a root. “My siblings probably aren’t as excited to see me, though.” He laughs.

That’s a lie, Haruka wants to say.

Rin is quiet a moment, the tiny flame bouncing back from his eyes. “Yeah,” he says. “Anything you do as the oldest is automatically lame.” His gaze goes past Makoto and the rest of them.

An owl coos nearby.

Rin blinks and sits up straight, plucking another handful of berries. “Your sister is an earthbender too, right? I’m sure that hasn’t gone well for your brother.”

“Ah, yeah,” Makoto admits, scratching the back of his head. “He hasn’t been… the best of sports.”

“I could teach him how to chi-block.” Rin downs the berries. “You know, if he wanted to.”

“Eh? You’d do that?”

“Yeah, it’s not too hard. Give him something that the rest of you don’t have. Granted, I’m not nearly as good at chi-blocking as my sister, but I’m decent enough, at least.”

“I’m sure he’d like that. Though only―only if you want to, of course―”

Smiling, Rin leans forward to hit him with the back of his hand. “Yeah, yeah. Enough of that.”

Only somewhat taken aback, Makoto replies with a genuine smile.

Haruka looks down at his hand; he pinches a berry, and it bursts a deep red between his fingers.

The next day they arrive at the foot of the mountains, which seem taller, more watchful when right underneath, and they begin to climb. The valley inside isn’t visible until sunset, green and sprawling with its tiny smattering of life, protected on all sides by the bowl of mountains.

As the sun sets behind them and the others work to set up camp, Haruka notices Makoto still, gazing out over the valley. Golden light washes over the back of his neck, shrinking away bit by bit as the sun drops below the horizon.

The following morning they begin the trek down the slopes and eventually reach flat land by the next day. They weave along a trail through the short forest before the black and white of the ashen stretch of land where they all know the Fire Nation and Northern Water Tribe fought. There’s nothing but barren wind and footsteps to distract from what surrounds them.

Grass, trees, and birdsong are welcoming as they exit the battlegrounds.

They inch closer, cicadas buzzing. Too early for crickets yet, until again, the sun drips behind and the landscape, even as it darkens, is familiar to Haruka.

A knot yanks tight in his chest, only to loosen as they reach farm plots in early dusk. New sprouts rise from the plots in orderly rows, green and alive. Makoto picks up his pace, and hopping down from Kuroime, Haruka chooses to walk on his own.

There―the little mud hut, the shed. The guarding trees along the stream on their right. The hill on their left rising into the short forest that eventually leads to the town.

Candlelight pours out from the cracks of the hut.

Dropping all pretenses of restraint, Makoto runs forward. Haruka allows him the head start before letting go of Kuroime’s rope and jogging after. He stops from a few feet behind as Makoto pulls in a breath and opens the hut door.

“We’re back!”

Haruka can only see Makoto’s frame illuminated by candlelight.

A voice Haruka does not recognize: “What the hell? Who are you?”

Cicadas compete with crickets in the tall grass around them. Makoto’s shoulders tense.

“Oh, ah! I’m―Sorry, I’ll just―” Makoto backs out and shuts the door.

The cicadas and crickets go silent to Haruka. “…Makoto?”

Without turning around to reveal his expression, Makoto breaks away to dash up the hill.

“Makoto!”

Someone’s footsteps. “What’s going on?”

On the periphery of the land, at the bottom of the hill, the old sign that said TACHIBANA is gone.

Chapter Text

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

―William Shakespeare, Hamlet


 Rin, Sousuke, and Ai watch as Makoto disappears into the forest, Haru on his heels.

“Hey!” Rin calls after Haru, but Haru also vanishes, leaving his horse to nervously shift around one spot. “Haru!”

When no reply comes, Rin stomps to Kuroime and grabs her rope in the hopes of leading her after. She digs her hooves in the dirt and pulls away from him, the taut rope rubbing the skin of his hands raw.

“Oh, fucking hell, come on―”

The door of the little mud hut slams open. “Hey!” shouts a woman with long orange-ish hair. “Get off our property!”

“Sorry! We’re leaving, just―”  

Staring him down with scarily intelligent black eyes, Kuroime rejects Rin while he’s seen Makoto lead her around quite easily. Left arm and hand twinging, Rin grits his teeth and yanks. “You dumbass―just move, dammit―”

Coming up beside Rin, Ai takes hold of the rope and gently nudges Rin aside. “Why don’t you go follow them?” he suggests, eyes flicking up the hill and back. “Sousuke and I will handle Kuroime.”

Rin lets the rope fall from his hands, puffing out a relieved breath. “Thanks.” He dashes off into the forest.

Trees and branches swing at him as he dodges through barely visible brush, listening for the footsteps. Movement flashes up ahead and he plunges after, ending up on a dirt road beyond the trees. Lights from a handful of nearby buildings spread onto the dirt and illuminate Haru up ahead, who slips into a mud building with a single window. Eerily alone, Rin follows, seeing the sign Tavern as he draws closer.

He rips open the door and steps into faint candlelight. A handful of tables are unoccupied while both Makoto and Haru crowd the grungy bar itself, a weathered older guy standing behind.

Neither Makoto nor Haru pay any attention to Rin’s just-ran breaths, but the older guy squints at him, losing interest in whatever was happening before his arrival. “You here for a drink or what? Or you with them?”

Wordlessly, Rin gestures between Makoto and Haru, and the guy’s expression flattens and he reluctantly returns to Makoto.

“Yeah, I don’t know when they left,” he says, casually wiping out a cup with a rag. “Seen the family who replaced them around a couple of times though. Apparently that Fire Nation company of yours scooped them up from a village outside of here.”

Makoto’s hands grip the bar. “Do you know where they went?”

Shrugs. “It’s not like they came to chat before they left.”

Haru angles his face towards Makoto, eyes soft and unblinking, but Makoto, completely still yet radiating tension, does not meet his gaze. Rin remains where he is just a couple of steps behind, feeling as if he’s straddling some boundary he can’t tell whether he’s allowed to cross.

Clinks as the guy sets the cup down and picks up a new one.

Haru looks down. With an inhale, he rips open the flap of his satchel and dumps out a pile of coins onto the bar. They all stare at the glints of gold.

“For all of you,” says Haru.

The guy’s expression curdles, his eyes rising from the gold to Haru. He sets aside the cup and rag and shoves the gold all back to Haru; coins fall off the bar, plopping as they hit the earthen floor.

“I know where Fumiko is,” he breathes in a dangerous voice. “I don’t want any of your bloodied money.”

Who’s Fumiko? Rin reels, but both Haru and Makoto recoil. After a couple of breaths, Haru scrapes all of the gold back into his satchel and swipes up the fallen pieces. He whips around and stalks out, passing Rin.

“Haru―”

The tavern door thuds shut.

Silence, and the guy picks back up his cup and rag, wiping somewhat slower in thought. Quieter, and losing some of the bitterness in his tone, he says to Makoto, “Sorry.”

Makoto’s hands on the bar curl into fists.  

Rin stands unsure whether to go after Haru or stay here, but he is relieved from making a decision as Makoto moves, exiting the tavern, and Rin stumbles after him.

Back out in the new dark, stars poking out overhead, there is no sign of Haru and only the clue of his satchel carelessly tossed to the dirt. Makoto picks it up, dusting it off. He doesn’t put it over his own shoulder, and instead clutches it as he scans over the road to settle on the nearby wood.

“He probably went that way,” Makoto says, uselessly, in what seems more of a persuasion of normality rather than necessity.

Rin doesn’t reply.

The two of them walk away from the buildings, road, and light and reenter the forest, cicadas humming from the trees around them. They find Haru paralyzed on the side of an oak, eyes darting up like a cornered animal.

Makoto holds the satchel out to Haru.

Haru does not move. “I don’t want it.”

Accepting the response, Makoto unfurls the strap and begins to pass it over his head.

With a choked, “No―” Haru snatches the satchel from Makoto and shoves it into Rin’s arms. “Rin will take it.”

What? ” Rin shoves the satchel back to Haru. “This is ridiculous.”

Mouth pinched tight, Haru digs his fingernails into the bag before huffing and sliding it on.

No one speaks for several moments.

Makoto glances around the patch of forest. “I guess we can stay here for the night.”

“I’ll go find Sousuke and Ai,” Rin volunteers immediately, and when Makoto gives him the barest of nods and Haru does nothing, he sets off in the direction he thinks the farm is.

The ground slopes down the hill, but before the trees disperse and become flat farmland, the shadowed forms of Sousuke, Ai, and Kuroime come into view. To Rin’s annoyance, both of them, even Sousuke, are petting Kuroime.

They look up from Kuroime.

“So?” Sousuke asks.

Rin’s pace peters out and he comes to a stop, lips pressed together. “They’re too late,” he says, quietly.

“I figured.”

Rin nods. “We’re staying up this way,” is all he can say for now, turning back up the hill. He takes a couple of steps and checks behind, where Sousuke follows and Kuroime lets Ai lead her along.

The warped aura builds up again as they close in, Haru now sitting with his back to a tree and Makoto standing and looking off elsewhere. It takes a moment for them to rejoin and fully notice the additions and in silence, everyone unpacks their belongings and sets up a camp, foregoing cooking and instead relying on Makoto’s stash of roots. Raw, they’re tough, flavorless yet bitter, but even if they had a spectacular meal laid out before them, no one would be particularly hungry.

Uncomfortable sat on the lumpy forest floor, Rin watches. Makoto sits with unfocused eyes, a knobby root in his hand but entirely uneaten. His thumb traces around the ridges. Haru’s hands are empty.

Lowering his own partially gnawed root, Rin sighs. “So…” His eyes are on Makoto. “What do you want to do?”

Makoto unfreezes, blinking and meeting his gaze.

Haru’s voice: “Rin.”

“We just have to figure out what the next plan of action is,” Rin says to Haru, fighting to keep the irritation from his tone.

Shoulders slumped, Makoto looks down at the ground. “I don’t know,” he finally says. He flips the root over in his hand. “I want to look for them, but… I don’t know where I would begin.”

“They can’t have gone too far,” interjects Sousuke. “It’s easier to settle in the closest available place than to continue looking for the perfect one.”

“I suppose, but―they could have gone anywhere. I can’t look in every direction.”

Flapping of wings and rustling of branches as nighttime birds squawk and pass overhead.

“Just think about it,” Rin says to Makoto. “Get some sleep tonight.”

Makoto nods, and he returns to tracing the root’s skin.

When dinner concludes and everyone reshuffles for sleep, Rin is almost afraid to leave Makoto and Haru out of his watch, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to crowd them, Makoto in particular. Instead, with a lasting check on the both of them, he crawls into the tent with Ai and Sousuke and the three of them sit there for a few minutes, processing, no one tired yet.

Eventually, Sousuke asks, “If they decide to go look for Makoto’s family, will you go with them?”

Rin clasps his hands together. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” he says. “It’s just that I have my own family to worry about.”

Sousuke nods, solemnly. “In that case, I’ll go with you.”

“Me too,” offers Ai.

“Thanks.” Rin flops onto his back, his dog pelt jacket cushioning his head as he thinks, But either way, it’s the same damn thing.


The kitchen of Haruka’s parents’ mansion: bright, airy, a place Haruka has only entered a handful of times in reality due to his parents’ insistence that he need not learn to cook. Somehow it’s always magically pristine, as if no one actually ever cooks anything in there. Right now, though, there’s flour dusted all over the counters and the stone floors as the Tachibanas (sans Makoto) teach Haruka how to make a certain kind of pastry.

But Haruka is not Haruka; he’s too short, and his hair is a messy blond. Despite inhabiting the body and doing the actions, he knows he’s not himself.

“Do we have water?” asks their mother, glancing around. “We need water.”

“Over there,” Not Haruka says, pointing to a tall pitcher on a shelf.

She picks it up and carries it to the bowl of unspilled flour, pouring the water in. She peers over the edge of the bowl. “Hm. It’s awfully thick. I don’t think we can mix it in with a spoon. Best to use hands.” Looking up, she gestures at Not Haruka. “Nagisa, come here and try it out.”

Haruka/Nagisa obliges, stepping to the bowl and sticking his hands in. The flour is still powdery, yet a little sludgey with the added water, and coats his hands white as he mashes it down. The mixing requires force, and within a few minutes, Haruka/Nagisa’s arms burn despite the fact that the flour is merely lumped into a different shape with no change in consistency.

Taking a breath to rest his hands and arms, Haruka/Nagisa says, “Maybe it needs more water?”

“No, no, keep going,” their father says. “That’s the right amount.”

Haruka/Nagisa grudgingly gets back to work, but the flour remains the same no matter how much he squishes it. The others stand and watch him without helping, making no attempt to clean up the mess of flour.

Sweat builds on Haruka/Nagisa’s forehead. He can’t swipe it away.

The kitchen door swings open, and in come Haruka’s parents.

“What is this?” barks Haruka’s mother. “Who made this mess?” There is no recognition in her eyes as they pass over Haruka/Nagisa.

Moist, lumpy dough clings to Haruka/Nagisa’s fingers.

He pulls away from the bowl and rushes to grab a large butcher’s knife. Gripped in his palm, it swings, plunging into the backs of both Tachibana parents one after the other. They collapse. Ran screams, but her voice gurgles and stops as the knife punctures her throat, and Ren leaps for the door, only to get it lodged permanently in his spine.

Oozing blood turns milky as it mixes with flour.

Haruka’s parents exhibit no surprise or movement, but the door opens again.

Makoto stops short, Ren immediately at his feet. He takes in the scene, and slowly, his eyes raise to Haruka/Nagisa. “What have you done, Haru?”

Haruka jerks wakes. He trembles, racked with chills despite the persistent humidity of the forest around him. It’s still night; crickets chirp, birds coo, the sky is dark beyond the cover of branches. Everything is quiet.

Rubbing his eyes with weak hands, Haruka readjusts on his pallet. Now he feels the burn of hunger, but he pushes it aside and glances beside him.

Makoto’s pallet is empty.

Haruka sits up, twisting around to scour the woods, but there’s nothing but placid forest as far as he can see. He considers lying back down a moment, but having not yet shaken off the remnants of his dream, he picks himself up. His footsteps crunch underneath him as they follow along his hunch, away from their temporary camp, back down the hill toward the farmland until roots turn to dewy grass.

A three-quarter moon hangs above, bright enough to tinge everything in cold blue. Haruka’s hunch is confirmed as he spots Makoto sitting at the bottom of the hill. His back faces Haruka as he looks out over the farmland.

Haruka’s footfalls betray his presence.

Makoto whips around. Backlit, his expression is invisible to Haruka, but he looks forward and furtively wipes his cheek with the back of his hand.

Unsure whether to turn back or say something, Haruka hovers a breath. Haltingly, he traipses down the hill to take a tentative seat in the grass beside Makoto, allowing a good bit of space between them. The moonlight reflects off a smidge of missed wetness on Makoto’s cheek.

An exhale. “Haru, you don’t have to stay up with me.”

Haruka wraps his arms around his bent knees. Wind jostles the trees behind and rustles the grass at their feet.

Swallowing, Makoto says, “I don’t want you to.”

Haruka blinks, a creeping sensation tightening his throat. No reassurance in Makoto’s expression. Saying nothing, Haruka stands and immediately heads back up the hill. Heat spills over his back, and he doesn’t look back until he’s in the safety of the trees again. Alone at the foot of the hill, Makoto ducks his face into his arms.

Haruka turns to the forest.

Settling back onto his pallet, alone, it takes Haruka a long time to fall back asleep. He jolts awake again in filmy light, eyes unable to see anything but the last images of a different dream for a minute. Makoto’s pallet remains empty, unused, but movement pulls Haruka’s eyes away from it.

Makoto is on the fringe of their camp, arms weighed down by more of those roots, freshly unearthed. He walks forward to dump his collection of roots into a pile near the center of the camp, eyes cast down. Sitting up properly, Haruka lowers his eyes to his own hands.

Not a word is spoken until Rin pokes his head from the tent, not looking particularly surprised to see both Makoto and Haruka awake already. Running a hand through messied hair, he approaches the pile of roots.

“You didn’t have to do that,” he says to Makoto.

Makoto shrugs.

Different birds from the nighttime ones call out above their heads as they all wait in silence. Haruka stays on his pallet while Rin crouches and plucks up one of the roots. Makoto sits down opposite Rin. Ai and Sousuke eventually make their appearances, also settling down to eat the roots in silence.

Makoto inhales. “Rin.”

Half-eaten root in hand, Rin looks up. “Yeah?”

“I’ve decided. I’ll keep going with you all.”

Ice shoots through Haruka’s veins. He sits up straight. “Makoto.”

Makoto’s eyes are fixed on Rin.

Forehead creased, Rin thinks on it a couple of moments, lightly testing the weight of the root in his hand. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

While the others sit in thought, Haruka stares at Makoto, nausea twisting his insides.

Makoto picks up one of the roots and takes a bite.

They pack up and continue on Rin’s path past Shangto Valley, leaving the farmland, trees, creek, and mountains behind. Haruka’s feet blindly follow, unfeeling. As they pass over the opposing mountain and officially exit the valley, the glaring sun on the back of Haruka’s head disappears behind the earth.


Rin consults the crinkled map, trailing along pathways with the tip of his finger. “I don’t know if it’s best to take the most direct route.”

“Why not?” asks Ai, peering over his shoulder.

“I’m not sure how concentrated the rebels will be once we get into the Fire Nation, and whether they’re looking for me. It’s probably a bad idea to just blithely walk into the capital on the most popular road.”

“But you could blend in easier on the popular pathway,” says Sousuke. “If they’re looking for you, they might be expecting you to take a less popular route.”

Rin groans and rubs his forehead. “This is like some shitty mind game.”

Eventually, after frowning over the parchment for a while, Rin decides to split his and Sousuke’s thoughts down the middle and go with a route that isn’t the most crowded and isn’t completely desolate either. They continue on, following the path though little hills and smatterings of trees. They’re still in the Earth Kingdom, but with the Fire Nation close, Rin keeps glancing to Makoto as if waiting for him to stay back. Haru tails at the end of the group.

So far, it’s all been quiet. Too quiet.

That night, they settle in a little grassy meadow in the midst of some trees at the cusp of the border between the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation. Ai and Rin manage to catch a couple of sparrows and they cook them over a small fire. The heat from the fire imprints on Rin’s face, coupled with the general humidity, and sweat drips down his temple as he watches the birds turn golden brown. Smoke coils upwards, warping Makoto, Sousuke, and Ai sitting across from him. Haru is to Rin’s side, chin resting in hand.

A heavy weight dampens the atmosphere.

“Oh, ah, didn’t you say you’ve never had sparrow before?” Ai says to Makoto.

Makoto merely nods.

“Well, it’s, uh, it’s good,” Ai finishes, weakly.

A flicker of a smile. Back to quiet.

Once the birds are cooked, they distribute the meat evenly between the five of them, and they all eat in silence. Haru leaves his portion largely untouched, while Makoto gets at least halfway through his. Pressing his lips together, Rin shares a look with Sousuke, who wears a similarly conflicted expression. Sousuke’s face also gleams with sweat.

As they finish up, everyone stares in diverging directions, miles away. There’s barely a breeze to lift away the humidity and the mood.

To no one in particular, Sousuke mutters, “It’s hot,” and peels away.

Rin trails him with his eyes as he heads for the tent, while the others barely pay any attention. Pulse ticking with indecision, Rin sits, thinking, before jumping up and following.

The fire still crackles behind but the air is much cooler out of its range, and as Rin approaches the tent, Sousuke pops back out, having shed his layers except his most thin tunic. He stops when he spots Rin.

“Hey,” he says, slowly.

Rin stops a couple of feet away from him. “I feel like I haven’t gotten to talk to you.”

Amusement crosses Sousuke’s face. “Since when do you want to talk to me?”

“Shut up,” Rin says, meaning it.

Sousuke’s teasing look fades, and his eyes shift beyond Rin to the others. He jerks his head to the clusters of trees. “Let’s walk, then.”

With a final glance over his shoulder at Ai, Makoto, and Haru still sat around the fire, Rin falls in line with Sousuke and they leave the firelight for the dark. It takes a couple of minutes for Rin’s eyes to adjust to not yet full moonlight, and they walk in comfortable silence.

Sousuke gives him a knowing smile. “Needed to get away?”

Exhaling roughly, Rin admits, “Yeah.”

“Yeah. I guess there’s nothing we can do.”

“Yeah.”

Sousuke’s attention returns forward, and he thinks a moment before speaking again. “I don’t get what his deal is.”

“Makoto?”

“Haru.”

“He’s not that bad,” Rin says, defensively.

“Well, I don’t know. But honestly, until this heals―” Sousuke points to the fading split in his lip, “―I’m not super interested in being pals.”

“Haru did that?”

“He didn’t tell you?” Sousuke’s smile turns bitter. “Yeah, we fought.”

“What the hell? Why?”

“Ah… Back when I was staying at Hazuki’s, I found out that you and Ai were going to be replacing him and that other guy. He, uh, was protecting Hazuki.”

Rin looks out to the grass ahead, picturing it.

Waiting a couple of moments, Sousuke adds, “You know, whole time I was there, he never said anything about knowing you, either.”

Unwittingly, the name Fumiko resurfaces, but Rin contributes nothing.

They continue on, ambling with no clear direction, crickets and footsteps filling the lull of speech.

Rin pulls in an inhale. “You know what I noticed? When I was in the prison?”

Sousuke waits.

“It’s like…” Rin wets his lips. “I guess I never was a subject of pity before, but now I am.” He doesn’t elaborate, but guessing from Sousuke’s clear expression, Sousuke knows exactly what he’s talking about. “So I got people trying to comfort me, trying to make me feel better, and look, it came with good intentions, I don’t deny them that, but… I hated it. I hate being pitied so much.” He checks Sousuke again. “I think you get that.”  

Ruefully, Sousuke allows a smile.

“I guess pity might have been kind and nice in the moment, but afterwards, everything felt the same. It didn’t change anything. It was so… useless to me.” Rin swallows. “But you.”

They duck under the branches of a low hanging tree.

“The things you say to me, they make me so angry. More than anyone else, actually. But it’s weird. You’re never trying to make me feel better, you’re just saying what you think, but once I think it over and the anger goes away, I feel a lot better. I feel like something’s actually changed. Does that… Does that make any sense?”

Sousuke tilts his head. “Yeah.”

“And… I guess what I’m trying to say is… I, uh.” Rin’s voice refuses to work. “I… missed you.”

Unable to bear the weight of that being out in the open, he scouts the ground ahead with hot cheeks. Sousuke says nothing, just continuing to walk, the night tranquil around them.

Eventually, Sousuke inhales. “Rin, I…” He sighs, shooting Rin a halfways glance as he steps over a gnarled tree root. “You know, I’m glad to see you looking so much better.”

Rin frowns, feeling self-righteous in his discomfort. “What the hell does that mean? What, did I look shitty before?”

“Yeah,” says Sousuke, but wholly sincere, without a drop of humor. “In Ito, you seemed… beaten down.” He looks away. “It was unsettling.”

A squirrel runs along the ground and skitters up a tree, rustling leaves above them.

Nothing is said for another minute or so, both carefully avoiding the other. Rin, a rumbling in his chest, realizes how far they’ve traveled on this walk, and how they’re going to have to walk all the way back like this.

He’s about to suggest they turn back when Sousuke trips over a root and stumbles forward.

Rin grabs him by the arm to help him up. “Watch where you’re going, dumbass.”

With a mildly shameful smile, Sousuke straightens up and meets his eyes.

A heartbeat. Two. Three.

Stopped, they both stand there. Rin’s hands still around Sousuke’s arm.

With a hitched exhale, Rin drops his hands and steps back. Sousuke does not waver, his expression something beyond Rin’s understanding as he stares.

Sousuke steps forward, and Rin, blood pooling in his face, forces himself to not step back again. Hand soft, Sousuke smoothes back Rin’s hair from his forehead, coming to a halt at the ends near Rin’s neck. The pads of his fingertips hover, barely touching Rin.

Inhale, exhale. Sousuke leans in.

The kiss is soft, hesitant, scarcely more than a brush of skin before Sousuke pulls back, eyes searching over Rin’s face. His fingers still mark tingling spots on Rin’s neck, asking, It’s not just me, is it?

Rin takes fistfuls of Sousuke’s tunic and kisses him back.

As Sousuke’s fingers sink into Rin’s hair and Rin’s hands skim to Sousuke’s lower back, as Sousuke’s stubble scrapes the side of Rin’s mouth, as they hold close, Rin’s cheek pressing against Sousuke’s, Rin realizes how truly starved he’s been.

Exhaling, Sousuke leans back from the hug to cradle Rin’s face, thumb drawing a slow, tingling streak. He peers into Rin with an unfamiliar fondness and openness, and Rin is disarmed.

Sousuke gives his face a little slap. “I hope you know how to get back, because I don’t.”

Goodnaturedly, Rin shoves him, cracking a weary smile. The intensity breaks somewhat and their smiles at each other are back to teasing as they begin to revert their path through the trees and grass. Quiet settles, a little awkward, but an awkward to soak in, revel. Rin restrains from glancing to his side too much. Although it’s dark and only three-quarter moonlight informs Rin of where to go, he doesn’t conjure a small fire in his hand, feeling it would be disingenuous, that it would dispel the air flowing fresh and clean into his lungs.

Eventually―or thankfully, so Sousuke doesn’t have to pick on him―their campfire glows in the distance. Rin’s insides sink and harden. He so desperately wants everything to be different now, but it’s not; Makoto sits by the fire, eyes glazed over, while Haru lurks aside and combs out his horse’s mane. Ai isn’t in sight, which Rin gathers means he’s dropped the other two and retired to the tent for the night. No greetings are offered in Rin and Sousuke’s return.

“I’m tired,” says Sousuke, parting without waiting for Rin and ducking into the tent.

Rin stands, surveying everything before him. As softly as he can, he calls, “Make sure to put that out soon, yeah?”

Eyes lifting, Makoto nods. Haru pulls his fingers through strands of dark gray.

Rin lingers, pressing his lips together and knowing there’s nothing he can say. With a murmured, “Goodnight,” he turns and slips into the tent.

It’s dark, especially in comparison to the flame, but Rin spots Ai curled on his side, already fast asleep, while Sousuke reclines back on his arms, still awake. He shifts a little as Rin lies down in his spot in the middle.

The air is hot, sticky. Rin looks up at the ceiling of the tent, dark blue washing his vision. His head turns to the side, and he can just make out the hazy edges of Sousuke. Without a word, he rolls in to face him, and sensing the movement, Sousuke faces him as well, head resting atop his folded arm.

Warmth unlike the uncomfortable humidity pools in the pit of Rin’s stomach as he gazes into Sousuke’s shadowed face. He extends out a hand and places it atop Sousuke’s with a small squeeze. With the oppressive humidity around them, that’s all he can do.

Sousuke unfurls his fingers and laces them with Rin’s.

This, at least, has changed.


Among the quiet, the moon, the stars, and the breeze, the fire stays, churning through collected tufts of leaves and chunks of branches. It glows, embers orange and unyielding, rising and falling in intensity as the night progresses. Crickets sing.

The glow frames Makoto as he continues to sit at it as if it’s an altar, his back to Haruka. Haruka only checks once from his spot next to Kuroime, trailing over the morphing line of light that carves out Makoto’s physical presence. Once done untangling the mess of Kuroime’s mane, Haruka begins to braid the thick dark gray strands. Right over left, left over right, right over left, tug to tighten. Left, right, left, tighten. But he doesn’t have any way to secure the braids, so with each he completes, they slowly loosen with gravity and Kuroime’s every slight move of her head.

He’s about to begin redoing the older ones when he returns to the present and looks up. The camp is much darker, the fire on its last legs, just dregs of orange embers clinging to charred branches. Still, Makoto sits. Kuroime’s mane between his fingers, Haruka hears Rin’s parting words in his head.

Tentative, Haruka drops his hands and encroaches upon the space, focus expressly on the dwindling fire. With a wave of his hand and a whiff of smoke, it goes out with a sssssss, plunging them into true darkness.

Haruka pauses. He’s too close. He holds his breath and can’t help a glance, even in the faint moonlight. His eyes lock with Makoto’s. Makoto does not move or react, leveling a stare back.

Kuroime knickers behind them.

Exhaling, Haruka rips himself away, heading back in Kuroime’s direction. Rustle of movement behind.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were working for Hazuki?”

Haruka stops short. He rotates back, finding Makoto standing and facing him squarely. “Huh?”

Makoto’s tone is sharp as he repeats himself: “Why didn’t you tell me you were working for Hazuki?”

Haruka blinks. “I did…”

Makoto shakes his head. “You told Rin. I just happened to be there.”

The nausea returning, Haruka does not move a muscle. Trying to spin it, he weasels, “I could have told Rin sooner than I did, but I waited until you were there…”

“That doesn’t change how you only thought to tell it because Rin was there,” Makoto says. “When it involves me. Not him.”

Letting that lie between them, Haruka is rooted and silent for a tick of his pulse. Turning around to head back to Kuroime, he mutters under his breath, “Well, you found out anyway.”

Look at me!

Haruka wheels back. “Well what about you?!”

“Me?”

“Why are we here? Why aren’t you looking for your family?”

Makoto sighs. “Haru…”

“At least I tried, you just let things happen and do nothing!” Haruka clenches his fists. “It’s like you don’t ever actually want anything.”

Makoto’s face contorts. “You think I don’t want things?!” he snaps, and a chill rises up Haruka’s back. “I want so much. I want to be able to read, I want do something other than farmwork, I want to fix everything that happened in Shangto, I want my family to never have to worry about money, I want my siblings to have opportunities to do what they want to do, I want my parents to have a break, I want my family to be here, I want to be someone who isn’t an embarrassment, I want―”

Makoto heaves an exhale, looking aside. “But there’s no point in wanting any of that.” He thinks a second and adds, “I can’t make myself do whatever it takes to get those―”

“Like I can?”

Silence.

Tasting acid on his tongue, Haruka spits, “I didn’t tell you about Nagisa because I knew you wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

He turns away, and Makoto lets him.

Blood roars in his ears as he hurtles across the camp, refusing to look behind himself. He stops at the tent and rips open the flap.

“Rin!” he hisses.

A dim shape, Rin lets out a muffled groan, while the other two shift at the noise. “What the hell, Haru?”

“Spar with me.”

“What? Now? ” Rin props himself on his elbows and furrows his brow. “I’m trying to sleep―”

“Fine, don’t.” The flap swings shut as Haruka sets off to the forest, Rin’s indignation and the sound of footsteps trailing after him.

A good distance off the camp, Haruka swivels back, and Rin skitters to a stop behind him. The questions form in Rin’s expression, but Haruka blasts a wave of flame before the questions make it to Rin’s voice. Surprised, Rin jumps back and immediately bounces the fire back to Haruka. Haruka diverts it from himself, hearing the rush as it sweeps through the grass to his side.

In a daze, Haruka continues to bombard Rin, their usual roles reversed; Rin on defense, Haruka on offense. Haruka pushes Rin back, step by step, grating at him until Rin loses concentration and leaves open his blind spot. Gritting his teeth, Haruka shoves a final shot that Rin barely blocks. The force knocks Rin to the ground.

Grass sizzles and burns out between them.

Haruka stands, panting, watching Rin gingerly sit up. As Rin meets his eyes, Haruka does not find what he wants; instead, Rin looks at him with confusion, concern.

The nausea will not abate.

With a final glimpse of the camp behind―Ai and Sousuke’s forms moving closer, Makoto nowhere in sight―Haruka leaves Rin sprawled out on the ground behind him, and this time, Rin does not try to follow.

He tramples through the forest, directionless, going anywhere but here. He stumbles upon a bush of lily white flowers, glowing blue in nighttime light, their petals open and vulnerable.

They wither and crumple as he lights them.

Chapter Text

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

―Aldous Huxley, Brave New World


“Rin!”

Footsteps tumble close as Rin sits on the ground, staring off to where Haru just disappeared. Sousuke comes into his line of sight, offering out a hand.

“Are you okay?”

Disoriented, Rin blinks. “Yeah,” he says, taking Sousuke’s hand and letting him pull him up. He only takes a glance to process the pinch between Sousuke’s brows before again gazing off into the dark. The embers from the fight fizzle out and fade into black.

“Should we go after him?” asks Ai, coming up beside Rin.

Rin sighs and shakes his head. “He’ll be back.”

Ai and Sousuke share a look that Rin ignores, inhaling deeply to quell shaking hands and turning back toward their camp.

Sousuke hounds his footsteps. “What the hell was that all about?”

“Beats me.”

“Is that a normal thing for the two of you?”

“Nah,” Rin says, shaking his head again. “Nothing like that, at least.” He clears his throat.

Their camp is the same, dark, Haru’s horse surprisingly unbothered by the sudden fire show. As the three of them reach the tent, Rin slows, squinting out over the camp. The pallet beside him empty, Makoto lies completely still in shadow.

Rin sighs again. “You guys go on.”

He keeps forward before he can see their reactions, padding across short grass.

At Rin’s footsteps, Makoto’s head pops up. He frowns in surprise. “Rin?”

Stopping beside the empty pallet, Rin points. “Mind if I stay here?” he asks. “It’s hot as hell in that tent.”

“Oh!” Makoto sits up a little. “Um, yeah.”

Rin checks back as he flops down onto the pallet, meeting Sousuke’s eyes as Sousuke dawdles by the tent’s entrance. Lips pressed together, Rin shrugs by way of explanation and with a small nod, Sousuke slips into the tent.

Makoto shifts his position in accommodation and Rin lies flat beside him, eyes up to the sky.

Tentatively, Makoto says, “You don’t have to stay out here…”

“I’ve never slept under the stars before, so I figured there’s gotta be a first time for everything,” Rin huffs.

Still halfway sat up, Makoto peers into him. Rin squirms under the scrutiny, knowing he cannot fool him, but Makoto merely lies back and murmurs, “Thanks.” 

Without any interfering light, the stars overhead gleam silver across an expansive indigo, only the sampling of trees disrupting the view. Comfortably awkward silence falls over Rin and Makoto as they both know neither is anywhere close to sleeping.

“Look,” Rin finally says. “I’m not forcing you to talk, but something’s wrong. I’ve never seen Haru like that.”

He turns his head to the side; Makoto doesn’t meet his eyes.

The grass to Rin’s other side chirps.

Shortly: “We had a fight.”

“About?”

Makoto exhales slowly, letting the breath go. “You remember back when you and I first met in Ito, and Haru explained how he’d been working for Hazuki to you?” A weird hint of a smile pulls his mouth. “That was the first time I heard it too.”

“What?” Rin sits up, leaning into his elbow. “Haru hadn’t told you?”

He shakes his head.

Shit, Makoto. I thought you knew. I’m so sorry. I mean, I could tell there was something going on, but damn, I didn’t think it was that. ” He plops back down and rubs his forehead. “Jeez.”

“Yeah,” Makoto says, softly. “I’ve been thinking about it and decided to bring it up, and… it didn’t go well.”

“Jeez, I can’t believe you went so long without saying anything. I would have called him out much sooner. Especially considering that money was going towards your family.”

“Yeah, well…”

With a click of his tongue, Rin grumbles, “Sometimes I don’t know what the hell he’s thinking.”

Makoto exhales in a way that almost resembles a laugh.

They’re quiet for a while. Rin restlessly taps his finger on the pallet.

“Rin?”

“Mm?”

“You miss them, don’t you?” Makoto shifts his head. “Your family?”

A tightness reaches up Rin’s sternum to clutch his throat. He says, “Yeah.”

A softness in Makoto’s eyes, images of the stars bounced back upward. “Yeah.”

It marinates. A small breeze ambles through, jostling the grass surrounding them.

“Goodnight, Rin.” Makoto rolls onto his side, back facing Rin.

“Yeah,” Rin murmurs. “You too.”

By the time Makoto’s breaths slow, Rin has studied the clusters of stars enough to feel them imprinted on the insides of his eyelids when he shuts his eyes.

Sunlight wakes him in the morning. Birds chirping around him, Rin squints and covers his eyes, filtering the intensity of the sun as he adjusts. He inhales and sits up. Hand moving to pull through a knot in his hair, he focuses beside him, where Makoto is asleep, flattened out on his stomach. It’s pretty early, still. Maybe only an hour or two past dawn, the sky a desaturated blue with the sun at an angle in the sky.

A shuffle of movement pulls Rin’s attention around to their extinguished campfire. Haru stands there, arms full of something. He freezes a second as he meets Rin’s eyes, before casting his gaze away and dumping whatever he’s holding to the ground.

Rin rubs his eyes and stands to stretch his arms and crack his knuckles. He approaches the center of the camp, where Haru goes back and forth from, lugging in what Rin sees are those roots Makoto usually collects and piling them in an absurdly large lump near the campfire.

Taking it in, Rin can’t find it in him to lecture Haru yet or admit how he’s gotten tired of eating those roots, so instead, he sits down and studies Haru as he flits around. If Haru got any sleep last night, it definitely wasn’t restful.

When Haru finishes dropping off even more of those roots, he finally sits opposite Rin with his arms wrapped around his knees. His hands are dirty and scraped.

Rin sighs. “Thanks.”

Haru rests his chin on his knees.

Although not particularly hungry, Rin feels obligated into picking up one of Haru’s offerings and taking a small bite. It’s a little more bitter than usual, but he resists the urge to spit it out and chews and swallows. He deems that enough for now, and lets his arm go slack.

Movement across the camp; Makoto sits up. Rin’s eyes flicker between Haru, whose arms curl tighter, and Makoto, whose expression is masked. Makoto eventually picks himself up and creeps closer, sticking on Rin’s side of the pit.

“Morning,” Rin says to him, to combat the lingering bitterness on his tongue.

Makoto smiles. “Good morning.” His smile vanishes, however, as he spots the pile of roots. “Huh―where―did either of you eat these?!”

Haru responds with a furrowed brow while Rin shows Makoto the root in his hand.

Makoto snatches the root from Rin. “Is that all?!”

“Yeah…?”

Makoto checks the bite marks on the root. “Okay,” he says, harshly breathless. “See how these have a reddish color? They’re different. These ones are poisonous.”

Rin’s stomach drops. “What?”

“Yeah, but if this is all you had, you’ll be okay,” Makoto assures. “You might feel a little sick, that’s all, but…”

They all stare down at the gnarled roots.

Pale, Haru is rigid. “Sorry,” he blurts. “Sorry.” He lurches up and scoops as many roots as he can. A couple fall to the ground as he rushes away from the center of the camp and flings them into the trees.

Makoto and Rin watch Haru hurl away every last root, jumping with every dull thunk of earth. For a moment when the roots are all gone, Rin worries whether Haru is going to flee again, but Haru doesn’t, instead coming to Kuroime and rooting around one of the pouches sitting attached to her saddle.

He returns to Makoto and Rin and drops some of the stored roots Makoto previously collected, which are more brown than red, now that Rin notices. Sinking down again, Haru stares at the ground.

Makoto picks up a root for himself and tells Rin to eat something to get something more in his system. Reluctantly, Rin follows his advice. It’s still not good, but it’s less bitter, at least. Eventually and surprisingly, Haru plucks up a root and eats it whole without speaking.

Ai gets up, eyes flickering as he sifts through the mood between all of them, and eventually Sousuke rises as well. Still, Rin’s insides tighten at Sousuke’s presence, and when Sousuke levels a curious look on him, Rin can only tilt his head to say, Tell you about it later.

Accepting it, Sousuke sits between Ai and Makoto and picks up a root.

When they’re all about done eating, Rin opens his mouth as if to say something.

Haru steals his thunder. “Do you need help packing up the tent?” he directs at Ai, and by proxy, Sousuke.

“Oh, um! Sure, I guess, if you want…?”

Instantly, Haru pops up and heads for the tent, and Ai stands a couple seconds later with a slight frown.

Sousuke, Makoto, and Rin watch them go, overhearing Haru say to Ai, “Just tell me what to do.”

As Haru and Ai begin to dismantle the tent, Sousuke looks back at Makoto and then Rin. “I guess we’re leaving,” he says.

“Guess so.” Rin stands.

They all pack up, and as the humidity rises to full intensity, they set off. The patch of scorched grass is left behind.


Up through the trees, past a small village in a shallow valley, sunlight ferocious overhead.

Haruka keeps forward, leading Kuroime with Ai riding her again, eyes set on the ground before them. His hands, with their cracked and bloody scrapes, sting a little in the open air. As the path continues over a hill, Haruka checks Rin, for the tenth time. Rin sweats, as they all do from the humidity, but his face has an unusual pallor.

“Rin,” he says, slowing to match.

The others turn to Rin.

Eyes narrowing, Sousuke asks, “Are you okay?”

Rin waves a hand. “Just a stomachache.” Eyes forward as he pushes on.

Haruka’s chest clenches. Why aren’t you exposing me?

Sousuke seems unconvinced, but with his attention is solely on Rin, Haruka hidden from the limelight. For a moment, Haruka senses Makoto’s eyes on him.

“Rin―”

Rin stops, and ignoring his name, he ducks behind some trees and bushes. The sound of him retching.

Makoto and Haruka instantly rush to him, finding Rin bracing himself against a tree and expelling the contents of his stomach. Stricken, Haruka can only watch, while Makoto comes to Rin’s side and rests a hand on his shoulder.

Coughing, Rin wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “ Fuck. ” He swallows and faces them somewhat sheepishly, allowing Makoto’s hand to remain on his shoulder.

Ai and Sousuke lurk behind Haruka. Rin focuses on them and smiles weakly. “Stomach bug, I guess.”

The partially chewed and digested roots splattered on the ground stare into Haruka.

“You better not get me sick,” says Sousuke, quietly.

“I’ll try not to.” Rin pulls in a steadying inhale, color already returning to his face. “Damn, I feel a lot better.”

Awkwardly and unsure, they scatter from the evidence at differing times, Haruka and Makoto avoiding each other’s eyes. Haruka stops beside Kuroime and grabs her rope, attention on the tremble of Rin’s hands.

“Rin, do you want to ride Kuroime?” he asks, voice small.

Rin shakes his head. “Nah, I’m fine.”

“Rin.”

Rin sighs. “Will you leave me alone?”

A pause.

Rin’s eyes widen. “I didn’t mean―” He flicks his gaze over Sousuke and Ai and clenches his jaw before drudging over to Haruka and Kuroime. Kuroime backsteps and Rin glares at her, but Haruka holds her rope steady and helps Rin clamber onto her back. Once situated, he picks up the reins with tense wrists, as if he’s clutching a snake about to bite him.

Scouting over all of them, Rin mutters, “Well, are we just standing here?”

With that, they cautiously restart their journey, everyone’s eyes continuously darting to Rin. As the day wears on, Rin eventually relinquishes and leans forward to rest his head on Kuroime’s neck, eyes shut. Haruka remains on his side, making sure he’s still breathing.

They come to a stop for the night, and taking initiative, Makoto scrounges out some food that isn’t those roots while the rest of them sit and simmer. Rin looks fine, albeit tired and irritated with all the attention, but Haruka’s stomach churns ceaselessly.

After they eat a measly meal of berries and plucked leafy fronds, Rin mutters something about needing a walk and sets off, Sousuke following after. The two of them are gone for some time, while Ai, Makoto, and Haruka sit again. Ai and Makoto quietly talk in random intervals while Haruka half-listens, ears pricked for incoming footsteps.

Instead, he catches the distant rumble of thunder.

Looking up where the evening sky has morphed into dusty gray, Makoto says, “Think it’s going to rain?”

“Looks like it,” says Ai.

“Hm. I hope Rin and Sousuke get back before it starts.” Makoto continues to examine the sky.

“If it does rain, you guys can try to stay in our tent, if you want. It’ll be kinda crowded but at least you’ll be out of the rain.”

“Oh, really? Thanks!”

Haruka listens as the thunder draws closer and closer.

Rin and Sousuke make it back before the rain cuts loose, and looking a bit more himself, Rin suggests they pack it in before the storm hits. A hot, electric wind swoops through, grass swaying at their feet. The first drops begin to patter as they scurry around. Instead of taking out his pallet, Makoto waits by Ai and enters the tent, Rin and Sousuke following behind.

Thunder cracking overhead, Haruka unfurls his pallet and lies it flat in already slick grass. A good distance away from the tent, he settles down, rain beating down on him and soaking into his clothes. He screws his eyes shut.

Maybe only a couple of minutes, everyone’s voices dulled in the background, before footsteps cut through the rain fall.

“Listen.”

Haruka cracks open his eyes to find Rin crouched beside him.

Expression tight as water drips down his face, Rin says, “I don’t know what this is, whether you’re trying to avoid me or Makoto or you’re trying to punish yourself or something, but you’re making yourself look so childish.”

He stands and leaves, slipping back into the tent.

Incessant droplets blur Haruka’s vision. For a breath, lightning cuts the sky into jagged halves, nearly blinding him.

Jumping up, he runs to the tent and opens up the flap. Everyone’s eyes land on him as he heaves an exhale and asks, “Can I come in?”

Rin tilts his head, almost amused. “Yeah.”

Dripping, Haruka ducks in. Both Rin and Ai scoot away from the center to allow him a space and he squeezes in, half expecting Rin to make a complaint about him being a soggy dog. But Rin says nothing and lays back with his arms folded under his head. On the other side of Rin sits Sousuke, squashed into the tent wall, and Makoto is in a similar position on Ai’s other side.

It’s barely light enough to see, though intermittent flashes of lightning intrude through the crack of the tent flap. They listen to the thudding gale overhead and feel the tent pull in varying directions with the wind.

Sousuke breaks the silence. “Anyone know any good ghost stories?”

“Um!” squeaks Ai.

“No, but I could show you one,” Rin says.

“Show me one?”

“Yeah, I could stab you right now. But I’m not going to because then you could haunt me and then I’d never get rid of you.”

“But you can’t get rid of me now when I’m alive either, so it must be terrible to be you.”

“Who said I can’t get rid of you when you’re still alive―”

“I’m tired,” Haruka interrupts, lying back.

Rin stops and glances down at Haruka. “Uh―Alright. Good night, I guess.”

Haruka shuts his eyes, blocking them out, listening to the rustles of movement as everyone quiets down. One by one, everyone slips off into sleep. Haruka knows he is last.

It’s not a restful night; wedged between Rin and Ai, both restless and squirmy in sleep, Haruka is repeatedly elbowed and kicked, and he slips in and out of sleep. He’s unsure whether he really sleeps at all, but the rain fades and the light gradually returns, so he must sleep some. As Ai’s arm thwacks over his shoulder, Haruka stays awake for good, staring up into the ceiling of the tent with the early morning cool washing over him.

Carefully, he slides Ai’s arm off of him, pausing when Ai shifts and puffs an exhale. Once free, he sits up. His hair hangs messy from drying as he slept.

Without him taking up space, Ai instinctively claims the opening, head lolling toward Rin with arm and leg flopped out like a doll. Rin is still breathing and partially curled toward Sousuke, a hand latched onto Sousuke’s tunic, while Sousuke lies utterly flat and still, only his chest moving with snores.

On Ai’s other side, Makoto curls into the wall of the tent, and all Haruka can see is the subtle movement of his shoulder blades with his breath.

Haruka opens the tent flap to step outside.

Leftovers of the rain, a faint mist sinks onto the surrounding landscape and dewy grass squishes under Haruka’s feet, the ground more pliant. Tree branches hang lower than they did yesterday, laden down with droplets. His pallet still lies where he abandoned it, and gingerly picking it up, he finds it heavy with absorbed water.

Footsteps.

Haruka whips around. Makoto, yawning, ducks out of the tent and stops where he is.

The only thing Haruka can think to say is, “You’re up early.” He wishes it hadn’t come out sounding so accusatory.

But Makoto only dips in his head, the corner of his mouth twitching up. “Yeah.”

Hands still clutching the soggy pallet, Haruka pulls it into himself and lowers his eyes.

“Oh. You could probably get Ai or Sousuke to get the water out of that,” Makoto suggests.

“Yeah.”

The mist breaks and clears as the sun arrives, and in the trills of birds and chirps of insects, the two of them skim around each other, silently organizing the needs of the day in wake of the storm. When the others rise, Haruka’s insides loosen to see Rin looking entirely back to himself. Haruka does exactly as Makoto suggested and ask Ai’s help and receives his pallet back dry and good again.

Warmth from the sun fills their day’s trip, but it is a pleasant, easy warmth, with a casual breeze and barely any humidity. They stop for the night apparently in the Fire Nation and another day’s travel from a decently sized town according to the map, and with no more roots, Ai catches a single rabbit.

“Want to practice?” Sousuke asks Makoto, holding up the dead rabbit. “We could do it together.”

Haruka hadn’t paid attention when Sousuke first offered to teach butchering, but he’s paying attention now.

There’s a breath before Makoto replies, “Yeah, sure!”

As Sousuke begins to set up, Haruka continues to eye Makoto, who stands, watching Sousuke with fingers curled tight into his palms.

Setting his jaw, Haruka approaches and stops near Sousuke. “Can you teach me too?”

Sousuke’s is expression flat and guarded. He surveys Haruka for a moment, but eventually, he says, “If you want.”

“Thanks.” Haruka settles beside Makoto a polite distance away, and focuses entirely on Sousuke. Maybe it’s wishful imagination, but Haruka senses Makoto’s shoulders release a smidgen of tension.

Afterward, the three of them wash their hands clean. Red tinges the water as it carries away the reminders from Haruka’s hands.


“Must be terrible to be you,” muses Sousuke.

As they walk in the burn of the sun through the streets of a lively town named Murabi, Rin sweats underneath the protective snout of his dog pelt jacket, but playing dumb, he says, “Oh?”

“You’re so hideous that you have to wear that,” Sousuke says, pointing to Rin’s jacket with a smug grin, “and in this kind of heat.”

The crowded alley they mince through runs alongside a shallow canal, water rippling below.

“Give me an opportunity and I will shove you in,” Rin grumbles.

“Go ahead. I’m sure it’s refreshing and cool.”

Scoffing, Rin turns his face away as Sousuke laughs at him.

Murabi is much busier than the sparse villages they’ve been passing, and having only just entered the town, they’re in a sort of adjustment period, now unused to other people and life. Weaving through the flat streets around the snaking canals, they pass by merchants and workers bustling and chattering. It would be a pleasantly humming environment if not for the sporadic presence of Fire Nation soldiers amongst the townspeople in near full regalia. Shades of burgundy and gold whisper at every corner.

Rin lingers too long on food stalls, seduced by the sights and smells of fresh, seasoned, real food. Surreptitiously, he glances at Haru, who as always hangs beside Kuroime. Before arriving in Murabi Rin asked about whether they could use some of Haru’s gold to get some necessities or stay in an actual building for once while in the town, but Haru refused.

There’s some unspoken agreement between Rin and Makoto to leave the root incident behind, so Rin has not said a word to Ai or Sousuke. Or Haru. Rin could try to lecture him, but he senses Haru isn’t going to forget it anytime soon, and he hopes maybe if they keep moving, Haru will keep moving too.

They pass over a small bridge, canal glimmering in the sun below, and then fall into the shadow of a row of narrow buildings colored in shades of rust. Fruit vendors stand along the other side of the street, calling out invitations to try their products. A clump of Fire Nation soldiers has claim to a spot on the steps of one of the buildings, and Rin avoids looking in their direction as they walk by.

As the five of them (six, counting Kuroime) turn the corner and fall into the reach of the sun again, footsteps patter behind.

“Excuse me!”

Rin’s chest tightens to find a Fire Nation soldier approaching, about ten other soldiers watching expectantly from behind. The soldier’s expression is muddled by the helmet partially covering his face, but he directs his attention to Haru.

“Could you come with me for a moment, please?”

Haru frowns. “Huh?”

They share uneasy looks.

“Just for a minute. You’re not in trouble or anything,” coaxes the soldier.

Bristling, Rin pushes through to stand beside Haru. “What do you want with him?”

“Don’t make a scene,” Haru mutters, placing a hand on Rin’s shoulder and squeezing. He looks at the soldier. “Okay.”

“Huh? Haru―”

Without looking back at them, Haru trails after the soldier and heads back to the other soldiers. Slipping into the crowd, Haru disappears with the first soldier into the alleyway between the narrow buildings. The rest of the soldiers form a protective wall between the alley and Rin, Makoto, Sousuke, Ai, and Kuroime.

“Sorry, you have to stay here until we get a different order,” says the soldier directly in front of Rin.

Makoto takes Kuroime’s rope, fingers going bloodless.

Gritting his teeth, Rin tries to look over the heads of the soldiers to the alleyway, but all he can catch is Haru’s back as Haru stands still, with what Haru faces obscured from view. Enough to keep Rin somewhat at ease.

“Um…” A different soldier to Rin’s side shifts. “Are you all from Murabi?”

Rin barely spares him a glance. “None of your business.”

“So… no?”

Haru only shifts minimally, perhaps speaking.

“So shut up.”

A soldier in the group moves, cutting Rin’s view of Haru. Rin’s fingers tap a quick pace on his thigh.

He’s near shoving them out of the way when murmuring from within sets off a cascade of movement between the soldiers, and Haru steps out, unharmed.

His expression is unreadable as his eyes attach to Rin. “Rin, come here a second.”

Huh? Why? Why just me?”

“Trust me,” Haru says. “Please.”

A pause, and Rin hates his own hesitation, hates the tiny tremble in Haru’s voice. Haru waits, drooping.

Rin exhales. “Okay.”

Sousuke’s voice: “Rin―”

Ignoring him, Rin shadows Haru and the soldiers allow them back in.

The alleyway is a dusty dead end, empty except the first soldier standing with his arms folded over his chest and a different, smaller soldier standing in front of him. Slowing to a stop, Haru looks back at Rin and then at the smaller soldier.

Rin frowns underneath his hood. “What is this about?”

The smaller soldier inhales sharply, and there’s a moment of silence. “Rin?”

A shiver up Rin’s back. “…Mother?”

Thud of his pulse.

She rushes into him, and he into her, hugging each other close. Rin squeezes, feeling choppy breaths against him as she begins to cry. His own throat grows tight, but despite everything, despite what he wants, he still can’t seem to.

They stand there for a while.

Once she recollects herself somewhat, she pulls back with head tilted up and keeps a firm hand on his shoulder. Rin can’t see her expression behind the mask, but his hood only covers the top half of his face, so with a sniff, she tugs on a lock of his hair.

Finding his voice, Rin croaks, “What are you… What is this?”

She shakes her head. “We shouldn’t talk about it in the town,” she murmurs, her voice so achingly familiar. Sniffing again, she reaches a hand into her helmet and wipes at where her eyes must be. “I… ah. I’m busy right now. Can you wait? Natsuya can take you to wait at our camp, and then we can talk, okay?” She pats his arm.

Rin can only nod, mind buzzing, and with a mammoth inhale, his mother drops her hand and steps back.

Her voice turns crisp as she addresses the other soldier. “Natsuya, if you would.”

Natsuya dips his head and unfolds his arms, corralling Haru and Rin out of the alleyway. Rin watches his mother disappear over his shoulder as they’re ushered back out into the street. Dazed, he shields his eyes from the sun, taking a moment to readjust to the previous world. Sousuke, Makoto, and Ai crowd in, wearing differing versions of concern and confusion.

“What’s going on?” Sousuke asks.

Licking his lips, Rin takes a moment. “It’s okay,” he says, with a faint grin. “It’s, ah…” He checks aside and lowers his voice. “It’s my mother.”

“Hah?”

“Your mother? ” repeats Ai.

“What is she doing here?”

Feeling Natsuya’s pointed attention on him, Rin waves a hand. “Later. She said we can stay at their camp for now.”

Sousuke’s eyes narrow on Natsuya, while Makoto and Ai peer at Rin.

It’s not until they begin to follow Natsuya through the streets of Murabi that Rin, in hindsight, identifies envy hidden in Makoto and Ai’s expressions.

His mind spins.


“You can wait here,” says the soldier, Natsuya, gesturing to an open fire pit amongst rows of small tents.

Tentatively, they all take seats, except Rin, who paces back and forth, and Haruka, who remains by Kuroime. Natsuya doesn’t leave them alone for moment, stiffly standing offside with his helmet cradled in his arms to display short wavy brown hair and serious brown eyes. He looks bored, or perhaps irritated, at being sidled with them.

The camp itself is a good walk aways from Murabi, settled in the wilderness on flat land. Water from the canals either begins or ends here with a small stream coiling around rows of tents. The grass beneath their feet is not as lush and green as back in the Earth Kingdom, coming in patches interspersed with dry earth, well-worn and trampled.

Haruka stands with Kuroime behind Ai and Sousuke. The tension emanating from both slips under his skin as well, and he rhythmically rubs his thumb along the coils of Kuroime’s rope.

Early afternoon turns to late afternoon, with intervals of Rin sitting down, bouncing his leg, and then returning to pacing. Sousuke relaxes only enough to lay back and drift off, an arm draped over his eyes to block out the sun. Ai sits there and plucks at grass, experimenting with tying pieces into different knots. Makoto is still, far away in thought. All the while, neither Haruka nor Natsuya sits once.

The sun begins to tip to the west by the time the shuffling of multiple footsteps approaches. Sitting up and coming back to life, they watch Fire Nation soldiers returning to tents and milling about. Rin stills, his expression still hidden by the low hang of his snouted hood.

Out of the swarm comes one of the smaller soldiers. Plucking off a helmet, the soldier reveals hair a similar shade to Rin and Kou’s tucked into a crisp bun and eyes and facial features close relatives to theirs.

Rin hugs her tight again. Before, Haruka couldn’t tell whether Rin cried or not, but he definitely doesn’t now, and neither does his mother.

“I’m so relieved to see you,” she says, pulling off Rin’s hood. “I didn’t know if―”

Rin clasps her hand, keeping her from finishing the sentence.

Her attention falls beyond Rin. “Sorry again for the scare earlier, Haruka! I didn’t mean to single you out like that, I just spotted you and didn’t want―”

“It’s fine.”

“You’re looking well, by the way.” She smiles, eyes crinkling. Her attention flicks between him and Rin. “I’m sure I’ll hear about what you’re doing here and meet the, ah, rest of you.”

“Oh, yeah.” Rin detaches from her and gestures over the other three. “Makoto, Ai, and Sousuke.”

“Nice to meet you all.” Her smile fades as she refocuses on Rin. “Rin, we can talk in private in my tent.”

With a pause followed by a short nod, Rin immediately follows her without a look back and they both disappear into the rows of tents.

Still stuck with no orders other than his prior ones, Natsuya does not leave. The four of them are silent for a couple of moments.

“You know her, right?” Sousuke asks Haruka, though his eyes are trained on where Rin and his mother vanished. “What’s she like?”

Haruka thinks on it. “Nicer than Rin but just as tough.”

“Hm.” Sousuke leans back again, arms folded under his head, but this time he does not fall asleep.

The wait continues, but this time they have the added presence of more soldiers around them. Two lurk a distance away, furtively whispering things to each other.

Natsuya spots them. “Don’t you have things to do?”

Grumbling, they scatter, and Natsuya lifts his chin.

“Um, excuse me?”

Everyone’s attention, including Natsuya’s, turns to Makoto.

“Is there any way for us to get something to eat? I mean, we’ve been waiting here for hours and it’s getting late…”

Natsuya considers it. “Well, I haven’t received any orders from Lady Miyako about it, but at the moment we should keep rations to our soldiers.”

“Oh. Okay…”

“Isn’t there a river nearby?” ask Ai.

Sousuke lifts his head. “Yeah, we could try to see if there’s fish.”

“Is that okay?” Makoto blinks up at Natsuya. “I mean, we’re allowed to go there, right?”

With a sigh, Natsuya plops his helmet back on his head. “Yes. I’ll just go inform Lady Miyako where we’re going in case they finish talking.”

As they all stand, stretch, and dust themselves off, Natsuya heads into the maze of tents. In his absence, two presences return.

“Yo,” calls out one of the soldiers, voice hushed. “Is your friend really Prince Rin?”

The four of them share a couple of looks, but know too late that their reluctance to respond is an ample answer.

A tall shadow manifests behind the two soldiers. “What did I say.”

The first soldier squawks and hops out of Natsuya’s way, while the other one says nothing and forces Natsuya to walk around him. With a final piercing look from Natsuya, the two vanish for good this time.

Natsuya jerks his chin. “Let’s go.”

They follow after him, heading to the outskirts of the camp where the small, clear stream glistens in late afternoon sunlight. Ai and Sousuke set themselves up on the bank, focused and patient, while Natsuya stands well away, overseeing with arms folded. Unable to leave Kuroime behind, Haruka keeps her far away from Ai and Sousuke’s concentration, while Makoto stands a little closer to the bank, watching Ai and Sousuke from a distance. His hands remain by his sides, fingers curled the slightest bit.

Haruka stands there for a while, absently stroking Kuroime’s mane and watching Makoto instead of Ai and Sousuke. When Sousuke nabs a third small fish and says something about how that’s probably enough, Makoto’s hand twitches.

“Makoto,” says Haruka, quiet enough for only Makoto to hear him.

Makoto looks over his shoulder, brows raised.

Haruka stops petting Kuroime. “You don’t have to butcher if you don’t want to.”

“Eh?” Quickly, Makoto says, “There’s nothing wrong with butchering.”

“I know. But if it’s not something you want to do, you shouldn’t force yourself to.”

Makoto stares.

“Hey!” Ai calls, and Makoto snaps back to life. “We’re done if you want to help.”

“Yeah,” Haruka answers before Makoto can get a word in. He walks forward, leading Kuroime with him, and hands off the rope to Makoto.

“Uh―” Makoto takes the rope anyway.

As Sousuke teaches him how to properly debone a fish, Haruka immerses himself in the work, aware only that Makoto has not joined in on the lesson this time. When fish guts drip down his wrist and all the fine bones have been picked clean from the meat, Haruka offers to light a fire to cook with.

Only then does he hazard a look at Makoto. Makoto, at ease, pets Kuroime’s neck, unaware of the attention.

Haruka looks away and dips his hands in the stream, washing them clean.


Rin’s mother’s tent is indistinguishable from the other tents, just as small and individual. He follows her in, ducking his head under a shallow ceiling that hangs only a little higher than the ceiling of the tent Ai and Sousuke made.

“Can you light that?” she asks, pointing at a small candle lamp.

He obliges, and she sits down facing toward him. Placing her helmet by her hip, she sighs and pulls her hair free from its bun. Deep maroon tumbles over her shoulders, and she rubs her scalp. Now, sitting in the flickering candle light, hair loose, helmet gone, she seems very small.

“So…” She studies his face. “How did… What are you and Haruka doing here?”

Rin unloads the whole ordeal of the recent months onto her, pausing for interjections from her about Haruka running away on his own (“That boy,” she says, shaking her head) and about what Rin experienced (“I always knew the Earth Kingdom was corrupt”), as well as Natsuya poking his head in to inform them of the others going fishing, until he arrives at now, in the Fire Nation on the way back to the capital. He lets his father remain implicit.

When he’s done, she sits in thought for a moment, pulling her fingers through the ends of her hair.

Rin swallows. “Well, what about you?”

“My experience was somewhat similar,” she begins. “On the day of the coup I went back to my chambers sometime around midday and someone was also waiting for me. I was paralyzed, masked, and shipped off somewhere. But when I woke up, I was all the way down in Komukina.”

Rin’s brow furrows. “Komukina? Southern Earth Kingdom Komukina?”

“Yes.”

“Where General Mikoshiba was stationed?”

“Yes. I’m sure you’ve heard of our defeat against the Water Tribe there, right? Well, I arrived there before the fighting and stumbled upon our forces stationed there. General Mikoshiba was there and he had just heard of the coup and the ceasefire order from the rebels and was relieved to see me. He made sure to keep my identity mostly hidden, but a couple of soldiers knew who I was. But then the fighting got intense.”

Her eyes distance from Rin.

“Normally we would have had some sort of warning on a potential attack, but with the coup, our informants were disorganized or nonexistent, so we got ambushed. It was…” Her throat bobs. “The Water Tribe had the advantage of the ocean right there and… I’m lucky to have made it out.”

She takes a moment.

“But… A lot of people didn’t. Some well-loved colonels and other generals didn’t, and most everyone left over was completely demoralized, so I just… slipped in? So I guess I’m a de facto general now. I mean, I rely a lot on Natsuya because I still don’t know everything about military affairs, but. Since we lost control of the region, we had to leave Komukina, and we made our way back up through the Earth Kingdom about a month or two ago and well, now we’re here. General Mikoshiba and his unit are somewhere a little farther south, I believe.”

“Hm.” Rin nods, almost to himself. “Is it safe for you to be with the military? I mean, the rebels left you near them so they probably expect you’d be with them.”

She smiles. “Oh, I’m sure they know I’m with the military, but they haven’t done anything and I haven’t noticed anyone following us. Also, our forces in Komukina split up once we reentered the Fire Nation, so there are camps of us all around. I’m mostly concerned about the general public learning who I am, thus―” A wave of her hand at her helmet. “Popular opinion of us and the military…

“That’s why I haven’t returned to the capital yet. The public isn’t ready. We and the other units have been going from town to town campaigning, because it’s apparent that good opinion of the rebel forces is starting to dwindle. Our intelligence is limited because the rebel leaders don’t seem to have any unifying characteristics, so we’re still unsure of the size of their forces but there does seem to be somewhat of a centralized leadership. They’re not big on fame or notoriety so that central leadership may be one person but it may be more. But anyhow, they’ve already made some mistakes, like ordering the ceasefire, so we’re just biding our time and waiting for them to make an irredeemable mistake. Then people will be ready for a return of the monarchy and the military.”

“Oh.”

“You should come with us when we campaign,” she suggests, expression turning a little sad. “After all, you’ll need the experience if we’re successful.”

Rin looks down. His finger draws a straight line along the fabric of the pallet underneath them. “Right.”

Voices and footsteps of soldiers pass by the tent, muffled. They sit in silence.

“You haven’t…” Her eyes are wet as if she’s about to cry again. “Nothing about Gou?”

He shakes his head. After a second, he purses his lips. “Do you think… I mean, I was sent north, and you were sent south… Do you think Gou might have been sent west?”

“It’s possible.”

Loud laughter outside.

Rolling her lips together, Rin’s mother sits up straighter to pull her hair back into a bun again. No more tears. “Well, I don’t know when we’ll be moving again, but you all can stay with us. Eventually we’ll get to the capital, which you can tag along for. For now, how many tents do you all need? I forget how many others there are.”

Rin calculates in his head. “Two.”

“Okay, I’ll get someone to set that up.” Smiling, she leans forward to give him another hug, a quieter one. Rin’s hands are lax. “I’m glad you’re alive.”

Hot wax drips down her lit candle.

They return to outside; Rin is surprised how dark it is already. His mother leads him down to the edge of the camp along the little stream. A flickering campfire near the banks frames black silhouettes. Kuroime stands guard a little distance from the fire, and Natsuya stands guard a little distance from her.

“Natsuya,” Rin’s mother calls.

Natsuya immediately turns around. “Yes?”

“Can you put together two empty tents for Rin and his friends? After that, you’re free to go eat dinner.”

With a nod, Natsuya says, “Yes, ma’am,” and exits.

Rin lingers a moment, until his mother shoos him with a hand. “Go on,” she says. “You don’t need to wait for me.”

“You don’t want come?”

“No, I should get to bed early. I’ll see you in the morning, okay? Early, for campaigning.”

He cracks a smile. “Yeah.”

She fades into the dark, and when he’s sure he can’t see any more of her, he approaches the campfire.

“Yo.” He plops down between Ai and Haru. Seeing no food in their hands, he says, “Ah, shit, did I miss the food?”

“Oh, we saved some for you,” Ai says, scooping up some flayed fish and offering it to him.

“Thanks.” As Rin wolfs down a few bites, he itches with everyone’s eyes on him.

Ai blinks. “How’s your mother?”

Rin swallows. “Good enough, I guess? She’s also heading back to the capital, so she said we can stay with her.”

He explains her pathway to here in bare details, vaguely touching on the campaigning. No one has a comment, and he returns to eating in lieu of speaking.

By the time Rin finishes, Natsuya reappears to say, “Your tents are ready, if you want me to show you to them.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rin says, jumping up. “You guys ready?”

Haru extinguishes the fire and they leave it. The tents Natsuya leads them to are on the outskirts of the camp as well, a little closer to the stream.

“Goodnight,” says Natsuya, leaving them.

Makoto chews his lip at the two tents. “Uh… How did you want to organize this?”

“Ah, well.” Rin scratches his hairline. “I guess Haru can stay in one tent, you and Ai can stay in the other, and Sousuke and I can stay in the tent we already have.” His skin burns in the dark; he’s too transparent.

But no one argues, understanding Rin’s reasoning, and quietly, Sousuke mutters a comment on how he’ll get the tent set up. Haru finds somewhere to tie off Kuroime as Makoto and Ai select one of the tents. Eyes down, Rin trails after Sousuke.

“Rin.”

Rin stops and looks up to find Haru.

That doleful look is back on Haru’s face as he stands a moment, eyes flickering past Rin to where Sousuke pulls the tent together. “Sorry… About before. The roots. I…”

Rin presses his lips together. “You didn’t know any better.”

Haru’s expression doesn’t change.

“Look,” Rin says, lightly punching Haru in the shoulder, “next time you try to poison me, make sure you know what you’re doing, yeah?”

A little bit of tension dissipates. Haru manages an inkling of a smile. “Yeah. Goodnight.”

“’Night.”

Rin watches Haru take the empty tent beside Makoto and Ai’s, alone, and by the time he joins Sousuke, the tent is halfway up. He jumps into helping.

Crouching to dig the stick into the ground, Sousuke asks, “What was that about?”

“Hm?”

“Haru.”

“Oh, nothing,” Rin says, too fast. “Just an inside joke.”

“Ah.”

They put the tent together, and once it’s complete, they stand in silence, staring at their work. The stream behind burbles.

Sousuke says, “Well, it’s been a long day…”

“A-Ah, yeah. It has.”

Sousuke enters, and drawing in a long breath, Rin follows. It takes a few moments for him to adjust to the dark without the glow of stars or moon, but he can pick out Sousuke laying back in his usual spot. Rin clenches his jaw and clambers down beside him. His head sinks into his dog pelt jacket.

Without Ai, there’s almost too much space, and without being forced up against each other, the gap between them is unnaturally wide. Trapped energy sets Rin’s pulse thumping through his veins.

Sousuke’s breath is quiet, monitored.

Swallowing down his rattling insides, Rin scoots into Sousuke and rests his head on his shoulder. With a twitch, Sousuke relaxes into him, pressing his head to Rin’s and cautiously draping an arm over him.

They stay like this for several breaths, before Rin pulls his head back and blinks up at Sousuke. Sousuke’s face is entirely still; Rin can just barely see the shadows of his cheekbones and jaw.

He leans in to press a kiss to Sousuke’s lips, hand pressing back Sousuke’s hair. It’s small, quiet at first, but it deepens, whispering insistence in the pit of Rin’s stomach.

A hand on Rin’s arm. Sousuke pulls back before it gets beyond casual, searching Rin’s face. “Rin,” he whispers, in a tone Rin can’t place. “Are you…” He stops.

Rin frowns. “Am I what?”

Hand softening, Sousuke shakes his head. “Nothing.”

His expression is too weird, too off for Rin to comprehend, and before Rin can say anything, Sousuke squeezes Rin’s arm almost apologetically and settles back. Stumped into passivity, Rin lies down as well and stares up at the ceiling. His shoulder and arm press up against Sousuke’s, and that is all.

His mother’s face and her tired eyes hang at the back of his skull. The dog pelt is soft at the back of his neck.

Chapter Text

You have a good heart and you think the good thing is to be guilty and kind but it's not always kind to be gentle and soft, there's a genuine violence softness and kindness visit on people. Sometimes self-interested is the most generous thing you can be.

―Tony Kushner, Angels in America


Rin stands next to his mother, confined by the military armor weighing down on him. The helmet covering most of his face narrows his vision and blots his periphery.

On the hip of the uniform is a built-in hilt for a small silver knife with a deep red handle, for close situations or when bending isn’t an option. Barely listening to his mother’s morning speech to the troops, Rin rubs his thumb over the smooth hilt, back and forth, over and over again. He thinks of his old knife throwing hobby back in the capital and how he kept it from everyone. Seems almost silly now.

“We’ll be talking to residents in the southern quarter, which is a predominantly working class…”

Rin’s mind drifts, settling on how he woke earlier with Sousuke’s arms around him.

The crowd of soldiers murmurs and reshuffles.

“Rin?”

Rin snaps out of his mind and drops his hand from the knife. He looks at his mother beside him. She wears her helmet already as well, so he can’t see her expression, but she tilts her head.

“Are you awake?” she asks, with a joking tone.

He nods. “Yeah, sorry.”

“Alright.” She claps a hand on his shoulder. “Don’t be nervous. Consider this a training day and just hang back and watch.”

“Okay.”

With that, she motions for Natsuya and they set off. A step behind, Rin follows.

Once they arrive in Murabi proper, Rin’s mother splits groups into different directions to cover different sectors of the quarter. Natsuya, Rin, and a few others stick with her group and traipse around the sleepy canals. Morning light shimmers on the water.

They stop by a small ironsmith, where an older woman and presumably her two adult children carefully shoot flames and hammer away at metal, suspicious eyes flickering up at them.

“Excuse me, may we speak a moment?” Rin’s mother calls from the open doorframe.

Sighing, the older woman shoves her in-progress chunk of metal into a bucket of water with a hiss of steam. She ambles forward, wiping her hands on her apron. “You all, huh?”

A bad omen at the start, but Rin’s mother does not appear fased. “I am guessing you know of the coup d’etat that occurred in our capital some months ago?”

“I might.”

“And have you also heard about how the rebel leaders have made tactical errors in military movements, which has resulted in the loss of many Fire Nation lives?”

The woman presses her lips together. “So what?”

Rin blinks, but the others around him do not react, as if they have already heard it before.

Rin’s mother does not miss a beat. “Don’t you care about the lives of those who protect the nation?”

“Protect the nation?” the woman repeats, arching her eyebrows. “Maybe if you all weren’t a bunch of elitist and greedy pricks, I’d care.”

“Would you like to explain how we are elitist and greedy, ah, ‘pricks’?”

“Well, first off―” The woman points to her children working behind her, who all look uncomfortable at being dragged in, “―they tried to enlist, but you all make all the tests and restrictions so hard to pass that nobody but people with tutors and money could pass. Which is funny, considering how being in the military pays damn good money. So you gotta have money to get money?”

“Well―”

“Uh, I’m not finished,” the woman says. “ Second of all, what do you mean protecting the nation? From what? From the Water Tribe or something? You make it sound like they’re out to get us for no reason, but you’re just trying to protect your money for you. We never see any of the rewards of that, so thanks.”

Seconds of tense silence.

Rin’s mother says, quietly, “I agree that it’s a complicated situation, but we’d like to work with you, not against you, so―”

The woman sighs and turns back. “Not interested.”

Exchanging shifty looks, the soldiers stand there. With a nod from Rin’s mother, they back away and leave the woman and her children to their work, fire gleaming from the open door and hammering starting again.

“Alright, next,” Rin’s mother says, leading them onward down the street.

Rin lingers, switching between the doorway of the ironsmith and his mother and the soldiers’ retreating backs. He swallows and follows the others.

The rest of their campaigning day is not nearly as dramatic, but it is draining in an unsatisfying way, as the responses from the people of Murabi are lukewarm at best and downright hostile at worst. The crew lags as afternoon sun boils them in their thick and cumbersome gear. People come out as the day wears on to hang lanterns and decorations from building to building, and those with food stalls are bustling away with work.

To Rin’s right, one of the younger soldiers sighs. “Well, at least we have the festival tonight.”

Rin’s mother eyes the colorful garlands and stops. “It seems as though everyone is starting to prepare for the festival,” she says, turning back to face them. “We might as well cut this short. They’re not going to be interested in what we have to say.”

Glumly, they all turn back, feeling the weight of eyes upon them.

After they scrounge around and Rin’s mother recollects all the squads, they leave Murabi and return to their camp around mid afternoon. The camp is less bustling in the afternoon than it was in the morning, and with the announcements that everyone is allowed to attend the festival as long as they wear normal clothes instead of uniforms and that they won’t be campaigning tomorrow, everyone goes in separate directions.

As feet shuffle away, Rin hangs back, eyeing his mother.

She waves a hand at him. “I have some work to do, so you don’t have to stick around.”

“Are you not going to the festival?”

“I’m not really in the mood.” Her voice is a bit tight as she pulls off her helmet, but she smiles. “Plus, I’m not comfortable walking around out there without my helmet on.”

“Right.”

With that and mild parting words, Rin leaves her and heads back to the edge of the camp. Babbling water in his ears, he stumbles upon the others lounging about. Haru washes Kuroime’s coat with Ai’s assistance while Makoto and Sousuke sit a bit away, chatting. Rin plucks off his helmet so they know it’s him, relieved with air cool on his head. They all look up.

“What’s up?” Rin says.

“Oh, hi!” chirps Ai.

Makoto offers a wave.

Rin’s skin prickles with Sousuke’s eyes narrowed on him. All Sousuke says is, “Interesting look.”  

Quickly, Rin says, “It’s just so I can blend in.”

With a nod, Sousuke doesn’t say anything more.

Muttering something to himself about needing to change, Rin heads off to his tent to dump off the clunky uniform for his own clothes. When he returns, free and comfortable, the moment of tension is gone.

Rin plops down by Makoto and Sousuke. “Did I miss anything interesting?”

Makoto shakes his head. “I’m pretty sure you had the most interesting day out of all of us. How was campaigning with your mother?”

“Eh.” Tilting his head, Rin lies, “It was pretty boring. Just talking to random people about the government and shit.”

“Ah.”

The conversation fizzles out, and Rin’s gaze lands on Sousuke, who meets his eyes for a breath. Rin unconsciously smoothes his thumb over the ridges of the scar on the back of his left hand.

The rest of the afternoon passes without much incident, just lazing about and talking, but just as the sun prepares to set and they consider what to do for dinner, voices and footsteps approach.

“Um. Prince… Prince Rin?”

Two soldiers stand there, clothed in casual robe suits instead of uniforms. Rin recognizes the voice as one of the soldiers who was in his squad earlier today, but this time he can see the soldier’s short messy red hair and similar colored eyes. The other soldier is expressionless, with longer teal hair and serious brown eyes. The soldier who spoke wears gold and brown, while the silent one wears inky maroon.

“Yeah?”

The first soldier says, “Uh, well, we were just wondering…”

The second soldier shoots him an icy look.

“I mean, um, I was wondering… Are you planning on going to the festival tonight?”

Rin frowns. “No…?”

“Oh, well.” The soldier scratches the back of his head. “Would you be interested in coming? With us, I mean.”

“Oh.” Rin shares an equally confused look with the others. “Uh…”

“It’ll be fun! I mean, I think. I heard there will be all kinds of foods and drinks and games…”

“Uh, thanks for inviting me, but, ah… I don’t think it’s a particularly good idea for me to spend any more time in public places than I need to be.”

Disappointment flashes in the soldier’s expression, but he bobs his head. “Okay, have a good evening, then―”

“I’ll go,” says Haru.

Everyone looks at him.

Hah?

“Oh!” The soldier shifts, nervously. “Uh, great! Thanks.”

Rin cocks his head. “Haru, what are you―”

“It’s not like I have anything better to do.”

The soldier’s eyes dart between Rin and Haru. “Well, uh, we’re leaving soon, so if anyone else wants to come, you’re welcome to.”

A pause as they (minus Haru) share curious looks.

In a small voice, Makoto says, “Ah, well, I guess I could tag along.”

Ai’s eyes slide over to Sousuke. “Are you going to go?”

As Sousuke is quiet for a moment, Ai awaits his answer with an odd expression, and Rin himself curiously watches Sousuke’s face.

Sousuke lifts a shoulder. “I’m kind of tired.”

Ai blinks, nods, and looks forward again. “Um, I’ll go too,” he says, and Rin hides a frown.

“Cool!” The soldier straightens up. “Well, ah, if you all are ready to go, we could head over now…?”

Haru stands and dusts himself off, while Makoto and Ai take a moment join him.

The soldier bows his head toward Rin. “Have a good evening, Prince Rin!”

Makoto twists back to wave at him and Sousuke. “See you guys later!”

Rin lifts a hand, and everyone leaves. It is just him and Sousuke again.

To ward off any potential weirdness, Rin sighs and leans back on his hands, blurting, “What the hell was that?”

“Hm?”

“I’ve never seen Haru volunteer himself for a public event with people he doesn’t even know.”

Sousuke nods. “I did think that was weird. Is he still fighting with Makoto?”

“Did Makoto say something to you about it?”

“A little bit, but he really didn’t need to. I could tell something was up between them.” Exhaling, Sousuke leans back into the grass, propped up on his elbows. “Not like it’s any of my business, though.”

Rin presses his lips together. “Yeah.”

There are more questions at the back of Rin’s throat, but as the sunlight turns golden and blinding and a breeze lifts away some of the heat, he allows silence. Sousuke’s expression is thoughtful, sunlight casting a blazing trim around his features.

Rin’s stomach turns as Sousuke gives him a small smile. “I guess we should figure out what we’re doing for dinner, then, since we’re not going to the festival,” Sousuke says.

“Yeah.” Quickly looking at the ground, Rin clears his throat and stands. “I can see if my mother would spare us some of their rations, but we can also fish again if you’re fine with that.”

Sousuke sits up. “I’m fine with fish.”

“Cool.”

“Cool.”

Politely dodging around each other, Sousuke and Rin get to work. While Sousuke plants himself at the stream’s bank and watches over the fading daylight, Rin busies himself with getting a small fire cooking and preparing their butchering equipment for once Sousuke catches something. He’s more at ease, perhaps, with Sousuke’s back facing him.

Eventually Sousuke nabs a silvery fish and they work together to debone it and brown it over the fire. The sun vanishes at the horizon, filling Rin’s eyes with orange and gold before a quieter, more hazy temperature colors the space. He carefully watches the fish cook. Barely a word is said between them through the work and wait, and Rin is grateful for when the cooked fish gives him something to do, but he’s done eating too soon, and it’s back to more quiet.

Owls and crickets begin to ring out as the sky turns a deep blue overhead. Across from Rin, Sousuke sits with an unreadable expression, eyes reflecting lapping flames.

Rin swallows. “Uh. Last night… You went to ask me something, but stopped.”

Sousuke glances down to chuckle, almost to himself. “Mm, that.”

Rin waits, but Sousuke merely wrings his hands, and impatience ticks hot. “Well?”

Orange morphs over Sousuke’s features as his eyes rise, and Rin can’t ground himself. “Don’t worry about it,” Sousuke says, and with a flick of his hand, water from the stream rushes to douse the fire.

Sousuke stands. “Earlier, I said I was tired, right?” His expression can barely be made out in the deepening dusk, and the tone of his voice is just as cloaked.

Hissing steam and newfound darkness. “I lied.”

He leaves Rin sitting at the ashen fire pit, frowning into the dark, and without looking back once, Sousuke disappears into their tent. All is silent.

Stuck to his spot at the fire, Rin sits, the surge of the stream and the chirps of birds muted to him. His pulse knocks loud on his eardrums. He jumps up onto shaky legs and dashes to the tent, barely allowing himself a breath before he barges in.

“Sousuke, what is this―”

Sousuke sits there in the partial dark, expressionless, as if waiting for him. Rin stops in his tracks and goes voiceless as Sousuke rises.

A hand to the back of Rin’s neck, a hand to his side. Hot breath on his ear. “An ambush?”

Rin exhales, pressing a hand to Sousuke’s chest. “Not much of an ambush if you tell me it’s one.”

“Mm.” Sousuke kisses Rin’s jaw, fingernails digging into Rin’s arm.

Fumbling, Rin comes to sit straddling Sousuke’s lap, revelling in Sousuke’s mouth on his neck. He lifts Sousuke’s head with his hands and kisses him on the lips, falling into a rhythm with a tugging in his gut.

Words slipping away―sinking into each other―Rin grinding―

Rin’s hands slip underneath Sousuke’s tunic to skim up his back.

An inhale. Sousuke recoils.

Rin jerks back with hands cautiously held aloft. “Ah, sorry? Did―Am I―” He studies what he can see in the dark of Sousuke’s face. Sousuke does not meet his gaze.

“Sousuke?” Rin breathes, fingers drooping.

Another inhale, hitched. “Sorry. I thought―I thought I could―”

Sliding off of Sousuke’s lap, Rin lights a handheld flame, a dim orange filling the tent. Sousuke winces at the light, the orange revealing the conflict knitting his brow.

“What’s going on?” Rin sits down cross-legged. “You’ve been weird.”

Now entirely exposed by the flame, Sousuke stares far away and does not reply, jaw clenched.

The flame in Rin’s palm crackles brighter. “Look, something’s up. Just spit it out.”

Sousuke fidgets. “I… I’m still…”

A couple of ticks of Rin’s heartbeat, until Sousuke exhales and slowly, shamefully, he pulls off his tunic.

Aside from that one time when Rin caught a glimpse of Sousuke’s scar, he’s never seen it, and certainly not the full, as Sousuke has always been incredibly careful about shielding it. But Rin sees it now, mottled brownish red smearing from the top of Sousuke’s shoulder down his shoulder blade to end on one side of his ribcage. Rin doesn’t want to stare, yet he doesn’t want to ignore it, and trails along the damaged skin, mind whirring.

Sousuke avoids his eyes and speaks to the ground. “I still remember parts of the day I got this.”

Rin’s fire settles into a quiet simmer.

“I was working on cutting up the side of this huge fishing boat with Teru and Chiyama. I always liked Teru, he was a nice, outgoing kid, though we never talked much. Chiyama and I didn’t get along all that well, but she was a dedicated and hard worker, so I have to give her that. I stood on the far left, while Teru was in the middle and Chiyama was on the right. It was boring, just the usual work. I don’t know what happened. All I heard was a shout and something swinging from Teru and Chiyama’s side.

“When I woke up, I was back in the barracks with Ai and I… I could barely breathe.” He swallows. “I couldn’t really understand anything. Ai told me Teru and Chiyama were dead. I tried to work the next day, but I…”

Something crumples in his expression. “It hurts,” he whispers. “It always hurts. And I… I never want to complain about it because I don’t want Ai thinking it’s his fault. The fact that I’m alive at all is incredible. But there was just too much to fix, too late. It fucks with my breathing, my sleep, my stamina, and I guess I always feel like it’s just waiting for me to do something that’s too much and finally kill me. And I’m… I’m tired. I’m tired of it.”

Neither speaks for a few moments.

No tears from Rin this time, but his throat is tight. Softly, he says, “When Ai first told me about your injury, he wondered whether you wish you had died that day.”

Sousuke’s eyes flicker to and from Rin. “I don’t know. It’s complicated. Part of me wants to keep going no matter what, because I want to prove my situation wrong, I guess. I don’t want to be just another poor orphan kid who dies because of an accident. But… It would have been easier, otherwise. For Ai, too.”

“Don’t say that,” Rin snaps, getting Sousuke to jerk his head up. “Don’t you dare act like you’re a burden to him. He loves you, and I know he would much rather take care of you than have you gone.”

Mouth agape, Sousuke blinks. With a soft exhale, he scrunches his eyes shut and presses both of his hands to his face. Breathed through his fingers: “Yeah.”

Rin watches Sousuke pull in slow, shaky breaths. His mind travels to his own scars: the one from Sousuke on his left hand, the one from his fight with Ryuugazaki on his left arm. “Look, I don’t think there’s anything I can say to make this better.” He curls his fingers into a fist, feeling the scarred skin tighten. “But I do know that I want whatever you want.”

“Rin…”

“So if you’re afraid to push yourself and aren’t ready to get into any of, uh, this, then that’s fine with me.”

Somber, Sousuke shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry, I really do want… I just… This has been holding me back for so long, and I don’t want it to hold me back from you either.”

“Don’t apologize,” Rin says in a steely voice, “and it won’t. Just… We can take it slowly, if that’s what you need.” His expression softens. “I have the time for you.”

Fronds of flame move over Sousuke’s skin. “You really are different now, you know.”

Rin has no response.

They sit in silence for some time, while voices and footsteps drift and warble in the distance.

“Rin?” Sousuke’s voice is small. “Can… Can you hold me?”

With a surprised exhale and a smile, Rin murmurs, “Of course.” His little flame disappears, dropping them back into darkness, and he scoots forward.

Hesitantly, Rin touches Sousuke’s bare shoulder. The second his hand meets rough skin, Sousuke flinches, but with a measured breath, he keeps himself where he is, under Rin’s hand.

Feeling uneven, Rin retracts his hand and takes off his own tunic. Sousuke eases down onto his side and Rin curls into his back, hugging him tight around the torso. For a while, Sousuke’s breaths are tight, short, but eventually with the radiating body heat and touch, he drifts off.

Rin remains awake longer. Facing him is Sousuke’s injured side, hardly visible in the dark tent.

He can see and sense his own arm around Sousuke’s waist. The uninjured one, the unchanged one.


Discomfort and silence settle on the group before they even get out of the camp. Haruka walks somewhat to the side of the red-headed soldier, while Ai and Makoto are on the side of the other soldier. Other soldiers move and talk around them, also dressed in normal clothes for the festival, only accentuating the stilted dynamic.

The red-headed soldier begins to whistle to himself, as if to fill the emptiness. He only stops when they reach the end of the camp and shoots a look to the group. “Uh, I guess we’ll just head over…”

Sunset is nigh, orange and gold seeping into the landscape around them.

“Hey, wait!”

They stop and turn to find Natsuya running to catch up, out of his uniform and in a simple gray robe suit.

“Huh?” squawks the red-headed soldier.

“Oh, are you coming with us, um… Natsuya?” Makoto asks as Natsuya jogs to a stop.

A sharp look. “Please call me Colonel Kirishima.”

“O-Oh! Sorry, I―”

“Only Lady Miyako can call him Natsuya,” mocks the soldier with teal hair, turning away.

As he plows ahead without them, Natsuya’s eyes follow his back.

They catch up to the soldier and fall into silence again, everyone’s attention carefully trained to the path to Murabi through the trees.

Eventually, Natsuya breaks the quiet. “Asahi.”

The red-head looks up. “Ah, yes?”

“Stop looking so disappointed that Prince Rin turned you down.”

“Ah, I’m not…” Asahi laughs nervously, running a hand through his hair. “I just have heard so much about him, and being around Lady Miyako this whole time, I wondered…”

Natsuya wears a knowing smile Haruka doesn’t know the meaning of. “Prince Rin isn’t the only important person around here,” he says, and his eyes fall on Haruka. “You’re Nanase Haruka, right?”

“Wait, what?! ” Asahi blurts before Haruka can react. “I thought you were just some random friend of Prince Rin!”

“I doubt Prince Rin has random friends,” scoffs the other soldier.

Asahi pays him no mind, eyes suddenly alight and scanning over Haruka. “Wait, so you’re the owner of Nanase Trading Company?”

“My parents are the owners.”

“But you’ll be the owner soon, right? How old are you?”

“Asahi,” Natsuya warns.

Haruka sighs. “Nineteen.”

“Whoa, you only have a year until you’re the owner! Man, that must be nice. You’re so lucky.”

Haruka says nothing.

They walk, and Asahi continues to pester Haruka with questions about the company and his family until Natsuya tells him to knock it off, and without Asahi’s piqued interest the mood goes flat again until they reach Murabi.

The canals glitter with the setting sun and the hundreds of colorful lanterns hung up around the town. Hazy firelight settles on food stalls, musicians, dancers, crafts, and people milling all about, a great buzz of voices filling the air.

They stop for a moment on the dirt road, absorbing it all.

Natsuya steps forward. “So? Do we get food first?”

Overwhelmed by the array of choices on every side, the group dallies down the street, occasionally splitting as someone spots something they like. The words, “We’re with the military,” are tossed out casually to evade payment, so everything they get comes free. Asahi, Natsuya, and the other soldier (who Haruka learns is named Ikuya) seem unbothered by this and select whatever they fancy, while Makoto, Ai, and Haruka himself only pick one thing for themselves. The face of the man who hands him fish on a stick clings to Haruka’s memory.

His unused gold coins feel hot in the satchel at his hip.

Gradually, though, with the cover of all the people surrounding them, the atmosphere turns less awkward and mild conversation opens up between everyone. Asahi’s tunneled focus on Haruka thankfully shifts to both Makoto and Ai, and even Natsuya relaxes a little, playing a festival game with Haruka, throwing colorful hoops onto goal posts. The only one who remains completely closed and quiet is Ikuya, watching the proceedings while barely participating.

“Damn it,” grumbles Asahi when Makoto beats him in a game involving marbles. “I was so close!”

Taking a palm-sized wooden plaque with a fish painted on it as his prize, Makoto holds it up with a smile. “Do you want it?”

But Asahi’s attention is already elsewhere, and he sets off across the road. Makoto stands, blinking, and looks down at the painted fish. He runs a thumb over it.

Before Makoto can notice Haruka watching him, Asahi yells from across the street, “Guys, come over here!” He waves an arm to beckon them.

Makoto curls his hand around the fish and follows, Haruka after.

The group recollects at the stall where Asahi stands in line. “Time for the real fun to start,” he says, smiling.

Over the top of the stall is a board titled, DRINKS. Listed below is the menu. Asahi and Natsuya mull over it.

“Should we get the sampler one?” suggests Natsuya, without tearing away his eyes.

“I don’t know,” Asahi says. He looks behind to Makoto, Ai, and Haruka. “What do you guys want?”

Both Makoto and Ai tense.

“Oh, um, I’m fine with whatever,” Makoto quickly says.

“Me too,” adds Ai.

“Alright.” Looking forward, Asahi steps up further in line.

Drums and bells from a dance or music performance rumble in the distance, muting everyone’s voices. With an eye on Asahi, Natsuya, and Ikuya, Haruka leans back into Ai and Makoto. “Do you want me to read it?” he asks, quietly so the others don’t hear.

Ai shakes his head. “No, no, it’s fine.”

Makoto gives a reassuring nod. “Yeah, I’m really fine with whatever.”

Slowly, Haruka says, “Okay.”

When they get to the front of the line, Natsuya goes ahead and orders the sampler, and the woman in the stall hands over a crate with six different bottles. Carefully clutching it, Natsuya leads them away from the line to settle off to the side of the street, away from the foot traffic. He plops the crate on the ground.

“I guess we have to just try these out to see what they are,” Natsuya muses, plucking out a bottle and scouring it for a description.

They settle down and each pick a bottle to taste, passing it off to the person next to them. Makoto grimaces at all of the bottles except one, a sugary one that Haruka can barely manage a sip of. Once they’ve all given them a try, they settle with their preferred drinks. While Asahi and Ikuya bicker over the one they both want, Haruka picks the most bitter one, Makoto sticks with the sugary one, and Ai reluctantly clutches the most bland one.

After the drinks are chosen, Asahi says with a conspiratorial smile, “We should play a game.”

Makoto says, quietly, “Um…”

“Come on, don’t be a chicken!” Narrowing his eyes, Asahi scans down Makoto. “Wait a minute, don’t tell me you’re a lightweight?”

The tips of Makoto’s ears go red. “N-No! It’s just―”

“Leave him alone,” says Haruka. “I’ll play.”

With a brusque laugh, Asahi lets the moment pass. “Alright. Ikuya, Colonel Kirishima, Ai, you game?”

Ikuya shrugs, Natsuya nods, and Ai blathers, “Um, I guess I’ll try…”

Haruka sits between Ai and Asahi.

“Hm, I guess we could play Never Have I Ever,” says Asahi, stroking his chin. “I’ll go first! Never have I ever… been to the grand palace in the capital.”

Haruka, Natsuya, and Ikuya take a drink.

It’s Haruka’s turn next. “Never have I ever owned a dog.”

Ai and Asahi take a drink.

Swallowing, Ai thinks. “Um… Never have I ever… gone to the Southern Water Tribe?”

Asahi, Natsuya, and Ikuya take a drink.

In a bored voice, Ikuya says, “Never have I ever failed an examination.”

With a dirty look, Asahi takes a drink. So does Haruka.

Natsuya taps a finger on the bottle. “Never have I ever learned how to chi-block.”

No one takes a drink.

“Really, no one? Huh.”

And the game progresses, the bottle in Haruka’s hand growing lighter as the questions grow more creative and invasive. Sat a little off and behind Ai, Makoto merely watches, aimlessly rotating his mostly full bottle around. Ai bows out maybe halfway through and joins Makoto as a spectator, leaving it to just Asahi, Ikuya, Natsuya, and Haruka. Asahi grows louder and more giggly as the game goes on, and Natsuya is a little more casual while Ikuya remains the same. Haruka’s head buzzes, and the skin of his face is warm.

The bridge of his nose red, Ikuya wears a bitter look as he thinks for his turn. “Never have I ever killed someone.”

A beat of silence. Natsuya and Asahi take a drink. Haruka goes still, hand tight around his nearly empty bottle.

Eyes avoiding Ikuya, Natsuya begins, “Never have I ever―”

Haruka downs the rest of his drink before Natsuya can finish. He stands up with a rush of blood to his head. “I’m going to get more.”

No one stops or follows him back to the drink stall, and he rejoins the line, simmering in the warmth of his insides. After about two minutes he reaches the front of the line.

“Military, right?” says the woman, with a tight smile. “What will it be?”

“The sampler,” Haruka answers.

When she pulls together six new bottles and offers it to him, he slides several gold coins across the bar.

Her eyes widen. “Huh?”

“Keep it.” Haruka picks up the drinks and leaves.

When he returns to the others, the game appears to have ended and they’ve naturally split into different conversations. Natsuya talks with Makoto while Asahi and Ai chat, Ikuya listening.

Asahi’s eyes lift to Haruka. “Hey, you’re the best, Haruka!” he practically yells, toasting his almost empty drink at him.

“Call me Haru,” Haruka says, setting the drinks down between them all.

Chugging the rest of his drink, Asahi slaps his empty bottle on the ground and immediately picks up a new one. He smiles. “Haru it is, then.”

Haruka returns the smile and takes a sip of his own new drink.

It’s hazy and lighthearted after that, and somewhere along the line, Haruka feels himself almost becoming friends with the others as their shields lower. Asahi tortures them all with his cat-screech singing, his voice stumbling over his words, while Ikuya covers his ears and yells at him to shut up. Natsuya remains mild and doesn’t drink nearly as much as Asahi, Ikuya, or Haruka (“I don’t want to hear any complaints about headaches tomorrow,” he says), but Haruka does have a polite conversation with him about firebending at some point. Makoto and Ai don’t really drink, though Makoto seamlessly fits into the conversations, laughing at the antics. Ai, however, grows quiet and tightly knit throughout the night.

Haruka goes with Asahi and Ikuya to get more drinks, the distant music drilling into his head.

“Man, you know what?” slurs Asahi, poking Ikuya in the shoulder. “I’m glad to see your brother so chill for once.”

Ikuya looks behind at Makoto, Natsuya, and Ai, nose wrinkled.

Haruka follows his gaze. “Natsuya’s your brother?”

Immediately looking forward, Ikuya haughtily lifts his chin.

“Yeah, yeah, you didn’t know?” Asahi answers, wobbling a little. “Natsu―Colonel―Colonel Kirishima had a bad time when we were in Komukina. Like, really bad. Bad bad. During one of the battles his… friend? Friend, I guess. He was another colonel too. He got killed.”

They reach the stall and Asahi jumps into line.

“He’s been in a shit mood ever since then. Guess it makes sense.”

Ikuya sighs. “You’re such a blabbermouth.”

“Oh, shit.” Asahi claps a hand over his mouth, horrified eyes on Haruka. “Don’t bring it up to him! He’d kill me.”

“I’m not going to bring it up to him.”

With a loud exhale, Asahi droops. “‘Kay… Cool.” The energy immediately returns. “Hey, Ikuya too―”

Ikuya shoves him. “Shut up.

When they return with more drinks, the group breaks off into little subcategories again. Through the music and people and noise, Ikuya silently sidles up to Haruka.

“You hate this shit, don’t you,” he says, gulping down a mouthful.

“Huh?”

“Reports said you were captured and taken away from home during the coup, but you ran away, right?”

Sipping his drink, Haruka doesn’t answer.

“That’s what I thought.” Ikuya goes to take another drink but scowls. He tips the bottle over. Nothing left. With an almost sad sigh, he mutters, “Lucky.”

He hurls the bottle at the ground. It shatters; Haruka flinches.

Ikuya stares at the broken glass a moment before disappearing into the crowd.

Now alone but for the drink in his hand, Haruka glances around him, searching for a familiar face, but he sees none. Someone bumps into him as they walk past and he stumbles, struggling to regain his balance. Nevertheless, when he’s somewhat settled back on his feet, he takes another drink.

Haruka wanders through the streets, swaying and leaning with face flaming, making his way through his third (fourth?) bottle. He stops for a moment and tries regain his bearings on a musical performance, but an impulse grabs him. Back to the street, practically running, eyes searching for a specific stall.

He finds the stall a little quieter with the night getting on and with only two people in line ahead of him, he stands and forces himself to be patient.

“What’ll it be?” says the man when Haruka arrives at the front of the line.

With one hand holding his bottle, Haruka fumbles with the latch of his satchel. “I was here earlier,” he explains, rooting around the bag. “I didn’t pay for what I got.”

The man nods. “Military? It’s fine, you don’t―”

“I’m paying,” Haruka orders. He drops some coins on the counter.

The man furrows his brow at the gold. “Uh―”

Haruka leaves, falling back into the hum of the crowd. He swigs his drink.

The world foggy and flurried, he ambles, barely aware of the people and objects around him and unsure of their closeness to him. He reaches a string of craft stalls and peruses them, mindlessly entertained by the jumping colors and wavering patterns.

“Pretty,” he thinks he says out loud, but no one’s listening.

Latched onto blue and black patterned cloth, he walks right into a table at full force. It tips to the side and dumps little cloth charms to the ground.

“Oh,” Haruka says, scrambling to set the table back on its legs. “Sorry,” he says to the woman behind the table. “Sorry.”

The woman bends over and plucks up the charms. “It’s fine.”

Placing his bottle down, Haruka crouches beside her and stuffs his hands with charms. He drops them indiscriminately on the table.

Someone kneels beside Haruka and begins picking up charms as well. Haruka looks up.

Makoto returns his confused expression with a small smile and continues collecting the charms, while Haruka is dumbly still for a moment. In silence, they eventually get all the charms together and help the woman reorganize them flat on the table.

“Thank you both so much,” she says when they’re done, smiling.

Makoto replies, “No problem.”

Haruka fishes out several coins from his bag and tosses them to her.

“Huh? But you didn’t buy―”

Haruka retrieves his bottle and sets off without a word.

“Wait, Haru!” Footsteps follow him through the crowd. “I think you’ve had enough of that,” Makoto says, swiping the bottle straight from Haruka’s hand.

Glowering, Haruka goes to steal it back, but Makoto holds it out of his reach, looking amused.

“You’re drunk.”

“I’m.” It takes Haruka a moment. “Not. Not that drunk.”

“Uh huh.” Makoto wears a fixed smile. “So you’re purposely walking in a wavy line?”

Haruka stops. Looks at his feet. “Yes.”

With a laugh, Makoto sets Haruka’s drink down on an empty stall. He takes Haruka’s arm and puts it around his own shoulders, wrapping a bracing arm around Haruka’s back to keep him steady. “Let’s get you back.”

As they set off, Haruka trailing along with Makoto’s guidance, Haruka peers up into Makoto’s face with a frown. “What about the others?”

“Last I saw, Asahi and Ai looked comfortable playing some game,” Makoto says, eyes ahead, “and Natsu―I mean, Colonel Kirishima and Ikuya were arguing about something, so.”

“Hm.” They weave through the crowds. “They’re brothers, apparently.”

“I know.”

“Hm?”

“Oh, they didn’t tell me, I just figured it out.”

“Oh. Maybe it’s because you have siblings.”

Haruka immediately regrets his words and flicks a worried look up, but Makoto merely blinks and smiles.

“It’s fine,” he says. A short laugh. “Maybe you’re right, I don’t know.”

Silence takes over as they pass a raucous crowd fawning over a dance performance. Out of the swarm, the air turns fresher on the outskirts of the town. They take a small bridge over one of the canals, the water glittering almost black below.

“It’s more than just that you’re a lightweight,” Haruka says, “that you didn’t drink. Right?”

“I never said I was a lightweight.”

“Your face said it.”

Makoto sighs, mouth curling up in defeat. “Did it? I’ll have to work on that.”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

The humor fades, and Makoto spares the barest glance to Haruka, his face difficult to see as they move into wilderness. “I really can’t hide anything, can I?” He sighs again. “Yeah, I guess… Back home, a lot of people didn’t have anything else to do except drink and… I don’t know. It made me sad.”

Haruka looks forward to the dim forest. “Oh.”

Crunches of twigs underneath their feet, Makoto’s pace measured and careful, Haruka’s pace stumbling and uneven.

“I’m surprised, though,” Makoto says. “I didn’t know you drank.”

“I don’t. Not usually.”

“But tonight was different?”

“I guess so.” Haruka feels himself leaning a little more into Makoto’s side. “Thought I’d try something I wouldn’t normally.”

“Hm. Well, that’s good.” Makoto tilts his head toward Haruka, eyebrows slightly raised, as he notes, “You’re more talkative when you’re drunk.”

“I’m… not.”

“Compared to usually, definitely.”

Appropriately, Haruka goes quiet, and through the trees and brush, owls and crickets speak for him. Haruka focuses in on the sensation of Makoto’s firm arm around his torso, hand gently pushing him in the right direction.

“You’re always so good to me,” Haruka blurts, without lifting his eyes from the expanse of forest ahead. He frowns. “I don’t get it.”

Makoto does not reply. They continue on.

Eventually they reach the faint firelight of the camp. Not many people are out, as most of the soldiers are presumably still at the festival, but no one seems to pay attention to Makoto halfway dragging Haruka along. Murky conversations come in and out of perception as they make their way through the camp, none of them truly reaching Haruka.

At last they come to the edge of the camp, the stream at a constant drone beyond, the tents sat waiting for them. There’s no sign of either Rin or Sousuke.

“Okay,” Makoto says, lugging Haruka up to Haruka’s single tent. He opens the flap and guides Haruka in first, ducking his head and kneeling for the short ceiling.

Patting the bedding underneath him, Haruka rotates to sit facing the entrance. Makoto’s frame is backlit in hazy nighttime light.

Makoto shifts. “Well, goodnight―”

Haruka’s hand snags the front of Makoto’s tunic.

“Don’t leave,” Haruka whispers. “Please.”

A moment of stillness, the tunic pulled taut between them.

Expression controlled, Makoto exhales, slowly. “Okay.”

He moves into the tent, Haruka shifting aside for him, and lies down on Haruka’s right. Mirroring him, Haruka rolls in to face him, and with small breaths, he convinces himself it is almost as it once was.

Seconds, maybe minutes pass.

Rustles as Makoto moves in the dark. Silently, he pulls Haruka into his chest and squeezes tight, his chin resting atop Haruka’s head. Haruka sinks into it, pressing his forehead to Makoto’s chest. Makoto strokes the back of Haruka’s hair.

Haruka falls asleep quickly.

He wakes alone, but by the wrenching headache and the glare of the sun through the crack of the tent’s opening, he figures it must be late. He gingerly sits up and tries to wipe the ache from his eyeballs. Voices from outside sound close.

With a yawn, Haruka scoots forward and opens the tent flap to step out. He grimaces, hand shielding his eyes from the knifing midday rays of sun, and tries to process everything around him. He spots Rin, Sousuke, and Ai sat near the bank by the stream, Rin and Sousuke’s backs to him while Ai faces his way. Makoto stands by Kuroime, a hand on her flank.

When Makoto notices him there, Haruka’s insides spin, and he watches as Makoto picks something up from the ground and approaches.

Makoto offers out a small jug of water. “How are you feeling?”

Haruka takes the jug. “Not great,” he admits, downing a few mouthfuls. He swallows and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “But I’ve been worse.”

Makoto nods, his eyes cautiously skimming over Haruka’s face. Querying him.

Haruka smiles. I remember.

With a hint of a smile, Makoto turns back to the others, leaving Haruka to finish drinking in peace.


“I heard someone was thirsty last night,” Rin teases as Haru sits down with them, across the smattering of leftover roots on the grass.

“Mm.” Haru looks trashed, eyes bloodshot with bags under them, hair sticking out in weird places when it should lie flat, but he doesn’t seem upset about it and rather seems in a pretty good mood.

“Too bad I missed it. You’re a lot more tolerable drunk.”

“Hm.”

Leaning up to Kuroime’s side again, Makoto laughs. “Well, I think we’re sort of friends with a couple of the soldiers now?”

“And the colonel,” adds Ai.

Rin tilts his head. “Colonel Kirishima? Huh.”

Beside him, Sousuke sits forward. “Did you drink?” he asks Ai.

“Oh, no!” Ai shakes his head. “I mean, just a little, not enough to get drunk or anything.”

“Ah.”

Haru squints at Rin. “Aren’t you supposed to be out campaigning or whatever?”

“Don’t you remember? My mother figured it best to give everyone a break after the festival,” Rin explains. He smirks. “If the rest of the troops and townspeople look like you do, it was a good idea.”

Haru scowls, righteously picking up one of the last roots and taking a bite.

The day continues to pass without much consequence, though Rin begins to feel an itching for activities, leaving him restless. While the other soldiers take their time to recuperate and relax, Rin has nothing to recuperate from. Occasionally, he checks Sousuke, who does nothing out of the ordinary. Around some time in the afternoon, Sousuke returns to the tent for a nap, leaving Rin, Ai, Haru, and Makoto.

“Hey, what’s up?” The red-headed soldier appears, plopping down next to Haru and draping an arm around his shoulder. He still wears the same robe he wore when he invited them last night, but he, like Haru, now sports dark circles under his eyes. “Yo, you look bad, ” he says to Haru.

Haru only sighs, and to Rin’s surprise, he does nothing to get rid of the guy’s arm around his shoulders. “So do you.”

“I just woke up. Ikuya’s still asleep.” He blinks and processes Rin. “O-Oh!” Dropping his arm from Haru, he bows his head. “Sorry, Prince Rin! I didn’t―”

“It’s fine,” Rin chuckles. “You can call me just Rin, you know.”

“Uh, are you sure? I don’t want to―”

“It’s fine.”

The guy jerks his head. “Ah, Rin, then.” He inhales and puffs out his shoulders. “I’m Lieutenant Shiina Asahi from Henno City, just outside of Nozemiya.”

“Uh. Nice to… meet you,” Rin says, wrinkling his brow over the formality and practiced nature.

Both Rin and Haru are almost immediately forgotten as Shiina jumps up to sit down beside Ai. “Oh, hey, thanks again for helping me back last night!” he says, smiling brightly. “Everyone else ditched me.” He flicks a pout to both Haru and Makoto.

Haru merely shrugs, while Makoto laughs and mumbles, “Sorry…”

“Oh, it’s no problem!” says Ai. “I just wanted to make sure you got out okay…”

Shiina ruffles Ai’s hair while Ai blinks, confusedly. “You know, I’ve never really met a waterbender I liked. Or trusted.”

“Oh…”

“But it’s good to know you exist!” With a sudden thought, he cranes back, narrowing his eyes. “Wait, you’re not a part of their military, are you?”

“Ah, no. I’m not old enough. You have to be twenty.”

“So old?! Jeez. We can enter the military at sixteen in the Fire Nation.” Twisting his lips, Shiina scratches his chin. “Then again, you have to get through all of those exams to get in.”

Glancing to Ai for confirmation, Rin interjects, “Yeah, there aren’t any exams to enter the Northern Water Tribe’s military, right? They’ll take anyone.”

Ai nods.

Anyone? Jeez. That’s wild. Yeah, I had to go through physical and written exams to prove myself.” Shiina laughs, almost nervously. “I, uh, actually failed the written portion first time I took it. But I had to teach myself all the information because my family does carpentry and couldn’t afford the tutoring and training. I’m actually the first one in my family to ever get into the military. I mean, carpentry is fine, I just wanted to do something more.” His smile returns, bright. “And here I am!”

Ai’s smile is lukewarm, and both Haru and Makoto are quiet.

“Congrats,” Rin says, to fill the space. “That’s impressive.”

Shiina practically erupts with the compliment. “Thanks! It was a lot of work, but it was worth it!”

Looking down, Ai folds his arms and says nothing.

The afternoon wears on with chatter from Shiina, the other, more serious soldier (Ikuya, Rin has learned) later joining them and adding dry comments to Shiina’s antics. Makoto slips away and so does Haru, while Sousuke does not resurface and Ai is quiet.

When they’re nearing dinnertime, Natsuya shows up. Rin is oddly disquieted seeing him in normal clothes instead of his military uniform, and he too looks exhausted and less put together like the others.

“I have a message from Lady Miyako,” he says, stopping and standing. “We’ll be leaving Murabi, so gather your things together and prepare to break camp tomorrow morning.”

“Tomorrow?” Rin repeats. “So soon?”

“Yes.” Natsuya places a look on Shiina and Ikuya. “That goes for you two as well.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

Ikuya doesn’t meet Natsuya’s eyes.

“Oh, and Prince Rin, she told me to tell you that she’s going over plans and packing, so you shouldn’t disturb her.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“That’s all. Goodnight.”

Watching Natsuya go from cluster to cluster of soldiers and  relaying the same information while Shiina and Ikuya talk, Rin rubs his thumb over the back of his left hand.

His left arm aches, dully.


Haruka sits and doesn’t really listen for a few minutes after Makoto leaves, obligated into attempting to pay attention. But with an eye for Makoto, who trails along the length of the stream and hops over to the other bank, alone, Haruka silently stands and takes Kuroime’s rope. He leads her over to the stream and away from the talk.

She lowers her head and drinks.

The water glints with gold sunlight, pushing forward into shadowy trees. Haruka checks across the stream and the opposing side where Makoto crouches with his back to him, inspecting some bush, unaware of Haruka on the other side.

Kuroime finishes drinking and knickers with a shake of her head. Hearing her, Makoto glances around and turns back to the bushes with a mild expression.

Innards swirling, Haruka remains in his stillness for several breaths, the gentle rush of water in his ears. He backpedals to tie Kuroime down to the nearest tree; without her, he trudges across the stream, cold water sinking up to his thighs.

Makoto offers a fleeting look of amusement as Haruka, dripping, steps onto the opposite bank. Haruka hangs back a few feet, where he can see white flowers among dark green leaves of the bush. A sweet perfume rises from them.

“Those aren’t honeysuckles, right?”

“Hm?” Makoto’s head pops up. “Oh, no. I don’t think you get honeysuckle this far east.” He pokes a flower. It bobs. “Still pretty, though.”

Quiet, with the stream behind muting out the voices of the camp beyond.

“Makoto…”

Makoto looks at him squarely, and as if knowing, he stands and straightens up.

Fingers curled, Haruka forces himself to keep his gaze. “I’m sorry,” he finally murmurs. “For everything. I’ve treated you terribly, and I… I’m so sorry.”

Haruka swallows. “It’s not true, what I said. About you not being able to handle knowing I worked for Nagisa. I actually… I think you’re a lot stronger than I am.”

Silent, Makoto is utterly still.

“It’s me who couldn’t handle it,” continues Haruka. “It’s just… I’m still frustrated. I have money and I have the privilege of my family, but it didn’t matter because I couldn’t do anything to help you because of my parents and some stupid rules. I didn’t want you to have to worry about something else, so I thought I could lie and say I got the money from my parents, but…

“And I… I was embarrassed that I had to work for Nagisa. You’ve already seen what I can do.” His eyes skitter away. “I didn’t want you to see what I was doing, what Nagisa was doing, what I was helping Nagisa doing. I didn’t want you to be disappointed in me. Or scared of me.

“That’s why I could tell Rin easily when I couldn’t tell you, because it didn’t have anything to do with him. And I knew lying would make it worse and that I’d eventually have to tell you, but I… I don’t know. I did it all wrong. I’m sorry.”

Birds sing over the wash of water.

A soft exhale breaks from Makoto’s mouth. “Haru…” His mouth twitches into a melancholy smile. “I’ve never been scared of you. I just… I’ve been worried, that’s all. And frustrated too, I guess. I know you mean well. Underneath all that has happened, I know that.”

Haruka lowers his eyes, and Nagisa’s voice drifts in. Deep down, I am a good person, right? Right, Haru?

“What if there is no underneath?” Haruka says, head snapping up. “What if what has happened is all there is? That’s all I am? It doesn’t matter what I mean?”

Makoto’s mouth hangs open without an answer ready.

“Sorry. Nevermind.” Haruka rubs his temple.

They’re quiet for a couple of moments.

With a trace of a laugh, Makoto says, “You were right, though. I don’t do anything.”

“Makoto…”

Makoto shakes his head. “No, it’s true. I let things happen and just watch.” He looks aside. “I guess part of why I didn’t stay behind to look for my family is that I was afraid I would get stuck. There’s just so many places to look, you know? That I’d be… paralyzed with all the options, I guess. At least following Rin has a direct path and keeps me moving.”

He scuffs his shoe along the grass. “Also… Well, this is a bit stupid, but, um. I don’t know, I thought―now that you’ve found Rin again and you were too late in helping my family… that you’d have no reason to stay and search with me? If I split up from the others.”

“What are you saying,” breathes Haruka. “Of course I would. I didn’t promise Rin anything.”

“I know, I just…” An ashamed smile. “I didn’t want to be alone.”

Haruka has nothing to say for a few breaths. “You wouldn’t be. You won’t.”

“Thanks.” Makoto’s shoulders slump. “Yeah. I… I guess, another thing… It’s like, I’ve usually just accepted whatever’s come at me because no matter what it is, there’s always someone who has it worse. Even now, I at least know that my family is out there, but Rin knows his father is gone and he doesn’t know about his sister, and both Ai and Sousuke don’t know whether their parents are alive or not. And even compared to you… I guess I have something worth missing. I don’t feel like I have any right to complain.”

“That’s stupid, ” Haruka snaps, heat creeping into his voice. “Just because it’s not the worst it possibly can be, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems. You’re allowed to want it to be better. You don’t have to earn it by suffering more.”

Makoto blinks.

“And also. I know you don’t want to continue farming, but I don’t understand what’s wrong with it. I’ve seen how you all are used and treated so I know what’s wrong there, but you made it seem like farming itself was unimportant. It’s necessary, isn’t it? And hard work. There’s nothing lesser about it.”

Makoto is silent for several breaths, eyes wide. In a weak voice, he says, “You’re probably right.”

“I know I am.” Shifting his weight, Haruka softens his tone. “What do you want to do? Do you want to head back to the Earth Kingdom, or…?”

“Ah… I don’t know. I still feel overwhelmed, and now I have attachments to Rin, Ai, and Sousuke too, so… Is it okay if we continue on like this? For now, at least.”

“It’s your decision.”

Tension releasing, Makoto smiles, shyly. “Thank you, Haru,” he murmurs. “Really.”

Wordless, Haruka nods. On an impulse, he offers out his hand. “We’re okay?”

Makoto takes it. “We’re okay.” He twitches. “Ah―your hand is cold.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Makoto presses his other hand to the back of Haruka’s with a squeeze.

Back when Haruka first met Makoto, Makoto’s hands held dirt along the creases and nails while Haruka’s own hands were spotless, but now, Makoto’s hands are completely clean while Haruka’s sport fading bloody scrapes from Ito and frantically digging for those roots.

Makoto’s hands are still just as warm, though.

The sun drips down beyond, oranges and pinks blooming above.

Chapter Text

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

―William Shakespeare, Hamlet


Up they go, up sharp white cliffs in orderly lines.

Rin is unused to this sort of organization in travel now, where everyone is placed according to rank and relevance. At the front, sides, and back of the pack are the most disposable soldiers, the youngest and lowest ranked like Asahi (who’d insisted Rin also call him by his first name) and Ikuya to defend an oncoming attack from any direction. Closer in are those to be protected, but lacking importance. Makoto, Ai, and Sousuke walk there along other higher ranked soldiers. In the center of the mass are those most vital to the functioning of the unit and those whose loss would be catastrophic in some manner. Natsuya rides a horse along Rin’s mother’s, while Rin and Haru (plus Kuroime) are on her other side. Rin’s mother had offered a horse for Rin too, and Rin declined politely; Haru had offered Kuroime to him, and Rin declined less politely.

The organization feeling too strict to him, Rin argued to get Makoto, Ai, and Sousuke placed along him and Haru, but his mother and Natsuya would not budge. A couple of times, Rin has glanced behind to test whether he can easily pick out Makoto, Ai, and Sousuke. They are tiny dots from where he stands.

With midday, Natsuya calls for a brief break for everyone to rehydrate, refuel, and recuperate, and in murmurs, the ranks break down some as soldiers replenish with food and water and chat with friends.

Jumping down, Haru foists Kuroime’s rope onto Rin and slips into the crowd.

“Oi!”

By his mother’s side, Rin can do nothing but stand and reluctantly keep Kuroime tethered as Haru weaves his way to Makoto, Ai, and Sousuke. They’re a little closer now that the ranks have shifted, and Rin can see Haru beside Makoto, the two of them in conversation while Ai and Sousuke don’t participate.

Rin focuses on Sousuke, unable to read his expression from this far away. He wills him to meet his eyes, but Sousuke sips water, oblivious.

A horn blows, signalling the end of the break, and everyone shuffles back into place.

Rin smiles knowingly as he hands Kuroime’s rope over to Haru. “Did you finally admit to being an ass?”

He expects a retort, but Haru says, “Yeah,” and hops onto Kuroime’s back.

“Good. Now I don’t have to deal with the two of you being mopey all the time.”

Haru shoots him a tired look. “Like you don’t enjoy getting involved in everyone else’s lives.”

“Shut up.”

From the top of the cliffs, the neighboring meadows and plotlands spread out green and brown in the distance.

They settle for the evening about a half a day away from their next target city, setting up temporary tents for the night. Amid the bustle and chatter, Rin and Haru meet up with the others to find a spot for their tents.

Sousuke smirks at Rin when he arrives. “Thanks for visiting us earlier,” he says, though with humor.

“Hey, that’s not my fault, he ―” Rin jabs a finger at Haru, who helps Makoto and Ai set up their tent, “―shoved his horse onto me.”

“Sure.”

Grumbling, Rin gets to work helping Sousuke with the tent.

Eventually the work dies down and a dinnertime lull passes over everyone. With rations at the gift of Rin’s mother, they don’t have to scrounge around for or catch their food, although the food they’re offered is less fresh than desired and primarily plant based for easy storing. With the sun gone beyond the horizon, Asahi and Ikuya stumble in for some light conversation.

As a small fire flickers between them, Natsuya appears, helmet off for the first time Rin’s seen today. “Excuse me,” he says over the voices, commanding them into silence. “Just reminding you all that we’ll be leaving at dawn, not breaking camp at dawn as some people thought…”

“Colonel Kirishima, are you going to everyone and reminding them, or is it just us?” complains Asahi.

“I’m reminding everyone, but I am specifically reminding some people who are currently present.”

With a pout, Asahi leans back on his hands. “When you said, ‘dawn,’ it sure sounded like that meant we’d wake up at dawn…”

“I’m not arguing semantics with you. Be ready to move at dawn.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Asahi sighs. He suddenly barks a laugh. “Hey, you’re one to talk. Remember that time in Yan when you drank too much and almost slept through a battle and Colonel Serizawa―”

Asahi’s jaw goes slack.

Almost forcibly, Natsuya’s expression does not change. “Colonel Serizawa did what?”

“U-Uh―” Asahi shifts. Opposite him, Ikuya stares into the fire. “Didn’t… Didn’t he dump freezing water onto you to wake you up?”

A tick of silence, and Natsuya’s mouth curls slightly. “Yeah, he did.” He shudders. “Not a great day.”

With that, he moves onto the next cluster of soldiers.

Quickly and energetically, Asahi changes the subject, and they don’t see Natsuya again for the rest of the night.

One by one, everyone tires and splits off, the promise of an early morning looming overhead. Rin returns to the tent first, and within a few minutes, Sousuke enters after him.

Still, hesitation clouds the air, and Rin does not change his position as Sousuke curls down on his side. Puffs of breath. On his own accord, Sousuke scoots into Rin and rests his head on Rin’s chest. His ribcage drops with a large, sharp exhale.

Aiming a small smile at the top of Sousuke’s head, Rin wraps an arm around him. As Sousuke nods off, Rin draws little strokes onto Sousuke’s arm with his thumb, feeling the tightness of scarred skin on the back of his own hand.


Haruka’s empty tent, with a chill settling on the floor in early morning, is silent.

He wakes a good amount of time before dawn and remains where he is for a little while, listening to his breaths and the sounds of others slowly rising outside. His eyes gradually adjust to thin light.

Finally, he pulls himself up, stepping out of the tent. The sun still has some time to go before it’s visible, and the sky overhead is a bluish gray while pockets of fog cling to the ground. Soldiers move about, breaking up tents and snatching breakfast. Rin tears apart the homemade tent while Sousuke lurks aside, looking as though he’s not quite awake yet.

With a small greeting exchanged with Rin and nothing with Sousuke, Haruka gets to work on his own tent. The sky lightens to a calm lavender.

“Are Ai and Makoto still asleep?” Rin eventually asks him, frowning.

“I’ll check.” Haruka pokes his head in, finding their two forms still curled on the floor of their tent. He calls, “Ai. Makoto.”

Ai lifts his head. “It’s time already?”

“Yeah. Get up.”

Ai slowly sits and rubs his eyes, his hair sticking out in several directions. Makoto grumbles and shifts, but he doesn’t sit up.

“Makoto,” Haruka repeats, firmly.

Makoto doesn’t respond for a few moments. “It’s cold,” he whines, eyes squeezed shut.

“It’ll get warmer. You don’t want to be the one Rin has to yell at, do you?”

With a tiny sigh, Makoto sits up, hand pressed to his eyes.

Haruka smiles. “I’m not leaving until you’re up for real.”

Makoto makes a small noise of complaint at the back of his throat.

When both Makoto and Ai finally exit the tent, Haruka helps them pull their tent down to speed up the process. With both of them still half-asleep, the quiet is comfortable, peaceful. They get it together before dawn, so no one incurs Rin’s wrath, and as sunlight spills out over everything and catches onto clumps of mist, Rin’s mother and Natsuya call for everyone to place themselves into their travel formation.

Still glowering with the early hour, Sousuke disappears back into the ranks, Ai following. Makoto lingers, and when he notices Rin occupied in conversation with his mother, his eyes settle on Haruka.

A smile, crookedly tired. “See you later, then,” he says. He slips into the crowd.

“Hey, you ready?” Rin’s voice asks Haruka.

Haruka turns back to the front. “Yeah.” He mounts Kuroime.

The day of travel is short, and by the time the sun watches from directly overhead, they reach the city Nozemiya amidst fields of tall, golden grass and scraggly trees. Natsuya barks orders to the soldiers, and they rush to put together a more permanent camp in afternoon glow. Haruka and the others get to work on their own tents and belongings, and they finish sooner than the soldiers. Sousuke disappears for a nap while the rest of them relax and mill around. Eventually Asahi appears, perhaps skimping out on his duties, but Natsuya is nowhere near to chastise him.

He talks at Rin about something. “So then, Ikuya started sneezing and―”

Haruka nudges Asahi’s side, seeing the weariness in Rin’s eyes. “Didn’t you come from somewhere near here? Henno City, right?” he asks.

“Oh, uh, yeah.”

“Are you going to visit your family, since you’re nearby?”

Asahi scratches his head. “A-Ah, well, I probably can’t get the time off,” he blabbers, “but even if I could, I don’t know if I’d have anything to talk about with my family anymore. I mean, they’re still just doing carpentry while I’m off doing big things.”

Haruka doesn’t have anything to add to that, and Asahi’s attention returns to Rin.

“Where was I? Oh! So―”

Gray storm clouds sneak up on them, blotting out the setting sun and setting a cool wind to sweep across the landscape. No longer tied to any conversation, Haruka stands and wanders away from the group, coming to a stop at the far edges of their camp, where nothing faces him but shivering tall grass and trees.

He studies the smudges of gray overhead, and the sounds of people fade away. Rustles of leaves.

Makoto’s voice, right in his ear: “Not planning to spend the night in the rain again, are you?”

Haruka wheels around, finding Makoto stood behind with an amused look. He blinks and steps back. “You don’t know for sure that it’s going to rain.”

“Hm.” Makoto’s eyes focus beyond Haruka. “See the leaves on that tree?”

Haruka follows his gaze. “Yeah…?”

“See how they’re flipped up?”

Now that Haruka notices, their green is paler, veiny underside to the sky.

Makoto smiles, but he does not show his teeth. “Be careful.”

He turns away, leaving Haruka to blink at his retreating back.

A fat droplet of water splatters onto Haruka’s forehead. Frowning, he looks skyward, and sure enough, raindrops begin to fall.

He doesn’t wipe the droplet from his forehead.


The ground squelches unpleasantly under Rin’s feet, leftovers from the torrent of rain the night before, as he follows his mother and the rest of the squad into Nozemiya main. The earth here has a cakey, orangey quality, and opaque puddles splash to color his boots orange as well.

Nozemiya is a similar size to Murabi, but its golden buildings are all squat and short, and the streets are straight and wide, no longer dictated by curving canals. They go from door to door, Rin’s mother pitching to each answer individually. In another contrast to the negative reception in Murabi, most people react to them at best excitedly and at worst apathetically, and the positive reception boosts the energy and mood of the group. Rin hangs to the back.

As they take a turn down the street, a soldier from a different squad runs to catch up to them.

“What is it?” Rin’s mother asks, slowing.

“About fifteen caught some bug and are out sick,” explains the soldier, breathlessly, “so there are about two whole squads that haven’t shown up.”

“Ah, really?” Rin’s mother places her hands on her hips. “Hm. Maybe we should split up so we can cover more ground.” Without her even saying his name, Rin knows the next sentence is for him. “Can you lead a couple of people?”

He stands up straighter. “Oh. Uh, yes.”

Her expression is hidden under her helmet, but she nods. “Thanks. I’ll catch up with you later.”

They part down opposite streets, Rin with three soldiers he doesn’t know tailing him and a quivering in his chest. He’s lucky, though, running into people who are either too busy to talk or just supportive enough that he doesn’t have to convince them of anything. They stop at a crooked little house with peeling paint and vines climbing the sides. He knocks on the door.

Multiple voices ring out, and slow footsteps come forward.

A tiny, wrinkled old woman with dark blue eyes and wispy white hair answers. “Oh!” she gasps, smiling. “Hi!”

“Uh, hello, could we―”

The woman opens the door and flourishes a hand. “Come in, come in!”

“Uh―” Rin glances back at the other soldiers, unsure what to do. When they offer no advice, he turns back and places a confused half-smile on his mouth. “Okay…”

“Don’t be shy!” Ushering them in and slamming the door behind, she places a surprisingly firm hand on Rin’s shoulder and steers him across grimy dirt floors to a small kitchen. “I’ll make tea!”

A couple of ratty kids in ages ranging from toddler to teen blankly stare at Rin and the others from spots on the floor around an ashy cooking pit.

“Oh, these are my grandchildren,” says the woman, rooting around in a pile of garbage along the wall. She turns back to rattle off, “Han, Kaori, Buya, Onigumo.”

The kids’ expressions don’t change when Rin attempts a smile.

“I’ve been taking care of them myself since my daughter, bless her soul, passed away a few years ago…” She plucks out a little pot and dumps water in it. “Now, where are my matches… I swear I had them around here somewhere…”

“Oh, I could light it for you,” says Rin.

She flashes a toothy smile. “Would you? Aw, you’re a sweetheart.”

When the fire pit crackles with flame and the pot sits above, churning with boiling water, the woman pours out four mismatched cups with some ground up leaves floating atop.

“Sit, sit!”

Mumbling thanks, Rin awkwardly settles in between two of the kids, having already forgotten their names, while the other soldiers sit back behind him. For the first time, he notices the opposing wall, where four portraits hang. His stomach twists. He’s suddenly grateful for the helmet covering everything but his mouth, staring down small painted renditions of his father, mother, Gou, and himself.

Quickly looking down, Rin blows at his piping cup of tea and tests a sip, resisting a grimace at the muddy flavor.

“Uh,” he says, lowering the cup down on his thigh. “We’re here to ask you some questions, if that’s okay.”

“Absolutely! I don’t get visitors around here often.”

“Ah… I don’t know if you’ve heard about the coup d’etat in our capital?”

Her brow pinches. “The what now?”

“Well… Almost a year ago, rebel forces overtook the capital and assassinated many of the government officials and military generals there.” Rin’s hand tightens around the cup. “Including the Fire Lord.”

“Huh?!” The woman shakes her head, eyes wide like a spooked cat. “That’s awful! I had no idea!”

“And the rebel forces have been in control ever since. So we’re trying to win the capital back.”

“Are you going to go fight them yourself?” she asks, peering up at him. “You seem pretty young to me.”

Rin blinks. “Uh―I mean, not by myself, ” he stammers. “It’s a collective issue.”

“Mm, well, I’ll be rooting for you! I can’t believe someone would do something so horrible as kill the Fire Lord! Rest his soul.” She looks behind and aims a flying kiss at the portraits. “Always providing the best possible opportunities. Keeping us safe from those villainous people from the Water Tribe.”

Rin stares at the portrait. In the shadowy room, his father’s expression is unreadable.

“Hello? You alright?”

“You never even knew him,” Rin mutters. His eyes fall to the woman. “How do you trust them so easily?”

“Well, they gave us all of this, didn’t they?” She waves a hand as if to encompass the room, the house, the town. “Life is hard, but it could be harder. I can’t say I can complain. You know, without their laws and protection, we’d all be at each other’s throats, wouldn’t we?”

Rin stares. “Would we?”

“Hm?”

“Ah, well, I don’t know…” Rin watches the tea ripple. “Sometimes it feels like the laws are what cause the problems.”

For a moment, she does not move, before erupting into frothy giggles. “You’re funny, you know that? You should quit the soldiering act and become a comedian.”

Rin does not laugh, his ears overflowing with crackling fire.

The moment trickles away and she chatters away as they sit and finish their drinks, but Rin barely listens to what she says, offering only nods to act like he’s paying attention.

Rin swallows the last of his drink, throat burning. “Well, we should get going,” he says, standing up. “Thank you so much for the drinks.”

“No problem, no problem!” She collects the cups as they hand them to her. “Thanks for the chat! Stop by again sometime!”

Rin nods mutely, eyes raising to the portraits. He clenches his jaw and turns away.

To the next house.

When the dirt at their feet takes a darker orange color with the setting sun, Rin’s mother and the other half of the squad loop back.

“Everything go well?” she asks Rin.

He pastes on a smile. “Yeah.”

They return back to their camp and go their separate ways for dinner and evening time. Exhausted for no reason, Rin trudges back to his tent, passing by Haru, Makoto, and Ai with lukewarm greetings. He plucks off his helmet and enters his tent, instinctively tossing the helmet.

The helmet lands on Sousuke’s chest. “Ow,” he grumbles, twitching.

“Sorry,” Rin says. He lets the tent flap fall shut behind him. “Were you sleeping?”

Sousuke sighs and leans on his elbows. “Not really.”

“Mm.” Rin begins to undo all the layers to the uniform, distracted enough to scarcely notice Sousuke’s attention on his bare skin. Quickly, Rin pulls on his usual black and red with a sigh of relief, limbs freed from the armor.

To Sousuke, he says, “It’s almost dinnertime.”

He heads back out.

Sitting down between Ai and Makoto as they wait for someone to deliver their rations, Rin slips out of the conversation, mindlessly picking at grass.

“…Rin?”

He snaps back; Ai frowns at him. “What?”

“I asked if you wanted to play a game or something after dinner.”

“Oh.” Rin pitches away torn up grass. “I’m not really in the mood.”

Nodding slowly, Ai doesn’t smile. “Okay.”

Sousuke joins them, squeezing in between Rin and Ai. He and Makoto talk easily while Rin remains quiet, but they all go quiet when a couple of soldiers stop by and drop off some rations of rice with old vegetables. They dive in. Rin forces himself to eat it.

He barely gets down two bites before his mother approaches, without her uniform and with her hair half-up, half-down. Stopping, she focuses on Rin.

“Rin, can we talk a moment?” Her voice is curt.

Rin lowers his bowl of food. “Right now?”

She nods.

Casting a look over the others, Rin reluctantly sets his bowl down and stands, unease prickling his stomach. His mother sets off back into the tents and he follows several beats behind, barely processing the passing soldiers acknowledgements of, “Lady Miyako,” and, “Prince Rin.”

She enters her tent and he comes in after, ducking for the shallow ceiling.

“What’s this about?”

Sighing, his mother sits down cross legged, facing him, and tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. Cautiously, he sits down as well.

“I just wanted to talk to you in person,” she begins. “I… heard about a particular visit you went on today.”

Rin’s stomach sinks. “I didn’t―”

She holds up a hand. “I’m not saying you did or didn’t do anything, I just need to be sure I can trust you to carry the right message across.” She clasps her hands. “You know, it’s great that you’ve made friends with people from the Water Tribe and I think it’s good for you to have that experience, but I think you need to remember that while Ai and Sousuke are great, the rest of the Water Tribe is not. We still need to be wary of them, especially now, when our government and forces are so disjointed. There is no room for doubt here, and if it seems like you’re trying to convince someone against―”

“I wasn’t convincing anyone of anything, ” protests Rin. “I was just thinking.”

“This isn’t the place for thinking!” she snaps. Shutting her eyes, she rubs her forehead. “Like having one child obsessed with philosophy wasn’t enough. Look, if you want to think on some great theoretical problem, go ahead, but what we’re doing here cannot show uncertainty. Every single one of us is accountable for an effective campaign to protect the future. Do you understand?”

Rin’s fingers shake. “Yes.”

“Good.” She exhales harshly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Without bidding her goodnight, Rin exits.

Faint firelight bounces from all around as the soldiers hunker down for the night, light conversation and laughter falling on Rin’s deaf ears. He scurries away from his mother’s tent, dodging through until he finds the others again, sat on the ground. He stops. They don’t notice him from this distance, talking; Sousuke laughs at something Ai said.

Rin silently sneaks into his and Sousuke’s tent and rifles in the dark through his military uniform. When he finds what he wants, he grabs it and darts away before anyone can see him, leaving the tents and firelight for the nearby trees.

A safe distance away, he stops about ten feet before a tree, gripping the holster of his knife. Slowly, he grabs the knife handle and withdraws it. Burst of orange from the camp glint off of the blade. He struggles to remember the last time he threw a knife; he’s been using one to butcher all this time, but the last throw was all the way back in Rasu when he and Sousuke caught a deer. His borrowed bone one had been confiscated by Ryuugazaki back in Ito, and never returned.

Focusing on the bark of the tree in dim light, Rin stills his breath. He throws.

The knife hits hilt first and thuds into the grass at the base of the tree.

He grits his teeth. What did he expect?


Makoto furrows his brow and looks around. “Is Rin still not back yet?”

“Guess not,” mutters Sousuke.

“I wonder what his mother wanted to talk to him about.”

“Who knows.” With a yawn, Sousuke stands and stretches his arms. “Well, I’m tired and I’m not waiting up for his dumb ass.”

Only Makoto and Ai say goodnight as Sousuke slips into his and Rin’s tent. In his absence and in the silence, voices from the soldiers all around fill the space.

To Haruka’s side, Makoto shifts. “Well,” he says, drawing both Haruka and Ai’s attention to him, “I guess I’ll go off to bed too.”

Haruka’s insides drip with disappointment. “Oh.”

Makoto stands and smiles at both of them, but Haruka imagines his eyes linger on him a moment longer. “Goodnight!”

“Goodnight.”

Makoto does not look back once.

That leaves Ai and Haruka, while Rin remains missing. Haruka picks himself up and fills up a small bowl of water to place before Kuroime. She lowers her head and begins to drink, and he attaches himself to her side, absentmindedly running his hand across her shoulder. Ai sits, nervously wringing his hands.

Haruka tilts his head. “Worried about Rin?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” Ai’s gaze skitters away. “Just thinking, that’s all.”

“Ah.” Smiling to himself, Haruka adds, “His mother doesn’t know how to shut up either, so who knows how long a conversation between them could go.”

Ai doesn’t reply, brow knotted.

Haruka’s smile fades. He continues petting Kuroime.

As the night wears on, the chatter and movement of the soldiers dwindles, and small torches and campfires begin to go out.

Footsteps across the grass. Rin appears, jumping at the sight of Haruka and Ai. Something clutched in his hand flashes behind his back too quickly for Haruka to identify.

“Uh―” Rin’s forehead crinkles. “You guys are still up? You weren’t waiting for me, were you?”

“I’m spending time with Kuroime,” Haruka answers, loftily. “Not everything is about you.”

Rin scowls. “Shut up.” His eyes flicker to Ai, who remains silent, squirming with untapped energy.

A brief pause, and Rin sighs.

“Whatever. Goodnight.”

Haruka repeats, “Goodnight,” and watches Rin disappear.

He begins brushing out a couple of knots from Kuroime’s tail, occasionally checking Ai, but within minutes, Ai mumbles a farewell and goes into his and Makoto’s tent, leaving Haruka fully alone.

With Kuroime done drinking and nothing else to do, Haruka decides to pack it in as well, securing Kuroime off with a silent goodnight and slipping into the black of his tent. He lies down on the bare padding, feeling a slight chill again now that the pervasive humidity of the Earth Kingdom is long gone, and does not move, eyes slowly adjusting to the hushed colors. Outside, there are barely any voices or footsteps left.

Not tired yet, Haruka keeps his eyes open, falling down several casual and unfulfilled trains of thought. No more crickets or cicadas to fill the space, just the smallest hint of occasional wind.

The tent flap rustles.

A whisper: “Haru?”

Haruka’s head snaps up. “Makoto?”

Backlit from distant torches, Makoto only pokes his head in, his expression invisible. He’s quiet for several moments. “Can I come in?”

Haruka tries to read his shadowed face. “…Yeah.”

Silently, Makoto enters. Haruka quickly scoots to the left to allow a space for him and Makoto lies down, flat on his back. Haruka watches out of the corner of his eye before resting his head back and focusing on the tent overhead.

Keeping his eyes there, Haruka pulls in small, steadying breaths and listens to Makoto’s inhales and exhales. They lie unmoving, shoulder-to-shoulder, the tiny touch enough to stir up Haruka’s blood.

The minutes pass, Haruka losing count of his thumping pulse.

Makoto inhales, sharply. “Can I get a redo?”

“A redo?”

Makoto props himself up to reach a hand and cup Haruka’s face. He holds there and keeps Haruka’s gaze, resolute as Haruka’s skin burns, and with a shallow breath, he leans down and kisses Haruka.

Momentarily frozen, Haruka kisses back, hand curling around Makoto’s shoulder. Distantly, he notes how different this is from last time; Makoto’s mouth is pliant, his hand soft.

Makoto breaks the kiss to peer at Haruka, trailing Haruka’s bottom lip with his thumb. Quaking, Haruka swallows.

After a moment, Makoto murmurs, “Sorry. That I never said anything. I…”

Haruka shakes his head. “There wasn’t a good time. For either of us.”

“Yeah.”

Stillness lasts a couple moments longer before Makoto kisses Haruka again, hand moving to the back of his neck. The kiss extends, softness gradually waning for intensity, Haruka’s hands curling into Makoto’s tunic and Makoto sliding on top of Haruka.

Hastily, Makoto smatters kisses over Haruka’s face and along his jaw, tangling their legs. As his mouth drops to Haruka’s neck, he digs his knee between Haruka’s legs. Haruka squirms, a small noise escaping from the back of his throat. Makoto digs harder, lightly sucking on Haruka’s neck while pressing a firm hand on Haruka’s side to keep him pinned.

When Haruka’s neck is wet and he’s hardening against Makoto’s knee, Makoto leaves a lingering kiss on his clavicle and pulls back, smoothing a hand up Haruka’s chest. Makoto’s hand stops where the fabric of Haruka’s robe crosses, fingertips just poking beneath the fold. He waits, eyes on Haruka’s face.

Haruka gives a sharp nod. With that, Makoto slips his hand underneath to make contact with Haruka’s bare chest. He pushes the fabric aside and frees one shoulder, dipping his head to kiss Haruka’s collarbone, and pushes away the other side. Haruka sits up to wriggle his arms out of the sleeves, accidentally bumping Makoto’s chin with a shoulder and drawing a small laugh from Makoto. He settles back down and lets Makoto resume the kisses on his collarbone. Makoto’s hand now palms him through the fabric of his robe still on his lower half.

In between whines and bucks, Haruka tugs at Makoto’s tunic. “Not fair,” he breathes.

Sitting up, Makoto smiles slyly and pulls off the tunic. He tosses it aside and dives back down press an open mouthed kiss to Haruka’s lips, rutting against Haruka’s thigh.

In the time that passes, Makoto moves back to marking up Haruka’s neck and slips underneath what’s left of Haruka’s clothes, taking Haruka in his hand. Haruka digs his nails into Makoto’s back, feeling the shifting of his muscles.

Makoto ―”

Makoto calmly stroking him off, Haruka writhes, breaths short and fast, mangled variants of Makoto’s name falling from his tongue. He comes too soon but has no room to feel embarrassed about it. Makoto kisses his cheek and sits up to snatch his discarded tunic, quickly cleaning up while Haruka catches his breath.

Impatient, Haruka grabs Makoto by the jaw and pulls him back into another kiss. Makoto makes a surprised noise, absently setting aside the tunic and letting Haruka drag him down. After several casual moments, Haruka pushes Makoto off of him and rolls on top, straddling him.

Pulling at the skin of Makoto’s neck with his teeth, Haruka grinds―needily, Makoto lifts his hips to meet him, already hard.

“Haru, Haru ―”

When he’s drawn it out for long enough, he grabs Makoto and beats him off, enjoying Makoto’s hitched breath his ear and Makoto’s hand tugging at his hair. Makoto comes in a gasp, squeezing Haruka, and in the after, they fumble around, kissing and touching with no real aim.

Moment by moment, the kisses turn languid and soft again, the temperature cooling from heated to warm. They finally settle with faint exhales and small smiles, facing toward each other.

Swishes of grass outside.

Makoto stares into Haruka’s eyes, his expression open and bare, remnants of a flush coloring his cheeks. They’re both silent for a while, sharing breaths.

Makoto open his mouth. Quietly, he says, “I’m in love with you.”

In reply, Haruka touches his cheek and pecks the bridge of his nose. Feeling Makoto’s little smile, Haruka presses their foreheads together and shuts his eyes, lazily carding his fingers through the back of Makoto’s hair.

They both drift off.

Haruka stands in the atrium of his parents’ mansion in Ito, stopped at the foot of the stairs and looking up. Someone stands beside him in his periphery, but his focus is on his parents, who watch him with no expressions from the landing above, both dressed in expensive reds and wines.

Kou, of all people, stands on the step just above Haruka, crisp in a formal burgundy robe suit and hair twisted into a bun. She holds something behind her back. “Now if the bride and groom could please raise their inside hand,” she instructs, eyes switching between Haruka and the presence beside him.

The insistence of his parents’ eyes weighing on him, Haruka reluctantly lifts the hand closest to the person beside him. The person does too, but he does not get a chance to inspect their hand, instead distracted when Kou pulls out a rope from behind her back and begins to wind it around their wrists, binding them together. The other person’s wrist is cold and clammy.

With a luxurious knot, Kou finishes and smiles at them. “Congratulations! You are now husband and wife!”

Haruka’s parents don’t smile.

Unable to move anywhere with his wrist tied, Haruka looks at the person beside him straight on for the first time. Scraggly white hair in patches, skin rotting, eyes nothing but sunken sockets, skeleton poking out, yellowing teeth bared. Somehow he knows it’s Fumiko.

She leans in to kiss him.

Haruka jolts awake, lurching up. It takes him a moment to readjust, reminding himself of the quiet of the tent and forcibly slowing his breaths. He looks down, where Makoto sleeps undisturbed, curled on his side.

Exhaling, Haruka lies back down and nestles into Makoto, who stirs but does not wake. The warmth of Makoto’s skin against Haruka’s distracts from how the tent is once again cold.

As he waits for sleep to take him again, Haruka realizes he can’t even picture what Fumiko looked like anymore.

Chapter Text

What happens all too often is that we know the good but do not do it, because we also know the better but cannot do it.

―Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life


It becomes a routine of sorts.

Rin wakes early, always before Sousuke. He joins his mother and the rest of the soldiers in campaigning around Nozemiya. His mother keeps him close and does not make him speak anymore, and he’s plagued by the knowledge of how a year ago, maybe even only a few months ago, he would have been frustrated with his uselessness and inactivity. But now, he is neither relieved nor irritated to be kept on the outside of the action. By late afternoon or early evening they return to camp and he to his friends, and he wonders what they get up to during the day when he’s gone. Sometimes the soldiers Asahi (who quickly insisted Rin call him by his first name since Rin told him not to call him by ‘Prince Rin’) and Ikuya join them, but sometimes not. There’s no river to fish from, nor incentive to catch or forage something, so they eat the rations his mother allows them. Rin begins to feel comfortable in the company of Asahi and Ikuya, but wonders if there is some issue between them and Ai, who is more reticent than usual.

Some evenings, Rin lies that his mother wants to talk to him and sneaks away from the group to practice knife throwing. He’s gotten rusty. The faintly lit forest offers a tempting challenge, and sometimes by the time he remembers to head back, the others are all gone. Sousuke sleeps in their tent. Rin lies beside him, thinking of doing it all again the next day.

One day Sousuke isn’t already asleep when Rin returns for the night. “Hey,” he says, quietly, leaning on his elbows.

“Hey.” Rin carefully sets aside the knife and holster, hoping he doesn’t draw any attention to it. Settling in, he itches with Sousuke’s eyes on him.

Sousuke doesn’t lie down. “You sure have a lot to talk about with your mother.”

“Hm? Oh, yeah,” Rin says, folding his arm under his head. “Just plans for campaigning and for after that. And we talk about other things too.”

“Mm.”

Rin feigns a yawn and rolls onto his side, back to Sousuke. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight.”

Sousuke doesn’t bring it up again.

At the crack of dawn on a regular day, Rin crawls out his and Sousuke’s tent and shuffles off to where the troops meet before setting off for the day. His ears are full of quiet talk and clacking armor. Stopping around the unorganized clusters of soldiers, Rin stops by his mother and Natsuya, both in furtive conversation.

His mother glances to him and smiles. She holds her helmet in her hands. “Good morning.”

“Good morning.”

She and Natsuya resume their discussion while Rin waits around, absent in thought.

Yawning, Asahi stumbles up. “Hey, Ri―I mean, Prince Rin,” he corrects, eyes nervously darting to Rin’s mother, who pays no attention.

“Hey,” Rin says.

Rin’s mother goes to speak with someone else, leaving Natsuya behind.

“Oh, Colonel Kirishima!” Asahi hops toward him.

“Hm?”

“Um, this morning, when I got up, Ikuya was already gone. I didn’t know if you’d already seen him?”

Something tightens in Natsuya’s expression. “No, I haven’t.”

“Oh, well…”

Natsuya looks around. “I’ll find him.” Without waiting for Rin’s mother to return, he vanishes off into the swarm of soldiers.

Asahi frowns.

A moment later, Rin’s mother does return, and she too frowns after Natsuya, who pushes through the crowd. “What is Natsuya doing?” she asks Rin.

“Apparently his little brother hasn’t shown up yet.”

“Hm.” Her eyes trail Natsuya as he runs out of soldiers to look through and rushes back into the tents. She flicks a look to Rin. “Could you follow him? Make sure everything is okay.”

Rin blinks, stomach turning. “…Okay.”

Placing his helmet on, Rin slips among the rows of tents. He walks slowly, eyeing Natsuya from a distance and trying to stay out of Natsuya’s sight. Natsuya unknowingly leads him through the entire camp, right to the outskirts of trees.

Natsuya halts in his tracks, eyes in the trees. Rin lurks back behind a tent, just in earshot.

“What the hell are you doing out here?” Natsuya growls.

Out of the trees comes Ikuya. He shrugs. “Didn’t want to come.”

“Didn’t want to…” Natsuya stands still. “There is no want in this situation. You need to participate.”

“Isn’t it enough that I’m here?”

“You know damn well it’s not enough.”

“Yeah, it’s all about the family legacy and protecting the royal family.

There’s silence for several moments.

“You…” Natsuya’s voice trembles. “Back in Komukina, when… Why… Why didn’t you fight back? If I hadn’t been around to save you…”

Ikuya looks away. “I didn’t want to harm anyone.”

“Even to protect yourself against an enemy trying to kill you?”

“I don’t know anything about the Northern Water Tribe,” Ikuya says. “They’re not my enemy.” With a sigh, he lifts his chin and places a piercing look on Natsuya. “Look, I’m only here because you are.”

Silence from Natsuya.

“I know you hate this,” Ikuya continues. “You hate being told what to do. All the awards and accolades for being a good soldier and a good citizen, even our salaries they’re meaningless. No one actually cares. We’re just tools to be used and discarded.” His expression grows soft, sad. “I know you’re still here and holding onto this stuff because you don’t want to believe that Nao died for nothing.”

Stop.

“I know you don’t want to accept it―”

You He ―” Scuffles of feet.

Pulling off his helmet, Rin steps out from behind the tent. Natsuya holds Ikuya by the collar of his suit. Ikuya’s eyes find Rin over Natsuya’s shoulder, and glancing around like a startled animal, Natsuya freezes.

“Prince Rin?” Natsuya drops Ikuya and steps aside, head bowed.

Rin says nothing, keeping his expression blank. No one dares breathe.

Listlessly, Ikuya readjusts his collar. “I’ll go put on my uniform,” he says, without looking to Natsuya. He passes Rin and heads off for the tents.

Distantly, an owl coos. Natsuya’s hands tremble by his sides.

“If you need time,” Rin says, finally, “I can tell my mother you’re not feeling well. Both of you.”

Screwing his eyes shut, Natsuya shakes his head. “No, don’t… Just… Just give me a minute.”

“Okay.” Rin nods. He scans over Natsuya a moment more. “I’ll leave you, then.”

Back behind Natsuya, trees wear slashes Rin knows come from his own knife. He turns away, putting on his helmet, and walks back through the tents.

His mother waits for him with arms folded. Asahi appears to have been swallowed up by the crowd of troops.

In response to his mother’s raised eyebrows, Rin says, “They’re coming. Colonel Kirishima’s brother just slept in a little late.”

She nods.

Within five minutes, Ikuya arrives and joins the troops, while Natsuya arrives a minute later, brimming with tension.

“Sorry about that,” he mutters to Rin’s mother.

No one speaks of it and the day returns to normal.

Later that night, Rin alone ambles through the trees and stops before an unmarked tree. He whips out the knife, which is now beginning to feel comfortable in his hand, and throws. It lands with a twang . Not quite where he was aiming, but at least it sunk.

Rin steps forward and yanks it out, returning to where he began.

And the pattern continues. The days blur together as he fulfills what’s needed of him, barely present in anything he does. On a particularly inconsequential afternoon after a day of trudging through the streets of Nozemiya with his mother, Rin sits with the others as they await dinner, exchanging light, casual talk. Asahi joins, and after him, Ikuya. Rin hasn’t seen Natsuya and Ikuya in the same space in days. Sousuke sleeps in the tent, where he will stay until one of them fetches him.

Asahi pats Haru’s arm, fishing for his attention. “Hey, hey, didn’t you say you’ll be turning twenty soon?”

“Not for a while. Why?”

“Oh, I was just wondering.” Asahi shrinks a little and ducks his chin. “You won’t forget about us when you’re the head of your company, right?”

“It’s not like turning twenty is going to make me lose all my memories.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Asahi laughs, relaxing. “But that’s exciting. I can’t even imagine―I mean, then again, I grew up sawing and shaving wood, so… But I wouldn’t know, what will you even do?”

“Good question,” Haru says. “I guess I’ll find out.”

“But like… How does it work? You guys trade objects and spices, right?”

“Yeah. But that’s not everything that goes on.”

“What do you mean?”

Leaning back on his hands, Haru says, “The company provides a lot of supplies for you guys, the military.”

“Oh, shit, really? Like what?”

“I don’t know all of it, but… I know a lot of the company’s old trading ships and materials are broken down and reused for weapons and supplies. There are stations that process stuff all along the Earth Kingdom’s coasts.”

Rin cocks his head, eyes narrowed. Slowly, he says, “I feel like you shouldn’t be telling them this.”

Haru shrugs. “It’s not like it’s that big of a secret. And it’s not like it will change because they know about it.”

“Hm.”

Asahi begins to say something―

Ai’s voice, barely audible: “These stations in the Earth Kingdom… Is… Is there one in Rasu?”

Haru’s brow furrows as he thinks. “That’s north? …I think so.”

Nodding, Ai goes silent.

Rin snaps into realization. “Oh, yeah,” he interjects. “That’s right. Ai and Sousuke used to work at―”

“Can you…” Ai’s hands curl into fists on his knees, eyes trained to the ground. “Not talk for me.”

Silence.

Rin blinks. “Huh?”

Without another word, Ai jumps up and dashes away.

“Ai!” Pulse jumping, Rin stands and runs after Ai, pushing aside everyone’s eyes on them.

Ai hesitates by the trees, back to Rin.

Rin slows. “Ai, what’s going on?”

Hands still in fists by his sides, Ai doesn’t immediately respond, shooting a partial look over his shoulder. “It’s…” He exhales and looks at Rin squarely. “It’s not different enough. You’re not different enough.”

“Huh?”

“This doesn’t bother you?” Ai weakly waves a hand toward the camp. “None of this bothers you?”

“Ai, I―”

Multiple sets of hurried footsteps come from behind Rin. Makoto and Haru appear, Sousuke with them.

Confusion on his face, Sousuke says, “What’s going on?”

Ai looks away and squirms, hand scratching his opposing arm. “You… You too, Sousuke. You’re both… comfortable.”

“Huh? What are you talking about?”

Head hanging low, Ai shakes his head. “I can’t. I can’t anymore. I’m sorry, I need to go―”

Sousuke inches forward. “Ai, what are you―”

Don’t …” Ai sounds on the brink of tears. “Please, just… I need to be on my own. For a little while.”

He turns and begins to walk into the wilderness.

Voice strangled, Sousuke shouts, “ Ai! ” He stumbles after.

Please. ” Waving his arms, Ai draws water from the grass at his feet to form a thin wall of ice.

Sousuke stops in his tracks. Ai’s image now smeared and indistinct through the ice, they watch him vanishes into the brush.

The wall of ice creaks.

Sousuke whips around, eyes on Rin. “What happened?”

“Nothing, I don’t―”

Surging forward, Sousuke seizes the front of Rin’s tunic. “What the hell did you do?!”

The ground beneath them jolts up and pushes them apart. “Stop it!”

“I didn’t do anything!” Rin shouts back, ignoring Makoto. “We were just talking―Haru mentioned something about how his company supplies our military and they break down old ships for weapons in Rasu and―”

Sousuke’s face drops. “What? That’s what―” With a shake of his head, he clenches his jaw. “You knew about this? You knew… his company―”

Haru’s eyes narrow.

“―used us? To provide weapons for your military?”

“I mean, I only knew the Nanases were involved somehow with the military, I didn’t know about Rasu and about what you guys were―”

“How am I supposed to believe that?”

Incredulous, Rin breathes, “ Sousuke.

“How can I trust you haven’t be hiding this from me?” Shakily, Sousuke swallows. “What else are you keeping to yourself? What are you meeting with your mother so often for? Something you don’t want us to know?”

“What? No! Sousuke, I haven’t been―”

“You’re still the same, even after all of this? Are you and your mother making great plans for when you take over again and return everything to how it was? At least now you can congratulate yourself on at least experiencing what the rest of us can’t escape from.”

Unable to think, Rin grits his teeth and hisses, “You have a lot of complaints all of a sudden, now that Ai called you out too.”

“It’s not about me, it’s about how you and your mother are out there trying to convince people to stick by your shitty monarchy and your shitty military―”

“You bastard, she’s all I have left!

A long stretch of silence, filled with Rin’s harsh pants.

“She’s… She’s all I have left.” Swallowing thickly, Rin stares Sousuke down. “If you could have your parents and your grandfather here, wouldn’t you?”

Sousuke’s mouth falls open and nothing comes out. He blinks, eyes blown wide and fragile.

With a raise of his hand, the ice wall shatters and he storms into the wilderness. In the distance, his voice calls out, “ Ai!

Empty silence. Rin stares at the broken pieces of ice; Makoto and Haru stand completely still.

After a moment, Rin lifts his head. “I know, ” he snaps at Makoto.

Makoto does not flinch. “I wasn’t going to say anything.”

Rin presses his hands to his face. “Sorry.” When neither responds, he mutters, bitterly, “Why’d you have to go and get him?”

Laughter echoes from the camp as the sun, gleaming, sets beyond. Rin runs his fingers through his hair.

Makoto looks over his shoulder. “It’s around dinner,” he says. He focuses back on Rin and poses an unsaid question.

Rin tears away from them, stalking off into the trees. To his dim surprise, neither follows, and alone, he scans the brush and the leaves for movement and disorder, but the scenery around him says nothing. Even Sousuke’s voice is gone.

Suddenly exhausted, Rin slumps into a tree and sinks to the ground. He tilts his head back into the bark and shuts his eyes. He wishes himself to cry, but nothing.

Dusk settles, coloring the world in a soft blue once the sun disappears. The camp and city beyond glimmer with firelight, warm and inviting, while indistinct voices fill the air. Rin sits. His breaths slow and his mind sharpens, and he thinks.

A couple of stars shyly poke through when swishes of forest floor reach Rin. He looks up―Sousuke, alone, trudging through the growing dark. He notices Rin. Rin looks away.

Sousuke’s footfalls draw closer and gradually come to a stop, a careful distance away from Rin. Rin doesn’t bother asking whether he found Ai.

A small inhale. “Sorry.”

Rin drapes an arm over his bent knee and does not look up.

Ticks of quiet.

“I overreacted and wasn’t thinking and I―Sorry.”

Rin raises his eyes. “Do you really trust me that little?”

Guiltily, Sousuke shifts his weight. “It’s not―I don’t―” He deflates, looking frustrated with his stumbling words. “I just… Those thoughts aren’t completely gone, I guess. And you haven’t said anything about what you think of all of this, so I… filled in the gaps.”

“Yeah,” Rin admits, pressing his lips together. “I’ve been quieter than normal, lately. But I haven’t lied to you. I swear.”

“I know.” Sousuke plops down beside him, leaning his head back into the tree. “I needed someone to blame. I’m sorry. I know you’re not who you were when we first met, and I… I know you care about your mother.”

The energy settles. They process.

Rin sighs. “Actually, there’s one thing I lied about, but not in the way you thought.”

“Hm?”

“All those meetings with my mother?” Rin prods. “It was only the first time she came.” He explains his visit with the woman in Nozemiya and the subsequent meeting with his mother. “After that, she hasn’t really talked to me much. She doesn’t… She doesn’t tell me what her plans are.”

“Then where have you been going?”

“Ah, I don’t think I ever told you…” Rin stands and flicks his eyes around the trees. “Back before all of this, when I was living in the capital, I taught myself how to throw knives.” He passes through trees, looking for something familiar. “In my training as the prince they really only wanted me to learn bending and chi-blocking. Swords were okay enough, but knives?” He stops and pats a trunk. “Knives were small. Common. Not fit for me to learn.”

Tracing the indents in the bark from a few nights ago, Rin looks back at Sousuke. “I haven’t exactly gotten the practice I need all these months I’ve been away, so I thought I’d come out here and catch up.”

Sousuke tilts his head. “Back when you and I caught that deer, I remember thinking your throw was too good to come from someone who’d never done it before.”

“Yeah.” Rin smirks and drops his hand. “I’m not like Haru. I guess this counts as my one tiny piece of rebellion.”

Sousuke says nothing, and Rin returns and sits down next to him again.

“Did you…” Rin eases into it. “Did you see Ai at all?”

Sousuke shakes his head. “What did he say to you, before I got there?”

“He said I wasn’t different enough and asked if none of this ―” He waves an encompassing hand toward the light of the camp, “―bothered me.”

“Hm.”

They mull it over in mutual silence, branches overhead shifting with birds and squirrels.

“Look, I’m sorry too. I… I don’t know what to do,” Rin admits, softly. “This whole time, I’ve been wanting to come home and find my family, but now that I’m here… It’s not what I thought it would be. I don’t agree with everything the military and my family have done, but I don’t know what I can do about it. And I…” His throat grows tight. “I do still love my mother.”

He thinks a moment. “I said earlier that I didn’t do anything to Ai, and that’s true. Maybe… Maybe that’s the problem. I haven’t done anything.”

His index finger taps his knee, keeping him grounded as his mind churns. A minute passes.

With a sharp inhale, Rin hops up and offers a hand to Sousuke. “Come on, we can’t sit here all night.”

Sousuke takes Rin’s hand and lets Rin pull him up.

When they return to the camp, it’s only Haru, Makoto, and Asahi sitting around and talking. Makoto’s forehead crinkles as he meets Rin’s eyes, but with a subtle nod from Rin, he blinks and his expression clears.

“Oh, we saved these for you,” he offers, pointing to three bowls.

Rin takes a seat. “Thanks.”

Haru is silent, impassive.

Eyes flicking around, Asahi begins to say, “Did you guys find―”

Makoto elbows him.

With a chuckle, Rin leans forward to pick up a bowl. “It’s fine,” he says. “We didn’t find Ai, but he’ll be back.”

Their talk though the evening does not absorb the tension completely.

Eventually, they retire to their tents for the night (Rin thoroughly unsurprised Makoto is now staying in Haru’s) and he and Sousuke lie in silence for a long time, waiting.

Rin wakes first as usual, and Ai has not returned.

Following the conventions of the day as normal, Rin dons the uniform and trails his mother and the others into the city. They come back in the evening, and Ai has not returned. Dinner, quiet. Back to sleep. Ai and Makoto’s tent is still empty in the morning. Another day of marching through Nozemiya, poking at strangers. Rin’s mind is elsewhere, formulating, composing.

That evening, he pulls Sousuke aside and spills his ideas. With Sousuke’s thoughts, he waits until Asahi and Ikuya leave them for the night and Haru and Makoto have slipped into Haru’s tent.

Cautiously, Rin approaches Haru’s tent, overhearing a dim murmur of voices. “Hey,” he says, loudly enough for them to hear. “Can I come in a second?”

The voices go quiet and there’s a rustle of movement. Haru pulls back the flap. “What.”

“Thanks,” Rin says, gently pushing Haru aside, who makes a small noise of indignation, and edges his way inside. He sits down beside Makoto, who places a confused smile on him.

Haru sighs theatrically and sits opposite. “What is it?”

“Sousuke and I are leaving.”

“Huh?” Haru and Makoto share a look.

“Are you going after Ai?” Makoto asks.

“No,” Rin says. “I’m doing what I originally planned. I’m going back to the capital to see what’s going on with the rebels forces.”

“But… I thought, since your mother was planning to…”

Rin smiles, tiredly. “Yeah, I thought so too.” The smile fades. “I think my mother and I have too much we disagree on.”

Makoto’s confusion does not abate, but Haru holds Rin’s gaze.

“But anyway, I’m telling you this because you can do whatever you want. If you both want to come with us, that’s fine, but if not, that’s fine too.” Rin picks himself up, somewhat hunched for the shallow ceiling. “We’re not leaving immediately, so just let me know when you decide.”

He leaves them. Once in his and Sousuke’s tent again, he flops down beside Sousuke, who is still awake.

Listening to their breaths for a few minutes, Rin says, “You are okay with this, right?”

Sousuke chuckles. “Don’t tell me you’re having doubts. You said you don't want to wait for him with nothing to show for yourself.”

“I know, but if we’re on the move, it’ll be harder for him to find us. You… don’t have to come with me.”

“Ai’s a good tracker. He’ll find us when he’s ready.” Sousuke exhales, softly. “And… from what he said, he has issues with me too, so.”

“Yeah…” Rin readjusts, turning his head toward Sousuke. He links their fingers.

Sousuke shuts his eyes.

The next morning, Ai has not returned, but Haru is waiting when Rin gets up.

“We’re going,” is all Haru says.

“That was quick,” Rin says, tucking his helmet under his arm. He wants to ask why but curbs the desire and lets it be. For now.

A normal day in Nozemiya, but when it ends and the squad breaks up, Rin taps his mother’s shoulder.

“Do you have a minute?”

Peeling off her helmet, she says, “Sure.” She leads him back to her private tent, and again, soldiers around them say, “Lady Miyako,” and, “Prince Rin,” as they pass.

Inside her tent, she offers out the little candle lamp, and he lights it. “So?”

Rin sits down. “So… You know my friend Ai, right?”

“The one who ran off?”

“Yes. We’re leaving to go look for him.”

Her brow furrows. “All of you?”

“Yes.”

“He can’t have gotten that far.”

“Well, I don’t know. But we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“Rin…” She twirls a strand of hair around her finger. “Why do both you and Haruka have to go? It’s much safer for you here.”

He swallows it back. “He’s our friend too. And I’ll be careful. I’ve made it this far.”

Reluctantly, eyes appraising him, she nods.

“We’ll be back soon enough,” Rin lies, with a smile.

“Okay…” She leans forward and drags him into a hug. “Be careful,” she murmurs in his ear.

Rin’s eyes scrunch shut as he squeezes her back, hands beginning to shake. He hopes she doesn’t notice.

After, he returns to his tent; Sousuke isn’t there, so alone, Rin exchanges his military uniform for his regular clothes for the last time. He lays them neatly on the tent floor.

The knife he keeps.

Chapter Text

“It is a matter of perspective, the difference between opponent and partner,” Tsukiko says. “You step to the side and the same person can be either or both or something else entirely. It is difficult to know which face is true.”
―Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus


Soft leaves crunch underfoot.

Haruka leads, but Rin holds aloft a palm of flame to dispel the darkness from the wood.

“You do know where you’re going, right?” Rin asks. “I feel like we’re walking in circles.”

“I saw a pond when we passed by earlier,” Haruka insists, without turning back to look at Rin.

Rin sighs. “That’s not exactly a clear direction.”

“It’s around here somewhere.”

Holding back from more comments, Rin goes quiet behind him. The flame in his hand casts a short reaching light on the back of Haruka’s neck, his shadow alone in the ground before him, and Haruka checks back and forth through trees and branches, not wanting to admit to Rin he’s lost track of where they are in the dark.

He steps forward. Up in the trees ahead, a human sized shape. Small.

Haruka stops. Unsuspecting, Rin bumps into him.

“What?” Rin says. He peers around Haruka. “What are you looking at?”

Pulse quick, Haruka stares into the trees. The shape is gone. “Did you see that?”

“See what?”

Haruka doesn’t reply.

Rin frowns and squints. “I don’t see anything.” He inhales with a realization and looks back at Haruka. “Wait a minute, are you messing with me?”

Haruka exhales. “Yeah,” he lies.

“Well, it didn’t work.” Rin lifts his chin. “You didn’t scare me at all.”

Haruka forces a smirk and ignores the adrenaline still pumping through him. “I see.”

“Yeah, you’d have to do more than that to scare me,” Rin rambles on, voice with an edge of defensiveness.

Turning away, Haruka leads him elsewhere, not listening. Within minutes he’s vindicated as they find the mythical pond, but as they walk back to their camp, arms weighed down with refilled water jugs, Haruka scans the forest, imagining outside footsteps and human shaped shadows.

They return to their little camp and to Makoto and Sousuke, and Haruka is relieved Rin makes no mention of Haruka “scaring” him.

The shape is foggy in his memory, but he doesn’t want to say it’s Fumiko-sized out loud.

Through the wilderness of the Fire Nation they continue, separated from the military and from civilization itself for a while. They’re closer to the capital now, but there’s hesitation in their travel now, making more stops along the way as if prolonging their arrival indefinitely. Now all four of them have to carry more weight in response to the missing limb.

In a lush bamboo forest, they stop and consider dinner.

“Is this anything?” Rin gestures to a three-leafed plant.

“No!” Makoto squeaks. “No, don’t touch that. That’s poison ivy. That’ll give you a rash, and if you eat it, your throat will swell up.”

Rin recoils. “Oh. Nevermind, then.” He kicks aside a rock. “Where is everything? There’s nothing to catch around here.”

“I’m sure we can find something. Want to look around with me?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“And you guys could set up the tent,” Makoto says, eyes passing over Haruka and Sousuke.

Haruka and Sousuke share a flicker of a glance and look away.

Evenly, Sousuke answers, “Fine.”

Haruka says nothing.

Makoto’s expression is too knowing for Haruka to believe this is unintentional, and talking lightly, he and Rin disappear among the bamboo thickets.

Birds flutter through the leaves overhead.

Without a word, Haruka turns to Kuroime and begins to unpack the pieces of the tent stored in the bags strapped to her sides. Sousuke comes up beside him and unfurls different knots. They dump the freed materials into a makeshift pile behind them, and once they have all the parts, Sousuke crouches and sifts through them. He starts setting things down, and Haruka reluctantly kneels across from him to assist.

With no talk to distract him, Haruka finds his mind wandering back to the military they left behind, again. The night before they left, Haruka went to find Asahi and told him the same story they’d agreed on: they were merely searching for Ai, not returning to the capital. Not whatever Rin has planned.

Asahi’s face crumpled. “Oh,” he said. “Well… I understand. I hope you find Ai and smooth out everything.” He looked down, bouncing his knee. “You will… come back, right? I mean, to visit, I know you’ll be busy once you take over your company.”

Honestly, Haruka said, “I hope so.”

They chatted a little more until Ikuya passed by.

“Oh, Ikuya!” Asahi chirped, reeling Ikuya in. “Did you hear? Haru and the others are leaving to look for Ai tomorrow, so…”

Ikuya’s eyes slid to Haruka, guarded. “Oh. I see.”

“I’m sure Rin will probably tell your brother, but if he doesn’t…” Haruka offered, for something to say.

Ikuya nodded.

There was a silence.

“Well, good luck on your travels,” Ikuya said, turning away, and Haruka knew he didn’t believe they were looking for Ai.

Knotting a rope, Haruka sits back and waits for Sousuke to finish. Sousuke focuses on the other side, hunched over his own knots, and when he finishes the last one, he sits up and scans Haruka’s work.

He frowns, and with a point at Haruka’s knot, he says, “That doesn’t go there.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“No.”

“I thought it did.”

“Well, I made this tent with Ai, so it doesn’t.”

Haruka undoes the knot.

Sousuke doesn’t say anything else, jaw locked shut, and returns to work. Watching him a moment, Haruka feels a short urge to apologize, but he doesn’t, merely ducking his head and setting to work.

At an uncomfortable closeness to each other, they pull the tent to stand together and avoid each other’s eyes.

Sousuke looks into the bamboo, where Rin and Makoto set off. “You know Rin’s mother, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Would she have someone follow Rin?”

Haruka is quiet for a breath. “Maybe,” he says. “Why do you ask?”

“Recently, I’ve gotten the sense that someone’s tailing us. A couple of nights ago, I could smell smoke from a fire, but we hadn’t lit a fire yet. But maybe it’s just people who live in this area.”

“Hm.”

Sousuke lets the topic drop and they don’t speak again. Once they complete the tent, Sousuke immediately slips in presumably to nap, while Haruka draws together a small fire as the sun sets.

Makoto and Rin return with berries and squash of some sort and Sousuke resurfaces. In easy quiet, the four of them eat their meal raw, and the minute it’s over, Sousuke slips back away, Rin with him.

Makoto and Haruka sit next to each other, watching the fire slow into glowing embers.

With a subtle look to the tent, Makoto asks, “Did you and Sousuke talk about anything interesting?”

“Not really.”

“Ah.” There’s a hint of humor in Makoto’s expression. “He’s really nice, you know. He’s just a little tough on the outside. Like Rin.”

“Hm.”

Makoto mercifully falls silent after that, knowing he’s made his mark, and they enjoy the serenity of the trees.

Exhaling, Haruka looks at him squarely. “Thanks for coming back to the capital with me.” He leans in and nestles his head in crook of Makoto’s neck. “You didn’t have to.”

Makoto wraps an arm around him. “You don’t need to thank me for that.”

Haruka wants to argue with that, but he doesn’t, instead lifting his head to kiss Makoto’s jaw. He resettles on Makoto’s shoulder with a sigh.

In the blare of orange-red, ashy firewood, they stay like that.

Rustles.

They both jerk up, looking behind. The rustles grow distant and eventually disappear.

“Maybe there are things to catch around here,” Makoto muses.

Haruka stares into the dark. “Maybe.”

Taking that as a cue, Makoto stands and offers a hand to Haruka, and once pulled to standing, Haruka extinguishes the fire. They step into the tent, carefully. Rin is already out, taking up enough space for two people and pushing Sousuke into the wall. Sousuke twitches at Haruka and Makoto’s entrance and quickly settles down as if to convince them he’s asleep.

Haruka sighs and remorselessly shoves Rin out of his spot. He curls into the newly opened space and Makoto lies down on his other side, pressed to the tent wall. Breath stuttering, Rin readjusts in his sleep, limbs nudging into Haruka. Haruka clamps down on the urge to shove him again.

Gradually, the others drift off around Haruka. In the back of his mind, the human shape in the woods resurfaces, this time colored with Sousuke’s suspicions and the noises of the forest.

But even so, refusing to be silenced and piercing with contempt, Sousuke’s voice from before pokes back into Haruka’s head. His company.

Haruka squeezes his eyes shut.


Dog snout over his face and knife hilt at his side, Rin walks alongside the others into a small village. A lake gleams to the other side of the town, surrounded by tall trees.

“This is Aona, right?” Rin says, to himself but also to Haru, the keeper of their map. “My mother said General Mikoshiba and his troops were around here.”

“Maybe they already passed through?” Makoto says. “Your mother’s troops went from Murabi to Nozemiya.”

“Hm, yeah.”

At a turn in the cobbled road, they stumble upon a bustling market of vegetables, fruits, grains, and fish. Rin scans the colors and smells, exhausted with the meager military rations and the skim scavenges they’ve made in this recent stretch of wilderness, but he convinces himself not to get too attached; he has no money to purchase anything with.

A couple of steps ahead and leading Kuroime through the crowd, Haru glances back at the three of them. “Look around and tell me what you want,” he says, hand on the strap of his satchel.

Rin cocks his head. “What is this? You’re using your money now?”

Without replying, Haru turns away, taking Kuroime with him and creating a wide berth. He stops in front of the produce. Makoto shrugs and follows.

With a sigh, Rin pushes through the crowd and sets his sights on the fish, checking out the different types and watching the stall owners make cuts. He’s absorbed for a while, watching the guts and blood drip and wash away, forgetting to look for an actual something to purchase. Now that he has tangible options, he’s not sure what to pick.

Rin goes to ask Sousuke what he wants, but Sousuke isn’t there. Blinking, Rin straightens up and looks around. People everywhere, voices at all directions, but none of them Sousuke.

Pulse picking up, Rin backs away from the fish and weaves through the other shoppers. He gets carried with the flow of the crowd to the other side of the street along a row of thatched buildings and considers yelling over the noise when he spots Sousuke sitting to himself in a tiny alley.

Rin checks for Haru and Makoto behind. He can’t see them in the flurry of movement, but he can see Kuroime and takes that as confirmation, facing the alley and worming his way out of the crowd.

Eyes shut, Sousuke doesn’t notice him, face smooth in relaxation. Rin stops at the entrance of the alley, exhales, and goes to turn back, when Sousuke’s eyes blink open.

“Oh,” says Sousuke, looking up at Rin.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, I kinda got lost in the crowd and then I just…” Sousuke looks into his hands. “Haven’t been sleeping well.”

“Oh.”

Neither moves for a couple of moments.

On an impulse, Rin plops down beside Sousuke and lies down, head on Sousuke’s thigh. His hood falls back away from his forehead. Sousuke allows him there without complaint. The hard, uneven ground below pokes into Rin’s back, but Sousuke’s lap isn’t uncomfortable. Rin shuts his eyes.

They soak in the bubble of the alley, detached from market noise. Unprompted, fingers comb through Rin’s hair, taking a rhythm.

Rin opens his eyes. “Are you braiding my hair?”

“What? It’s not like it’s hard.”

With a wry smile, Rin peers into Sousuke’s face. Sousuke doesn’t meet his eyes, focused on his hands in Rin’s hair, expression hard to gauge.

Rin says, “I love you.”

Sousuke’s hands pause.

“Uh―I mean―” Rin burns. “I―” He groans and presses his hands to his face, sitting up.

A hand touches his shoulder. “I’m not done,” Sousuke says, quietly.

Reluctantly, Rin lies back down, pulling his hands away from his face. As Sousuke restarts braiding, Rin fidgets in buzzing silence. He trains his eyes to the alley wall.

Eventually, Sousuke taps Rin’s shoulder. “Okay, I’m done.”

Rin sits up, patting a careful hand on the braided strand. It sticks out weirdly. “How does it look?”

Sousuke tilts his head. “You’ve looked worse.”

“Oh, thanks.

The humor fades from Sousuke’s face. Neither moves a breath, until Rin realizes his hand rests on Sousuke’s thigh. He yanks his hand into himself.

Smiling, Sousuke taps Rin’s cheek with the back of his knuckles. “Come on, I guess we should pick something out.” He stands.

A couple beats after, Rin stands. He pulls his hood back over his head, pressing the unfurling braid to his scalp and hopefully hiding his surely noticeable blush.

The two of them step back out into the main street, Rin this time keeping a closer eye on Sousuke’s whereabouts as they return to the stalls of fish. He again uses Kuroime as a landmark to find Haru and Makoto looking through fruit, their absence evidently having gone unnoticed.

Rin shakes off the energy from before and with single minded focus, scours the fish.

After a moment, Sousuke leans an elbow onto his shoulder. “So?”

“I don’t know,” Rin says. “You know fish better than I do.”

“Mm.” Sousuke points to an unbutchered fish with silvery-blue scales. “What about a couple of those?”

“Fine. I’ll get Haru.”

Rin slips out from under Sousuke’s elbow and fetches Haru, who comes with to hand over a couple pieces of gold in exchange for several fish.

Rin hands the coins over to the seller. “Oh, I have a question,” he says, making eye contact with her. “Have soldiers passed through here at all?”

Dropping their fish into a little sack, the woman says, “Soldiers? Yeah, a couple of weeks ago. They didn’t stay for very long, and I don’t know where they went.”

“Ah. Thank you.”

She hands over the fish, and Rin takes them.

Duty over, Haru returns to the fruit, apparently still undecided, while Rin and Sousuke move out of the way, sack of fish hanging heavy in Rin’s hands.

They walk on, slowly making their way through the crowd, attentions deliberately on the products and not each other. The tight quarters push them together, and Rin’s insides twist every time they accidentally nudge each other.

They slow before some rice, a little gap in the crowd allowing a few inches of space between them.

Sousuke leans toward Rin and says something, but a nearby rice vendor yells over him.

“What was that?” Rin asks, making his voice loud.

Sousuke pauses. His lips press together. “I said I love you.”

“…Oh.”

“Yeah.” Hand scratching the back of his neck, Sousuke looks aside.

They stand there a moment, separated, before with a grin and intention, Rin nudges Sousuke’s side. Sousuke elbows him back.


Faced with the array of vegetables and fruits, Haruka mulls for a long time, comparing the size and condition of each piece.

“Haru, Rin and Sousuke are looking restless,” hints Makoto, glancing over his shoulder.

“I want to get the best ones.”

Makoto sighs. “They’ll all taste the same.”

Haruka decides on four equally sized apples and drags Makoto and Kuroime to the tomatoes. Memories of his first time in Shangto Valley flood in, when he initially refused a tomato from Makoto’s farm. Tentative hand reaching out, he judges the red of the tomatoes before him. They’re smaller and cleaner than the ones he remembers.

Rin saunters up, Sousuke a few steps behind. “Jeez, finished yet?”

“Yes,” Haruka says. He picks up three tomatoes at random. “You don’t get one.”

“Well, fine. I already got what fish I wanted.”

Ignoring Rin’s smirk, Haruka ends up paying for four tomatoes anyway and stashes them away in his satchel.

“Do you want to save these for dinner?” Makoto asks the group. “I saw a place back up the street―We could eat a quick lunch there and then get back on the road for a couple of hours.”

Sousuke shrugs, while Rin waits for Haruka’s response.

“Sounds good,” Haruka says.

They shuffle back through the crowd to where the streets are more empty, finding the place Makoto mentioned―a fish place―and entering after Haruka ties off Kuroime within sight. The scarce seating choices are mostly full, and a middle aged woman stands behind a counter, a tapestry with a gold dragon hiding the kitchen from view.

The woman says, “Welcome!”

They sit at one of the empty tables, near the window. She comes by and tells them their options, and after they make their choices and Haruka pays, she disappears through a slit in the tapestry for a minute before resuming her station at the counter.

Eventually their food arrives, piping hot and delicious, and they chat casually. Haruka picks around the spine of his flayed fish.

The shop door opens, and a spry older man enters and takes a seat at the table directly behind Haruka.

“Oh, hiya, Hiroshi,” says the woman, ambling over. “What’s up?”

“The usual. Early mornings out on the lake.”

“Here for lunch?”

“Yeah.” He tells her his order, and after a moment, his voice takes a different tone. “Taka caught some sorta virus. Dunno what.”

“Oh no, is it serious?”

“We’re doing what we can, but it’s not looking too good right now,” says Hiroshi. “He just needs a healer or something, but ah… that’s a little tough for us right now.”

“Oh… Well, I’m more than happy to smuggle you some food if you need it.”

“No, no, no, I can’t let you do that.”

“Come on, it’s no skin off my back.”

“No, really.”

She sighs. “Okay… Well, if there’s anything else I can do, let me know, okay?”

“Of course.”

“And don’t worry about paying today, okay?”

“But―”

“Shush.” She backs away. “It’s on me, okay? No excuses. I’ll bring it out in a little bit.”

She returns to the kitchen, and Hiroshi goes silent behind Haruka.

The others finish up their meals. Haruka pokes his fish’s spiky spine with a chopstick, head down.

Within a couple of minutes, the woman returns with a bowl and drops it off with Hiroshi, who thanks her again. Sousuke and Makoto talk, but Haruka is attuned to the space behind him.

Sitting back, Rin says, “Well, should we head off?”

Clinks of plates and bowls as the others pull themselves together and stand around Haruka. He drops his chopstick, pulse climbing to his throat. As if possessed, he blankly stands with them and follows them to the door, but before he exits, he halts.

Without a word, he whips around.

“Here,” he says, stopping at Hiroshi’s table. He digs around the apples and tomatoes in his satchel and pulls out a handful of coins.

Frozen in place, Hiroshi frowns. “Huh?”

Firmly aware of the eyes on his back and the silenced talk around him, Haruka slaps the gold onto the table. “So Taka can see a healer.”

Hiroshi stares at the gold. “I―Who―”

“Please,” is all Haruka says. He turns back and ignores the attention, eyes on the ground as Makoto, Rin, and Sousuke watch from near the door. He says to no one in particular, “Let’s go.”

Conversation hesitantly picks back up among the tables. Makoto pushes the door open and holds it for Haruka to leave first, Rin and Sousuke following after. Haruka doesn’t look back.

No one speaks as they leave the fish shop, the street, the lake, and the town. Sousuke sneaks a look back, but quickly looks forward when he notices Haruka’s attention on him.

Out on the dirt road in the grass, away from townspeople, Rin places a look on Haruka, who holds Kuroime’s rope tight.

“Look, Haru,” he begins, and Haruka’s hackles raise. “It’s one thing if we’re buying stuff we need, but you should be careful. Waving around that much when it’s just a random person attracts attention.”

“I know.”

“And that guy back there… You don’t even know if he was telling the truth. He could have just been fishing for sympathy and extra change.”

“I know.

Expression flat, Rin watches him a second more before sighing.

Nothing from Makoto and Sousuke.

The rest of their trip is tense, quiet, and they stop for the evening a few hours from the next town. Rin and Haruka dodge each other, Rin helping Sousuke set up the tent while Haruka and Makoto attend to Kuroime. After, Makoto invites Rin to help him get a fire started, and feeling somewhat conspired against, Haruka joins Sousuke in deboning and preparing the fish.

From a distance, Makoto and Rin’s indistinct voices provide a lull for Haruka and Sousuke to work in silence. The sky dims overhead, so Haruka lights a makeshift torch.

Watching Sousuke’s hands move, Haruka wonders about Ai, but he says nothing.

Movement, ahead.

Both Haruka and Sousuke go still, eyes rising to the brush. Makoto and Rin continue talking, oblivious.

Sharing a short look with Haruka, Sousuke drops his knife and stands, making his way as if to go to the tent. Haruka checks Makoto and Rin; neither noticed anything.

“We’re going to wash stuff,” Haruka calls over to them.

Neither seems interested in or suspicious of that, so Haruka leaves behind his torch and follows after Sousuke into the dark.

Everything is a murky blue beyond the orange firelight, and Haruka’s footsteps ring out like beacons in impeccable stillness. Up ahead, Sousuke shoots Haruka a scowl, but says nothing and allows Haruka to join him. They tiptoe forward, ears pricked and eyes searching.

With a whoosh of breath and instincts faster than Haruka’s, Sousuke raises his hands―somewhere in the dark, someone yelps.

Sousuke nods at Haruka and they push forward, finding a shadowy form frozen under Sousuke’s bloodbending.

“Who are you?” Sousuke calls out.

Whimpers. “Please―Please don’t―I’m just a lieutenant, a lieutenant―”

“Are you alone?”

“Yes, yes, it’s just me―I’m just doing what Lady Miyako told me―I―She said she wanted to make sure Prince Rin didn’t get into trouble―”

“He won’t. You’re not necessary.”

“Please―” The soldier’s voice grows thick. “Don’t―”

Sousuke sighs and drops his arms. “I’m not going to kill you.”

Gasping, the soldier stumbles and regains his balance. His head switches between Sousuke and Haruka, as if he’s awaiting instruction. Haruka too finds himself wondering what Sousuke is planning; a soldier potentially discovering that they’re not looking for Ai is dangerous.

Sousuke thinks a moment, studying the soldier. At long last, he says, “You won’t interfere or report back to Rin’s mother, got it?”

“Y-Yes.”

“Good. I’ll know if you do.” Sousuke turns away.

Rushing after him with a look back at the wide-eyed soldier, Haruka hisses, “Are you going to tell Rin?”

“That his mother had him followed?” Sousuke clenches his jaw. “Yeah. He’s not going to like it.”

They’re silent the rest of the way back, falling under the gleam of firelight once more.

Rin looks up and frowns. “Yo, isn’t the river that way?” He points the opposite direction of where they just came from.

“Yeah…?” Sousuke says.

“Well, you went to go wash stuff, so…”

“Yeah,” Haruka quickly interjects. “We realized we went the wrong direction and came back.”

“Ah.” Rin’s eyes travel down to their visibly empty hands.

Haruka makes a show out of picking up some used tools, and catching on, Sousuke does as well. They set off in the right direction under Rin’s watch, and without any comment, they find the small river and wash a few things out.

When the two of them return, they cook and eat the fish along with their apples and tomatoes. Haruka runs a thumb over the smooth red of his tomato, carefully eyeing Rin, who does not notice the attention.

Haruka realizes the soldier was quite tall. Not Fumiko-sized.

He bites into the tomato, and it is sweeter than expected.


The fire dwindles and the others talk.

Rin splits from the group but remains in close range, whipping out his knife and testing it on a tree. It doesn’t matter anymore whether they know of his hobby or not now, and logically Rin knows Haru never would have cared anyway.

He steps forward and yanks it out of the bark, then returns, backing a little further away. A whizz and a thunk as it lands again.

“Rin.”

Haru stands behind him.

“What?” Rin says, back to Haru as he pads to the tree.

“I…”

Knife back in his hand, Rin frowns at Haru, whose expression is cluttered.

Haru says, “When we first met up in Ito, you said you were going to kill the rebels who killed your father.”

Rin stops and turns his back to Haru, eyes on the tree.

“And now that we’re on our way to the capital, I didn’t know… I don’t know if that has changed.”

Rin runs his thumb along the hilt of his knife. “It hasn’t.”

He throws.

Haru says nothing the whole time it takes for Rin to retrieve the knife once more. “Just…” He shrinks and his voice softens. “You can’t take it back.”

Rin grits his teeth. “I know.”

“And it won’t bring back your father.”

I know.

The fire glowing on their shoulders from behind, neither moves for a minute. Haru walks away without another word.

Rin swallows and shifts his grip on the knife. He throws again, and it lands well.

As the fire dims and Rin’s aim gets messier, he keeps throwing nonetheless, paying attention to nothing else. Footsteps approach him again, and it’s Sousuke this time.

“Hey,” Sousuke says, like a peace offering.

“What?”

“Look… I can tell you’re already in a bad mood, but…”

“I’m not―

“You are.”

Rin chews on his bottom lip.

“And this isn’t going to help, but…” Sousuke crosses his arms. “Earlier, when Haru and I left―”

“Oh, you mean when you two said you were going to wash stuff and didn’t even bring anything to wash?”

Grudgingly, Sousuke smirks. “Yeah. I’d suspected it, but we actually found a Fire Nation soldier who’s been following you under your mother’s orders.”

Rin looks down at his hand. He flips the knife, catching it by the hilt. “Yeah.”

“‘Yeah’?!”

Rin raises his eyebrows at Sousuke. “Look,” he says. “I was never allowed outside the palace without at least one other person, so I’m not surprised. Even though this isn’t the palace and I haven’t been a prince for a while, I still am to her.”

“Oh… Then―”

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to change my plans because I’m being watched. If that soldier goes back and snitches, whatever. It’s not like she can do anything to me. I don’t care.”

The bluster is too obvious in his voice.

Sousuke studies him a breath, before his mouth twitches into a smile. “Okay, then.” He drops his arms. “I’m going to sleep.”

“Okay.”

There’s a moment of hesitation, but Sousuke steps into him and places a small kiss on his forehead. Leaving a tingling reminder on Rin’s skin, he immediately steps back and returns to the camp. Rin, wound up, watches him slip into the tent.

Both Haru and Makoto must have gone to sleep as well, for Rin has the fire to himself. Except for Kuroime. He pretends she isn’t there.

There are no crickets or cicadas to fill the void of sound, or to mask the rustles of forest floor in the distance. Rin throws another couple rounds for the feeling of it, creeping darkness making it less useful as practice. When he misses the tree altogether, he searches the ground for the knife with a handheld flame, and once it reflects back at him from a patch of moss, he collects it and officially calls it quits.

Their fire is nearly dead now, surging through branches to leave behind brittle black. Rin waves his hand, and the lingering flames stop.

Chapter Text

Swing low
Gray bones
I don't know
If I'll ever be whole again

―Jeremy Messersmith, Organ Donor


Storm clouds overhead and gentle water lapping.

There isn’t anything for miles but thin huts and expanses of rice paddies, workers bent over and up to their ankles in water. Rin briefly glances out across the green and brown. The four of them walk in silence, Haru and Makoto ahead and Rin and Sousuke behind. Rin doesn’t feel like talking.

Every once in a while, he looks back to see whether someone tails them. Among the various people out living their lives and going where they need to, Rin can’t identify which one is his mother’s tool, but now that he knows, he feels the presence of someone following, of eyes watching wherever he goes.

He looks forward. Haru looks to the rice paddies, silent, absorbing, and not for the first time today, this week, this moon, this year, Rin wonders what’s going on inside his head.

By evening, they reach a smattering of huts among big, frondlike trees. Only one building stands taller than the rest, a rickety, grungy building looking like it’s one gust of wind away from toppling over― INN. Candlelight burns from the slim windows, door gaping wide in an attempt at an invitation. Dust and dirt darken the crooked wooden outside, golden lanterns lit overhead to distract from the rot.

They slow for a moment and take in the scenery.

“We might as well keep going,” Rin says. “We’ve survived rain. I feel like I’ll contract some infection if I stay in this place.”

Considering that definitive, he continues down the dirt path, Sousuke immediately following. Makoto trails after, but he hesitates, looking back. Haru stands outside the inn’s entrance with Kuroime, unmoving, wearing an expression Rin can’t decipher.

Rin sighs and stops. “Haru, what are you―”

Ignoring him, Haru ties down Kuroime and ducks inside.

“Haru!”

The three of them follow after, stepping into the musty, dim entrance of the inn. An old lady sits at the front, lazily fanning herself. She instantly perks up and drops the fan at the sight of all of them.

“Oh! Hello!” she chirps, blinking. “Are―Can I help you?”

Rin wants to say no, but the back of Haru’s head facing him, he keeps his mouth shut and merely watches as Haru asks, “How many rooms do you have?”

“Four!”

“Are any empty?”

She bobs her head. “Yes, all four! You can take your pick!”

Haru shoots a look back, calculating. “Then we’ll take two.” With no expression, he points to Rin. “Give him the worst one.”

“Oi.”

“U-Um… Sure, if that pleases you, sir,” the woman says, clasping her hands together.

Haru stiffens and says nothing for a moment. “You don’t need to call me sir,” he says, quietly, “and I’m only joking about the worst room.”

“Okay…”

Rummaging around his satchel, Haru pulls out a handful of gold coins. “Is this enough?”

The woman’s eyes widen. She waves her hands and steps back. “No, no, no, that’s too much, I can’t accept that―”

“Here.” Haru gently takes her hand and places the coins in her palm.

“No, I can’t―”

“Please take them.”

She quiets, and slowly, she closes her hand around the coins. “Um… Since… Since you all gave me this much, I’d be happy to provide dinner and breakfast if you―”

“That’s not necessary, but thank you.”

“Are you sure? It wouldn’t be any problem―”

“No, don’t worry about it. Thank you.”

Reluctantly, still hinting about dinner, the woman escorts them to their two rooms, both on opposing ends of the (admittedly small) building. They’re both short, squat rooms with woven tatami floors and a single medium sized pallet on the ground. There’s little difference between them other than the window in one room looks over some of the huts and trees while the other looks at the stretch of road they’ve already covered.

Haru looks back at everyone. “I’ll get the food we have from Kuroime.” He darts back out, alone, leaving the old woman to hover over them.

A tick of silence.

“Have you been traveling a lot?” she asks them, brow crinkling. “You must be tired. I wish we had a bathhouse here, but there is a small spring nearby.”

Makoto scratches the back of his neck. “Oh, I guess we’ve been traveling a decent amount,” he says. “We’re lucky to have found someplace to stay in this region, though.”

Rin hides a smirk as the woman reacts exactly as expected, lifting her chin and puffing out her chest.

“Well, I hope it’s good enough for you all. We don’t get travelers through this area often, so business gets slow sometimes.”

“Ah.”

Haru returns carrying sacks. “I’m tired,” is all he says, tossing a sack to Rin and immediately slipping into the room overlooking the huts and trees.

Having barely caught the sack, Rin presses his lips together and says nothing.

“Um, well…” Makoto raises a shoulder and inches after Haru. “Goodnight, then.”

“Goodnight.”

“Let me know if you need anything!” calls the woman at his retreating back, and Makoto turns to smile and nod at her before sliding the thin wooden door shut after him and Haru.

The woman’s eyes switch between Rin and Sousuke. “Now, is there anything I can do?”

Rin readjusts his weight. “No, thank you, we’ll be heading off to bed too.”

“Okay. If you change your minds about breakfast tomorrow morning, let me know!”

Over unwashed thatched floors, Rin and Sousuke retreat to the other room. Bowing his head for the shallow ceiling, Sousuke shuts the door without a word and Rin lights a small lantern on the opposite end of the room to offset the grunginess. Sousuke takes a seat on the bare floor, and a moment after, sucking it up, Rin sits as well. They rifle through the food from the sack and eat some between sips of water from a small jug.

Rin’s eyes scan the dingy room. “Out of all the places Haru decided to let us stay at,” he mutters.

Sousuke smiles crookedly. “Yeah.” He downs a sip of water. The smile fades.

Leaning back on his hands, Rin sighs.

As they eat and drink in minimal conversation, rain begins to fall outside, hammering hard on the thin ceiling and walls. Droplets drip from a couple of cracks in the ceiling; Rin scoots out of the way when one lands on his shoulder. Plunk, plunk, plunk, all out of rhythm with each other. Listening to the cacophony, Rin thinks he might go insane.  

They settle into silence. Long reaching candlelight flickers over Sousuke as he stares into his hands.

“Tired?” Rin asks.

“Yeah, well, I guess.” Sousuke readjusts, eyes remaining down. “I…” He sighs, and for a moment he appears very small. “I miss Ai.”

Rin smiles, sadly. “I know. I do too.”

“I haven’t… He knows about my parents now and knows my grandfather is gone, but I… I still haven’t told him about what happened with my grandfather.”

With nothing to say, Rin drapes his arm over his knee.  

Sousuke swallows. “Anyway, I just hope… I hope he’s doing okay.”

“Yeah… But he should be fine. You know, he’s probably the least dumb out of all of us. Besides me.”

Besides you?”

“Something you want to say?”

Sousuke raises his eyebrows. “Please tell me your definitive ranking of all of us.”

“Since you asked, I’m clearly the least dumb.”

“Uh huh.”

“Then Ai, then Makoto, then…” Rin cocks his head. “Hm. I can’t decide who’s the most dumb between you and Haru.”

“That’s an interesting way to look at it,” Sousuke says, deadpan. “See, I would put it Ai, Makoto, me, Haru, and then lastly, you. Tomorrow I’ll ask Haru his opinion. It might be a little different from mine, but I think we’ll agree on where you place.”

Rin clicks his tongue. “Shut up.”

Sousuke chuckles and says nothing more, and with drops of rain, they go silent.

Strong wind batters the outer wall. Careful, Rin raises his eyes to Sousuke’s. Sousuke meets him.

Rin coughs and hops up. “I’m tired,” he says, looking away and running a hand through his hair.

With a nod, Sousuke begins to gather up their food scraps. Rin assists, and when they’re done, he waves out the lamp in a thin puff of smoke and crawls onto one side of the stiff, narrow pallet. He lies down with his back facing the opposite side.

“Goodnight,” Sousuke murmurs. Rustles as he settles beside Rin. An accidental nudge of a knee.

In almost black, Rin shuts his eyes and listens to the rain. A drop from above lands on his cheek. He huffs and glances up, getting another splattered to his nose. There isn’t enough room for him to move his head elsewhere, so he scoots his whole body a few inches down, ankles hanging off the edge of the pallet.

In his wriggling, he unintentionally elbows Sousuke in the back. Sousuke makes a strained noise.

“Sorry,” Rin says quickly.

“It’s fine.” Sousuke’s shoulders shift. “It didn’t hurt or anything.”

“Right…” Settling, Rin lowers his head. The drops continue to land where his head used to be. With a sudden thought, Rin looks beside him again. “Wait―Are you… ticklish?”

Too quickly, Sousuke says, “No.”

“Uh huh…” Rin props himself up so he can see Sousuke’s face. “Interesting…”

Sousuke glares over his shoulder. “I said I’m not…”

“I heard. If you’re not, then this wouldn’t bother you, right?” Rin raises his hand and wiggles his fingers.

“Rin―”

Slowly, Rin inches his hand closer and closer to Sousuke, until when it’s maybe two inches away from Sousuke’s shoulder, Sousuke inhales and skitters out of the way. He flops onto the bare floor, landing in a puddle of rainwater.

Rin laughs and drops his hand. “I didn’t even do anything!”

“Shut up, ” Sousuke grumbles, awkwardly shaking off the patch of water from his tunic and scooting back onto the pallet. “I really can’t stand you.”

“I know,” Rin says, grinning.

Sousuke resettles on his back, exhaling, pout still on his mouth.

They both go quiet. Gradually, Sousuke’s mouth relaxes.

With a sudden churn of his insides, Rin leans down and pecks Sousuke’s cheek, immediately pulling back. Sousuke holds his gaze steady.

After several short breaths, Sousuke cups Rin’s cheek and sits up to kiss him on the mouth. Rin shuts his eyes and kisses back, propping himself up with a hand placed on the side of Sousuke’s hip.

Forgetting about the rain and the wind, Rin slips onto Sousuke’s lap. Sousuke’s hands sink into his hair, while Rin’s own hands rise to rest on Sousuke’s chest, palms sensing the warmth beneath the tunic.

It’s slower, more exploratory―Rin doesn’t grind, only straddling Sousuke’s thighs and letting Sousuke lead him. Sousuke’s hands drift to Rin’s chest, and with a quick jerk back to check Rin’s expression, he undoes the folds of Rin’s tunic. His eyes flicker between Rin’s face and bare skin.

After Rin shoulders off and discards the tunic, they sit in stillness, absorbing. Sousuke scans over him, before he leans back in and begins kissing Rin’s neck. Hands run up Rin’s sides.

Fingertips digging slightly into Rin’s skin, Sousuke pauses, his breath warming Rin’s collarbone. He murmurs, “I’ve thought a lot. About…”

He doesn’t finish, but Rin squeezes his arm. “Me too.”

With that, Sousuke resumes kissing his neck. He sucks lightly, hands reaching up between Rin’s shoulder blades, and Rin exhales.

Eventually, Rin’s the one to pull back, hand on Sousuke’s arm. He peers into Sousuke, playing with the hide of Sousuke’s collar. “Is it okay if…?”

Taking a breath, Sousuke nods.

Rin takes his time undressing Sousuke, pulling away fabric with steady, sure hands, until Sousuke is out in the open, scar dark along his shoulder and side. For a second, Rin dimly notes the scar on the back of his own hand, the one on his upper arm.

Barely a brush of skin, Rin touches Sousuke’s scar. Sousuke doesn’t flinch this time, but lowers his eyes. Rin lets his hand stay there, acclimatize, uneven ridges digging into his skin.

He presses a finger under Sousuke’s chin and lifts his head, forcing Sousuke to meet his eyes, and gives him a small, chaste kiss on the mouth. Dipping his head, he gives the same to Sousuke’s scar, hovering a moment.

He checks Sousuke again; Sousuke’s breaths are steady.

Sousuke kisses him on the mouth, greedy hands dragging him closer. Rin grinds this time, biting Sousuke’s bottom lip, and slowly, they roll back, Sousuke lying flat, Rin on top of him, the pallet crinkling underneath the shift of weight. Nails indent Rin’s back.

Gradually sliding down, Rin marks up Sousuke chest, hand rubbing his hardening dick. Sousuke whimpers and twitches. Rin sucks on his nipple, hair dripping down and grazing Sousuke’s skin.

“Rin,” Sousuke says with an urgency that gets Rin to look up. “I haven’t―I’ve never―”

Rin touches Sousuke’s cheek. He is still a moment. “Okay.”

With a stuttering breath, Sousuke nods sharply.

Rin returns to as before, carefully kissing and touching and moving downward. When he pulls away the last of Sousuke’s clothes and lays a few kisses to Sousuke’s thigh, he glances up; Sousuke lies with an arm draped over his eyes, scarcely concealing the vibrant blush spread across his face and neck. Rin makes no comment for now, and with a few pumps from his hand, he takes Sousuke in his mouth.

At first, Sousuke is stiff, controlling his reactions with only inadvertent sounds, but even with his arm still covering his eyes, he eases, breathing Rin’s name. His chest rises and falls, moans barely voiced beyond exhalation.

Blindly, he taps Rin’s head with his free hand. “Slow―Slower.”

Rin slows the pace and Sousuke eases more, voicing growing in confidence. It takes longer than Rin’s used to and his jaw begins to ache, but he keeps at it until Sousuke comes and grips Rin’s hair for support. Rin swallows, sits back, checks Sousuke. Sousuke breathes harshly, but not uncomfortably, arm still over his eyes.

Rin crawls back over him, and with a gentle hand, pulls away the arm from his face. Flushed and sheepish, Sousuke does not immediately meet his eyes.

Rin smiles. “Okay?”

Sousuke nods, eyes flickering and unable to hold one spot more than a second. But, he inhales and looks up at Rin, eyes staying, and with a careful hand, he tucks Rin’s hair behind his ear. Rin takes in Sousuke’s soft touch, but he doesn’t anticipate Sousuke rolling on top of him. Head caged on either side by Sousuke’s hands and Sousuke’s gaze bearing down on him, Rin blinks, heat rushing up his cheeks.

Seconds of silence, then Sousuke murmurs, “It goes both ways.”

He kisses Rin, hands skimming down Rin’s torso. His knee rubs Rin’s half-hard dick and draws out a small gasp.

Kisses trailing down Rin’s chest and abdomen, Sousuke settles between Rin’s legs.

“Sousuke,” Rin breathes, squirming as Sousuke palms him.

Sousuke looks up. A bead of sweat trickles down his temple. “Tell me what you want.”

He wraps his mouth around Rin’s cock.

It’s not like what Rin has dreamed, imagined; imagined Sousuke is perfect, clean, while real Sousuke is raw, unskilled, but there’s something about the authenticity that Rin doesn’t want it otherwise. Occasionally, he offers direction and Sousuke changes his movement accordingly, rewarded as Rin writhes and moans. Rin grabs at Sousuke’s hair. Damp with sweat.

Sooner than Sousuke did, Rin comes, and unpracticed, Sousuke coughs while trying to swallow. He wipes the back of his mouth.

“Sorry,” he says after a minute, when Rin has cooled.

Rin shakes his head, propping himself up on his elbows. “No, you did well.”

Sousuke nods but doesn’t reply.

Thunder rumbles.

With a small puff of breath, Sousuke clambers beside Rin and he takes Rin’s hand in his own, lacing their fingers.

Rin eyes him. “Was that… okay?”

“Yeah.” Sousuke sighs, tipping his head to Rin’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

“It’s weird if you thank me.”

“I know, but I mean it.”

They listen to the rain for a couple of minutes, growing drowsy.

Sousuke curls an arm around Rin and nuzzles into his neck. “Goodnight,” he whispers.

“Goodnight,” Rin whispers back, sinking into the warmth of Sousuke’s body temperature.

Above Rin’s head, the drop continues to fall.


A crack of thunder jolts Haruka from sleep.

Swimming with the fading images from his dream of wrinkled hands crawling over him, he needs a moment to process the small room, the rain, Makoto asleep beside him. At first he plans to lie back down and return to sleep, until a familiar smell hits him. His insides coil.

Lightning that has hit its mark.

Wide awake, Haruka jumps off the pallet. Without a better clue, he rushes to the tiny slot window.

Orange flames flicker from one of the huts below―a tree, struck, fallen through half of a hut. Through the gale, distant voices shout.

Haruka rushes back to the pallet. “Makoto!” he says, shaking him.

Brow furrowing, Makoto stirs. “…Haru? What…”

“Look, look.” Haruka tugs at his arm.

The urgency in Haruka’s voice somehow making it to him through his stupor, Makoto rubs his eyes and reluctantly sits up. “What is…” He lets Haruka drag him to the window.

After a second to process, Makoto drops into reality, expression sharpening with a sharp inhale. He looks to Haruka. “Let’s go.”

They leave the room and scurry down the main floor, taking to the dark and the hammering rain outside. Immediately soaked, they follow the flame glowing among the huts. The smell of electricity grows stronger as they rush to a hut halfway crushed by the fallen, smoking tree. Two human shapes crouch next to the tree, trying in vain to budge it, shrill voices calling out over the downpour.

Piercing screams; a boy in the rubble, leg pinned by the tree.

Haruka immediately extinguishes the crackling flames, while Makoto shouts, “Move out of the way!” to the two people trying to move the tree―an older woman and a teenage girl.

With curious looks, they hop back. Focused, Makoto carefully bends the earth below to roll the tree off of the boy. Once the boy’s leg is freed, the woman and the girl rush into him.

The boy’s leg twists at an unnatural angle. He goes limp, passing out.

“Here,” Makoto says, kneeling down to scoop the boy up in his arms. “We can get him out of the rain.”

Without complaint, the woman and girl follow after him and Haruka, and in their frantic babble, Haruka learns there’s no healers for miles and miles. With a thought, he leads them to the inn and up the narrow stairs.

Makoto glances at the door at the end of the hallway. “Can you ask?”

Nodding, Haruka turns and knocks loudly. “Rin! Sousuke!”

No response, so he knocks harder. “Rin!”

In the middle of his knocks, there’s a thunk and a mutter of voices. The door doesn’t open, so he knocks again, hand hurting.

Okay! ” The door slides open, revealing a frazzled Rin standing there with a scowl. “What?”

“Um―” Haruka wordlessly gestures back at the others. “He got hurt―Can Sousuke heal him?”

Rin’s eyes go wide, and he glances back, disoriented. “Um, Sousuke―”

Sousuke appears behind Rin. It takes him a second to process Haruka, Makoto, the boy, the woman, and the girl, all of them dripping, before he sets his jaw. “Rin, light something,” is all he says.

A flurry of movement fills the room. With lamplight, the boy placed on the pallet, and Sousuke, the woman, and the girl all crouched around him, Haruka moves out of the way. Makoto joins him, while Rin hovers near the lantern.

Sousuke inspects the breaks and bloodied scrapes in tight silence. “I, uh…” He swallows. “I’m not a healer, but I think I can at least help.”

Forehead beaded with sweat, the boy stirs. He squints around. “What is… Where…?”

“You’re okay,” says the girl, taking his hand. “We’re here.”

Sousuke touches the boy’s shoulder. “I need to reset your bones, okay? It’s going to hurt.”

Frowning, the boy nods blankly. “Okay…”

Sousuke gives him cloth to bite down on. “I’m going to start, okay?”

The boy nods, again.

Sousuke takes his leg. A sharp movement―the boy screams, voice muffled.

“Good job,” Sousuke coaxes, hands shifting. “I have to do it a couple more times.”

The screams sharpen.

Head ducked down, the woman jumps up and dashes out of the room. After a moment Makoto follows her, and stomach swirling, Haruka looks away from the boy and follows as well.

Outside the room, the woman stops in the empty, dark lobby, rain still pummelling the ground outside. She presses her hands to her face. Above, the screams echo.

Slowing down the last of the stairs, Makoto stops a careful distance away from her, Haruka behind him.

The woman looks up from her hands, face glistening with rainwater and tears. “Sorry,” she blurts. “You must think I’m a terrible mother, not…”

Makoto shakes his head. “No,” he says. “It’s terrible to see the ones you love in pain.”

She nods slowly. A flinch with another shout from above.

“I’m guessing since you’re right here―do you work in the rice fields?” Makoto asks. Distracts.

“Oh, um, yes.” The woman rubs her temple, as if guiding herself to remember. “We all do.” A thought hits her and she tenses. “Do you―Would Misaki’s injury be so bad that he couldn’t walk anymore?”

“Oh… I don’t know…”

Her shoulder sink. “It’s just―Without their father here, we need all the money we can get and if Misaki can’t work in the fields, there’s nothing else―” She squeezes her eyes shut and gives her head a shake. “No, I won’t think about it.” She pushes out an exhale and looks between Makoto and Haruka. “You all travelers?”

“For now,” Makoto says. “I’m from the Earth Kingdom, actually.”

“That far away? What are you doing here?”

“Ah, it’s kind of a long story…”

“Oh. Then, what were you up to in the Earth Kingdom?”

“Oh, just farming.”

“‘Just’?” she repeats.

Makoto doesn’t respond, and he never gets a chance to, as the door to what is likely some sort of office/storage room slides open.

The inn woman pokes her head out. “What is going on out here?”

Makoto tells her as lightly as he can, the mother standing right there listening, and when he’s done, the old woman nods thoughtfully.

“I’ll make tea, okay?” she says, and clearly there is no opposing her on this.

Makoto smiles and nods. “Thank you.”

They all get scalding chipped cups shoved into their hands as they stand and listen. It quiets overhead, but still, thunder booms outside. The woman and Haruka flinch with the sporadic bursts of lightning.

Downing the entire cup of tea in one go, the woman sets down her emptied cup and marches back upstairs. Makoto shoots a look to Haruka and they both leave behind their teas to follow after. Upstairs door left ajar, they peek inside, feeling like intruders.

Rin stands in one corner, jaw tight and face pale, while the girl continues to clutch Misaki’s hand. Misaki appears barely awake, leg wrapped in a makeshift bandage. Sousuke wipes away sweat from Misaki’s forehead with a slip of cloth.

Misaki .” The woman drops to his side and bows her head to his chest. Her shoulders shake.

“He did really well,” Sousuke says, touching her shoulder. “He just needs to rest now. I’ll keep watch.”

The woman can’t reply.

With a hazy smile, Misaki glances down at her and weakly pats her head. “Mother…”

She cries harder.

Haruka tugs at the back of Makoto’s tunic. “We should give them space.”

Makoto nods, and with a brief moment of silent communication with Rin, the two of them back out of the room. The older woman hovers on the stairs, hand pressed to the wall.

“He doing okay?” she asks.

“Yeah, he’s okay.”

She straightens up. “That’s good. Did you two want to finish the rest of your teas?”

“I think we’re going back to bed, but thank you.”

Still a little disappointed, the woman nods. “Oh, well, goodnight then.”

They return to their room. Door shut, neither speaks, energy drooping. They both settle back into their spots on the pallet, hair and clothes still damp from rain. The atmosphere hangs heavy and humid as they both stare at the ceiling.

Makoto shifts, wrapping an arm around Haruka and hugging him close. Haruka blinks and looks down, but Makoto presses his face to Haruka’s shoulder, expression hidden. He doesn’t say a word.

Haruka drops his face to Makoto’s hair and shuts his eyes.

Flashes of lightning continue to invade through the window.


Rin wakes slowly, at first only aware how much lighter the room is than before.

He’s curled awkwardly on the bare floor, and neck stiff, he sits up, barely remembering having fallen asleep. Across the room, the boy Misaki is asleep on the pallet, his mother and sister both passed out beside him. Sousuke sits on the other side of the pallet, awake. He spots Rin.

“Hey,” he whispers.

“Hey,” Rin whispers back, slowly. He studies Sousuke: drawn, dark circles under his eyes. “Did you stay up the whole night?”

“Yeah. Couldn’t sleep.”

More like wouldn’t. Rin sighs. “You should really sleep,” he says, a little bit of frustration poking through.

“I know.”

Reluctantly, Rin does not press further and runs a hand through his hair. “How early is it?”

“Pretty early, I’m guessing.” Sousuke’s eyes lift to the small window. “I haven’t really checked.”

“Okay.” Rin picks himself up and stretches, feeling a dull thunk in his spine as it pops. “I’m going to go check if Haru and Makoto are up yet.”

“Okay.”

With a lingering look back, Rin tiptoes out, sliding the door open and shut as quietly as he can. Opposite, Haru and Makoto’s door is shut, but Rin heads down the stairs instead. There’s no one in the main room and the place looks even more trashy without pretty lantern light. He steps through the front entrance and into cool, misty post-rain air.

Nearby, Haru hunches over, cleaning Kuroime’s hooves. He glances up. “Hey.”

“Hey.” Rin keeps his distance, still wary of Kuroime, especially when she’s being handled. Knowing his luck, she’d find some way to attack him instead of Haru even though Haru is the one touching her. “Been awake long?”

Haru checks the grim gray of the sky overhead. “Maybe an hour?”

Comfortable silence settles, more comfortable than the atmosphere has been between them of late.

“Makoto still asleep?”

“Yeah.” Faint worry pinches Haru’s brow. “How are things?”

“At the moment it’s okay,” Rin says, leaning back into the outer wall of the inn with arms crossed. “Misaki’s asleep and so are his mother and sister.” He pauses and adds, “Apparently Sousuke’s been awake all night, keeping watch.”

“I see.” Flicking clods of dirt from a stick, Haru wears an amused expression. “You seem annoyed. I thought you already knew he was stupid.”

Rin rolls his eyes. A sudden thought pricks him. “Is he the most stupid? How would he compare to the rest of us?”

“Hm.” Haru drops Kuroime’s hoof and stands straight, thinking. “He’s second to last. You’re the most stupid.”

“Shut up, you’re biased.”

“Yeah,” Haru says, moving around Kuroime and carefully plucking up a new hoof. “Why’d you ask if you know I’m biased?”

“Forget it, you’re hopeless.”

Rin goes silent and Haru moves onto another hoof. Beyond them are the rice paddies, and to the other side of the inn are the demolished remains of the hut, blackened tree splintered.

“After this,” Haru says, “I’ll come back in and we can figure out what to do.”

Rin’s shoulders drop. “Thanks.”

When they return inside (Rin successfully avoiding an attack from Kuroime), the old woman foists off two steaming cups of tea onto them.

“You doing okay?” she asks, tilting her head. “Wild night last night.”

“Yeah,” Rin answers, while Haru blows at the tea.

The stairs above creak, and Makoto, yawning, appears. “Did I miss anything?”

Rin gives an update, and the three of them nurse their drinks and think over their plans.

“I mean…” Makoto focuses on Rin. “You’re the one who’s going to the capital, so…”

Rin rubs his finger along the cup. “It’s fine if we get pushed back,” he says. “My stuff can wait.”

“Okay.”

Taking a gulp, Rin winces as the tea scalds the back of his throat. “Let’s see if they need anything.”

Everyone in the room is awake now, Misaki a little disoriented but visibly decent. Sousuke gives him water while his mother and sister talk quietly.

“Anything we can do?” Makoto asks Sousuke.

“Some food for everyone,” Sousuke says, placing aside the jug of water.

Makoto ducks out to scrounge up their supplies, and Haru follows him. Standing a moment, Rin watches; Sousuke sighs and rubs his eyes.

Rin kneels beside him. “You need to sleep,” he says, quietly so the others don’t hear.

“I want to keep an eye on him.”

“I know. I’ll wake you up if anything seems weird.”

At long last, Sousuke exhales deeply and looks Rin in the eye. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’m not stupid.”

For once, Sousuke doesn’t dispute this. He considers. “Okay, but I’m staying here.”

“Fine.”

Curling up on the side of the pallet, Sousuke shuts his eyes. Within minutes, his breath evens out, and with a shake of his head, Rin gently touches his hair.

“I think Makoto and Haru went to find food,” Rin whispers to the mother and sister, “so why don’t you two take a breather and see what they have, and then bring some up for Misaki.”

The girl clenches her jaw. “You’ll keep watch?”

Rin nods. “I will.”

They slip away, leaving Rin with an asleep Sousuke and a silent Misaki.

Misaki scratches the pallet with his nails.

“How are you feeling?” Rin asks.

Bashful, Misaki avoids his eyes and merely raises a shoulder. “Okay, I guess. It kind of aches.”

“Yeah, I know.” Rin smiles. “I actually broke my arm recently.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” Rin shoulders off one side of his tunic to show the fading scars.

“How’d you get it?”

“Uh… I fell.”

“Oh.” Misaki’s eyes drop as Rin slips the sleeve back on. “But you got all better?”

Rin rolls his wrist, and even now, there’s a slight twinge. “Yeah, I did.”

Again, Misaki’s small fingers draw repetitive lines onto the pallet. He looks forward. “It’s just… If I can’t work…”

Rin stills, hands clasped together, and he says nothing. Beside him, Sousuke twitches in sleep.

The day progresses; they all eat and eventually Sousuke wakes. Sousuke still refuses to move, while Rin, Haru, and Makoto go outside and help salvage the crushed hut as best they can. It’s made of wood, which none of them knows how to build with, but Makoto is able to at least reinforce what remains with earthbending. The mother and sister, against what they want, have to go work in the fields, but make them promise to come find them if anything happens. Rin checks back on Sousuke and Misaki occasionally, each time feeling like he’s disrupting.

By nighttime the mother and sister return, and they huddle in Misaki’s room while he sleeps, Sousuke still awake at Misaki’s side. The old woman offers non-negotiable cups of tea to all of them, and sitting back, Rin slowly enjoys his (or enjoys as much is possible, considering how the tea tastes like what he imagines a muddy puddle would taste like).

With night, Haru and Makoto return to their room again, while the mother and sister curl up beside Misaki. Sousuke sits, eyes drooping.

Rin pats him on the shoulder. “Why don’t we take turns watching tonight?”

“Okay,” Sousuke says. “You can sleep. I’ll wake you up when I’m tired.”

Rin clamps his mouth shut. He says, “Okay.”

He lies down on the floor by Sousuke, the top of his head just touching Sousuke’s thigh. The night is quiet, no rain or thunder, no incessant dripping, but he still finds it hard to drift off. Eventually, he’s lulled into submission. Slow breaths from everyone around him.

“…water!”

Rin cracks open his eyes. Footsteps thump out of the room. He sits up, blinking the sleep from his eyes and trying to gather the dark scene.

Sousuke leans over Misaki’s bare and unbandaged leg.

“What’s going on?” Rin asks, as Misaki’s sister walks around him with what looks like a jug of water and places it beside Sousuke.

No one responds, so Rin hops up and lights the lantern, filling the room with orange.

His stomach flips; the scrapes on Misaki’s skin gleam red and black, a sickly tinge clawing up his whole leg. Misaki pants, face pale and dripping with sweat.

“What’s going on?” Rin repeats.

Sousuke lathers a ripped piece of cloth with water and rolls it up to press to Misaki’s forehead. “I don’t know,” he says, eyes scanning over the leg. “An infection, I think.”

“Well, you can treat that, right?” says the mother, staring into Sousuke.

Eyes down, Sousuke says nothing.

“…Right?”

Sousuke’s hands shake. They remain at his sides, unused. “I…”

Bottom lip trembling, the woman pulls in a stuttering breath.

“Sousuke,” Rin says, and he isn’t sure why. He has nothing to follow it up with. Words tumble out anyway. “I’ll go find Makoto. Maybe he knows something about herbs.”

No one replies, so Rin hurries out of the room.

He doesn’t bother to knock and flies in. “Makoto!”

With a mumble, Makoto lifts his head, squinting. “…Hm? What?”

“Do you know herbs at all? Something you would take against an infection?”

Makoto props himself up. “Not really? I only know stuff for the basic cold. Why?”

Heaviness sinks into Rin’s bones. Wordless, he shakes his head, watching both Makoto and Haru frown at him.

Together, the three of them tentatively check the room. Wet cloth pressed to his forehead, Misaki looks around the room, his breaths shallow and his face even more ashy. His sister and mother chatter at him, touching his hand, his shoulder, voices too loud and too fast for Rin to process.

And Sousuke sits.

Misaki’s tiny chest rises and drops, rises and drops. “What’s happening? What…” His brow furrows. “I can’t feel… I can’t feel my leg… I can’t feel it…”

Sousuke takes his other hand, squeezing hard.

Time passes. They can only watch. Misaki’s breaths shorten.

“Misaki, Misaki …”

Misaki shakes his head. “I’m sorry―Sorry. I’m useless now…”

His voice fades. His hand, small in Sousuke’s, goes limp.

“No. No! Misaki! ” His mother hurls herself forward, pressing her face to his chest. Beside her, the sister does not move, cheeks wet.

Misaki lies flat, eyes glassy and unseeing.

There’s a slam of the door as Haru rushes out of the room. A second later, Makoto. Rin stays, rooted with a tight throat, nothing worth saying coming to mind. The woman and the girl cry, but he doesn’t.

Sousuke sits. Slowly, he releases Misaki’s hand.