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The Coward's Emblem

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It hurt like nothing else ever had. It burned. He’d never known what it felt like to burn until now. Fire and heat had never been enemies to him.

He dropped with a bone-jarring thud that could be felt for leagues around. The crust of the earth buckled and caved beneath him– beneath a body slighter and smaller than the size of the crater indicated. Smaller and slighter than what he was used to, with too thin skin and weak, useless fingernails and blunted teeth in too narrow and short a jaw. The sound that escaped him was pitiful; a groan that wobbled and died moments after leaving his puny, soft throat. Aching and coldsocold. His body curled tighter, his knobby elbows and knees worthless protection against the chill and wrenching pain.

Minutes? Hours? What felt like eons later, the sound of voices broke through his groggy mind. Shouts of shock and fear, the skidding of rocks and dirt down the sides of the crater to patter against his bare skin.

Skin?

That’s right. Skin.

And fingers. His fingers twitched against soot and dirt. Eyelids… just one on each eye… how heavy and strange. Eyelids squeezed tight, awkward feathery hairs fluttered against his cheeks, until finally his eyes opened. How dim and flat everything looked. Blank colors lifeless without the pulse of warmth beneath them.

More dirt and pebbles clattered around him, a cascade that had him instinctively flinching away and closing his eyes again.

What have I done?

“Hey! Hey you! Are ya alive? Ma! Get a rope or something, we need to get him outta here!”

“We don’t know what it is!”

“It’s just a man! Get a rope, Ma!”

There was a loud, irritated huff, but the sound of footsteps coming nearer pounded in his poor excuses for ears. He couldn’t help another pained groan, muscles cramping in every part of him. Everything was so dull and hollow. Is this what it’s truly meant to…feel like? Surely it hadn’t been this bad before? A hand touched his skin, and he couldn’t help the quiet, feeble hiss that escaped through his teeth.

“What are ya, some kinda cat? At least you’re alive. C’mon, wake up,” said that rough male voice in a strangely coaxing tone. It sounded like the stable-hands soothing the spooked horses whenever he used to get too close to the fields.

“’m awagge,” he mumbled, the words muddied and twisted around his too inflexible tongue. A scratchy, croaking voice, but young and high despite it. Too young. Too high.

Too human.

“Thank the Queen’s luck. Let’s get you up, yeah? ‘afore someone less nice’n me finds ya,” the kind man suggested, his hand returning.

“’oo?”

“Whassat?” The hand snuck its way around his bare shoulders and made him flinch and moan at the touch to the taut and quivering sensitive flesh. How did they live decades with such a sensitive outer membrane?

Ah yes. They had clothing. He needed some. Soon. Unless he died from pain before then. Why must it hurt this much?

“’oo rrr yoo?”

“Huh? Did the fall knock your brain right out?”

He frowned, nose scrunching– where was scent? Where was the smell of dirt and pollen on the air, the body odor and sweat that would tell him everything about the stranger with the coarse hands and insistent voice?– and he forced his unfamiliar mouth and tongue to work properly, the rest of his strength forcing his eyes to open.

Wide black eyes under thick bushy brows in a dark sun-weathered face gaped down at him.

“Who’re ‘oo?”

“Who’m I? Who’re you! You’re the one that just ruined half my field!”

“Sena. m-My n-name’s Sena.”

The man stared a little dumbly, and said something. Maybe a name, strange though it sounded. And then darkness fell completely. Sena was unconscious before the stranger could finish speaking. His last thought was only: What sort of human named themselves Monta?

 


 

Sena blew on his hands, wincing and grimacing at the blisters and sores covering his palms. Across the fields, Monta– Sena had woken to find out his name was actually Raimon Tarou, but he’d spent several days slipping in and out of delirium and the name Monta had stuck, his mother even using it now– was cajoling and cursing at the single ox dragging a small, hand-plough that Monta directed. Dark, rich soil foamed around the dull blade, like waves upon the beach.

He frowned to himself at the memory of the sea.

“Yo, Sena! Don’t stop yet! You’ve still got the rest o’ the garden t’weed!” Monta called over cheerily.

Sena sighed, shoulders drooping. He supposed he were lucky, truth be told. Worst case scenario, he’d be dead right now. The most likely scenario should have been him being chased off this little plot of land with pitchforks to fend for himself naked and starving in a body unfamiliar to him in the forest somewhere. The young-looking man shuddered at the thought of how cold that would be this far into autumn. Instead, Monta and his mother had nursed him through his first sickness, gave him clean clothes and hearty food from their own scarce larder, and gave him a warm cot to sleep on when he was well enough to leave Monta’s loaned bed. He had no idea why this tiny family had allowed him to stay, but he was grateful despite every blister and aching muscle.

“I’ll finish! You don’t w-worry about me!” Sena shouted back, rubbing the back of his sweaty neck with his filthy, stinging hands while wincing. His voice still sounded so wrong and his words came out stuttering and strange, sounds like “l” and “b” broken and twisted, with an accent so unlike the Tarous that it had them asking him to repeat himself many times throughout each day.

The farmer began to whistle gaily and urge Jintarou the ox onward once more. Sena’s eyes followed the furrow and then past to the rest of the field. He flinched at the sight of the deep crater that pitted almost half of the meagre patch of land. A large portion of the fence was also gone, bits and pieces of charred wood left at the edges.

What a mess he’d made of this poor family’s livelihood.

His jaw firmed and determination glinted in his dark eyes. He had a job to do and he would do his best not to be even more of a burden on this kindhearted and generous family twosome. Weeding the garden took him almost the entire morning, but he’d managed not to mangle the actual crop-bearing plants, so he counted it as a win. After that, he ran back and forth between the barn and the fields, spurring himself a little too fast to help put away tools and seeds, and then bring out shovels. Jintarou was rubbed down and left to rest while Monta and Sena worked together to fill in the giant crater. Monta hadn’t wanted to wait until it was filled to get at least the untouched-half plowed and sowed, and had hoped for a second pair of hands as well. Unfortunately, shovelling was proving to be even harder than weeding for Sena. The shovels weren’t as well used as the hoe, the wood even rougher and splintering beneath his soft hands. The loads of dirt piling into the crater, load after load after load, had his shoulders aching so much his whole body was shaking every time he lifted a shovelful and tipped it into the hole.

Lunch came and went, a simple fare of bread and cold meat and cheese that was almost too hard for Sena to get his tired jaw to chew. How pathetic these new, blunt teeth were. He guzzled down almost a bucketful of water from the well outside the barn, and then headed out to haul more dirt into the hole. In the end, Sena spent more time gasping and splayed out over the dirt, arms little more than limp rags at his sides, than he did working. Monta, on the other hand, whistled and chatted between grunts, a his body in steady constant motion. He’d taken his shirt off in the afternoon heat, the sun beating down on his sweaty, dark skin; Sena wondered if his frail, pale body would ever look like Monta’s. Or if he’d ever work so effortlessly through such arduous tasks.

He’d never known what a human body was capable of until he could compare his fledgling, unfamiliar one to a young man in his prime like Monta. He sighed enviously and looked skyward longingly.

He never thought he’d miss the sky so much…

“I think this is as far as we’re gonna get today. We’re gonna havta haul more dirt from the woods, looks like. What kinda spell didja blast yerself with anyway?” Monta asked much later, leaning on his shovel and wiping at his sopping forehead with a filthy wrist.

Sena blinked at him. “w-What d-did I b-blast w-with w-what?” he repeated, flabbergasted.

"What?" Monta asked, bewildered.

Sena cleared his throat and tried again, "w-What did you m-mean about the b-blasting?"

Monta snorted. “I’m not stupid. No way a fella can just drop outta the sky and live. You must’a been fiddlin’ with some magic and it exploded right in yer face. Everyone knows how much trouble them wizards in the big city get in.”

Sena blinked even more rapidly. He had wondered why they hadn’t been asking him questions. They had come to their own, easiest conclusions, most likely while he’d been unconscious. “Yes, um, m-mage. I’m an ap-prentice m-mage from Kariya.”

“Yeah, like I said, not dumb,” Monta said with a heavy eyeroll. Sena nodded and swallowed painfully, forcing out the lie.

“It was a dare, b-but I didn’t w-want anyone to get hurt, so I came out here.”

Monta nodded wisely. “So I guess you’ll be going back soon ‘nough?”

“N-No! I… I can't… I’m m-most definitely experred for this if they find out…” Sena said, a glimmer of truth in his words that lent his panic some credibility. Monta peered at him, but rubbed his nose with a gusty sigh.

“Experred? Expelled?” At Sena’s nod, he continued, “Doncha got family up there?”

“No,” Sena whispered, eyes lowered to his lap. “I have n-no family now.”

He missed the broken-hearted look Monta levelled at him. A moment later, the young farmer cleared his throat. Sena glanced up quickly to see Monta’s grin.

“So how ‘bout we go into the village for grub? I know the best place,” Monta said cheerfully.

Sena slowly and awkwardly smiled, his nose scrunching and eyes crinkling like a child. “I’d rike that.”

 

 

“How could you never have beer? Everyone drinks beer! What else is there?”

Sena stared at Monta’s back as the door swung inward into the tavern under Monta’s hand. The question honestly didn’t make any sense. The past fortnight had passed without either of them drinking beer. Of course there were other things to drink?

“Water. Wine. Fruit juices. m-Mer- milk. Cow’s m-milk, sheep’s m-milk, goat’s mi-”

“I get it! You don’t have to be a smartass,” Monta interrupted with a theatrical groan.

“I don’t m-mean to b-be?”

Monta just clapped his big hand to Sena’s back, chuckling good-naturedly, and led the way to the long, stained-wood bar. They scrambled onto the high stools, both of them too short for their feet to touch the ground, even if they stretched their legs and pointed their toes. A scruffy, shabby-looking man wearing a broad-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes meandered his way towards them.

“What’ll it be, Tarou?” he drawled in a voice as slow as his languid movements.

“Definitely two ales and whatever Tets was told t’cook tonight.” Sena gave him an odd look, and Monta grinned as he rubbed his nose. “When Kid here gives Tets, I mean Tetsuma, a suggestion for a special, he kinda gets stuck on it. It’s usually the best thing gettin’ ate all day.”

The bartender, Kid, sighed roughly, but didn’t argue. He scraped a hand over his stubble and finally said, “Tetsuma’s all over the corned beef hash. Added some fresh peppers, so folk have actually been eatin’ their greens in this den.”

“Sounds g-great,” Sena said to Monta’s eager glance. He honestly had no idea what hash or corned beef was, but green peppers he loved.

“That’s the spirit, Sena!” Monta crowed, clapping his shoulder with a friendly little shake. Sena smiled awkwardly, but preened somewhat at the praise.

Kid’s gaze went from laconic to dagger-sharp and back again so fast Sena almost missed it. A chill went down his spine. “Sena, was it? Haven’ seen you here ‘fore,” Kid said. Leadingly to Sena’s mind.

Sena answered with his eyes resolutely on the grimy counter, “I’ve never b-been here b-before.”

“C’mon, Kid, I’m starvin’,” Monta said with a petulant whine to his voice. “What’re you doin’ small talkin’?”

Kid acquiesced with a tip of his hat. He sauntered away as quietly and leisurely as he’d come, leaving the two friends (are we friends? Sena thought with a pensive frown) to talk alone. Their ales appeared somewhere between Monta naming every patron in the bar and an amusing anecdote of the unlikeliest-looking old man who loved to dance on the tables when far enough in his cups. Sena was giggle-snorting his way through a nutty-brown drink, the aches and pains of farming long forgotten, when the two steaming huge platters of meat, potatoes, and vegetables topped with a fried egg made it to them. Monta eagerly snatched up his utensils, all but drooling, while Sena eyed his platter in bewilderment.

“There’s no w-way I can finish all this,” Sena said, a hand on his stomach. His surely much too small stomach. His first two weeks in his strange body had been mostly consuming broth, and the Tarou’s didn’t exactly make meals this large when they were still living mostly off last year’s harvest.

“’Skay. Wadeba yeh don’ ‘iniss dey give t’da pids,” Monta told him through a bulging mouthful. Sena squinted at him, even more bewildered.

“I know it’s not the cleanest bartop, but I prefer you not t’spray it with food,” Kid said mildly. Monta grinned sheepishly and shoveled another mouthful in. "If you can't finish what you've got, the pigs'll do it for you," he added in Sena's direction, his gaze on the the drinks he was pouring.

Sena nodded, and then took a more sensible bite, teeth clacking against the underside of his spoon. He blinked rapidly as he chewed, and then met Kid’s eyes. “It’s g-good.”

“Thank ye kindly, sir,” Kid answered with a humorous twinkle in his eye under the shadow of his hat. He looked back to Monta, leaning his hip against the bar after sliding the drinks down the bartop to some waiting patrons. “So you’ll be wantin’ t’hear the latest from Kariya?”

Monta perked up, black eyes glittering with curiosity. Sena sunk as low as he could on his barstool, shoulders hitched around his ears and hand methodically bringing food to his mouth.

“Seems like the Shield of the Queen has got itself good and lost.”

What!” Monta exclaimed, spraying food over the bar before immediately choking. Kid sighed and threw a cloth in his face.

“M-Missing?” Sena repeated, his lips numb and fingers curled into fists on his lap out of sight. It took everything in him to keep his eyes on Kid without flinching.

“Missing. Took off t’face down a monster and never came back. Folks are sayin’ the Shield got itself killed,” Kid explained bluntly, his eyes too sharp. Too keen.

“No chance the Shield is dead! The Queen’d know, wouldn’t she?” Monta interrupted, slapping his hands down on the bar, rag already discarded. “What monster could kill the Shield?”

A tremor worked its way down Sena’s spine.

“Gaou,” Kid said harshly. Monta’s jaw dropped. “The Merciless.”

Monta gulped loudly, throat clicking dryly before he forced out a chuckle. “B-but the Shield! Everyone said it was the strongest, fastest, most powerfullest Shield in living history!”

“And the y-youngest,” Sena whispered softly. Kid and Monta glanced at him and he grimaced slightly. “The Shield w-wasn’t half the age of the Shield that came b-before it. m-Maybe reh-less than a quarter.”

“I had heard summat ‘bout that,” Kid agreed a moment later, stroking his scruffy cheeks pensively. “Tarou here was right ‘bout somethun.”

“Huh, what? I was?” Monta actually startled on his stool, then immediately puffed up his chest. “A’course I was! What was I right ‘bout?”

“That the Queen’d know if the Shield was dead. I got word from a pal in Kariya and it looks like half her personal guard are gone. Whispers ‘round the capital is they’re all lookin’ for the Shield.”

Sena’s heart twisted and his stomach knotted and writhed. “The Lances.”

Kid tipped his hat at Sena with a humorless smirk on his face. “The ones ‘n onlys. Looks like the Queen don’ think the Shield’s gone for good. Nobody knows what happened ‘twixt it and the Merciless, but it’s been more’n three weeks. Soon enough them Lances will be knockin’ on the trees ‘round these parts, seein’ what falls out.”

“The trees? I don’t think a-” Monta started with a loud, incredulous snort. He broke off as Sena’s platter scraped over the bar’s surface. He clambered down to his feet, unable to even think about food let alone eat any more of it.

“I’m tired and this tark ab-bout m-monsters and Shields… I’ve r-lost m-my appetite. I’d rather return to the farm and sreep,” Sena told them with a small shake of his head and embarrassed, quavering smile.

“You really do look tired, Sen. Let’s get you back ‘fore you fall out, yeah?” Monta said in true, kindly concern. He didn’t even bother pointing out how bad Sena’s affectation had gotten. Guilt flittered over Sena's ashen features.

“N-No, you d-don’t have to d-do that,” Sena protested shamefully.

“Stuff it, kid. I’m not lettin’ you walk all the way back alone. Uh, Kid… do you mind maybe givin’ me a pail or somethin’ for this food?” Monta asked with a beaming, hopeful smile.

Kid tore his somber gaze away from Sena and nodded once as he picked up both platters. “The pigs’ll be sore disappointed, but sure. It’ll be extra if you don’ bring ‘em back.”

As soon as Kid disappeared through a swinging door, Sena was heading for the exit. He couldn’t be here a moment longer. He couldn’t even be in this village a second longer. Sena might not be the cleverest sort of person, and he didn’t always make the best decisions, but Kid knew there was something off. If a squad of Lances came here… especially any of the older, more veteran of them… There was no telling what the sharp-eyed barkeeper might say to them. Sena paused outside the door, eyes darting in every direction, sweat dewing his forehead. Should he just… leave? Just start running down the trading route that wound through the country? Keep running and not stop? He gnawed on his bottom lip until he drew blood and flinched at the sharp, unexpected pain. Maybe worse than his bad decisions was his indecision, and that particular trait had him waffling just outside the tavern. His borrowed boots shuffled over the dusty road and his eyes unconsciously tracked through the shifting crowd of villagers, finding the easiest routes towards the country’s main trade road, each route glowing in his mind’s eye clearly.

The door behind him swung open, almost smacking right into his back, only for something to actually smack into his back. Sena grunted as he jerked forward, a hand on his shoulder just barely keeping him on his feet.

“Whoa there, Sena. You tryin’ to leave without me?” Monta said with a short barking laugh. Obviously a joke. And Sena winced at the trust inherent in that.

“I… I’m not feeling well,” Sena hedged, clammy hands rubbing against the rough cloth of his breeches. Monta squinted at him dubiously, before his eyes widened in worry.

“You kinda look like you’d been puking your guts out. Let’s get home,” he said, patting his shoulder. Sena nodded miserably and let Monta lead him from the village, two battered tin pails swinging from one of his big, farmer’s hands.

“I’m sorry I ruined your n-night out,” Sena whispered, head hanging low.

“Hey, nah, Kid was acting strange, and my Ma will be excited about the gossip, anyways. Lances, comin’ here. She’ll be coming into the village every day to wait for ‘em.”

Sena swallowed painfully. “Won’t you b-be coming, too?”

Monta frowned. “What, and leave you alone? I can tell you don’ like it here,” he said, eyebrows rising when Sena skittered away from a passersby as if to exactly illustrate his point.

“That… I shouldn’t b-be a factor, m-Monta. I won’t b-be soon enough, so while I appreciate your concern–”

“What d’ya mean it ‘won’t be soon enough’?” Monta interrupted with something like angry confusion.

“I can’t stay here, encroaching on your family’s hosp-pitality. I should r-leave. Soon.” Sena hissed the last word while dread crept down his spine.

“No chance! You ‘sploded yourself with magic fire or somethin’, you should stay as long as ya need to!”

“And it cost you several days of work b-before you could finish pr-plowing! I’m just another m-mouth to feed,” Sena argued with no small amount of self-deprecation. “I can give nothing b-back to the farm. I can b-barely weed a garden.”

Monta stopped in the middle of the road, his iron-hard hand holding Sena in place and turning him to face each other. Black eyes gazed seriously into brown.

“If you think my Ma and I care about gettin’ our money’s worth more’n givin’ an unlucky man help when he needs it, you haven’ been payin’ attention. You ain’t gonna make or break my farm, only how hard I work can do that. Got it, buddy?”

Sena blinked, eyes and nose stinging suspiciously. “B-Buddy? We’re friends?”

Monta grinned widely and gave Sena a little shake. “Yeah! A’course we are!”

“Th-thank you,” Sena choked out. He reached up to rub awkwardly at his burning eyes. They stung like salt had been sprinkled in them, and his voice sounded wobbly and ridiculous. Weeping was such a useless act, but it also felt as if he were suddenly cleaner. Monta made an embarrassed sound low in his throat while Sena hiccupped the last of his few tears away. With his eyes closed, his other senses were minutely stronger, and just as he was pulling himself together, Sena barely picked up the sound of something frighteningly familiar.

The clanging of iron.

The stamp of hoofbeats.

The snap of cloth in the wind.

Instinctively, Sena tilted back his chin and his tongue flicked out over his lower lip even as his nostrils flared. He could taste the salt of sweat and tears on his lips, but not much else. His nose was clogged with mucus, rendering any scenting his human nose could have done utterly impossible. Not that he really needed it to know what was coming down the trade road towards them.

“Hey! Sena, are you all right? You’re whiter’n a ghost!”

“We need to get off the road. Now.” He snapped the words past lips that quivered, his hand clutching Monta’s bony wrist tightly to drag them towards the dusty underbrush.

“Why? Calm down, Sena, you’re gonna trip and take us both down, and the food, too!” He froze, jerking Sena to a stop. His head turned towards the commotion down the road and Sena felt his stomach drop. “Do you see that?”

Shaking his head mutely, Sena tugged harder to get off the road. Away from the small party of riders on huge, expensive horses wearing outfits that glinted in the late rays of sunlight. Above their heads, a cloth on a tall pole whipped in the strong autumn breeze. They finally got near enough to make out the iron breastplate they all wore, for the bright trappings of the horses’ gear in weather-beaten hues of silver and blue to be clearly visible, and for the banner on the pole to be seen: a silver lance on a field of blue.

“Wow,” Monta said breathlessly in awe and longing. “Lances of the Realm, knights of Queen Mamori herself, Sena, are you seein’ this?” he said, swinging around his arm to lightly punch Sena’s ribs. Unluckily, he forgot about the tin pails in his hand and they thudded into Sena’s gut.

A loud, involuntary groan followed the thud, and he doubled over, one arm around his waist and almost kneeling.

“Sorry, Sena! Shit, that was my fault.”

“I kn-know it’s your fault,” Sena said through gritted teeth.

Where the Lances might’ve ridden past two nameless young farmers in the outskirts of nowhere, Monta’s fumbling and Sena’s pained sounds had them at least looking in their direction. Sena kept his head bowed, his arm taut around his middle and his other hands twisting in the loose fabric of Monta’s tunic. Just keep going by. Stop looking! Please, in the name of the eternal sun, stop looking!

Most did just that, unimpressed with two obvious farmer peasants. For a moment, Sena felt the tension loosen in his shoulders, his knees almost vibrating in place. Until a single rider halted just a few yards away from where Monta and Sena stood. Silence stretched as Sena’s heart stopped beating. The other Lances halted, too, calling back in puzzled voices to their comrade, but the words, in their too familiar dialects, were drowned out by a roaring in Sena’s ears.

Saddle leather creaked and well-oiled steel rattled. Two, heavy, ironshod boots hit the dust and walked towards them.

“Who is this?”

“Who? Me? I’m just Monta– No, sorry, Raimon Tarou. I own a farm up a ways with my Ma,” Monta babbled, tongue-tied and giddy.

“Not you. Him.”

Sena inhaled sharply, eyes closing, body too tense to flinch like it wanted to.

“A friend. S-”

“No one. I’m no one,” Sena said harshly. “Sorry for w-wasting your time.”

He shoved at Monta, ignoring his squawk of confused outrage, leading them past the too-nosy knight. There was a quick thudding of footsteps and at his back he could feel the abrupt looming presence of a threat. A large gauntleted hand fell over the shoulder furthest from Monta, turning him away from his ally and towards the threat at his back. His heel spun over dirt and his vision sharpened with a clarity he’d missed for weeks.

A stern-faced young man, barely older than Monta, stood proud and straight-backed on the dusty road. His armor looked shiny and new, but the leather of his gloves and boots was well-worn and supple from use. The visor of his helmet was pushed back to reveal a oddly familiar and smooth-cheeked face made older by the fierce scowl and dark ageless eyes. Eyes that were wide with shock one moment and triumph the other.

“My lord.”

Sena flinched and his vision was blurry again, eyelids blinking rapidly. But he could too easily make out the knight kneeling suddenly and gracefully, helmet off and tucked under his arm. There was a cry from the squad, but Monta’s reaction was much more distracting.

“What’s happenin’!? What’s he doin’? Sena, a lord?”

“You should not be so familiar with the Shield of the Queen,” the knight said with a displeased scowl up at Monta. Monta and Sena paled at the glance. “He is my lord or his Lordship.”

“I am no rord,” Sena snapped, hands shaking at his sides. He grimaced at the ill-timed impediment.

The knight made a puzzled frown at Sena. “It has been many years since I’ve seen you like this, but I would never forget. You are exactly who I think you are.”

“The Shield? He can’t even hoe a garden!” Monta exclaimed, both hands gesticulating wildly through the air. He barely missed thumping Sena with the pails again, but he did smack himself in the chest hard enough to wind himself.

“You hoed a garden?” the knight asked, incredulous and furious.

“Shin, what is happening? You’re scaring the squires again,” spoke yet another knight. This one was tall, very tall, with blonde hair shorn close to his head, a honey-brown goatee framing his sweet-lipped mouth, and his pretty face still boyish despite a few scars on his cheeks and ears.

“It’s the Shield. We found him,” the knight, still kneeling, answered. His dark eyes returned to Sena, gaze almost reverent. “He’s alive.”

Silence fell again.

“You think… you think this tiny kid is the Shield of the Queen, Sena the Red?” the tall knight asked, hazel eyes on Sena’s grey face.

Sena stepped back, stomach churning, and abruptly turned to vomit into the dust and dirt. The bile stung his nose and scraped the back of his throat.

“Get away from ‘im!” Monta bellowed moments before his arm wrapped around Sena’s shoulders. “Are you all right? Sena?”

“I-I’m fine.” Sena tried to smile up at Monta, only to gag and press his hands to his mouth.

“His name is Sena.”

“A name means nothing! Everyone names their kids, hell, their pets after Shields and mages and kings and queens! That’s not proof, you block of wood!”

Monta and Sena jerked around at the sound of raised voices. Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Sena stared as the first knight, Shin, calmly and steadfastly argued with what looked like every other knight in the small squad. The taller knight, who towered over everyone there, looked torn, his eyes darting between Shin and the others and even over towards Sena. Another man, not quite as tall, but twice as broad, picked at his nose and frowned in disappointed confusion.

“I’ve seen the Shield like this before, none of you have. My word should be enough.”

“We all know how little your word matters when it comes to recognizing people, Shin. We’ve had to deal with that particular problem for the past five years.”

Shin actually reeled back at that, eyes flashing furiously and mouth a thin, angry line.

“Wait a minute, Muro, Shin is your superior in every way-” the tall knight began.

“Except for how he can’t see shit right. There’s no proof that some skinny peasant is the Shield and I won’t be made a fool of in front of the Queen. Everyone else agrees, right?”

There was an awkward shuffled, until a meeker man stepped forward. “I’m sorry, Sakuraba, but Muro may be right… about the identity. Sir Shin is an amazing warrior, with a more than eight years in service, but... but recognizing someone, especially one he hasn’t seen in over a decade, is not one of his strongest suits.”

“Let’s get the hell outta here ‘fore crazy tin can man starts brawling over yer honor or somethin’,” Monta whispered, tugging Sena to his feet.

He had to hold onto Monta’s arm a bit until he regained his balance, but they managed to get away before anyone noticed. The moment they got to the farmhouse, Sena washed his mouth out with water from the well and spat into the grass. Then, with a pained glance around the farmyard, he took off towards the forest.

“What are ya doing, you moron!” Monta shouted, exasperated. He yanked Sena to a stop. “You’re just gonna take off in the wilderness with nothin’?”

“I haven’t anything to take with m-me,” Sena answered simply, eyes on the distant woods.

“You’ve got me! Friends, remember?”

Sena gaped at him. “Even after–”

“Even after some lunatic thought you were some lord or ‘nother? Yeah!”

Sena sighed, relieved to his very bones. “Thank you so m-much, b-but I have to go. They’ll come here again. W-when they hear ab-bout the crater…” he gestured needlessly towards the bare, shallow depression still all too obvious.

“We’ll just tell ‘em the truth. Your spell went wonky, and you blew yerself up,” Monta told him with a reassuring smile.

Sena shook his head. “I can’t–”

Monta snorted loudly. “I know it’s embarrassing, but you don’t gotta choice.”

“That… that’s n-not it,” Sena tried again desperately, but with Monta’s stern glare, he knew he’d have to say something to convince him. “There’s a very good chance they won’t b-believe m-me… or… or they’ll take me b-back to Kariya to face a trial. Reckr-less use of m-magic, p-property damage, and human endangerment? They’re very serious charges.”

Monta’s eyebrows rose. “I ain’t gonna blame ya. It was an accident. Why do they care?”

“It’s how it w-works. Kariya is about p-proper p-procedures and such.” Sena’s hands wrung, his heart beating too hard as his eyes rose to the sunset. Twilight, and his window of escape, was closing in quickly.

“We’ll go face 'em t’gether.”

“No! I can’t go b-back!” Sena shouted, red-faced and panting. Even more desperate, desperate enough to choke and heave. Worry took over Monta’s righteous indignation, and he helped Sena sit by the well, rubbing his arms briskly.

“All right, all right, we won’t go t'Kariya. But you can’t go off with a burr under your saddle. We’ll leave in the mornin'. They’ll be too busy fightin’ t'come this way for awhile, I bet.”

“w-We?” Sena wheezed. Monta nodded.

“We.”

“No, b-but your m-mother, your farm–!”

“Ma can take care of this place on her own for a bit and I always wanted an adventure," Monta told with assuredly, winking for good meaasure. Sena felt the heaviness weighing him down lighten, even as shame colored his cheeks. "We’ll come back when that crazy Lance gives up on you. He looks like a real stickler, no chance he’d try t’do anything on his own.”

“You’re sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.”

They shared a small smile before Monta looked away and rubbed his nose. “All right, your lordyship, let’s break the news to Ma. We’ll pack t’night and take off first thing in the mornin’. Didja have a plan in mind?”

“N-Not really…?” Sena admitted sheepishly.

Monta burst out laughing. “A’course not. We’ll get Ma to help. She travelled a while with Pops ‘fore they settled here.”

“I’m so grateful, M-Monta. If I could re-pay you somehow, I w-would,” Sena said fervently, getting to his feet alongside Monta.

“I know, I know. I’ll cash it in some day. Let’s finish our dinner and get t’plannin’.”

 


 

He looks like a real stickler, no chance he’d try t’do anything on his own.

More dangerously untrue words had not been spoken. Sena grunted and moaned, head throbbing and waist caught in an iron bar wrapped too tightly around him. He thought the blisters on his hands and the ache in his muscles after a full day of farming had been bad. It was nothing compared to the constant jostling and chafing a saddle created on his bum and inner thighs.

“You can just become your true self,” Shin the definitely doing something on his own Lance said after the thousandth or so pained moan.

“I don’t know w-what you’re talking about,” Sena replied through clenched teeth.

They were the first words they’d exchanged all morning. It didn’t take a conversation to be kidnapped. No, all it took was Sena waking up suddenly in the middle of the night, drawn to a strange noise. He knew he should return to his warm cot and ignore any sounds, but there had been such an intriguing scent, sharp and fresh, that had dragged Sena out the door in a nightshirt, loose breeches, and boots he barely thought to shove his stockinged feet into (he was just so cold at night). Then, a bag had covered his head and a hard thump to his head had him out like a light.

Waking up to Shin at his back, a horse under him, and a barely beaten track in front of them. The scent had been a mixture of herbs burnt on a fire that had worked like catnip on cats and had Sena scowling in remembrance.

“I saw them.”

Sena frowned at Shin’s nonsensical words. He should ignore them, focus his scattered brains and plan an escape. Monta might be on their trail, so it was up to Sena to at least get free.

“Saw?”

He mentally cursed himself.

“Your eyes. I know I saw them. They were yellow. Yellow like flames.”

Fear raced down Sena’s spine. “That’s… ridiculous. H-human don’t have yellow eyes.”

“No, you do. Eyes like that, I don’t need to see the rest of your face to know who and what you are.”

Sena’s hands tightened around the saddle horn between his knees. “My eyes are brown.”

“They are now. We’ll stop here.”

Sena almost wept in relief at that announcement. It was embarrassing and painful trying to get down, made more humiliating when the knight had to help Sena down when he whimpered like an infant. The cold steel of his armor pressed against Sena’s cheek, his large hands somehow gentle despite the unyielding grip on Sena’s arms. He stumbled the moment Shin let him go, blood rushing to his cheeks. Shin stared inscrutably down at him, his eyes boring into Sena’s and making him cringe.

“w-What?” Sena squeaked, cringing even more at the terrified sound of his voice. Shin pulled out a short length of rope and tied Sena’s hands behind his back, brisk and quick, but not rough. He bent down a second later, causing the smaller man to squawk in bewilderment, but he only hobbled Sena’s ankles with another length of rope

Only.

“You’re not what I remember,” the knight said at last after he got to his feet.  

Sena frowned at that, heart pumping at the first opening he’d had to press his story. “b-Because I’m not what you think I am! I’m not… I’m no one’s shield. I’m just m-me.”

“Why are you talking like that?” Shin asked, eyes narrowing. “You shouldn’t be talking like that.”

Sena’s entire face flamed crimson, blood rushing up so fast his fingers and toes tingled in a way that had nothing to do with the ropes. “I can’t hepp how I tark!”

Shin scowled darkly before turning on his heel and unsaddling his horse without another word. Sena shuffled awkwardly, trying to convince himself not to feel– of all things– guilty. He wasn’t the one pointing out how Shin talked. Sena glanced around as Shin unpacked, wondering if he ran now, how far would he get? If Shin didn’t get back on the horse, then he had a chance. A big chance, if he… augmented his speed a little.

First, he’d have to figure out the ropes. He had options that could help, but he really didn’t want to use them. Not already. Not ever.

Sena settled against a tree and slowly slid down to the dirt. Everything in him told him to do anything he could to get away, to run and keep running. It had been a mistake to stay with the Tarous as long as I had. A huge mistake, he thought. His knees drew close to his chest and he leaned forward, trying in vain to get some pressure off his arms and shoulders. Watching Shin, looking for the opportune moment, should’ve been the most prevalent thing on his mind. Instead he dropped his forehead to his knees and squeezed his eyes shut.

What are you doing, Sena? Get up! You can get up, so do it! You only need a little-

But he was frozen, every muscle locked tight and shaking. Sena could still feel it; that overwhelming terror, the pain that scored its way deep into his flesh, the sound of his own shrieks and screams as rushing wind tore his voice from his mouth.

I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.

Breaths were coming too fast and choppy, brain spinning wildly in his head as sparks bloomed in the darkness behind his eyelids. He could hear his heart thundering too hard in his chest, and a slow flickering warmth crawled over his limbs.

A hand fell on his back, hesitant and unsure. “Your breathing sounds uneven.”

Sena would’ve laughed, but he only wheezed breathlessly. There was a schnick sound of metal on leather followed a moment later by tugging and yanking at his wrists. The rope fell away and he dragged in air like breaking the surface of water, falling forward to brace on trembling arms that burned with a strange tingling along his very nerves.

“Slowly, my lord. Breathe slowly.”

“I-I’m–” cough cough “n-not a r-lord!”

Shin’s hand patted his back without a word. He stilled, eerily tense, and Sena looked up with blurry eyes and drool at the corners of his mouth from choking. The knight was looking off to the side. He was in his armor, though his gauntlets and helmet were missing. Sena wiped at his mouth with his numb-ish wrist and watched incredulously as Shin got to his feet and left Sena on the ground to go pick up his polearm. At one point, Shin must’ve started a tiny fire while Sena had been not-so-silently panicking, and the flames glinted on the three-pronged top of the weapon.

A trident.

Sena gawped at his broad back walking away from their temporary rest area, and he knew.

He knew exactly who this Lance was now.

“Show yourself,” Shin snapped at the trees around them. The woods here were neither very old nor very deep, but there was enough forest to create shadows to hide in. Sena struggled to his feet with his ankles still loosely hobbled (not even Shin’s steed was hobbled, Sena noticed in embarrassment), and barely made out the sound of a branch crunching underfoot. His tongue flicked over his bottom lip, nostrils flaring, but he could only smell his own body odor heavily overlaid with horse sweat.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” bellowed a voice from in the trees, just before a small figure wielding what looked like a long stick jumped from the shadows and swung with all its might.

Shin dodged expertly, not even using his trident to brush the attack away. The newcomer held up the stick– a staff perhaps?– and went swinging feverishly at Shin. Despite being half Shin’s size and armorless. Sena licked his lips and glanced at the horse, wondering if he could manage to get back on it and get away, when the attacker’s voice finally registered.

“You giant bastard! How’d ya think you can just steal my friend? I’m gonna kick your tin pail ass!”

“m-Monta?” Sena asked, neck creaking he whipped around so fast to look again.

To indeed see Monta trying his best to wallop the much, much, much better-trained knight. He already looked exhausted and sweaty, dark patches growing under his arms and over his chest and back. Monta looked over at him for only a second, but it was all Shin needed to knock the staff out of Monta’s poor grip and then flip Monta over his shoulder through the air.

Monta flew with a shocked yelp and thudded into a tree. Another thud to the ground had Sena wincing and trying to hurry towards his fallen friend. He tripped on his rope, a strong sure arm capturing him around the waist before he could hit the dirt.

“I know you’re out there, too. He didn’t chase us on foot,” Shin said to the trees, ignoring Monta’s low groan and Sena wriggling to get free.

The tall knight with the kind face walked into the clearing leading his huge horse. He stopped to hold out a hand to Monta, who huffed and got up alone. “Shin, what were you thinking kidnapping an innocent man?”

“Is it kidnapping if he’s not a child?”

“It’s not like you to split hairs.”

Shin and the tall knight stared each other down. Monta stepped forward, arms crossed and feet planted wide. “Let him go. He’s done nothin’ wrong!”

The long, silent gaze broke when Shin glanced to Monta with eyebrows raised. “From what I understand, your friend appeared mysteriously approximately three weeks ago. How would you know?”

“I haven’t d-done anything! Just let m-me go!” Sena exclaimed, shoving at Shin’s arm and chest. It was like trying to move a mountain.

“Shin, I know you think he’s the Shield, but it doesn’t make any sense! He’s just a young man, a small weakly-looking one at that.”

Sena wanted to be offended, but, well… He sighed and slumped over Shin’s arm.

“Whatever he looks like now, it’s just a disguise. He arrived here three weeks ago, and left a depression in the earth that could account for falling from the sky, he has the same name, and I saw his eyes, Sakuraba,” Shin gritted out, arm tightening around Sena’s waist rather protectively.

“They’re all coincidences, Shin!” Sakuraba said, almost desperately. "You can't even be sure you saw his eyes. You forget faces the moment you look away, including eyes and eye color. I've known that since we were pages together."

“Are ya seriously thinkin’ Sena, the kid who can’t even cast a spell or hold a hoe right, is… a dragon in disguise?” Monta burst out, jabbing his finger at Shin and glaring ferociously.

Silence fell as Sena’s rescuers looked at Sena. Who, he himself knew with all too much certainty, looked pretty pathetic. Drool stained the sides of his mouth, his eyes were bloodshot and damp, and his face too pale and wan.

“You’re a real bag of nuts in the head, arencha?” Monta accused Shin, gaze flinty and pissed.

Sena sighed. “That’s n-not a nice thing to say, m-Monta.”

“I am perfectly sane. Sena is Sena the Red, the Shield of the Queen, who went missing three weeks ago. I will take him back to the Queen and she’ll know it, too,” Shin said firmly, tone hard and unflinching.

Sakuraba muttered under his breath and rubbed a hand through his hair. “I can keep the others from following–”

“Wait, what!? You said you’d help me, not him! He’s crazy!”

“m-Monta, p-please, don’t m-make this worse,” Sena pleaded from where he stood trapped in the crook of Shins’ arm. “You can’t w-win this fight.” Monta’s nostrils flared.

“Shin is not crazy, Mr. Tarou, which is why I have to let him do this. He’ll keep your friend safe,” Sakuraba met Sena’s weary eyes, “I promise no harm will come to you in his care. If he’s wrong, which he almost never is, you’ll be escorted to wherever you wish in every comfort the Queen can provide you.”

“And this jackass will be punished, right?” Monta demanded.

“If I’m wrong, they’ll strip me of my title.”

Sena startled in Shin’s grip and stared, slack-jawed, up at him. Shin just looked calmly back at them.

“Y-You’re m-making a m-mistake,” Sena whispered, eyes dropping to the ground.

“Huh, well, I don’t believe ya! And I don’t trust you t'keep Sena safe. Not if you think he’s some sorta dragon. I’m comin’ with you, and as soon as you’re proved wrong, I’ll make sure you get punished,” Monta said with a loud snort and eye-roll.

Sena honestly didn’t know what to feel about this turn of events. Hurt that Monta had such a low opinion of Sena’s abilities? Relief that Monta believed him without a doubt? Or guilt that the belief came so easily and with so little evidence to back it up?

“As I said, I’ll keep the squad away. Here,” Sakuraba threw a small pouch towards Shin. At last, his arm dropped from Sena’s waist to catch the pouch. It rattled with coins. “Use my earnings to make sure they get what they need on the way back. It’s a long journey, especially for those unused to it. Also… I know subterfuge isn’t your style, Shin,” Sakuraba started with a lopsided smirk, “but you should probably keep your armor and crests hidden. You’re a rogue knight now.”

Shin’s stone features twisted into outrage that almost had Sena actually laughing. Almost.

 

 

“Getting what they need” ended up being a couple of well-worn packs with lavender-smelling blanket rolls, the colors leeched out of them by age, but clean and warm, as well as a few new outfits that just barely fit, though they were mostly too long or too wide. They’d had to trudge most of the day to get to the nearest village, more a town really, and had only managed to get back on the road just as the sky turned orange and gold with sunset. They’d gotten just a few leagues away from the town outskirts before breaking off into a field and setting camp.

Monta had kept ahold of the long stick that was, in fact, a staff he’d rigged out one of his shovels. He spent that evening wrapping around the middle of the staff extra cloth he’d torn off his too big tunic to protect his hands and create a better grip. He did it while glaring threateningly at Shin every other second. Shin had discarded his armor, keeping it stowed in saddlebags and generously padded with wool and leather.

Sena wasn’t sure how he felt about seeing Shin out of his armor. He was less intimidating, sure, and he was less protected from Monta’s staff blows if they tried to escape. On the other hand, Shin could now move even faster, so it’d be harder to run (there was no way his well-trained mare, Oujou, would ever listen to them over Shin).

And well… he was distracting.

Sena dropped his eyes to his knees again, face too hot under the fringe of his bangs, when Shin came back from the nearby creek, shirt off and hair damp. He carried a string of fish in his hands.

“Ugh, he thinks he can just walk ‘round like that, with his stupid fish, and think he’s better’n us,” Monta muttered, viciously rubbing at the staff with some sand he’d found near the creek earlier. “We should go. Sakuraba, that bastard, is gone. Shin untied ya, and he can’t stay awake the whole night.”

Sena gnawed his bottom lip thoughtfully, but shook his head. “We don’t have horses. Even if we m-manage to get away, he’re-he’ll be on our trail w-within hours. I don’t know this area w-well enough to find a p-place to hide, m-Monta.”

Monta frowned, bull-snorting his irritation. He’d obviously seen the truth in Sena’s point. “I don’ know this place much, either. Ma and me usually sell our harvest to the caravans that come through, yanno? We haven’t been able t’afford headin’ up to the big city for years. I think if we get up there, though, we can escape pretty easy. The city is huge!”

“Which city is it?” Sena asked, now chewing on his thumbnail.

“Shun Harbor. Stupid name. I guess some noble did it. Nobles really like t’name everythin’ after themselves. You don’t see the Queen doin’ that,” Monta said with a judgmental little sniff.

Sena looked over at him curiously. “You… you r-really r-like the Queen…”

Monta puffed up his chest, smirking proudly. “A’course! She’s the most beautiful and smartest Queen in the whole world. They say she’s got eyes like the sky, ‘cuz of her dragon blood. She was young, too, yanno, when the Shield came t’swear to protect her and the country. She wasn’t even seven years old! Her ma, the Queen Regent, she helped, a'course, but they say that even for a kid, the Queen was the smartest and wisest, and had magic like no one’d ever seen before!”

“There’s a reason why you swore your allegiance to her,” Shin said from where he stood in front of them. Both smaller men yelped and flinched away, but Shin just smoothed his hair out of his face and sat within arm's length next to Sena. He pulled a leather string free from around his wrist and began to absently tie his slightly too long hair back. “Her grandfather and the Scarlet Dread Shield were the most powerful Chosen Pair in history. They built a legacy that the late King, her father, continued, assuring two long generations of peace. Until Shinryuuji demanded more and broke treaty.”

“And the War happened,” Monta said with a pained grimace. “My pops came back with pieces missin’, and I don’ just mean half his leg. It was like he’d never left that hell, wakin’ up in the dead of night, screamin’ and hollerin’… and cryin’…” Monta rubbed a hand over his eyes.

Shin nodded. “I was just old enough to see the damage it caused, though I couldn't understand it fully. Shinryuuji called Gaou the Merciless, only to have it turn on them, raze their kingdom to blackened stone, before it turned its way to us.”

“The Scarlet Dread died the day the m-Merciless tried to enter Kariya,” Sena hissed, eyes snapping fiercely. “He died to p-protect his King.”

“Sena?” Monta stared at him, puzzled at the furious outburst. Sena’s jaw tightened as he looked away. “The new Shield came right after that, yeah?” he asked, slowly looking back at Shin.

Shin nodded. “Everyone thought the Queen was too young, but the Red dragon bowed to her Majesty without hesitation. He saw in her what no one else did, courage and strength equal to any dragon. Now, she needs her Shield. Deimon won’t hold the truce for long, not with a Black and Green dragon–”

Sena got to his feet and walked away. He didn’t look back to see the flabbergasted face Monta would make, or to try to decipher whatever stoically-controlled expression Shin made. He didn’t care how rude it was. He couldn’t care what they thought about his actions; he couldn’t listen anymore. To Shin’s certainty, his belief in something that didn’t exist anymore. The Shield was dead. The sooner that courageous and strong Queen realized it, the sooner everyone in this forsaken country realized it, the better. He knew the layout of Shun Harbor City rather well from his studies. He would manage to get away, from Shin and Monta both, and take the first ship out of Kariya, to anywhere. Except the remains of Shinryuuji. He’d hide out in Deimon if it weren’t for Musashi guarding the would-be King. Someone that old would sniff his magic out the moment he stepped foot on their (only) shore.

Wasn’t there a band of marauding women that claimed no border or monarch? Maybe he’d find them.

Branches snapped and leaves rustled. With a heavy sigh, he turned, ready to face Shin the Stoic or Monta the Disappointed. Only to just see a few trees swaying in the wind. The light of the campfire was a pinprick in the distance and he frowned. He hadn’t realized he’d walked that fast or that far.

“Looks like you dropped your Lance, Sena the Red.”

A chill swept down his spine and he turned to see two men almost melt into being from the shadows of the trees. There weren’t even that many trees around here. How did they manage to time their entrance so dramatically? Sena wondered in bewildered fascination. He stumbled back, his flight response kicking in with its usual gusto.

But the guy with short hair and a broad, smirking grin was fast. So fast it had Sena shouting aloud as he jerked back and fell to his butt on the grass while Mr. Smirky loomed over him.

He wore studded leathers of ruby and gold and black, dusty from travel. A bronze cuirass was molded to fit his broad shoulders and slender waist, shaped to mimic the musculature of his stomach, with heavily padded shoulders broadening him even more. Gold clasps held a blood-red cloak, the hem brushing his calves. His legs were bare under the straps of his under-armor-skirt, the bottom of his long tunic the same length as the padded under-armor. Leather sandals, unsuited to the damp weather of Kariya in autumn, were tied around his shins. A broad but short sword hung at his waist. The other man wore an outfit much the same, though his long, silver hair was tied back in a braided horsetail and a crossbow was held easily and familiarly in his hands. Already loaded and pointed at the ground near Sena’s head.

“I-I’m n-not who y-you think I am!” Sena stammered, crab-walking backwards on his hands. He knew exactly who these men were now, their garb swiftly recognizable. That man’s sword, the gladius, was a specialty of a certain legion of fighters in the far south; Deimon centurions, the most ferocious and well-trained army in the world. It was said their training was Hell itself, facing down venomous beasts and surviving days in the hottest deserts of Deimon, a tiny nothing territory in the south of Kariya that was trying to be something. Their centurions had gone a long way to building the reputation the self-claimed King and Commander of Deimon wanted.

“I think you’re exactly who I think you are.”

Sena’s mouth was too dry to retort, even if he’d been brave enough to. Why do the scary ones never believe me!? he thought desperately.

“I’m a Prefect Tribune Officer of the Deimon legionnaires, Yamato Takeru. And you are my prisoner, to be taken to the King Hiruma. It’s settled,” the centurion– or perfect tribunal whatever– said it with a glaringly bright and confident grin.

“He isn’t a king,” Sena replied dumbly. So dumbly! What did I just say?! he shrieked inside his own mind. Yamato’s confident grin twitched, but didn’t falter.

He reached down and grasped Sena’s arm, yanking him to his feet and then gently dusting him off, like a father to his son. Sena bristled at the action, squirming away and doing his best scowl.

“I’m n-not who you’re rooking- looking for, so r-let m-me go,” he stated, exasperated and terrified at once.

Yamato glanced at his crossbow-wielding companion. “You’re sure Karin’s token didn’t lead us astray, Taka?”

The silver-haired man nodded. “The pulse is weak, but it is reacting to his presence.” He said it hesitantly though, fair brows lowering.

“What is it?” Yamato asked, turning his eyes back to Sena quickly. His gaze dragged slowly up and down Sena’s body, making him feel exposed in a way he hadn’t since Monta had woken him in the crater weeks ago.

“The token was trying to lead us an opposite direction at one point.”

Yamato looked away from Sena, who gasped in relief as if strings had been cut and released him from a too-tight web, and frowned at Taka. “That doesn’t make any sense. Unless it tracks all dragons?”

“Do I rook rike a dragon!” Sena shouted. He eeped at the combination of Taka and Yamato’s identical glares. “… look like…” he mumbled to himself.

“There’s a way to tell,” Taka said, stepping forward and lifting his crossbow. “In this body, he can use some of his dragon abilities. He’ll show himself with the right impetus.”

Sena shivered, shuffling backwards as the crossbow levelled between his eyes and the cool, emotionless gaze of the silver-haired man cut right through him. Yamato raised his hand and carefully pressed the crossbow to point at the ground.

“We don’t have time for that. The Lance and his squire will follow soon enough. We’ll trust in Karin’s token for now. We can always release our little friend if it proves faulty. Though, I very much doubt it. There’s more to our timid friend than meets the eye, isn’t there, Sena?”

Sena shook his head desperately, but the man just laughed.

“You can come with us the easy way or the hard way,” Yamato said next.

“I w-won’t come w-with you,” Sena replied as stoutly as he could, eyes darting towards the fire in the distance.

“The hard way. Fantastic.” That disarming grin was back and before Sena could blink, Yamato darted forward. Sena cried out, pinwheeling backwards, but his wrists were locked in metal cuffs within a blink. The runes on the metal glowed bright pink and dimmed immediately.

The three men stared at each other in confusion.

“They shouldn’t have stopped glowing–” Taka broke off as a loud, screeching approximate of a war-cry shattered the night air. Birds burst from the tall grasses at the sound and Monta jumped in, swinging his staff like a mallet and knocking the crossbow in Taka’s hands towards the ground.

“Taka, hold them–” Yamato hissed between his teeth, sliding his gladius free not a moment too soon. A familiar, deadly trident struck at his neck, prongs sparking against the sword’s blade as he knocked it aside.

Shin stood there, rage on his face and wearing only a tunic and leather jerkin to protect himself from Yamato’s attack. They must’ve left camp without knowing there was trouble and Shin had impulsively joined the fray instead of going back for his armor. Sena’s heart shouldn’t have thumped so hard at the thought, Shin was still forcing him back to the capital against his will. Shin rushed forward, using his trident like a quarterstaff in close combat against Yamato’s lightning quick attacks with the short blade. Sena stumbled back, mouth gaping in awe at the fight, until Monta’s yell drew his attention again. Taka had kept ahold of the crossbow, but was using it like a melee weapon, darting Monta’s untrained swinging effortlessly before smacking Monta across the face and sending him tumbling to the ground.

“Monta!” Sena exclaimed. He shouted wordlessly and ran, bursting forward with inhuman speed and his head ducked low between his shoulders. He threw his whole body into Taka’s side before the man could raise his crossbow, sending them both rolling over the dirt.

“Taka, take the dragon and go!”

“Oo leab ‘im alode!” Monta shouted, blood pouring from his mouth and dripping from the cut on his cheek that was already swelling. He scrabbled over the dirt to grab the crossbow, and Sena, seeing Taka reaching for it faster, grabbed a handful of loose dirt and threw it at his face. The centurion cursed loudly and wiped at his eyes, just in time to see Monta swing the crossbow and smack Taka across the face.

He went down hard.

“b-By eternal sun, did you kill him!?” Sena screeched in horror.

“I-I don’t think so?” Monta said, just as horrified and dropping the crossbow like it burned.

“Get out of here!” Shin bellowed furiously, voice thin and wheezing as he continued his fight with Yamato.

Sena and Monta exchanged looks, nodded, and turned to run. They could snag Shin’s horse and get going before he had a chance to call her to heel. He would be distracted enough by Yamato. They got barely a yard away when the short, bitten-off shout of pain drew Sena to a stop.

That was Shin.

Shin was hurt.

“What are you doin? Let’s go!” Monta urged, grabbing Sena by the cuffs and yanking him.

Sena’s feet dragged in the ground. “I…” He met Monta’s eyes, resigned and terrified. “I can’t reave him.”

“Why not?!”

Honestly, there wasn’t a good answer. Shin had kidnapped him. Thrown him over a horse and tied him up like a kill after a hunt. He refused to listen to Sena’s many protests and had tossed Monta, his first and only friend, like a ragdoll.

But he’d also taken one look at Sena’s frail, pathetic body and seen a dragon underneath. He'd believed wholeheartedly in a hidden something inside of Sena. He'd run into a fight under-protected and weary from an entire day of walking, refusing to ride if Sena wouldn’t out of some strange idea of honor and respect. How could Sena leave behind a man that believed so blindly and faithfully in the very idea of him?

Nor could Sena leave behind the memory of what had been almost two decades ago, however much had changed since.

He turned, heart thumping hard and mouth dry with terror. How could he let Shin die if he could try, even a little, to help?

“Fucking- Sena!” Monta shouted at his back.

He was already running, breath panting and a knife twisting between his ribs with each gasp. Sweat streamed down his face, but he kept running at the two figures exchanging blows. One side of Shin’s jerkin was stained pitch black in the darkness. The pitch dripped sluggishly from the leather to the churned dirt. Something fierce and hot burned in Sena’s chest, his vision sharpening, every blade of grass around him detailed and concise, every drop of sweat on the men’s faces and arms standing out clear and bright in the moonlight. They both glowed red in their exertion, hearts pumping scarlet-hot in their chests. With a loud scream, Sena raised his arms and jumped, too high for his weak, human legs, ignoring the sudden piercing pain lancing up his arms. Yamato turned just in time for his eyes to widen and a smile to break out over his face–

“Sena the Red.”

–and then the confounded cuffs smashed across Yamato’s face, the runes glowing bright pink. His scream became one of pain, and Sena couldn’t catch himself. He thudded onto Yamato’s prone body then rolled through the dirt and grass, screaming and sobbing at the burning around his wrists.

“Sena?”

“SENA! YOU MORON!”

Everything went black even as his wobbly lips curved upwards. I didn’t run away…

 


 

Sena woke up with a groan, and was again trapped against Shin’s back and on a horse. His eyes popped open and he struggled until Shin let out a pained hiss at an unfortunate elbow strike.

“Monta?!” Sena demanded in dizzying concern. Or maybe he was still dizzy from the motion of the horseback riding. He hated human travel.

“Right here, brother. You doin’ all right? You went down hard,” Monta asked, his words heavy with his own concern. Sena rolled his head sluggishly towards Monta’s voice, and blinked. Monta was on a horse. A beautiful silver horse that reminded Sena of that Taka man.

“Horse?”

Monta grinned and winked. “Stole it from those jerks. They still have another if they can catch it. Found out Shin’s not just an asshole t’me, he’s kinda an asshole to everyone.” He sounded a little impressed at this, but Shin merely snorted loudly.

Sena tipped his head back to stare cross-eyed at Shin’s chin. “You’re hurt, aren’t you?”

“It will hold for now,” he said shortly. At the sheen of sweat over his face and the deep grooves around his mouth, Sena knew that it may be holding, but it wasn’t painless. Not in the slightest.

“We need to stop. You need to rest,” Sena protested, trying to gingerly twist around to see the wound. The arm around him tightened.

“You’ll make it worse. Stop moving.”

“We can’t stop, Sena. They’ll be on us in no time. We have t’keep goin’.”

“We need to find a place to hide then!” Sena countered.

“Where? It’s all flat nothin’ ‘round here,” Monta said, throwing his arm around them.

“I’ll be fine. We need to make it to a town and we’ll lose them there,” Shin muttered, his breath hot and choppy against Sena’s ear. Something warm and wet was pressing into his back and the arm around him was loosening minutely. Sena’s eyes widened. He’s bleeding again. “Thank you for your concern, my lord.”

“Not a r-lord,” Sena whispered, feeling useless, especially with wrists still heavy from the cuffs. They must not have had enough time to try and find the key. Or there just hadn’t been one. They were ensorcelled. It would probably take another mage or a dragon to free him.

A shiver of awareness ran down his spine and his tongue licked the air instinctively. Of course he couldn’t smell anything other than horses and blood, but he could hear a whistling. With a quick “hold on!” at Shin, he grabbed the reins and tugged Oujou to the right. Just as a bolt shot past them.

“Shit!” Monta shouted.

“Monta, get that horse garroping. It’s p-probably trained to come to his car rike this one!” Sena called over.

“But Sena–”

“Go, now!” Shin interrupted. Monta’s mouth tightened, but he nodded and dug his heels into the horse's sides. Like a bolt from a crossbow, the steed took off, hooves churning up dirt and stones from the road.

“We have to face them. Oujou can’t outrun them with two on her and after so little rest,” Shin said, grunting under his breath as he lifted his trident on his good side.

“You can’t fight them alone!” Sena disagreed, mind whirring with– with nothing. They had no choice. Even if he would’ve chosen to use magic now, he couldn’t thanks to the ensorcelled cuffs. “What do we do, what do we do, what do we do?” he chanted. Another whistle and Sena steered Oujou sharply to the left away, the bolt passing just close enough to Oujou’s eye to spook the mare into moving even faster.

“Let me off and I’ll slow them down. You can draw even with Monta and keep going,” Shin said decisively.

“I thought you w-weren’t crazy!” Sena yelled over his shoulder.

“Sena, they’re right behind us,” Shin retorted, twisting with a wince.

“You are not going to die!” Sena said, tears burning his eyes. I was truly brave for the first time in my life. I saved you. I won’t let you die now!

“Sena the Red, just come with us and we’ll let the Lance live! He’ll bleed out if you don’t stop now,” Yamato’s voice was thin and reedy from wind and distance, but clear enough to hear. Shin twitched at the sound, but the centurions were too far for Shin to make out the exact words.

“I won’t. I won’t,” Sena chanted, teeth clenching and eyes squeezing shut. A blast of freezing air startled Oujou into rearing, mane whipping Sena's face and hooves striking the air. Sena threw himself against Oujou’s neck and clung tight to Shin’s arm wrapped around him, his fingernails digging into the meat of Shin’s arm to desperately hold him in place. Shin had, thankfully, instinctively caught hold of Oujou's reins himself, otherwise they would've both fallen off together. The dampness spread over Sena's back and he gritted his teeth to hold back terrified tears.

There was so much blood.

“Looks like you’re out of luck, Sena! Our ally is here,” Yamato called.

“No…” Sena looked up to where the huge creature hid, shadowed cleverly by clouds. His jaw dropped, mouth spreading into an awestruck grin. “No, that’s not your ally,” he whispered.

“Sena, what–” Shin began, actually sounding anxious.

An enraged, draconic scream rent the air. The clouds shredded around a plummeting body that burned silver in the starlight. Not black. Not green. But icy white.

“We must retreat, Yamato. Now,” Taka said, just on the edge of Sena’s hearing. The dragon's wing spread to halt his descent, his screech proceeding a whirlwind of snow and ice stream from his open maw. Their horse whinnied high and terrified, and Sena wheeled Oujou around just in time to see a wall of ice, steaming with cold, blockade the road behind him and cut the centurions off.

“We’ll find you again! You’ll be a worthy opponent for me next time, Sena the Red!” Yamato shouted from the other side of the ice wall.

The sound of hoofbeats quickly retreated as icy air blasted over Sena’s and Shin’s back. It buffeted Oujou several steps forward and had Sena and Shin leaning over the saddlehorn with matching groans. Shivers wracked Shin’s body, but Sena felt his body’s heat surge higher to combat the unnatural cold. Luckily, the runes on the cuffs didn’t register it as magical. Yet. If he got too cold, and therefore pushed his body past its natural heat limit, it would probably counteract.

He didn’t think it’d be a problem, though. Not when the white and silver dragon soared low and coasted to a graceful landing. It turned, sinuous and catlike, its wings tucking close to its glowing body, tail whipping over the road. Delicately clawed feet walked over the dirt until it stopped just in front of them, its glowing blue eyes meeting Sena’s. Abruptly, it stood rampant, wings extending. He was just as beautiful as Sena remembered and tears sprang to his eyes from sheer, overwhelming relief. Oujou whinnied in fear, but Sena and Shin’s sure hands on her kept her in place. The sound of hoofbeats came up then, and Sena’s throat tightened in fear before he registered from what direction they came.

“Sena! Shin! Holy shit, that’s a dragon!” Monta said as he reined the stolen horse to a stop on the other side of the dragon. The silvery horse shuffled in place restlessly, eyes too white around the edges, but it stayed in place. Obviously a horse trained to be used to dragons.

“We told you to keep going,” Shin told Monta, too tired and in pain to really sound irritated. Or, a moment later, even stay in the saddle.

Sena let out a shocked cry, twisting and grabbing at Shin as the bigger man slumped and slid to the side. But with cuffs and his position and his puny human strength, Shin’s tunic slipped through his fingers and he fell with a horrible-sounding thud to the ground.

“Shin!” He scrambled off Oujou’s back, carefully rolling Shin onto his back. His heart stopped seeing just how much he’d bled out in the chase. It soaked through his tunic and jerkin, past the waistband of his trousers to his thighs. His was so pale in the moonlight, he looked blue. Fear clawed at Sena’s chest as he pressed his hand to the darkest part of the stain, grimacing at the squish and ooze and resulting groan. Yet, the knight didn’t wake. “Eternal sun help him,” Sena choked out past numb lips.

The dragon cocked his head and, with a shimmer, shrunk into a much smaller, human body, thankfully clothed.

“Sena? What is going on?” the now humanoid dragon demanded, striding closer.

“Whoa, you know Sena?” Monta shouted. He jumped off the stolen horse to hurry forward, quarterstaff held in front of him to block the dragon from advancing. “Don’t you try an’ steal him, too!”

Sena was too busying tearing off Shin’s jerkin and tunic to get to the wound to care what was going on. He gagged, the back of his wrist pressing to his mouth, at the sheer amount of blood and the grotesque tear in Shin’s side.

“You’re either very brave, or very stupid,” the dragon said dryly. “I’m not going to steal Sena. I have no need of that. He’s my lifemate. Now let me by so I can help.”

“Lifemate?” Monta repeated dumbly. The dragon rolled his still glowing blue eyes, the pupils slitted like a cat’s and a second, translucent eyelid blinking across it vertically. Monta yelped and stumbled back.

The dragon walked around Monta to where Sena was pressing a blood-soaked cloth to the wound and sniffling. He glanced up, eyes wild and desperate. “Help him, prease.”

The dragon sighed and touched Sena’s face, his skin a curiously dark shade of tan compared to his shockingly white hair. “This is what happens when you play with humans, Sena. I told you that twenty years ago.”

“Riku, prease,” Sena whispered. Riku sighed again.

“You’re much better at this. Fire heals better than ice.” Sena just stared and Riku held up his hands. “But I can help.”

Sena quickly backed away, dropping the ruined clothing and kneeling with his bloody hands clutching Shin’s uselessly. Riku glanced at Sena’s hands holding onto Shin’s, then focused on the wound. His nose wrinkled in distaste, but he lifted a hand and grew a single, long, shining claw from his finger. He traced runes into the mess of blood on Shin’s torso. They flickered and flashed bright white before they sank into his skin. Sena’s tongue licked his lips, but all he tasted was salt and snot and blood.

Riku tilted his head, narrowed his eyes, and shrugged. He leaned down and blew over the wound. Ice frosted over the torn flesh, crusting over it and solidifying like a scab.

“The tissue and muscle inside the wound has knitted together, mostly, but my spells can only do so much. I focused on the worst of it. He needs human care or a more suitable mage–” he side-eyed the teary Sena, “very soon. That ice bandage will prevent his flesh from re-healing if left too long.”

“I’m…” Sena lifted his arms to show the cuffs.

Riku’s eyes glowed bright blue. “How did you allow this!? Did those filthy monkeys I chased off do this? I’ll tear them apart!” Riku snarled, already half on his feet and his nostrils flaring and tongue flicking over his lips.

“Don’t w-worry about it! Just help m-me get them off and we can go to the nearest town. Shin needs help, rememb-ber?”

Riku snarled savagely, eyes glowing, but nodded nonetheless. “You’ll have a lot of explaining to do, meus cor.”

Sena flamed bright red, but held up his hands. Riku rolled his eyes and turned his icy breath on the cuff. They glowed a rosy pink before shattering like struck glass.

“Right, now that’s done. What the hell is goin’ on?” Monta yelled in frustration.

 


 

Sena sat on the small, wobbly stool and peered anxiously at Shin’s pale features. The blood-replenishing potion the local healer had coaxed down the unconscious knight’s throat had already drastically improved his color, but not enough in Sena’s opinion. The ice patch had already been melted off and a simple, non-magical stitching had taken its place under fresh white bandages. There was only so much they could afford between a farmer, a dragon fresh from the other realm, and a man who’d fallen naked from the sky just two weeks ago. Sena had put his foot down when Riku and Monta had suggested just going through Shin’s bags for more coin. Shin could always pay them back when he woke, but they didn’t have the right to go through his belongings. Sena had too many secrets of his own to feel blasé about anybody else’s privacy.

Monta walked into the room, approaching rather meekly, and set his hand on Sena’s shoulder, startling him out of his reverie.

“He won’t get better any faster with you starin’ at ‘im. Come down n’ eat ‘fore you’re the one knocked out on a bed,” his newly tried-and-tested (and for some reason still around) friend suggested.

Sena hesitated, eyes flicking from Shin’s still features to Monta’s concerned expression. He was hungry, but only in that way where his weak human body needed it, but a part of him rebelled wordlessly and strongly at the very idea of food. Or of leaving the tiny, windowless room in the cheap tavern they’d found. The door opened again and a familiar chill crept up Sena’s spine. He got quickly to his feet, ignoring Monta’s irritated grumble, to tuck the thin blanket more securely around Shin’s broad shoulders.

“Why haven’ you slunk off t’bother someone else?” Monta said, glaring at Riku as the human-looking dragon walked in.

“Because Sena and I still haven’t spoken privately.”

Monta snorted loudly and messily, arms crossed over his chest and dark eyes narrowed. “We ‘preciate the help with Mr. Frowny over there, well, Sena does. But whatever ya want with Sena you can ask in front of me, too. Right, Sen?” Monta turned to Sena.

Sena couldn’t help but smile, guilty and fond at once. Monta had become his champion somehow and he’d done nothing to deserve it, honestly.

“Actually, m-Monta–”

Monta’s jaw dropped a second before he interrupted, “Really!? Sena, this– this guy called you his lifemate! D’ya really know him?”

“I… I do know him,” Sena said, sighing softly. Monta sputtered speechlessly. “But I’m no one’s r-lifemate.”

Riku’s eyes squinted, the bright blue going flinty and making Sena grimace.

“I don’t… what?” Monta asked without actually asking anything.

“Please, just stay here with Shin, won’t you? Are– I’ll return soon and weer– we’ll go downstairs for supper together,” Sena suggested with a wibbly smile. Monta scowled, but nodded, flopping into Sena’s vacated seat with a huff.

Sena led the way into the hallway, gulping nervously as Riku followed right on his heels. The chill of Riku’s gaze was heavy on the back of his neck all the way down the stairs and through the common room until they finally made it to the moderate privacy of the stables. Sena’s tongue licked over his lip, tasting the faint tang of blood on his shredded bottom lip as the smell of hay and horse’s offal assaulted his nose. He was almost glad he couldn’t smell better–

A hand latched around his bicep and turned him around, pressing him up almost too hard against the nearest stall.

“There’s no one in here but us. Where is it? Where is your anima?” Riku asked roughly, one hand spread wide over Sena’s heart that was beating wildly and painfully.

“It’s… it’s gone,” Sena whispered, shame burning in his stomach. Soon, Riku would know his true weakness, how low he had sunk. And despise him for it.

To give Riku credit, though, the dragon’s first conclusion was one of rage on Sena’s behalf.

“Who took it? I’ll get it back and we’ll never come back to this place again. Was it Gaou? I’ll tear that beast apart,” Riku hissed, teeth sharpening as claws grew from his fingers.

Sena quickly shook his head. “No, Riku, calm down!” he said it in a harsh, clipped language, one that felt better and easier on his tongue than the common language he’d been using.

Riku’s eyes closed as he inhaled slowly and deeply to calm himself. “All right. Good. I doubt I could’ve torn Gaou apart without you at my side,” he allowed, also in the same language, smirking at Sena as his draconic features disappeared. Sena’s pupils dilated and his gaze dropped to the ground.

No, Riku. Even with me at your side, it wouldn’t have helped,” Sena said, shoulders tightening around his ears. “I… My soul is gone because I couldn’t…

Riku startled and his eyes widened. “He did come after you. I came because I heard whispers the Merciless had you in his sights and might’ve killed you. You got away, you lived, Sena!”

Sena eeped in shock as Riku pulled him forward, his arms clutching tight around Sena’s slighter frame. Sena blinked rapidly, then slowly relaxed into Riku’s embrace, eyes closing as he felt Riku shudder.

I was so scared I was too late and you were already dead when I couldn’t sense your soul. What have you done, you idiot? Why did you ever come here and leave me?”

Sena felt guilt knot itself in his throat. “R-Riku, I…”

The dragon pulled away and shook his head briskly. His hands cupped Sena’s face and his glassy blue eyes met wide brown. “I meant it twenty years ago and I’m offering it again. Come home and Fly with me.”

Sena’s tongue felt too heavy in his mouth, tied in a bow and stuck behind his teeth. He could only shake his head. Ridiculously, wildly, he pictured the unconscious Lance on the tiny bed in the tavern and again felt that bravery he’d held in his heart so fiercely for one glorious moment.

Shin had brought that out in him. He’d saved someone’s life in this pathetic, weak body. He’d never been that selflessly brave in his whole life. How could Shin have brought that out in him, when he'd had so much less at his disposable than before?

“I can’t, Riku. I… I left because I can’t,” Sena said hoarsely, unable to meet Riku’s disappointment. Again.

“You’re making a mistake,” Riku replied just as hoarse and quiet. “This isn’t where you belong. You’re lying to them, even to that filthy monkey who thinks he knows you. You belong with me, and your mother. Don’t you miss us?”

Sena pushed Riku back, breathing heavily, eyes flashing. “That’s not fair! You can’t tark ab-bout my m-mother, Riku!”

Riku smirked thinly, but his eyes were pained. “You were doing so well. Now you can’t even get your own mouth to behave for you. What makes you think you belong in that body? In this world? I can protect you so much better than these pathetic apes.”

Sena shook his head, arms clutching around his body. “I don’t w-want to b-be p-p-protected. I just want to b-be reft arone. Left alone,” he spat out the words angrily, rubbing at his cheeks furiously. Why were they wet again?

Riku sighed and ran his hands through his hair. “You can’t be left alone if an entire country is on your tail, Sena. Too many people already know who you are–”

“Shun Harbor. Just help m-me get to Shun Harbor. Don’t tell m-Monta or… or Shin,” he whispered the name despite himself, but missed Riku’s suspicious squint. “I can get away in Shun Harbor if you help m-me.”

“You want me to keep your identity a secret, despite the fact everyone knows except for that moronic baboon, and you want me to distract a trained knight so you can escape in a crowded city to, what? Go hide in a hole like a scared rat? Without an anima and two different countries hunting for you?” Riku asked, incredulous and disbelieving.

Yes,” Sena hissed, lurching forward to clasp the front of Riku’s tunic. “Prease, I know I’ve disap-ppointed you, and it’s asking too m-much, b-but I can’t go b-back to Kariya.”

“And you won’t come back home. You don’t…” Riku’s eyes closed, something like guilt drawing his features tight. “You don’t have to Fly at the solstice, Sena. I’d never force you to. I’ll take you where it’s safe and never ask again, I swear.”

Sena flushed brightly and looked away. “I… I couldn’t face m-my m-mother. Not as I am.”

Riku extracted Sena’s tight grasp on his clothing and stepped back. Sena started forward, desperate, but quickly held himself back. It was Riku’s right to say no, after all. It was asking too much of him everything Sena had done to hurt him. He watched, hands twisting in the hem of his tunic, as Riku rubbed his face roughly with both hands and groaned.

“Fine!” Riku spat. Sena jumped in place. “I will accompany you to this Shun place, but once there I won’t help you get away. If you get caught again, that’s it. You’re coming back home with me. With or without your anima, deal?”

Sena licked his lips, but nodded gratefully. He’d be able to use a bit of his magic by the time they got to Shun Harbor. He’d definitely be able to get away. From everyone he’d ever disappointed.

“Thank you, Riku. Thank you.”

“Don’t–” Riku broke off with a rough scoff. “Don’t thank me, Sena. I’m doing this despite all logic and reason. I’m going to help you leave me again. So don’t thank me.”

He turned on his heel and left the stables.

Sena watched his back and felt the shame burn like acid in his stomach. It was fast becoming a familiar feeling.

 

 

After dinner with Monta, which was passed in a mostly awkward silence filled with confused looks from Monta, the two men headed to the tiny room where Shin slept. The food sat in Sena’s belly like a stone and he already regretted forcing down the little he’d eaten.

“Sena, we should just go. We paid enough t’keep this crazy dude in a bed ‘til he wakes up, and your weird dragon friend took off. It’s the perfect time,” Monta urged as they made their way up the stairs.

“There are too m-many people who think I’m the m-missing Shield. We need Shin and Riku’s help to get to Shun Harbor,” Sena pointed out. Monta frowned and scratched his head.

“But when we get there, they’ll stick us on a boat and we’ll be in Kariya ‘fore you can say ‘I’m not a dragon, stupid’!” Monta said. Sena twitched guiltily.

“Remember what that other knight said? The Queen w-will see I’m no Shield and send us w-wherever we want. P-perhaps she’ll give you com-mpensation for your troubles and you’ll have m-money to m-make up for that field I ruined,” Sena said.

Monta snorted softly and dropped his arm. “Look, whoever you are, you’re my friend. I’m on your side, no matter what, a’right? Don’t forget that you can trust me.”

Sena’s eyes widened. “m-Monta…” His heart squeezed painfully and he wondered just how much Monta believed and how much he pretended to believe for Sena’s sake. A loud crash from inside the room had him pushing past Monta, completely forgetting any such suspicions. Monta yelped and then groaned in exasperation behind Sena as he rushed in.

“Shin? Wha-What are you doing?” Sena blurted, halting midstep and gaping.

Shin scowled over at them so darkly the friends flinched and stepped back. The knight exhaled loudly through his nose, his hand flat on the wall to hold himself up. What little color had returned to his face had vanished, leaving behind a grey tinge to his tight features. His black hair fell damp and thin around his face and throat, and his legs shook under him.

“W-Where are we?” he stammered, his voice sounded so rough and ragged Sena’s went dry in sympathy.

“We m-made it to the nearest virrage- village and hired a hear-ler,” Sena replied, wringing his hands anxiously. “It wasn’t m-much, so you should rea-… really r-lay down.”

Monta stared over at Sena as his stammers became worse the longer he spoke. “Yeah… what he said. The only reason we didn’t leave you here was because of this idiot, so maybe listen t’him, yeah?” he said derisively.

Shin managed to frown even harder and if looks could kill, they’d be dead ten times over. “What?” he rasped, eyes darting between them.

Sena let out a small sound, tongue dragging over his lip. He couldn’t smell it, but a bright red stain was blossoming on the white bandage on Shin’s side. He was across the room, frowning in concern, before he could even think it through. “You need to lay down right now,” he ordered, hands already on Shin’s arms as he gently nudged the much bigger and bulkier human towards the little cot. “It’s not very comfortable, but it’s all w-we have now. You’re m-making the wound reopen.”

Shin stared down at Sena’s determined expression silently as he let Sena guide him back to the bed and fuss over him. Monta rolled his eyes and huffed in the background, but refrained from speaking. Barely.

“The centurions, the dragon?” Shin asked, lifting his arms obediently so Sena could pull the thin blanket up his chest and tuck in the edges. He was sitting up, his back braced against the wall, but the lines on his face weren’t so stark from pain and some color returned to his ashen cheeks. Sena peeked under the blanket to look at the bandage, definitely not hiding his red face from view, not that it mattered for long.

“You mean Sena’s betrothed, right? Everyone’s thinkin’ he’s a dragon, why not a dragon’s princess?” Monta taunted. Shin’s brows crashed down as Sena sputtered indignantly.

“Dragons do not steal princesses!” Sena snapped, obviously affronted. His face burned crimson, skin so hot the air was shimmering around him like a heat wave in the middle of summer. Shin slowly leaned away. “And I’m not a p-princess, either.”

“Kinda funny which of those was more important t’ya,” Monta said, eyes narrowed and mouth in a crooked smirk. He looked back to Shin as Sena’s mouth worked open and closed wordlessly. “Now you’re awake, can we use some o’ your coin t’get another room? I ain’t sharin’ with you and that icy lizard. It’s like an icebath just bein’ in the same room as ‘im.”

“Monta!”

“You didn’t pay for all this yourselves?” Shin asked, frowning between the two friends currently having a silent, yet intense battle of manners across the room.

Sena broke his gaze from Monta’s, but refused to make eye contact with Shin. Although he was still sitting on the edge of the bed and twisting his fingers together.

“We did. Sena wouldn’ let us dig through your things,” Monta told him.

“Please, take what you need and enough to pay yourself back. You shouldn’t spend your own money on this. You’re a ward of the Queen, my lord,” Shin said, directing the last bit at Sena.

Sena flinched and got to his feet. “I’ll take a r-little m-more for a b-better potion and get you dinner. Just rest,” he said, eyes on the floor.

Monta rolled his eyes and promptly rummaged through the saddlebag at the foot of the bed. He tossed the small purse at Sena. It veered wildly midair, smacking to the wall and falling to the bed as the three occupants stared.

“Uh, oops?”

Sena laughed, a breathless, choppy laugh that seemed to lighten the air. Monta joined in a second later, rubbing the side of his nose bashfully.

“I kinda got crappy aim. You don’ wanna see me with a sling,” he said between chuckles.

Sena snagged the purse and got to his feet. Shin barely winced at the movement, but Sena sent him an apologetic look anyway. “I’ll b-be back soon with something to eat. m-Monta, Riku will p-probably sleep outside. He doesn’t care for human dwellings.”

He took the coins he needed and left the room, grinning at Monta. He flicked a too-swift glance back at Shin, cheeks pink, and disappeared.

Monta watched him go, then turned towards Shin, both his thick brows high. “I really can’t tell what’s goin’ on in his head, can you?” A single eyebrow rose and Monta felt distinctly judged. “Right, so, I’ll go get me n’ Sena a room. I’m gonna try and convince him t’leave yer ass here, so you know,” Monta warned, pointing a finger at Shin. Whose other eyebrow rose.

“Thank you for the notice.”

Monta glared peevishly at him, snorted loudly, and left with his fists jammed in the pockets of his breeches. His stomping footsteps echoed all the way down the hall.

 

Sena knocked quietly on Shin’s door about an hour later. Panic and concern had his heart beating too hard in his chest when no sound came from within. He hesitated just one more moment, then slipped into the room, the tray in his grasp knocking the edge of the door. It wasn’t quite evening yet, still early in the afternoon, and the room was filled with bright sunshine. Slumped against the wall with one hand just barely brushing against the trident he must’ve fetched after they’d gone, Shin slept deeply still sitting up on the bed. His eyes didn’t so much as flicker beneath his eyelids as Sena’s toed the door shut, shoulders slumping in relief.

Sena snuck his way towards the bed, setting the tray with the steaming bowl of stew and fresh bread and little glowing red bottle on the table. He wavered there, indecision making his feet shuffle over the floorboards and his teeth gnaw at his bottom lip. Should he wake the weary Lance to make sure he ate, or leave him to wake on his own and hope it wasn’t too cold by then? He glanced over at Shin’s profile and…

Hesitated.

Slowly, carefully, Sena sank onto the edge of the bed, completely forgetting about the little chair he’d used before and had been moved away anyway. The sleep and potion from before had finally begun to do Shin some good. His face was slack, his hair like silk thread against his sharply-angled cheek and just brushing the hollow of his throat. He looked like the young human man he actually was for once. Unguarded.

Like the little boy Sena had almost forgotten about.

I remember you now,” he whispered sadly. He reached out, his trembling fingers brushing soft hair away. “I’m so sorry I’ve let you down, Seijuuro.”

Like a snake, Shin’s hand struck, snagged Sena’s wrist. Sena let out only the thinnest beginning of a shriek, before a broad calloused hand covered his mouth and his world tipped over and upside down. The thin mattress thudded against his back and air whooshed out of him unbidden. His legs were pinned by the heavy weight above his, and the hands over his mouth and wrist were inflexible as iron. Sena stared wide-eyed and dazed at the dark eyes boring into his– eyes hazy with sleep. Soft silken hair loose from the discreet tie it used to have fell around Shin’s face and, insanely, stupidly, Sena had to fight the urge to raise his one free hand and bury his fingers in it. Involuntarily, his skin was already flushing red and hot and Shin’s hands went clammy and slick where he held Sena down.

Salt burned against Sena’s lips but neither moved. Or even blinked, it seemed. Instead of his instincts calming when his hindbrain realized there was no danger to him, his body temperature only rose. He could feel the cherry-red flush cover him from his hairline to his toes and embarrassment had him breaking his gaze.

“What are you–” Shin stopped and slowly moved his hand from Sena’s mouth. He braced it on the mattress next to Sena’s ear. Incidentally in Sena’s direct line of sight. The tendons of Shin’s wrist stood out starkly. “What were you doing?”

Sena gulped and willed his full-body blush to go away. It didn’t work. Instead his heartbeat only increased. “I just… dinner. I b-brought dinner,” he squeaked out the half-truth and squeezed his eyes shut.

There was a long moment of silence and just when Sena’s heartbeat began to slow and his skin cool, Shin’s hand released his wrist and gripped Sena’s chin. Gradually, Shin turned Sena’s face to face him, though he kept his eyes squeezed closed.

“You said my name.”

Sena flinched against the bed, wishing desperately he had the ability to sink right through it.

“I…”

But what could he say to explain that?! He bit his own tongue.

“My lord–”

“P-prease call m-me Sena,” he interrupted, licking his lips thoughtlessly. He couldn’t smell like he used to, but the taste of Shin’s skin and sweat still lingered on his mouth. Why did that make his stomach tighten and his body temperature rise again?

“Only if you call me by my name.”

Sena’s eyes popped open and he gaped up at Shin, mouth slack in surprise. For a moment, something like amusement passed through those serious dark eyes and that had his breath catching, heartbeat stopping.

“I don’t know why you’re hiding, but it doesn’t matter,” Shin said, his voice soft and low. It wasn’t helping with the breathing problem at all, and Sena barely even cared about the words he was actually saying. “I will always serve you, my lord, whatever body you wear.”

Finally, the breath gasped out of him.

“R-Lances of the Queen are of the Queen. She’s the one you swear to,” Sena whispered, pupils dilating and gaze mesmerized by the curve hovering at the corner of Shin’s mouth.

“No, my fealty was to Sena the Red. You were the one that inspired me as a boy. I would have been nothing, without a cause or reason, then, I met you.”

Sena felt a shiver run down his spine and he understood. He finally understood what it was that drew him to someone he should be running from as swiftly as possible. Whatever intangible memories they shared, Shin was barely less than an enemy to Sena now, impeding his every plan and desperate flight.

Sena finally realized those eyes were on him. Only him. Not on the Shield, or the Queen, or a duty. Shin’s eyes had only ever followed him. Just like seventeen years ago.

“I… I’m not… I don’t deserve that,” Sena said, his words cracking and weak. “I’m no one’s cause or reason. I’m just a m-mistake.” I’m just going to let you down. I let everyone down.

Shin’s face shuttered away, hidden behind the stoic mask of a trained Lance and nothing else. His fingers left Sena’s chin and the skin there went cold. His whole body felt so utterly cold as Shin slowly moved off of him, his weight disappearing. Sena’s eyes slipped shut and he bit down on his bottom lip to trap the sad, lonely sound behind his teeth.

“I did not make a mistake, my lord. Your lies are growing stale.”

Sena pushed up onto his hands and slithered to the edge of the bed. He glanced towards Shin, wincing at the harsh, taut lines of his jaw. “I got you the p-potion. Drink it b-before eating. And eat everything. W-We’ll see you in the m-morning.”

“In the morning.”

Sena slunk of the room and tried not to shiver. It was afternoon, the sun was still bright and filling the halls with autumn warmth. But Sena leaned back against the door and was simply–

cold.


 

The ride to Shun Harbor City felt longer than it should have. It might’ve had something to do with Riku's constant, barbed insults at both Shin and Monta. Mainly at Monta, but the jabs at Shin were borderline venomous. It might’ve also had something to do with Monta grumbling under his breath the entire time, bemoaning, not very quietly, not making a break for it when they could. Or it might have everything to do with the fact that somehow Sena ended up on Oujou again, with Shin at his back and Shin’s arm around his waist. The scene from the day before, trapped beneath Shin’s hands and words, still buzzed in his mind, unceasing and so uncomfortably. He hadn’t been able to go back to Shin’s room the rest of the night. He'd then lain awake for most of the night while Monta snored on his nearby cot, just to spend the morning cowering in a chair, picking at his eggs and greasy sausage, trying desperately not to make eye contact with anyone. As if what had happened had left some sort of mark that anyone could see if they only looked.

It didn’t help he’d found himself unconsciously rubbing his wrist, remembering the cool, rough skin of Shin’s palm there.

Nothing had happened. Not really. Shin had made some declaration of fealty to the Shield of the Queen and refused to believe Sena wasn’t exactly that. There was some insinuations about the past, but Sena had deflected that rather bluntly. Basically their every interaction thus far, ad nauseam.

So why did it feel different? Like an embarrassing, tantalizing secret that had his heart bouncing too fast in his chest and his whole body tensing.

The terrain got rougher and rockier around them, the wide grassy fields exchanged for low rocky hills and scraggy brush. Wild goats pranced away at their approach and Riku disappeared with a rush of icy air. He was too dragon-like to have indulged in a cooked breakfast with them, and their cold lunch of dried meats and coarse brown bread had almost offended him. Monta watched him chase after the direction of mountain goat with a noisy snort.

“So munchin’ on raw, bloody, hairy goats is better’n what the stupid monkeys eat,” he muttered under his breath.

“The man we’ll meet today is a selkie. The only meat he eats is raw fish,” Shin commented mildly. One of the first things he’d actually said all day, causing Sena to startle in his seat and Shin’s arm to tighten for only a second in reaction.

Monta scrunched up his nose. “Fine, but he’s still a shit bucket.”

“Monta!” Sena protested. “He’s m-my friend!”

Monta’s dark eyes narrowed on Sena’s scandalized face. “You haven’ told us how an ice dragon is your friend. Or why he says y’all are gonna get married or whatever.”

“It’s p-personal,” Sena said, looking away awkwardly. “We’re not getting m-married and he knows that.”

“Why don’ ya wanna marry a dragon? I mean, he’s a shit bucket–”

“Monta,” he sighed wearily.

“–but he ain’t a shit bucket t’you,” Monta pointed out incredulously. “Don’ every mage wanna have their own pet dragon?”

“I doubt Riku would be anyone’s p-pet,” Sena said dryly. Shin scoffed so quietly, Sena almost missed it. “He just… took a l-liking to me, though I didn’t deserve it, and that’s that.”

Monta’s mouth twisted dubiously, but, thankfully, let the conversation drop. Probably because Sena wanted it to more than Monta being satisfied by the answer.

“Is he willing to follow you to Kariya?” Shin asked, his mouth next to Sena’s ear. The curl of his breath on his skin had goosebumps trailing up and down Sena’s arms.

“I don’t know,” Sena hedged. He still had no intention of getting on that ship to Kariya. He didn’t really have a plan yet, but he’d figure it out.

Hopefully.

Also hopefully, Monta wouldn’t hate him too much after, but he’d probably never see him again anyway. Forcing away the despairing loneliness at the thought of losing his very first friend, and betraying him in the bargain, Sena fidgeted and winced at the growing muscle ache in his thighs and butt.

“Stop moving,” Shin said shortly as Oujou snorted and missed a step under them.

“I could’ve ridden with m-Monta,” Sena muttered mutinously, cheeks flushing. His hand reached out to pat Oujou’s neck in apology, though.

“Hey! I see it! That’s Shun Harbor, right?” Monta crowed, standing as tall as he could in his stirrups and shading his eyes to squint ahead of them.

Sena peered the same direction and, sure enough, caught the glitter of the distant bay. He had to blink away the spots as the late afternoon sun burned along the surface of the sea. The rocky hills began to shrink and the huge city sprawled out suddenly in front of them. Houses of stone and wood, with roof tiles of strange, flat, grey rock, were nestled almost claustrophobically close together, with winding maze-like roads and streets between them. The buildings got bigger the closer to the water they got, becoming huge warehouses and outposts for the myriad of traders from all over the world. Not even Kariya had the same trading traffic Shun Harbor got, and it was known for welcoming all kinds of peoples and creatures from around the world with its own special laws and tariffs, or lack of tariffs, for ships and caravans that entered the city almost daily.

As they neared, the empty road they’d been following slowly filled with people. Weather-beaten wagons of families hoping for work in the city and caravans of goods from all over Kariya or other landlocked countries. Sailors leaving their villages to return to the sea that beckoned them for one last expedition before the winter storms began. Rich folk that came to see their goods come ashore and their coffers filled, maybe checking on a ship’s captain that may be taking more than their due.

Before the traffic became too heavy, Riku re-appeared, looking smug and satiated, and leisurely kept pace with the two horses.

“So this is what passes for civilization for you mud-wallowers?” Riku asked, unimpressed and eyebrows high. Sena sighed.

“Are you trying to m-make yourself unl-likeable, Riku?”

Monta burst out laughing, falling over his saddlehorn and gasping, as Riku smirked unrepentantly up at Sena.

“It’s just so easy to rile them, how can I resist?”

“Aren’t creatures that live several millennia above such pettiness?” Shin asked.

Sena and Riku’s eyes met, and Sena had to quickly duck his head and bite his lip while Riku threw back his head to crow with laughter.

“Firstly, I’m not even three hundred years old. I’m barely considered an adult for my kind. And secondly, you obviously only know dragons by the fatuous books your groveling scholars penned. Dragons have spent millennia mastering pettiness. What else is there to do when you live for eons?” Riku retorted, still chuckling and wiping at his eyes.

Shin grunted softly, sounding disappointed and put out at the mere idea that dragons could be petty and childish like anything else could.

They made it into the city with perhaps an hour to spare before nightfall, only getting a few odd looks at Riku’s still easy running between the two mares. There were enough shifters and creatures in a place like Shun Harbor, though, that the looks didn’t last long. Instead of going for a tavern or inn, Shin led them straight through the winding, dizzying streets to the wharves.

He obviously was not going to waste time getting them on a ship.

Hawkers hollered from the streets, pushing their wagons or thrusting their trays under their horses’ snouts, while streetwalkers whistled from doorways and winked lustily. Most of them seemed to be eying up Shin, with his perfect posture and poorly concealed trident– the prongs were covered with canvas sacking– and knew just what kind of mark he made. It still had Sena’s back up, proverbial hackles rising at each come-hither and catcall at the knight at his back.

Shin’s utter dismissal of every shout his way soothed Sena’s nerves even though he had no reason to have nerves.

“There,” Shin announced suddenly, reining Oujou to a halt and nodding towards Monta to do the same.

Sena looked over to see a large galley, the wood gleaming gold in the sunset, the sails tied up and only a half dozen men and women roaming the decks with mops and buckets. At the prow, a water sylph was carved lovingly and painstakingly into the dark wood. Her hair swirled and foamed like waves around her shoulders and trailed down her figure to only hint at the curves she might have. One hand cupped her mouth, somehow open wide and smiling, while the other pressed to her chest. A siren, maybe? Singing to enchant men and women alike to the depths of the sea.

Fitting, for a ship captained by a selkie.  

Along the port side, the beautifully carved and gilded words Poseidon’s Call were writ. A tall, broad-shouldered man was hanging upside from the deck, feet hooked around the banisters dangerously, as he carefully re-painted the words in glistening gold paint. His blonde hair was braided and flopping around his head like a lifeless tail.

“What in the world is that moron doing?” Riku asked, eyebrows high. His nostrils flared as the tip of his tongue tasted the air. “Not a mud ape, though.”

Monta stared at Riku. “You can tell what someone is by looking at ‘em?”

“Smelling them, you brainless buffoon.” Riku rolled his eyes and easily dodged Monta’s wild kick in his direction. Monta yelped as the too-fierce movement dragged him from his saddle and had him thudding to the cobbled street.

Sena winced. Only to yelp himself as two big hands grabbed his waist and lifted him from the saddle. He hadn’t even noticed Shin dismounting, and now the Lance was lowering him to the ground, Oujou’s massive body blocking them from the view of their two travelling companions.

Sena gulped hard, hands on Shin’s shoulders and temperature rising when their eyes met for the first time that day. Time slowed down inexplicably as Shin set Sena gently on his feet and his hands lingered on Sena’s waist. His thumbs brushed over cloth, and Sena shivered and flushed brighter at the motion. His hands trailed down the leather jerkin Shin wore, hesitating over the roughly-patched area where the sword had struck. Where a scar marred Shin’s side under the layers he wore.

Sena cupped his hand over the spot, heart thudding wildly, tongue wetting his lips anxiously. Only for his breath to catch when Shin’s eyes followed the movement and then stayed, gazing silently at Sena’s slightly gaping mouth.

“D-Does it hurt?” Sena whispered. The trance broke and the sound of Monta yelling at Riku, who was cackling heartlessly, filtered back in.

Shin shook his head and glanced cursorily up and down Sena’s body. “How are you holding up after another day in the saddle?”

Sena shrugged and smiled awkwardly. “I’ll m-make do.”

“You’re getting better.”

Sena blinked and tilted his head in confusion. Shin glanced away, a hand coming up to cover his mouth. But not fast enough for Sena miss the beginnings of a smile. How did his heart beat faster at that than Shin’s hands on him?!

“Speaking. You’re getting better at speaking.”

“I’m… I’ve had a l-lot more p-practice the p-past few days,” Sena replied, his stammer immediately getting worse as if to spite him.

Shin’s hand dropped and he nodded once, his face stoic and business-like already. Sena tried not to feel stupidly bereft. They walked around Oujou’s front, Shin’s sure hands holding the reins to lead her towards the docks. Sena walked over to Monta, his eyes meeting Riku’s briefly. The questioning lift of Riku’s pale brow had Sena’s resolve hardening, and he nodded discreetly. Blue eyes rolled upwards in exasperation, but he didn’t say anything aloud. So he was still willing to help. That’s all that mattered.

Obviously.

“Hey, man, you look kinda peaky. You feelin’ good?” Monta asked worriedly, clasping Sena’s shoulder with an affectionate squeeze.

Sena dredged up a wan smile. “Just a l-long ride. I’m even m-more sore than yesterday.”

“Yo! It’s Shin! And he’s not in his pile of metal!” The foursome looked up to see the upside-down not-human-person waving frantically down at them. Shin scowled uncomfortably up at him, and refrained from waving. “Kakky, get over here.”

“No, you will not call me that, Mizumachi.” The voice that replied was serious and obviously annoyed, and quickly followed by a figure leaning over the banister near where Mizumachi was hanging. The man was just as tall as his companion, but his hair was dark and shaggy and short.

“You’re no fun, Kakky.”

“What did I just say.” The dark-haired man brushed his hair out of his eyes and gave Shin a short, brusque salute of a wave. “Stupid as he is, Mizumachi made good point. It’s not often you’re without your armor, Sir Shin.”

“I’m here to book passage for my travelling companions and our two horses. As soon as possible,” Shin said instead, ignoring pleasantries and explanations.

“Not even a hello?” Mizumachi teased. He put his paintbrush between his teeth and, in an awe-inspiring bout of athleticism, managed to twist and pull himself up onto the deck without spilling a drop of paint from his bucket.

Definitely not human.

Sena couldn’t have pulled that off without magic to help.

“We don’t do deals without a pint of beer to smooth it along. It’s a rule, right, Kakei?” Mizumachi told them with a grin over at the dark-haired man. Kakei sounded like a real name, and he didn’t protest it this time, so Sena figured Kakei was a safer bet than ‘Kakky’.

“The only rule you actually care about,” Kakei returned dryly. “We’ll be down to negotiate terms. Do you need a recommendation for an inn?”

“If you wouldn’t mind,” Shin agreed. Kakei nodded and turned to speak softly to Mizumachi, who whooped and all but bounced away.

As Kakei stood to his full height, Sena caught sight of a strange, bulky belt-like thing wrapped around his narrow waist. It had a strangely wet-like sheen to it, but the man didn’t look wet. Sena leaned in close to Riku, nudging his arm and lifting his chin at Kakei’s back. “Is he…?”

“Not human? Yup.” Riku gave Sena a wry look. “You could’ve figured that out yourself, meus frater.”

Sena opened his mouth to protest and then froze, eyes wide on Riku’s already turned profile. Riku hadn’t called him that since they’d been kits, less than a handful of decades old. It had something warm and soft blooming in his stomach. It felt like something good and he was smiling over at Riku as they walked towards the gangplank, outright grinning when Riku’s human body betrayed him by shivering too hard in the sunny autumn day, gooseflesh travelling down his dark skin and frost edging the tips of his pointed ears.

“What’s with the ice attack?” Monta asked from Sena’s other side in a much too-loud to be an actual whisper kind of whisper. Riku snarled, but kept his eyes ahead of them as Sena quickly shushed Monta. Just in time as Mizumachi and Kakei approached.

The non-humans were both taller than all three of the weary, dirty travelers by more than a few hands’ span. The captain, with his dark hair and pale skin, was the sort of ethereal beautiful that many humanoid creatures had, especially those near the sea. His eyes were especially enthralling; the dark blue of the deep ocean, with rings of blue so dark they looked black around pupil and iris. His hands, when he lifted one for Shin to shake, was webbed, the skin so thin and pale it was almost translucent. Sena’s eyes darted towards the big blonde Mizumachi and he just barely made out the same webbing between his fingers when he rubbed his hands together.

“Four new passengers, huh? That’s some nice coin we won’t say nay to, huh, Kakky?” Mizumachi said, nudging at Kakei’s side with his elbow and winking at Sena’s pensive frown. Sena flushed cherry red and sweat slid down his neck.

“Uh– I–” Sena stuttered wildly.

“What did I say about professionalism, Kengo?”

Mizumachi made a complicated face that ended in an overdramatic pout. “If I can’t use it, get back on the boat.” He turned away and scratched at his ear with his pinky as Kakei raised a sardonic brow at him.

Kakei turned back to the group, lingering curiously on Riku and Sena, before resting again on Shin. “I’m not here to ask questions other than what’s your destination and can you pay the fee.”

“Kariya. You know I can, but only after we get there.”

Both of Kakei’s thin dark brows went up incredulously at Shin’s blunt terms. “After the voyage? That’s not how Poseidon’s Call negotiates, and you know that.”

Shin stared unflinchingly at Kakei, directly into his obviously inhuman gaze, and kept mum. Kakei frowned harder. Monta and Sena’s gazes bounced between the two in increasing concern. With a loud scoff, Mizumachi broke his short silence and the growing one between the two stubborn men (or men-like). He thumped Kakei hard on the back and leaned his whole weight into Kakei’s shoulder, almost tipping the dark-haired nonhuman off balance.

Ignoring Kakei’s annoyed grimace, Mizumachi said easily, “We know this guy. He’s so uptight he was born with a spear up his rear-end–” Shin’s eyes twitched at the corners as Monta stifled a snort behind his hands. Sena gaped, torn between shock and outrage. “–he’ll pay when we get there or die trying. You know that, Kakk- Captain Shun.” He rolled his sea-green eyes at Kakei’s glare.

Sena blinked and shuffled awkwardly. This whole time he’d been thinking of him as Kakei, when the proper address was Captain Shun. Human and their names, so many names, and proper order of them, and–

“Shun?” Sena blurted, eyes darting to the captain.

“Like the city?” Monta asked a second later, eyes boggling.

“You could say my people have been around for a long time,” Captain Shun replied vaguely.

And that’s when Sena remembered the captain of the ship Shin knew was a selkie. Feeling tongue-tied and stupid, he stared down at his toes silently. Selkies or a seaside hub of people, who knew which came first, but they always came hand-in-hand. They turned to follow the the two shipmates and Shin to whatever inn they would be staying in until they left Shun Harbor. It sounded like it be a day or two before they’d be ready to sail, and Sena hoped he’d be able to find a ship miraculously leaving sooner. His eyes trailed over every ship they passed, looking for signs of loading and trying to keep Monta from noticing just what he was perusing. Thus far, his friend was fascinated by the ships and the city on all sides of them to notice anything out of character from Sena. There was a nudge to Sena’s arm and he glanced to Riku. The dragon jerked his chin towards one that was all a bustle, crew running to and fro on the decks, large nets filled with barrels and crates being lifted via pulleys to be set into the ship’s depths.

Cold trailed over Sena’s back and Riku moved away, still scowling. “It’ll last a few minutes. You better go now.”

Sena’s shoulders slumped in relief realizing his longtime friend must’ve drawn a discreet rune on his back. He slipped away all too easily, guilty glances at Monta and… stupidly towards Shin. What did it matter if he snuck away from Shin? Shin kidnapped him. Monta though… Monta had been nothing but kind and trusting, he didn’t deserve Sena sneaking around and lying. But Sena gulped down the stone in his throat and forced himself towards the ship. His eyes travelled over the obviously older, more weathered vessel than Poseidon’s Call had been. Sea salt and sea air had faded the wood to a silvery grey, the sails were patched in a few places, and the ropes looked a little more frayed than he was completely comfortable with, large though they were. Two men were standing on the docks watching the heavy loads get lifted up out of sight. A woman’s voice shouted down at them just moments after the full net was set down. There was another flurry of motion on board before more than half the heads disappeared below decks. The two men, tallish and lean, muttered something and then moved to walk up the gangplank.

“W-Wait!” Sena burst out, running forward. The men paused and watched as he approached. One looked merely curious and impatient, the other completely inscrutable. The impatient one had black hair shiny with pomade and somehow managed to lounge while standing. The inscrutable one had hair a shocking shade of pink, feathery and thin that ruffled like bird’s feathers in the wind off the bay. Just barely, Sena could smell that tang of other from the pink-haired man, tasting it on his tongue when he inhaled deeper.

“Who's the kid?” the impatiently frowning one asked.

Pink-hair raised an eyebrow at him. “You think I know him?”

“Sena, my name is Sena! I need to know w-where you’re going,” he begged, desperate and rushed. The rune would only last so long before the others noticed he was gone.

“Where… aren’t you s’pposed to ask us that?”

“Kotaru, quiet for a moment,” Pink-hair interrupted, not quite sharply. His red eyes pierced Sena’s, making him swallow nervously. He refused to step back under that gaze. He needed a ship. “We’re heading to Bando Islands.”

Sena exhaled in relief. “When?”

“Are you assuming you’ll be on board?” Pink-hair asked with a smirk.

Sena clenched his jaw even as his knees knocked. “Hoping.”

“We’re not coming back this way ‘till next trading season, so we’re not taking passengers, kid,” the man called Kotaru replied, propping his fists on his hips. His eyes darted towards Pink-hair, though, frowning a little more. “Not that I know of.”

Pink-hair kept his eyes on Sena, still smirking and unreadable. “We’re leaving at first light. And it’s two gold coins.”

“Akaba, we have to ask the Cap ‘fore you offer her boat,” Kotaru hissed.

“I can be here. With three gold coins! P-please, please take me with you,” Sena pleaded. He curled his fingers into fists and let his gaze dart between them, gnawing on his lower lip and eyes imploring.

“He’s small enough. Junko’ll never notice,” Akaba said with a wave of his hand.

Kotaru groaned and pulled a… wooden comb from his pocket. Sena blinked. Kotaru slid it through his hair once, then rolled his eyes heavenward. “All right, but you’re telling her. And you,” he pointed both his gaze and his comb at Sena, “you will be here ‘fore sun gets above that horizon, or we won’t let you on for five gold.”

“We’ll definitely let you on for five gold. Junko likes gold more than she cares about another hammock in the berth,” Akaba replied with a shrug. “But try not to be late. Sena.”

Sena pressed his hand to his chest, unconsciously holding down the beating of his too fast heart. Both men were already heading up the gangplank, Kotaru throwing bemused looks back at him. Sena quickly shook his head and took a step back, looking around to memorize the neighboring ships and get a look at the name of this one. Sea’s Sting was carved deeply into wood that looked newer the planks around it. And at the prow…

With another startled step back, Sena barely kept in the surprised gasp. The name made sense, now, with the leaping spider carved ominously out of the figurehead. Slowly, he retreated up the dock, eyes darting to the men leaning over the railing to look down on him, and then to the figurehead.

A well-done carving of a bug shouldn’t be making that icy chill run down his spine. He licked his sore bottom lip and turned. He had a jog ahead of him and a story to concoct.

And gold to steal.

It would’ve been laughably ironic if the idea didn’t have guilt curdling in his belly.

 

 

Monta had his arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head in condescending amusement and completely missing Riku’s dark stare in Sena’s direction. Sena sunk further against the wall, knees drawn up to his chest, and chuckled awkwardly as he ducked his head. The room Shin had paid for had two beds (neither of which Sena planned to sleep in) and a little table with a basin and urn. Steam curled gently from the basin and water sloshed over the sides as Monta rinsed most the road dust and grime off his face and neck. Sena dropped his eyes to his knees, fingers tracing the rough linen of the blankets beneath him.

“Got lost in less than a second after you got on your own two feet in the city. You’re lucky if Shin doesn’t keep you tied to the bed for the next two days we’re stuck here,” Monta said with a laugh muffled by his drying towel.

Riku scoffed lightly. “Unless he has a pair of those disgusting cuffs, he won’t be able to keep Sena tied anywhere.”

“Riku,” Sena sighed, voice tinged with warning. Riku rolled his eyes and crossed his arms over his chest.

“I guess he’s right though… if you could get your spells working right. Maybe you should try to do a giant blast like you did on my farm? Actually, that might be too much, a little blast? Distract them long enough to make a run for it?” Monta suggested, wrapping the towel around the back of his neck and frowning pensively.

“Giant blast?” Riku asked, eyebrow rising. “Just what do you think Sena is?”

“Riku, please,” Sena groaned wearily.

“A wizard, yeah? Not a very good one, but you just need enough t’make a boom! A little boom,” Monta emphasized with some concern. Riku just snickered and shook his head. Monta glared. “I really hate when you act like you know more’n me.”

“I’m a dragon. Of course I know more. Not that it’s difficult to know more than you.”

“Just go! Go get dinner or something, b-both of you!” Sena interrupted loudly, throwing up his hands in exasperation as Monta snarled a curse word at Riku.

They blinked at him.

“Sorry, Sena. I forgot this’s gotta be harder on you than any o’ us,” Monta said sheepishly. He tossed the towel aside and grabbed his discarded shirt. “Want me to get you sommat?”

Ignoring the pang in his gut, Sena nodded once and hid his slowly heating face against his knees. The water left on his skin from the brief wipe-down he’d done just a while ago dried instantly as his temperature rose. The cool air at his side shifted as Riku straightened off the wall. An even cooler hand touched his back, fleeting and brief, but relaying his too-easy forgiveness before Riku moved away. The door shut behind them, and Sena huffed under his breath as he heard the return of their bickering just seconds later.

He wasn’t truly angry with them. He wished they wouldn’t argue so much, but nothing would have prompted him to be so rude. Nothing but the knowledge that this was the only chance alone with Shin’s things he’d get for the entire night. Sena scuttled off the bed and went immediately for the pack with the armor wrapped and packed neatly inside it. It wasn't locked in anyway, nor were he or the other two in possession of the room key to lock the door, but even if a thief had gotten into the room and into the pack, seeing the crest on the armor inside would’ve had them backing away the next moment. No one stole from the Lances of the Realm. Sena had to swallow down his own fear at the thought, even though he knew Shin was downstairs in the middle of discussing terms with Shun and Mizumachi– a much more involved and difficult process than the hasty pact he’d made just an hour ago. He dug past wool and steel to the mostly empty leather satchel beneath. While Shin carried enough on his person in a smaller pouch to get by day-to-day, the rest of the gold Sakuraba had thrown him was in the satchel.

Wincing and mouth dry, Sena counted out five gold coins. Then placed one back. He wanted to promise himself he’d give it back one day, but he knew it would be impossible. With any luck, he’d never see the shores of Kariya again.

His hand curled around the coins, the blunt, round edges digging into his palms and fingers.

Never see Kariya again. Never see Monta. Never see… her.

Blue eyes shined in his mind’s eye and he shook his head wildly to get rid of it. The first time he’d allowed such an image to surface. Only for those eyes to be replaced with Shin’s. Dark and honest and certain. Seeing right through Sena in every way.

But not deep enough. Shin didn’t know… not really.

Sena’s mouth tightened, knuckles whitening painfully. He shoved the coins into his shoes, two to each shoe, and then went over the pack to make sure nothing looked disturbed. Satisfied, Sena got to his feet, dusted off his knees, and moved towards the door.

He’d eat one more meal with Monta and Shin (Riku would forgive him eventually and find him one day). One more black mark on his conscience didn’t matter much in the long run. Really.

In the middle of the room, he froze. Terror sliced through him, an overwhelming dread that stole the heat from his very bones. He knew this feeling. This utterly consuming fear.

Just then the entire tavern shook as the air broke around a roar.

Knees hit the floor and thudded so hard bones cracked against wood. Hands braced on flat surface and eyes stared blankly at the door in front of him.

Gaou…” he whispered hoarsely from a mouth that felt wrong. Soft and small and defenseless. Like the rest of this useless body.

Chapter Text

The door opened and feet pounded against the floor. Hands, warm rough hands, grasped his shoulders. Flinching, Sena looked up with dim, blurry eyes. Shin had somehow gotten up the stairs faster than Riku, who was ashen white under his brown human skin, frost crawling over his cheeks and limbs. Next to him, Monta was just as pale and shocked, eyes too wide and mouth hanging open. Shin shook him, forcing Sena’s blank gaze back to Shin’s dark, intense one. He was the only one in the room that showed no fear, only fierce and determined focus.

Sena leaned into Shin's hands, breath shaking out of his throat at last.

“Sena?” he demanded curtly. Sena stared, mouth gaping, at Shin. Who’d said his name. For a moment, that façade broke to show relief, then the mask of the Lance slammed back into place. “We need to get out of here. We can’t wait for the ship.”

“We’ll be caught on the road! You think Gaou won’t sniff Sena out? The distance and the missing anima might throw him off, but he’s on top of us!” Riku snapped, pupils slitting like a cat’s.

“What does that monster want Sena for? What missing animal?” Monta asked, eyes still shocky and dilated to pinpricks.

“I don’t have time to deal with you right now,” Riku snapped.

“I have to go alone. It’s not fair, I won’t let you get hurt again,” Sena said, lips numb and words hollow, eyes on Monta, then Shin. “Give me a horse and I’ll ride until he catches me.”

“Why won’t you change?” Shin asked hoarsely.

Sena just stared, shoulders slumped and the all too obvious terror etched across his face. Shin tched and got to his feet, dragging Sena up with him.

“Monta, go get the horses. Riku–”

“What?”

“You can’t tell me what to do, ape!”

“–you’re the only one that can distract him.” His eyes darted down to Sena, whom hung limply in his grip. “Will you?”

Riku scowled at Shin, wrath in every feature of his face. Another roar shook the city and Sena let out a small, horrified whimper. Riku’s eyes closed, breath slow and deep.

“You ride. I can hold him off for a few minutes, but you have to get Sena as far away as possible.”

“W-What? Riku, don’t–” Sena protested shrilly, trying to push past Shin, only to get caught and pulled back. Riku turned on his heel, the corners of his eyes tight and claws growing from his fingers. “You’ll die, Riku. Don’t you go!”

Monta stared out the door as Riku disappeared from sight.

“The horses, NOW,” Shin bellowed. Monta jumped in place.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m going. Just… Sena, don’t do anything stupid,” Monta said before he was racing into the hallway.

“He’s gonna die. Riku’s gonna die. Let me go! I have to–” Sena shrieked, arms flailing and legs kicking. His skin began to heat and Shin adjusted his arms around Sena away from any bare skin.

“What? What do you have to do? You won’t change, my lord, so what will you do?” Shin demanded, tugging Sena off his feet and carrying him like a spitting cat towards the packs.

Sena immediately slumped, head bowed and body jerking with dry sobs. “I can’t, I can’t!” Shin’s feet shuffled to a stop. “My anima… Riku meant my emblem.”

Shin inhaled sharply. Unconsciously his arms tightened and Sena grunted, breath choking in his chest. The hold wasn’t tight enough to prevent his breathing this badly, but still Sena couldn’t breathe. He wheezed and gasped, whole body too hot and eyes squeezed shut, but he couldn’t breathe.

Gaou was here. Here.

And Riku was all alone, risking his life for a selfish coward like Sena.

His knees were on the ground again and Shin’s broad hand lay against the middle of his chest. The hold around his waist disappeared. Desperately wheezing, Sena grasped Shin’s wrist, a hiss of someone else’s pain nothing more than a shuddery echo in his head. He curled around the hand on his chest, and panted hoarsely. Gradually, the low rumble of Shin’s voice made it through the raspy sound of Sena’s poor excuse for breaths.

“Slowly, Sena. Keep breathing in, and hold it–” Sena realized with groggy surprise that his body automatically did as Shin bid. “–good, breathe out. Slowly. Try one more time.”

Sena closed his eyes, humiliation churning behind his heart, as he once more inhaled in time with Shin, held it, and exhaled when Shin told him to. He couldn’t force himself to raise his eyes to Shin’s. But what was new? His petty cowardice only increased each day. Each moment.

“Your emblem.”

Sena flinched.

“I’ve heard the Commander speak of it. It’s the anchor of the vow you swore to the Queen, the source of your power, isn’t it? Riku said it was missing.”

Sena nodded miserably. Bile scratched at his throat, but he breathed in again shakily.

“That’s why you’re like this.”

The way Shin said it, as if Sena were a mere shadow of himself, something weak and useless, had his heart shrivelling in his chest.

“You fought Gaou and lost it.”

It wasn’t a question. But Sena nodded again. Why? Why was he telling Shin? The one person he didn’t want to know the truth for reasons he couldn’t say out loud, no, couldn’t even admit in his head.

“I know you made plans this afternoon,” Shin said abruptly. Sena jerked in place and lifted his head, gaping in shock, but Shin’s face was impassive. “Whatever those plans were, you need to forget them. You have to run with me if you want even a chance of escape.”

“I…You should let me run as far away from you as possible–” Sena tried to argue.

“Not going to happen,” Shin interrupted harshly. “If you couldn’t defeat Gaou with all your power, then you definitely won’t be able to defeat him like this.”

Sena flinched and dropped his head.

A screeching roar of fury echoed over their heads. With a sharp gasp, Sena gripped the front of his shirt, knuckles whitening as his pupils dilated to slits. The world with sharp and hazy at once, the light too bright and the few shadows in the room clearing in his vision.

“Riku…”

“We’re going. Now,” Shin ordered brusquely, gripping Sena’s elbows to haul him up. Sena stood swaying in place, all his senses in the air above his head, beyond the ceiling. He could hear the crackle of each arc of frozen air and ice, the hiss of acid burning through ice and snow and dripping onto the buildings and streets below. The terrified wailing of the people in the city and their sad, useless prayers

During the moments Sena stood fixated on the sounds of battle above, Shin had yanked on his heavy chainmail shirt and buckled on the greaves and vambraces of his plate armor. The rest remained packed away, most likely taking too much time to don. He threw the pack over a shoulder, shoved his long, heavy trident into Sena’s arms– whom oofed and barely managed not to drop it in surprise–, and strode across the room towards the door. He looked back for a brief second,

“Let’s go.”

And then left. Sena stared at the empty doorway before hurrying after Shin.

The horses were ready and saddled in the courtyard, Monta gnawing his fingernails to the wick as he waited. He perked up the moment he saw them, immediately dragging the horses towards them. Shin quickly tied down his pack as Monta walked over to Sena and gripped his shoulder in one big hand, his black eyes boring into Sena’s.

“Are you all right, Sena?” he asked seriously. Sena swallowed dryly.

“Y-Yeah, I’m all right,” he whispered, his gaze darting to Shin and back to Monta. “I’m sorry I… I r-lost composure like that.”

Monta frowned, but let his hand drop. “We better hurry ‘fore that gets worse.”

His eyes went up to the sky, Sena’s following a second later. His guts twisted into knots as he watching the bright white form darting around the massive pitch-black body that roared and frothed green liquid from its maw. Riku looked fierce and beautiful in battle, as he always had, but he was also so small, so young. Sena gripped the cloth over his belly, eyes and nose burning and breath too shallow. Gaou was a monster in comparison. Huge and menacing, with claws that glinted as brightly as Riku’s white scales even as far away as they were. A wingspan that could envelope the inn they were standing next to seemed to block out the sun. Or maybe it was just Sena’s all-consuming terror.

Gaou the Merciless. Unrelenting, pitiless, and stronger than Sena could have imagined.

Phantom pains slithered over his arms and back and legs, across his right cheek and temple. A piercing ache that bubbled and hissed over his body in jagged lines and smears.

“Get on the horse!” Shin snapped at Monta, whom startled back at the tone and then proceeded to scramble onto the horse stolen from the Deimon centurions.

The trident in Sena’s hands was suddenly pulled out of his unconsciously tight grasp. He eeped, and eeped again when Shin’s broad hand pushed him towards Monta’s steed. “W-Wha–”

“We’ll be faster if you two share the horse and I alone follow on Oujou,” Shin said shortly. Sena and Monta both boggled at him. He scowled. “You could try to escape, alone, with Gaou at your back, but honestly, I’m the only one who can protect you now, my lord.”

Sena’s gaze dropped, shame rising the heat of his skin.

“I know I took you against your will, but you must trust that I will do anything to keep you alive,” Shin added, voice fervent and one hand falling on Sena’s shoulder.

The dragon-in-human-skin looked to the hand on his shoulder, eyes wide and pupils wider, more human in his shock than in his earlier fear. His eyes rose slowly, meeting Shin’s hardened and darkened gaze, and he swallowed thickly.

“I…I trust you…” Sena admitted in a whisper.

An agonized scream rent the air again, and the ground shuddered under their feet. The thundering crash and rumble of a large body hitting the ground, destroying the buildings under it, had Sena spinning and gasping. Sure enough, it was Gaou in the air, roaring his delight as Riku shook off rubble and forced himself into flight.

“Ri–” Sena cut off on a choke, arms flailing, as a hand gripped the back of his tunic and lifted him right off the ground. He was thrown over the back of Monta’s saddle with a grunt. “What are you doing!?”

“Ride, now. Don’t look back and don’t slow down.” A resounding slap to the horse’s rump had Monta and Sena shrieking a second later when it took off galloping through the streets with an indignant and furious whinny.

“Your kidnapper is a dick,” Monta screamed from where he barely held onto the reins with one hand and with the other yanked and tugged at Sena’s tunic to get him upright. Only his farm-grown arm strength could’ve done it.

Sena shuddered and wrapped his arms tightly around Monta’s waist, face buried against Monta’s shoulder-blade. “He’s saving our lives,” he said pointedly, even as he scowled angrily at Shin throwing him around like a bag of salt.

Ow, ow, leggo!” Monta exclaimed, slapping at Sena’s arms around his waist and making the horse under them lose its step and try to shake them off. Monta quickly grabbed hold of the reins and hissed between his teeth. “You’re hotter'n soup bubblin’ over, jus’ hold on t’the saddle!”

Sena immediately pulled way his arms and grabbed the saddle under his butt. He hadn’t even noticed his temperature had skyrocketed, or even how long he’d been hot enough to burn. “I’m… But…” Sena remembered how tightly he’d held on Shin’s arm, how Shin had pressed his hand to his chest and refused to move away…

If he’d been unable to control the heat in him due to his fear and, well, Gaou…then…

People racing to the gates of the city screamed and cried around them, barely throwing themselves out of the way of their horse’s unrelenting gait. There was another shuddering crash and rumble as another building fell under the aerial battle. Sena bit his lip and squeezed his eyes shut, using all his willpower not to look. Not to watch in horror as Riku reenacted his nightmare in his place.

They finally made it through the gate, all but leaping over the guards that were forcing a riot of people into a more orderly exodus. The road outside the city was only somewhat clearer, with only the first of the terrified citizens on horses or on foot on the road compared to the gradually but surely forming mob behind them. Would Shin even make it, encumbered by his armor and heavier horse as he was?

“I have no idea where t’go from here, Sena. If that thing can sniff you out, we need t’figger out a plan, now,” Monta said, barely glancing over his shoulder to find Sena’s eyes.

Sena frowned, fingers curling around the edge of the saddle. “The further away, the harder it will b-be. Either deep water or mountains would b-be ideal…” Sena shouted back.

“Well, water’s the wrong way around, brother. But… the mountains…”

They looked towards the low rocky hills they’d come through earlier that morning. An age ago.

“There’s no way we’ll make it there ‘fore this horse gives out,” Monta said, stating out loud what they both knew.

“It’s our only chance,” Sena said, leaning forward so as not to shout again. Luckily, Monta didn’t flinch away, so he must have his body temperature under better control.

“I don’t like it,” Monta said. Just barely, Sena could make out the frown on his dark, heavy-browed face. Sena blinked, but before he could ask, Monta continued, voice heavy and conflicted, “they’re assholes, both o’ ‘em, but… I don’t like leavin’ ‘em behind. I… I should be fightin’ with ‘em. What kinda man am I that I leave the fightin’ t’others while I run?”

Sena’s gaze dropped, his chin with it, as that shame came back at his friend’s courageous words. Words that were barely whispers in his own mind, covered with fear and desperation to flee. “You can’t think m-much of m-me, then,” he muttered.

“Huh, wha?” Monta asked, twisting round in the saddle.

A horse thundered up next to them, Monta catching sight of the rider first. The incredulous squawk he made had Sena’s head jerking around to see Oujou and Shin astride her, his face intense and grim.

“I said don’t look back,” he said with an unimpressed scowl at them.

“You caught up!” Sena said stupidly, his chest feeling tight and uncomfortable. Shin glanced over without a word, but the scowl lightened slightly.

That one moment didn’t last long enough. That ridiculous burgeoning of hope– as if Shin’s presence as of yet alive and well meant maybe they could make it– dying a swift death. Dying under the enraged and triumphant roar of a beast that had caught sight of its quarry at last.

“Oh no…” Sena whispered, eyes glued to Shin’s as the same realization overtook his expression. The trident in his hand rose and he looked over a shoulder, his scowl as fierce as ever.

“That sounded a lot closer. I’m wrong, right? It didn’ find us already, did it?” Monta babbled.

Neither Sena nor Shin could reply. With a lowly muttered curse, Shin pulled Oujou around, trident glinting in the last rays of the sun over the bay.

“Whoa whoa, what's that idiot doin’?” Monta exclaimed, completely twisting around in his seat and almost falling off to look back. Sena gripped his tunic in his hands.

“Getting himself killed,” Sena said bluntly.

The stolen horse’s footsteps faltered on the road at the weird seating of the two men on its back

“Keep going. Keep him safe, Monta. Get him out of here,” Shin ordered, eyes on the fast approaching black mass of Gaou.

Where’s Riku?

“You ain’t my captain!” Monta hollered back. He glanced at Sena a second later. “But it’s up t’you, we should–”

“We’ll never make it. We’re all going to die if I keep running,” Sena interrupted, resigned and weary. Monta blanched ashen grey under his summer’s tan.

“What!? I don’t wanna die!”

A streak of silver and white darted through the sky already bruised a purple-black from the coming twilight. Sena let out a cry as it slammed into Gaou’s side. Ice crackled and popped in the air, falling like hail as green slime hissed and spit against Riku’s ice breath and dazzling silver hide. Their teeth and claws glinted like swords, tearing through scales and the softer, vulnerable flesh beneath. Riku definitely looked worse off, looking bloodied as he snarled and frosted the very air around him.

“Stop it, stop it!” Sena shouted, almost falling off the horse as he leaned forward.

“He’s not gonna…” Monta started slowly, eyes wide and terrified, one hand holding Sena up by the back of his tunic.

Gaou the Merciless lived up to his name. His powerful wing shifted just enough to spread wide and knock Riku away. As Riku reeled back, off balance, Gaou’s claw rose and swiped. Blood splattered over the road. A shocked heartbeat later, Riku followed it. He fell to the dirt with a cut-off and pained cry. Steam from his cold body in the warm coastal air rose around him, frost flowering over the road, unchecked and uncontrolled, ice even filming Riku’s jaws and eyes.

“Riku!” Sena screamed, knocking away Monta’s lax hand and falling to the ground. He scrambled over dirt, hands clawing and shoes slipping, until he got to his feet and ran, a blur over the road. The sheer cold slammed into him like a wall, tears freezing on his lashes and cheeks. He would’ve pushed through, forced the innate warmth of his frail human body to fight Riku’s encroaching end, but the sky blackened over him.

Like a mouse under the eyes of a cat, he froze, arms over his face to block the chill radiating from the dragon in front of him, as another dropped to the ground with a thud.

He was a fair fight. I hope this one doesn’t die, so he may fight me again one day,” rumbled the deep, nonchalantly brutal voice of Gaou. “Not like you. The spineless mouse that got away.”

Sena whimpered, knees shaking.

“It’s not often Gaou compliments anyone or anything. Your champion was indeed a creature to be reckoned with,” said another, much more human, voice. Sena spun on his heel, shaking hands in fists at his sides, body shivering violently with cold and terror. The human man he’d glimpsed weeks ago slid from Gaou’s back, his cloak as black as Gaou’s hide slithering over scales to fall around him. Wavy brown hair fell over his eye and a slow, faux-kind smile stretched over his mouth. “So I’m at last able to meet you officially. The mouse.”

“Not… not my champion…” Sena whispered. One sardonic brow rose.

“Hm? What was that?”

“Riku… Riku is not my champion. He’s my friend, my brother. And you might’ve killed him! How could you do this to another dragon?” Sena cried, tears falling from one eye, the other side too close to Riku’s body and too cold. “Don’t let him die!”

He fought well. If he’s strong enough, he’ll live,” Gaou replied indifferently. Whatever respect he had for Riku did not include sympathy, and Sena’s head dropped.

“You are a monster,” he said, eyes on the ground and jaw clenched.

Says a coward,” Gaou spat at him. Acid frothed at his jowls.

“We’re not here for pleasantries. Either you come with us to Deimon, useless as you are, or you die now,” the human man said, voice still pleasant and drawling, mouth still smiling kindly.

“I’ll n-never go to Deimon,” Sena forced out past numb lips.

“The only bit of courage you have, I suppose. What a waste for his Highness,” the man said on a bored sigh. His hand moved so fast Sena almost missed it.

He caught sight of the glint, icy moonlight on the point of a blade, and Sena knew he could dodge… Instead, his eyes closed.

TWANG!

Sena jerked in place, but no pain followed.

“Who the hell are you?” the Deimon man demanded.

“Another champion.”

He has good eyes, just like the dragon,” Gaou said, indifference fading away to be replaced with eager excitement.

Eyes popping open, Sena saw exactly what he thought he’d see: Shin. Standing feet shoulder-width apart, trident in both his hands, a discarded dagger at his feet, and his back to Sena. Monta ran to Sena’s side, his bo-staff clutched in a fist, his other hand grasping Sena’s elbow.

“What the hell is that big black thing sayin’?” Monta muttered out the side of his mouth.

Sena just gaped, mouth hanging open. “You should’ve reft. Left.

“No chance. I’m your friend, right?” Monta said it with a cocky grin.

“A champion? You? I thought dragons were supposed to be the champions? You’re just a knight- ah, yes. A Lance of the Realm, that makes sense now. How disappointing for you that the one you swear to is nothing more than this,” the man said, a smug smirk on his face when he looked to Sena.

“Hey! Fuck off, pretty boy! Sena’s jus’ fine. You’re the evil jerk,” Monta snarled, making an obscene gesture with his hand. The man rose his eyebrow again, smirking wider.

“Am I? Just how much do you know about your friend, your Queen’s Shield? Has he told you everything, knight of Kariya?” the man asked.

Even more than Gaou’s hulking shadow at his side, the man’s words wrought fear that had Sena’s legs turning to water.

“I don’t need to hear it,” Shin grunted, hefting his trident to point it like a lance at the man and dragon both.

Fearless.

Sena gripped the tunic over his chest and shook off Monta’s hand.

“You're right,” Sena said, raising his voice to get all eyes on him. He quaked beneath their attention, but stepped forward. He met the man’s eyes, then Gaou’s. “He’s not my champion. And the other man is no one. Let them go, let them help Riku, and you can do what you want with me.”

“My lord!”

“Whaddya doing?”

The man raised a hand to touch Gaou’s impatiently shuffling frame. “Oh, we’ll do what we want. But you have nothing to bargain with, Sena the Red.”

Sena inhaled sharply.

“Besides, I don’t think Gaou would be pleased if we left now.”

No, I want a fight! That one, the one with the eyes, he won’t leave, either. A feeble mouse like you has some interesting friends,” Gaou answered, chuckling hoarsely.

No, you won’t fight him. Or the other. You’ll let them go, Gaou,” Sena replied, for once unshaken, standing in front of Monta and Shin, arms outstretched and eyes fierce.

Gaou jerked back, head rising on his sinuous neck, teeth glinting like a wicked smile. “Oh, those are fighting eyes. Is there a real dragon beneath the mouse?”

Sena shuddered at the stirring of approval in Gaou’s voice. An approval that sounded and felt hungry.

“S-Sena… what’s happenin’?” Monta asked. “Shin, can you understand ‘em?”

“It’s draconic, you uneducated peasant. I doubt he's been given the opportunity to learn it, unChosen and magic-less as he is,” the man said with a bored eyeroll. “I know you want a fair fight, Gaou, but even with his nice eyes, that Lance is merely a man. He’ll be dead in seconds.”

You always underestimate true fighting spirit, Marco,” Gaou replied dismissively. The man, Marco, grimaced in annoyance.

“Stop playing with your food and get it over with,” he said sharply. Gaou rolled his impressively bright green eye towards Marco, who scoffed and raised his hands. “Fine, fine. Take how much time you need. Just do something in this century?”

Hmph,” Gaou turned to Sena and Shin, completely dismissing the befuddled and irritated Monta. “Prepare yourself.”

“No, don’t!” Sena shouted, horrified.

Gaou opened his jaw and breathed. Streams of yellowish green liquid sprayed towards them, and Sena threw himself at Monta, sending them to the ground and out of the direct spray.

“What is going on!?” Monta screamed, jerking away from a splatter of the stuff that hissed on the frost-covered dirt.

“Gaou is a dragon. Marco is his Chosen. He’s no ordinary human anymore, and that dragon is one of the most powerful and bloodthirsty dragons that has ever lived,” Sena wheezed, getting to his feet and dragging Monta up with him. He ran for Riku, heart thudding painfully in his chest as the sounds of Shin’s trident striking claws started up behind them.

“I thought dragons breathed fire, not weird burn-y snot juices!” Monta exclaimed.

“Not all of them. That’s acid,” Sena retorted, kneeling at Riku’s head. “Please, be alive, please, Riku.”

“You’re… you’re really a… Riku and Shin… they’re both right ‘bout you, ain’t they?” Monta asked haltingly. Sena flinched.

“Ah, so a coward and a liar. I thought so,” said a voice from behind them.

Monta spun on his heels, bo-staff up in front of him and feet planted in crackling hoarfrost.

Sena kept one hand to Riku’s throat, just under the hinge of his icy jaw. Barely, a flutter of his pulse beat under Sena’s palm and relief filled him. Relief competed with dread as Marco approached, black cloak flapping elegantly and daggers gleaming in his gauntleted fists.

“You don’ know him. You don’t get to talk t’him like that,” Monta snapped fiercely. Sena gaped at Monta’s back.

Marco merely shrugged and smiled. “I think I know him better than you assume, peasant.”

“I’m real sick o’ you and I don’t even know you. Maybe I’m jus’ a good judge o’ character,” Monta retorted, eyes narrowed and mouth scowling. Marco’s ambivalent veneer cracked long enough to show his irritation.

“You’re no one, just like this one said,” Marco said with a gesture towards Sena. “A poor, worthless peasant who thinks he can be a hero. You chose the wrong cause to fight for, however. You’ll die in a ditch far from whatever hovel you came from.”

“I’m fightin’ for a friend, who did nothin’ wrong, but try t’get away from bastards like you. Doesn’ sound like the wrong cause t’me,” Monta said.

Marco tsked. With a flick of his wrists, one after another the daggers flung through the air, accuracy deadly. Monta hollered and raised his bo-staff, but only Sena dragging him to the side in a burst of speed kept the daggers from embedding in his heart. They sliced his shoulder, two long shallow cuts that bled sluggishly.

“You’re just good at running! It won’t do your friends any good, Sena the Red!” Marco shouted, two daggers in each hand again.

Sena stood next to Monta, hand shaking on his friend’s arm. “He’s right. Every word. I’m a coward and liar and all I ever do is run. I’m not a cause to die for.”

“You gonna call me a filthy, stupid peasant next?” Monta asked. Sena looked at him sharply, blinking at the fierce grin he sported.

“No. Never.”

“Then, I like you a whole lot better’n that bastard.”

Sena smiled at Monta, shoulders sagging.

“Touching. It still doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to die here,” Marco interrupted icily. Two daggers, one from each hand, whistled through the air at them ; Sena pressed into Monta’s arm. With the speed almost comparable to Sena, Monta blocked each dagger with wide eyes.

“Go, Monta, go,” Sena hissed. They darted forward, Monta shouting wordlessly as Marco flung two more daggers. Sena knocked one aside with his bare hand, flinching at the cut on his fingers, and Monta intercepted the other with his staff. The staff swung through the air and collided with an audible thud across Marco’s ribcage. He skidded backwards, arm around his torso, wheezing in pain.

“I think I heard his bones crack,” Monta said in shock. He turned to Sena. “I got this. You go help Shin.”

Sena nodded, pressed a warm, glowing rune on Monta's arm, and stepped away. “You’re not no one. You’re braver than dragons, Monta.”

Monta grinned sheepishly. “Thanks.”

“Don’t you dare dismiss me!” Marco snarled, unsheathing a long dagger and rushing towards Monta.

“You dick, we were havin’ a moment,” Monta said furiously, hurriedly blocking the first strike.

Sena darted one more look at Riku, licking his lips and sighing at the smell of the air warming. Relief was not his first feeling when he turned towards Gaou and Shin, though, wobbling in place from shock and a bout of dizziness at once. He shook his head and watched as Shin used his half-melted shield and still intact trident to block and strike. Sweat was pouring down his grim face, patches of his clothes and skin burned away by acid, hair falling from its tie. Most of his right vambrace was melted away, the worst of the acid burn a the shiny red welt covering the arm still holding up his trident. Gaou swiped at him, roaring in frustration as Shin dodged with a quick, nimble roll that looked almost catlike for a man his size, jumping back to his feet to strike across Gaou’s heavily scored snout. From just under his eye, Gaou was bleeding profusely.

Shin definitely knew dragon anatomy well. If Sena didn’t know better, he would’ve been scared that Shin had studied dragon-hunting lore. Sena swallowed down the nauseous feeling in his throat, and raced forward. Just when Gaou pulled back his head, maw opening, Sena darted in. His fist, so hot the air around his kunckles shimmered, slammed into the hollow just under Gaou’s jaw.

Gaou screeched in wrath and pain as Sena fell to the ground like a sack of flour. Shin was standing over him, thrusting his trident forward to strike at Gaou’s armpit. Sena spat dirt and spittle from his mouth, groaning as Gaou dodged.

“My lord, what can you do?” Shin asked, eyes calculating. Gaou shook his head and stood on his hind legs.

“I… I don’t know. M-make things hot and fast?” Sena replied, getting to his feet and pressing the back of his hand to his mouth to force down a stronger urge to vomit. “I haven’t r-really investigated it m-much.”

“Hn. Force him to expose his weak spots and then retreat so I can attack,” Shin ordered. Sena nodded once, ignoring his roiling belly.

“I can do my best.”

“I know you can.”

Shin and Sena exchanged a loaded look, Sena pale and shaking, Shin resolute and stern.

Marco and Gaou were right. Sena didn’t deserve these champions he’d gained.

You couldn’t defeat me as a dragon, mouse! You think you can challenge me now?” Gaou roared, ground shaking under their feet as he landed on his front legs once more, tail lashing like an angry cat’s.

It’s not my challenge. It’s his. And I believe in him,” Sena replied, eyes bright and mouth firm.

Gaou’s head cocked to the side, intrigued. Slowly, he bared all his gleaming, dripping teeth. “How interesting. Perhaps you Chose wrongly before?

Sena gasped, an image of kind blue eyes and a kinder smile flashing in his mind.

“Sena!”

Sena jerked back into the present, touching Shin’s back so they could both dodge away supernaturally fast. Sena wobbled in place, inhaled sharply, then ran at Gaou, darting under his guard and aiming his heated fist at Gaou’s jaw. With a move too fast for Sena to catch, Gaou sharply dodged into Sena’s charge, slamming the hardened armored jaw into Sena’s side. Green-tinged saliva burned through cloth and fragile human skin, and Sena tumbled through the air screaming. He hit the ground with a thump to his diaphragm so hard blood splattered over the ground from his mouth. He groaned, curling defensively, as the thundering sound of Shin’s feet met his ears. Gaou actually screeched in pain, and Sena forced his eyes to squint open.

In front of him, the rune on Monta’s arm was flashing dangerously, his movements slowing as the power Sena had lent began to fade. Marco was still standing with a long, wickedly-curved scimitar and a thin, long dagger in his hands. Icy air wafted over the still fallen body of his oldest, most loyal friend just beyond Monta. Finally, as Sena bit on his blood-stained lip and forced himself to turn on his hands and knees, he saw Shin’s trident pulling free from the delicately-scaled hollow under Gaou’s foreleg. Blood poured over the ground, but it didn’t slow Gaou’s tail from whipping through the air as he bellowed his fury.

Shin saw it, his eyes widening, but he couldn’t move quite fast enough to dodge it entirely. Without his heavy, protective plate, the spikes on Gaou’s tail had nothing to stop it from slicing straight across his chest, the tip catching his side and flinging him over the ground with a choked and cut-off shout.

“Sh-Shin!”

There was another bitten off shout behind him, making Sena whip around to see Monta barely holding off the scimitar with his staff, but the dagger sunk deep into his side. With an indifferent moue of disgust, Marco raised a foot and kicked Monta square in the chest, sending him skidding over dirt until he fell to his ass, hand clutching at the deep hole between his lower ribs.

“Monta!”

Marco walked towards Sena, blood dripping to the ground and scimitar flashing as he spun and sheathed it negligently.

“Surrender to Deimon or just die. You’re making a nuisance of yourself now,” Marco said, drawling and bored despite the battered and bruised look of him.

Sena stared at his fingers digging into the dirt, body shuddering and eyes burning with unshed tears as he heard his friends– real friends somehow– groaning in pain. Tastescented their blood mixing with his own in his mouth, the lingering bite of wintery frost.

“No, Sena, jus’ geddout o’here,” Monta slurred, coughing and hissing at the movement of his ribs.

“You can run, so run,” Shin said, voice fierce and hoarse.

Sena squeezed his eyes shut. He should run, run, run, just run. It’s the only thing he was good at, anyway. Why did he think he could do anything, help them, keep them alive and safe? They were dying and telling him to save himself.

Marco knelt in front of him, his blade still wet with Monta’s blood. Sena flinched, but Marco merely placed the point just under Sena’s chin and tipped his head up to meet Marco’s pitying, loathing gaze. “Can you hear them? Still believing in a mirage. Kariya will be ground under Hiruma’s heel, and the first fodder in this senseless war will be them. They all believed in you, for nothing, because they’re going to die, or kneel to a better king than the queen who put her money on a bad gamble.”

Sena’s eyes widened, teeth grinding as Marco smirked, slow and condescending, point of the dagger pressing harder.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be kind. I’ll kill you before you can hear them breathe their last.”

“No.”

Marco blinked, hand freezing.

Sena shook all over, a quaking that began so deep inside him he hadn’t even been sure there had been anything there. It rose up, hot and bright, burning through the darkest, most frightened parts of him.

No. You won’t kill them. Non habete eos. Ei sunt mihi.”

Marco frowned, even as Gaou laughed, acid dripping from his jaws and sizzling around his claws. “Strong words, mouse.

“My lord!” “Run, Sena!”

Marco frowned, his hand shifting on the hilt of his dagger. But Sena could see the tensing of his muscle, hear the slight inhale in unconscious preparation– not quite a cold-blooded killer as he acted– and Sena’s hand moved without him actually willing it.

The dagger flew through the air, gleaming and glinting in the moonlight. It landed near Gaou, blade sinking deep into the dirt. Marco’s hand was still high the air, palm smarting from the back of Sena’s hand. That was already moving forward, the flat of his palm smacking firmly right over Marco’s breastbone, ignoring the studded leather as though it were mere cotton. Marco’s eyes widened, spittle dotted his bottom lip, and then he was flying over grass and rock, heels of his boots digging furrows through the dirt until gravity pulled him down. He rolled through ungainly backwards somersaults, tendons straining and bones bruising. Finally, he fell into an undignified pile of tangled limbs.

Sena got to his feet, eyes shining a bright gold, two tiny suns that were slitted and furious.

Gaou, still bleeding from the wound Shin inflicted, lifted his head, his green eyes gleaming poisonously. His lip-less mouth pulled back, baring almost every single one of his fangs in a terrible parody of a grin. His snakelike tongue darted in the air and that laugh came back. Grating and harsh and jarring, and heat rippled from every inch of Sena’s pale, frail, human body. The edges of his clothing began to smolder at the heat of it, hair waving in an unseen desert wind. It washed over them all, a wave of heat that warmed the three actual humans to the very depths of their hearts.

That’s it. That’s what I like. Fight me like a dragon, Sena the Red. SHOW ME WHAT YOU’RE TRULY MADE OF!” he roared the last words, standing rampant and spreading his wings.

“I don’t want to fight. I don’t want your stupid war!” Sena said fervently, sparks flickering in his hands and the very air around him glowing, a soft yellow slowly getting brighter and darker. “I don’t wanna die, I don’t want my friends to die. But I don’t wanna kill you, either. So just…leave me alone!” Sena screamed.

Both his hands rose and opened, aiming the flat of his hands towards Gaou. “ARDE IGNE!”

From that deep dark place inside came fire.

It roared out of him, a wave of flame met by a wall of green gas. It hissed and crackled and popped, a noxious fume rising, before the fire completely overwhelmed the poisonous vapor. There was a shocked and pained bellow just before the fire covered Gaou’s immense body. A living blanket of flame. He twisted and writhed like a snake, flames falling around him like water from a dog, burning the very dirt around them. Shin dragged himself away, eyes wide and sweat pouring down his too-hot, reddening skin from being so close.

A small figure darted forward, a gleam of gold and crimson.

And for a moment, large red wings spread from Sena’s much too small back. He flew through the fire like it meant nothing, swatches of his clothes burning to ash as he yelled wordlessly, clawed hand rising. He thrust it forward, throwing every bit of himself right where Gaou was worst wounded.

The shriek that tore from Gaou’s throat had every hair standing on Shin and Monta’s body. Marco struggled to his knees, gasping, with arms wrapped tight around his bruised and cracked ribs.

Gaou rose and fell backwards, his scales still burning and his front leg hanging uselessly. It buckled under his weight and he thudded to the ground, hissing and wheezing as the flames began to die. Hovering just over him, Sena still shone bright red, eyes a brilliant, blinding gold. His wings flexed and stretched and he floated elegantly to the ground… and then stumbled. His arms hung in front of him, fingers burnt black and burns sizzling up his arms.

A Red that can be burnt,” Gaou croaked in amusement, blood streaming from his nostrils and mouth, but mostly from the terrible wound. It soaked throught eh ground, a large, dark patch that had Sena's stomach rebelling.

“A Black that can kill his own kind,” Sena retorted harshly, panting.

Gaou shuddered and shifted, forcing himself to his other three legs. Sena stepped back, jaw clenching and eyes flashing in warning.

I’m not done, Red. You have critically wounded me, but I have something you don’t.

Sena scowled, flinching when his wings shifted uneasily, pulling at the burned flesh on his back where red scales met human skin.

An emblem. And a Chosen I have not forsaken.”

Sena’s eyes darted to where Marco was still struggling to get to his feet.

“I can't lose,” Sena whispered. He inhaled deeply and straightened with a pained grimace. “I won't let myself lose.”

Gaou’s green eyes squinted.

And then, to both their shock, an arrow gleaming bright blue struck Gaou on the shoulder just above the massive wound. He screamed in fury, trying to spin towards the source and toppling once more to the ground on his bad leg.

Shin, Monta, and Sena all turned, jaws dropping open. From the low hills, horses. Horses upon horses. And on each back, a rider, though something looked strange about how they sat... They ululated into the night air, slings swinging so fast they whistled before letting loose stones that glowed that same bright blue. Arrows filled the air, arcing high and menacing, all aiming for Gaou’s massive black body sprawled over the ground.

“What’s going on? Who are they!?” Marco asked rather shrilly, running and stumbling towards his dragon.

More enemies,” Gaou answered simply, facing down the horde coming their way. Sena almost felt respect for the utter audacity the black dragon had.

“We need to go,” Marco said, rushing to place his hand on Gaou’s hide.

“No, you–”

No, we fight! I will never flee a battle,” Gaou said over Sena.

“We’ll lose this fight, Gaou! We have to go or we’ll fail the mission,” Marco argued hotly.

Gaou rumbled his displeasure. “Your mission, human, not mine.” He opened his mouth wide and sprayed the newest barrage of arrows and stone missiles. A few made it through, hitting his body so solidly he slipped back a few inches.

“You’ll die if we don’t g–”

“Which of you will die first?” rasped an all too familiar voice.

Sena stared, moth falling open, to see Shin standing at Marco’s back. His arms had curled under Marco’s arms, the trident held across Marco’s front, effectively pinning the man between the unbroken steel of the trident and Shin’s unyielding chest. Monta limped towards them and held out his bo-staff, pressing it to Marco’s bruised ribs.

Gaou growled, used a swipe of his wing to guard himself from the glowing blue projectiles, the fierce whooping and screaming of the warriors echoing weirdly and dramatically over the plains they stood amidst.

Sena panted hard and raised his burnt hands, eyes a duller gold and wings drooping low. “T-tu igne t-teneo,” he stammered, clenching his fists. Flames, scarlet red in color, rose from the embers encircling Gaou. They sprung high and wrapped around every limb, tail and neck, too, and yanked. Gaou screeched, thrashing and bleeding and burning, but lying pinned by the flickering scarlet flames.

A low whistling sound shredded the air, and it took too long for Sena to realize it came from him. The manacles of fire flickered wildly, barely reining in Gaou’s increasing struggles. Bile surged up in his throat, choking him, but he held his fists tightly. His knuckles whitened and his blunt nails dug into his soft palms.

“Don’t let go,” he whispered fiercely. “Don’t let go. I can’t let go.”

Goosebumps beaded the back of his legs, up his spine and arms, and every hair on his head stood up at the icy chill. Horses surrounded them with stamping hooves and tossing manes. Every grim dirt-stained face peering through the flickering dim was female. Bronze studs on leather armor, arrowheads, and swords gleamed dull and well-worn. And every blue point was aimed at the tied-down dragon. Then Sena noticed that there was no difference between woman and horse, not for the majority of them. Most seamed perfectly at the waist to the horse body beneath.

Centaurs.

White caught the edge of Sena’s eye and he turned, a gasp torn from him.

The tip of an icicle, glassy sheer and wet from the heat, was placed at the pounding pulse in Marco’s throat. At the other end was a tanned brown hand, nails deadly white claws.

“You’ll give me…his emblem. Or you’ll both die… before you can blink, ape,” Riku seethed through fanged teeth.

“R-Riku…”

A small, flat, black gem appeared between Marco’s fingers. At a distance, the jagged edges and smooth, uneven surfaces made it seem like it was only a chunk of obsidian. But Sena could feel the power emanating from it. It fell from Marco’s hand into Riku’s waiting palm.

Sena’s wings dissipated. Gold eyes flickered to brown, then rolled to the back of his head as a quiet exhale left him. He was falling with no way of catching himself, his fists loosening uselessly.

“Sena!?”

“Catch him!”

Wiry arms and the familiar smell of dirt and sweat lingered on his tongue.

Did I do it? Did I really do it?

 


 

 

He was definitely sleeping on the ground. It was softer than it should be, his palms running over silken hairs, each individual strand gliding under his sensitive skin making him shudder. He’ll never grow accustomed to such a fragile, sensitive, outer membrane. A long moment of slowly surfacing awareness taught him that the silken hairs were really a large amount of furs piled high and deep and wide, his small human body completely covered and tucked in. His tongue traced over his bottom lip, wincing at the dry cracked skin, the remnants of a healing scab and dry air. Smoky air, too. The taste of sandalwood burning was heady and comforting. The warmth of several small smoldering fires around him blanketed as surely as the furs. Sweat and fatigue on human skin that still smelt of well-oiled metal armor lingered on his tongue.

Sena’s eyes popped open. He scrambled to throw off the heavy furs, his entire body protesting the too quick movement. Hands on his shoulders also protested it.

“Calm down, we’re safe,” Shin’s low voice rumbled.

Sena jerked under his hands and twisted at the waist to look up at Shin’s impassive face. There were still bandages and healing scabs and bruises across his face and hands and arms, over quite a bit of the skin Sena could see. But he was moving easily, gently coaxing Sena to sit against a high bank of pillows.

“Whe–” Sena broke off to cough. It was more like hacking, phlegm and dry tongue choking him. Shin pressed a small cup– made of clay and handle-less– into Sena’s hands. He gulped down the liquid eagerly, sputtering and gasping around each gulp of sweet juice. When he finished the first cup, Shin refilled it with clear fresh water that Sena sipped more sedately. “Where are we?” he croaked. “How are you... how am I alive? Was Riku…? I thought…”

Shin nodded, and Sena quickly cut himself off. “We all lived, with some help. Not least from you.”

Heat burned over Sena’s cheeks, the water in his mouth warming before he could swallow it.

“You’ve been asleep for two days.”

Sena flinched, eyes closing and fingers trembling around the cup. “Gaou? Marco?”

“Riku is only waiting for you to wake to send Gaou back to… where you come from, I suppose. He said either you wake to help him, or he recovers enough to do it alone, whichever comes first. Marco is on his way to receive the Queen’s justice in Kariya.”

Sena nodded. “And… I thought… there were a lot of… girls? No, centaurs?”

Shin smirked. “I believe they would prefer to be called warriors. They’ve been tracking Gaou for weeks. We kept him in one place long enough for them to overtake him.”

“Dragon hunters?” Sena squeaked, eyes opening wide to stare in dismay at Shin. Shin just shook his head.

“Protectors of innocent civilians. Gaou isn’t just a dragon,” Shin said pointedly with a dark scowl. After a moment, Sena frowned pensively and nodded.

“He’s a force of nature with no remorse or regret. Is that... is that where we are?” he asked, looking around at the tent he sat in. The cloth walls were tied down so well they didn’t even flap, and several small braziers filled with embers of sandalwood were sitting all around the small space. It gave the whole tent a red glow and a warmth that reminded Sena fondly of his early life with his mother. “We’re with those women?”

Shin nodded again and held out his hand.

Brown eyes darted to the callused hand waiting patiently for his. Hesitantly, Sena lifted his own and, flinching only once, set his hand in Shin’s. Still gentle and patient, Shin helped Sena stand up, his free hand quickly cupping Sena’s elbow until he could steady his colt-like unsteady legs under himself.

“Th-thanks…”

“I’m sorry.”

Sena’s eyes widened and he stared, gawped, at Shin’s stoically frowning face.

“What? If you mean… with Gaou, you were ama–”

“No. Before.” Shin scowled even harder, looking away with a jaw so tense it looked etched in stone. Sena waited, frozen and breathless, disbelieving. “I forced my ideals on you. It was not my place to judge the choices you make. I promised to have faith in you, to believe you had your reasons, but I didn’t.”

“No, Shin, wait, you don’t know…” Sena started, reaching out to grasp the front of Shin’s tunic.

“SENA!” The tent door flapped open and Monta all but jumped in. Sena squeaked and dropped his grip on Shin’s clothes, stepping away and flapping his hands in the air defensively. Fortunately, Monta didn’t seem to notice, just bounded across the tent area to wrap both wiry arms around him. “You jus’ swooned in my arms and then didn’ wake up for days. Don’t scare me like that, Sena!”

Monta punctuated that last demand with a full-body shake that had Sena stammering apologies.

“We weren’t interrupting anything, were we?” said a female voice, teasing and light and young.

Sena blinked and looked over Monta’s shoulder to see a girl the same size as him and Monta. Her hair was the blue-black of cat’s fur, and just as silky looking where it framed her petite face. Her skin was dark from weather and sun, muscles lean and hard. Most of her skin was bare, only some strange kind of trousers that were skintight and cut high above her knee and a thin cloth wrapped around her torso to cover her. Her smirk looked teasing and mischievous, black eyes dancing from Shin’s rigid stance to Sena’s flailing everything. Sena spluttered and flushed hotter, making Monta yelp and finally release him.

“I-I’m s-s-s-s-s-sorry?” he stuttered so badly he sounded like a snake rather than a dragon.

The girl… woman?... only threw her head back and laughed.

“I’m Suzuna. I guess I’m leader of this gang of women outlaws. You’re welcome as guests, just try to keep your hands to yourself. Or we’ll cut them off,” she said it with a pleasant smile, a dark glint at the corner of her eye. Sena gulped. A second later, she chuckled behind her hand. “Though, we won’t need to worry ‘bout that from any o' you, seems like.”

“N-no, of c-c-course not,” Sena agreed, wondering just what she meant.

“Well, you’re awake enough. Get some clean clothes on and come on out. You’re just in time for dinner, sleepyhead,” Suzuna said with a wink and then disappeared.

“Right, mebbe clean up some,” Monta suggested, clapping Sena’s shoulder with a smirk. “You smell like ash and, well, disgustin’.”

“Eh?! I do?” Sena asked, sniffing at himself, tongue licking over his forearm. He immediately cringed. “Ugh, I do.”

“Two days asleep,” Shin reminded him quietly. He ducked through the flap and Sena stared after him wistfully.

“Sena, hurry up. Are ya sleepin’ with your eyes open now?”

“Oh, right, of course. I’ll be out soon.”

Monta waved and snickered, leaving quickly.

Sena hurried to find the water, tepidly warm just from the temperature of the tent enclosure, and scrubbed himself down quickly but efficiently. Satisfied he tasted of fresh scent and soap, he ducked his whole head into the water to wash the oily, matted nest of hair on his head. It was a long time before he managed to finally sidle out of his tent, dripping hair still hanging over his eyes and shoulders, wearing a pair of Monta’s old, patched trousers and a well-worn but well-cared-for blue tunic. He plucked at it, face hot enough to dry any lingering dampness. There was no way it was one of the women’s, not when they all seemed to wear darker, more natural colors, nothing much dyed. And it was too fine to be Monta’s.

And it smelled overwhelmingly like Shin. He hooked it over the bridge of his red nose, breathing fast and deep through his mouth, as he slunk through the shadows of the camp towards the loudest part. Just a few tents away, close enough for him to make out Monta dancing like a lunatic with several other equally wild-looking women, a chill seeped over the ground and over his sandaled feet. He stopped, head jerking up and tongue swiping over his lip. He automatically switched directions and headed for a tent far removed from the festivities. The grass around it was yellow and dead, liberally covered with frost. The heavy material of the tent was crusted with it, beautiful icy flowers blooming almost up to the peaked roof. He shoved the stiff door flap open, shivering slightly as his breath steamed out of his mouth in an ironic mimicry of a dragon’s breath.

Riku sat cross-legged next to the entrance, arms crossed over his chest as well. One eye peeked open and a smirk curled the side of his mouth.

“Meus frater, you’re alive.”

“I’ve been alive!”

“Not for long.”

Sena frowned and shifted awkwardly. “Not long for a dragon, but for a human more than enough.”

Riku scoffed and got to his feet, his movements heavy and slow and very unlike his usual graceful self. His injuries and holding the prisoner in place must be taking their toll. Sena reached out and gripped Riku’s hand.

“I’m… I’m so glad you’re alive, Riku,” Sena said fervently, voice vibrating with his earnestness. "Thank you for risking your life for my sake."

Riku treated him to a rare real smile, his blue eyes brighter and his cheeks frosting. “You did the same for me.”

If you’re just going to stand there being emotional, just kill me.”

Sena jumped, that instinctual fear kicking in until he fought it back down.

A massive, monstrous body sat in the middle of the tent, tied to a pole with ice locking him in place. He looked more bestial than human, but also so far from a dragon, it was grotesque. Sena shuddered away, shoulders high and taut, and heart thudding too fast. His skin had a pale, greenish tinge, but his teeth and nails and hair were all pitch black. The hair itself was a wild mane, falling so shaggy and thick down his back and over his face, it was hard to actually make out his features. He turned towards the door, black teeth bared in a savage grin and green eyes glinting through the shadowed mess of his hair.

I can taste your fear, Red. Where did those flames go?”

“Tace!” Riku snapped. Ice crackled and bloomed around the now chuckling Gaou.

“Where’s m-Marco? Shin said he was going to Kariya, but how?” Sena asked haltingly. Gaou’s smile disappeared, his bulky shoulders hunching forward.

“Some of the women dragged him back to the human city. That selkie? He agreed to take him to your female… Chosen,” Riku grimaced at the word.

“Without Shin or–”

“You couldn’t be moved,” Riku said with a shrug. “Plus, he didn’t seem that keen on dragging you to that pigsty city anymore.”

Sena pressed his knuckles to his mouth, guilt a mass of writhing snakes in his stomach. “He did… he did apologize,” he murmured.

Riku raised an eyebrow. “That’s not important now. Now we have to get rid of… this.”

They both turned to stare at Gaou’s shadowed profile.

“The Elders won’t imprison him there. There’s no such punishment at home,” Sena said, biting his thumb.

“True, but they won’t force me to give this back any time soon, either,” Riku said, holding up something small and black and gleaming. Sena cringed away from the emblem Riku held so casually. He could tell by the way Riku refused to actually look at it, he wasn’t as casual as he was acting. “We send him back and he’ll spend the next few centuries trying to find the damn thing. I know how to hide things well.”

Just get it done with.”

Sena paused, biting his lip. “You know even though they won’t imprison you, they will not make your existence easier once you’re sent there,” he finally blurted.

“You killed dragons, and tried to kill two more who aren’t even fully adult yet. You’re lucky if they don’t kill you on ‘accident’,” Riku added, emblem once more out of sight and arms crossed.

Gaou merely tched and spat his sickly green saliva to the side. It was slower now, less potent in that body, and it took a few seconds more before it started to dissolve the frost it touched.

Riku turned back to Sena, eyes concerned. “Can you… without it…?” he asked quietly. “We can wait an extra few days so I can do it alone.”

“No, it isn’t safe. What’s a few more weeks?”

“It’ll be several months for a transportation incantation,” Riku retorted angrily. Sena smiled sadly and shrugged.

“No one will forgive me when I tell the whole truth anyway. No one will be bothered but me.”

“And me,” Riku said fiercely. He turned away with a scowl and held out both his hands. A soft white glow emanated from them, and Sena quickly held out his own.

Red and white filled the tent as they whispered the soft chant to send Gaou back to the land of their birth. At the crest of the spell, Sena’s eyes flashed gold and Riku’s an unearthly blue that his human eyes could only mock poorly. Gaou let his head fall back, relief and irritation somehow both in his quiet sigh. The ice around his body disappeared the same time he did.

Sena wobbled and Riku’s quick arm around his waist was the only thing keeping him standing.

“Let’s get some food in you, you moron,” Riku said fondly. By the time they made it outside, all the ice was completely gone, not even a puddle left behind, and Riku’s body was only slightly cool to touch.

Sena was on his own two feet and smiling blithely at the many stares suddenly in his and Riku’s direction by the time they made it to the fire.

“We felt the magic. He’s gone then?” Suzuna asked, standing right in front of them and glaring them down.

“Yes. S-sorry, I didn’t think to warn you!” Sena exclaimed, suddenly horrified at his rudeness.

Suzuna just grinned, façade wholly cracked. “I’m glad that beast is gone. For a good long while!”

Around the camp, hoorays and huzzahs echoed and cups clanged in toasts. Riku and Sena were quickly led close to the fire; bowls and spits of meat were shoved into their hands, or even straight into their mouths. Unlike many commoners, these women held no fear for dragons, but instead an amount of respect that people hadn’t shown for decades. For those long years, only royals were ever really Chosens, common folk like Marco had been– were rare. So dragons were either feared or just… something to talk about in stories. Not something real. Sena smiled at these carefree women with their wide grins and fierce personalities, treating him like people used to in his father’s day. Comrade but also something admirable. A being of immense power, but also just a living, breathing, feeling being.

No wonder dragons used to come to the human world in droves, eager to share and learn. 

He turned to see Shin sitting quiet and contemplative, eyes on the fire and hands clasped between his knees. As if sensing his gaze, his dark eyes lifted to meet Sena’s. Across the flames and shadows and people, their glance held.

Me, too, Shin. I’m so sorry.

A body thumped onto the blanket between him and Monta. Monta fell to the side with a yelp and flail of legs while Suzuna leaned in close to Sena. Her big blue eyes blinked and her mouth dropped open slightly.

“Oh, you’re warm. I mean, I knew it, but also didn’t,” she said, tone surprised and a little self-deprecating at the end. She looked up towards the stars and pouted, finger tapping her chin. “Riku mumbled something about you needing fire, but Shin was the one that rounded up all those braziers and the wood for you.”

“Yeah, he never let ‘em cool down. I dunno if he slept more’n a few winks,” Monta agreed, popping back up and leaning his whole weight into Suzuna. She elbowed him away nonchalantly. He dropped to the blanket with a pained grunt.

Sena stared at them, wondering if he should comment on the Shin thing or the Monta thing…

“So, you’re a dragon, with a dragon friend,” Suzuna tilted her head to where Riku was laughing and drinking with a few of the women across the way. He seemed to get along with them much better than he had with any humans previously. Perhaps that aura of other around the majority of them helped? “A farm boy, and a Lance. And you got tangled up in business with Gaou of all people. If I was just judgin’ from the Lance part of your company, I’d say you was the missin’ Shield of the Queen. But everyone knows he’s dead.” She said it cheerfully, a bright and innocent smile on her face. Sena choked on his wine and Monta spluttered loudly.

“We w-were just in the wrong p-place at the wrong time,” Sena said quickly. Too quickly, if that sly look she gave him meant anything.

“Oh, yes, the power of coincidence,” she said sagely with a small nod. Sena’s cheeks heated and he quickly hid behind his horn cup.

“And you?” she asked, rounding on Monta. He squawked in confusion. “What’s your lie, hm? Got a better one?”

“Is it really a lie, though?” Monta asked, trailing off into an awkward laugh and rubbing the back of his neck.

Suzuna and Sena stared at him, unimpressed.

“So, not the missin’ and probably dead Shield of the Queen,” Suzuna started with an arch look at Sena. “Just where are you headin’?”

Sena froze, eyes widening. He dropped his gaze to the dregs of wine, sloshing them slowly. “We were heading to Kariya. I’m not sure…”

“That’s where Scowly-n-Grumpy wanted us t’go. But we do what we wanna, right, Sena?” Monta said, grinning and reaching around Suzuna to slap his back.

Sena grunted, rocking forward, and nodded. “I… I suppose so. I don’t really know where we’re going.”

“Not to Deimon?” Suzuna asked sharply.

Sena shuddered. “No.”

“Good. It’s a nice place for a good tussle,” she said, cracking her knuckles with a smirk, “but it’s no place for a dragon. That man is insane about ‘em. Gotta collect ‘em all or something. At least dragon-hunting isn’t fashionable anymore.”

“Thank the sun,” Sena said fervently.

“Though, speaking on that Scowly-n-Grumpy friend of yours,” Suzuna began innocently, though her eyes glinted, “I offered a tent to each o’you. We got some extra supplies to lend for a few nights. But the Lance turned us down. Spent every night next to your bed. Real devoted fella, ain’t he?”

Sena steamed at the ears. Monta was huffing in annoyance and rolling his eyes, but Suzuna was looking at him, that glinting gaze sharp and curious.

“He was just worried Sena’s gonna wake up and sneak away again. I don’ know if’n he still wants t’drag ya to Kariya, but he ain’t gonna let you just run off ‘fore he decides,” Monta grumbled under his breath.

“Mm, I’m sure that’s it,” Suzuna agreed with a smirk. She stood and stretched her arms over her head with a small moan. “Well, I gotta make sure my girls don’ play too rough with your chilly friend. Go get some sleep, wee lambikins,” she said, leaning down to pat his cheek and pinch it swiftly like a grandmother.

He rubbed his cheek, still flushed and hot, and stared at her back in bemusement. “Lambikins?”

“She’s right, yanno. Go get some sleep.”

“I just woke up,” Sena protested. Only to yawn a second later. Monta laughed.

“Yeah, but then you went and did big magic with dickless over there,” Monta said, pointing a thumb in Riku’s direction. “You aren’ even all healed up and you’re doing good deeds. I can’t believe I didn’ figger out you were a dragon! You can’t keep a secret at all.”

Sena shifted awkwardly. “You just assumed. I didn’t get a chance to lie and… I liked the assumption better than the truth…”

Monta shrugged and leaned back on his hands. His head tilted up to stare up at the stars and the moonlit night. It was so strange for Sena, to sit there, arms wrapped around his knees, and realize two days days had gone by. It felt like just seconds ago he’d held Gaou to the ground with fire, fists clenched tight and desperate to hold hold hold.

“I… I’m sorry. That all I do is lie and lie and run,” Sena said quietly. “You’re the first friend I’ve made who didn’t know me as Sena the Red first. My second human friend ever, really. Even with other dragons, I had hard time making friends. There was always just me and Riku. Me the scared one, and him the brave one.”

“You’re plenty brave, Sena. What you did, to save me, and Shin, and Riku, too, that took guts,” Monta said stoutly. Sena ducked his head, pleased and ears burning. “I… I’m a little mad ‘bout the lyin’, damn did I look stupid, huh? But… you had Gaou hunting you down! And those crazy soldiers from Deimon, too! All you wanted was t’hide. I geddit, I guess,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck again. “I jus’ hope, yanno, you can trust me now?”

“Of course- of course, I trust you! Could you ever trust me?” Sena asked.

Monta met his gaze, eyes serious and onyx black in the night shadows. “I trust ya to have my back. I know you’re not telling me everything, that something’s…. something’s not right. But I know I can trust ya at my back.”

Sena smiled shakily. “Y-You can. I won’t run. Not anymore.”

“Does that mean you’re gonna be Shield again?”

Sena bit his lip and turned back to the flames. “I don’t know. I made that promise… I made that promise when I was so young, and I’m still young. I thought because my father served her family, and because we both lost our fathers at the same time, we were meant to be together. There was so much bravery and goodness in her even as a small child and… and my father had just died. Gaou was called in because Shinryuuji wanted an easy way into Kariya and he… he killed my father seventeen years ago. And then decided to raze Shinryuuji to the ground for trying to use him like a pawn. I thought… I thought since he’d gone away, he'd never come back. When I had to fight him… at a quarter of my father’s age and with an inkling of his experience… I should’ve died a month ago.”

Sena curled tighter around his knees, shoulders shaking. “And if I’d died, my Queen would’ve died. Kariya would’ve descended into despair, and Deimon would’ve been able to roll over the country the same way Shinryuuji had tried seventeen years ago. I failed. Even worse, I fled.”

Monta reached over and clasped his hand over Sena’s shoulder. “You were alone the first time, yeah?”

Sena glanced up, sniffling, and nodded. “I’m… I was the only dragon in Kariya. There was no one to help. Dragon-hunting was outlawed, so no one living had the skills, either. Especially not for a dragon like Gaou.”

“No one’s ready for a dragon like Gaou,” Monta said darkly. Sena laughed wetly and wiped his eyes. “This time, we were there. You were stronger ‘cause you had us, Riku and Shin and me. Doncha geddit? Being brave ain’t about facing fears alone, not always. That’s just the stupid kinda brave that gets people killed, yeah?” Monta said. Sena laughed again.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Monta crossed his arms over his chest and preened. “Course I’m right. Look, now you’ve got friends. Real friends, that’ll fight wit’ya. So, you don’t gotta be so scared anymore. You can be brave with us at your back.”

“You’re pretty smart. Don’t listen to Riku,” Sena said with a kind smile. Monta rolled his eyes.

“I never listen t’Frostbite.” Monta clapped his shoulder one more time. “Now, go get your beauty rest and tomorrow, we can go lookin’ for your rock thingy. It’ll be a fun adventure, right?”

Sena startled, body jerking under Monta’s hand. “What?”

“Your bloom thing. If you wanna use your magic right, or go back to being a real dragon, you need it, right? We’ll figger out where Gaou stashed it and fish it out. You’ll see. We’ll find your bloom in no time.” He chivvied Sena to his feet as he spoke.

“Emblem. The word is emblem, not bloom.”

“I knew it had t’be wrong, why would you be missin’ a flower?” Monta asked with an incredulous and slightly self-mocking tone. He shrugged and shoved at Sena’s back. “You get outta here, ‘fore I tuck you in like a ma.”

“I’m going,” Sena said, throwing up his hands in surrender and smiling. “Thanks, Monta. For everything you’ve done for me.”

“Yeah, yeah, stop beatin’ that dead horse,” Monta said, rubbing the back of his neck and rolling his eyes. A few women walking by glared at him murderously. “What’d I say?”

Sena walked away, shaking his head and chuckling softly. Monta would figure it out eventually. Maybe.

The walk back to the tent being lent to him was serene and hushed. Most of the noise was behind him at the big fire-pit; the singing and laughing and whooping only occasionally echoed through the crooked rows he sauntered through. He yawned just as he recognized the tent ahead. It helped that the Shin was already standing there, arms crossed and familiar scowl on his face.

“It’s strange,” Sena said, coming to stand in front of Shin and lifting his gaze upwards. The quiet grunt the Lance made encouraged Sena to continue, “I haven’t seen the sun in two days? Three days?”

“You’ll wake to it, my lord,” Shin replied simply. Sena nodded and ducked his head, nose scrunched and a chuckle escaping.

“You’ve called me Sena… A few times now.” He glanced towards Shin’s profile, but the knight’s expression never wavered.

“Hn.”

“Um… were you going somewhere…? I’m not keeping you?” Sena asked a little bemused. He’d realized between one beat and the next that Shin had been waiting outside his tent, even though Sena had awoken and was mostly healed. Why was Shin back here?

“I saw you leave and came this way,” Shin answered, tone wry. “I thought perhaps you became lost. I was about to search for you."

Sena barked a quick laugh. “Oh, I might’ve somewhere, but I was just taking the long way. What is it? Did you not get a tent of your own? Suzuna said–”

“She offered again before dinner. However, you’re well enough to leave now,” Shin said, breaking off abruptly to step closer to Sena.

He reached back to pull free the trident strapped to his back. Sena blinked rapidly, nonplussed at the action and wondering when Shin had gotten it and why. He hadn’t had the weapon at the fire-pit. He scrambled back a few steps, eyes wide and hands shaking when Shin lowered himself to one knee, the other knee he lay his free arm over. The trident he set straight and tall at his side. His head lowered and Sena’s breath wheezed low in his chest.

“I wanted to request properly this time.”

“R-request?” Sena squeaked.

“I swear my fealty once more to you, Shield of the Queen, Sena the Red. Allow me to accompany you on the quest to retrieve your emblem.”

Sena’s heart stopped. This was what Monta had been hinting at just minutes ago. They must’ve discussed it while Sena slept and come to conclusion that Sena would set off for his emblem when he was well enough. And then his heart broke, both hands covering his mouth.

Because this brave, honorable man believed in him still. So completely.

And Sena was still a sun-cursed liar.

His knees hit the loam a second later, this time Shin’s eyes wide as he looked into Sena’s wibbly-smiling face. He set his hands on Shin’s shoulders and swallowed hard, trying not to choke on the words he forced out.

“Swear to the Queen, not to me. She deserves your faith so much more,” he said quietly. Shin scowled, his hand tightening around the shaft of his trident.

“Is my vow not good enough?”

“Shin, no! It’s not that at all. No one… no one is a better man, or knight, than you. I could search all of Kariya, Deimon, the Bando Islands, even the distant shores of Pansa. But I’m sure, to the bottom of my heart, that there’s no other man like you,” Sena said sincerely, eyes and nose stinging.

Shin’s mouth tightened, his gaze falling away. “You haven’t forgiven me for earlier.” He nodded. “It’s your right.”

“I forgive you. I forgive you, I promise. It’s not that. You… you only did what you thought was right, and I knew it all along, even though I wanted to hate you for it, and I might’ve at first, I couldn’t for long. I haven’t hated you since… since you got hurt the first time,” Sena told him earnestly.

Shin looked back, the scowl even darker and hurt in a way his injuries had never caused. “I don’t understand why.”

“I…” Sena sighed. “I don’t deserve your loyalty. The Queen needs you more than I do, anyway.”

“The Queen has the entire might of the army and the majority of the Lances protecting her. You have a farmer with more bravery than skill,” Shin pointed out.

“And Riku, too,” Sena said. Shin’s face shuttered closed.

“Of course. You don’t need a knight if you have a dragon,” he said, a note of bitterness in his voice.

Sena frowned. “Are you… upset?”

Shin grunted and got to his feet. “I know when I’m not necessary. I’ll return to Kariya tomorrow. Good luck on your quest.”

Sena flailed to his feet, almost knocking himself into the walls of his tent. Shin had already turned away, long legs taking him away. Into the darkness of the tents.

“Wait! Wait, Shin!” Sena rushed forward, a strange fear like he’d never felt lodged in his throat. Shin wasn’t slowing, and it took a burst of inhuman speed to close the gap and his hand to catch the sleeve of his shirt. “I don’t need a Lance! But I need… I want Seijuuro.”

The knight froze in place, the trident in his hand dipping slightly.

“I miss Seijuuro.”

“Seijuuro was a child.”

“So was I, then. In so many ways,” Sena agreed, his body relaxing when Shin’s did, though his hold on Shin’s shirt remained desperately tight. “So was she. I remember that summer, before you went away, before you came back an unrecognizable man who never smiled or looked my way. When you, me, and… and Mamori had fun together.”

“You were– are the Shield and she is my Queen,” Shin snapped, turning around fast enough that Sena jerked forward, still clutching Shin’s sleeve, and almost slammed right into Shin’s chest nose-first. “I couldn’t go fishing in a garden pond with the two I swore my life to protect.”’

“I was Sena first,” Sena whispered sadly. “I was only Sena. I never was again to anyone else but Mamori. Do you know how lonely it was, to see one of the only friends I’d ever made look at me like a stranger? I thought… we both thought you’d forgotten that summer.”

“Why do you think I returned to be a Lance? I’m an only son of nobles with ties to the throne. This wasn’t the path intended for me,” Shin said, his voice just as quiet. The hand not holding the trident reached forward. Fingers hesitated a hair’s breadth from Sena’s cheek and his eyes lifted to meet Shin’s, lips parting in shock. When Shin remained frozen, a complicated mixture of emotions twisting his features, Sena closed his eyes and gently lay his cheek against Shin’s callused hand. It felt cool against Sena’s too warm skin, rough and steady and Shin’s. Shin cleared his throat. “After the Rebellion, everyone was terrified. I thought the world was a dark, scary place, full of faces I couldn’t remember and potential enemies that would kill us as easily as the King and Shield had been killed. Then, you came, and you made it summer again.”

Sena gritted his teeth, tears building between his quivering lashes, eyes squeezed shut.

“Your father had died. You were all alone in a land recovering from the worst war in centuries, the neighboring country was devastated beyond saving, and yet you made our Queen laugh. You chased butterflies and smiled. You called to me then, as a boy, and I will never forsake that call. Nor regret it. You are my lord, and always will be.”

Tears slipped down Sena’s face, chest and shoulders hitching with each ragged breath.

“I don’t deserve it. I don’t. I don’t deserve you or her, or your faith in me. I’m such a coward. A stupid coward with too much power. How could you have so much faith in me when I have none?” Sena sobbed, hands rising to rub at his streaming eyes, heels of his palms pressing down hard. Stars burst in the rosy-darkness behind his eyelids.

“Let me give you mine.”

The dam broke, and Sena’s last vestiges of composure with it. He slumped forward, hands blindly searching and grasping at the loose fabric of Shin’s tunic. Each sob tore out him. Every terrified minute, every moment of self-loathing, every memory of betrayal and guilt, that long ago grief he’d locked away, it was wrenched from his body like a fist tearing out his anima. Something fell with a quiet thump and two arms wrapped around his waist. For the first time in his life, Sena was held tight against another human’s heart, embraced and protected.

“I th-think… I think this is w-what rove is,” Sena hiccupped.

“Ruhv?” Shin repeated, his breath cool against the crown of Sena’s head.

“r-Love. I love you,” Sena stammered, laughing thickly and rubbing his face against the damp patch on Shin’s tunic.

“That’s a very bad idea.”

“I know.” Sena nodded and sniffled. “b-But I’m p-pretty sure I do anyway.”

“I’ve loved you since I was nine years old.”

Sena blinked, fat drops shaking from his lashes, and he slowly pulled away to look up. “I don’t know if that’s the same thing.”

Shin shook his head. “Not at first. Not then.”

Sena inhaled sharply, mouth twitching upwards. “But now?”

Shin sighed, reached into his pocket, and held out a handkerchief. It was stained ominously in a few places, ragged all around the edge, and a faded blue SS was all what was left of an embroidery of Shin’s initials. Sena flushed so hot the tears on his face dried instantly, the last of them falling onto his cheeks and evaporating almost as swiftly, then quickly blew his nose and mopped at his face. He shoved the filthy cloth in his pocket and moved to step back. A startled squeak escaped when Shin gripped his elbow and reeled him back.

“I’m not a child now.”

Sena stared at Shin’s chest, idly noting how large a wet patch his crying had caused. Surely, that didn't mean what he thought it did. Not from Shin. Slowly, he lifted his head, mouth falling open and his heart leaping. And so did his feet. Shin grunted, stepped back once to catch himself. Sena wrapped his legs around Shin’s narrow waist, mentally thankful he wore neither chainmail nor plate armor, and sunk his fingers into that silky black hair. It tangled around his hands and Shin’s breath was cool on Sena’s lips. Until he covered Shin’s mouth with his own. He tasted like cool summer sunshine and Shin. He held himself too stiff and uncertain under Sena’s desperate kiss, until he sank into it with a sound that burned in Sena’s belly, Shin’s hands gripping his thighs tightly.

“Stay with me again tonight,” he whispered against Shin’s lips. His eyes were dark and opaque when their gazes met.

“That’s also a very bad idea,” Shin replied, voice low and rough.

“It is.” It really really is. “Let’s do it anyway.”

At the very corner of Shin’s mouth, Sena glimpsed a smile. His feet fell to the earth and Shin bent down to pick up his trident. When he was standing again, Sena took his free hand and led him back. Inside the tent was dark, almost pitch black, but it took two seconds to taste the ash on the air and nudge it back to life with a simple thought. Finally they stood next to the pile of furs that constituted Sena’s borrowed bed. He licked his lip once, tasted the faint traces of Shin’s kiss and sweat and scent. Shin’s hand tensed and curled at his sides before he exhaled a small puff of air, and dived for Sena’s mouth. His hands cupped Sena’s face, thumbs brushing his cheeks, as Sena blinked rapidly in confusion. But… it was exactly what he wanted, why ever it was happening, so he closed his eyes with a pleased hum and pushed up onto his toes, eager to get closer.

His fingers pushed at Shin’s tunic, shoving it high enough to get to the thin shirt underneath. Sena plucked at the cloth, tugging it out of the waistband of Shin’s breeches. He got to the bare skin, hands smoothing flat and firm up the ridges of Shin’s stomach. The hands cupping his face slid into his hair, cradling the back of his head, and Shin’s mouth slanted over his. The slow, explorative kisses became faster, with ragged gasps of air between them and quiet sucking sounds when their lips parted. On a whim, Sena darted his tongue across his wet lip, rumbling low in his chest at the taste of them together on his mouth. Thirsty, or hungry, or just craving more, the feelings got all tangled up, and he licked over Shin’s mouth. Shin sputtered, head pulling away, and making Sena whine involuntarily.

“Not like that,” Shin said, wiping at the side of his mouth with his thumb.

Sena blinked dumbly. “But it smells good.”

Shin’s eyebrow rose, looking a little bemused, but he leaned down. “Follow my lead.”

Sena nodded, eyes on Shin’s damp, bruised mouth. This time, Shin licked Sena’s mouth. But just a flicker of his tongue, tracing over the line of his bottom lip. Sena copied the motion, letting his mouth fall open just enough to match Shin’s. He nipped at Sena’s mouth and it sent shivers running down his spine. He eagerly trapped Shin’s lip between his teeth tugging a little and then soothing it with a caress of his tongue. Shin’s hands pressed on his lower back, his mouth slanted hot and fast, tongue thrusting into Sena’s mouth and Sena melted towards the floor, dragging Shin down with him. He could feel the noises echoing in his throat, feel the strands of fur under his back, tickling where his arms and neck were bare, but most of his focus was on the scent and taste of Shin’s tongue and mouth and the sounds Shin made.

His hands shook as he tugged and yanked at Shin’s shirt, desperate to put his hands on skin again. He managed to tear it over Shin’s head, whining when it broke their feverish kissing. He fell back to the bedding, contently humming when Shin’s mouth returned and fit to Sena’s just as eagerly. His body followed next, hips framed by Sena’s knees that fell open easily under Shin’s weight. Their breaths panted humid and warm, and Sena zealously searched out every curve and line of Shin’s stomach and chest with curious fingers and hot palms. Somehow during Sena’s divided attention, Shin’s mouth had gotten away from him. Instead he was licking at Sena’s throat, blunt teeth scraping down the curve of his shoulder.

“W-We can do that?” Sena gasped, trying not to writhe from the feeling burning low in his gut… and not really succeeding if Shin’s hands pinning his hips down meant anything. The raspy, low sound of Shin’s chuckle had him closing his eyes against a full-body shudder.

“Yes.”

“I wanna try,” Sena said, his thankfully still human nails scratching down Shin’s back lightly, the red lines fading almost immediately. He moaned loudly when Shin sucked the small patch of skin into his mouth, teeth not quite biting. A resounding slap echoed in the tent and Shin had to pull away, mouth too red, as heat flooded Sena’s face and neck. Sena’s hand was still over his mouth, keeping any louder noises from crying out of him, and he mumbled from behind his fingers a contrite, “s-sorry.”

“How hot are you going to become?” Shin asked, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth. Thankfully he looked more pensive than angry, or worse, appalled.

“Ah… this is another ‘I’ve never investigated it, so I have no idea’ things,” Sena admitted, his face going scarlet. “Lemme…” He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. He went down to a bright pink, skin still feverishly warm, but not blistering-burns hot. He exhaled again and then smiled sheepishly. “I’ll try my best.”

Shin’s lips quirked upwards, and he brushed his knuckles over Sena’s cheek. “We’ll go slower.” At Sena’s pout, Shin actually laughed. Shoulders shaking, brows contracting in a frown, mouth open and eyes closed, laugh. Just like a kid. That kid.

“Seijuuro,” Sena said, reaching for Shin’s wrists. He paused at the bandages on the one, and felt the heat of a burn beneath. With a small frown, Sena’s hand glowed red. Shin jerked in his grasp, but every lingering ache and scrape was already gone. Including the livid burn Sena had left on him two days ago. “You were in pain and didn’t say anything.”

“They have a healer. The worst of it was gone,” Shin replied, slowly unwrapping the bandage. As he stared at his blemish-less skin, Sena wriggled and pulled his tunic over his head. Dark brown eyes, almost black in the low-light, looked down at Sena, now bare from the waist up.

“Come back?” Sena asked. Shin looked at his wrist again, then leaned down and pressed his mouth over Sena’s. It was sweeter, slower, softer. It relit the heat in Sena’s belly, but kept it low. Simmering and warm, heating him all over gradually.

Shin’s hands and mouth weren’t enough, not when his body was so close and so far, an entire chasm between them. Sena’s arms wrapped around Shin’s back and pulled him down. His chest was cool, but warm for a human, sweat beginning to bead over his skin, from the hollow of his clavicle to the dip of his belly button. The linen of their trousers rasped and the quiet, confused moan Sena let out had the warm coals in his belly beginning to spark. He lifted his hips, chasing the phantom pressure until at last he pressed into the dip of Shin’s pelvis.

“Oh, that’s…” Sena braced a hand against the floor, the other thrown over Shin’s shoulders to hold them as close together as possible even as he ground his cock against Shin. They eyes met, Sena shocked and dazed, and Shin just intense, his dark eyes focused on every twist and curve of Sena’s expression.

“Put your hands around me,” Shin murmured, the flat of his palm on Sena’s belly to hold him still. Sena nodded quickly, doing what Shin asked quickly. He looked down to see the bulge at the front of their trousers, his mouth going dry. He’d never seen humans do this. And while the Flying Ceremony mimicked some aspects of mating, it wasn’t an exhibition of such things.

Shin's hands shook before gently placing his hands on Sena’s hips, tilting him at a slightly different angle. Shin’s body moved, and Sena felt the line of Shin’s erection against his. He panted hard, hands scrabbling over Shin’s slick back. He had to breathe hard through his nose and mouth, shuddering painfully, to keep his temperature down, the friction of their bodies moving slowly together driving him mad, moaning louder as the rhythm gradually increased. Shin’s lips trailed down his temple, touched the corner of his mouth, and then pressed against the still sensitive mark he’d left earlier. Another louder cry was muffled by his own hand, eyes squeezed shut. Ragged and rough, Sena gasped and ground up, rutting arrhythmically with Shin’s motions.

“Sena, look at me. I don’t want to stop. Not yet. Slow down for me, Sena.” Soothing whispers against his ear and hands stroking up and down his sides had Sena slowing down, blinking sluggishly.

“There you are,” Shin murmured against his jaw. Sena smiled, drugged and pleased, nuzzling his cheek against Shin’s temple.

“I heard you. I…I don’t want to stop yet, either. I want to… Can I?” Sena whispered, hands on the ties of Shin’s breeches.

Hesitation. Shin’s forehead resting against Sena’s and he breathed in deep and shuddering. Until hands joined Sena’s, untying the frustratingly slippery leather ties. Shin moved away, sitting up to yank off his boots. Sena sat up on his elbows, bit his lip, and then kicked off the sandals he still wore. Before Shin could finish shoving breeches and underclothes away, Sena had already tossed his much looser clothing aside. He swung over and perched on Shin’s lap before the taller human could see it coming. He stared, bewildered for a short moment, at the small, red-faced Sena sitting on his lap. Sena buried his hands in Shin’s black hair and copied Shin’s earlier kind of kissing, quick enough not to overthink it and lose his confidence while he had it. Lips parted, tongues sliding past and tasting each other’s mouths. Shin stroked up and down Sena’s thighs, rough hands creating a fizzle that pebbled Sena’s bare skin and had him moaning into the kiss.

Those hands guided Sena down and closer, the heat of his skin warming Shin’s and making sweat slid down his neck. The scent of him had Sena’s head reeling, chasing the taste past his mouth, under his jaw, licking at the dip of his throat and sucking a large red bruise over his collarbone. Then, his cock pressed between his stomach and Shin’s, lined up just next to Shin’s.

Sena gazed down, steaming breath puffing over Shin’s chest, watching avidly as Shin thrust up into the damp, hot press of their bodies. Sena’s eyes closed, forehead lying against the curve of Shin’s shoulder, body riding the cautious, deliberate movement of Shin’s. It was too cautious, too leisurely, and Sena’s hands braced on Shin’s shoulders.

With something under his hands, he rolled his hips like they’d done before while clothed. It wasn’t until he realized he could see the flush of heat under Shin’s skin, the bright pinks and reds of their shared fever, that Sena realized his eyes were wide and gold, pupils slitted.

“Sena. Look at me,” The question was hoarse and urging, and Sena was reacting, chin rising, to look straight into Shin’s dark eyes with his too bright, too inhuman eyes. “Don’t hide from me,” he whispered, his thumb swiping under one eye.

“It’s not… It’s all right?” Sena stammered.

Yes,” Shin replied fervently. He tugged Sena down into another mind-numbing kiss.

Their thrusts became erratic, fast and sloppy and slick with clear, leaking fluid and sweat from Shin’s belly and hips. The scent was cloying, intoxicating like alcohol that had Sena’s mind reeling. But it wasn’t enough, something missing and making Sena whimper and writhe on Shin’s lap, nails scratching down Shin’s chest, his belly, up his back, teeth nipping at his mouth and sucking hard on his lips. Shin’s hands smoothed down his back, thumbs settling in the grooves of Sena’s hips, and he quivered like a plucked string on a bow too large for it. He felt like he was fraying down the middle, his very bones twanging. Finally, a hand smoothed over Sena’s lower belly brushing over where a belly button should’ve been, and reached between them. Sena stared down as Shin wrapped that large hand around them both, almost completely. Sena hissed through his teeth, groaning Shin’s name like a prayer, already thrusting into the tight space he’d been needing.

“Sei- Seijuuro,” he breathed again as Shin thrust into his grip with him. The feeling of Shin’s callused fingers, the tight warm-yet-cool grip, the slide of their cocks together had that clear slick coating Shin’s hand, glistening on their bellies and the dark, flushed heads of their cocks. He was repeating Seijuuro’s name, stuttered between yeses and fasters and damp kisses on every bit of skin his mouth could reach, including Shin’s panting, open mouth.

Sparks burst inside his mind, pops and crackles like firecrackers, and his eyes shone a brilliant gold. Faint scarlet limned their bodies like a sheen of sweat while a feverish flush bloomed over their skin from head to toe. He spilled over Shin’s hand and cock and stomach, the scent of himself all over Shin and drawing it out longer. Groaning low and deep, Sena’s torso curled forward, nails digging into Shin’s shoulders. Then, he felt and smelled Shin’s peak and release. Shin smelled like Sena, the taste of him on Sena’s tongue had the words mineminemine chanting in his head.

Or maybe he was chanting it out loud?

Shin’s hands smoothed his hair from his face, mouth pressing over Sena’s even as their mouths moved.

“Yours, Sena. Only yours.”

Satisfied and triumphant, Sena all but smashed his mouth over Shin’s, clumsy and eager to kiss him deeply, tongues hot and wet. They collapsed in an undignified heap on the furs, sticky and slick and flushed pink and red all over (especially on Sena’s end) and sweaty (mainly on Shin’s end). Shin tucked his face into the curve of Sena’s throat, hands stroking up and down his back while Sena rumbled in his chest and buried his nose in Shin’s sweaty hair.

He wouldn’t let himself regret this moment.

Even when it turned to shit later.

 


 

Suzuna stared them down, fists on her narrow hips and eyes squinting.

“I don’t like the idea that I’m forcin’ you outta my camp. You can stay longer, rest more,” Suzuna said at last. Her obvious concern for the two dragons in the company was endearing, really, making Sena smile as Shin shook his head.

“You know we gotta find that emblem ‘fore more crazy villains come after him,” Monta reminded her with a smirk.

“He seems to be a magnet for dubious characters,” Riku said dryly.

“Oi, was that a crack at me?”

“I think it was directed at me, actually,” Shin said, just as dry in tone and utterly stoic.

Sena flushed bright red, hair falling over his face. Riku hadn’t stopped making rude remarks all morning. Since Sena and Shin had left his tent together and obviously, suggestively, covered in each other’s scent. The women in the camp had been whistling at them all morning, too. Thankfully, it went right over Monta’s head. Not thankfully, the good-natured teasing from the women only increased Riku’s foul mood.

Suzuna snickered and rolled her eyes. “Yanno, I’ve got some time on my hands now that the giant monster has been taken care of. I think I’ll come with,” she said decisively.

“Come with? With us?” Monta exclaimed.

“No, with the monster to the dragonlands. Yes, with you! Whaddaya say, Sena? It’s your emblem, your quest. How do you feel ‘bout me joining you?” Her enthusiastic grin and expression had Sena tongue-tied, not wanting to damper her spirits. “You think I’m gonna slow you down?”

“I don’t think that! Of course not,” Sena swiftly and certainly replied.

“All right, then I’m coming!” she said, rubbing her hands together in satisfaction.

“I-Um, I didn’t…” Sena stammered, but she’d already turned her back, the line of coarse, blue-black hair that shadowed her spine peeking from under her hair and the neckline of her loosely hanging chiton.

“I’ll be on a quest for a while, so keep riding south. Keep out of Kariya until you hear from me,” Suzuna ordered. “And no robbing from the rich to feed the poor. I can’t be chasin’ y’all every which way ‘cause you pissed off some bloated noble.”

“You just don’t wanna miss the fun!” argued one of the women with thickly muscled arms and heavily scarred… everything. She was smirking as most of the women laughed, Suzuna included, and the scar at the side of her mouth pulled the expression into something even more mischievous.

“We’ll stay the course. We’ll send a hawk if we notice anything out of the ordinary near Deimon. With Gaou gone, and Marco taken prisoner, there’s sure to be something happening soon,” stated a much more solemn-looking woman. Her long fawn-brown hair fell over her eye, and she wore only a tight binding of cloth around her chest and those same tight breeches Suzuna favored. Despite that, she was fair-skinned and scar-less.

“My thanks, Megu,” Suzuna said, clasping her shoulder and then stepping back. She shivered all over, tossing her hair like a wild mare, and stretched. Sena and Monta scrambled back when a seven-foot-tall centaur was standing where a barely five-foot-tall woman had been. Megu stepped forward to throw over her withers the packs that Suzuna had apparently already gotten ready. She buckled the packs quickly and efficient while Suzuna buckled on her long scythe-like blade, though the hilt was short and fitted to her palm like a sword, as well as hung a quiver full of arrows and shortbow. She turned on her four legs, smiling blithely. “So, are we ready?”

The four men– well, males– exchanged looks. Then, Monta shrugged, Sena chuckled, and Shin and Riku scoffed. Riku scowled and looked away a second later and Sena sighed. He turned back to Suzuna, tipping back his head and shading his eyes to see her grinning smugly down at him.

“Looks like we are, now.”

 

 

With Suzuna, the small group actually had less friction than before and Sena was beyond relieved. Thanks to his “secret” of being a dragon finally completely in the light and Shin no longer “kidnapping” Sena, he was able to run next to the horses with Riku, which did a lot to improve his friend’s mood. Suzuna was teasing, true, but in a less barbed manner than Riku, and had Monta laughing over his saddle horn as she trotted easily next to his stolen horse, which he’d finally gotten around to calling “Flight”. They weren’t sure if the mare was actually responding to the name, but it was better than nothing. (When Monta asked if Suzuna could “speak horse”, she’d kicked him. Fortunately, she’d been more human-shaped at the time.) Shin was…

Shin was quiet. Serene, maybe. He’d returned to his plate armor, his trident strapped to his back, and he kept to the back of the group to have an eye on their rear, especially since the dragons were both faster than horses and centaur, and therefore played scout ahead of the group. Occasionally, Sena fell back to run next to Shin and Oujou. They didn’t exchange many words, but when their eyes met, the looks lingered, a matching, almost hidden smile on their faces. Fleeting and cautious, Sena would brush his hand over Shin’s metal-capped knee, or gauntleted hand, before darting back to the front with his skin too hot and his grin wide and dopey. Until he remembered just why they were travelling, and guilt chewed its way through his gut.

The next few days were spent on the road– or off the road sometimes. Every night ended around a quickly built fire, a map of Kariya and its surrounding territories and countries laid out. Everyone had ideas and plans, charcoal used to mark their path and their next day’s projected route. They asked Sena for as many details as he could remember of the terrible battle over a month ago, only half-listening to his quiet stammers of repeated information.

He’d been in the sky.

It had been north, but not too north, of the capital.

There hadn’t been a salty tang of ocean in air, nor the arid taste of the desert sky.

There may have been some trees or the border of the eastern forest, but not open fields or a lot of farm land.

The river, the Great ChangHe, had been close enough to glimpse. A ribbon of blue in the blurred memories he could dredge forth.

The further south they got, the further into autumn it became. Soon enough, they’d have to go over the mountains that neatly bisected most of Kariya. They also formed a natural barricade between the capital, Kariya, and the small desert territory of Deimon. While they rode against the falling of the season, the nights getting incrementally longer and the days shorter, they also rode towards Deimon and Kariya.

After one such night of arguing over whether cutting through the mountains now, on a less travelled path, rather than waiting to cross with the much larger path into the northernmost border of Kariya city, Sena just closed his eyes and wrapped his arms around his legs. He knew they were no closer to find his emblem than they were almost a week ago when they’d first set out. He would’ve sensed it, whether he wanted to or not, and Riku would have, too. But it was just more empty spaces around them, the Aoishan range looming over their heads in the east. Talk on the main trading route had only been about Deimon, Deimon, Deimon, and the worry over the Queen’s Shield, still missing. Rumors of the attack on Shun Harbor hadn’t yet spread inland, but it wouldn’t be long. Surely having their main trump card overwhelmed would force Deimon’s hand, though. The reputation of the would-be King wasn’t that of a coward, or someone who gives up easily. No, most likely, it would spur him into action. Surprise the people of Kariya just weeks before winter and right after what everyone would believe to be a major loss.

That’s what Shin believed, and Sena couldn’t help but agree. Especially when he remembered those centurions… Sena shuddered and pressed his eyes to his knees.

War. War was still going to come, with or without Gaou and Sena.

Next to him came the sound of quiet footsteps. They paused, and then the body attached settled on the ground beside him. It could only be Shin, with that height and breadth, and Sena turned his head enough to peek with one eye. Shin was looking down at him, silent and pensive. Sena flushed and ducked his head against his knees again, sighing softly at the gentle, warm-but-cool touch of Shin’s bare hand to Sena’s shoulder. He was almost always in his armor these days, sleeping with his back to a tree and a trident at his side. While Sena somehow ended up squished between Suzuna and Monta, both unconsciously snuggling closer to his natural warmth in their sleep, he still felt bereft.

They’d only slept together that once, but he did. He missed that moment of waking, with Shin’s bare chest pressed to his cheek and the sound of his heartbeat loud as a drum in his ears. The protective weight of an arm around his waist and silky hair tickling his temple and the corner of his eye.

He shouldn’t have done that. How stupid.

He wanted to do it again, though.

“You’ve been quiet. Every night, you’ve become more withdrawn,” Shin said, yanking Sena out of his embarrassing remembrances. Back to the land of reality.

“Because Kariya is huge,” Sena said, voice muffled by his thighs. “I was flung clear across it when I… when I was separated from my emblem. For all we know, it was flung into the sea and now it’s sunk to the bottom completely out of our reach. Even Riku couldn’t do it. He’s a White, not a Blue.”

“Isn’t faith in us enough?”

Sena flinched. Slowly, he rose his head and met Shin’s serious gaze. “Sei– Shin, I didn’t mean it like that.”

Shin nodded slowly. “I know you didn’t, but that is what it sounds like. That is… what it feels like.”

Sena’s eyes tightened at the corners, mouth flattening, at the quiet hurt in his voice. “What am I supposed to do, Shin? I… I’m not even sure I want to find it.” It wasn’t a lie, but it also was.

He wasn’t unsure, he was certain. But how would Shin look at him…?

At first, Shin didn’t. His eyes stayed on the fire, where the other three sat and joked around, meat grilling and apples roasting for dinner. Suzuna leaned away from the meat side of the fire, nose crinkling occasionally in disgust, and Riku was already laid out on his back, full from his solo hunting earlier. Monta was the one checking on the food between wild gesticulations and gusty bellows of laughter.

“No one wants to face a war,” Shin said at last. Sena jerked a little, then looked up quickly. “No one wants Shinryuuji to happen again. Wanting won’t delay the inevitable, though. You made a vow, I made one, too. Part of that vow is to protect all the people living under the Queen’s protection. People like Monta and his mother, like all those innocent lives that were lost in Shun Harbor.”

Sena inhaled sharply, the images of Shun Harbor’s buildings falling and the almost continuous screams replaying in his mind. The mob at the city gates, the desperate people that ran down the road on foot with only the clothes on their backs, some with children holding tight to their hands or held against their chests.

The first casualties of the war that hadn’t happened yet.

“I’m the reason all those people died. However many there were, all their deaths are my fault. Even with my emblem… even as a dragon again, won’t it just mean more dead on account of me?” Sena’s fists curled tight. “You can label them enemies, but whatever they’re called, they’re still lives. Living beings fighting for what?” Sena snapped, eyes flashing angrily. “I am not a weapon. And I… I can’t kill them. I couldn’t even kill Gaou and he killed my father.” He snorted quietly. “Well, if I had been able to, I wouldn’t have. He made it easier by completely overpowering me anyway.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying,” Shin said after a moment. Sena looked up to see the confused scowl on his face. “You made a vow. Whatever the consequences, you have to fulfill the vow you made, just as I do.”

“What if… what if I don’t want to…?” Sena whispered.

“It doesn’t matter what you want.”

Sena flinched and laughed, harsh and short. “I guess it doesn’t. Don’t you ever regret choices you’ve made?”

“I don’t let myself. Regret is useless,” Shin said with a shrug. “You can’t change the past.”

“What about… me? Don’t you regret that?” Sena asked, ears burning and cheeks hot. “It’s not very Lance-like of you to sleep with the Shield.”

“Perhaps not,” Shin said quietly. Sena’s eyes fell closed, heart squeezing tightly. Then, Shin’s hand moved up his back, sliding over the curve of his shoulder to brush the back of his hand to Sena’s red cheek. He couldn’t help his natural instinct to press closer to Shin’s hand, rumbling deep in his throat. “However, I don’t regret it. My motives to be a Lance have always been less than altruistic.”

Sena smiled, peeking through his bangs and meeting Shin’s unabashed gaze. “Yeah?”

“I told you many times now, my motive was always to serve you, my lord.”

That was not part of the fealty vows you made,” Sena said, blushing redder at his own daring. Shin actually looked away, hand over his mouth and eyes crinkling at the corners. And… and his cheeks… were his cheeks pink? “You’re blushing!” Sena exclaimed breathlessly. He chuckled and leaned closer, reveling in how close he could get with Shin’s armor finally gone.

“We should get dinner,” Shin muttered, shifting as if to get up.

Sena quickly threw his arms around Shin’s middle and hid his face against Shin’s shoulder. “Not yet, please, Seijuuro. Can you… Can you hold me like you did then? For just a minute?”

He could feel Shin’s hesitation and his heart rate speeding slightly, as Sena held his breath to wait. Thankfully, Shin re-settled on the ground and both his arms wrapped around Sena’s shoulders. One hand cupped the back of Sena’s head and the faint rasp of his stubble scratched the curve of Sena’s ear.

“For just a minute,” Shin agreed, his voice less than a whisper.

Sena wriggled closer, almost crawling right into Shin’s lap, and rumbled contentedly at the familiar scent and cool human warmth of Shin’s body.

It wasn’t fair that this could be his last chance. That he couldn’t have made different choices in his past, couldn’t make different choices now. That he couldn’t just give up everything and keep Shin at the same time. If Sena didn’t get his emblem back and return as the Shield, he could lose Shin. But getting his emblem back and becoming the Shield meant losing Shin the Lance anyway. And maybe even…

Sena’s fingers dug into Shin’s tunic and he pressed his damp eyes against the rough cloth.

He could lose Shin in that war, if they went back. If only this wild goose chase for the very thing he didn’t want never ended, then he could keep Shin, and keep him safe, too.

Sena pulled away just enough to meet Shin’s eyes. “No matter what happens, I just need you to know… that I trust you. That I believe you’re a good man, a better man than I deserve. It’s all I have to give you, for all your faith in me.”

Shin frowned, eyes tracking over Sena’s sad smile and dark eyes. “I do not think I like what you’re not saying.”

Sena just smiled, cupped Shin’s face in his hands, and rose up on one foot, half-kneeling, to press his mouth to Shin’s stern frown.

When I let you down, at least I’ll have these moments to remember.

 

 

Just two days later, the group finally turned towards the mountains. The Aoishan were immense, the peaks covered in snow all year round and their shadow stretching far in the late morning this side of the range. There were very few easy paths through, most filled in by avalanches or rock slides soon after they were created. In the depths of winter, the only viable passage was on the Great Road that led straight into Kariya.

Any further south of that pass was Deimon.

The moment Sena set foot on the Aoishan pass, a shiver ran down his spine. He gasped, hands clutching his chest, and fell to his knees. Riku and Monta were both at his side in seconds, them being the closest, while Suzuna and Shin immediately readied their weapons and wheeled around, Oujou and Suzuna’s hooves churning little rocks from the dirt.

When Sena looked up, brown eyes glowing a faint yellow, Riku’s eyes flashed an iridescent blue as he nodded.

“What’s goin’ on? You okay, brother?” Monta asked, trying to get a better look at where Sena was still clutching his chest.

“N-nothing’s wrong, Monta,” Sena said reassuringly. “I’m not hurt.”

“Then, what the hell happened?” he demanded in confusion.

“His anima. It was near here,” Riku answered. Sena dropped his gaze to the ground, color leeching from his face while the other two approached, weapons away.

“We’re on the right trail at last?” Suzuna asked, clapping her hands and grinning gleefully. “I thought I’d have to end up in that disgusting city before we found it.”

“Hey, Kariya is the most beautiful place in the world!” Monta protested, helping Sena to his feet.

Suzuna sniffed dubiously. “Have you actually been there?”

“Uh, well, no, but I heard ‘bout it!” Monta said defensively.

“Creatures like us have a different idea of what is beautiful,” Riku told Monta with an eyeroll. He turned to Sena. “Are you good to run again, or will you need to ride?”

Sena gnawed his bottom lip and shook his head. “I’d rather run. I’m not the best rider,” he decided.

“No, you’re not,” Shin agreed, leaning forward on his saddle horn. When Sena looked up, there was that almost softness to his features that showed his own subtle teasing. It had Sena scoffing under his breath and dusting off his trousers. “Would you prefer to lead us, my lord?”

“You really need t’stop with the lord thing. It’s real creepy,” Monta muttered, going back to Flight the stolen horse and swinging– rather ungainly– back into the saddle.

Sena shook his head, hiding a smile at Monta’s words. “I can’t get a clear enough sense of it. It’s more…” he glanced over at Riku for help, who was also frowning pensively.

“It’s like residual traces of it. As if it had… passed through here,” Riku tried to explain, nostrils flaring and tongue flicking over his bottom lip as Sena nodded, just as bemused.

“Do ya mean it can get up and walk around without you?” Suzuna asked, puzzled.

“Of course not,” Sena and Riku said at the same time, identical frowns on their faces.

“Perhaps while it was falling…?” Sena muttered to Riku. Riku rubbed his mouth, a human quirk that he must’ve picked up from Shin without realizing it.

“Perhaps. Let’s just follow the pass. Hopefully I’ll get a clearer feeling for it the closer we get,” Riku suggested.

“All right. We’ll lead together?”

“Wait, why Riku? It’s your emblem thingy. Shouldn’ you feel it better?” Monta asked, bewildered and annoyed.

Sena shrugged, already following Riku towards the front. “Not as I am now. Separated from my emblem like this means I would have to expend magical energy to pinpoint it exactly. Riku, all White dragons, have an innate sense for magical and supernatural entities, including other dragons and creatures in general.”

“He can feel its presence, but he can’t pinpoint like I’m able to. Well, as I should be able to,” Riku muttered, something like concern tightening his features. It cleared away a minute later, a confident smirk replacing it. “Let’s go then. Maybe the mortals behind us can keep up.”

Sena grinned. With a brief wave behind him, he chased after Riku, dust flying as they left their group behind in seconds. He’d barely heard Suzuna’s irritated yell at being lumped with the humans before the wind was whistling over his ears.

This. This Sena missed during his time of pretending (poorly) to be only human. The unfettered speed he could push this small body into having without expending magic. Riku was running almost leisurely, eyes sharp on their surroundings but body moving languid and smooth around objects in his path and over the rocky terrain. Sena, however, was a rapid mad dash from here to there, jumping over large stones, darting from side to side, laughing and apologizing to the wild birds he’d startled out of their nests as he blurred past. It was almost like flying again. Not quite, but the closest approximate he could get. They skidded to a stop just a few leagues later, both still thrumming with unspent energy, ready to bolt again.

“You feel it, right?” Riku asked, turning to Sena.

Sena nodded once. “It’s… it’s getting stronger, but there’s something wrong with it. As if someone is…”

“As if someone is trying to mask it,” Riku finished, frowning darkly.

“But who? Almost everyone thinks I’m dead. Even the people of Shun Harbor have no idea how Gaou was defeated or Marco captured. Captain Shun didn’t even know my identity,” Sena said, gnawing on his thumbnail.

“If Gaou knew, maybe that sand ape from the demon place knew, too. He must’ve sent out others,” Riku pointed out. His eyes narrowed, blue eyes suddenly icy in their shine. “What about those first two?”

“First two?” Sena’s head tilted to the side. “Oh, the… Yamato… He knew… but how could they find my anima?” Sena asked, eyes wide and pupils dilating to pinpricks. “Riku, if they found it–”

“It’s just a theory, Sena. There’s no proof! It could just be because of these confounded mountains,” Riku quickly tried to soothe, hands clasping Sena’s shoulders as his breath went high and shrill, heart pounding too swiftly. 

“b-But you can’t figure out where it is, Riku. Someone has to be hiding it,” Sena gasped through chattering teeth.

Riku’s fingers dug into Sena’s shoulders, shaking him just enough to force Sena’s eyes up to meet his. “Hey, if they were really hiding it, we wouldn’t be able to sense it at all, right? Calm down, meus frater. You know we’ll help you.”

Sena closed his eyes, slowly breathing in deep and slow. He nodded slightly. “Riku, there’s something… there’s something I need to tell you. Something really important.”

Riku’s eyebrow rose.

“I… I didn’t…” Sena clutched the front of his shirt, his face paling and eyes darting shiftily everywhere but Riku. He licked his dry lips and croaked, “I didn’t go loo–”

His whole body pulsed the same time he tasted it on his tongue.

The scent of fire and dragon.

Riku’s eyes flashed glacial blue, frost painting the edges of his jaw and throat as his teeth sharpened to fangs.

Sena whimpered, blood pulsing like a giant brass bell slowly ringing. He fell to his knees again, his hands clutching at his chest as he gasped and wheezed. In his ear, he heard a voice, almost seductive its in cadence, calling for him. Whispering his name over a glowing ember that was his anima.

“Sena! Sena, where is it? Sena, look at me!” Riku’s voice was screaming in his ear, voice rough and hoarse. Fear. Riku’s voice was filled with fear.

Someone was holding Sena’s soul in their hand and Riku was terrified.

“Please, Sena, look at me!”

Hoofbeats pounded distantly in Sena’s mind, cries of more voices surrounding them where they knelt on the dirt. But none of the voices matched the one in Sena’s head, cajoling and triumphant, egging Sena onto his feet. He stumbled forward blindly, but a hand on his wrist kept him in place.

“Sena.”

He winced, clawed nails tearing through his linen tunic. He stepped forward again.

“Sena, stay with me.”

“S-Sei…” Sena choked, that deep pulse striking into his very bones.

“Where’s it at? You said you’d pinpoint it!” Monta yelled at Riku.

“I can’t hear anyone near by. How close do they haveta be?” Suzuna asked, the helpless fury evident in her tone.

“I don’t know! I’ve never known a dragon whose anima was stolen!” Riku snarled as the temperature around them dropped to arctic levels and ice spread from beneath his feet.

“Sena,” Shin said his name quietly, so quietly the others didn’t even turn, still arguing amongst themselves, fear and anger lacing every word. “Sena, tell me where it is.”

“I… I don’t know,” he panted out, wincing with every gong of the bell in his body, every whisper of his name against stone.

“He can’t move like that, and you can’t just carry him ‘round, Lance. We should be expectin’ an ambush,” Suzuna said, dark eyes still scanning the pass around them. She fingered the curve of her bow threateningly.

“An ambush?” Monta exclaimed while going for Flight and the bo-staff he’d left tied to the saddle.

“They won’t need an ambush if they can just bend Sena to their will,” Riku seethed.

Sena whined, taking two small shaking steps forward as the voice grew more demanding. “Shin!”

Shin’s arms wrapped around Sena, pinning him in place where he stood. With a relieved sigh, Sena sank back against Shin’s chest and focused on the sound of his heartbeat. Something was finally loud enough to drown out the sound of the insistent voice saying his name.

“... how is Shin doing that?” Monta asked, eyes squinty and curious.

Riku froze, eyes wide and shocked as he stared at Sena. “You didn’t. That’s impossible. You can’t have.”

Sena gulped painfully, face going red.

“We all know they had sex. What’s that gotta do with Seijuu being able to stop… whatever that was?” Suzuna asked bluntly. Monta yelped and flapped his hands around while Riku hissed dangerously.

“I’d appreciate focusing on the current emergency rather than my private affairs,” Shin said with a scowl towards Suzuna. She looked away with cheeks a little flushed and expression contrite.

“It’s not about that. Who cares about that. That’s just his physical body, his human one at that. It isn’t possible to have two,” Riku said, striding towards Sena who fidgeted awkwardly and tried not to shrink even more against Shin.

“I… I think Shin’s right about the focus…”

“You’re not weaseling out of–”

“Watch out!” Shin yelled, the same time, Riku turned towards the mountains to their right.

All at once, Suzuna spun on four hoofs, the twang of the arrow leaving the bow echoing in the narrow pass. Steel chains whirled through the air, Shin curled over Sena’s body the same time the pulsing gong struck Sena, eyes rolling back and legs turning to jelly. His sudden almost faint had Shin stumbling, unable to dodge with his usual speed, and Riku leapt in front of the chains with eyes glowing and claws extended. Monta barely managed to pull his bo-staff free before a whistle pierced the air and Flight took off.

There was a snick at the cuffs on the chains locking around Riku’s wrists. He snorted, unimpressed, arms tensing as he readied to pull them apart. They shined a familiar bright pink and he screamed a dragon’s fury as steam sizzled upwards from his skin under the cuffs.

“Riku!” They all shouted.

“Don’t worry about me. They’re coming,” Riku said, fangs gritting and cutting at his bottom lip before retracting, eyes fading to human blue.

Everyone turned to see two figures, one tall and broad and familiar, the other slender and new, walking down from the shadows above. From the road came the clatter of hooves and three horses appeared, one of which was none other than Flight, who carried a rider with hair as silver as her mane.

“You two bastards,” Monta spat furiously.

“And a lady. A pounaika,” Suzuna said with a smirk, eying the woman that walked beside Yamato.

Her fair blonde hair was feathery and light, almost white in the late afternoon sun. It fell in wisps around her ethereally beautiful face, escaping from the thick braid that lay over her shoulder. Her lips were glossy and her eyes a pretty hazel that glinted amber when the sun struck them just right. She moved like a dancer, weightless and graceful, even as she pressed her knuckles to her glossy mouth and frowned in concern.

“It’s hurting him, Yama. Must I keep the enchantment going?” she asked, rather fretfully, her eyes on Riku.

“Karin, if you release the enchantment, he’ll become a full dragon not under our control. We’d like to prevent repeating past mistakes,” Yamato said with a little sigh, patting the slender woman lightly.

“They’ve gained a centaur during the interim. We’ll have to adjust accordingly,” Taka said as he approached, his crossbow pointing towards Monta. His eyes narrowed, the nasty yellow and green bruise around his eye and across his temple stark against his fair complexion and hair.

“I don’t like bein’ talked ‘bout like I ain’t here,” Suzuna growled, rear legs shuffling over dirt, but aim unwavering from Yamato’s chest.

“Sena, come here,” Yamato said, ignoring Suzuna, ignoring everyone, to look straight at Sena.

“It’s him,” Sena blurted in horror, already stepping forward. Shin’s heels dug into the dirt and his forehead pressed against the back of Sena’s head.

“Don’t.”

Sena quivered on a knife’s edge, clawed nails digging into the steel of Shin’s armor, eyes fixated on Yamato’s right hand.

“Interesting. Karin, I thought you said the spell was infallible,” Yamato asked, smirk never leaving his face even as his eyes tightened at the corners.

Karin’s head tilted to the side, eyes wide and unblinking, hair like feathers against her cheek. Pounaika. A bird-woman. No wonder her magic was powerful enough to contain a dragon. As long as another wasn’t around to help, anyway.

“It should be infallible. That isn’t his Chosen human, so he shouldn’t be able to hold the dragon back. How surprising,” Karin said, blinking those big doe-like eyes and tapping her lips.

“Okay, that’s it. Whatever you’re doin’ to Sena, stop it! It ain’t workin’ and we’ve got better things t'do than deal with your crap again!” Monta demanded, holding the bo-staff in both hands and pointing it straight at them.

“You won’t dare deny he’s the Shield now, will you?” Yamato asked, that infuriating smile never faltering as he stepped closer.

Suzuna and Monta shifted, weapons lowering defensively, as Riku hissed like a cat, but more ineffectual. Even just trying to regrow his claws had the magic on the manacles glowing and burning deep into his flesh. Shin’s arms loosened just slightly, his focus moving toward Oujou and the trident he’d left there.

Sena slithered free, stumbling and running towards Yamato, hands outstretched and eyes shining yellow.

“Sena!”

“Stop him!”

Monta’s bo-staff swished through the air, swept Sena’s feet out from under him, and knocked him to the dirt.

“I’m so sorry, Sena, are you okay?”

“Just. Fine.” Sena spat out dirt and blood from where he’d bitten his tongue and wiped at his mouth. He forced himself to his hands and knees, wobbled, then sank his fingers into the dirt. “He’s got it. He’s got my emblem.”

“It wasn’t that difficult to find,” Yamato said cheerfully. With his thumb, he flipped an almost flat stone into the air. Everyone watched as it gleamed crimson before disappearing in Yamato’s fist once more.

“Karin was the one that found it, Yamato. Don’t take credit for yourself,” Taka said dryly. Karin eeped and flushed faintly pink, hands on her cheeks.

“I… I just used a spell! I didn’t really do anything too impressive,” Karin tried to protest modestly.

“You were able to track down the anima of a dragon. That’s a powerful spell,” Riku said, growling and baring his teeth. Karin stepped back, hands clasped behind her back.

“Enough of this. We have your dragon under our control. We’re leaving,” Taka said shortly, looking more annoyed than worried.

Yamato nodded and stepped forward, holding up his fist. “Come here, Sena.”

“N-No,” Sena stammered, crying out in pain a moment later.

“You can’t fight it,” Yamato said condescendingly.

“Mebbe he can’t, but we can,” Monta retorted, stepping in front of Sena and holding his staff horizontally across the front of his body.

“He’s not alone, so pay attention,” Suzuna snapped, more like a wild cat than a centaur.

Shin made it to Oujou and slid his trident free, cloth covering the prongs falling to the dirt. “You owe me a fair match, centurion of Deimon.”

Yamato’s smirk grew into a grin, almost boyishly delighted. Taka and Karin sighed wearily. Karin’s hand glowed pink, Riku roared, and Sena watched as, all at once, they all rushed towards each other.

Shin’s trident clanged against Yamato’s shortsword, crossbow bolt and showbow arrow whistled through empty spaces Suzuna and Taka had just been in, and Monta yelled as he darted towards Karin. Bright pink energy surged, throwing Monta back against Suzuna’s side, who barely managed to dodge another bolt. Riku’s eye flashed blue, skin sizzled like meat on the fire, and he ran forward when the pink aura faded. A whip cracked through the air, Karin’s face one of blank concentration as the whip she suddenly held slashed across Riku’s face, catching the corner of his eye. Sena struggled to his feet, mouth hanging open and breath wheezing. Shin and Yamato were moving so fast they were blurs, literal sparks dancing in the air when their weapons clashed.

A bolt flew past Suzuna’s head and Sena glared at it, watching it burst into flames midair. He panted, bile churning in his stomach, but searched out another way to help. His narrow-eyed gaze fell to Karin next, scowling at the whip until it began to smoke and smolder. Sena gagged, piercing pain spearing him behind his right eye while Karin cried out wordlessly. She doused the flames with her pretty magic, but her concentration broke just enough for Riku to dart in, both fists cutting towards her barely protected stomach. His fists hit a wall of pink and he flew over the ground, groaning against the dirt and flesh burning enough for the scent to coat the air. Suzuna pulled Monta up onto her back, forcing Taka to dodge staff blows as well as strikes of her scythe-blade. The thin-blade of his rapier glinted dangerously, he and Flight (or whatever the horse’s name was) dodged expertly together, almost as if they were a centaur themselves.

But worst of all was the fury of Yamato and Shin’s battle still going strong, neither giving way. Both had dents and rents in their armors, both with hair sticking to their foreheads with sweat, and both intently focused on the other. Shin’s scowl was the fiercest Sena had ever seen, Yamato’s smirk more a grimace. Riku was trying to throw himself through Karin’s mage shield, Monta and Suzuna were nicked with cuts and scratches from the rapier, and Shin was all contained violence and strength, meeting Yamato blow for blow.

Bile tore at Sena’s throat, eyes and nose stinging, as he raised his head and stared at Yamato.

“r-Resp-piro f-flammas,” Sena croaked, eyes glinted gold. His mouth opened wide and ruby red flames streamed through the air.

As though feeling the heat of it, Shin dropped to the ground. It ruffled his hair, burning away the tips to ash, scoring the metal of his armor like a forge fire. Yamato’s arm came up to cross over his face, sword barely still in one hand.

But the other hand glowed the same ruby as the flames. Sena broke off, coughing and gagging. Flames burnt the edges of his mouth, eyes streaming and saliva pooling in his mouth before he vomited over the dirt.

“Do you know nothing, Sena the Red?” Yamato asked, holding up the hand that shined crimson.

Despite the burns he must have under the metal, Shin moved quick as a snake, trident coming up to brace its forked points against Yamato’s throat.

Yamato froze, hands held high, as his two companions also hesitated. Riku darted into the opening and took Karin down to the ground, his hands pressing against her throat. She held up her hands in surrender, face as white as the feathers in her hair. While Suzuna knocked Taka’s hand so hard with the flat of scythe that he dropped his weapon, Monta catching it in a feat of agility and balance completely unexpected before levelling Taka’s own sword at the man’s nose.

Yamato… just threw back his head and laughed.

Sena got to his feet, rubbing at his mouth with his fist, footsteps wobbling and stumbling, vision spotty.

“You’ve been using too much magic without your emblem, Sena the Red. Do you feel it? All your years leaving you?”

Shin’s hands tightened around the trident.

“What the curses is he talkin’ ‘bout?” Monta snapped, hand unwavering and eyes never leaving Taka.

“Oh, you didn’t know? Surely this one knew. Didn’t you, ice dragon?” Karin asked, incredulous. Riku merely snarled.

“Y’all are at our mercy. Stop dillydallyin’, Sena, and take the emblem back,” Suzuna urged.

Yamato grinned, but it was Taka who answered.

“Dragons who use their magic without their anima use their life force instead. Your friend has been killing himself,” Taka said, drawling and indifferent. Monta’s hand actually wavered, but not enough for Taka to try to take the rapier back.

“What?” Shin gritted.

“It’s true. And he’s been trying to fight me this whole time. I wonder what fighting the call of your own soul is doing to you, Sena. Taking two years instead of just one? Five?” Yamato taunted, eyes glinting dangerously. “I don’t know how you’re fighting it, but you can’t cast your spells at me and expect to hit.”

“Just take the damn emblem back, Sena!” Riku exclaimed.

Sena stood on the road, panting and ashen, mouth burned and stained with drool, tears streaming down his face like sweat.

“You’ll have to kill me to take it back,” Yamato said, iron in his words.

Shin scowled, muscles tensing. Shin wasn’t one to take a bluff, and if it meant helping Sena–

“Don’t!”

The word echoed against the sides of the mountains. Sena panted, chin dropping as his head bowed, defeated.

“What’re–” Monta started.

“Don’t kill anyone. Please, just… I don’t want anyone to die. I never wanted anyone to die,” Sena said, hands curled into fists in front of him.

“He has your emblem, he’s an enemy of Kariya!” Shin protested.

Sena almost shrank, shoulders tight around his ears and body trembling like a child.

“He only has it because… because I… didn’t want it,” Sena said at last. The final secret leaving his mouth, and leaving him empty without its heavy, poisonous weight inside him.

“Sena…” Riku whispered, voice shaking and catching.

Sena flinched at the betrayal he heard in that single utterance of his name, head still bowed. “I… I did. It wasn’t Gaou. I tore my emblem out. When… when Gaou found me the first time, a month ago… I had been running away.”

His shoulders shook, sobs hitching every other breath.

“I was never brave. I was never the Shield of the Queen. The moment I realized we’d face war, that we’d face Gaou in that war, too, that I’d have to kill or… or be killed… I ran away. Gaou caught me running and almost killed me. I tore my own emblem out of my body, I cast it aside to hide as a human.”

Sena finally looked up, features twisted and grey with shame. Not even his eyes glowed as he looked at Yamato.

“If it wouldn’t kill my Queen, I would tell you how to destroy the thing,” Sena said, words fierce and broken.

“Sena, no,” Suzuna whispered, eyes wide and sad.

Monta dropped the rapier to the dirt and looked away, hair shadowing his face.

Riku slowly got to his feet, stepped back, and his head bowed like Sena’s as frost crept up his body.

Shin’s trident didn’t waver, but his eyes…

They bored straight into Sena’s gaze, piercing him like a lance straight to Sena’s heart. The disappointment there tore Sena to shreds, leaving him bare to the core, naked and vulnerable in the same way his first moments being human had been.

“Destroying an emblem… that’s a little beyond me right this moment,” Yamato said slowly. “But you will come with me, Sena, back to Deimon and King Hiruma. He’s missing a dragon.”

Sena snarled, eyes flashing gold for a quicksilver second.

“No. I’m a coward, but I will not be a weapon for someone else. If you can’t kill me, then you’ll let me and my friends go.”

Yamato’s confident demeanor finally broke. His hand curled tightly around the stone in his hand. Sena winced, crying out and falling to one knee. Despite his betrayal, despite his confession, all four of his companions moved towards him, concern and bewildered fear on their faces. Karin’s magic burned the manacles on Riku’s wrists, dropping him to his hands and knees. Taka suddenly had his arm around Monta’s throat, dragging the smaller man right off Suzuna’s back to dangle him over the ground and pressed against Taka’s chest, a thin, deadly stiletto just under Monta’s ear as the centurion glared Suzuna’s shortbow down.

Only Shin wasn’t recaptured, instead he tightened grip on Yamato’s wrist and placed the trident to his throat. The gladius was jabbed against the pit of Shin’s arm, there the plates gaped and only chainmail lay in Yamato’s way. An impasse again.

“Why won’t it work? I have your soul, you should be doing as I say. How can you still be fighting me?” Yamato seethed, enraged that his perfect plan wasn’t unfolding as he'd envisioned.

Sena shrugged, eyes on the ground. “Because it's not mine.”

He looked up slowly to Shin, whose stoic, blank mask refused to soften. Still looking at him as though seeing a stranger. The emblem in Yamato’s hand flashed and then burned out, the light inside darkening to almost black.

“That doesn’t belong to you, Yamato. And it doesn’t belong to me, either,” Sena whispered, eyes unmoving from Shin's face.

“Sena,” Shin said, voice quiet and stern. Sena shuddered, feeling flayed raw at the utter nothing in his tone. “Take the emblem back.”

Wind whipped through the air, stinging eyes and skin.

Yamato jerked back as Sena, eyes blazing gold and hands clawed, suddenly appeared in front of him. One hand knocked aside the gladius and the other wrapped around Yamato’s hand that held the flickering red stone. Shin rolled out of the way, trident falling to the dust, as Yamato shouted in pain, falling to a knee as Sena’s clawed hand crushed Yamato’s fist around the stone. The moment Yamato was off-balance, eyes squeezed tight and pain heavy in the air, Sena shifted his grip to Yamato’s wrist and twisted.

The stone dropped from his limp grasp as he screamed.

Sena immediately backed away, his arm over his mouth and features an ashen young man’s instead of a furious dragon’s. The stone blinked weakly in the dirt as Yamato wheezed painfully, clutching his broken wrist to his chest. Sena stared at the emblem on the ground, terror in every shaking limb. Silently, Shin reached over and picked up the emblem. He slowly got to his feet and turned to Sena.

He glanced up, arm falling to his side. Shin held out the emblem, that blank face gazing down at him.

“You’re not who I thought you were,” he said simply.

Sena swallowed hard around the knot lodged in his throat, chest too tight and body too cold. “I… I told you I was a m-mistake.”

Shin hesitated, dark eyes tracing Sena’s drawn features. Then, he picked up Sena’s hand and set the stone there. It lit up crimson and a blazing light the same molten color washed over Sena. He gasped, eyes closing and head tilting back.

When he opened his eyes, his emblem was gone, safely back inside him.

And Shin was walking away.

 

The aftermath of the battle was… quiet. Sena freed Riku with his restored power. Karin wrapped Yamato’s wrist, and the three Deimon citizens stared down the two dragons and two Kariyans that remained.

Not even Oujou’s hoofbeats were in range.

“We could fight again,” Yamato said, smirking. “I’ll win this time.”

“Against two dragons with a broken wrist and hand?” Riku asked, sneering, arms crossed. Yamato merely winked and Riku sputtered in baffled confusion.

Sena just dropped his gaze to the ground.

“Just because you got your emblem back doesn’t mean it’s over, Sena the Red. The war is coming no matter where you run,” Taka said.

Sena flinched.

“Hiruma has his reasons for this war. Important reasons. He won’t surrender and he won’t give up coming after you. You’re the weak link of Kariya, and all of Deimon will know,” Karin told him. Of everyone, her voice sounded the kindest and most sympathetic.

“We’ll see ya on the battle lines, then,” Monta replied, stout and fearless. “You’re not gonna be ridin’ our ass so fast this time.”

“It’s true. We have to return and inform Hiruma of our failure,” Taka said with a slight grimace. Yamato groaned, running his hand through his hair, while Karin blanched white.

“I’m not actually his soldier. I think I’ll just… not…go with you,” Karin said in a shaky voice.

“I wouldn’ mind you comin’ back with me,” Suzuna said, eyes gleaming and a smirk curling over her face. “The girls’ll love you.”

Karin blinked and looked intrigued. “Really?”

“Are you really making friends with the same people that just tried to kill us?” Riku asked in wry incredulity.

“If our defense, we just wanted to capture Sena, not kill anyone!” Yamato said with a sunny smile.

“I wouldn’t have killed you!” Karin protested in dismay as she wrung her hands. "I just needed the money."

“I would’ve. My face still hurts,” Taka said bluntly. Monta grinned and made an obscene gesture with his hand.

“Don’ be a whiner, pretty boy.”

As they spoke (and somehow made friends??), Sena turned away, silent and shoulders bowed. He felt even weaker and smaller now that he was whole than he did just hours ago. He wasn’t sure if it was just because Shin had left, or if that wrung-out exhausted feeling came from his truest confession. Shame was still boiling in his chest, the memory of all their disappointment too clear in his mind. The ones that stayed were skirting around his peripheral vision, trying not to address the giant hunkered in the chamber, but it would come soon. How could he face them when they one by one left?

It would be the only thing he deserved… It took awhile to realize the conversation and banter had fallen, the six of them silent. They stayed just a few paces behind Sena, not quite approaching, but their gazes were heavy on his back. Expectant. Waiting. He tilted back his head to stare up at the evening sky.

“Why… why are you still here?” he asked. The words sounded thick. Heavy.

Footsteps neared and Sena barely kept fom flinching. But the only thing that happened was a worn, rough hand, burned brown by sun and work, was placed on his shoulder.

“’Cause that’s what friends do, brother. We stay with you,” Monta said.

Sena’s shoulders jerked, once, twice, then over and over until it was his whole body quivering. “Why, why? I’m a l-liar. I’ve only ever b-been a l-liar.”

“You’re allowed to make mistakes, Sena,” Riku said, coming up on Sena’s other side to clasp his free shoulder. “Dragons aren’t infallible omniscient creatures, remember?”

Suzuna leaned over, arms snaking their way around his neck in a loose hug, and said, “I don’t have t’know ya to know you don’t gotta bad heart. You made a bad choice, but you’re a good dragon under it all.” She even rubbed her chin against his head, like a horse comforting one of the herd.

Sena shook his head. “No, Sh-Shin was right t-to go. I let them all d-down, all those p-people that b-believe in the Shield. The Queen I Chose. Even m-my father–”

“Wait, Sena, you have no idea what your father would’ve thought,” Riku interrupted.

“Sen, he’s actually right for once, yanno? My Pops… I don’t think my Pops woulda wanted me to fight in a war, like him. He wanted Ma and me t’be happy and safe. I bet your father was the same,” Monta said earnestly.

Sena sniffled and shook his head again.

“Sena, c’mon, look at what you’ve actually done, ‘stead of thinkin’ on all the things you’d done wrong,” Suzuna suggested. “You fought Gaou with no emblem and won. You even took on those knuckleheads and kicked Yama’s ass.”

“It was only a slight miscalculation. I’ll win next time!” Yamato called over. Karin hissed at him to be quiet, the sound of shuffling and dragging feet signalling the two more discreet people taking him further away.

Sena wriggled and shoved away from the three of them, suffocated by their kindness. By their forgiveness. The air glowed red. Heat, an overwhelming heat that whisked every bit of moisture from the air, emanated from him. Dust flew, grit pattering against their faces and they quickly shielded themselves with their arms. Wind buffeted them one more time.

And the heat was gone. Sena with it.

Monta sighed and rubbed the side of his nose. “What’re we s’pposed t’do now?”

“You could come to Deimon! That one’s a dragon, right?” Yamato shouted to them cheerily. "I like you better anyway.

“Shut up," Riku snapped at him. Yamato just grinned and waved as Riku snarled.

 


 

 

Sena shivered in the thin, freezing air high above the Aoishan. Snow crunched under his clawed feet and his tail whipped over the ground. With a shudder that had every scale rustling, Sena folded in on himself and became the small human-looking man he’d been for a month. This body felt more familiar than his dragon one, strangely. One month shouldn’t affect him even more than the centuries he’d spent with scales and spikes. Was it because of… of Monta’s hand on his shoulder and clapping his back? Was it because of the pain that had burnt through skin and bone, and the blood he’d shed?

Or was it because it was this body that remembered the feel of Shin’s hands and kisses?

Sena shook his head and wrapped his arms around himself. Slogging his way through the snow, teeth chattering with every gust that whistled over the peak, Sena forced the memories away. There was a rocky outcropping just ahead, and he settled under it and breathed hot, steaming air onto his hands as his skin flushed red all over. The icicles hanging overhead began to drip and Sena glared into the white snow that was almost luminescent in the dark settling around the peaks and creeping down to the base of the mountains.

“What am I doing?” Sena whispered hoarsely. I’m just running. Always running. Again and again. From fear and pain, from disappointment, and even from my friends' forgiveness. I ran away from my mother and Riku when I was couldn’t… I couldn’t imagine a life without my father. And then I ran away from my Queen, the girl I consider as close as a sister, when I couldn’t imagine fighting for her cause.

Sena drew his knees to his chest and set his forehead on them. His teeth creaked he gritted them so hard, and his nose stung. For a dragon, he’d gotten so good at weeping. He barked a self-deprecating laugh at that.

“Every choice I’ve ever made was the wrong one,” he said to his thighs, the eerie shrieking of the wind his only reply.

He didn’t know how long he sat there. Eventually he stretched out into his dragon body and curled into a tight ball, tail lying over his nose, wings tucked along his back. He wasn’t truly cold, the inferno within him fully returned and keeping him warm even high in the mountains and snow. But he… he felt cold. Without the sound of Riku and Monta bickering, without the new accompaniment of Suzuna’s laugh, without seeing Shin across the fire while polishing his armor diligently, his eyes lifting to meet Sena’s.

Feet crunched over ice. Rocks rattled down the mountainside. Sena’s head jerked up, spikes raising along his spine as his tongue tasted the air.

Dragon.

Sena shuffled back as a human-looking body stepped under the outcropping, a glowing crystal orb in his hands. He wore a simple thin tunic, a heavier linen shawl thing folded over one shoulder and draped around his body. His arms were bare, showing off the hard, bulge of his muscles and the breadth of his shoulders. Black hair hung around his face, cut short on the sides and the back of his neck. Though his face was shaven, he looked weathered and old, but also timeless. Dark eyes glimmered in the magical torch light and the not-man stared inscrutably up at Sena.

“So. This is where you’ve been hiding.”

Sena flinched away from the rasping, deep voice, pressing his back to the mountain wall and looking out over the dim, cloudy skyline.

Would you prefer the tongue of our kind?” the man asked, not kindly, but not pressuring.

Sena shook all over, more like a dog than a dragon. The dragon man sat in front of Sena, legs crossed and hands on his knees.

“I knew your father, once upon a time.” Sena’s head jerked, but he didn’t look over. “He was a good sort, quiet, unassuming, for a creature that flamboyant color,” he gestured towards Sena’s hide that glittered with its gold sheen, “and intelligent. So many dragons we’ve lost too soon to human greed and violence and pride. But Shuuma… Shuuma died for loving humans too well.”

Sena bowed his head, a slow keening whine escaping him. He visibly shrunk, shrinking smaller and smaller until his human body was left standing on the stone, arms wrapped tight around him and his eyes squeezed shut. Slowly, Sena trudged over the stone and sat on his knees in front of the dragon.

“Are you going to say sorry before you kill me?” Sena asked quietly. He forced his arms to drop, hands bracing on his knees. “There’s only one dragon as old as you left in the human realm, Musashi, so I know why you're here.”

“You’d be surprised. Do you really think all the Greens died?” Musashi smirked as he spoke, his brown eyes gleaming a stunning, opalescent white, the pupils slitted and starkly black. His smirk was dry and taut, nothing truly humorous about it.

“Everyone thinks you’re the last one,” Sena murmured, voice awed.

Musashi’s eyes darkened to brown again. “Make no mistake, many of my kind were hunted, but more are hiding in plain sight than others give credit for. It thanks to your Queen that there is talk among them of returning to their haunts.”

Sena shook his head. “She did that on her own. She’s always been a good Queen at heart, even as a child.”

“That I believe.”

“But you’re still going to go to war with her and Kariya,” Sena said, almost accusatory. “Aren’t you sick of seeing death?”

“I’m more than thrice your age, kit. What do you know of what I’ve seen?” His tone was sardonic, but Sena still winced as though from a blow.

Silence fell, Sena’s eyes on his knees and Musashi just looking at his downcast expression.

“What do you want?” Sena blurted at last.

“It’s what I don’t want.” Musashi leaned forward, hands clasped and lying on top of where his ankles crossed. “There are some Green dragons left, hiding in this realm and who’ve made this place their home regardless, but so many of them died. I don’t want to be the reason why another dragon dies.”

“Where were you when Gaou attacked?” Sena demanded, getting to his feet, rage making him shake. “Where were you when he killed my father and came after me? You can’t stomach killing me yourself, but you’ll sit back and let your ally do it?”

Musashi raised his hand for silence, his expression carefully blank. “I said I do not want you dead, but that doesn’t mean the same as I won’t fight you as an enemy.”

Biting his lip, Sena clenched his fists at his sides and looked down.

“Gaou, the brute force that he is, was an ally who did as the man I swore to serve asked of him. I was glad that two dragon lives were spared by you overcoming him… I suppose three dragons were spared,” Musashi said, tone musing. Sena shivered, wondering just how much Musashi knew.

Greens lived long lives, and while physically strong, didn’t have a physical element they controlled, nor were they spectacularly good at casting spells. They had a wealth of knowledge that they were known for sharing, taking creatures of all kinds as pupils, but their true strength lay in their ability to See. Not just the future, but weaknesses and strengths of others, the myriad of paths a being could choose, even the past or anywhere they looked in the present. Only a Green dragon knew just how much they could See.

“However, I will do as Hiruma asks, not from blind faith, but because I believe his cause is right,” Musashi said.

Sena was floored. “I… it’s not just blind faith…” he whispered, words unsteady and unsure. Musashi raised an eyebrow. “I Chose Mamori because I…”

How… how was he going to finish that sentence? Why did he? Why did he come to the human world? Why did he bow to that human girl with the sad, but hopeful eyes and the warm heart? He’d stayed by her side for seventeen years, watched her grow and listened to her worries and fears and encouraged her whenever her bravery faltered (not that it did often). But why? Why?

“Because I looked at her and saw my own sadness in her. Because we lost our fathers and I thought… I thought it was the right thing to do.”

Musashi got to his feet as Sena stared blankly at his hands.

“Dragons aren’t infallible creatures, Sena the Red,” Musashi said quietly. Sena jerked in place, hearing Riku’s words repeated to him. “We make mistakes, and we regret our choices.”

Sena gaped up at him, feeling lost and broken. “I… I don’t know what to do…”

“Is running solving any of your problems? Is it making anything better?”

His mouth snapped shut. Shame flushed his pale cheeks. “No.”

Musashi looked up to the sky and sighed. “When did you choose something that felt right? Where you made the right choices and didn’t regret them?”

“Why are you helping me?” Sena choked out, too scared to face the answer already forming.

White eyes glanced over at him. “You’re just a kit, Sena the Red. You have every disadvantage on your side, your doubts and insecurities and inexperience. However… you faced down Gaou the Merciless and won. Show me that dragon. Don’t come to me for senseless death.”

“What… what if I don’t come at all,” Sena said. Musashi smiled, mysterious and knowing.

“Your Chosen is on the field. Would you really leave him to die?”

Musashi turned and walked away. Air from vast wings buffeted Sena back a few steps, and the great shadow of a dragon arced across the night sky. In the dim shadows cast by the cloud-covered moon, bright emerald green glistened.

Sena watched him fly out of sight, heart hammering too hard. Musashi had Seen it, Sena was sure. Whatever the outcome, Sena would be on that battlefield and it was up to him to decide just who he’d be when he got there.

The coward that let everyone down.

Or the Shield Shin believed in.

 


 

The catapults began before dawn. The cracks and booms of the great stones striking the walls along the southern edge of the great city echoed right to the heart of the castle. The heart of the city, the country. Rubble fell like rain onto the poorest parts of the city, families and merchants racing into the city, away from the enemies on the other side. Enemies coming from the sea and attacking their weakest side, the side left barely protected from the unexpected attack. What was left of the standing army struggled to get through the mob of desperate citizens, the animals let loose in the terrified flight of many, wagons and carts rolling over legs and arms and feet, leaving the panicked masses to wail and the soldiers too far from the walls. The City Guard that lined the walls were trained for ruffians and small city skirmishes, but outside the city, spread over the bay like a deck of cards fanned over a table, was a fleet of ships none even knew existed. The Guards bellowed commands, but there was little they could do against stones and balls of flaming pitch that splattered and burned. Men and women fell screaming, from the burning tar or the collapse of the walls under their feet.

Enemies waiting on the beaches below crawled through the fallen walls. Most were stopped by the Guards and fast incoming army, but more were coming and more of the walls were falling.

At dawn, the sun rose and the emerald wings of the oldest dragon left living in Kariya shone like a beacon over the largest of the ships.

In the heart of the city, where the ground trembled and rocked beneath their feet, the Queen stood over a long table, hands braced over a table. Her auburn hair fell around her shoulders, but it didn’t quite conceal the helpless and furious dread that blanched her face. Next to her the Commander of the Lances stood waiting calmly even as his eyes darted towards the windows.

Not far were Shin and Sakuraba. His unit had returned just before he had, having come back to report his defection only for Shin to reappear on the tails of Marco’s imprisonment. Absolving him of punishment with Captain Shun’s tale of the attack of Shun Harbor City and Shin being the one to bring Marco to him with the vigilante centuar women, corroborating his story that he had indeed found the missing Shield.

And returned without him.

He watched the Queen silently, as Sakuraba winced with every blow to the walls by the sea.

“Why did we not know about this fleet? Yuki?” the Queen demanded. The slight man who served on her Council sighed and shook his head.

“Some of our associates never made their rendevous the last two weeks, if you recall. It’s more than likely they were caught before they could send word. We knew there was an attack coming, that he was planning something big, but he’s as brilliant as we were informed and nothing solid was relayed to the right people,” Yukimitsu answered wearily.

They all stumbled as another portion of the wall crumbled.

“Takami, send what Lances we have left in the castle. They must protect the city,” herMajesty ordered.

Takami frowned. “Our duty is to you and the Shield.”

“The Shield is still missing–” Shin’s mouth tightened, “–and you’re Lances of the Realm,” her Majesty snapped. Takami nodded, shoulders straightening.

“Of course, your Majesty.”

“Wait, Commander. I… I’m sorry,” she said with a worried frown and hand to her forehead. She forced a smile. “Thank you. Try… try to return.”

“I’ll do my best,” Takami said, with a bow. Shin scowled at the thought of his fellow knights, his commander, fighting on the frontlines without him there, too.

“You… Sir Sakuraba?” the Queen asked as Takami straightened.

“Um, yes?” he replied, blinking in surprise. He was the most junior Lance in the room, and he wasn’t expecting to be directly addressed.

“Go with Captain Takami. Make sure the Guard falls back to guide as many of my citizens into the castle keep. The catacombs may not be the most comfortable, but they’ll be safest there unless…” Her eyes turned to the ships on the distant bay and the colossal Green dragon that circled over the fleet. A threat just waiting to be unleashed.

“m-Me?” Sakuraba squeaked. Takami gripped his shoulder and pulled him down into a bow. “Yes, immediately, your Majesty.”

The two Lances quickly strode from the room, both meeting Shin’s gaze fleetingly as they left.

“The rest of you, you must make sure every servant and courtier is in a safe place. If possible, send some down to the catacombs to light torches. The least we can do is not condemn the people to wait in fear and in the dark.”

The remaining people in the chamber emptied out, hands clasping the Queen’s, or bowing hurriedly, their faces white and stark. Only Shin and the Queen stayed behind, the Queen trailing her fingers over the table and her eyes on the far-off fleet. The next stone smashed yet another portion of the city walls and the Queen spun on her heel to face Shin.

“Where is Sena? Was anything left out of your report?” the Queen demanded, blue eyes bright and narrowed.

Shin’s mouth tightened, lips whitening. Some things were indeed left unwritten, unreported, and the memories of them grated on his conscience in the dark of night. Whenever he blinked his eyes. Whenever he turned corner and thought he saw that small, swift-footed figure just ahead. But none of those unsaid things changed his answer.

“He’s not coming. He won’t.”

“That’s not what I asked, Seijuuro,” the Queen retorted shortly. Shin startled, trident almost slipping from his hand. For a moment, the anxiety on her face was cleared away by a small, tired smile. “Yes, I remember you.”

“It’s been years. You never…” Shin broke off, flummoxed. The Queen rolled her eyes and huffed.

“Technically, your father is an heir to the throne.”

“Sixth in line,” Shin protested.

“Which makes you seventh. I’m unmarried and childless. I know my heirs down to the fifteenth in line, but that doesn’t matter. We were playmates, Seijuuro. We were children together, and you knew the Sena I knew, that no one else did,” she said, pointedly and earnestly. She bridged the gap and set her hand on his arm. “Of any of my Lances to find him, I was so glad it was you. I was sure you, the Seijuuro I remembered, would keep Sena safe. He is, isn’t it? He’s safe, right?”

Shin stared at her, eyes wide enough to hurt and, oddly, his chest feeling too constricted in the armor he was so accustomed to wearing it was like second, heavier skin.

“Safe?” he repeated numbly.

“Yes, safe. After the battle with Gaou, without his emblem… I thought, thank the Eternal Sun, at least Seijuuro is at his side, and then you showed up here without him. He isn’t dead, is he? Please, Seijuuro, tell me the truth,” she begged, clutching his wrist with both her hands. “You’re not keeping his death a secret for my sake?”

“No, he’s alive. He’s… safe,” Shin answered at last. The sheer relief that sighed out of her baffled him. “His vow… he’s sworn to protect you, Ma-… your Majesty,” Shin said, stumbling over her name, his neck and ears heating.

She merely smiled. “I’d prefer to be called Mamori at the end of the world.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Shin retorted, scowling. Mamori burst into laughter before he could be appalled at himself.

“There’s the Seijuuro I remember.”

Mamori stepped back and crossed her arms over her stomach, hands cupping the opposite elbows. “Do you know how long dragons live?”

Shin frowned at the nonsequitur. “At least a thousand years.”

“That’s the age of a fully mature dragon. They aren’t considered truly adults until one thousand. Maybe… the equivalent of a thirty-year-old for a human,” Mamori told him with a smile. Shin’s eyes widened, moth dropping open slightly. “When Sena came here, when our fathers died facing Shinryuuji and Gaou… he was only two hundred seventy-six years old.”

Shin covered his mouth with his hand, the ground under him rocking. It wasn’t just another catapult strike that created it.

“He’s no child, he’s still lived ten times longer than us, but to dragons? He’s young. He wasn’t even old enough to make the vow he did to me, but… he’s a lot more powerful than he appears. They couldn’t stop him without severely causing him and others damage, and… well. Dragons are different. They believe so much in choosing your own path, whether it be good or bad, that they stepped aside and allowed the equivalent of a grieving adolescent bind himself to a human child. If he stayed in the dragonlands, if he lived his full life, he could have lived over three or four thousand years, maybe even longer with the power he has. How many years did he lose, fighting that monster without his emblem?” she murmured, eyes dark and worried.

“You know about that? About what that did?” Shin asked, stepping forward.

She met his eyes, her own stern and stormy. “Of course. I’m no fool, especially not when it comes to magic. It comes with consequences, Shin Seijuuro. He used years of his life trying to save you and that party you travelled with. You said he’s sworn to protect me, and you’re right. But who’s going to protect him?”

Shin looked away. He knew now, that tight feeling in his chest and that stone lodged in his throat, he knew what that feeling was.

Shame.

All his words to Sena, about asking his forgiveness and swearing fealty to Sena alone. What did it all mean if he wasn’t with Sena? He knew within minutes of turning away it was wrong, he should have turned back, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t look at Sena’s ashen face and heart-broken eyes.

As long as he didn’t turn and see it again, he wouldn’t remember. Wouldn’t be able to see them again and realize just how badly he erred.

A smooth, soft hand touched his cheek. Eyes closed and breath huffing through his nose, he let Mamori guide his chin to face her. He opened his eyes to see Mamori’s blue eyes looking into his, disappointed but understanding.

“I let him go.”

His brows rose high, disbelief forcing out the rough, “What.”

“I knew he was going to run, Seijuuro. Sena and I, we were supposed to rule in peace. The Shinryuuji rebellion was over, Gaou was missing, and we were two lonely, sad children with too much weight on our shoulders. I promised him, almost the same day he promised to Shield me, that I would rule only in peace. I couldn’t keep my promise and I… I saw it in his eyes, that need to run, the fear that would drive him away,” Mamori said as her eyes filmed with tears. “I didn’t stop him, because the idea of bloodying his hands because I couldn’t keep my promise sickened me. Me first, a thousand times, before I’d ask Sena to murder his own kind.”

“He… he swore, he Chose you,” Shin argued as much with her as with himself, shaking his head slightly.

“He did,” Mamori agreed. “But I would’ve released him from the vow if he’d asked. In the end, he didn’t even need to ask.” Shin frowned in confusion and Mamori placed her hand over Shin’s chest. Under her palm, there was a small burning ember that he’d tried for days to ignore. “Just days ago, a week at most, the vow broke. Whatever linked Sena and me, it’s gone. He Chose someone else.”

They stared at each other, Mamori’s gaze knowing and Shin’s dumbfounded. A roar shook the foundations of the city. With a gasp, Mamori stumbled, only Shin’s hand on her arm keeping her upright. They both stared at the Green dragon that surged towards the city. His tail whipped through the air and an overwhelming pressure sent Mamori and Shin to their knees, while the wall and many of the buildings directly beneath the dragon crumpled into dust. From their place in the castle, far from the walls, they heard the screams of terror and pain rising through the streets.

“Mamori, I can’t stay.”

“If you think for a moment that you’re leaving me here, you’re insane,” Mamori snapped. She fumbled just under the hem of her bodice and her heavy skirt dropped to reveal plain, leather trousers. She kicked the skirts aside with a disgusted scoff and met Shin’s appraising look. “You think I only sent everyone else away to have a heart to heart? Of anyone, you’d be the one to understand. If I need to knock you out, though, I will.”

Shin smirked lightly. “Let’s go, your Majesty.”

“I need a bow and arrow,” she told him, eyes flinty as he threw open the door and they raced out.

“I can get you that, and a chainshirt with it. Near the stables.”

Mamori nodded and pushed herself a little harder to keep up with him– though he was still consciously slowing himself down to better match her pace. A number of people saw them rush past, but by the time they recognized the Queen and called out in shock, they’d already raced another direction. While Mamori saddled their horses, Shin grabbed the weapons she’d asked for. She didn’t even complain at the size of the bow he’d managed to snatch, or flinch at the weight of the chainmail shirt she pulled on over her head. She strung the longbow with a grunt and tested the weight of it like an expert. Her fingers glowed a faint blue before she could draw it completely back, then she nodded at him and swung up onto her horse. They left together, aiming for where the dragon roared over the crumbled walls and the enemy streamed inside.

“The army won’t make it in time, and there aren’t enough Lances to hold them back,” Mamori shouted over to him. She wasn’t slowing though, just glaring past the mane of her horse whipping over her face.

“We continue fighting,” he called over to her, grim and stern. She glanced at him, then nudged the horse she rode even faster. Oujou thundered forward without hesitating as the Green roared and swept his tail back.

Crimson.

A wall of flames crimson in color had the Green flying back before he could swipe his devastating blow again. A shriek rent the air and a shadow passed overhead. Shin twisted around, Oujou rearing as her head tossed at his too abrupt motion. He stared as a scarlet dragon streaked across the blue sky, the morning sun lighting up the golden sheen that covered his body. Wings more than twice the dragon’s size spread open, dragging him to a stop mid-air and a red cloud of magic kept him aloft. Golden spines as sharp as daggers glittered from neck to the tip of his tail, and his whole body trembled as he glared down the foe several times larger than him, and even older.

But he rose up, standing rampant in the air and roared.

Ahead of him, Mamori was staring upwards, hand over her mouth.

“Sena…” Shin whispered, just as mesmerized by the sight of him.

“Seijuuro, we need to go now. With Musashi occupied, we have a chance,” Mamori shouted. He turned to see her, face pale and tears on her face, but a fierce grin on her face. “We have to protect him, remember?”

Shin scowled and snapped his reins. Oujou whinnied, high and furious, and the two of them raced towards the destruction ahead once more.

 

 

So you came, Sena the Red,” Musashi said. Approval laced his words.

Sena lowered into a crouch, talons flexing through thin air. “I don’t want to regret the choices I make ever again.”

And killing me, you won’t regret it?”

Sena shook his head briskly, wings fanning wide. “I don’t need to kill you to stop you or your human.”

Big words for a very small dragon. However, I’m no Gaou. Let’s see how well you fare against something other than brute strength,” Musashi replied forebodingly.

Sena jerked back, wings flapping in surprise, as Musashi flew forward so rapidly he almost didn’t see the massive dragon coming. He pulled his wings in at the last moment and plummeted. With a swift twist, Sena managed to swipe his tail through the air, cutting off Musashi’s advance. But he was too close to the ground, wings too large to spread and Sena hit the ground on all floors with a grunt and hiss. The cobbles of the road were pulverized under his claws, slowing him down when he tried to lift off. The rushing air warned him a second too late and a burst of pure force slammed into his back. He tumbled tail over snout, claws tearing through cobbles desperately to gain footing. He blasted fire under his own feet, scarlet flames blooming to life just as he leapt straight upwards. Musashi was reeling around, shaking his frilled head free of the clinging red flames. It was a mere thought for the flames on the ground to die immediately, leaving scorched stones and wood.

Sena’s inner eyelid blinked and his eyes glowed even brighter gold. Under the soot and debris, there wasn’t a single smudge of body warmth. He’s not… He jerked up his head just in time to see Musashi turn towards the wall and lift both forelegs.

Like any dragon, Musashi was a mage. But he was a Green. He had no element he was best at, that he needed to rely on. He cast magic like a human wizard, but with a whole lot more punch. So Sena watched in horror as crackling fire built between his claws. And exploded towards the walls where a large squad of Lances were running to support the mix of militia and City Guard.

A beat of his wings, so hard it pulled the tendons, and he shot across the air.

There was a reason Sena had wings so large, streamlined and narrowing drastically towards the tips. He dived horizontally through the air, ignoring gravity and fear alike. Claws struck stone, dug through it with an unholy screech, and his wings spread wide. Fire streamed over his back like water, petals of it falling and dissipating in the air. But the humans and other beings that wore armor emblazoned with the sigil of Kariya were untouched by flame, staring with mouths wide and eyes wider.

That was easy enough,” said Musashi, almost right in Sena’s ear.

Then, talons sunk into Sena’s back, where his wing joints connected with his shoulders, and he was yanked away from the wall and thrown like a ragdoll over the side. Musashi roared and threw himself after him.

 

 

Mamori and Shin raced up the wall, shoving aside enemy and ally and climbing over debris to get to the top. Sena fell out of sight and the Green was chasing him within seconds. Mamori threw herself against the ramparts to catch herself, gasping in relief to see Sena roll over rock and sand alike to evade the Green's full weight landing on him. They circled each other like cats, then their mouths opened and pure force met flames as ruby red as the emblem she’d held once as a girl.

“We can’t help him,” Shin said, grabbing her bicep hard enough to hurt.

Mamori gnawed on her lip, eyes busily looking over the combatants. Another stone was catapulted towards the wall, and a darting red flash intercepted it. Sena dropped his catch, only for Musashi to cast a stream of noxious green acid at his back. Shin and Mamori cried out, leaning over the wall to watch Sena writhe and scream, set himself on fire to burn the acid away.

“We are going to help him,” Mamori said fiercely.

“How?!” Shin demanded, eyes glued to where Sena crouched low in the surf and Musashi hovered overhead.

“We’re going to the boats,” Mamori said at last.

Shin turned to stare at her. “We have no way of getting there!” He swept his arm over the rubble strewn beaches, the burning docks, and the dragons now clawing fiercely at each other in the surf. Musashi’s tail whipped around and sent Sena skidding over the surface like a pebble before he dropped out of sight.

“Stop looking at him, we have a job to do. Musashi will stop if we get his Chosen. We’re getting Hiruma before Sena dies, do you hear me?”

Shin wrenched open his mouth, actual fear for Sena etching deep lines into his face. Mamori climbed onto the half-destroyed rampart, fixed her gaze on the closest ship, and held out her hand to Shin.

“Help me help him, Seijuuro.”

He gazed over the distance between them and the sea, let alone the fleet, but grasped her hand and shoved up onto the wall next to her, trident knocking against stone and his arm. Blue, cool and soothing, glowed around her, spreading over her skin to crawl up his arm. He jerked instinctively, and then held himself perfectly still, jaw clenching tight.

“Her Majesty…? That’s her Majesty!” called out voices.

“Oops, better go,” Mamori whispered. “Whatever you do, don’t let go.” Shin nodded. ”One, two, jump!

Just as guards turned to grasp Mamori’s hand, the two of them leapt off the wall. Yells of surprise followed him, before the clash of weapons began again.

“Venti,” Mamori said, voice trembling and hoarse. Shin hissed, arm covered his face as wind whipped at their faces and limbs. “ad naves nos portate.”

“What are you saying?” Shin shouted as the wind shoved them.

“Shush, I’m concentrating,” Mamori told him absently, eyes still on the nearest ship.

Shin glared at her out the corner of his eye.

 

 

Sena wheezed, saltwater burning in the raw welts along his back. While Musashi looked a little rough around the edges, he didn’t look winded or even wounded. Seafoam churned over their clawed feet and Musashi stepped forward. Sena shuffled back, tail lashing and head low to the ground.

I’m sorry. I almost wish you were more of a coward,” Musashi said bluntly. The pressure in Sena’s ears popped, a ball of force forming in front of Musashi’s chest.

It wouldn’t kill Sena. Not yet. But it was only a matter of time before he lost. He was outmatched, outwitted, and outclassed. He wouldn’t even have a chance to apologize, to any of them… He panted harder, tongue touching air.

And he stilled in surprise, head lifting the same time Musashi’s wings snapped open. The pressure lightened and Sena roared, fire blasting through the collection of energy, breaking it into pieces as he barreled through and blasted Musashi over the beach, getting his first solid hit in a while.

Mamori’s magic was like candy on his tongue, and the scent of Shin was with her.

Musashi whipped his tail, water hissing against the flames coating his sides. Sena screamed when the tail caught across his chest and threw him against the base of the wall, the terrified shouts from the humans high above jarring in his head.

I don’t have time for pity, Sena. This is goodbye,” Musashi said. Lightning crackled and Sena struggled to shake the dizziness out of his head, get his limbs moving faster, as it arced through the air.

He shivered at the sudden chill. Lightning struck ice, holding long enough for the lightning to dissipate before shattering like shards of glass. With a triumphant snarl, Riku dropped to the sand amidst ice and glass rain. Sena got on all four feet and stared at Riku’s white wings spread in front of him.

This is more like a fair fight, Musashi.”

Musashi actually growled, anger breaking through his stoic calm.

 

 

Shin knew what to do now. This was what he was trained at, good at, excelled at. One by one, he and Mamori moved through the bare bones crew left on the ships. They fell beneath the blazing blue of arrows, feathers sprouting through their collarbones or thighs at the force by which the arrow drove through them. Other fell beneath the ceaseless onslaught of his trident, thrown overboard with squawks or knocked unconscious with a blow to the gut or across their faces. They made it across one deck, clasped hands, and leapt to a second, both with their eyes focused on the ship with the banner that snapped in the buffeting winds. A freezing wind carried them the third time, frost blooming like flowers over the railings and deck. Something fierce and smug pulled his brows low, knowing one more ally had come.

“There’s another dragon– He’s helping Sena?” Mamori exclaimed at his side. She drew back her bow and another arrow twanged from the string. Less than a handful rattled in the quiver on her back, but another soldier went down shouting, hands grasping the arrow embedded through her calf.

“Keep your eyes ahead of you, your Majesty,” Shin replied, deflecting a sword and slamming the butt of his trident into the man’s gut and sending him tumbling into two other soldiers. They went down like a game of bowling pins.

“It’s Mamori,” she retorted, grabbing his shoulder and jumping weightlessly through the air.

They both stumbled and rolled onto the last deck. Mamori tripped and fell to her hands and knees, wheezing harshly, as Shin smoothly rolled to his feet. Around them, wary and well-trained centurions waited in a semi-circle. Their stances were firm and their resolve stronger than the lackeys they’d mown through so far.

“Your sorceress looks fatigued, Lance of Kariya’s Queen,” noted a voice that sounded at once indifferent and too sharp. From the other side of the centurions, a man with unnaturally blond hair stepped forward. He was all lean and sharp angles, eyes a jade green and narrowed with vicious glee.

“I’m… fine,” Mamori spat, glaring up at him as she got unsteadily to her feet. She brushed her hair over her shoulder and stood straight and tall, every inch a Queen, battered and grey-faced as she was.

The glee in those jade eyes broke, just a moment’s worth of astonishment on his face. Then, that insufferably smug smirk returned, strangely pointed teeth gleaming. He looked inhuman, but a closer look revealed nothing supernatural about him at all. The wickedly amused expression wasn't comforting in the slightest and Mamori was reaching for her last arrow on reflex.

“The Queen herself. Capture the woman. I don’t care about the knight,” the man who could only be Hiruma ordered.

Shin shifted his stance, scowling as the odds of winning against eight trained centurions ran through his mind. They were not the best odds.

An all too familiar screeching yell halted everyone in their tracks, eyes automatically looking up. The warwhooping was following by a bone-chilling ululation and three familiar figures landed on the deck. Suzuna’s scythe-blade gleamed, Monta’s bo-staff spun, and Karin’s whip glittered pink.

“Koizumi? I didn’t think you had it in you,” Hiruma drawled, sounding more impressed than furious, his eyebrow rising at Karin.

She winced slightly. “Hi, Mr. Hiruma, sir. Um.”

“Yamato and Taka?”

“My herd are watchin’ those two. You’ll get ‘em back when we kick your asses back to Deimon,” Suzuna answered with a teeth-baring grin eerily alike to Hiruma’s.

“Didja know blondie here can grow wings, Shin?” Monta said, looking over his shoulder and pointing at Karin. She eeped and covered her mouth with her hand.

“I don’t grow them, I’m just a pounaika! They’re just like having arms,” she protested, again modestly.

“I think we have more important things to worry about,” Shin said, standing next to Monta and levelling his trident. Monta nodded once, smirking under a frown.

“Gotcha.”

“You made a lot of friends, Seijuuro,” Mamori murmured, pleased.

Shin shrugged.

A second later, a blue arrow flew and the two opposing groups threw themselves forward with mingled yells.

 

 

Riku and Sena hovered in the air, the red glow of Sena’s magic holding them. They both panted, Sena downright ragged and strength flagging. Only his magic stayed strong. Riku was bruised and scoured, but he was still fierce and strong, icy wind whipping over the beach and around them. Musashi finally looked worse for wear. His wings sagged and his magic buckled under the weight of his body like an old net. Despite his age and experience, he was still a Green, with a limited amount of magic to throw around. He could wear Riku down, until the last of Riku’s energy was spent, and then overwhelm them both with his superior size and strength, but Riku was just as clever as Musashi. Dodging and striking like a cat, his blows icy and destructive on Musashi’s hide, especially when following by the blazing heat of Sena’s fire.

His white eyes darted between them, Riku crouched protectively in front of Sena, and flames dancing in a wide arc around Riku like a shield.

Clever and strong. Dragons fighting together are always better than alone.

Stop yapping and finish this,” Riku snarled, tail lashing. “It’s not our fault you make buddies with the wrong dragons.”

Gaou was an ally, I wouldn’t call him a buddy.

I said, stop yapping.” Ice blew in a narrow, twisting storm towards Musashi. Instead of evading, Musashi, lowered his head and pressure burst in Sena’s ears.

No! Ri–”

Musashi barreled through the eye of the cyclone, throwing his weight into the taken aback Riku. Riku flew through the air, slamming into Sena and sending them both crashing into the wall. It crumpled when they hit, red flames catching on stone and burning feebly around them as Musashi landed on all fours on the pile of rubble.

Riku groaned, trying to force himself to his feet, only for Musashi’s massive foot to descend on his neck. His claws dug into what was left of the stone road, caging Riku’s slender neck. Sena scrabbled to his feet, snarling and the flickers of flames rose higher around them.

Perhaps I will lose, but one of you will die with me, I’m sorry to say.

Sena snarled, looked at Riku pinned beneath Musashi’s claws, then glanced around. Only the three of them were crunching over debris, covered in dust and rock. They were far enough from the humans battling that the sounds were merely echoes. Sena glanced back at Musashi, who was waiting patiently and quietly. With a sigh, Sena bowed his head. In front of Riku and Musashi’s eyes, Sena shrunk, golden gleam fading, wings enveloping him, until only a small human-shaped body remained. Crimson flames still burst in the wake of his footsteps, and the fires around them burned so hot Musashi and Riku flinched. He stopped just yards away, hands open at his sides.

You’re not going to kill Riku. Or me. And we’re not going to kill you. You think I haven’t noticed how few human lives you’ve ended? How few you’ve endangered? You waited until most of the city had been emptied before the first strike. You crowded and herded us like sheep down the beach, away from the Deimon fleet, yes, but also away from the humans fighting,” Sena said, sweeping his hand over the body-less ruins. Riku’s icy blue eyes widened. His body steamed, frost crawling over stone, and he shrunk. Tiny and even more vulnerable, Riku lay under the massive cage made by Musashi’s talons in his human-skin.

Still Musashi didn’t flinch.

You’ll fight to hold us back. You’ll fight to distract us. But you were never going to kill us if you could help it. Or a take a human life. How could you? Completely extinct or not, hundreds of your kin were hunted. You’re not a killer, just like me.”

A fine shudder worked its way down Musashi’s spine.

We have to win. I have to win,” Musashi replied, shaking his head. Riku grabbed Sena’s shoulder and Sena closed his eyes, inhaling sharply, as Musashi opened his jaws wide and pressure built in the air. The pressure broke and Musashi roared long and loud, a noise of warning and concern. His forelegs hit the ground and then suddenly the man Sena had seen in the mountains was standing in front of them. His head was turned towards the ships, fists as his sides.

“What is it? Shin? Mamori?” Sena exclaimed, rushing over rock to stare at the sea. He froze, hands clutching at jagged stone, as a centaur stepped out of the surf. Next to her a woman with wings as white as snow and inhumanly tall and thin daintily tiptoed over sand. Between them, a familiar, bow-legged, short man, leaned heavily on his staff as he limped over the sand and waved towards the cheering that was rising from the walls. On the beach ahead of them, a slender blond man was held in place on his knees. Mamori’s blue magic was wrapped around his arms, and Mamori herself stood beside him, bow in one hand, empty quiver on her back, and her shoulders thrown back.

On the captured man’s other side, with a large gauntleted hand on the man’s shoulder, was Shin. His trident was missing a tine, his armor looked mangled and dented, and his hair was falling loose and tangled around his face. But he was standing and whole and alive.

Sena gasped, shuddered, and broke into sobs. He pressed his face against rough stone as cheers echoed through the narrow streets and over the beach. A wobbling grin stretched his mouth wide as tears streamed down his cheeks, dripping off his chin.

“They’re alive. They’re all right,” Sena choked out. Riku’s chilly hand patted Sena’s back.

“Looks like your side won, meus frater.”

Sena laughed and sobbed harder.

 


 

There was another good reason to run away from Kariya’s castle. The staring all these nobles did as Sena walked down the long hall towards the throne. Last time he’d done this, he’d been in his dragonscales, but this time two small human feet carried him towards the auburn-haired girl sitting on her cushioned stool. She’d done away with the overly ornate throne years ago, far preferring her simple stool in the colors of blue and gold. She was smiling happily as Sena stopped in front of her.

“Welcome back, Sena,” she said. She stood, and before any could stop her, flung herself on Sena’s shorter, slighter shoulders. “You’re all right?”

Sena wrapped his arms around her, smiling and smelling the sun-warmed scent of her hair and soap. Familiar good smells. “Yes, I’m fine, Mamo,” he whispered back.

She pulled away, patted his shoulders once, and then pulled on her queenly mask.

“I owe you my country, Sena the Red. You had gone, and you had the choice to never return to the scene of war, but you did. Whatever your reasons, who fought for Kariya, and for me.” Her voice rang out over the room. She held out her hand and Takami stepped forward to set a sword in her hand. “You’re no longer my Shield, I absolve you of your vow, with no punishment, and no harsh feelings. Rather than my Shield, you are your own dragon, free to make new choices and new mistakes, too,” she added with a wink. Sena blushed and ducked his head. The sword flashed in the light and the tip rested on his shoulder, then the other. “Rise anew, Sena of the Crimson Flame, champion of Kariya and her people.”

Cheers rose from the crowd, courtier, soldier, and commoners, the mass of people spilling out into the courtyard and the city beyond. The cheers and applause went on and on and tears weighed down Sena’s lashes.

“Mamori,” he said, still kneeling in front of her. She set aside the sword and waited with a smile. “You’ll always be my Queen, even if you aren’t my Chosen.”

The smile grew and her head tilted. “I’m glad of that, meus draco.”

Sena got to his feet and stepped aside. Riku stepped up then, frowning and uncomfortable. Yukimitsu gestured frantically for Riku to kneel, but the dragon sneered. Mamori covered her giggles with her hand.

“Riku, you are like the brother of my brother, and you too, risked your life for me and mine. I don’t demand your fealty, dragon as you are, but you deserve my respect and my gratitude. If you’d like, I’d grant you a title such as Sena’s?”

Riku frowned. “As long as it’s not moronic sounding.”

Mamori laughed again and lifted her blade again. She tapped it to each shoulder quickly and set its point back to the carpet at her feet. “Riku, the Silver Fury.”

He smirked and shrugged. Sena sighed as Riku joined his side.

“You really are trying to be unlikable.”

Monta approached next, shrinking under so many eyes and bug-eyed at Mamori. Even her reassuring smile couldn’t end his silent gawping.

“Raimon Tarou. Monta. You, too, are a hero to Kariya. You believed in my brother, helped him and treated him kindly with no thought to yourself or your own gain. You put your life in danger multiple times and personally helped me apprehend the rebellion’s leader, along with others who refused to be acknowledged today,” Mamori said gently.

That had Monta’s jaw unhinging. “I shoulda done the same,” he muttered in a croaky voice. Mamori raised her sword and Monta barely kept from flinching.

“Sir Raimon the Faithful, honorary knight of the realm of Kariya,” she announced. Monta flushed an ugly, beetroot red. “We depend on men like you, Sir Raimon.”

He stumbled his way towards Sena and Riku. “I think I blacked out the whole time that was happenin’,” he admitted hoarsely. Sena chuckled quietly and patted Monta’s back.

Mamori turned to the court and took in a slow deep breath. “The matter of the political prisoner and his Shield will take time and patience to solve. There’s a long road ahead of us. A road of recovery and rebuilding thanks to the uprising of Deimon. Today, however, is a day of celebration. A celebration of lives saved, the bravery of our soldiers and heroes, and a victory won.” She held an open-palmed hand over her heart. “To Kariya!”

“KARIYA!” boomed every voice in the room, every right hand over every heart.

 

 

Trestle tables were brought in and platters so piled high with food the tables groaned beneath them were set out. Suzuna and Karin joined them from the crowd they’d hid within, both having declined the honor– to them a dubious one when neither claimed Mamori as their sovereign. A few dozen people tried to approach them, eager to meet the lucky few singled out by a queen beloved by her people, but Riku’s icy glare and icier temperature had strangers shivering away in seconds. Suzuna finally smacked him with a turkey leg when he frosted the table and bench around him, and therefore around them. As they laughed and caroused over the food and drink, Sena’s eyes scanned every Lance standing attendance. They all wore their breastplate, even their helmets, but none of them were Shin. Sena was positive. None of them drew him closer, a moth to the flame he’d given away unintentionally.

Night was falling and people were getting louder, bards singing bawdier songs as Mamori clucked disapprovingly, but let her people enjoy the festivities as they liked. Suzuna and Monta were teaching Riku some of the raunchier lyrics as Karin giggled and blushed behind her flagon of mead.

And Sena figured now was a good enough time.

Tracing a ruby-red rune on his own thigh, he slipped discreetly away without drawing a single eye towards him. It was strange to walk past Mamori, to not have her mischievous blue eyes catch him as his Chosen should be able to. He walked past her unnoticed, though, and tried not to run towards his destination. Surely, if he weren’t celebrating inside, there could only be a few places he’d be.

The smell of hay and horses was like a warm blanket over his senses as he neared the stables. Most whickered uneasily at the inhuman smell of him, but a few did not. One of them the tall, broad mare with a mane inky black and coat sand-dune gold. In her stall, a man with hair as black as her mane was laying a thick blanket over her back.

“It’s not quite winter enough for that, is it?” Sena asked, stepping in the circle of light cast by the torch. Shin didn’t even flinch, his hand briefly touching his chest and then doggedly fixing the blanket. He bent out of sight and stood again with a saddle he hefted over Oujou’s back with a quiet grunt.

Sena’s heart plummeted to his feet. His fists clenched at his sides and he dropped his gaze to the hay-covered ground.

“Will your commander allow you to leave in the middle of the night like this?” Sena asked numbly.

“I’m not a Lance. Not even a knight.”

Sena jerked his head up, mouth falling open. “But. But you helped bring Hiruma in yourself! You fought side by side with Mamori!”

Shin paused, stared hard at the saddle, and then continued working on cinching and buckling every strap. “I was going to be honored. I refused.”

“Shin, why–?” Sena exclaimed, stepping forward and flinging out his arm needlessly.

“I broke my vow.”

Sena stilled, hand falling slowly. His heart thumped hard against his breastbone, thumping harder and faster when Shin’s eyes met his across the stable.

“I swore my fealty to you, but I didn’t stay by your side.”

“Shin…” Sena’s mouth felt dry, nose stinging, and his eyes followed the ex-knight as he walked out of the stall. Walked over hay and dirt. Walked right to Sena and stopped. Dark eyes traced over Sena’s face as though he’d never seen it, but also with the kind of intensity that had heat rippling over Sena’s skin. “You shouldn’t… you shouldn’t have done that. You’re a Lance, an amazing one. When you were knighted, Mamori and I could barely believe you were the same boy we knew. You worked so hard to be a Lance. You served Kariya, and you were right all along. I shouldn’t have run away.”

Shin lifted a hand and set it slowly on Sena’s bare arm. Despite the heat that had his skin burning cherry-red, Shin didn’t flinch. Just curiously, slowly, dragged his hand upwards, over the curve of Sena’s shoulder and laid over his throat, thumb pressing to the hummingbird-quick beat of his pulse.

“Haven’t you been listening?”

Sena swallowed painfully.

“I’d only sworn my fealty to you, but I forgot when it mattered most,” Shin said softly. His mouth twisted into something wry. “You’re not the only one who can make a mistake.”

Sena turned away and licked his lips, breathing heavily through his nose as the scent of Shin so close dizzied him. “You’re leaving,” he said hoarsely.

“I was hoping… we were leaving.”

Sena whipped his head back around it actually pulled a muscle. He winced and ignored the streak of pain down his neck. “What?” he blurted.

“You’re not going to stay. So why not go now?”

“With you?”

“Yes.”

Sena licked his lips again, heart thundering in his ears.

“But… Mamori… she doesn’t have a Shield… and the others…”

“Her Majesty will figure it out, and the others will find us soon enough. Until then, aren’t you tired of running alone?”

Sena stared, boggled really, as Shin placed his other hand on Sena’s neck. His thumbs stroked over too-hot skin, but he didn’t burn. Didn’t even grimace. An answering heat drew Sena’s fingers to a spot in the middle of Shin’s chest.

“You don’t have to forgive me, or say yes. I’m going, because what I thought I wanted, it isn’t here. It’s out there, with you, and I’ll wait for you to call me to you.”

“I’ll live a lot longer than you. What if you’re an old man by the time I decide?” Sena asked, shuffled forward, close enough the toes of Shin’s boots bumped his sandals.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does. It does matter,” Sena protested, shaking his head and grabbing the front of Shin’s tunic in both of his trembling hands. “And it matters why. Why run away with me? Why give up your whole life and your knighthood, just for me?”

“To prove I can be true to you. To make up for my mistake and serve only you,” Shin answered bluntly. Nothing about his words wavered or shook, but Sena was shaking his head again, almost hard enough to shake away Shin’s hands.

“I don’t want a knight, or your fealty. I just want you. I just want you to want to be with me,” Sena said, his eyes meeting Shin’s, imploring and earnest. "Not a Shield, just me."

Inexplicably, Shin’s mouth curved upwards. His hands cupped Sena’s face and he leaned down. Sena bit his lip, eyes shuttering closed, and he rose onto his tiptoes. Shin’s forehead tapped against his and it was just them two and the scent of hay and horses.

“If I said I love you, would that be enough for you?”

Sena’s eyes popped open. They darted between Shin’s. He’d said it once. In a tent on a blanket of fur while women whooped and sang outside. But Shin had never said it back.

“Yes. That’d be enough. If you meant it,” Sena whispered.

“I only say what I mean,” Shin replied. His thumb touched the corner of Sena’s mouth. “I love you, Sena. Just Sena.”

“I…” Sena’s mouth was stretched too widely, cheeks pained at the width of his smile. “I love you, too. Just Seijuuro.”

“Hm, no. That’s not what you said before.”

Sena blinked, frowning slightly in confusion. It hit him and his face went ripe tomato red, hot enough his skin steamed. Seijuuro’s chuckle was raspy and low before it was smothered by an eager, joyful kiss. Arms wrapped around his waist and lifted him right off his feet.

Mine.

 

He’d always been good at running away. The only thing he’d ever been good at really. This time, though, he wasn’t going to run away in fear, no more racing away from pain. No, he’d be the first dragon Shield in history to elope.