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Run to Paradise

Chapter Text

Haruka sits quietly in the back of the cart as the small group of fishermen head away from the city for the day’s work in the very early hours of the morning. The city of Sol fades away into the distance as the horse master flicks the reigns, urging the horse on faster, and Haruka finds himself breathing a little freer the further away from the king of the Sun Territory he gets. This happens every day, relief at putting distance between himself and the man who bought Haruka’s service from a slave trader, even though leaving the city means leaving Makoto alone in the Kirishima house with the volatile head of the family.

The other fishermen talk quietly to each other, three Alphas like Haruka himself, two Betas, and a solitary Omega who had also been bought by King Matsuoka from the Water Territory on one of his slave runs. Haruka does not even know her name, and he does not speak to the rest of the fishermen. Instead, he retrieves a small book from his satchel, thumbing carefully to the page he had marked the day before. Makoto is teaching Haruka to read – one of the many downsides of being kidnapped and sold as a young child is a distinct lack of education.

His book was written for older children on the history of the land, and although he still struggles with some of the larger words and difficult phrasing, Haruka finds it both fascinating and useful. Currently, he is reading the chapter about the island of Paradise, located directly in the centre of the land, surrounded by the perfectly circular Ring River that separates it from the territories surrounding it. Once, before the Great War, Paradise had been a peaceful trading hub, people from all over the land welcome, but then it had closed its boarders during the war, only opening its gates once a year to take refugees – those brave enough, or stupid enough, to face the perilous journey across the territories and the Forest of Treachery to reach the banks of Ring River.

Their cart ride takes two hours, and the sun has begun to rise properly, the Sun Alphas groaning happily as its presence ignites the magic in their blood, golden veins glowing in the dawn light. Haruka yearns for the same feeling, the distant ocean singing to him as the cart pulls to a stop by the edge of the Topaz Cliffs. Haruka marks his place and stows the book back in his bag, stripping down to his undershorts with the other fishermen.

The sun climbs higher in the sky as Haruka and the Water Omega are sent on rickety ropes down the slippery gold cliff face, straight into the deep waters at the cliff’s foot as the strongest swimmers in the group. It is their job to dive for both shellfish, and certain water plants to be given to the city’s apothecaries. The rest of the fishing party navigate the narrow path down the cliff with rods over their shoulders, small boats waiting for them at the edge of a stone jetty. They will sail all the way to the Bronze Isle in search of fish.

Despite his not very well-hidden dislike for both his ‘king’ and his master – Lord Kirishima, King Matsuoka’s chief advisor – Haruka finds a near enjoyment in his work. Although it is dangerous and taxing work, Haruka understandably enjoys being in the water. His veins flash sea blue as he takes his first dive, a second set of ropes anchoring him to an outcropping of raw topaz lest he get swept away by an unexpected current. The magic bestowed upon him by his Water Territory heritage allows him to see better, hold his breath longer, and dive more accurately than the other fishermen, his relationship with the ocean one of trust and love rather than work.

Haruka busies himself with a search for oysters, knowing that Makoto likes them, and hoping to save a few for his Omega mate so they can have a nice dinner for the first time in a little while. His hands flash, helping him spot his prizes in the water, lanced through with rays of light from the sun that glint off the topaz coating of the cliffs. One oyster calls to him particularly, and as he uses a sharp burst of magic to pry the cluster from its rocky bed, Haruka knows that there is a pearl inside it. Kicking back up to the surface, he separates the cluster and tosses a dead oyster back into the water before turning his attention to his new prize.

He prises the shell apart with the small knife he has been allowed to carry by his master, and scoops the small white pearl out, holding it up to inspect its sheen in the sunlight. “Beautiful,” he breathes, and slips the pearl into the tiny secret pocket he had sewn into the lining of his bag. Haruka has steadily – and illegally – been collecting pearls for months, planning on making Makoto a betrothal necklace, as is tradition in Haruka’s home territory. If his lord or anyone else discovers what Haruka is doing, he will certainly be thrown in the dungeons, and potentially even exiled into the Deadlands or executed. Just a month ago, one of Lord Kirishima’s house staff had been exiled for stealing a piece from the jewellery box that had belonged to the lord’s late son.

The sun is high above him now, and if Haruka squints, he can see the three boats out on the water against the bright beacon that is Bronze Isle shining across the water like a second sun. His oyster bucket is half full, palm-sized oysters fluttering their shells in slowly warming water, and Haruka decides he has earned a small reprieve, leaning back on his hands to enjoy the warmth washing over his skin.

He tries to spot his Omega diving partner, and sees the young woman perched on a rock a few feet from the cliff, inspecting a large clam she has hauled from the depths. Haruka tilts his head when he sees the blood dripping down her right arm. She must have gotten caught between the clams at some point, and Haruka hopes that there are no sharks in the area that day.

Knowing he won’t get fed if he doesn’t meet his quota, Haruka slides back into the water, and thus his day continues until the sun has passed the clifftops and the water begins to darken until he can only see by the light of his magic. He is still underwater when the flare goes up to signal the end of the day, a bright red flash of light bursting from the jetty. Securing his oyster bucket, and the small sack of sea grass he had collected, Haruka winches the day’s catches back up the cliffs, the topaz now a burning umber in the sunset. Finally, he and the Omega woman are hauled back up and given thin towels and wooden cups of cold, crisp water. They re-dress in silence and climb into the cart,

The cart ride back to Sol is undertaken in the dark orange light of dusk, evening settling in as the cart rolls up to the city gates. Heavy barrels of fish are strapped to the low shelf behind the driver, alongside Haruka’s bucket of oysters – if he has a handful wrapped carefully in oilskins in his pouch, no one need be the wiser – and two clams in a basket with some fresh-cracked crab. A good haul for the day, Haruka thinks. One by one, they are dropped off at their homes, Haruka the last in the cart as the Kirishima house is in the inner ring of the city, in the shadow of Matsuoka Castle across the grounds and up the hill.

“Haru!” Makoto is waiting for him at the servant’s entrance, his bright eyes smudged with tired shadows, and his thin work clothes streaked with dust. “Welcome home!” He helps his Alpha down off the cart and the two bid farewell to the horse master, who nods in response and drives away. Makoto smiles when he feel’s Haruka’s cold hands on his face, pulling him down for a greeting kiss. “How was your day?”

Haruka shrugs, his bag strung across his shoulder, and Makoto’s smile softens to an expression so fond Haruka has to drag him back down for another kiss. “I finished the chapter,” he tells Makoto, the slightest hint of pride creeping into his voice. “About Paradise.”

Makoto’s arm settles over Haruka’s shoulders as Haruka puts his own around Makoto’s waist, mildly possessive after not seeing his mate for an entire day, and the two head inside to their room. Makoto is moving stiffly, and he tells Haruka that he had been tasked with cleaning the room of the Kirishima heir, the long abandoned chambers thick with dust and heavy with sour memories. It had taken Makoto all day to sweep away the dust and rehang the curtains, righting the objects in the room that had been disturbed during whatever had happened there so many years ago.

“What did happen?” Haruka asks, curious, as he sits at their table and opens the small selection of oysters he had pilfered from his bucket, Makoto standing at the stove making broth to go with them. “Did young Master Kirishima pass away?”

Makoto shakes his head, nervously glancing over his shoulder. “The lord’s son ran away,” he breathes. “About sixteen years ago, it was quite the scandal – he took one of the Omega house staff with him that no one outside the house had ever seen before. The rumours say that they ran away to Paradise together, because it was around that time of year.” Makoto bites his lip. “We’re not supposed to talk about it.” Even as he says it, Makoto abandons the stove, pulling a small folded square of paper from his pocket, setting it in front of Haruka. “I got a letter from Rei today,” Makoto whispers, and Haruka’s chin jerks up, eyes flying open. “He thinks he has found a way through the Forest.”

Scrambling to open the letter as Makoto returns to their dinner, Haruka rakes his eyes over Rei’s neat hand. Got reassigned to the archives, the letter reads. Uncovered a series of maps from the King’s personal library, there seems to be an area of the Forests even the Sol guards will not travel. Will conduct more research, be ready. Haruka bites his lip, the words swimming in front of his tired eyes. “Uh…” he sheepishly hands the letter back to Mako. “I’m having a few issues, would you mind?”

Makoto’s smile lights the whole room up, and he takes the letter back, leaning his hip against the table as he reads the letter aloud quietly. “Will conduct more research,” he says softly. “Be ready.”

Haruka looks up at Makoto with a sharp grin. “Excellent,” he says. “I knew Rei wouldn’t let us down.”

“Enough for today,” Makoto says gently, always cautious of ears at the door. He places the steaming broth pot on the table, and Haruka reaches for the bowls. They eat their broth hot and the oysters lightly steamed, and Makoto smells warm and content afterwards. “Thank you, Haru,” he says, licking his lips and leaning his head on Haru’s shoulder, pressing a kiss to Haruka’s scent gland. “It’s been so long since I last had oysters.”

“Anything for you, Mako,” Haruka replies, stealing another kiss from his Omega before Makoto stands, ready for a bath.

Makoto runs his hand down Haruka’s arm. “Will you join me? You need to wash all that salt off.” His cheeks tint pink at the suggestive tone in his own voice.

Haruka smiles. “In a moment, love. Go and wait for me.”

Once Makoto is preoccupied filling the claw-footed bath in the corner of their room, Haruka retrieves the pearl from his bag, carrying it carefully between two fingers into their tiny bed chamber off the main room of the quarters. He pulls open the draw of the bed stand on his side, removes the pouch woven from sea silk and kelp thread his mother made him long ago. It has grown round and heavy over the past few months, tens of pearls held safely inside. He opens it and adds his newest pearl, humming in satisfaction as the beautiful gemstones clink together softly. Haruka has yet to count them, but he is confident that he has just enough for a single pearl rope.

After hiding the pouch in the back corner of the draw, next to his last spool of sea silk, Haruka heads for the bath. He drops his clothes in the hamper, and can’t keep the soppy smile off his face when he sees Makoto, naked and neatly folded up in one end of the tub, waiting for Haruka to slide in behind him. As Haruka sinks into the warm water, his veins thrumming a soft dark blue and glowing faintly, he lets out a sigh so deep his stomach twitches, and he opens his arms, waiting.

Makoto leans back against Haruka with a hum, raising his long legs to rest his feet on the edge of the tub as Haruka holds him close, his chin settling on Makoto’s shoulder. “Tickles,” Makoto says as Haruka noses at his neck, giggling.

Drawing his legs slightly, his knees pressing into Makoto’s thighs, Haruka takes a deep sniff against Makoto’s scent gland, rubbing his cheek against Makoto’s neck once he’s satisfied. “You smell like cherries,” he tells Makoto in interest. “How far away is your heat?”

“A few days, I think. Maybe less,” Makoto says softly, turning his head to nuzzle his cheek against Haruka’s. “Lord Kirishima has given us two days off.” He sighs. “That’s two days less than last month.” His scent bleeds a bitter tone at his annoyance, and Haruka decides to take Makoto’s mind off the matter. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Makoto scolds playfully when Haruka’s hands go wandering across his chest, caressing Makoto’s skin with feather-light touches.

Mating in their tub is awkward, but Haruka is nothing if not skilled at adapting to difficult circumstances, teasing Makoto into a whimpering mess while he is still lying against Haruka, teasing fingers pinching at sensitive nipples and stroking over warm, damp skin. When their bath water starts to smell more like the thick cherry scent of Makoto’s slick than it does the clean lemon of their soap, silvery trails of the fine substance swirling around them, Haruka moves his mate with strong hands, pulling Makoto to rest with his back against the edge of the tub, Haruka settling between his legs to drag him into a kiss that would steam even without the hot water.

Makoto clings to Haruka with curled fingers and strong legs as Haruka’s fingers press inside him, aided by slick and water, igniting heat deep within him as Makoto tips his head over the edge of the bath, leaving his neck bare for Haruka’s nibbling teeth. When Haruka breaches him, hips keeping Makoto’s thighs parted as his hands wander up to cup Makoto’s face lovingly, they both sigh as the revel in the sensation of completion, Haruka’s forehead dropping to Makoto’s chest, lips pressing to his mate’s skin. With a breathy laugh, Makoto kisses the crown of Haruka’s head before his shoulders hunch back and expression bleeds into one of pleasure as Haruka thrusts inside him, knot flaring until they’re tied together with breathless cries.

The bath water is cool on their wrinkly skin by the time Haruka is satisfied and Makoto is thoroughly debauched, both grinning like fools with their shiny, kiss-bruised lips. Haruka carries Makoto to their bed despite the Omega’s complaints – “Haru, no! I’m too tall for you to carry, you’re going to drop me!” – and drains the tub, turning out the lights before crawling onto the mattress and dragging the goose-down quilt over the both of them.

They will be woken at dawn by Nagisa, the young Alpha on his way to bed after his night cleaning the kitchens for the day staff, and their day will begin all over again.

Everything is as usual, until breakfast time.


Makoto dips his toast in the runny yolk of his egg, wrinkling his nose but not wanting to waste the small amount of breakfast food the staff are entitled to, and beside him Haruka carefully sections off half a grilled mackerel. Around them, the Kirishima kitchens bustle with activity as the chefs prepare breakfast for the master, and Makoto can already feel the ache in his bones for the work he has lined up for him that day. Lord Kirishima has requested that Makoto attend his personal chambers, with two of the other Omega staff members.

The sky outside the windows is still black, the faintest hint of stars still clinging to the inky darkness. Dawn has yet to break.

“Be safe diving,” Makoto tells Haruka sternly, reaching out and taking Haruka’s free hand, just as he does every morning.

Before Haruka can answer – “I’m always safe, the water protects me.” – the emergency bells in the city square begin to chime, and a sudden stillness descends across the household.

“WHAT ARE YOU ALL STANDING AROUND FOR?” Lord Kirishima can be heard bellowing in a distant room. “GET MOVING, INTO TOWN ALL OF YOU!”

Shocked at the variation from routine, Makoto moves on autopilot as he retreats to the servant’s quarters to wake Nagisa, Haruka joining the two once Nagisa is back in his uniform, all of them following the small parade of servants outside and on the short trek to the centre of Sol. The square fills up quickly, servants and noblemen alike, and Haruka stands on his toes to peer over the crowd at the king’s personal squad of guards as they stand in formation around the centre fountain. Nagisa grabs Makoto and Haruka by their elbows and drags the taller boys through the crowd towards a familiar head of orange hair.

“Momo!” he calls, voice thick with sleep even as his tiny body thrums with energy. The guard turns his head and looks around furtively before nodding the trio over. “Momo, what’s going on?”

Momotarou hushes Nagisa quickly, gesturing for them to lean in closer so he doesn’t have to speak too loudly. It’s a little out of character for the usually boisterous Alpha – typically on par with Nagisa’s level of enthusiasm – but Haruka has been made aware via Makoto’s much more perceptive self that Momo is apparently on constant thin ice with the Captain of the Guard, for reasons Makoto isn’t aware of and Momo isn’t willing to share. Whatever he’s about to tell them, Momo clearly doesn’t want any of the other guards to know that he’s passing information along to civilians, and servants at that. “The king has a special band of soldiers who patrol the section of the Forest of Treachery in the Sun Territory,” Momo explains quickly, gold eyes flicking from side to side as if waiting for someone to jump on him for speaking out of turn.

“Early this morning, they caught track of a rogue Omega in the Forest, and they followed him to Sol, trying to catch him.” Momo bites his lip. “They’re saying he was very young, but armed and dangerous. He killed one of the soldiers when they caught him, and…”

Haruka and Makoto share glances, and Nagisa presses their friend. “And, what?”

“He escaped, and they lost him at the city limits,” Momo breathes. “The princess herself has been called to address the people. The soldiers think…” he swallows audibly, a slight tremble of what could almost be fear rolling over him. “They think he’s from the Deadlands.”

Makoto gasps, green eyes wide in shock. “How come?!”

“I don’t know, I’m too low on the food chain to hear the specifics,” Momo shakes his head with a grim expression. “I heard whispers about his hair, and some sort of necklace, but-”

“Mikoshiba!” a voice barks above the din around them suddenly, and Momo snaps to attention, his spine rigid as he swivels to face the Captain of the Guard. “What are you doing? Who gave you permission to converse with citizens during an Address?”

Momo blanches. “N-no one, sir!” he says. “I apologise!” and he bows stiffly.

Haruka tugs on Makoto’s sleeve, pokes Nagisa in the back of the head, and the three of them melt back into the crowd lest Momo get in further trouble with the man who holds Momo’s future in his hands, yet also seems to hold the young Alpha in contempt. “There’s Rei,” Haruka says, inclining his head to the side to draw their attention to the tall Omega weaving his way through the crowd towards them.

“Rei!” Nagisa exclaims happily, bounding two steps forwards to jump on Rei, who catches Nagisa with an indignant splutter, though the ease with which his arms circle Nagisa’s waist speak of one long used to the action. “I missed your face! Have you heard anything about this?”

Working in the king’s library gives Rei a unique ear into the comings and goings of the royal gossip, as people tend to ignore the Omega shelving books before running their mouths. Librarians are there to sever, after all. To serve, and to find knowledge.

The lenses of Rei’s glasses flash in the sun as he nods his head ever so slightly. “A weary soldier passed comment to another about chasing a dark-haired Omega from the territory boarder to the middle of the city’s inner ring before they lost him amongst the houses. They think he might have escaped into the outer slums.” Rei turns his head to Makoto and Haruka. “He was trying to get into Lord Kirishima’s house.”

“Lord Kirishima?” Haruka says, leaning forwards curiously. “Why?”

“Momo said he was armed,” Makoto says. “Do you think he meant to attack someone in the house?”

Haruka tries to keep the curling smile off his face. “Lord Kirishima, hopefully,” he sneers, and Makoto slaps his arm to shush him, in case someone overhears his treacherous words. “Stop it, Mako, I’ll be quiet.” Haruka catches Makoto’s hand in his own and holds it fondly. “Rei, meet us in the usual place tonight, we’ll have a discussion over dinner about your letter,” Haruka tells Rei conversationally, segueing them onto their own secretive topic. “Bring whatever you can.”

“Certainly,” Rei says easily, his smile casual and his eyes sharp.

A fanfare sounds, and their attention is drawn to where the door of the king’s carriage has finally been opened. The princess’ body guard steps down first, a Beta woman swathed in a pearlescent hooded cloak and white mask to hide her face. A long, straight sword hangs from her waist, and she offers a hand into the depths of the carriage. Princess Gou emerges in a swirl of periwinkle silk and bright scarlet hair, regal and cold as her iron-pointed shoes peak out from the hem of her elegant dress and tap against the pavement.

“People of Sol,” she says, volume controlled yet still commanding the ear of everyone present. Her face is still as porcelain, poised to crack with the expression of any emotion. “A person of dangerous intentions has entered our city. A foreign Omega who means to harm one of our lords. He has already killed a soldier of ours in cold blood. By order of the king, anyone with information on this person and how he came to enter our home is demanded to step forwards. Furthermore, anyone who may sight him will inform the castle guards immediately.”

Harsh murmurs spread around the crowd. “An Omega? Hurt a lord?” one woman scoffs, folding her burly arms across her chest. “Not likely.”

“Probably just a jilted bitch seeking revenge,” a Beta says snidely to a friend, his hand held up to cover his mouth. “Damned Alphas putting us all in danger when they dip their dicks into every wet hole.”

“Why is the princess concerned?” voices whisper. “Is there something she’s not telling us? Could this be about the missing prince?”

The missing prince! flies around the crowd, and the princess’ body guard puts a warning hand on the gilded hilt of her sword, though she stands down at a dismissive hand wave from Princess Gou.

“Silence!” Princess Gou demands, hardly raising her voice as jaded red eyes dare anyone to mention her brother in her presence again. “Our soldiers say the Omega is young, has dark green hair, and is wearing a copper necklace threaded with feathers and polished glass. We are offering a reward for information. He will be imprisoned immediately for questioning, pending execution.”

And then the ruckus is over. Princess Gou is helped back into her carriage, which departs as soon as her body guard has shut them both inside.

The guards begin to disperse the crowds, sending the people of Sol on their way back to their daily routines. Haruka and Makoto bid farewell to Rei, Nagisa pulling the Omega down for a filthy kiss that certainly shouldn’t be seen in public, and the three Kirishima servants head back towards their house. Haruka is immediately loaded onto the fishermen’s cart without even enough time to say goodbye to Makoto, the other fishermen grumbling about being an hour behind schedule. Sighing, Makoto follows the chefs back into the kitchen to clear away the cold remains of his and Haruka’s breakfast before preparing himself for work.

He is Lord Kirishima’s oldest servant, the only one who had lived in the house before the disappearance of Master Kirishima. Makoto was only six at the time, has barely any memories of the bright, bubbly Alpha who had rampaged the hallways, towing the silver haired Omega maid behind him always, but Lord Kirishima kept him on hand for some strange nostalgic reason. Knocking politely on the Lord’s door, Makoto adjusts the breakfast tray in his other hand. “Lord Kirishima?”

“Come in, Makoto,” the lord calls, and Makoto pushes the door open.

A fierce blush stains his cheeks as the intense scent of leaking Omega slick fills his nose, and Makoto professionally ignores the two other Omegas already in the room, naked and fawning on the bed with Lord Kirishima buried between their wet thighs at the waist and hands. “Set the tray on the table, Makoto,” Lord Kirishima tells him offhandedly, his head lolling to the side to eye Makoto up. He hasn’t even removed his clothing properly from their trek into the square. “Makoto, won’t you join me, darling? You can’t keep rebuffing me forever.”

“I respectfully decline, my lord,” Makoto says, fighting to keep the tremor from his voice. He has no doubt that the only thing keeping the lord – famous for bedding his Omega servants if the many rumours surrounding the Kirishima family are to be believed – from taking what he wants from Makoto is Makoto’s unnatural size and strength for his gender, rivalling the lord himself for height. “I doubt my mate would be particularly thrilled.” He keeps his tone jovial, always cautious around the temperamental old lord.

Lord Kirishima merely responds by turning back to his task at hand, curling his fingers back into the Omega perched by his head, stroking her wet folds as she shivers uncomfortably, and the lord thrusts up into the Omega sitting in his lap, the boy’s head falling back with a barely-concealed gasp of pain. “Please begin your cleaning in my bathroom, Makoto.”

“Certainly, my lord,” Makoto whispers, shuffling past the bed without looking at either Omega.

He knows them both, one a gardener, and the other a kitchen maid. They are barely old enough to be considered adults. It disgusts him.

The bathroom is in total disarray, water splashed everywhere and the giant bath half-full of stone-cold, oily water the colour of tarnished silver that reeks of soap scum and day-old slick. The wall mirror is crooked, the vanity content spilled across the floor, and a shattered vase is under the windowsill. Makoto sighs, rolls his sleeves up, and hopes that Haruka is having a much more fulfilling day. He dreads to think what foul things he will be forced to clean once he has to re-enter the main chamber.

Makoto throws open a window to let the sun shine into the room, his veins singing in the warmth and light, and he steels himself for the task at hand, setting his eyes on the bathtub. His skin crawls as he plunges his arm into the bath, the water hissing with steam as the purifying magic of the sun hits its filthy depths, Makoto pulling the plug and draining the water. It gurgles down the drain, and Makoto reels back, face scrunching as he sees a slimy waterline on the tiled walls of the bath.  Lord Kirishima is a disgusting man, both in manner and action. Makoto sympathises with any Omega who would wish the Alpha dead.

Cleaning the mess takes several hours of hard work, accompanied by the soundtrack of two Omegas being thoroughly mated in the next room over, whines and wails and screams punctuating the movements of Makoto’s scrub brush. “Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting,” he mutters to himself, and tries to distract his thoughts, conjuring up the memories from the first day he met Haruka, a tiny Alpha child dragged into the kitchens of the estate who wouldn’t stop crying until Makoto toddled over and gave him a glass of water. Makoto can still remember the wonder he had felt when the veins around Haruka’s lips had stained electric blue as he drank like he was drowning, the colour sweeping down his neck, across his chest, and swirling over his hunger-bloated stomach.

The thick, cloying smell of Omega pheromones breaks into his concentration, and Makoto shudders, nose more sensitive today than usual. He frowns, pausing to sit back on his haunches as sweat beads down his neck. Surely it wasn’t that hot in the room a moment ago?

Makoto shrugs the niggling worry in the back of his mind off and returns to work, swiping his arm at his wash bucket to send hot, sudsy water rolling across the grimy tiles as he reaches for a scouring brush. Even the grout between blocks of white marble will be shining by the time Makoto is finished with them.

House staff are forbidden from using their magic while working – magic use is reserved for the lords and masters while in the public eye, a staunch tradition within the walls of Sol – but Makoto is often forced to breath that rule to complete his cleaning, particularly now with the marble floor, knowing that running his sparking hands over the freshly-mopped surface will disinfect it better than any cleaning solution he could fetch from the store room in the kitchens. His uniform is soaked through by the time Makoto climbs to his feet, satisfied that the bathroom is spotless, even the vase perched back on the windowsill, the pieces woven back together with careful magic so King Matsuoka himself wouldn’t be able to spot the cracks.

He grabs the front of his shirt and peels the heavy material off his skin so he can breathe easy, and Makoto sways on his feet, head light from what he assumes is the abundance of strong sugar soap he had liberally splashed over the walls to clean the paint. Even over the eyesore scent of cleaning products, Makoto can still smell Omega, wet and hot, and he pants, his whole body feeling as damp and heavy as his clothes.

“My goodness, what a pleasant surprise,” Lord Kirishima purrs from behind him, and Makoto sluggishly turns to bow in acceptance of his master’s praise for his hard work. But Lord Kirishima isn’t looking at his bathroom, sparkling and clean in the midday sun, his eyes are boring holes into Makoto’s slim waistline as the old Alpha licks his lips. “I thought you said your heat wasn’t due for another few days? Were you planning on giving me a treat?”

Makoto’s blood runs cold even as uncomfortable hotness washes over him, realisation that being so close to his heat meant that the overwhelming pheromones of two mating Omegas had swept him right over the edge. As an Omega with an Alpha mate, Makoto is not required to take full-strength suppressants, just a dosage that will regulate his cycle enough to be manageable. But he and Haruka aren’t Bonded – aren’t permitted to, as servants. If Lord Kirishima decides that Makoto is his servant in more than just title, Makoto won’t be able to stop him.

He takes a step back, wet shoes squeaking on the floor, and Lord Kirishima looms forwards, the streaks of grey in his fine brown hair flashing in the sunlight. “Please, my lord,” Makoto says, and his voice shakes even to his own ear, breathy and low. “Allow me to return to my quarters, it is unsightly of me to appear before you in this condition.”

“Nonsense, my darling,” Kirishima says, voice dropping into that horrible Alpha tone Makoto hates hearing from anyone other than Haruka. “Look at you, you’re completely soaked through. Dripping, wet.” He advances further into the bathroom, and Makoto notices the scratch marks visible on the lord’s chest through his open shirt, bright red and welling with blood at the ends. “I could smell you over the other two, they were really too young to satisfy me properly.” Humming, he reaches out a hand to stroke a finger over Makoto’s cheek. “Maybe it’s time I turned my tastes to a more mature flavour.”

Lord Kirishima has backed Makoto so far into the bathroom that Makoto shrieks when his calves hit the edge of the bathtub. A sudden hand on his chest and a gentle push is enough to send the tall Omega tumbling down into the deep porcelain tub. A sickening crack echoes around the bathroom as Makoto’s head glances off the bottom and he sees stars, blacking out for a second as pain explodes through the back of his skull. One of his legs is awkwardly hooked over the edge, the other bent at the knee and pressed along the wall of the bath from shin to toe-tip. His wet clothes stick to the tile and an embarrassed whimper dribbles from Makoto’s lips when he feels hot slick coating the backs of his thighs. “Stop,” he whines, hands scrambling for purchase. He cleaned too well – there is nothing to grip to gain purchase. “Please, stop…” His vision is blurry.

“Why should I?” Kirishima asks rhetorically as he trails his fingers over Makoto’s leg hanging out of the bath. “Don’t think you’re the first Omega servant to try and defy me. You all cave in the end, your bodies are only useful for one purpose.” He grips the wet wool of Makoto’s pants and starts to yank them down, hauling Makoto across the bath’s floor and pulling his hips right up the side, and Makoto chokes, unable to move his head to the side.

A glistening line of red drags across the pale, cream coloured tile from the back of Makoto’s head.

Makoto slaps his hands furiously against the floor of the bath, unable to even breathe properly with the pain swimming in his head and the fear dragging him down into that dark, scary place of his mind where he feels like he is trapped in a cave where no sunlight will ever reach him again. “No!” he manages to yell when his saturated pants are finally yanked free, thrown over an uncaring shoulder to squelch wetly on his nice, clean floors. “G’t ‘ff me!” Kirishima’s hands descend on his hips and Makoto screams. “Please!”

“Please?” Kirishima asks wickedly, and Makoto can hear the smirk on his lined old face. “Well, if you insist.”

No matter how hard he tries to conjure up the comforting image of Haruka smiling at him, patting Makoto’s hair and telling him he’s so strong and brave and beautiful, it isn’t enough to force his mind out of his body and the ugly touch of Kirishima’s hands on his waist, his hips, stroking over his thighs, pushing Makoto’s shirt up under his chin. Makoto can’t focus, the sound of his screams bouncing off the walls as he struggles underneath the burly Alpha, thrashing wildly to try and dislodge him, kicking his legs and trying to get his arms to cooperate. Fingers brush up through the slick between Makoto’s thighs and venture places only Haruka has ever touched, and his brain whites out.

Even being consumed by the mind-numbing hormones of his heat, Makoto won’t allow just any Alpha to put their hands on him.

“GET AWAY!”

The explosion of gold light knocks Lord Kirishima off his feet, and he clatters against the far wall, crumpling in a heap at a pair of small, bare feet. Nagisa stares down at his lord in contempt, and he drops the large book he had been wielding above his head, ready to strike the man when he had entered the bathroom and seen the despicable display. “Mako…” the young Alpha murmurs, stepping over Kirishima to hesitantly approach the bathtub. “Mako, are you okay?” Makoto keens pitifully from inside the bath, and Nagisa peers over the edge.

Makoto’s skin is flushed pink and gold from hairline to anklebone, light radiating off him with his heat pheromones and fear. Glassy green eyes stare at Nagisa with utter non-comprehension, glowing brightly above cheeks stained a deep red. The air reeks of magic, and Makoto’s hands are still raised up defensively, blinding sparks crackling from his fingertips, the sun streaming across his bent, bruising form where he lays sprawled in the tub. Black ash cakes the cracked, steaming tiles, and Makoto whimpers, still unable to focus on Nagisa properly.

Nagisa thinks that Makoto has probably never used that much magic at once in his entire life.

“It’s alright, Mako, it’s just me, Nagisa,” Nagisa says soothingly, edging around the tub so he can get an arm under Makoto’s broad shoulders. “You got rid of him, he’s totally knocked out. I’m going to help you up, okay?”

The nod is minute, but Nagisa sees it, levering Makoto up off the floor of the bath. Dried blood flakes out of Makoto’s hair, and the Omega yelps as the pain flares up again, spots dancing in his vision. He blinks and blacks out again, coming back into his body to the feeling of Nagisa and an unidentified set of hands carrying him out of Lord Kirishima’s bathroom. His head lolls sluggishly to the side, and Makoto recognises Momo’s fiery hair. “Nagi… sa…” he says hoarsely. “What happened?”

“We heard you screaming, Mako,” Nagisa whispers, his eyes filling with tears, and he and Momo lay Makoto out on the carpet in the hallway. “All the way down in the kitchens. It woke me up, and I came looking for you. I…” Nagisa’s bottom lip starts to quiver. “I’M SO SORRY, MAKOTO!” he wails, lunging forwards to clutch at Makoto’s hands. Makoto idly realises that someone has wrapped a guard’s jacket around his waist to cover him. “I didn’t get there in time, and he could have-” he gulps. “He could have-”

Makoto threads his fingers with Nagisa’s and manages a calming smile. “But he didn’t.”

Momo is grinding his teeth so hard it’s audible. “This is the last straw,” he growls. “I came over to pass on another letter from Rei and ran into Nagisa, and this… This is why Seijuro left. Why he and Master Kirishima and the prince ran to Paradise!”

Even in his pained, stunned state, Makoto has enough sense to dive forwards and clap his hand over Momo’s mouth. “Quiet!” he rasps. “We’ll be in enough trouble when Lord Kirishima wakes up – we don’t need you making it worse by speaking such treacherous things out loud!”

Apologising quietly, Momo offers Makoto a hand up. “Let us get you back to your quarters,” he says. “It’s late afternoon, Haruka and the other fishermen will be home in a few hours.”

“Mako, are you sure you’re alright?” Nagisa asks several times on their slow progress down the stairs and back into the kitchens. “Your head was bleeding, and you smelled so scared!”

Makoto smiles at Nagisa again and ruffles his blonde bed-head affectionately. “I’m alright now, Nagisa, thanks to you two for helping me out.” He bows his forehead against Momo’s in thanks as Nagisa wraps his arms around Makoto’s waist in a tight hug. “I just need to clean myself and try to sleep the heat off until Haru returns, so, please, go back to your duties. Don’t let me keep you!”

Reluctantly, Nagisa and Momo leave the room, Nagisa heading to the kitchens for his afternoon breakfast, and Momo for the door, no doubt on his way back to the castle. Makoto falters in the middle of the room before lunging for the door, slamming the lock home and resting his cheek against the rough wood, panting heavily as his knees draw in involuntarily. He sinks down onto his side, arms wrapped around his middle as heat cramps seize him. Only then does he cry, burning tears made of salt and sunlight searing down his face to pool in a flickering puddle under his head.

Makoto sobs himself into silence, throat overworking and constricting on each mouthed word. “Haruka! Haruka, come home! I need you!


The water breaks smoothly as Haruka surfaces, dragging a long string of kelp behind him. Haruka grabs on to a jut of topaz with one hand as he whips the kelp onto the slowly growing pile, starting to steam slightly and curl at the edges as it bakes on the shore in the afternoon sun. Once cured and dried, kelp makes an excellent leather substitute. He shakes his head to dislodge the drops of water from his hair and pulls himself up onto the bank for a breather, his stomach jumping under his cold skin from exertion. Leaning back on his elbows, feet still trailing in the softly lapping ocean, Haruka tilts his head back with a great sigh, eyes closed as he enjoys the rays of warmth.

Blinking his eyes open slowly to ward off spotty vision, Haruka freezes, staring at the sheer, glittering drop of Topaz Cliffs upside down, his mouth popped open slightly. A dark, moving spot mars the precious stone glazing the cliff face, tiny against the sheer size of the cliff.

Someone is crouching on one of the ledges that protrudes under the edge of the overhang.

As Haruka watches warily, the figure moves with slow fatigue, a weak arm tossing something from the ledge that glints and gleams as it twirls through the air to land with an almighty splash in the water mere feet away from where Haruka is sitting. He moves on instinct, diving back into the water and down after the rapidly sinking object, glowing hand outstretched to snatch it from a sandy grave at the bottom of the ocean. Returning to the surface, he inspects the thing in his hands.

A loop of fine, hand-twined copper wire is draped in his fingers, made with such delicacy that it has the smooth flexibility of silk thread. Seven soaked feathers are attached to the wire with tiny filigree clasps, six black and iridescent green, and the centre one white and pearlescent pink. Clear glass beads hang between the feathers, polished so they shine like pure crystal, a single strand of copper running through the centre of each to fix them to the piece. Haruka has seen a picture of similar jewellery in his history book. It is a betrothal necklace from the Moon Territory, their customs very similar to that of his own territory.

This necklace looks old and well-loved, barely-there cracks running along the glass and slight dull patches worn into the copper from constant wearing, the feathers bedraggled at the tips.

Haruka looks back up to the ledge, but the person who had thrown the necklace has disappeared.

The Omega is young, has dark green hair, and is wearing a copper necklace threaded with feathers and polished glass, Princess Gou had said, and Haruka’s eyes fly open wide in realisation of what he has just found. He springs from the water with a sudden urgency, the necklace gripped tight in his hand as he abandons his kelp pile and strides towards the base of the cliffs, his wet feet slippery on the topaz. Light bush snakes up between small clusters of topaz, and Haruka inspects each one, sure that the renegade Omega would not risk returning to the top of the cliff lest he is seen. Escaping the Sun Territory from the jetty would be Haruka’s first choice if he could run without having to bring anyone with him, so he follows the bushes in that direction.

One of the fishing boats is still moored to the stone jetty, the fishing party short an Alpha that day after her Omega went into heat that morning, and Haruka approaches it on light feet, unsure if the rogue Omega is even there. When he is at the foot of the jetty, a small squeak of surprise and a loud splash reaches his ears, and Haruka sees the boat suddenly lurch sideways on a small wave of water, the rope keeping it tethered pulling taught before slackening as the boat starts to rock back towards the jetty. Haruka narrows his eyes, razor focus landing on the few feet of water between stone and boat.

A small trail of bubbles is rippling the water. Someone – and he has a feeling he knows who – has fallen in.

Haruka doesn’t even hesitate in diving right over the edge of the jetty, knowing the water below is deep and black in the shadows of the cliffs. His arms light up, blood singing in response to being submerged, and Haruka peers through the murky water to the limp shadow sinking down to the rocky silt and blackened topaz that makes up the seafloor. His strokes are smooth and powerful as Haruka cuts through the water towards the mysterious Omega, whose limbs are still as if he is frozen, despite his eyes being wide open and air bubbles still streaming from his mouth.

There is a brief moment, as Haruka reaches the Omega and regards him for half a second, where Haruka feels like he is looking into the face of one of his people’s water deities, skin almost white in the dark water, hair the same mottled blue-green colour of seagrass swirling around a pointed face. Those open eyes lock onto Haruka like bright rubies in the dark and strike him nearly breathless.

Help. Me. Dainty lips mouth, and Haruka surges forwards, catching the Omega under his armpits and kicking towards the surface. He has to dodge the boat still rocking uneasily against the jetty, and he treads in the water for a few minutes, the Omega hanging awkwardly in his arms, as Haruka squints out at the horizon and the setting sun, making sure none of the fishing boats are coming back in yet. With no one in sight, he pushes the Omega up onto the jetty and crawls up beside him.

“Who are you?” Haruka asks bluntly as the Omega before him takes several shuddery breaths, thin chest heaving under the shredded shirt that is barely clinging to him from the pull of the damp fabric. “What are you doing here?”

The Omega swallows audibly. “None,” he coughs, splutters up some water, “none of your damn business,” he manages to spit out, voice acidic as he glares at Haruka from under the strands of wet hair clinging to his face like spiderwebs.

 Haruka huffs out a laugh at the impertinence. He likes this boy. “Is it true?” he continues, a hint of amusement leaking into his tone as he sits cross-legged on the cool stone and observes the Omega. “Did you really come to Sol to kill Lord Kirishima?” Under careful examination, Haruka notices that the boy really is young, possibly not even sixteen. The Omega tenses under Haruka’s intense stare and the weight of his accusation. Before the young boy can speak, be it to deny or confirm Haruka’s statement, Haruka speaks again. “Because I will help you, if you did come for that.” He says it quietly, reverently.

Haruka might be content with the plans of his mate and their friends to simply slip away and head to Paradise when the boarders open, but deep down, he knows that he will never rest easy unless the man who has kept him like an animal, who has tortured Haruka’s kin and hurt his mate, breathes no more. If this stranger came to kill Haruka’s master, then Haruka will not stand in his way.

Very slowly, the Omega nods his head. “It is true.” His voice is deeper than his lithe form and pretty face would indicate, his eyes cold despite the burning colour. “My name is Ikuya Kirishima,” he holds his chin up defiantly, and Haruka gasps, “and I came to Sol to kill the man who fathered me.” He stares down Haruka, not giving any more information and gaining his strength back with each moment that passes, daring the Alpha before him to deny him his goal. “You promise your help?”

Nodding solemnly, Haruka holds his hand out. “I’m Haruka,” he says as Ikuya takes his hand, their wet palms sliding together as they shake on their agreement. “Go back to the top of the cliff, follow the paths. There’s a cart full of supplies, you can hide under the oiled tarps. I’ll make sure no one discovers you on the ride back to Sol, and you can stay with my mate and I.” Haruka bites his lip. He knows that Makoto would not approve of anything he is doing right now other than him saving Ikuya from drowning. “But I have a condition.”

“Name it,” Ikuya rasps, and for the first time Haruka wonders why Ikuya didn’t struggle once he had fallen in the water. Could he be of Water descent, like Haruka?

“We are planning to leave Sol when Paradise opens its boarders. You are not from this Territory, so you must know a way out safely.” Haruka points his finger and rests it firmly on Ikuya’s chest. “You will lead us out.”

Ikuya’s face turns cagey, his eyes flickering around uncertainly. “Fine,” he relinquishes, crosses his arms. “But the journey will be dangerous. I can’t guarantee that a large group will make it to Paradise in its entirety.”

“Understandably,” Haruka says. “Now go. Up the cliffs.”

Ikuya climbs shakily to his feet, a rattled look finally settling over him as he sees the water behind Haruka, how sheer the drop from jetty to seafloor is, how close he came to drowning. He reaches up and threads his fingers through his hair unconsciously. As he turns to find the paths up the cliff face, Haruka seizes his wrist suddenly. “What is it?” Ikuya barks, shocked at the sudden contact. He withdraws his arm away from the Alpha warily. “What’s that?” Haruka is holding something out to him silently. Ikuya’s heart thuds noisily when he sees the necklace draped across Haruka’s fingers. “Oh.”

“Why did you throw this away?” Haruka asks, his face stoic. “I recognise this from my books. It is a betrothal necklace, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but it isn’t mine,” Ikuya says, taking his necklace back with trembling hands. It holds a story close to his heart that he isn’t willing to share with this man he has barely met. “I heard the announcement from the princess as I was fleeing the city. I knew it was recognisable, so I got rid of it, but…” Ikuya can see Natsuya’s face in his mind’s eye, his brother hooking the necklace around his throat when Ikuya was just a child, ‘This belongs to your mother, Ikuya, keep it safe, okay?’ he had said. “I’m glad you found it. It’s very precious to someone I love.” He inclines his head in a half-bow. “Thank you.” Haruka waves him off, already turned to go back to his diving.

With that, they part ways. Ikuya presses himself against the shining gem surface of the cliffs, and sprints to the cart Haruka had mentioned. The oiled tarps are bundled in the end of it, and Ikuya climbs into the foul-smelling material, folding it around his body and lying down wedged under the bench seat bolted to the side of the cart. His breathing is loud and ragged, thick in the cloying, oily roll he is stuck in until Haruka returns. Ikuya puts a hand to his throat and threads the feathers of his necklace through his fingers, clutching it for comfort as he drifts into uneasy sleep.

Haruka spends the last few hours of his kelp gathering on edge, his heart thudding and his pulse racing. He has no idea how Makoto is going to react to Haruka bringing home a person who is essentially a wanted criminal with violent intentions. But… there was something about the young Omega, something that stirs what little paternal instincts Haruka has. There was a darkness in Ikuya, and a great sadness motivating his decision and want to kill his own father.

He’s so distracted that he nearly knocks himself out on a strut of topaz as he is being winched up the cliffs, and he struggles to hold on to the first strands of kelp he had pulled, now too dried to go in the bucket with the rest. Haruka spots the oiled tarp in its new position under the bench seat and makes sure he lands on the end of the seat where the tarp bulges more than the other. “Ikuya,” he murmurs, glad the other fishermen are dawdling with tying their fish barrels to the cart. He nudges the rug and feels a faint press against his heel in response. “Hold on, the road is long and bumpy. We’ll reach the city in a few hours.”

As the cart rumbles along, Haruka pointedly coughs to cover up the sound of Ikuya vomiting in the corner after a particular harsh bump results in the young boy hitting his head repeatedly, dazing him. The Water Omega sitting beside Haruka in the cart turns her head to look at him. “Are you okay, Haruka?” she asks him quietly. “I noticed you left your dive spot for a little while earlier.”

“Just getting some air,” Haruka replies stiffly, and she stops talking to him again.

For once, Haruka is glad that he is the last to be dropped off from the back of the cart. As soon as the last Alpha has vacated the cart and it starts heading into the inner ring of the city, he crouches in front of the tarp and pulls it away from Ikuya’s head, grabbing the Omega’s flailing hands to calm him down. “It’s okay, Ikuya, take a deep breath,” he murmurs.

Ikuya is panting heavily, trails of dry bile crusted to his chin and splattered on the shreds of his shirt. His eyes are hazy and red with unshed tears, hair plastered to his face and neck with oil and sweat. The ride was not kind to him, and he looks like a frightened child after a nightmare. “Are we there?” he gasps, voice crackling with disuse and reflux. Haruka nods, and Ikuya clings to his hands.

“I need you to roll out and crouch low by the end of the cart,” Haruka tells him quickly and quietly, bending in close so as not to attract attention from the horse master. “When we stop, you need to jump out as fast as you can. There is a large flower bush next to a green door, hide behind them while I distract the driver. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Ikuya says, and Haruka nods again.

“Once there is no one in sight, I will fetch my mate and the three of us will head to a secret place where we can plan in safety.” They enter the perimeter of the Kirishima property. “Are you ready?”

Like all plans made in earnest, it is easier said than done. Ikuya rolls out of the tarp and crawls to the edge of the cart as they get close to the Kirishima estate, and Haruka gathers his belongings, standing with practised ease ready to jump. That’s when he first gets the inkling that something is wrong. He can see the servant’s entrance, that green door and beautiful bush of flowers he often picks to present to Makoto on special days, and he can see the familiar shapes of Nagisa and Rei standing stiffly by the door. Rei never visits the estate if he can help it, Nagisa usually trekking up to the castle to visit his soon-to-be mate. As the cart pulls up beside the entrance, Haruka can see the worry etched into their features.

“Ikuya,” he breathes, flicking his eyes down to the Omega on the floor of the cart. “When you climb out, there are two people standing by the door. They’re my friends, they won’t hurt you, but don’t tell them that your plan is to kill Lord Kirishima, no matter what.”

Ikuya nods, face hard.

The cart stops and Ikuya slithers off, disappearing into the bushes like a shadow, and Haruka doesn’t even have to linger much to distract the driver, the card trundling away again as soon as he dismounts. “Rei, Nagisa,” he greets the two quietly. “What are you both doing here?”

Rei has an aura of deep discomfort surrounding him, bare arms crossed over his narrow waist as he stands slightly behind Nagisa, like the Alpha’s bold personality will protect him from whatever is making him uneasy. “Evening, Haruka,” he says, voice withdrawn.

“Haru!” Nagisa calls, darting forwards to grab Haruka’s arms by the inner-elbow. “Haru, you have to stay calm, okay? Something happened to Mako today, and even though he’s acting like he’s fine, won’t let anyone in to check on him.”

Haruka’s blood turns to ice. “What?” This is what he has always feared, ever since he realised that he was in love with Makoto when they were barely teenagers and already being worked to the bone like adults. Something happening to his sweet, gentle giant of a mate while Haruka and his careful cynicism is away. “Nagisa, what-?”

Nagisa shakes his head emphatically. “You have to go see him, Haru, Mako wouldn’t want me to tell you.” He starts to drag Haruka in the direction of the door, and Haruka digs his heels into the ground. As much as he is mere seconds away from tearing through anyone who dares get in his way as he sprints for his mate, there is something else he has to do first. “What is it, Haruka?”

“In the bush,” Haruka whispers, subtly tilting his head towards it. He finds it difficult to maintain his composure when every fibre of his being is screaming at him to find Makoto. “I found the rogue Omega. His name is Ikuya. Please, take him to the usual place and hear his story.” Haruka draws a shaky breath. “He can lead us to Paradise.”

He doesn’t even wait for Nagisa and Rei to respond, pushing between them and running into the entrance hall faster than he has ever moved on dry land in his entire life. Haruka feels like he is flying, fear pushing his feet forwards until he is nearly crashing headfirst into the door of his and Makoto’s chambers. “Makoto!” he cries, slamming his palm against the door. “Makoto, are you in there?” Now that there is nothing but a wooden panel separating them, Haruka can feel Makoto’s pain, smell his sorrow. “Makoto!”

“Haruka.” Makoto’s voice is shaky, and the lock scrapes, the door opening just wide enough to allow Haruka entrance.

Inside, all the lights are unlit, but the room is still bathed in strange golden light, like sunbeams dancing off water in a stony cave. Haruka steps further into the room and the light wavers. He looks down and sees small drops of glowing water on the floor. “Makoto?” he breathes, squinting around trying to find his mate. “Makoto!” He spies the curled-up figure huddled in the corner of the room closest to the door, Makoto’s fingers clutching at the wall as if afraid he might fade away to nothing if he doesn’t. He’s half naked but still wearing his socks and one shoe, covered in sweat, and even though heat pheromones are thick in the air, Makoto doesn’t seem to be heat affected at all. Haruka walks over and crouches by his prone mate. “Makoto?” He reaches out and brushes Makoto’s sweaty bangs off his face.

Makoto launches himself into Haruka’s arms, burying his face in Haruka’s neck and inhaling deeply, Haruka’s strong Alpha scent finally breaking through his panic and calming him down. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, and his shoulders start to shudder, crying. Haruka nearly jumps out of his skin as bright, golden tears begin to roll down Makoto’s cheeks, steaming slightly and adding to the glow of the room. “I wasn’t going to let him do it, Haru, I promise. I swear I didn’t do anything to make him think I wanted him to do that!”

Haruka doesn’t understand. “Makoto, Mako, what are you talking about?”

“L-Lord Kirishima,” Makoto stutters out, suddenly grasping Haruka’s shoulders in a white-knuckled grip, red-rimmed green eyes boring into Haruka’s as more of those magic-laced tears well and spill over. The overwhelming swell of emotion in those beautiful, familiar depths knocks all the breath out of Haruka, crushing him down to a raging ball of white-hot anger. Makoto doesn’t even need to finish his sentence for Haruka to know what happened. “He tried to rape me,” Makoto chokes out.

Arms descending to pull as much of Makoto into his lap as possible, Haruka hunkers down over his mate protectively, curled in close. “I’ll kill him,” he growls, a hand on the back of Makoto’s head to cradle his mate’s face against his chest. Blood flakes between his fingers, and Haruka snarls. “Fuck Ikuya, I’ll kill Kirishima myself!”

Chapter Text

With barely any time to process what Haruka has said, Nagisa and Rei turn as one to stare at the bush, bathed in faint moonlight as light clouds roll across the sky, and are met with the sight of wary orange eyes peering at them from between the branches. Nagisa, reassured now that Haruka has Makoto looked after, files his worry for his best friend away ready to tackle this new threat – when you see your own mother killed in front of you and are still expected to continue working mere moments after or face your own death, one learns to compartmentalise – and right now, he has Rei to protect if he ever want to make the Omega his mate. Haruka’s apparent trust in this rogue Omega, called a danger by their princess, does nothing to soothe Nagisa as he growls warningly before approaching the bush.

The distinct sound of a knife being pulled is heard, and Nagisa growls again, sweeping an arm across Rei’s waist as he steps in front of the Omega. Rei might be formidable when it comes to battles of the wit, but is next to useless in a physical fight, raised his entire life in the safe confides of the castle library. “Drop your weapon, Ikuya,” Nagisa snarls, and he pushes the branches of the bush aside to eye his opponent.

“Nagisa,” Rei says breathlessly, and Nagisa freezes, staring at the Omega crouched in the dirt. “He’s a Moon Omega.”

Even with oil and vomit and crusty salt covering his skin, it isn’t enough to mask the way his veins are lit up silver in the moonlight. In one small hand, he is holding the hilt of a long, wicked hunting knife stained with brown flecks of dried blood. He really did kill a guard on his way into Sol. It is his face, however, that has stalled Rei and Nagisa. Soft and round and oh-so scared under his filthy hair, even as he puts on a tough face. Ikuya can’t be any older than Nagisa, who is barely seventeen himself. “Stay back,” he wheezes, tilting the knife to aim the point at Nagisa. “Haruka said nothing of going with friends.”

“Haruka never said anything about bringing home strays, either,” Nagisa says dryly, raising a finger and pushing the blade out of his face. Even he can see how badly Ikuya’s hand is shaking. The knife falls from Ikuya’s grip and lands point-down in the soft dirt at his feet. “You’re the Omega everyone is looking for?” Nagisa asks Ikuya, his pale eyebrows raised appraisingly. “You certainly look like a rogue from the Deadlands.”

Rei cuffs the back of Nagisa’s head, muttering, “Don’t be rude,” and Ikuya bristles, baring his teeth as the moon glow under his skin gets more vibrant.

“I’m not from the Deadlands!” Ikuya snaps, almost sounding offended. “I was born and raised in Paradise!”

Nagisa nearly falls over, leaning heavily against Rei as they both stare at Ikuya like the Moon Omega has spontaneously grown a second head. “Excuse us for a moment,” Rei says politely, before grabbing Nagisa’s shoulder and dragging the Alpha a few feet away. He bends right in so they can whisper to each other. “Could he really be from Paradise?” he asks thoughtfully, and Nagisa shrugs, reminding Rei that he is the one who works with information, not Nagisa, who is a mere cleaner in a lord’s house. “Right.” Rei’s cheeks tint pink and he glances over his shoulder at Ikuya, who has bundled himself in the exposed roots of the flower bush, his knees pulled to his chest as he buries his head in his arms. “No one has heard from the Moon Territory in over twenty years – not since the last Sun raid when King Matsuoka returned with the slave traders.”

“He’s not old enough to have been brought here during the slave run,” Nagisa reminds Rei. “Even if he was brought to Sol in the belly of his mother, there’s no way.” His eyes are bright as he looks up at Rei in wonder. “This could be it, Rei. If he’s from Paradise, he could lead us there!”

“It’s not safe to discuss this here,” Rei murmurs, leaning his forehead to Nagisa’s for the briefest moment. “Let’s do as Haruka asked and take him to the usual place. I’m sure Haruka and Makoto will follow as soon as they feel comfortable.” He grabs Nagisa’s hands with both of his, voice dropping to such a quiet whisper Nagisa almost can’t hear him. “We could be free, Nagisa.”

Nagisa grins so brightly he could drown out the moon. “Let’s go.”

As one, they turn back to Ikuya, who is watching them expressionlessly with his chin digging into his folded arms. “Come with us,” Rei says, gesturing for Ikuya to follow him. “We’re taking you somewhere safe, that has a bath and food, and clean clothes. If you wouldn’t mind, we’d like to exchange information with you.”

“Well…” Ikuya is hesitant to follow them, but his skin sticks uncomfortably and he reeks of oil and vomit. “I would like a bath.” His stomach growls. “And food.” And some company, he thinks to himself, his heart aching for Hiyori’s smile and Natsuya’s laugh and Nao’s warm hand on his head. He suddenly wishes that he hadn’t run off in such a petulant tantrum. Ikuya didn’t say goodbye to his family. “So, take me to this ‘usual place’. I will tell you what I can.”

Nagisa sprints into the large mansion and returns with a soft linen cloak that he drapes around Ikuya, pulling the hood up and clasping the pewter fastenings to hide his hair and moon glow as they slip along the wall of the mansion. Ikuya stumbles, incredibly weak from his long run from Sol to the Topaz Cliffs, and then the nightmarish cart ride back to the city. If he hadn’t crossed paths with Haruka, his plan had been to steal the horse attached to the fishermen’s cart, ride back into the city, take out his bastard father, and ride away again. In hindsight, Ikuya knows that it was a stupid, childish plan that would have failed before he had even ridden away from the cliffs. He startles out of his thoughts when an arm settles around him, pulling him upright where he was practically bent double in exertion. It’s Rei.

“Are you injured?” Rei asks him, and Ikuya shakes his head. Under any other circumstance, he would shy away from the physical contact of anyone other than his immediate family and Hiyori, but Ikuya can feel the strength in his legs failing, and at least Rei is a fellow Omega, and smells of roses and safety. Ikuya notes that Rei is rather tall for an Omega, and strong too as he helps Ikuya walk to the corner of the house. There is something regal about him, different from the other people of Sol Ikuya has come across. “We’re about to walk across open grassland,” Rei tells Ikuya, using his free hand to gesture in the dark. “It’s unlikely that anyone will see us, but if they do, just keep walking. It’s not unusual for Lord Kirishima to have his groundsmen work at night on certain areas of the gardens.”

“Okay,” Ikuya says, and Nagisa grins at him from where the tiny Alpha is peering around the corner.

The area they walk out into is wide and grassy, sprawling from the foot of the house and all the way up a rolling hill to where the great castle stands way above them. Cultivated patches of trees dot across the land, a small hand-built lake glistens in the moonlight, and wildflowers cover every inch of ground not covered by grass. Another pang of homesickness hits Ikuya when he can’t see a single luna bloom amongst the lot. Nao always made sure that a vase of the soft silver flowers stood on every windowsill in the house Ikuya grew up in with Natsuya and Nao. “Where are we going?” he asks Rei, as the three of them almost casually stroll through the Kirishima gardens, getting further and further away from the house with every step.

“To the usual place,” Rei replies cryptically, and he offers Ikuya a small smile, adjusting his glasses smoothly. “We’ll be there soon.”

Ikuya starts to flag the longer they walk, slumping against Rei, and his vision goes fuzzy for a few minutes. When he blinks himself back into full consciousness, Rei and Nagisa are nearly dragging him between the two of them, and they are under the cover of some of the trees. Ikuya shakes his head, tries to get his uncooperative feet to respond, and finally manages to focus on the looming shadow ahead of him. They have reached the bottom of the hill where the castle stands, a small grove of trees erupting from its base. Deep in the shadows, hidden behind trunks and leaves, Ikuya can see the outline of a tiny stone cabin. “Is that it?” he croaks, and Nagisa nods, grunting.

Rei has to let go of Ikuya to open the door, inserting three silver keys into locks at various points, and Ikuya tumbles to the ground, groaning weakly. They manage to get Ikuya over the threshold and into the dark cabin. Distantly, Ikuya hears someone apologising to him before he’s being completely lifted off the ground. Lights flare to life around him and Ikuya lolls like a ragdoll as he is stripped down and placed in an empty tub. Warm water cascades over him, and Ikuya finally succumbs to the unconsciousness that is calling his name.

“-ruka and Makoto aren’t here yet. It’s been nearly two hours.”

“We don’t even know if they’re coming tonight, Nagisa.” A weighty pause. “After what happened, can you blame them?”

A sigh. “I hope Mako is okay.”

“He’s strong.” Fabric shifts. “He and Haruka will be able to pull through.”

Ikuya grunts, rolling over. He is lying on something soft. His eyes won’t open properly.

“He’s waking up!”

Hands are suddenly on him, and Ikuya jolts into proper wakefulness, flailing slightly. Reaching up with limbs that creak and protest every movement, Ikuya rubs his eyes and levers himself into a sitting position, peering around the dimly-lit room in confusion. He has been laid out on some sort of low-slung couch, wrapped in a clean, cream-coloured tunic. In front of him, Nagisa and Rei are hovered over a rickety wooden table laid heavy with what appears to be maps, history books, and scraps of paper scrawled over with a multitude of different hands, and Ikuya stares at them, eyes unblinking, as the pair regard him carefully.

“How are you feeling, Ikuya?” Rei asks, cautious, and he stands, retrieving a tin bowl from a bench and carrying it over to Ikuya. “Here, drink some water. You passed out from stress and exhaustion.” He sits on his knees and watches Ikuya like a hawk as the other Omega slowly drinks the water. It’s slightly warm from sitting on the bench, the tin tainting the flavour slightly, but Ikuya is parched and his lips feel pickled from the salt of the ocean, so he gulps it down like he might never be given water again. “Careful, careful,” Rei chides him gently, reaching up to pull the bowl away slightly. He snaps his hand back when Ikuya growls at him, and Nagisa answers the growl with one of his own, low and rumbling from across the room. A warning for Ikuya to watch his manners. “If you drink it too quickly, you’ll throw it back up again,” Rei continues as if nothing has happened.

Eventually, Ikuya gets through the water, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his tunic, and he offers Rei the tiniest of smiles when Rei produces some flat rolls of bread for him, Ikuya tearing through them with his teeth, not even chewing properly before swallowing. “Thank you,” he says gruffly, wiping the crumbs off his lap self-consciously as Rei and Nagisa continue to simply observe him. “I suppose you wish to ask me for information in payment.”

Nagisa shakes his head. “The food and water was common decency, but we would be grateful for whatever information you’re willing to share with us when you’re ready.”

Much to Rei’s protests that Ikuya should stay seated, Ikuya stands and hobbles over to the table to inspect their collection of maps and papers. “I am from Paradise,” he says after a few minutes, pulling a basic map of the land closer and stroking his finger over the small island in the middle of the great Ring River. “I was raised by my older brother and his mate, and I watched each year as the gates were open and boats sent out to the other bank. New people would come, some merely seeking aid and support before moving on to other territories, and some settling permanently, like my family and I.” He swallows thickly, not wanting to divulge too much of his family history to these people just yet. Ikuya still hasn’t decided if he trusts them or not. “A week ago, I received some unexpected and unpleasant news about my family history, which prompted my journey here.

“There are many paths through the Forests of Treachery; old trading routes, paths created by other people trying to reach Paradise, as you know. Guards patrol many of them, all with King Matsuoka’s symbol.” Ikuya shudders. “I didn’t know how far his reach had extended until I left Paradise, no one who lives on the island does.” His nose wrinkles in distaste. “I came up this way,” he drags his finger along the map in a sweeping curve that passes through the Deadlands, and a ring of blue ink Rei had etched onto the map earlier in the day. “Through where this mark is, actually. What is it?”

Rei scrubs the back of his head sheepishly. “I was hoping you might tell me. I work in the palace libraries, and earlier this morning I stumbled across some correspondences from various guards to the king and the captain about this area of the Forests. The guards won’t travel through it anymore, because so many of them have been killed there in the last decade.”

Ikuya’s eyebrows climb up his forehead. “I have no idea why, though I did notice it was quite calm and serene there – for the Deadlands, at least. The trees are so thick there that the only light that shines through is an occasional star.”

“That is heartening,” Rei says, exchanging elated looks with Nagisa. “We were going to be a party of six leaving, and we knew we would need to find a path where the guards didn’t frequent if we are all to make it through safely.”

“Six is an ambitious number,” Ikuya remarks, taking a seat in one of the mis-matched chairs surrounding the table. “My brother left Sol with four others, and my mother already pregnant with me, and only three of the party made it alive – the others were lost to guard raids and the depths of the Forests.”

It is Nagisa’s turn for surprise, leaning forwards in his seat to regard Ikuya with wide eyes, pink irises practically glowing in the candlelight. “Your brother was from Sol?” he asks incredulously. “How long ago did he leave? It must have been before the king started sending large parties of guards after escapees, if you were born in Paradise. Did he leave with your mother?” He frowns in thought, tapping a finger to his chin. “I don’t remember ever hearing of a pregnant mother and her son fleeing the city, and we’ve studied the records of those who have left extensively. There hasn’t been a Moon Omega leave Sol for years.”

“Unless they weren’t recorded, of course,” Rei adds.

“When he lived in Sol, my brother was known as Natsuya Kirishima,” Ikuya tells them quietly, not looking for fear of their reactions. Haruka’s shock at Ikuya’s revelation had told him enough about how people thought of the Kirishima family.

“No way!” Nagisa barks, nearly tipping himself off his chair in his excitement. “You are Master Kirishima’s younger brother?” His face drops suddenly. “But how? Lady Kirishima died before even Makoto was brought to the house – and he lived there when the young master left! And all of them are Sun Territory – how could you be Moon?”

This is a topic Ikuya has no wish to pursue, with anyone. “Natsuya is my half-brother,” is all he is willing to say on the matter. Ikuya himself is still reeling from Natsuya’s confession that they were only related by blood through their father, and his sordid story of how Ikuya came to be.

He grits his teeth, his rage returning. Ikuya wonders if these strange, kind people know that their lord is a rapist.

-

Makoto opens his eyes and nearly screams as pain like nothing he has ever felt before lances through his head. He feels like red-hot pokers have been rammed through his eyes and left to cool in the sockets, driven through his brain and cracking against his skull. The skin of his cheeks feels hot and taut, like a single breath across his face will shred the delicate covering. Ash coats the back of his throat. Never before has he expelled enough magic to feel even a fraction of the pain he is now. It’s almost enough to drive the memory of what happened to him from his mind.

Almost.

Sitting up stiffly, Makoto notices that he and Haruka had fallen asleep together on the floor of their chambers at some point during the night. There are no windows in their room, so he can’t see the sky, but something deep in his blood tells him that the sun has yet to rise. Night is still fallen.

His entire body shrieks as he moves, and a whimper bubbles out of him.

Haruka is awake in an instant, jolting upright and hovering in front of Makoto with his hackles raised and teeth bared, a growl rumbling low in his chest, ready to fight whatever dared to disturb his mate. “Makoto,” he says coarsely when he realises that it was Makoto himself who had woken him. “Makoto. We have to leave. Tonight.”

“What?” That was not the reaction Makoto had been expecting. “Haru, what?”

Shifting to sit on his haunches, Haruka takes Makoto’s hands with a surprising level of tenderness for the rage rolling off him thick enough that Makoto can smell it over the scent of his own rotting hormones and dull, aching pain. “We have to leave this house, leave Sol, leave this godforsaken territory and head to Paradise. I won’t let you be in this house with him another minute.” Mind made up, Haruka presses a fleeting kiss to Makoto’s lips and stands, hurrying to their bed chamber to start gathering their things.

Makoto sits in shock for several seconds before the thudding of an empty draw hitting the floor shakes him out of it, and he makes to stand, be it to help or to hinder, he has no idea. The incredible fear that had struck him during Lord Kirishima’s assault appears to have burnt a lot of the heat out of him for now, but his body is still reacting to the attack, his back bruised beyond recognition and his head throbbing with the erratic beating of his heart. Dried blood, sweat, and slick flake off him like dust, and Makoto doesn’t ever want to see the state his face is in. He’s sure he remembers crying tears of pure sunlight.

He needs to be clean.

Turning from the bedroom, sure Haruka can manage on his own, Makoto limps for the bathtub, and suddenly ice settles over him at the sight of it. He can still feel that swooping sensation of falling backwards, the harsh scrape of freshly-scrubbed porcelain tiles against his back, the thud of his head on the drain. Being caged in from above by the advancing Alpha. The place that had once been filled with happy, sensual memories of spending time with his mate, now stirs thoughts of harsh hands and unwanted touches.

Makoto’s breath dies in his lungs.

He doesn’t realise he has begun to panic, harsh winded gasps tearing out of his throat, until Haruka is in front of him once again, calloused hands framing Makoto’s face and forcing him to look away from the bath, into those beautiful pools of deep ocean blue. “Look at me, Mako,” Haruka says clearly, slowly. “Just look at me and breathe.” He waits for Makoto’s gaze to snap to him fully, and Makoto sags against him. “I promise nothing in this room will hurt you, not ever, not while I’m here.”

“Don’t make me get in,” Makoto wheezes, sinking down to his knees, Haruka following diligently until they are huddled together on the floor, Makoto’s head cradled against Haruka’s shoulder. “Please don’t make me get in the bath.”

“I won’t,” Haruka assures him, so sincere Makoto has to take a sigh of relief. “But I can still help you clean. Take your top off and I’ll wash you, then you can put something new on.” Something untainted.

Makoto does as instructed, body moving numbly of its own accord, and Haruka leaves him for a brief moment to turn the tap in the bath on. Before Makoto can panic again, Haruka returns to his side, and he waves his hands through the air. To Makoto’s wonder, the stream of water from the tap flows away from the tub and into Haruka’s waiting hands. He sits still as Haruka’s magic manipulates the water to shower over Makoto in warm waves, and Makoto realises that he has never truly seen Haruka use his magic like this before. Together, they wash the blood from Makoto’s hair, the water turning rusty as it drips to the floor, and Makoto rubs his hands over his hips and thighs until his skin turns red, and then Haruka wraps a towel around him, the water crashing carelessly to the floor. He inspects the back of Makoto’s head and sees that the wound has already knitted together, most likely during one of Makoto’s bursts of magic.

Warm pants and a woollen jumper are passed to him, and Makoto changes into them easily, staring blankly at Haruka as he helps Makoto pull on hand-darned socks and thick-soled walking boots. “We’ll go to the usual place,” Haruka says, lacing the boots securely. “Rei and Nagisa are already there, with someone who can help us safely out of here.” Haruka shushes any questions Makoto might have put forward with a swift kiss to parted lips. “No questions, my love, I’ll explain when we get there. But, there is something I have to help him with before we can leave, and then we can be rid of this house of evil forever.”

“Haru,” Makoto sighs, ready to protest his mate’s rash decision. But then he thinks about rising in the morning, walking back up the servant’s stairs, and having to bow down before his attacker as he receives his tasks for the day. Makoto thinks of being forever at Lord Kirishima’s want and mercy, and he could cry again if he had any more tears left to shed over his cruel master. A sudden vision of he and Haruka deep in the heart of Paradise comes to Makoto, sound, safe, and glowing with the marks of a properly bonded couple. His heart aches for that to be their reality. Resolve steels his heart and Makoto meets Haruka’s hard eyes. “Haru,” he says again, voice firmer than it has been for hours. “Get me a bag. I want to be rid of this house within the hour.”

“Consider it done,” Haruka replies eagerly.

Between the two of them, they barely have enough belongings to warrant separate bags, but they scrape their meagre clothes and personal items into Makoto’s leather satchel and Haruka’s shoulder bag, wrapping heavy coats around themselves and putting the last of their food allowance into the bag Haruka takes fishing. They stand in the middle of their stripped chamber hand in hand, cheeks pink with exertion and elation, and their eyes bright in the face of what they are about to do. When their absence is noticed, they will be hunted down, liable for arrest if found, even exile if Lord Kirishima is angry enough. They don’t care, though.

Makoto opens the door, ready to leave one last time, and Haruka makes a small noise. “One moment,” he says, and disappears back into their bedroom. Makoto hears the little draw beside Haruka’s side of the bed open and close, and Haruka returns with a sea silk pouch in his hands, hastily tucking it into his bag and offering Makoto a mysterious smile. “Let’s go before the night staff wake.”

Their hands linked, Makoto and Haruka run from the servant’s quarters, out the door, and into the waning night. Silently, the two creep along the edge of the house and begin the sprint across the open grounds towards the large knot of trees at the base of the castle hill. Makoto’s movements are thick and sluggish, pain still coursing through him, but Haruka is there to catch him with every stilted stumble, pull him along when he lags. Just as they reach the edge of the tree line, the faint outline of the little cabin visible if you know where to look, the sky above them erupts into colour.

“Paradise,” Haruka breathes, turning to watch the rainbow flares go up in the far distance. “The boarders are opening!” Worry flashes across his face, skin lit up purple with the next flare. “It’s too soon – we should have had weeks to prepare!” He looks up to Makoto, who is entranced by the beautiful display. The flares will continue well into the next night so that all the people across the land will know that Paradise is once again accepting refugees. “Makoto, this means we only have a month to make the journey!”

Dread sweeps over them both. They will have to leave by tomorrow night to even have hope of making it before the gates are shut to them for another year, leaving them stranded in the Forests of Treachery for the Territory guards to pick off one by one, as is tradition. Those who do not make the banks of Paradise in time are free sport for guards of any territory to hunt down.

Makoto wraps his hand around Haruka’s bicep and tugs, drawing both of their focuses from the flares to the task at hand. “Come on,” Makoto says, turning to the trees. “Let’s go meet this person you have found.”

Minutes later, Haruka is rapping his knuckles on the door to the cabin, unsurprised to see no light shining in the windows or under the door. It is their practice to douse any flame burning when someone gets too close to the cabin – Rei has warning systems set up all through the trees, many of which even his friends are unaware of for security purposes. Makoto and Haruka undoubtedly set off one or two of them on their way through the trees. “To run free,” Haruka calls quietly through the crack in the door, and he hears shuffling on the other side before Nagisa throws it open and jumps on Haruka with tears in his eyes.

“We didn’t know if you two were going to come tonight!” he sniffles into Haruka’s chest, and Haruka pats him on the head consolingly before Nagisa lets him go to give Makoto the same treatment. Although, he stops for the briefest moment, glistening eyes shining with question, waiting for Makoto’s permission. When Makoto opens his arms slightly, Nagisa dives into them, nearly knocking the Omega off his feet. “Mako! I was so worried about you, are you okay – why do you two have travelling gear?” Nagisa blinks at the heavy clothes Makoto and Haruka are dressed in, the packed bags on their back. His eyes widen in understanding as he notices the flares going up in the distance. “I take it we’re leaving as soon as possible?”

Haruka nods once, face determined. “Tomorrow night.” He gently pushes past Nagisa to enter the cabin where Rei is lighting the lamps again with quick hands. “Ikuya,” Haruka says in greeting when he spots the rogue Omega seated at their planning table, clean, dressed, and eating some dry biscuits as he shuffles through maps, occasionally inking a mark onto them. “Are you alright?”

Behind them, Makoto lets Nagisa pull him inside, and Rei ventures over to hug the older Omega as well, and all three of them pretend not to notice the tremor in Rei’s hands when he lets go, eyes shining. “Come sit down, Mako,” Rei says quietly. “Ikuya has been helping me plot a safe path through the Forests.”

“Ikuya?” Makoto asks, finally noticing the fifth addition in the room. He eyes the new Omega curiously, taking in how young he is, how tired he looks, and finally the necklace he is wearing. “Oh my…” his head whips to Haruka. “Haruka, what did you do?”

Haruka offers Makoto a sheepish smile, and Nagisa snorts. “This is Ikuya,” Haruka tells Makoto, and Ikuya stares at Makoto. “I found him trying to escape off the jetty in the Topaz Cliffs. He’s from Paradise, Mako. He can help us get there safely.”

“He killed a man, Haruka!” Makoto points out warily. “The king’s guards are after him!”

Ikuya bristles. “The guards attacked me first – it was self-defence!”

“Mako, he can tell us how to get through the Forests of Treachery,” Haruka explains calmly, expecting the concerned reaction from his cautious mate.

Makoto arches an eyebrow, arms crossed defensively. “Can he tell us why the boarder is being opened so early?”

“Probably to encourage me home,” Ikuya mumbles, his bare feet shuffling on the cold stone floor. “I sort of… ran away without telling my family where I was going.”

Possibly without Ikuya knowing, his face turns round and worried with a strange childlike innocence, and Makoto can suddenly understand an entire community breaking their own traditions to get him back. He’s sure Ikuya’s family is worried sick about him. “And you travelled here all on your own?” Makoto asks him, a little horrified when Ikuya nods. “Why? What on earth could be so important that you would risk a journey like that?”

If Makoto was more alert, he would see the brief silent conversation that passes between Haruka and Ikuya before Ikuya answers. “My older brother is Natsuya Kirishima, and before I decided to leave, he told me who my parents were. I came to Sol to collect something that was very precious to my mother.” He exchanges a long look with Haruka, and Makoto doesn’t fail to notice this one. “After he saved me at the cliffs and listened to my story, Haruka promised that he would help me find it if I led you through the forest.”

“Natsuya…?” Makoto breathes, once again remembering the young master of the house, and the scandal of his disappearance. “But Lady Kirishima-” Something else occurs to Makoto, and his mouth snaps shut as he walks to the table and sits down beside Ikuya abruptly. “I’m so sorry,” he breathes, reaching out with a tentative hand to brush Ikuya’s dark hair off his face. He swallows thickly. “You don’t need to explain any further, I… I understand better than anyone what happened to your mother.”

Ikuya raises his bright eyes to look at Makoto’s haunted face. “He. You too?” Makoto’s trembling lip answers Ikuya’s question, and in a moment of uncharacteristic softness, he seizes Makoto’s hand and squeezes it fiercely. “I’ll help you escape, Makoto. For you, and for my mother.” His face sets. “Haruka, if we plan on leaving tomorrow, we have to go right now.”

“Now?” Makoto squeaks. “But we just left the house!”

Haruka walks over and wraps his arms around Makoto, allows him to cling in close. “Now is perfect. Everyone will still be asleep. No one will know until morning, and by then we will be well hidden and ready to leave.” He cups Makoto’s face and brushes his cheek with his thumbs. “You have to help Rei and Nagisa get word to Momo that we’re leaving. Besides, you won’t even know I’m gone.”

“I always notice when you’re gone,” Makoto hiccoughs, and he kisses Haruka soundly before the Alpha starts getting Ikuya ready to leave again.

Rei retrieves a small basket of blank parchment. “Nagisa, go and wake one of the birds. It’ll be fastest to send a message to Momo that way.”

“Here,” Haruka says quietly to Ikuya, handing him a lightweight, moss-green jacket. It’s long on him, brushing his knees, and Ikuya frowns in annoyance. “It’s to hide this,” Haruka whispers, picking up the hunting knife that must belong to Ikuya, because it certainly doesn’t belong to any of his friends. “We need to be quick, the night staff will be waking soon.” With Ikuya’s firm nod of acceptance, the two bid their goodbyes and leave the cabin.

Only Nagisa notices that the knife is missing, and he frowns, before shrugging, and making his way to the back door of the cabin where a small birdcage is mounted in the wall. “Time to wake up, little friends,” he coos to the small, grey birds. “I need a favour from one of you.”

-

Rainbow lights paint the ceiling of the Alpha guards’ quarters, and Momo sits up in bed, transfixed as he watches the colours dance across the textured plaster. Realisation hits him, and he jolts awake properly, throwing his blanket back to sprint for the window, quiet so as not to wake up the rest of his squad members. Momo pulls the half-open curtain all the way back and sits in the windowsill to watch the flares shoot up from the centre of the land. Seeing the Paradise flares always fills the young Alpha with hope, especially if he imagines that Seijuro is the one firing them. I’m here, Momo, he pictures his older brother saying with every flash of red, blue, and green. I made it safely, come and find me!

Momo presses his forehead to the cold glass and sighs deeply. He misses his older brother deeply, but he understands why Seijuro had to run with his friends. He had a duty as the prince’s body guard, and Seijuro was nothing if not faithful to his prince. Momo was only a child when Seijuro left, and their sister Isuzu barely any older. All they have left of their older brother is their memories, and the despising guards who take their anger at Seijuro out on any Mikoshiba they come across.

Time passes him by slowly as he watches the flares dance across the sky. It occurs to Momo after watching the flares in a daze that the flares are early, several weeks earlier than usual, and his spine prickles when he realises that that means it must be time. Time for the rest of the Mikoshiba family to follow in Seijuro’s footsteps, just like they always have. Momo grins, darting back to his bed and silently pulling his travel clothes on, his rucksack full of supplies waiting under the head of his bed out of sight of anyone doing an inspection. The final thing he grabs is the preserved beetle Seijuro had gifted him for Momo’s last birthday before he left. It only has one shiny black wing, but Momo treasures it none the less.

He creeps down the corridor on tenterhooks and slides into the Beta guards’ quarters, tip-toeing over to the bed he thinks is his sister’s. He rarely gets to see her outside of the occasional evening meal and the one night a month they were permitted down into Sol to visit their mothers, so he hopes she is still in the same bed. “Isuzu,” he whispers as quietly as he can, not used to having to be this stealthy. “Isuzu, wake up.”

The Beta that stirs is definitely not Isuzu, a distinctly male grunt reaching him, and Momo curses. Where on earth is Isuzu? He sneaks out again, and leans against the wall in thought. Then he remembers that some of the guards had been moved to a small chamber on the third floor due to the threat of the rogue Omega, stationed where the royal family slept in case extra protection was required. Momo has to take some of the castle’s hidden servant passages to get to the third floor unnoticed, but he finally finds the right room. It has three beds inside, a white cloak hanging off the back of the door that Momo recognises but can’t place, and he can see his sister’s familiar red hair poking out the top of the bed closest to the door.

“Hey, Isuzu,” Momo kneels next to the bed and shakes her shoulder.

Isuzu grunts in displeasure at being woken, and Momo hastily covers her mouth with his hand before she can start lecturing him. “Look out the window,” he murmurs, inclining his head towards the fluttering curtains. “Paradise has sent its flares up early, the boarders are opening right now.” Isuzu’s eyes open wide and she goes completely still. “We need to go, Haruka will probably be sending word to us right now.”

When Isuzu nods, Momo lets her go, and she sits up. “Give me ten minutes,” she says, voice hushed, pushing at Momo’s shoulder to get him going. “Wait for me on the ground balcony.”

“Okay,” Momo agrees, swooping down to press a kiss to her forehead before she swats him away, her nose wrinkled. “Don’t be late, I don’t want to get separated from you.”

They part ways, Momo running lightly down hallways and staircases to reach the balcony that extends over the start of the royal gardens. Freedom from King Matsuoka’s tyrannical rule and his foul lords is so close Momo can nearly taste it. He bursts out into the crisp night air and could start singing if the situation wasn’t so dire. Throwing his arms out, Momo basks in the bright lights of the flares, the land-wide symbol of hope and the promise of a new life in Paradise. He and Isuzu will see Seijuro again, and all of their friends will finally be safe and taken care of.

Opening his eyes, Momo isn’t surprised to see a familiar grey bird streaking through the night sky towards him. He whistles lowly, and the faithful bird swoops down to perch on his wrist as he holds it out. “Good girl,” he whispers, stroking her tiny head before extracting the folded paper from her leg. “Be free, you have served your purpose,” he says, throwing his arm up. Just watching the bird fly away makes his heart soar. Momo peruses the letter, Rei’s neat hand relaying exactly what Momo expected.

Early flares mean we have to push our plans forwards. We leave tomorrow night. Gather your things, and Isuzu, and meet us at the usual place as soon as possible. Haruka and Makoto have run from the Kirishima estate, so people will be looking for them. We must be careful, but we have found a guide to lead us on the way. Be safe, Momotaro.

“We’re coming, Sei,” Momo whispers to the breeze.

He waits on the balcony for exactly ten minutes before he hears footsteps approaching behind him. Just in case, he rests his hand on the hilt of his sword, and hides in the shadows of the pillars until he spots Isuzu’s familiar form in the darkness.

She isn’t alone.

Momo curses when he sees Princess Gou’s body guard trailing behind Isuzu, and he draws his sword, ready to strike the mysterious woman down. He knew that white cloak on the door looked familiar! For as long as Momo has been a guard for the king, Princess Gou has had her masked body guard at her side. Per tradition, her guard never removes her mask or hood while in the presence of others – Momo has vague memories of Seijuro coming home every month in similar getup, though his uniform had been a burnished gold. When Isuzu is close enough for Momo to get between her and the guard, Momo steps out of the shadows and pushes his sister behind him, sword levelled at the body guard’s throat.

The woman throws her hands up defensively, and Momo frowns when she lets out an undignified squeak. The royal body guards are supposedly the most highly skilled of all the guards.

“Momo, no!” Isuzu hisses, and suddenly she is grabbing his wrist and dragging his sword down. “She comes with me, or I don’t go at all.” Even in the dark Momo can see the dusty pink flush on his sister’s cheeks. “She’s my girlfriend,” Isuzu whispers shyly, refusing to look Momo in the eye. “I can’t leave without her, Momo. I love her.” She holds her hand out behind her, and a slim, white-gloved hand slides into it, fingers lacing together with practised ease.

“Isu…” Momo breathes, shocked as he stares up at his older sister. Her face is set with determination, jaw tense and her eyes hard. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” He can’t fathom why Isuzu wouldn’t trust him with this information. Sure, the guards are forbidden for engaging in romantic relationships with each other, but they’re also forbidden from escaping in the middle of the night and running for the magical island in the centre of the land to escape their evil king. “Did you think I wouldn’t keep your secret?”

The guard remains respectfully silent as the siblings talk. Isuzu puts her arm around Momo’s shoulder and gives him a one-armed hug. “You’re my little brother, I didn’t want to burden you. It’s my job to keep you safe.”

Momo grins at her, and they take a moment to embrace each other in the rainbow light of the flares before he remembers the note. “Rei and the others are waiting for us at the usual place. We have to go there now – we’re leaving tomorrow, and they have even managed to find some sort of guide.” He sheathes his sword and casts his eye over the princess’ body guard. Something isn’t quite right about her, but he can’t put his finger on what. “If you say she comes, then she comes. Who am I to get between you and the woman you love?” He shrugs. “Besides, Haruka is the one you’ll have to convince.”

Isuzu’s quiet laughter echoes around the balcony for a few seconds before her expression shifted, bright, yet serious at the same time. “I think it’s time we left, little brother.” She looks over shoulder, back into the castle. “The night rotation is in less than an hour, let’s not keep our friends waiting for us. I feel like I have a long explanation on the horizon.”

In complete silence, the two Mikoshiba siblings and the still unnamed body guard climb over the balcony railing and drop into the garden. Isuzu holds her hands up and helps the guard down when she faulters on the edge of the balcony, her back to the railing as the wind swirls her cloak around her ankles. It is only then that Momo notices that the guard doesn’t even have her sword strapped to her hip like he and Isuzu do. Why would she take the effort of dressing completely in her uniform, only to leave her weapon behind? Momo narrows his eyes at her as Isuzu helps her down.

“This way, along under the windowsills,” Momo murmurs, gesturing to the ornate overhang on each window. If anyone should happen to throw open the curtains and glance out into the night, the three will be out of sight. “Hopefully no one in the Kirishima gardens sees us going down the hill.”

Their journey is slow if only for the sake of stealth, and the faintest brush of light is touching the sky by the time Momo and Isuzu are leading their silent guest into the small forest at the bottom of the hill and knocking on the cabin door. Isuzu calls, “To run free,” through the crack and Makoto lets them in, his tired but friendly smile slipping away into a much more stony expression when he sees the body guard pressed close to Isuzu’s back. “I hope you’re feeling better, Makoto,” Isuzu says rather than addressing the woman at her side. “I don’t know how to-”

“There’s no need to talk about it anymore,” Makoto cuts her off swiftly, finally offering that familiar close-eyed smile that fills them all with warmth. “Come inside, all of you.” He stands aside and waits for the three on the doorstep to enter the cabin. “We’re just waiting for Haru and Ikuya to get back.”

Momo and Isuzu exchange puzzled looks. “Who the hell is Ikuya?” Momo asks his sister, and Isuzu shrugs her shoulders. Beside them, the guard jumps, startled, when Makoto shuts the cabin door with a sharp snap and brushes past them to sit on the couch, cross-legged and his foot bouncing in agitation. “Hey, Mako, you okay?” Momo turns his attention to the Omega, his worry from what feels like eons ago resurfacing. “I’m sorry, I should have come to check on you earlier.”

Annoyance flicks across Makoto’s face, but it doesn’t last long before concern creases his features. “I’m as alright as I’m going to be for a while.” He jerks his chin towards their still-silent guest. “Nagisa?”

“Right!” Nagisa bounds over from where he was aiding Rei in packing their books into a crate, ready to be burned when they leave so that no one can follow them. “You!” he barks, pointing to the princess’ body guard. “Who are you?”

“She’s with me!” Isuzu immediately jumps in front of her. “Her name is Miyako. She’s my girlfriend, and I refuse to leave without her.” She wraps her arm around the guard – around Miyako – tightly, leaning her forehead against the masked temple of the shorter Beta.

Nagisa raises a curious eyebrow, stalking forwards to inspect. “Will she not speak for herself? Can she not speak?”

“Only to me,” Isuzu growls, and Nagisa thinks that her protectiveness is strange. Isuzu is amongst friends – what need would she have to be overly cautious around them? Even if her mute lover is the princess’ body guard, she is still welcome to leave with them.

“If you insist,” Nagisa says carefully, not wishing to pick a fight with a trained castle guard, and her trained castle guard girlfriend. “Now, come sit at the table, we’ll tell you everything.” He gestures them over, and Rei pauses in his methodical shredding of unneeded parchment and useless maps to greet them warmly. “Haruka found us a guide, our guide found a path through the Forests, and Rei and I are leaving as soon as Haruka returns to gather our things. We’re leaving at dusk and heading straight to the village of Blaze.”

Isuzu hums thoughtfully and pulls a chair out at the table for her girlfriend, waiting for her to sit, and only then does she pull one for herself. Momo sits on her other side and eagerly grabs for the map Nagisa is pointing to. “Why Blaze?” Isuzu asks, leaning her elbow on the tabletop so she can peer at the map over Momo’s shoulder.

“Our research indicates there is good underhand trade to be had in Blaze,” Rei explains, and he shakes a basket of letters still waiting to be added to the burning pile. “We can get food, water, and any other supplies we might need for the journey.” He fixes the angle of his glasses, and nods his head. “I have been stockpiling coins for several months, and Makoto and I agree that we have plenty to see us through.”

Momo pats his rucksack and the front pocket jingles slightly. “I have a handful to add to that,” he says brightly. “It’s not much, but it-”

Whatever Momo’s coins will buy is never uttered, because across the city, the alarm bells begin to toll for the second time in as many days.

Five heads whip to the door, eyes wide. “That can’t possibly be Haruka and Ikuya, can it?” Makoto’s voice quavers as he asks the question.

“No.” It is the body guard, Miyako, who speaks. “It is me the bells are ringing for.”

-

Led by the faint light emitted from Ikuya’s hands as the moon shines down on them, Haruka and Ikuya creep back into the Kirishima estate. Sluggish movement is starting to come to life in the belly of the servants’ chambers, they can hear people stirring behind doors and running taps of water as people prepare their morning baths. “Through the kitchens and up the stairs,” Haruka instructs, a light hand on Ikuya’s elbow to lead him through the corridors. “We only have a half hour before the night staff begin leaving their rooms to start their cleaning.”

“That’s more than enough time,” Ikuya hisses, and Haruka grins at him, sharklike, when Ikuya draws his hunting blade. “This belongs to my mother,” Ikuya tells Haruka, voice like ice. “He forged it himself in the light of a blue moon. I stole it when I left Paradise. I swore to him that I would kill my father with this blade and avenge the suffering that man brought on our family.”

Haruka nods in understanding. “Follow me, we’ll go straight to Kirishima’s bed chambers. The lazy bastard won’t be awake until well after sunrise, and no one will notice until then.”

As they make their way through the house, the rainbow flares continue to fire, and Ikuya pauses beside one of the giant windows to watch. “I’ve never seen them from so far away,” he says quietly, and Haruka threads his fingers through Ikuya’s hair comfortingly.

“You’ll be back there soon,” Haruka reassures him softly. “Come on.”

“I wasn’t completely lying to Makoto, you know,” Ikuya says conversationally as they ascend a flight of stairs to another floor of the house. “About finding something that belongs to my mother.” When Haruka hums in vague interest, Ikuya continues, rambling a little nervously. “My mother used to wear this necklace all the time when I was little,” Ikuya says, reaching up once again to tangle his fingers in the feathers strung around his neck. “In the Moon Territory traditions, betrothal necklaces are passed down to the oldest child when their mother passes away. This one belonged to my grandmother, and my mother wore it every day to remember her until his mate made him one of his own. It was gifted to me so that I could have a part of my heritage with me always after the decimation of the Moon Territory.” He snarls in the darkness, teeth bared in the reflection of the windows they walk past. “Lord Kirishima stole my mother’s betrothal necklace the night I was conceived, and I want it back.”

“Do you have a mate?” Haruka asks, and Ikuya nods. Haruka chooses not to comment when he sees Ikuya’s hand stray to touch his heart as he speaks. It’s a nervous habit of Bonded pairs when separated, Haruka has learned over his lifetime.

“Hiyori thinks that I don’t know he has been learning to cast beads for a necklace of our own,” Ikuya says, and a genuine smile briefly crosses his face until his features settle back into grim determination. “He’s going to scold me deaf when I get back to Paradise, he thinks it’s his job to stop me from doing stupid things.” He laughs humourlessly “So of course, I ran away from him right before making the stupidest decision of my life.”

An appropriate response escapes Haruka, so he bobs his head and pulls in front of Ikuya silently, the door of Lord Kirishima’s bed chambers looming before them from the end of the corridor. “Are you ready?” he asks the young Omega softly, and puts his pale hand on the dark wood. “Lord Kirishima’s bed in the centre of the room. He keeps a trunk under his bed with trinkets and jewellery his servants arrive with that he has decided are above their position. Your mother’s necklace might be in there.”

“What are you going to do?” Ikuya looks up at Haruka with his wide, dark eyes. “If I am searching under the bed?”

Haruka pushes the door open and winces at the slight creak. “There is something of my own I need to find in this room. You search the trunk, I’ll grab what I came for from the back chamber, and then we take Kirishima out.”

“Why not kill him first, then search?”

Gritting his teeth, Haruka snarls, “So the bastard can see who it is ending his life!”

Ikuya can understand that vengeful logic.

However, when they step inside the lord’s bedchamber, they find it empty. The sheets of the bed are rumpled and soaked with slick, and Ikuya gags at the smell. “Damn it,” he coughs, grabbing the edge of his cloak and pulling the warn fabric up to cover his nose. “What do we do, Haruka?”

“Search for what we came for, and hope he comes back before we have to leave,” Haruka says tersely, voice rising slightly now that there is not immediate fear of being discovered. “No doubt the disgusting bastard has left to walk tonight’s conquest back to their room. It’s a miracle we didn’t cross him on our way here.” He puts his hand between Ikuya’s flared shoulder blades and guides him further into the room. “Under there, near the head,” Haruka whispers, pointing to the bed. “That’s where the trunk is, Makoto told me about it when he had to move all the furniture once to clean the carpet.”

Ikuya heaves a great sigh, and drops his cloak to the ground so he can manoeuvre under the bed with ease, dropping to his knees and crawling under the grandiose terror nest while Haruka treads softly across the floor and into the next room. Lighting his palms, Ikuya shines moonlight across the dusty carpet and bites back a yelp when he sees all the discarded pleasure toys littering the floor. The scent of decaying heat pheromones, blood, and sex under the bed is the worst thing Ikuya has ever had the misfortune of smelling, and he chokes on his own breath now with nothing to block it out. Eyes watering and his mind working overtime thinking about just what could cause a scent like that to be as pungent as it is, Ikuya drags himself all the way to the back wall where the trunk is lying on its side. He pops it open with a sharp smack to the rusty lock and he has to close his eyes against the glittering pile of jewellery that spills out, shining in the light of his hands.

There are earrings and bangles and brooches and so many necklaces that Ikuya’s chest feels hot and tight. He has been raised on the rich history of the land, he knows betrothal necklaces and Bond gifts when he sees them, no matter what Territory they originated from. Strings of pearls from the Water Territory, silver filigree leaves threaded with dyed silk from the Sky Territory, but he can’t see a single feather. His fingers shake with rage as he sifts through the mound of other people’s belongings, stolen off them by a man who deemed them unworthy of their own possessions. Ikuya is going to stab Kirishima in the heart and take back his mother’s necklace. He can almost picture Natsuya and Nao’s expressions when he comes back triumphant, Hiyori’s overwhelming concern giving way to reluctant pride…

Ikuya and Haruka are both so engrossed in their own searches that neither of them hear the door open.

“Fuck, there you are,” Ikuya breathes suddenly, shifting a pile of rings tied together with a pink ribbon and finally catching sight of shiny silver feathers amongst all the glimmering metal. “Come here…” He sifts the necklace out, the black cord threaded with dark purple beads and metallic, speckled silver feathers, and holds it delicately between his fingers, a slow grin spreading across his face.

“Well, now, what have we here?” a deep voice purrs above him, and Ikuya freezes, pressing himself flat against the carpet with the necklace clasped to his throat. A big, hot hand seizes his ankle, and Ikuya screams bloody murder as he is bodily dragged out from under the bed, tunic rucking up and his head knocking painfully against the frame as he’s lifted off the ground.

In a flurry of movement, Ikuya finds himself pressed into a wet mattress on his back, a heavy body planted firmly on his legs as rough fingers seize his face and turn his head to the light. He blinks in a stupor and stares up at the man who can only assume is Lord Kirishima. His eyes are the same colour as Natsuya’s, and Ikuya’s, but hold none of the love and warmth. They are only cold. And, right now? Hungry. “Who might you be, little Omega?”

Ikuya spits in the man’s face, dragging his right leg up to drive his right shin hard between Kirishima’s thighs. To a howl of ‘fucking bitch!’ Ikuya slides out from under him and dives for the glint of his knife on the floor, but rough hands clamp around his waist and haul him backwards. The hand that cracks across his cheek stings, and Ikuya bites down on fingers that try to prise his mouth open hard enough that the coppery tang of blood drips onto his tongue. Where the fuck is Haruka?! “I’ll kill you, I swear to god,” Ikuya growls as the hand whips out of his mouth and rears back to punch him.

Bloody fingers dig into his cheeks as Kirishima holds his head still, cold eyes studying him, tilting his face in the moonlight streaming through the window. “Why do you look familiar?” Kirishima asks blandly, and Ikuya hates that a pained whine escapes him when his neck is twisted too far over. “What were you doing under there?” Kirishima wonders aloud, his other hand releasing Ikuya’s hip to grab the hand Ikuya still has curled around the necklace. “What on… wait. I recognise that fucking thing.” His eyes snap back to Ikuya’s face, and his own face turns a funny shade of grey. “No. No way in hell that little bitch survived the journey. Not in his condition.”

“Hello, daddy,” Ikuya drawls, snarling.

Lord Kirishima opens his mouth in a shock, and then his face goes slack as a dull thud echoes around the room. He slumps sideways to reveal Haruka standing behind him with a strange metal cannister in his hands.

“Took your fucking time!” Ikuya yelps, scrambling away from his father and pressing a hand to his beating heart, afraid it is about to jump right out of his chest. The necklace is still clasped firmly in his fingers, and he raises it to his lips to kiss the chain before glaring at Haruka. “Where the hell were you?”

Haruka shrugs out an apology, seeming concerned but not enough to show that Ikuya had been in real danger. “I didn’t want him to see us both. Now get ready, we have no time left.”

They drag Kirishima onto the floor, Haruka’s cannister and Ikuya’s necklace tucked away safely in Haruka’s bag, and Ikuya draws his knife, toeing uneasily at Kirishima’s face to see if the man will wake up. He gets a disoriented groan in response, and grins, throwing a leg over the man’s wide chest to straddle him, holding his knife up to the moonlight. It glows blueish-silver, and Ikuya closes his eyes, summoning a memory of his family to strengthen his resolve.

Kirishima’s eyes slit open, and he tenses underneath Ikuya, but too slow to do anything as the tip of the knife flashes before him.

Ikuya strikes down.

He misses spectacularly when alarm bells rip through the night air, so loud it feels like his head is exploding, and the knife tears a gauge in the plush carpet as Kirishima bucks him off sluggishly.

“NO!” Ikuya roars, slashing at the man again. He carves a deep wound into Kirishima’s side, and Ikuya goes in for the kill, but a solid arm around his chest stops him. “Haruka?” he asks, betrayed, as Haruka starts dragging him towards the door, leaving Kirishima groaning in pain in a small pool of his own blood. “Haruka, let me go!”

“I’m sorry!” Haruka yells over the alarms, and he ruthlessly pulls Ikuya down the corridor, barely giving him time to find his footing. “We’re out of time – those are the castle alarm bells. We have to get out of here before the entire estate is swarming with guards!”

Bursting out of the servants’ entrance like bats from a cave, they careen around the side of the house and sprint for the cabin, not daring to look back until they are safe in the shadows of the trees once more. Ikuya rights himself and slaps Haruka across the face, angry tears splashing down his flushed cheeks. “You promised!” he howls as Haruka holds his face, shocked. “You promised you would help me kill him!” Ikuya lunges for the Alpha, not sure what he’s trying to do. “What about Makoto? Are you not going to avenge your Omega?!”

“Shut up,” Haruka snaps, and he grips Ikuya’s wrists firmly, tugging the young Omega against his chest. “Shut up.” His voice is thick and Ikuya finally sees the pure, seething rage dancing through Haruka’s eyes. “I would have gladly let you go, would have grabbed your knife and done it myself, but we would have been caught and killed.” He stares Ikuya down. “I could never, ever leave Makoto alone like that. Could you leave Hiyori without even saying goodbye?” Ikuya’s mouth snaps shut so hard his teeth click, and he shakes his head in defeat, slumping against Haruka and sobbing violently. “I’m sorry,” Haruka whispers to him, stroking Ikuya’s hair soothingly. “I’m so sorry. I’ll find a way to keep my word, I promise. We won’t leave him alive.”

Ikuya sniffles himself into silence and clings on a little tighter. It’s a poor substitute for Natsuya’s comforting hugs, but better than nothing. “Why are the alarms ringing?” he asks after a moment.

“I don’t know,” Haruka answers truthfully, and Ikuya pulls back. Even in the dark, he can see the sudden worry on Haruka’s face. “We have friends who have to escape the castle, I can only hope it wasn’t them setting the bells off.” He grasps Ikuya’s shoulder. “Hurry, we have to get back to the others.”

The last few steps into the cabin are tense between them, Haruka’s arm still settled around Ikuya’s shoulder as he raps on the door, calls out their password, and waits for the door to be opened. Rei’s extremely worried face greets them, and he wordlessly steps aside to let them in. What is waiting inside the cabin is Haruka’s worst nightmare for their plans to run to Paradise.

Princess Gou is standing in the middle of the cabin.

Chapter Text

Makoto feels like his world is moving in slow motion as Haruka reaches around Ikuya’s hip and grasps the hilt of the hunting knife. The metallic sound of it being drawn rings in Makoto’s ears, and he doesn’t know what to do as Haruka lunges at Princess Gou, his usually blank face laid bare with the intent to kill her if it means protecting his friends and escaping to freedom. His knife hits the edge of a sword, and shocked gasps ring around the cabin as Isuzu stands in front of the princess defiantly, her sword levelled to protect her. “Isuzu,” Haruka snarls. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Drop the knife,” Isuzu says levelly. “Gou is no threat to us.”

“She’s the princess of the Sun Territory – Matsuoka’s heir to the throne!” Haruka yells, his bicep straining visibly as he fights to keep the knife holding steady against Isuzu’s sword. “Of course she’s a threat to us! What’s she even doing here?! Did you lead her here?!”

“They’re together, Haru – Princess Gou and Isuzu,” Makoto suddenly blurts out, and he lurches forwards, wrapping Haruka’s forearm up in both his hands and dragging him away. He slowly uncurls Haruka’s fingers from the knife hilt and makes his Alpha hug him, Haruka’s arms settling around Makoto’s waist as Makoto leans their foreheads together. “Please, they’re just like us,” he whispers, fingers threaded into the fine hair at the nape of Haruka’s neck. “Two people who fell in love despite the world of hate and pain they live in. They just want to go somewhere safe where they can live peacefully.” Makoto kisses the tip of Haruka’s nose, feeling chapped lips on his chin in response. “Somewhere they can live free.”

The knife finally clatters to the floor, and there is absolute silence in the room as Ikuya carefully bends to pick it up, tucking it back into the sheath by his hip, fingers caressing the handle protectively.

“I had no idea,” Haruka mumbles.

“None of us did,” Makoto says. “None of us. Momo is in a bit of shock.”

Haruka slides his eyes over Makoto’s shoulder to where Momo is sitting primly at their planning table, his eyebrows climbed so far up his forehead they’re threatening to disappear into his garish hairline, gold eyes wide as he keeps them trained on his sister and Gou. “I don’t want to travel with her,” he says harshly, and Makoto purses his lips.

“Haru…”

“No, Mako!” Haruka hisses. “She’s the king’s daughter. How could I possibly travel with someone who shares the same flesh and blood as the man who had me kidnapped from my home and forced into slavery?”

Makoto cups Haruka’s cheek, and their eyes meet, silent emotions passing between them. “Because I must travel with someone who shares the same flesh and blood as the man who killed my parents and tried to rape me.” Makoto’s voice does not waver as he speaks his truth, and Haruka stares at his Omega in awe.

“Gou is nothing like her father!” Isuzu snaps, and Gou tries to hold her back as the guard waves her sword around for emphasis. “She is loving and kind, and she tries her best to care for the people under her command!” She gestures to Rei suddenly. “Who do you think allowed a lowly Omega who has no magic to serve in the castle library? Who do you think made sure that Momo and I weren’t separated or sent off to patrol the Forests by the time we were old enough to train as castle guards?” Isuzu is panting heavily. “Who do you think has been covering for the castle staff who run away to Paradise every single year?” Her voice cracks. “The Sun Territory has never had a reigning queen, will never have a reigning queen if the current king has his way – Gou can never take the throne unless she marries one of her father’s lords.”

The silence that falls is thick and syrupy with awkward feelings as eyes flick around from face to face. Rei steps in after a few more moments of uncomfortable silence and manages to convince everyone to sit at the table so that each of them can explain their stories while tidying up the last of the evidence that they were even there in the first place. Haruka looks like he means to protest again, but Makoto coaxes the Alpha down with quiet words and a kiss on the lips, but Haruka refuses to speak freely until his concerns about the princess are satisfied.

Sheathing her sword and offering a hand to Gou, Isuzu leads her to the table. “We met eight years ago when I was assigned as Gou’s new body guard,” Isuzu explains quickly, and Gou grins at her brightly, ruby eyes like liquid adoration in the light of their candles. “It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was certainly something new and exciting.” Isuzu doesn’t sit until Gou does. “The love came later.”

“Isu wasn’t afraid to talk back to me,” Gou says, and none of them have ever heard their princess sound so normal. There, in the dingy little cabin and dressed in her girlfriend’s clothes, hidden away from the rainbow lights and emergency bells outside, she looks far more at home than she ever did in her boned corsets and regally steam-curled hair as she walked through the castle like a ghost in her own house. “I thought that she was the stray cat, and I its unwilling new owner, but I soon discovered it was the other way around. She made me learn how to not be a bratty princess, helped me see just how shitty what my father has done is.” Gou’s face turns so heartbreakingly sad that even Haruka feels a spark of sympathy for her. “Isuzu reminded me of my brother, so I wanted to get to know her better.”

Isuzu strokes the back of Gou’s hand as she speaks, and finally says, “Now she knows just how unlike her brother I am,” with a devilish grin that makes Momo splutter and cover his face in embarrassment. “That’s when she fell in love with me.”

In the conversation lull, Nagisa gets to his feet thoughtfully. “I’m going to set the birds free,” he says, gesturing vaguely to the cages of messenger birds. “And then I’m going to eavesdrop on the gardeners. They always know what gossip is flying before it reaches the ears of anyone else. We need to know for sure if the guards have been alerted because of Gou, or if something else has happened.” He stretches, his jaw cracking around a big yawn, and Makoto dully realises that Nagisa has possibly been awake for two days straight. “Hey, Rei, will you come give me a hand?”

Rei blinks, his doe eyes a little glassy with tiredness, and nods, allowing Nagisa to take his hand and lead him away from the table. As the cabin door swings shut behind them, Makoto gives Haruka a pointed look, pointing at the bag slung over Haruka’s shoulder.

Haruka lets out a long breath and rubs his hands over his face. “We got what we were looking for,” he says without preamble. “Ikuya found his mother’s betrothal necklace, and I found mine and Makoto’s ownership papers.” He sees the strange look Gou is giving Ikuya, her eyebrows shot up and mouth open in recognition, and he sighs again. “Princess Gou, this is Ikuya Kirishima. He is the illegitimate child of Lord Kirishima and presumably one of the Omega maids of the estate. Ikuya grew up in Paradise, and he has agreed to lead us through the Forests of Treachery.” He clears his throat. “I think that puts us all on the same page.”

“Just call me Gou,” the princess says in lieu of responding to Ikuya’s introduction, her face unreadable.

Haruka doesn’t reply. Reaching into his bag, Haruka pulls out the afore-mentioned necklace and passes it to Ikuya before withdrawing the metal cannister he had beaten Lord Kirishima over the head with, holding it out to Makoto. “Here Mako,” he says, softly triumphant, “without these, he no longer has proof that he owns us. We don’t exist if these papers disappear.”

Taking the cannister with uncomprehending eyes, Makoto pops the lid off and slides the two scrolls out, and bites his lip as he reads them over. The shorter of the two, with the slave trader’s mark on it, has Haruka’s name written along the top and a record of the exorbitant price that King Matsuoka paid to have Haruka and the other captured slaves brought to Sol from the Water Territory. “Mira…” Makoto murmurs, brushing his thumb over the unfamiliar word. “Is that the town you were born in?” Haruka nods, and Makoto glances at the other scroll. It’s the ownership document for his entire family, plucked from the slums of the street and put to work in the house of lords and ladies across the city. “My parents, me… my. My siblings?” Makoto has to cover his mouth to stop himself crying out. “Oh my god, I had siblings?” There are two little names scrawled underneath his own, with ominous and dreadful big black strikes through them. His eyes burn, golden light flickering in the corners as tears well. “Oh my god.”

“I’m so sorry,” Gou says suddenly, and her small hands settle cautiously on Makoto’s shoulder. He looks up at her, and her crimson eyes are flooded with tears. “I’m sorry. I know I can never atone for the things my father has done, but I know what it means to lose a sibling.” She falters, her hands shake, and then Makoto wraps an arm around her waist and pulls her down for a hug, one of his big hands settling comfortingly on the back of her head. “I’m sorry,” she whispers into his shoulder.

Makoto cards his fingers through her hair. “I know,” he chokes, eyes squeezed shut to keep the tears at bay.

Gou nearly jumps out of her skin when a second set of arms wraps around her. “You aren’t your father,” Haruka tells her firmly. “And I would be honoured to travel with you. Isuzu’s word should have been enough for me, but I was being an ass.” He pulls back. “I am sorry too.”

Behind the three, Momo sets his chin on Isuzu’s shoulder. “I like her,” he tells his sister. “She complements you – like a sheath to a sword.”

“Fitting imagery,” Isuzu snorts, hand resting lightly on the hilt of her weapon. “I guess you can say smart things occasionally.” And she laughs while Momo squawks at her, insulted. “Thank you, though, Momo. I have never said that I love her to a single other person before tonight. I feel like I’m flying.”

Sitting silently at the table on his own, Ikuya watches the two exchanges, and something ugly rolls over in his stomach. He is jealous of his new, what? Allies? Friends? Because they have each other, and his heart and his family are so very far away, and he has been keeping Hiyori’s presence in his very soul at arm’s length to prevent further worry settling on his Alpha’s shoulders. Ikuya estimates that it has been about eight days since he stole a boat in the middle of the night and left Paradise, which is a fast travel time from Paradise to Sol. But Ikuya had been on his own then, and now he will be travelling with a group of six other people. He can’t help but think of the stories Natsuya and Nao have told him of their own journey to Paradise, and the friends they lost in the Forests. Ikuya’s eyes slide over to Gou, this woman who is the princess of the territory.

“You,” he says abruptly. “Gou. You. You are Rin’s little sister, aren’t you?” He is sure that Natsuya or Nao had told him the prince’s name was Rin during one of their stories. He feels like he owes it to his brother to pass on the fate of the prince to his kin.

Gou jumps and pulls herself out from between Haruka and Makoto, her eyes round at the mention of her long-lost older brother. “Yes, yes his name is Rin,” she says, half-stumbling around the table to kneel beside Ikuya. “He ran away when I was eight, and it nearly shattered me, being left a lone with our father. I… I never knew exactly why he didn’t take me with him, but I know that he went to Paradise.” She swallows, and her teary eyes are filling with excitement. With hope. “Have you… You’re from Paradise, you must know him!”

“Oh no,” Momo whispers, seeing the slightest shake of Ikuya’s head. “Oh no, shit.” Cold realisation sweeps over him as Ikuya’s throat works, words trying to find their way out of his mouth.

Ikuya crosses his arms uncomfortably, fingers digging into his ribs as he looks down at his knees so he doesn’t have to look at Gou. “My brother, his mate, and a defected castle guard were the only three who made it to Paradise alive after they were separated in the Forests. Natsuya told me that their party was ambushed by guards one night when they were crossing the Forests through the Deadlands. One of the other guards with them was shot down with arrows and Prince Rin ran back into the trees to save him, but neither of them made it out again. Natsuya said he and his mate waited for them days, but they never came back.”

It seems that this night is a night for horrible news all around, and the sun is only just beginning to rise above the clouds. Gou can’t even bring herself to cry, merely sitting cross-legged on the floor with the hood of Isuzu’s cloak pulled low over her head as Isuzu sits behind her, holding her tightly as she stares blankly at the floor, reeling in the knowledge that her belief – her hope – of Rin living happily and safely in Paradise has been a lie ever since the fateful day she woke in the night and saw him running past her chambers with his body guard on his heels, their bags packed on their backs. Momo, sitting across from the chair his sister has vacated, knows he should wait, should allow Gou time to grieve, but he has to know, now that the promise of knowledge is being dangled in front of him. He has to know if Seijuro was the guard who made it to Paradise, or the guard who died in the Forest with Prince Rin. Momo can’t think why the prince would have run back for any old guard, but for his body guard? His closest friend?

“Ikuya?” he asks, shuffling his chair closer to the young Omega and tapping his shoulder. Ikuya jolts, a little started, and leans away from Momo slightly. “Sorry, didn’t mean to frighten you. But, the guard you were talking about, the one who made it to Paradise…? Was he. I mean-”

“His name is Seijuro, if that’s what you’re asking,” Ikuya mumbles, eyes still downcast. “You look a lot like him. He took care of me a lot when I was growing up, like an uncle or second father.”

As Momo slumps against the table in relief, Makoto stands and makes his way to the window, hesitantly pushing the shutters open to allow the first faint rays of sunlight to filter down through the leaves of the trees. These moments of grief and relief are not for him to bear witness to. Haruka comes up behind him and wraps his arms around Makoto’s waist, leaning his forehead on the back of Makoto’s neck and letting his eyes flutter shut. Makoto rolls the sleeves of his sweater up and holds his arms out into the light. The sun hitting his skin is both a pleasure and a pain, searing up his veins and boiling his blood, replenishing all the energy he had dispelled in Lord Kirishima’s bathroom. He still hasn’t seen his face in a mirror yet, but he can see his murky reflection in the glass of the window and there are shiny pink lines dripping down his cheeks from his tears.

They sting in the sunlight and Makoto sucks in a shuddery breath. He wonders if the burns will scar over, mark him forever with the memory of what happened to him. His heat is starting to settle itself back into his body, hot and needy, and that thought terrifies him as wet slick starts to drip between his thighs and seep through his pants again.

“Mako?” Haruka whispers, burying his nose in Makoto’s scent gland, that sweet cherry aroma wafting through the sadness. “Do you want me to find you a suppressant?”

Makoto’s knees could give out the relief he feels is so strong. “Please, Haru. I can’t go through this right now.” Makoto’s eyes start to burn the longer he looks out the window, and he closes them, leaning his temple against the cold glass. He can feel a burning hot headache starting to rear its ugly head behind his eyes, and he whines against the glass, Haruka nosing against his neck to comfort him for a moment.

Haruka slides away in silence, hoping that Rei might have a few doses of heat suppressant stashed in a cupboard somewhere. He pauses to look over his shoulder at his mate standing languidly in the window, and his heart breaks and then fills with that murderous rage again. Haruka curses himself for dragging Ikuya away from that foul creature of a man. They should have killed Kirishima when they had the chance.

Who knows when they will come across him again.


“Nagisa, I don’t understand why you need my help releasing a handful of birds into the gardens,” Rei says casually as he falls into step beside Nagisa, the Alpha carrying the small crate of grey birds to his chest. “What’s going on?” Nagisa turns his face away stubbornly, and Rei frowns at him. “Nagisa, what’s wrong? Why won’t you talk to me?”

With a huff, Nagisa sets the crate down and reaches out to grab Rei’s arm with his newly freed hand, small fingers curling tightly. “Rei,” he whispers, and then he pulls, other arm wrapping around Rei’s waist as he buries his head in the Omega’s neck, small sobs rattling out of him as his shoulders start to shake. Rei startles, curving his arms over Nagisa’s back and holding on for dear life. “Rei!” Nagisa whines, and his teeth latch on to Rei’s collarbone through the thin material of his shirt in an attempt to ground himself. “I swear to god, I’ll do everything I can to be the best mate for you,” he chokes out, and his hands tighten on Rei so much it’s almost painful. “I promise.”

“What brought this on?” Rei asks gently, ducking his head to nuzzle against Nagisa’s cheek. The sun is rising above them, and Nagisa’s skin is starting to heat up as his veins turn gold. “I know that already, idiot.”

Nagisa tilts his head back enough to kiss Rei’s throat. “I love you so much,” he confesses into the silence of the morning. “I can’t imagine what I would do if you were ever in Makoto’s situation.”

Something odd fills Rei, a feeling he can’t identify properly, and he manages to get Nagisa to sit down on the ground, their legs all tangled together, heads on each other’s shoulders. Their hands are linked tightly between them. “Nagisa, you know I don’t have any magic,” Rei starts softly. “I don’t know why, and I’ve never had any for as long as I can remember. But, ever since my first day in the castle, that has never worried me, because I’ve always had my tiny little Alpha terror looking after me.” Nagisa lets out a watery laugh, ducking in to kiss Rei. “I love you too, Nagisa. And, tonight, we’ll be leaving this town together, and nothing will ever, ever be able to hurt me like what happened to Makoto, because I’m never going anywhere without you again.”

Nagisa flails for a second, struggling to reach behind him and hit the latch holding the crate shut. As birds flock around them, singing in the morning sun, Nagisa links his fingers behind Rei’s neck and drags him into a searing kiss, not caring that their teeth clack or that the frames of Rei’s glasses are digging into his forehead, or that they’re sitting on the dirty floor the forest with castle guards tromping around them probably looking for their friends. “As soon as we get to Paradise, I’m going to mate you right there on the banks of Ring River,” Nagisa whispers into Rei’s mouth, stringing his glowing fingers through Rei’s soft hair.

“I’d rather you wait until there’s a wall between us and everyone else, but I wouldn’t say no,” Rei laughs, and they’re both crying and kissing and holding each other tightly.

When all the birds have flown away, and Nagisa and Rei are left lying side by side in the light of dawn, leaves in their hair and their temples pressed together, Nagisa says, “Why do you think the alarms were ringing? Do you think they were for Gou?”

“Not those ones,” Rei answers. “If they start ringing again in a few hours, those will be for Gou. If I had to hedge a bet, I’d say that those alarms were for the Paradise flares. The alarms going off would have scared people into staying indoors, delaying the amount of people seeing them. That means that no one would have tried to leave the city last night, so the guards have more time to prepare themselves.”

Nagisa hums, popping his lips together. “You really think so?” he asks. “Maybe we should have left then.”

“Tonight will still be okay,” Rei says, playing with Nagisa’s fingers over his stomach. “With Momo and Isuzu gone, and a castle wide search needing to be done before they declare Gou missing, tonight should be all clear of perimeter guards.” So many of their plans are hinged on a ‘should’.

They lie on the ground for what feels like hours. “We should go listen in to the gardeners,” Nagisa breaks the silence, rolling onto his side to cuddle right up next to Rei. “We need to know for sure.”

Outside the trees, the Kirishima gardeners are indeed flitting about from plot to plot, exchanging whispers and subdued hand gestures as they glance over their shoulders at the occasional guard that tears through the gardens from the castle to the Kirishima estate. Nagisa and Rei sneak across the grass flats to a small crop of rose bushes, the blooms pale white and veined with pink, and crouch underneath the thorny branches to listen to the conversation passing between the three Betas attending the bushes. They have to huddle in close to avoid shredding themselves on the rose thorns, but the stinging scratch Nagisa ends up with on the back of his neck is worth it for the gossip going on above them.

“Didn’t you hear? One of the king’s lords ran for the city boarder last night!”

A rose is viciously beheaded. “What? Which one?!”

Voices drop to a whisper. “Lord Sasabe. He and his Omega mistress were staying in the palace, and they disappeared within minutes of the flares going up!”

“Was it them who set the bells ringing?”

A rose tumbles out of a collection basket, and Nagisa snags the bloom, tucking it behind Rei’s ear with a smile.

“I believe it was. The king wouldn’t want a scandal like that getting out,” a thoughtful hum. “Why? Did you hear something else?”

The third gardener, who had remained completely silent until that point, clears their throat. “The castle grounds staff said that some of the guards weren’t in their beds during the shift changeover. Two guesses which pair of blood traitor siblings have mysteriously vanished.”

“Not good,” Rei breathes, “if they know Isuzu is missing, it won’t be long before someone finds out Gou has left the castle.” His earlier ‘should’ is coming around to bite him in the ass.

Nagisa points to where the feet of the gardeners are walking away. “Maybe so, but it also means that we know we still have a least a little more time before her absence is noticed.” He clears his throat and starts peering around to make sure they won’t be seen slipping away. “We need to go back to the cabin. I think we need to leave earlier than nightfall. Getting a head start on the princess hunt is probably an act in our favour.”

“Do you really think King Matsuoka will break tradition and send guards out early?” Rei asks as they’re crawling back along some low-branched bushes.

“I think the king has already lost one heir to Paradise, and has had guards patrolling the Forests early enough to grab Ikuya on his way through,” Nagisa says bluntly, finally standing when he deems them far enough away from the main gardens to right themselves. “I highly doubt he’s going to let his only child left leave that easily.”

Morning has broken above them properly by the time they are making their way back through the trees, and Nagisa laces his fingers with Rei’s, the Omega letting himself be towed along. “I’m not going to be able to go back to the castle,” Rei says resignedly as they reach the door. “Not if the guards are combing it. If we get caught before we leave the grounds, the king has every right to forbid us from leaving.”

“We are still on the grounds, even here,” Nagisa says, and with that, they have reached the cabin door. “The more we talk about it, the more convinced I am that we should just leave right now. Pack everything up and run for Blaze.” He knocks on the door, offers the password, and they wait for the door to be pulled open.

High above them, the sun nearly drowning the colours out, the flares continue to fire.


Far away, across the grounds, beyond the gates of Sol, past three more towns and the Forests of Treachery, over the banks of Ring River, and in the heart of Paradise, Seijuro Mikoshiba curses in frustration as lighting another flare keeps the burning sting in the tips of his fingers going strong. Standing long enough to stretch his back out, he looks around the tower where the flares are firing from. He has lost count of just how many he and Natsuya have fired since being allowed to start weeks before they usually would, using flint through the night, and now their magic in the morning light. Boxes litter the floor around them, and even as Seijuro begins to flag, ready to call in replacements to keep the flares going until dawn the following day, he sees Natsuya’s slumping shoulders pick up again as his second wind hits him. But while Seijuro is used to flare duty, having done it now every year since they arrived in Paradise, Natsuya is not, usually stationed down by the boats.

Natsuya’s fingertips are split and bleeding from the continuous clicking and summoning of magic sunfire, his knuckles burnt from handling lit flares. Even still, his face is set with determination, dark eyes shining bright through the hood of exhaustion that has plagued him since they woke up to find that Ikuya had run away in the middle of the night. Natsuya is convinced that firing the flares early will somehow make his brother come back to Paradise.

“Come on, Natsuya,” Seijuro says after a few moments, watching Natsuya send another flare up, blood flecking the end of it as it explodes out the window. “You need to rest, eat something,” he sighs when Natsuya ignores him, “drink something, at least?”

Grunting, Natsuya turns his weary face to glare at Seijuro. “I’ll rest when I know Ikuya is safe.”

Seijuro sighs tiredly and shakes his head, red hair falling out of his bandana and sticking to his face in the heat of the room. He has known Natsuya for going on twenty years now, and although they had once been from very different social classes, at home now in Paradise, they are equal. Which means Seijuro has no quarrel with smacking Natsuya upside the head and growling at him, “You are not as invulnerable as you might think you are, little lord.” A nickname picked up over a long journey that Natsuya wears only from Seijuro. “You need to drink, you need to eat, and you need to go and see Nao. We’ve been up here for nearly ten hours, and he’s probably driving himself to despair.”

Mention of his mate, half his heart, is enough to get Natsuya to pause his movements, his eyes falling to the burned, bloody table in front of him. “Nao…” he whispers, as if only now remembering that his family consisted of more than his younger half-brother. “Yes. I should make sure he’s okay. He acts like he isn’t affected by all this, but I hear him crying out for Ikuya to come home during the nights sometimes.” He speaks as if unaware that words are leaving his mouth. Nao wouldn’t want anyone to know about his weakest moments.

“You should take him some breakfast,” Seijuro suggests softly, walking slowly across the room to start steering Natsuya towards the door. He can already see their replacements heading up the stairs towards the top room of the tower, Kazuki and Uozumi rarely out of each other’s sight. “Natsuya, you won’t be any help if a search party eventuates if you can’t even stand properly without collapsing from exhaustion.”

Even as he says it, Natsuya’s entire body starts to bend and bow, as if he had only been held upright by his stubbornness and the weight of the paper flares in his hands. “Shut up,” he grumbles, finally allowing Seijuro to move him, his feet scraping as if he can’t even muster enough energy to pick them up off the floor properly. “Do you think Ayumu will make some curry for me and Nao?”

“This early in the morning?” Seijuro sounds scandalised at the mere thought of someone eating curry as a breakfast food, but he supposes that Natsuya and Nao actually eating anything at this point is a success. “You know what, I don’t care what you eat, as long as you eat something. Go and find Nao, pester Ayumu for your food, and get some rest, please.” He grabs Natsuya’s shoulder, makes his fellow Alpha look at him. “For me, okay? And for Ikuya. He won’t be happy if he comes home to see that you’ve been suffering because of him.”

Natsuya frowns, sadness sweeping over him. “He should have thought of that before running away then,” he snaps.

“Can you blame him?” a soft voice asks, and both Natsuya and Seijuro jump, neither of them having noticed Nao appear in the tower.

The Moon Omega has been like a ghost since the night he went to wake Ikuya for their pre-dawn walk in the last light of the full moon, and found a horrified Hiyori bolt upright and alone in the bed he has taken to sharing with his mate. Nao seems to float around with his head somewhere else entirely, far from the graceful, eloquent man who oversees the training and upkeep of the swimmers who venture into Ring River to pull fish from the water. With the death of old Granny Nanase in the spring, they had lost their last Water Territory representative. No more have arrived since the Sun Territory had swept through their capital, Mira, a decade or so ago, and Nao – the last person with any great knowledge of swimming – had already been under more pressure than usual when Ikuya’s disappearance had crashed down on them.

Sometimes, Seijuro fears that he is the last little shred of sanity in their small family they have built, holding his dearest friends back from the brink of total despair.

“Of course I can,” Natsuya barks, some of his old scolding-brother tone leaking into his voice before he deflates, slumping over to Nao. He almost haltingly wraps his arms around his frail-looking Omega, as if afraid that the slightest pressure on Nao will cause him to evaporate completely. “Have you slept at all?” he asks, voice cracking with overuse.

Nao reaches up to thumb over Natsuya’s ashen cheeks, leaning their faces together from brow to nose-tip. “I could ask you the same question,” he says, his soft eyes flicking closed for a moment. “Seijuro is right, we should eat.” He takes Natsuya’s hand and addresses Seijuro. “How long until you’ll let him back up here, Sei?”

Seijuro thinks about it. “However long it takes him to wake up from some decent sleep and for his fingers to stop bleeding.” He settles a large hand on Nao’s head, brotherly in his worry. “Both of you need to sleep.”

Bobbing his head, Nao pulls a protesting Natsuya out of the tower, bidding a yawned good morning to Kazuki and Uozumi as the two Sky Betas breeze into the room, ready to continue the flare firing, their skin glowing a soft dove grey to match the light clouds in the sky. Natsuya and Nao descend the tower stairs in the comfortable silence that settles through their veins whenever they are near each other, souls singing at being together again, and Natsuya curves his arm around Nao’s waist as they walk towards the outskirts of the Paradise markets, following their noses to the small shopfront that Ayumu sells her family’s curry out of. The Moon Beta smiles at them as she hands small bowls of steaming, freshly made curry, but unlike everyone else, she doesn’t look at Natsuya and Nao with that horrible sickly-sweet sympathy that has been clinging to them for days. She has faith that Ikuya will come back to them.

The markets are dotted with small hand-made tables and chairs, especially in the more northern parts where most of the food stalls are located. On legs ready to give up, Natsuya and Nao carry their food to a secluded table under an arching willow tree, pressing into each other on one side of the table. They don’t talk as they eat – they haven’t spoken properly for days, that awkward air of guilt and blame hanging over each of their heads – but when Nao has picked through less than half his bowl before setting his cutlery down, he tucks his head into the crook of Natsuya’s neck, sliding his glasses off and closing his sleep-bruised eyes against the bright light of the rising sun. “Do you think he’s in trouble out there?” Nao breathes, one arm tucked against his chest and the other curling low around Natsuya’s waist.

Natsuya freezes, spoon halfway to his mouth, and his arm moves back to the table in a daze. “I can’t think about that,” he says, voice sounding hollow, even to his own ears. His fingers move instinctually to weave through Nao’s hair, usually soft as lilac silk, but greasy at the moment from lack of care. Both of them have let their personal grooming habits go in the wake of Ikuya running away. “I can only think that wherever he is, he’s safe, fed, and making his way back to give me one hell of an apology.”

“Us,” Nao says, so quietly Natsuya barely hears him. “Give us an apology.” Nao is fading fast against Natsuya’s shoulder, his nose brushing Natsuya’s throat as Natsuya continues combing through his dirty hair. “And we probably owe him one.”

Silence falls over them again as Nao finally slips into a fitful sleep, hands curling into his tunic and around Natsuya’s hip, his breathing so shallow Natsuya feels like he is on tenterhooks waiting for Nao to take each next breath. Nao’s words are circling his head. Are they the ones who owe Ikuya the apology? Afterall, Ikuya had only been reacting to the story Natsuya had told him, and Natsuya understands better than anyone why Ikuya felt the way he did about it. Sometimes, before he had stupidly told Ikuya the truth, in the darkest hours of the night where even Nao’s soft, silver glow and alluring smile hadn’t been enough to break him out of his thoughts, Natsuya used to think of leaving Paradise and returning to the place he had grown up to exact his revenge.

His base Alpha instincts had always preened at the idea of coming back to Paradise in triumph and dumping his father’s head at his mate’s feet, the way he would feel Nao’s pride swelling through their Bond. Good Alpha, he had thought to himself. Good protector. Now, Natsuya has started to think that maybe he is neither of those things.

Tilting his head back slowly so as not to disturb the precious sleep that has fallen upon Nao, Natsuya stares up at the sky through the feathery leaves of the tree above them. Even though his literal heart is curled up tightly to his side where Nao belongs, Natsuya still feels like a piece of himself missing, part of his family that he has built and fought to maintain displaced from the rest of them. He blinks once, twice, three times, and squints at the cloudy blue sky peeking through boughs and weeping green tendrils.

There is not a flare in sight.

Natsuya’s blood runs cold, and his spine snaps straight, the movement dislodging Nao with a startled yelp. “Natsuya, what’s wrong?” Nao grumbles, bracing himself on the table as his head spins slightly from too little sleep after too long without it. “Natsuya, hey.” He reaches up and cups Natsuya’s chin in his long fingers, making to turn Natsuya’s face down so they can see each other properly, and he reels back in shock when Natsuya slaps his hand away, the Alpha’s chest heaving as he jumps to his feet, still looking up at the sky. Nao holds his hand to his chest, not physically injured, but hurt inside.

“The flares have stopped,” Natsuya says, voice strained. “Nao, there aren’t any flares going off.”

The chair Natsuya had been sitting in hits the ground as Natsuya shoves away from the table, food forgotten as he makes to head back to the tower. Nao catches Natsuya’s hand and Nao has to repress a frightened squeak when Natsuya whips around, ripping his hand from Nao’s grip with an ugly, alien look on his face. Never once has Nao ever been scared of his mate, his Alpha, the other half of his heart and soul, but in that moment, Natsuya looks more like his father than he ever has in his entire life. Icy dread threatens to swallow Nao whole as he asks, “Natsuya, what’s wrong with you?” pleading, reaching out once more. Natsuya lets him touch this time, and Nao breathes a sigh of relief. “Natsuya? The flares are still firing, look one just went up.”

Natsuya’s wild eyes flick up in time to see the pink streak shooting across the sky. “Not enough,” he says, seeming to get even more worked up instead of calming down. “There’s not enough! They’re too far apart, Ikuya might not see them, he-!”

“Ikuya will see them!” Nao tells Natsuya plaintively, wrapping his hands around Natsuya’s wrists and dragging the Alpha’s hands up to clutch them to his chest, pressing his lips to Natsuya’s knuckles gently, trying to will Natsuya calm through their Bond. “Ikuya will see them, and he’ll come home, but you need to calm down.”

“I can’t calm down!” Natsuya suddenly yells, yanking his arms away and throwing his hands into his hair, pulling until a few strands rip out. “I feel like I’m the only one who cares that Ikuya has run off into a world he has never experienced!” His loud confession shocks Nao to the point of not being able to reply, left staring at Natsuya with his lips parted in budding anger. “The flares need to go off as frequently as possible until we run out!”

Nao finds his voice. “Why are you getting so worked up over the flares?”

“BECAUSE THEY’RE THE ONLY WAY I CAN REACH MY BROTHER!” Natsuya bellows, and Nao’s ears ring, everything else around them deathly silent. His body feels hot in the worst way possible, an ugly flush staining his cheeks as Natsuya’s face turns pale in fury. “Why can’t you understand that?! He’s my baby brother, Nao! My blood family!”

The crack of Nao’s palm on Natsuya’s cheek shocks them both. “And he’s my son,” Nao whispers, his throat closing over, his eyes filling with tears at the realisation not once before has he ever said those words, neither aloud nor to himself. His feet move before Nao even registers his need to get away, away from Natsuya, stunned into silence, and away from Nao’s own gripping shame and grief. He runs blindly, figuratively and literally, his glasses still folded on the table with their abandoned food.

It takes Natsuya what feels like hours to recover from his stupor, shaking his head like a dog to clear the thick, cotton feeling in his head as he stares blankly after the place where Nao had disappeared into the market. He raises a shaking hand to touch his stinging cheek, hard pressed to believe that Nao had actually slapped him. Suddenly, it weighs on Natsuya how much of an insensitive bastard he was being to his mate, as if Nao wasn’t in enough pain over Ikuya already. “Nao!” he calls out, but he’s too late. Nao has run away, and fear grips Natsuya’s heart for the second time in a week that someone else he loves has vanished. But, no, he can still feel Nao nearby through their Bond, and he tries to force himself to breathe. Closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose, Natsuya realises that he knows exactly where Nao has gone. “Oh, baby…”

Sure enough, when Natsuya runs out from between the buildings of the market, past the small housing area behind them, and finally out onto the grass flats that lead to the banks of Ring River, he can see a small, huddled figure some ways away to his left. Natsuya slows to a walking pace, and approaches his mate, Nao sitting on the very edge of the bank on his knees, the water softly lapping around his shins. Nao’s hands are clasped in his lap, his head bowed on his over-lapping thumbs as his thin shoulders shake and shudder with racking sobs. Natsuya can hear the gut-wrenching sounds of a Luna prayer between each choking cry before Natsuya is even within touching distance of Nao, and his heart breaks. Rounding Nao’s side, Natsuya’s eyes land on the rock, the marker of this specific spot on the bank.

Born innocent, is carved into the flat, round rock, propped up exactly halfway between the grassy bank and the clear water.

“Nao, I’m sorry,” he croaks, sinking to the ground and gathering his mate into his lap, his hands once again brushing through the beautiful lilac hair he loves so much. “I’m so sorry, I’ve been a selfish fool for the past few days, so busy thinking about my own pain, I never considered how this might have been affecting you.” He hangs his head. “I’m sorry how often I forget that Ikuya is more yours than he is mine.”

Nao hiccoughs into Natsuya’s chest for a little while until his crying subsides. “I’ve never called him that before,” he says, voice raspy. “I called him ‘my son’.” He clings to Natsuya like he’s afraid of drowning in his own guilt, his wet legs moving restlessly against Natsuya’s. “I want him to come home,” Nao says dully.

“So do I,” Natsuya replies. “And beyond that, I just want to know if he’s even alive.”

“He is alive,” a new voice says, and the pair look up in unison to see Hiyori standing beside them on the bank. Neither of them know when he arrived there, or how he came by so silently, but he isn’t looking at them, just gazing resolutely out at the other side of the river, as if waiting for Ikuya to appear out of the tree line. “I promise you that he isn’t dead.” His hands are still by his sides, a string of glass beads threaded through the fingers of his right hand.

Natsuya cradles Nao against him when he feels more hot tears soaking into his shirt. “You’re sure, Hiyori?” he asks hesitantly, eyeing the Sky Alpha off in warning. If this is empty promises, Natsuya cannot be held responsible for what happens next.

But Hiyori nods, his eyes glittering in the sunlight reflecting off the water. “As sure as I breathe,” he says softly. “If Ikuya was dead, then I would be too.” Soft brown hair blows in the gentle breeze and Natsuya finally manages to focus on the small ring of toothmarks over Hiyori’s scent gland, white and scarred-over on Hiyori’s luminescent skin.

His fingers moving to touch the identical mark on Nao’s neck, Natsuya can suddenly feel his own Bond mark more than he ever has since Nao’s sharp teeth first pierced his skin all those years ago when they had first come to Paradise. For Hiyori’s mark to already be a permanent scar, Natsuya has to wonder just how long ago it was that Hiyori and Ikuya Bonded. In any other circumstance, he would be furious, vision whiting out in over-protective brotherly rage, but right now, all he can feel is searing relief. Hiyori standing before them with Ikuya’s claim on his neck is living proof that, wherever he is, Ikuya is still alive.

“What’s happening?” Nao asks in a small, tentative voice, and Natsuya startles when he remembers that he left Nao’s glasses on the table they had been eating at.

“It’s alright,” Hiyori cuts through Natsuya’s panic. The younger Alpha reaches into his pocket and produces Nao’s glasses. “I was helping out in the stalls to distract myself when I heard your argument. I retrieved these and followed you, I thought you might need some reassurance.” He ventures over and hands Nao his sliver-framed glasses. “Here.”

Nao slides them on and peers at Hiyori with red, puffy eyes. “Oh,” is all he says, spotting the mark. “You two kept that well-hidden, given that you’re both terrible liars.” His beautiful, kind smile graces his features for the first time in days.

Hiyori’s cheeks flare pink, and he takes the hand that Nao suddenly holds up, helping the Omega to his feet. Nao turns and gestures to Natsuya to stand too. “What are we doing?” Natsuya asks as Nao starts pulling him into the water of Ring River with one hand, tugging at the ties of his tunic with his other hand.

“We both need a bath,” Nao says simply. “And then, I think we should go back to our house, and we should sleep.” Knowing that Ikuya is definitely alive has taken such a weight off Nao’s shoulders. He looks over his now-bared shoulder at Natsuya, his face soft and vulnerable. “We can talk about fault and guilt and what have you after that.”

Natsuya nods firmly, and starts to remove his own clothes, following the love of his life into the crystal waters.

Taking a seat on the banks with the mysteriously inscribed rock, Hiyori watches the two bathe without really watching them. His mind is a thousand miles away, where he can just make out the image of his precious Ikuya curled up and fast asleep, somewhere out in the land. Hiyori can’t tell if the patchy visions are due to distance straining their Bond, or if Ikuya is purposefully shutting him out, so Hiyori is more than glad for this brief flash of his mate.

“Come back to me,” he whispers to the breeze, hoping his words somehow reach Ikuya. “Please.”


When Ikuya wakes up, there is a sour taste on his tongue, as one gets after intense emotions have had you in their grip. He can hear the ghost of Hiyori’s voice in his head calling him home like a bird on the wing, and it is uncomfortably hot inside the small stone cabin. Although, that is to probably be expected, with seven people still asleep in various places around the single room, and Ikuya himself now awake where he had been offered some cushions and blankets. He had refused the couch when Makoto told him that he could sleep there, Ikuya instead turning the offer back on the older Omega, sensing that Makoto really needed to lie down on something soft and stable for a few hours. As Ikuya looks now, he can just make out Makoto’s tawny hair from under the threadbare blanket, Makoto tucked against Haruka’s chest where the Alpha is asleep upright on the couch, his head tipped over the back.

Isuzu and Gou are curled up together under the window, using Isuzu’s cloak as a blanket to protect them from the cold stone floor, and Gou is sleeping fitfully still in light of Ikuya’s revelation about her brother’s fate. Guilt sweeps through him again, and he wishes he had kept his mouth shut. Ikuya had been sleeping on the floor beside the couch, and Nagisa and Rei are within reaching distance of him, the Alpha’s head cushioned comfortably on Rei’s stomach, his arms wrapped around a thin thigh, and the Omega stretched out on his back quite elegantly for a man lying on the floor. Ikuya can’t see Momo, the guard fast asleep behind the couch and closest to the door, but he can certainly hear him, Momo’s snores ringing through the cabin and grating against Ikuya’s just-awoken brain.

Why had he woken up? Sunlight is still peeking through the gaps in the shutters, though dark orange now with the sunset, and Hiyori’s voice had been whispering in his head long before consciousness has visited. Ikuya concentrates, trying to decipher what had disturbed him, when he is suddenly made aware of an odd pinging sound calling out from the corner of the cabin, sharp and mechanical and even more grating than Momo snoring. As Ikuya squints, searching for the source of the sound, it swells in volume, louder and louder until the others being to stir, first Isuzu, then Haruka, and then Rei.

Momo’s snores cut off second to last, followed only by Makoto, who had sunken past sleep and into a sort of deeply rooted unconsciousness that is physically painful to drag himself out.

Dumb silence accompanies the pinging until Rei bolts up properly, knocking Nagisa away without a second thought as he leaps across the room. As Rei reaches the back bench, Ikuya finally lands his eyes on a row of fine china bells attached to the wall, one near the middle being chimed rhythmically by a thin strand of blue-green silk thread that snakes up the wall and disappears through a tiny hole in the roof. Rei follows the string with his eyes and curses. The clap of his hands smacking together gets everyone moving, but not quite as much as the words that next come out of his mouth.

“Everyone up, someone has breached the tree line!”

When Nagisa and Rei had returned from the gardens and informed them that the alarm was not, in fact, being raised for a missing princess, but rather a missing lord, they had agreed to stick with their plan of leaving that night, though earlier than first suggested. Nagisa had pushed for the group to depart immediately, though even he could see that Makoto in particular was in desperate need of at least a few hours sleep before he could even think of travelling.

Their budding panic is stifled by the sound of two swords being unsheathed, and Momo and Isuzu are on their feet before anyone has even blinked. “Rei,” Isuzu says levelly, and Gou’s eyes are wide open at the sight of her in full guard mode – the princess has never seen her girlfriend ready to fight without her cloak and mask on. Isuzu is breathtaking, the kind of picture they write legends about. “Is this a fight we win, or a flight we take?”

“Only one bell is ringing,” Rei says, calculative eyes pondering the rest of the bells. “Only one of the traps has been triggered – there can’t be too many people venturing into the trees.” He nods to the guards. “You may fight, but we should still run while we can, if one has come, more will follow.”

“Then gather our things,” Momo says, and he too looks different, poised and serious and ready to fight for the lives of his friends. “We’ll take care of the problem and meet you by the side gate down by the road.”

Plan haphazardly decided, Isuzu puts her sword-free hand on the doorknob and locks eyes with Momo. Wordless conversation passes between them, and then the door is open. They both flash gold as the setting sun caresses them with its burnished orange glow, and the entire room is struck breathless to watch the two Mikoshiba siblings walk fluidly out into the forest, swords painted bronze and held aloft in readiness.

As they stalk their prey – a castle guard and one of Kirishima’s footmen – Rei conducts they chaos inside the cabin, blankets being rolled and tied to bags, meagre food wrapped in oils and sandwiched into rucksacks, any weapons they have tied to hips and slung over backs, and Nagisa and Haruka drag the baskets of shredded maps and books into the centre of the room. “Outside, now!” Rei demands, and he’s holding an oil lamp and a lit candle in his hands. Once he is the last person in the cabin, Rei douses their papers and some of the floor with oil and heads for the door, tossing the candle at the mess behind him as he does.

The party keeps to the rocky hillside, the trees on their left, as they sprint for the edge of the grounds, and smoke eventually begins to curl up behind them. Makoto is still slow on his feet, Haruka’s hand firm around his wrist to keep him moving, and Gou stumbles as she tries to cast one last look up the hill at her home, but Ikuya catches her around the shoulders, breaking character to take her hand reassuringly. “Come on!” Nagisa calls, he and Rei feet ahead. Behind them, they can hear the clash of swords, and Momo’s bright laugh. “There’s the gate!”

Surrounding the Kirishima estate and cutting through the hill to reach the castle stables, a high stone wall had been erected centuries ago, broken at either end by the wrought iron gates that allowed people off the roads and into the grounds. But, in the middle, hidden under snags of ivy and wedged in against the hill foot, a wooden gate rocks on its ancient hinges. A back entrance, designed for concealed escape and long forgotten by the inhabitants of either estate. This is where they gather, huddled under the tumbling ivy as they wait for the bright red heads of hair to break through the trees.

Above them in the sky, the Paradise flares are still erupting, staining the clouds and Ikuya whoops suddenly, a flash in his mind of Hiyori striking flint to flare and sending green light bursting from the tower window. The same green flash appears before them in a high arc before dissipating into a trail of white smoke, and Ikuya grins. His mate is calling him home.

Isuzu appears through the trees, her sword red and dripping, and Momo is hot on her heels, waving at them frantically to get the gate open. “MOVE!” his cry reaches them across the distance as they get closer. “THEY KNOW GOU IS MISSING, GET GOING!”

“Out of the way,” Nagisa says, rolling his shoulders. “The lock is rusted shut, but this should do the trick.” He has an iron pipe in his hands, wrenched from the gutter struts of the cabin, and he jams it into the gate hinges, levering the old wood right out of its holding. It breaks apart in splinters, and their little group burst through, urgency creeping into their steps as Momo and Isuzu catch up to them.

“We killed the guards,” Isuzu pants as she runs alongside Gou, eight pairs of feet spraying the gravel of the road as they streak towards the flickering lights of the Sol city limits. “But they saw the smoke and more of them came. They know that Gou is missing and they’ve doubled the amount of guards on the search.”

Momo outruns them all, dashing to the front in case anyone or anything tries to cut them off at the end of the road, and he says, “They’re distracted for now by the cabin, but once they realise there’s no one in there, they’ll be after us quick as anything.”

Fortune is on their side for the briefest moment, and they make it into the outer ring of the city without anyone catching wind of them, but trouble starts when shouts rise up behind them. Makoto turns his head and sees a troop of guards in hot pursuit, and they are attracting attention.

“It’s the princess!” a voice calls, and a woman with her head out the window of her house is pointing at them. “They’ve got the princess with them!”

“Fuck!” Gou curses, and Isuzu grabs the hood of the white cloak tied around Gou’s shoulders, wrenching the hood over her stand-out crimson hair, billowing freely out of the usual tight hairstyle she is forced to keep it in for castle etiquette. “How far away are we?”

“Almost there,” Nagisa pants, and he waves his hand towards the wall made of stone and iron spikes that keeps the city enclosed. The king would have his people believe it is to keep outsides from entering, but their small band knows that the wall is truly to keep the people of Sol inside. Only working carts – like Haruka’s fishermen – may freely come and go, all others are stopped and searched, an no one may enter or leave on foot without the proper paperwork. However, once the Paradise boarders are open every year, there is quite the trade in carts and horses and people turning their heads so that they do not see people leaving the city. “Look, you can see the stables from here.”

Rei too turns to eye up the guards, and his heart sinks when he sees how much ground they have covered. “They’re gaining on us,” he wails, even as his body protests at being pushed so hard. “We need a distraction!”

“Come with me,” Gou says defiantly, breaking away from Isuzu to grab Rei’s arm. “Your knowledge of the city is equal to mine, and I have an idea.” She looks to her new friends, face mulish with determination. “Secure us a cart. We’ll be right back.”

Isuzu barely has time to say, “Gou!” in a wary voice before Gou drags her down by the strap of her bag and kisses her silent.

“Trust me,” the princess says. “Let me help.”

Isuzu nods, and allows Momo to pull her away.

“Where are we going?” Rei asks Gou as she weaves him sideways through the houses.

Gou grins. “There’s a bottlenecked alleyway just along here, is there not?” At her question, Rei mentally recalls a map of this area of Sol, and nods in confirmation. “Perfect place for a distraction, don’t you think?”

Blinking, Rei adjusts his glasses thoughtfully. “It would seem so.” He eyes her off appraisingly. “Your cloak and your hair are currently the things marking you apart from the people of Sol, I imagine we could put at least one of those things to good use.” He reaches out and taps the clasp of the cloak. “We don’t have a lot of time.” They can both hear the guards, finding them easily with half the crowd around them pointing the way.

Jostling her bag around from shoulder to shoulder, Gou sheds the white cloak and hands it to Rei, who folds it neatly over his arm. “I’ll get the guards’ attention,” Gou says quickly, a breathtaking smile playing at the corner of her mouth at the risk and freedom suddenly laid out before her. “You bait the trap, and once they’re stuck in the alleyway, we head back to the others.”

Rei nods, and Gou slips away a little further into the crowd, garnering attention as she goes. Wasting no time, Rei ventures into the dead-end alleyway and scouts around for something he can use to fly the coat. The old broom leaning against the back wall of a house will do just perfectly, and he grabs it, slotting the brush end into the narrow shoulder area of the white cloak. Rei sighs forlornly despite the seriousness of the situation. The cloak really is beautiful, with iridescent thread woven into the pristine cloth, and handmade white-gold fastenings. It’s such a shame to leave it behind. Shaking his head, Rei jams the handle of the broom into a crack in the pavement so that the broom stands upright, and he spends a few moments adjusting to cloak so that it billows just so in the light breeze circling the alleyway. In the soft, dim light of dusk, it does look like someone is standing there, wrapped in the cloak. Rei puts his hands on his hips, and decides to add a little flare to the distraction.

Job done, Rei vacates the alley, keeping his back to the wall as he looks out for Gou. He spots her through the throng of people, crouched behind a few crates of fruit being packed away by a salesperson for the end of the day, and he slowly, casually makes his way over. A smirk dances over his face as the troop of guards barrels right past him, and rounds the corner into the alleyway.

“Oh my!” he calls suddenly, pitching his voice into a higher octave to attract more attention. “It looks like the castle guards have cornered the princess in that alley over there!” and he points, people so distracted by his words that no one even notices who it was that spoke. The smirk becomes full-blown as a dense pack of people forms around the mouth of the alley, effectively sealing the guards in until they can move the crowd without using force. “Let’s go,” he says to Gou, holding his hand out and helping her up. “That should keep them busy for a few minutes, at least.”

Gou takes his hand and they race back the way they’d came. With the white cloak no longer setting her apart as visibly, only a few people give them a second look, and they’re soon in sight of the rest of their group, all of them perched in a large wooden cart with Isuzu at the reigns of a small, stocky horse. “Magic or not, we make a pretty good team,” Gou says at last, the two of them slowing to a walk so they don’t crash right into the back of the cart. She squeezes Rei’s hand and then drops it, declining Makoto’s offer up onto the cart in favour of going around the front to climb up beside her girlfriend. “Did you miss me?” she asks breathlessly.

Isuzu stares at Gou for half a second before grabbing her face in both hands and kissing her deeply. “You’re crazy,” Isuzu breathes against Gou’s lips. She draws back, seizing the reins once again. “Hey, where’s my cloak?”

With a fond smile, Nagisa helps Rei into the cart, and the Omega hunkers down between Ikuya and Nagisa, ruffling Ikuya’s dark hair when he silently stares at Rei with wide, worried eyes. It seems the standoffish Omega is starting to warm up to them all, just a little. “How did you afford such a nice cart?” Rei asks the group at large, and in front of them, Isuzu flicks the reigns and sends the dappled grey horse into motion. “And a decent horse. I was half expecting a mule.”

“Momo,” Haruka says, setting a firm palm on Momo’s fiery head, the younger Alpha flashing him a wan smile. He looks exhausted, and Rei suddenly spots a nasty cut lancing down the side of Momo’s neck, curving from behind his ear and ending halfway down his chest, the front of his shirt shredded from the blade that sliced his skin. Haruka continues speaking. “He had enough money in his bag to buy the cart, and the man gave us a discount on the horse because he felt sorry for Momo’s injury.”

Makoto is fussing over Momo, a clean roll of bandages in his hand as he dabs at Momo with a cloth, tongue poking out between his teeth.

Wincing with every swipe, Momo pants, “The only problem is that that was all the money I had. And with you not being able to go back to the castle,” his eyes flick to Rei, “it was the only money we had, end of story. We’ll be in trouble when we get to Blaze – we might have to sell the cart back if we want food and water.”

“We can deal with that when we get there,” Haruka says quietly, and he locks eyes with Makoto, and air settling around them like they are the only two people in the world. The cart rolls smoothly through the gates of Sol, and they each take their first breath of free air. High above them, the Paradise flares are making their final show. “But right now, all that matters is that we are free.”


The town of Blaze is a day’s ride from Sol to the East, and in clear sight of the first trees of the Forests of Treachery to the West. Deep in the slums, a tiny shack is hidden between the abandoned wrecks of two large building, once workhouses and slave barracks, out of sight of the street and totally invisible no matter how high the sun climbs in the sky. Inside, a hastily made nest of burlap sacks and straw has been constructed, lined with threadbare blankets. The walls of the shack are burned to charcoal in irregular blackened patches, a hole in the roof bored all the way through to the sky above.

As the sun finally sinks into the horizon, darkness descending over the land, the muffled sounds of a mating couple filter through the thin walls. Kisumi throws his head back against the side of the nest, throat bared for Asahi’s teeth to descend on the silvery Bond mark, the Alpha latching on as if he will drown without it as he works hard to keep his pace between Kisumi’s thighs. His thumbs hooked in the bends of Kisumi’s knees, Asahi thrusts into his mate’s pliant body with practiced ease, their grunts and moans mingling together like their sweat and souls. “Come this way,” Asahi pants, soothing his tongue over Kisumi’s throat, and uses the utmost care to pull his Omega up into his lap, careful of the precious cargo his mate carries between them. “Please, Kisu,” words breathed out between their lips, “Please, let me see…” Asahi cups Kisumi’s face in his large hands.

“No,” Kisumi replies, as he always does, his lips curving up in a dainty smile. The strip of material binding his eyes shut crinkles slightly, and Asahi can just imagine the beautiful expression of pleasure on Kisumi’s face. Kisumi whimpers as Asahi redoubles his efforts, bouncing the Omega in his lap as their mouths slide together wetly. “I told you it gets harder to control – fuck – every day,” Kisumi finally gets out, winding his arms properly around Asahi’s shoulders to cling on for dear life as he falls over the edge suddenly, gasping and burying his head in Asahi’s chest as he cries out. “Asahi!”

Asahi strokes a hand down Kisumi’s back and slides two fingers into his mate’s willing body alongside his cock, his other hand carding through sweaty pink hair and gripping tightly, wet strands and knotted fabric clenched between his fingers. “Let me see, baby,” he whispers again, hips bucking up as he nibbles along Kisumi’s jaw. “Let me see your eyes.”

Hah, Asahi, it’s not safe-” Kisumi whines, but his resolve is breaking. It’s been so long since the last time he saw his Alpha’s face… “Okay, okay, just for a few seconds,” he concedes, his body starting to shake with the overstimulation. Every part of him has been hypersensitive with the arrival of the pup growing inside him, and his magic did not escape unscathed. “But carefully, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” Asahi breathes, and he swiftly pulls the blindfold off, pulling Kisumi’s head back by his hair as Kisumi’s eyes flutter open. Vibrant purple greets him, and Asahi crashes into his orgasm then and there, his knot flaring as Kisumi keens high in the back of his throat. They stare at each other in awe, the thrill of each other’s faces and the high of mating settling around them like the thickest, warmest blanket. Asahi seizes Kisumi’s face and drags him in for a kiss, breaking off almost instantly to resume staring into his mate’s eyes. “So beautiful,” he says, wonderstruck. Kisumi is like a piece of artwork, sprawled in Asahi’s lap, bathed in the light of the moon and stars filtering through the hole in the roof. “My shining star…”

It doesn’t take long for the light in Kisumi’s eyes to flare to life again, tears welling in his eyes from the praise of his Alpha. Shining pink and white, Asahi can’t look away as the light seemingly spills from Kisumi’s very soul. “Asahi!” Kisumi barks in warning, letting his mate go to throw a hand over his eyes. “Asahi, the blindfold-”

“Just one more look,” Asahi pleads, sealing Kisumi’s protests behind a heated kiss. “One more…”

“No,” Kisumi says firmly. “It’s too much, I’ll burn you again.”

Relenting, Asahi retrieves the strip of fur-lined cotton and binds Kisumi’s eyes again, pressing their foreheads together as he lays his Omega down on his side in their nest. “Thank you,” he says, and Asahi sighs in content when Kisumi’s hand caresses his face. “I love you, Kisumi.”

“I love you too,” Kisumi replies tiredly.

When they can separate again, Asahi cleans them both with diligent hands, dressing himself warmly for the night weather, and dragging their last clean blanket up over Kisumi’s spent body. “You’re alright, aren’t you?” Asahi asks in trepidation, always worried after the fact about mating while Kisumi is pregnant. “I didn’t hurt you? Either of you?”

“We’re fine, Asahi,” Kisumi replies, smiling up at his Alpha. The scars tracking down his cheeks pull with the movement, thrown into sudden relief as the light finally hits his face. “Don’t worry about us, go and find some food while the night is young.”

Asahi bites his lip to keep his words in check, and he crouches beside his mate, hands caressing the rounded bump of Kisumi’s stomach beneath the blankets protectively. He leans forwards and kisses Kisumi gently before standing again. “I’ll be back before dawn,” he promises resolutely, trailing his eyes over the prone form in the makeshift nest. “Try and get some sleep.”

Kisumi smiles again, and even with his eyes bound, Asahi can still see the bright light shining from behind the blindfold. “You know I can’t sleep without you next to me,” Kisumi says, curling up with his arms protectively curved around their pup.

“I know,” Asahi whispers, and he slips out the door. “I know.”

Asahi detests leaving Kisumi alone and defenceless even for a moment, especially in his condition. In a town like Blaze, anything and everything can be bought and sold for the right price, and an Omega of Kisumi’s descent is the highest prize of all.

Asahi enters the slums of the city like a shadow, dark cloak pulled over his bright hair as he picks through the closed market stalls for leftovers and forgotten wares. Food goes in his satchel, and the small amount of water he comes across goes in the flask tucked into his belt. Asahi easily resists drinking it himself, even though his parched throat is screaming at him for water. Kisumi needs it more than he does.

When he returns to the shack, hours later as the sun stains the sky pale purple and the rainbow flares from the heart of the land flash one final time, Asahi tucks the food bag into the small space beneath the floorboards, and he crawls into the nest beside Kisumi, nuzzling his face into Kisumi’s neck. The air around them is still permeated with the cloying scent of their mating. This close, Asahi can hear the crackling of Kisumi’s magic under his skin, dying out slightly as the sun rises, but always there, humming day and night. Kisumi curves his arm around Asahi’s shoulders, and they tangle their fingers over the swell of their growing pup, feeling him flutter under their fingers in greeting.

“We need to find a way out of here,” Asahi mumbles into Kisumi’s collarbone. “I don’t know how much longer we can survive like this.”

Kisumi’s smile curves up into a proper grin, scars tight. “Something will come along,” he says firmly. “It always does.”

Who is Asahi to doubt his mate’s sure voice?

Chapter Text

Haruka isn’t sure if it’s the arrhythmic rocking bump of the cart, or the bright light directly in front of his face that wakes him up, but he blinks his eyes open all the same. The sky above the slowly moving cart is still dark and studded with stars, and Haruka frowns in confusion, because there is definitely some sort of light shining on him from somewhere. He actually thought it was the sun for the briefest moment, the light a soft gold and warm on his skin, but the moon is still hanging in the sky. It’s not the silvery glow of Ikuya’s magic, either, Haruka quickly realises, for Ikuya is buried under a blanket on the other side of the cart, and Haruka is still not quite awake enough to think of moving. He squints in the dark. The light is a bright, flickering heat shining from about three inches away.

A quiet sob reaches Haruka, and his senses sharpen in an instant, sitting up and looking for the source of whatever is making Makoto cry.

There is nothing there. Still, Makoto is crying in his sleep, eyes screwed tightly shut and his lips quivering ever so slightly. Bright golden light, almost too blinding to look at, is leaking from the corners of his eyes, fat tears rolling down Makoto’s already scarring cheeks and leaving steaming red burns in their wake. Haruka freezes in place, horrifically transfixed by the image before him. What should he do? The only other person awake is Isuzu, ever diligent at the reins, she and Momo swapping out driving duties ever three or four hours.

“Makoto?” Haruka whispers, leaning over his mate and gently shaking Makoto’s shoulder. “Makoto, love, wake up. You’re having a nightmare.” Haruka daren’t try to wipe the tears away, wary of whatever can burn even his fairly burn-resistant mate. He cards his fingers through Makoto’s hair instead, holding the back of his head tightly, comfortingly, as Makoto gasps himself awake, choking on whatever he had been whimpering to himself, and his eyes flying open.

For the briefest moment, Haruka can’t see Makoto’s eyes. He can’t see anything at all, other than a light so bright it seems to flicker between white and black until it fades away, and Haruka is left struggling to blink the daze away, Makoto’s eyes their usual emerald green before him. Although, those beautiful irises are ringed with red. “Haru?” Makoto whispers, and his voice is hoarse. “Where are we?”

“Just outside the Blaze city limits,” Haruka tells him softly, stroking Makoto’s hair off his face with shaky hands. “Mako, your face…”

Makoto reaches up to touch his face, wincing when he finally feels the stinging burns on his cheeks. He wipes his tears away, gasping as his fingers sear and burn too, and he jerks his hand away from his face. “Oh my god,” he says, sounding absolutely terrified. “What’s happening to me?” He reaches out and grabs at Haruka, pulling himself close into his mate’s chest. “Haruka?”

“I don’t know,” Haruka says, choking on his own words as he watches worry dance across Makoto’s features and settle there, threatening to never let go. “I don’t know, love.” This is beyond anything Haruka has ever seen or heard of. Even the history book he had been slowly working through had never mentioned anything like this, and there had been a great many odd magical afflictions discussed throughout several chapters. Maybe Rei might know something, his knowledge bank far greater than both Haruka and Makoto’s combined.

“I can see the city!” Isuzu exclaims, her startled voice interrupting their growing trepidation. Around them, the rest of the cart occupants begin to stir, bleary eyes and mussed heads peeking out of blankets and over the sides of the cart to catch sight of the glittering lights in the distance. The city of Blaze rolls out before them like a beacon, lights twinkling and dancing like the stars overhead, and, beyond it, the first inky black stain of the Forests of Treachery. “It’s right there…” Isuzu breaks out into pealing laughter, her head thrown back as she holds the reins in one hand and throws her other up in the air excitedly. Gou grabs her around the waist to keep her steady, and she joins in the laughter.

Beside Haruka, Makoto lets out his own quiet chuckle, both hands spread over his aching cheeks. “We’re so close,” he says in awe, eyes ablaze with sudden hope as he watches the city draw nearer. “I can’t believe we made it this far.”

“We’re barely halfway there,” Ikuya grumbles from the back of the cart, stretching like a beautiful silver cat and sitting upright to rub his eyes, sparks rolling off his hair like glittering dust that dances away on the wind as the cart rolls on. “Don’t celebrate just yet.”

Nagisa throws his arms around the glowing Omega and drags Ikuya in-between he and Rei, patting Ikuya’s dark hair and giggling despite Ikuya’s yowl of complaint. “I’d say we’ve done pretty well for ourselves,” Nagisa says. “Keep your spirits up, Ikuya – you still have a job to do!” His face is cheery, but his tone rather threatening, and Ikuya represses a shudder, huddling closer to Rei to get away from Nagisa. Nagisa grins at Ikuya, his eyes crescent moons that say, ‘lead us into trouble, and you’ll have to deal with me’. “Isu, how far away do you think we are?”

“Only a few hours,” Isuzu replies, turning to look at them over her shoulder. “Someone had better come up with a plan for how we’re going to afford supplies before we get there.” She looks back to the road. “Momo, switch out with me in about an hour, okay?”

As Momo sleepily confirms his sister’s request, pain flashing across his face as he stretches and pulls at the wound on his chest, Rei and Nagisa begin discussing their money problem, with Makoto and Ikuya occasionally offering suggestions. Ikuya thinks they should just sell the horse and cart and go on foot for the rest of the journey, but Rei is hesitant. He cites the three day ride to the boarder of the Deadlands once they leave Blaze as reason enough to keep the cart. “It will take us over a week on foot, which just means more supplies.” Makoto asks what Rei thinks they should do, then, and Rei, recalling his thoughts on Gou’s attention-attracting appearance, says, “Perhaps Gou could sell some of her hair?” He rubs the back of his neck. “It is quite beautiful, although it does draw a lot of attention we don’t necessarily want. It would fetch us a fair amount of money.

“No thank you,” Gou calls from the front of the cart. “How about we save that for when we get really desperate?” Rei shrugs sheepishly in response, and Gou smiles gently to show she isn’t truly upset with him. Accepting the smile, Rei busies himself with something in his bag.

Haruka, on the other hand, sits quietly beside Makoto and lets their talk wash over him. He knows from Rei’s research that there are three things other than money that can be traded for goods and services, especially in Blaze. Sex, slaves, and raw currency. The first two things aren’t options – he has no desire to hand any of his friends or his mate over to be used and abused ever again – but the third one… Haruka tightens his hand on the strap of his bag before dropping it to dip inside. Nestled under some of their meagre food supplies is his small sea silk pouch, full to bursting with plenty of raw currency.

They sit in the back of the cart and watch the sky bleed pink as Blaze gets closer and closer until Haruka can taste the smoke from the slums licking over his teeth. A great wall surrounds the city, like all cities in the Sun Territory, but this one bears no iron spikes, no unfriendly guards, and the gate welcoming traffic into the city is a giant stone-carved archway with ancient inscriptions swirling over the columns. The cart trundles in through the arch with no troubles – at this time of year, paperwork isn’t even required to travel from city to city, once you have left your hometown, no one cares where you were from as long as you have money and don’t cause a scene. They even make it to a lot where they can leave their horse and cart without anyone paying them much mind, despite it being uncomfortably close to the slave market.

“Gou,” Rei calls quietly as he dismounts the cart with a hand from Nagisa. “I think you need to put these on.” And he hands a bundled cloak to Gou. When she unfolds the dark, rough material, she discovers a hastily sewed-on hood, and Isuzu’s white mask, now dyed an inky black. She looks up at Rei curiously. “You are very distinctive,” Rei explains, voice gentle as he helps her with the cloak. “I dyed the mask before we left Sol, I had some pen ink left over.”

Taking said mask and sliding it over her face, Gou bows her head in thanks. “I’m sorry to be such a hassle to you,” she says, sincere in her apology. “Thank you for all your help.”

“We need to get water for the horse,” Isuzu says, interrupting them bluntly as she strokes the horse’s nose reassuringly. The poor beast has foam flecked down its heaving flanks, and Isuzu coos at it with creased eyebrows. “Did anyone come up with a plan for money?”

Nagisa sighs in defeat. “It’s either the horse or your hair, princess,” he says resignedly with an apologetic look at Gou as she adjusts her new hood over said hair. “We’ve got nothing else.”

“Yes we do,” Haruka interrupts Gou’s sputtered response, and he pulls the sea silk pouch from his bag. “Leave it to me.”

Haruka ignores everyone’s requests for answers, and leads the way towards the large, bustling market place. The sounds and smells drifting out are almost overwhelming, and so different from those in Sol – where Sol is controlled and harsh, Blaze is open and almost loving in the way the sales people tend their wares. Haruka makes his first stop at a stall selling waterbags, cannisters, and tickets to use the town’s water fountain. “Rei, Momo,” Haruka says, glancing over his shoulder to make sure they’re paying attention. “Tell him what we want.” He gestures to the Sun Beta manning the stall, eyeing them all off with suspicious eyes.

“Uh, right,” Rei says, darting forwards to speak to the man. He asks for four waterbags, a large cannister for the cart, a small box of purifying salt, six palm-sized bottles, and a usage pass for the town’s water fountain. When Ikuya whispers to him and asks if that’s enough, Rei surreptitiously pulls a folded map from his bag and shows several places on their path where they will able to draw more water from rivers and streams. “And how much will that cost?” Rei finishes his spiel, watching the man behind the counter start retrieving the items requested.

The Beta offers them a challenging grin. “How much have you got? Water is a precious commodity while the Paradise boarders are open.” His eyes slide over Makoto, Rei, and Ikuya with undisguised interest. Even Betas like to get a piece of Omega every now and then.

Haruka steps up beside Rei, carefully placing himself between his friend and the merchant, and silently opens his pouch. The entire group holds their breath in anticipation for what he is about to pull out, and stunned gasps filter around when Haruka produces two pearls, held neatly between his fore and middle fingers. The pearls are perfectly round, shined beyond belief, and the patina on them is beautiful. The salesman nearly falls over from shock, forgetting his lust, and he eagerly nods his head, thrusting a meaty palm out for his payment. Haruka makes to drop the pearls in the man’s hand, and is stopped when Makoto grabs his wrist.

“Haru,” he says, eyes round as saucers. “Are you sure you want to spend those? Where on earth did you even get them?”

A tiny flash of pain flickers across Haruka’s face before he smiles gently. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, and tips the rest of the pouch towards his friends. Their shock at two pearls is nothing compared to their complete astonishment at a pouch nearly bursting at the seams with the rare gems. “Here, take them,” Haruka says to the man, pressing the pearls into his hand finally. “May we have a box to carry everything in?”

It goes like that with every stall they visit – dried food, bread, proper heat and rut suppressants, blankets, medical supplies – Haruka will instruct someone to request as much as they need, and then he produces pearls for the stall minder, sometimes only one, like for the bread, but other times four or five. For the medical supplies and suppressants, he shells six pearls out. By the time they have decided they are set for supplies, the pearl pouch is more than half empty, and no one but Ikuya sees the pure anguish that settles over Haruka’s face as he finally tucks the pouch back in his bag. Ikuya has to wonder what Haruka’s original intention for the pearls had been.

“Gou and I will take everything back to the cart,” Isuzu says as they gather away from the stalls, balancing out bags and boxes between the two Betas. “We’ll look after the horse and make sure everything is ready while you go to the fountain and fill up the waterbags. If everything goes smoothly, we can be on the road again by tomorrow morning.”

With nods of confirmation all around, Gou and Isuzu excuse themselves, trailing all their wares back to the lot. Stationed in an open, sandy area, they have a perfect view of some of the more high-end buildings and shops Blaze has to offer. A dress shop is boasting the latest styles from Matsuoka castle that make Gou laugh until she’s pink in the face, and a beautiful Alpha woman sitting by one of the few trees in sight offers to draw their portraits because the sight of the two Betas, arm in arm and so obviously in love has touched her artists’ spirit. Even so, Gou still offers her one of their loaves of bread, hoping no one will miss it too badly. Keeping in sight of their cart, the horse now gratefully munching on some straw Nagisa had thought to add to their order at one stall, Gou and Isuzu explore their small surroundings. They allow their eyes to skip over the line of slaves beside the dress shop, hearts bleeding but unable to help for fear of their own capture.

Gou pauses for a moment, her eyes locked on a small local shrine. “Isu,” she says quietly. “Will you give me a moment?”

“Of course,” Isuzu replies, accepting the kiss from Gou and then hanging back to keep watch as Gou approaches the shrine and kneels before it.

Taking one of the small candles being offered, Gou lights it with a touch of her finger, the sun’s rays hot on her back. She slots the candle into the shrine and closes her eyes as her grief from the day before washes back over her. “I’m sorry, brother,” she whispers to the breeze, hoping that Rin can hear her wherever his soul is resting. “I selfishly thought that you would be waiting for me, no matter how long I took to find you, I had no idea that you died long ago.” Her breathing starts to hitch. “You died alone, with no one to honour you, and I beg your forgiveness. This candle is all I have to offer.” Gou wipes her tears even though they keep coming, spilling over her fingers and splashing onto her knees, and bows her head. “Goodbye, Rin. I love you.”

When she returns to Isuzu, her face is blotchy, and Isuzu wraps Gou in her arms and holds her close, chin resting on Gou’s shoulder. “Let’s go lay down in the cart until the others come back,” Isuzu whispers. “I think we need a little rest.”

Gou agrees without a word.


Their group is cleaved in two when they reach the great water fountain in the heart of Blaze. Rei, chattering excitedly about the legend of a Sun Alpha and Water Omega caught in a star-crossed love long, long ago before the territories had gone to war, summoning forth the natural spring through the sheer strength of their love and magic, is cut off by a thick arm appearing across his chest and stopping him in the middle of the path to the fountain. Similarly, Makoto is stopped by the guard’s other arm, and Ikuya flails when a large hand settles on his thin shoulder, nearly yanking him backwards.

“What the hell?!” Ikuya demands, looking up at the Alpha female holding him still, her golden armour blinding in the midday sun. Before any of his companions can stop him, Ikuya slaps her hand away and glowers at her, his top lip pulled up in a sharp-toothed snarl.

Momo darts between Ikuya and the guard, cursing himself for not making sure someone explained to Ikuya – who had no idea how interactions between people in the hierarchal society of the Sun Territory worked – that as an Omega, he would be seen as an object to be controlled, before being seen as a person to be respected. It isn’t fair, and Momo knows that he himself benefits from the customs of the territory, but that is how things are, and Ikuya could get seriously hurt by daring to challenge an Alpha so brazenly. “He means nothing by it,” Momo is quick to placate the guard, and she narrows her eyes at him for a moment before nodding stiffly.

“Omegas aren’t permitted near the fountain,” she says coldly, and gestures to the far side of the line where several Omegas are waiting patiently for their Alphas and Betas to finish at the fountain. “Take the little brat over there before he gets into real trouble,” she growls darkly, raking her pale eyes over Ikuya, almost hungry in the way she takes him in. “Pretty little thing like that is a high commodity in these parts.”

Ikuya is bristling, racked to the teeth with barely repressed rage, and Momo steers him towards Rei and Makoto, the two older Omegas obediently taking an arm each and leading Ikuya away. Haruka watches Makoto leave with a fist clenched around his heart, but he and Nagisa dare not speak up. They have come too far with little incident to tempt fate now. Held between Makoto and Rei, Ikuya wants to dig his heels in and demand to be allowed to proceed with the rest of the group. How can Makoto and Rei – who, in the short time he has known them, have done nothing to show that they are anything other than brave, smart, and strong in all that they do – simply tuck their metaphorical tails between their legs and allow that pig of an Alpha to treat them like they were dirt? He wants to scream at them, make them turn around and fight for their dignity, but he is stalled when he can finally focus on their faces.

Rei’s jaw is clenched so tightly a nerve is jumping under his skin, ethereal eyes burning with violet rage. On Ikuya’s other side, Makoto has a face set like stone with pink scars that glint and glisten and convey far more fury than words ever could. Ikuya catches his breath. Rei and Makoto are just as enraged as he is, they just know better. Used to it. Longing for more.

“Why are we treated like this?” Ikuya asks, the three of them finally reaching the designated waiting area and huddling together. He wishes that it was night, the moon shining high above him, so that he could take out some of his anger by shooting sparks at something, like Nao had taught him as child. “In Paradise, Omegas are held in the same standing as Alphas and Betas, and are respected for the role we play in the continuation of our people.”

“This is just the way it is in the Sun Territory,” Rei sighs, face resigned but voice laced with steel, fingers on his glasses frames as he watches Haruka show off their usage pass to the Alphas guarding the final entrance to the fountain. He continues, “Omegas are treated as possessions, slaves – objects to be fucked and bred and bare children for their masters. Betas are there to be seen and not heard, serving and protecting and keeping their heads down. And Alphas rule over all, fighting and fucking and doing as they damn well please without a thought to the rest of us.” Makoto sets a tender hand on Rei’s shoulder, his stony expression melting into one of empathy and grief. “They forbid us from Bonding with our loved ones for fear of losing control over us. They forbid those who have magic from using it because only those at the top of society should have access to such a weapon, and yet they treat those of us who have none as though we are broken.”

Ikuya grabs at Rei’s hand, latching on to one of Makoto’s too. “There are plenty of people – Omegas and Alphas alike – in Paradise who don’t have magic, Rei,” he promises, finally looking at them properly for the first time since he had woken up in the cabin. Ikuya is understanding more and more what prompts people to cross the great distances of their land, to brave the Forests, to risk crossing the river, just for the chance of getting to live in Paradise. His family history aside, Ikuya has been exceptionally lucky in the situation he was born into. “You aren’t broken.”

Pulling his hand from Ikuya’s grip, Rei gently puts his fingers on the back of Ikuya’s neck and pulls the younger Omega forwards. He presses their foreheads together, and Ikuya startles. No one other than his family has ever done this with him before, and he can’t keep the tiny smile off his face when Rei steps back again. Makoto ruffles Ikuya’s hair affectionately. “Try not to think about how they treat us now,” he says, gracing them with his first real smile in days, even if it tails off into a grimace when his scars pull uncomfortably. “Just keep telling us about Paradise.” Makoto’s eyes are alive again. “Everything you have said so far reassures me that we have definitely made the right decision – no matter how dangerous the journey, what is waiting for us at the end of it will be worth it.”

And comfortable silences settles between them, the three Omegas standing in the shade of a large umbrella tree as they keep an eagle eye on their Alpha companions. Ikuya, still weary from his journey to Sol and the traumas that followed, sinks down to sit just behind Rei and Makoto, resting his chin in his hands as he lets his mind wander to thoughts of Hiyori. This is the longest they have ever been separated in their entire lives, and Ikuya can feel the stretch and strain on their Bond like a physical hook in his ribs, tugging and yanking, trying to drag him back before the thread snaps. He hopes that Hiyori isn’t too mad at him when he gets back – Ikuya will have to give Hiyori the best heat sex of his life to make up for it.

Fantasising about heat sex in an unfamiliar place known for its dirty dealings and festering with strong-nosed Alphas is a mistake on Ikuya’s part, his pheromones beginning to perk and shift and waft around him in the uncontrollable lust of a teenaged boy.

Makoto bites his nails anxiously as he watches Haruka fill up their waterbags, Momo and Nagisa juggling the various containers around ready to take them back to the cart, and he doesn’t even notice that his fingers have started to glow until his skin is practically humming. He’s not even standing in direct sunlight and his magic is going haywire, now. “Rei,” he whispers, sliding his eyes across to his friend. Rei looks over, a small sound of inquiry rumbling in his throat. Makoto coughs, wiggles his fingers at Rei, and they both follow the small burst of glittering sparks that burst from his palms. “Have you ever read about magic… going wild?” He shrugs, unsure how to voice his question properly.

Putting a finger to his lip in thought, Rei observes Makoto, the way his skin is shining and the audible thrum of his magic, the tracking scars staining his face from an apparent overflow of magic. “Not explicitly,” he says, delicate, recalling an old, heavy tome he had poured over once while looking for answers on his own magical situation. “But there are ancient writings that mention places even our oldest history books seem to have no knowledge of, and legends of people blessed with such strong magic that it eventually consumed them.” He starts to stammer at the terrified look on Makoto’s face, and Rei quickly adds, “Old, old legends with no footing in today’s magical knowledge! Perhaps the trauma of what happened to you, and using far more magic than you are used to, has simply put your body in shock, and this is its way of dealing with that shock, dispelling the unneeded magic in any way it can.”

“I don’t like it,” Makoto admits after thinking over Rei’s words. “It scares me that I don’t know what is happening to me. I’m afraid I might hurt someone.” He reaches up absently and traces a finger over one of his scars, wincing when the pad of his finger comes into contact with the sensitive skin. “More than I have already hurt myself.” A shudder runs through him. “What if it just keeps getting worse? What if those stories are true, and my magic is consuming me?!”

Rei lurches forwards to grab at Makoto’s shoulders, holding his gaze, violet on emerald. “I am positive that isn’t going to happen,” he says firmly, and he offers Makoto the most reassuring smile he can muster. “You don’t need any more worry on your plate, Makoto.”

“Thanks, Rei,” Makoto whispers, and he dips his head down to touch their foreheads together as he draws in a shuddery breath. “I wish I could stop worrying, but you know that’s not in my nature.” He withdraws slightly and hold up a still-glowing hand, palm facing Rei.

Not sure what possesses his next action, Rei raises his own hand and slides their palms together. He startles at the sudden jolt that zings through him at the touch and his eyes widen in surprise behind his glasses. “Wow,” he breathes, watching the way golden light dances between their hands, warming Rei’s skin and sending fluttering tingles all the way up to his shoulder. “Is that what magic feels like?” he asks in a whisper, more than enthralled by the sensation.

Makoto nods with a small grin finally gracing his face, and he drops his hand. “If you don’t mind me asking, Rei, do you have any ideas about your own magic – or, lack thereof?”

“None at all,” Rei admits with a frustrated sigh, wrapping his arms around himself as if trying to hold all his disappointment inside where no one can see it. “I’ve done so much reading, Makoto, studying old censuses and magic genealogy, and there is nothing. Nearly two centuries ago, certain bloodlines just suddenly stopped carrying magic.” He shrugs. “I have no clue,” Rei says, and he sighs sadly when Makoto puts a comforting arm around him. “Want to trade?” he jokes to the older Omega, and Makoto has to giggle, leaning his cheek on the top of Rei’s head.

“What are you two laughing about?” Haruka asks from a little way away, a crate full of their water bottles in his arms, and a full, rolling waterbag slung over his shoulder. Momo and Nagisa have the rest between the two of them, Nagisa with the giant cannister perched securely on his back – the little blonde Alpha is far stronger than his small stature leads one to believe. The three Alphas gladly approach their companions, Rei stepping aside so that Haruka can greet Makoto with a quiet word and a kiss to his throat, over his scent gland. “Where did Ikuya go?” Haruka continues when he pulls back, looking over Makoto’s shoulder as if Ikuya is hiding behind Makoto, preparing to jump out and surprise them all.

Makoto turns his head, a smile already on his face to greet the young boy who – more than likely – had fallen asleep where he had been sitting from exhaustion. “He’s right… here?” Makoto freezes, his mouth still parted slightly around his half-question. “Ikuya?” Makoto shakes his head, and Haruka can almost see the urgency starting to creep up on him. “I swear, he was sitting right behind us!”

“Ikuya?!” Rei calls out, hoping that maybe Ikuya had just wandered a few steps away to where the shade is a little darker under some thicker tree coverage. “Ikuya!”

But Ikuya is nowhere to be seen.

Before Makoto and Rei can whip themselves into a panic, Momo says, “Maybe he just walked back to the cart? You know how standoffish he can be – he probably saw you two having a deep conversation that didn’t involve him, and decided to go back and wait for us.” He adjusts his grip on the three waterbags held against his chest, and inclines his head back in the direction they had come. “Or he might have gone back to one of the stalls we visited. Let’s walk back slowly, and we’ll probably find him.”

Nagisa sets the cannister down on the hot cobblestones and cozies up to Rei, nuzzling his face against Rei’s shoulder and rumbling deep in his chest to calm the Omega down. “Come on, Rei, Mako. This isn’t your fault.”

Lugging the water along, they retrace their steps all the way back to the cart, where Gou and Isuzu are carefully sorting their other goods in the back so that there is still enough space for them to lie down. They don’t find Ikuya anywhere, even with Rei and Makoto darting in and out of stalls and side-streets like butterflies chasing honey, calling out for their missing companion. “Have either of you seen Ikuya?” Nagisa asks as he and Momo start loading the waterbags into the cart, passing the small one to Isuzu so that the horse can finally have a drink.

“No, we haven’t,” Gou replies quietly, and she seems quite subdued, her eyes pink-rimmed and a little shiny. The tip of her nose is red, too, like she has been crying. Nagisa will ask her about it later, they have more pressing issues to deal with right now.

“God, I should have been watching him!” Makoto is fretting, hands twisted together as Haruka attempts to console him. “He’s just a child, and this town is dangerous!” He clasps his hands to his face to try and physically keep his panicking inside, teeth latching onto a knuckle and biting down hard. “There are people waiting for him to come home, how could I just let him disappear like that?”

Isuzu takes pity on the poor Omega, and she pats his head, Haruka busy trying to pull Makoto’s hands away from his mouth. “Makoto, we will find him. We’ll get him back to his family.” She grabs the small waterbag from the back of the cart after a few moments of Makoto just staring dumbly at her, and she approaches the front of the cart.

After watching his sister water the horse in a slight daze, Momo shakes himself, and cast his eyes around the area where they have the cart stopped. He catches sight of something, and an uneasy feeling settles in the bottom of his stomach. The slave market in Blaze is a booming business, and even from where he is standing amongst horses and carts in a somewhat respectable part of town, Momo can see a few lines of slaves being auctioned just across the lot and barely hidden by what appears to be a dress shop. As a castle guard in Sol, Momo had heard all sorts of rumours flying around about Blaze – a common tale is of slave traders snatching Omegas right off the streets. Momo isn’t a fool, he knows that things like that happen all over the land – how else would Haruka have ended up in the Sun Territory? – but being faced with the prospect of that happening right under his nose sets his blood boiling.

“Where are you going?” Isuzu barks at him as Momo starts marching towards the auction before he has even thought about it properly. “Momo!”

Momo points. “Even if they didn’t take Ikuya, and he is still wandering around the market somewhere, you can bet that a slave trader will have heard of an unattended Moon Omega in the city.” His hand floats to the concealed hilt of his sword reflexively, although it would be stupid of him to draw it in the crowd for no good reason. “The longer Ikuya is missing, the more danger he is-”

They don’t have to look any further, and Momo doesn’t have to finish his sentence. A blood-curdling scream suddenly rockets through the square where the cart is parked, and they follow the sound on feet that blur on the cobble the group moves so fast. Ikuya’s jaw is still hanging open from the nigh-inhuman sound when they stumble to a halt on the outer ring of the auction, where slaves are still being shuffled out of carts and cages to be presented to the crowd. He is being held under the arm of a brutish trader who has a silver dagger pressed to the pale skin of Ikuya’s neck, thin trails of blood starting to drip from the line the man is carving into Ikuya’s throat.

The others don’t know what it is that the man is doing, but Haruka does, and his hand flies to his own neck reflexively. You can’t sell a Bonded slave, no one will buy them. The trader is trying to cut Ikuya’s Bond mark out.


Whatever cloth had been pressed over Ikuya’s face as he lounged idly on the cobbles in the shade, watching Makoto and Rei with unseeing eyes as he fantasised about his reunion with Hiyori, it had been doused with some sort of strong-smelling liquid. Ikuya can still feel the burn of it in the back of his throat as he coughs in lungsful of dust and dirt, carried over the shoulder of a mountainous man. He has no recollection of how he got there, and not enough consciousness to try and fight the Alpha off – Ikuya doesn’t even know where he is anymore, his eyes are half-open and blurry, and he can’t for the life of him get them to focus on the swaying colours before him. He tries to call for help, but his mouth won’t work, his throat flexing and his tongue flicking against his teeth as his lips remain resolutely closed, no sound other than a muffled squeak escaping him.

“The little rat is awake, hm?” the man holding Ikuya hums, and he jerks his shoulders up, jostling Ikuya enough to draw a wretched moan from the boy. “Thought I might have knocked you out a little too much, you’re such a tiny thing…” He shakes his head like a teacher scolding a student, as if it is Ikuya’s fault that the kidnapping could have gone wrong.

Ikuya blanches when that thought finally processes. He has been kidnapped!

What happened?

He tries to force his uncooperative brain to remember what took place after Ikuya sat down, Rei and Makoto talking quiet and intently above him. Hiyori… he had been thinking about Hiyori, and how worried the Alpha must be. Thoughts of heat sex had been entertained, Ikuya sluggishly remembers, recalling the flush that had bloomed on his cheeks as he pictured how he was going to make it up to Hiyori for leaving. Natsuya’s lessons on biology drag themselves to the forefront of his mind, and Ikuya curses himself blue when he finally realises that he must have lost control of his pheromones, attracting the man now hauling him off to who knows where.

He needs his body to start responding again.

A painstakingly slow shift of his hips reveals that his hunting knife is still on his person, wedged between Ikuya’s thin stomach and the thick meat of the man’s shoulder, probably caught up in the folds of the cloak Ikuya is wearing. That is promising, at least. He has access to a weapon once he has been set down on his feet.

“Stop wriggling,” the Alpha growls several minutes later, Ikuya now alert enough to try and escape his hold, attempting to slide right down his back and sprint away. The Alpha adjusts his grip, large hand clamping down on the back of one of Ikuya’s thighs, fingers biting in harshly to keep him still. Ikuya isn’t going anywhere yet, his arms and hands looking pathetically small and weak where they dangle against the man’s back. “If you can’t behave, no one will buy you.”

Ikuya wants to retort that that is exactly what he wants – to not have his freedom bought away like he is nothing more than a loaf of bread or some sort of luxury pillow – but he quickly realises that it would be unwise to alert his kidnapper to the fact that Ikuya is not, in fact, a stray Omega on the streets of Blaze. He knows from what little Nao has told him of their blood territory that Moon magic is both feared and coveted in the Sun Territory – particularly powerful Moon mages are even capable of using Sun magic in dire circumstances, though it can be deadly, completely overwhelming them. Ikuya clamps his jaw and prays that, wherever he is being taken, he can either escape, or his friends will find him.

His friends.

Uncertainty shoots through him like the bolt of an arrow. Will his companions even come looking for him? What is he to them other than a nuisance mouth to feed? An Omega who is barely considered an adult and has no experience with this rough, cruel world they have inhabited their whole lives? He has already drawn out a rough path through the Forests of Treachery for them on their map, even without Ikuya there to guide them, they could still conceivably make it on their own. They have no claims of loyalty to him, his isn’t a relative, a lover, or even a proper friend. Ikuya can’t be anything more than a burden to them, a stupid, selfish child who has done nothing for them other than put Haruka in unnecessary danger and cause pain and suffering for Gou.

It would serve him right if Rei and Makoto noticed he was gone and decided to just continue on without him.

So lost in his own spiralling anxiety as he is, Ikuya almost doesn’t notice when the Alpha stops moving, and Ikuya is suddenly being thrown off his shoulder. Ikuya’s ankles smart and jar when his feet hit the ground and he stumbles, yowling like a cat when the Alpha seizes him again and starts pawing at Ikuya’s cloak. As the material is half-wrestled over his head, Ikuya spots the lot of parked carts and idling horses, and he nearly cries because he is so close to safety. Isuzu and Gou are still at the cart! He has to get away, he has to!

“Get off!” his voice finally, finally decides to start working again, and Ikuya starts to fight in earnest to get away. If no one is coming for him, then it is up to Ikuya to escape – Hiyori is waiting for him! “Let me go, you bastard!” He manages to land a solid back-hand from chin to temple, and the Alpha growls furiously, grip loosening for a moment. It isn’t long enough, and Ikuya has barely thought of pulling out of his hands before they are tightening again.

The Alpha spits on the ground, grinds out a, “Little bitch,” and he rips Ikuya’s cloak off with one hand. “What’s this?” he asks, voice dropping with genuine curiosity as his eyes land on Ikuya’s knife. He draws the blade, and Ikuya freezes. The blade that Nao had made oh-so long ago has never looked so deadly-sharp as it does when the hilt is in someone else’s hand, the tip pointed directly at Ikuya’s chest. “Blue moon steel?” the Alpha wonders, eyes alight. “This is worth almost more than you, little rat. But, then…” he grabs a fistful of Ikuya’s hair and tilts the Omega’s head back until his neck is protesting. The Alpha ducks his head and drags in a long scent from Ikuya’ throat. “Well, well, well, a Moon Omega as I live and breathe! I really have found a pot of gold here!”

Ikuya hisses at him, turning his head to the side so he doesn’t have to look at the Alpha. He doesn’t know how long it has been since the man grabbed him, but surely if they were going to come for him, Haruka and the others would be after him by now? Is Ikuya truly on his own?

“I didn’t see that before,” the Alpha snarls suddenly, and Ikuya is confused as to what he means, until the knife is being twirled between thick fingers and the cold pommel at the end of the hilt is pressing against his scent gland, his Bond mark in direct contact with the metal. He’s sure that Hiyori can feel the icy chill that washes through him at the touch all the way in Paradise. For the briefest moment, Ikuya thinks that being Bonded might be enough for the man to let him go. “Damn, I thought grabbing such a young Omega would negate this problem.”

Ikuya scolds himself. A childish notion fitting for a childish person, he reprimands his previous thought. Of course that wouldn’t be enough to be released, slave traders probably deal with Bonds all the time, disgusting and deadly as the implications may be. Once more, Ikuya turns his head, this time looking back towards the carts. His heart leaps into his throat – he can see familiar people approaching one of the carts, Momo’s orange hair and Makoto’s unnatural height plain as the flash of Rei’s glasses and Nagisa’s tiny blonde head bobbing along like a dandelion in the breeze. He needs to find a way of getting their attention, they’re right there!

If they’re right there, does that mean they weren’t looking for him? They must have gone straight back to the cart after finishing at the fountain.

Biting his lip, Ikuya forces himself to think. He can’t let himself be sucked into that trail of thought again.

The Alpha beats him to any kind of plan, muttering, “Better make sure this blade is sharp at least,” before pain lances up Ikuya’s neck, settling in his very heart as a scream wrenches itself from his throat hard enough to make it feel like his voice is shredding with the force of it as –

– the tray of beads in Hiyori’s hands hits the floor, and glass goes skittering in every which direction, some of the beads intact and some shattering on impact. He shrieks as pure agony shoots up his neck, white hot and so intense as it pushes and pushes and pushes and –

– Ikuya flails in the Alpha’s iron hold, his limbs seizing. All he can see is Hiyori, slowly, slowly being ripped away from him, the silk-fine tether holding them together being pulled and slashed until it threatens to snap completely –

                 – and Hiyori’s knees hit the floor as Ikuya’s presence in his blood starts to leak out before his eyes. Hands are on him, trying to coax him up, out, an explanation, but –

– “HIYORI!” Ikuya sobs, his hands clawing at the Alpha’s arms, fingers slicing on the blade already slick with Ikuya’s blood. “HIYORI, DON’T-” –

                – “-LEAVE ME, IKUYA!” Hiyori nearly chokes on his own tongue, black spots erupting in his vision as he wraps his hands around his throat and squeezes like that might stop the pain, might stop Ikuya being taken away. He doesn’t know if Ikuya is dying, or if it just feels like –

– Ikuya is dying, he must be dying. Surely this is what dying must feel like? Having Hiyori taken away from him? “Please,” he begs weakly, his vision starting to fade. “Please don’t take him away, I’ll do anything, I promise. Please…” His bloody hands settle around the Alpha’s wrist as black engulfs him, not strong enough to do more than hold on for dear life.

The Alpha just snorts coldly, and continues slowly dragging the tip of the knife around the scarred-over teeth marks. It’s a careful process – he has to remove the mark, not the whole scent gland.

“Get off him!” a new voice barks, strong and thick with Alpha demand.

Head jerking up, the trader’s hand stills as he sees a guard from Matsuoka castle of all places storming towards him, unmistakable with that sword and finely made cloak, the Matsuoka crest on the fastenings glinting in the sunlight. “What the hell?” he mutters, but he pulls the knife away from the unconscious Omega quick smart when the guard raises his sword, face hard as stone.

Momo usually wouldn’t hesitate running the man through, but with Ikuya pale and passed out in his arms, Momo can’t risk it for fear of accidentally hurting Ikuya too. Instead, he gestures with his head, hearing the rest of his companions finally reaching him, gathering behind him silently. “Drop the knife,” he commands, and his Alpha voice has never resonated so strongly in his throat as it is now. “Hand the Omega over, and no one will have to get hurt.”

“Why should I?” the trader fires right back, the knife still in his hand, though thankfully several feet away from Ikuya’s steadily bleeding neck. “I found the little rat fair and square, and he’s worth a fair amount of swag to the right person.”

Haruka elbows past Momo to the sound of Makoto’s protesting cries, and the Water Alpha thrusts his hand out to the trader. “Twenty-five pearls from the sea of the Topaz Cliffs,” Haruka says levelly, glaring the man down with cold, ocean eyes that threaten to drown him with one blink. “Would you say that is a fair price?”

At the sight of the pile of pearls in Haruka’s hand, the trader drops the knife in pure surprise, but his hold on Ikuya remains. His mouth is nearly watering at the thought of how much money those pearls could be traded for – the only think he has ever seen worth more is that slippery pink-haired Omega and its unborn pup, but they are neither here nor there – but he is still unwilling to make the trade. If he can get twenty-five pearls from these strange people, how much more can he get? The trader licks his lips, deep in thought, casting his eyes over the eclectic group gathered before him.

Two guards from Matsuoka castle, a funny little Beta wearing a mask and hooded cloak, a Sun Alpha too short to be put to any good use, and a bespectacled Omega who clearly has no magic just by looking. The Water Alpha in front of him, and finally. The trader’s eyes widen when they land on the Omega that rounds out the group, pink scars on his cheeks just like-

“How about a trade?” he says, voice smooth as honey and deadly as a snake. “One Omega for another – I’ll give you the little rat for the tall one, surely he can’t be of much use to you, if you know what I mean?”

Haruka lets out a deep rumbling growl, his eyes flashing bright blue even without enough water close enough to trigger his magic. He angles himself further in front of Makoto, glowering. “Twenty-four pearls,” he hisses, plucking one from his hand and stashing it back in the bag. “Take it, or I let my friend here at you with his sword.”

To emphasise Haruka’s point, Momo lets his magic flare up, sending golden flames down the blade to crackle ominously. He grins at the shocked look on the slave trader’s face.

“Give me the pearls,” the trader finally relents, and he drops Ikuya to the ground, nearly stepping on the Omega as he takes a step forwards to cup his hands underneath Haruka’s. With barely concealed revulsion, Haruka flips his palm and lets the pearls drop into the blood-slicked paws below, withdrawing fast as lightning once the transaction is complete.

As the trader stands aside to count his prize, Makoto sprints past Haruka to scoop Ikuya up, Nagisa on his heels to grab Ikuya’s knife, and then the Omega’s feet when Makoto struggles with the boy’s weight in his still-weakened state. The trader looks up long enough to flick them a dirty glare before his eyes settle on Makoto once more.

The temptation is too great. He stuffs the pearls into his pocket, and he takes a dive for the tall, scarred Omega.

Several things happen at once. A strange twang sounds, Haruka dives to cover Makoto, and an arrow whizzes between Gou and Rei’s heads, embedding itself perfectly in the trader’s outstretched hand, the sharp metal head severing tendons and splitting bones apart as he drops to his knees and howls.

Stumbling, Makoto rights himself under Haruka’s steady watch, and a voice calls out to them, “Follow me, all of you!”

In the dirt behind them, a tall Alpha stands proud, a bow held skilfully in one hand and a second arrow already notched and aimed at the trader in case he is stupid enough to come after them again. The Alpha’s veins are lit up as gold as Momo’s, his hair blood red and stark against his pale face, tanned skin covered in old healed wounds as his vibrant purple eyes shine like amethysts. He grins at them as the entire group gape at him in shock.

“Why the hell would we do that?” Nagisa eventually manages to blurt out, and Rei’s hands snake around his bicep, either in warning or comfort-seeking, Nagisa can’t tell. “You’re armed, and a stranger to us!”

The new Alpha’s grin broadens, and he drops his bow and arrow slightly, the silver tip flashing. “That Omega you rescued, his Bond is nearly severed. I know someone who can heal him before he and his mate die from the shock.” He eyes them all up. “Besides, I just saved your asses. The least you could do is spare me some of the water in your cart.” He laughs uproariously at the scandalised looks on all their faces. “Oh please, you left a fully stocked cart with no one guarding it. You’re lucky I didn’t just raid it and go on my merry way.”

“Who even are you?” Isuzu snaps at him, impatient and angry. A lot has happened in a very short amount of time, but she can see that Ikuya desperately needs help, and this Alpha is offering it to them for the small price of some water. Haruka still has at least one pearl left, they can just get some more.

“The name is Asahi,” the Alpha, Asahi, offers. His face softens slightly when he casts his eyes over Ikuya’s prone form. “And I’m serious in my offer for help. He doesn’t look like he’s going to make it much longer.”

Haruka exchanges uneasy glances with Momo. “Why would you offer us help if all you want is some water?” he asks, justly paranoid.

Weapon lowering completely, Asahi stows his arrow back in the quiver and slings the bow over his shoulder. He raises his hands to them, palms out in a sign of peace. “You are going to Paradise, are you not?” Seven hesitant nods answer him, and Asahi nods too, satisfied with their answer. “I am offering you help because I want to trade with you. If I help your companion, will you help my mate and I run to Paradise?” He glances around, nervousness bleeding into him suddenly. “We are wanted in this city by traders, and no one local will help us when they can simply hand us over for the reward.”

Gou, more than used to making political decisions like this – though, in different circumstances – holds up an imperious finger, and gestures for everyone to huddle in around her. “It is fairly simple,” she says quietly. “We need Ikuya to get through the Forests, and this Asahi says he can get us help to stop Ikuya dying. What are two more members to our group?”

Haruka can’t hold back his huffed laugh at the irony of her statement, Gou of all people being the one to say it. However, “I agree,” he says, not even having to think about it. Ikuya needs help.

“He is clearly a trained fighter,” Rei chips in, adjusting his glasses as he deliberates their options. “And his mate must be some sort of healer, if that is the help being offered. They could be as beneficial to us as we are to them.”

“Is that an acceptance I hear?” Asahi asks, craning in so much he is about to fall over.

Makoto almost laughs out loud at the absurdity of the situation. “I guess it is,” he calls back. “How about we hitch the cart up, and you lead the way?”

Asahi’s downright beam of relief is enough the rival the sun for brightness as he nods vigorously.


Hiyori snaps awake, lurching forwards with a strangled cry of Ikuya’s name tearing off his dry, chapped lips. Cool hands catch at Hiyori’s shaking shoulders and gently press him back into what feels like a mattress. His glasses are missing, but Hiyori manages to stare up through swimming eyes at Nao, the Moon Omega’s face carefully neutral as he urges Hiyori to lie still with soft touches and whispered words. Hiyori can’t be sure, his bad eyesight and the fact that the only other sense that seems to be working is his pain receptors, but he thinks he might be in the infirmary. “N-Nao?” he stammers, voice feeling foreign in his own mouth. “What happened? Where’s Ikuya? Is he – my mark? -the pain!” all of his thoughts try to spill out all at once.

“I don’t know,” Nao says simply, effectively cutting off Hiyori’s nonsensical tirade off as his long fingers thread through Hiyori’s hair in comfort. “I don’t know what happened, Hiyori. You were beading in the front room, and then you just started screaming. Natsuya and I were asleep, and you woke us up.” His expression is starting to crack, true fear creeping over his delicate features. “When we ran in, you were clutching at your neck and choking. Hiyori, you nearly strangled yourself before Natsuya managed to break your grip…” guilt flashes across Nao’s face, “and some of your fingers,” he admits sheepishly.

Glancing down awkwardly from his reclined position, Hiyori catches sight of his hands. True to Nao’s words, both his little and ring fingers, and his right index finger are all splinted and bandaged, dark bruises mottling the skin on the backs of Hiyori’s hands. No wonder his throat is so sore, if he had throttled himself, like broken glass sliding down his tongue and digging into his flesh.

As Hiyori is observing his hands, Nao whispers, “Ikuya has to be okay,” and Hiyori isn’t sure if Nao is talking to himself or not. “He has to be.”

Gingerly, Hiyori raises one of his mangled hands to brush oh-so hesitantly over his Bond mark, suddenly desperately concerned with making sure that it still exists, physical proof of Ikuya’s love marking his skin. Thick bandages meet his touch, and panic sweeps over Hiyori as the worst possible scenarios roll through his head. He knows that it is possible to surgically remove a Bond mark, usually only in circumstances where one mate of the Bonded pair is dying from an illness and does not wish to put their partner through the same pain. “Nao, my mark!” he gasps, eyes threatening to fall right out of his head, he is so worried about it. Hiyori can’t even begin to imagine living his life without Ikuya nestled in part of his soul. “Where is it?!”

“Still there, just breathe,” Nao is quick to reassure Hiyori, leaning in to grab his flailing hand and hold it steady. “You gouged some of your skin off, and the mark started to bleed heavily, so we had to bandage you up.” He sighs, lilac brows drawn in tight. “Just… I don’t know what else to tell you, Hiyori, other than the fact that you still being alive and your mark still being visible means that, whatever just happened to Ikuya, he’s still alive. How alive, or what happened, however, we have no idea.” Nao flicks his glasses up briefly to rub his eyes with two fingers, and Hiyori feels unreasonable guilt welling up inside at the thought of waking the poor man when sleep has been continuously out of Nao and Natsuya’s grasps since Ikuya left. “Can you feel him at all?” Nao asks after replacing his glasses. “Or see him? Sense anything?”

Curling his few unbroken fingers tightly around Nao’s, Hiyori tentatively reaches out through the now-fragile Bond, trying to sense Ikuya somewhere in the vast land they live in. His heart pounds against his ribs with every second too long that finding his Omega takes. Right when Hiyori feels his eyes start to burn with tears ready to fall, so afraid that Ikuya has indeed been taken away from him and he is now alone, he feels the faintest flutter. “Ikuya!” he calls out loud, a thousand-yard stare boring a hole in the wall as he stares at that tiny glowing speck only he can see. Ikuya is still at the other end of the tether! He is barely holding on, however, unconscious and flickering like the flame of a candle left in an open window. The slightest of breaths could snuff him out entirely, plunging Ikuya’s world, and Hiyori’s, into total darkness.

Nao touches Hiyori’s cheek softly with his free hand, pulling Hiyori’s attention back into the physical world around them. “He is there?” Nao asks, green eyes lighting up with hope.

Nodding absently, Hiyori keeps trying to focus on Ikuya, tries to pull the vision of his darling Omega closer to him. “I can see him,” Hiyori swallows thickly. “Just.” He feels so weak, like his life energy has been sapped away somehow. “Baby, where are you?” he breathes, prays his voice crosses the distance and reaches Ikuya. Somewhere beside him, Nao starts humming quietly, hand moving to stroke over Hiyori’s forehead. “What happened to you?”

As Hiyori’s eyes slide shut, Nao lulling him into sleep with gentle song, Ikuya doesn’t answer, sleeping fitfully in the back of a rocking cart.

Nao keeps his song up even after Hiyori has fallen silent, bruised eyelids closed and his breathing slows, though still ragged, through his torn throat. Lips parting and words spilling out, Nao hopes that maybe Ikuya can hear him through Hiyori’s ears, all of Nao’s sorrow and guilt pouring out of him. His song is a lullaby that Nao remembers his own mother singing to him, a song he has only ever sung once before, on Ikuya’s first birthday. So wrapped up is he in his own thoughts, that Nao doesn’t notice Natsuya entering the room until familiar arms wrap around him, Natsuya’s head coming to rest on Nao’s shoulder. Nao closes his eyes so that he doesn’t have to look at the dressings on Natsuya’s hands, covering scratches and bite marks from where Hiyori had fought the older Alpha away tooth and nail.

“I haven’t heard you sing for years,” Natsuya says, voice reverent as he strokes a battered finger over Nao’s cheek lovingly. “I always forget how beautiful your voice is.”

Natsuya’s smooth baritone joins Nao for the last verse, though his Alpha doesn’t know the words, merely providing a chord to harmonise on.

“How is he?” Natsuya asks when Nao falls silent, nuzzling his nose against Natsuya’s jaw. They both drag careful eyes over Hiyori’s prone form.

“Scared,” is Nao’s reply, and he finally pulls his hand from Hiyori’s grip. “He doesn’t know what happened any more than we do, and that terrifies him.” He turns on the mattress to sling his own arms around Natsuya’s waist, tucking his face against Natsuya’s chest. “I don’t even want to imagine what might have happened to Ikuya to cause that, or to think about what I would do if that was you.” Nao’s throat hitches, and he curses himself. The last thing he wants to do is start crying again. “Where’s my baby, Natsuya?”

“I don’t know, Moonbeam,” Natsuya whispers. “I don’t know.”

In the doorway of the room, on his rounds around the infirmary, Seijuro watches the heart wrenching scene unfold with steely eyes. He used to be a castle guard; the prince’s body guard. He is an expert tracker and competent fighter. It’s time he visited the Paradise Regent to organise a search party. What is the point in a place where peace and safety reign if they can’t even reunite a shattered family who bring so much to their community? Seijuro turns on his heel. It’s barely mid-afternoon, the regent should be on his walk through the markets by now.

With purposeful strides, Seijuro leaves the infirmary and begins the short trek to the market place, pulling his bandana off to straighten his hair out and make himself look presentable for the Paradise Regent. The regent is elected by the citizens of Paradise, watching over the island for two years before the next election, although most regents are re-elected multiple times in their lifespans. The current regent has only been in charge for a year now, taking over from Grandma Nanase who looked after them for close to two decades.

The young man is easy to spot through the crowd, a dainty Sky Omega who appears timid at first glance, but takes each step with meaning and pride, quiet command rolling off his narrow shoulders as his silver hair gleams in the light.

“Regent!” Seijuro calls, approaching the boy and dipping his head respectfully. “May I beg a moment of your time?”

“Of course you may,” the regent says easily, turning from the stall where he had been inspecting some tiny cakes to smile up at Seijuro. If Seijuro wasn’t committed to a life protecting his people, he would almost be tempted to court the beautiful Omega. “What can I do for you?”

Seijuro offers his arm and waits for the regent to fold his hands around it, leading him away from the crowds slightly. “I want to organise a small search party, for Ikuya.” He casts a sideways glance at the regent, who is patiently waiting for Seijuro to explain himself. “He has been gone for over ten days now, his family is being slowly tortured to insanity. I can’t stand idly by and watch my friends suffer when there is something I can do about it.”

The regent hums thoughtfully. “I already allowed you to open our boarders early for Ikuya,” he reminds Seijuro, not unkind, but cautious. “And already the watchmen have caught sight of refugees making their way through the Forests of Treachery from the Sky Territory. I assume you wish to lead this search, and take Natsuya with you, amongst others. Would you leave us short-handed of protectors during arrival time?”

“No, Regent,” Seijuro murmurs, heart sinking. “I wouldn’t.”

“I understand that Ikuya left on some sort of personal mission, yes?” the regent asks, and Seijuro nods stiffly. Although they have kept the finer details between themselves, talk still travels in Paradise the way it does anywhere else. “What do you say we give Ikuya one more week to return to us on his own, before we send out a party?” He smiles gently. “We all have journeys we need to go on, Seijuro. If Ikuya felt this was something he needed to do badly enough to leave the safety of Paradise, then who are we to get in his way?”

Seijuro can understand that, but still… “We think he’s in danger, Regent,” he explains. “Only today, Hiyori-”

“Yes, I heard what happened to Hiyori,” the regent says, and sadness flits across his face. “But, he is alive, is he not? Ikuya is a strong young man who has been raised well by good people,” the regent releases Seijuro’s arm with one hand to touch his fingertips to Seijuro’s jaw. “How does this sound: we will give Ikuya one more week, unless Hiyori’s condition worsens, then we will send out a search party.” He nods firmly, as if sealing his own deal. “And I will accompany you.”

Golden eyes widening in surprise, Seijuro bows his head again. “Thank you, Regent!”

“There’s no need to thank me, Seijuro,” the regent says, somewhat bashful, a fine pink blush dusting his cheeks. “Looking after my people is my job, no matter how far away from Ring River they venture.”

“No,” Seijuro counters, trying to display his sincerity through his tone and expression. “Ikuya is practically my family, I would do anything to get him back.” He shuffles to clasp the regent’s thin hands in his own large ones. “Thank you, Aiichiro.”

The regent relents, another smile gracing his flushed face. “You’re welcome, Seijuro.”

Chapter Text

With Ikuya laid out amongst their new supplies that have been hastily rearranged and stacked in the back of the cart, leaving them a little pressed for space, Makoto and Haruka forego riding in the cart as Asahi leads them through the twisting slums of Blaze. Instead, they walk alongside the horse and a few steps behind the strange Alpha who rescued them. Makoto had hoped that, although his body is in pain and is still protesting his lack of proper sleep, the walking might help to dispel the last of the nervous energy still lingering in his system from his near-hysteria over Ikuya vanishing from under his nose, but the longer they walk and the closer they get to their apparent destination, the more restless he seems to be. Something is keeping him riled up. He tries to distract himself by striking up a conversation with Haruka, but his Alpha is even more withdrawn and sullen than usual, the pouch Haruka’s pearls had been in clutched tightly in his fist.

“Are you alright, Haru?” Makoto asks eventually, after several failed attempts at conversation over asinine topics and only getting one-word answers. “You’ve been fondling that pouch something fierce. Where did you get those pearls from?”

Haruka bites his lip, and stows the pouch away in his bag again. He has three pearls left. “I found them,” he says quietly, deciding a half-truth is better than a lie. “Over the last few months, they’ve been cropping up in oyster clusters at the foot of the Cliffs. So, I kept them.” He won’t tell Makoto about the necklace he had been planning on making, Haruka sees no point in upsetting his mate even further over something so out of their control. It isn’t Rei’s fault that he was unable to return to the castle for his money.

“I’m sorry that you had to give them up,” Makoto tells Haruka quietly, and he bridges the gap between them to take his Alpha’s hand. “They were beautiful.”

“I already have all the beauty I need in my life,” Haruka says in response, turning his head to look at Makoto, brushing his thumb over the back of Makoto’s hand as their fingers lace together. Makoto’s cheeks stain pink at the compliment, almost drowning out his angry scars, and Haruka allows a thin-lipped smile to cross his face.

In front of them, Asahi glances over his shoulder, announcing, “We’re only a few minutes away, now. There is an abandoned workhouse where you can put the horse up and hide the cart. I have some straw, too.” His face is incredibly wary, which Haruka finds strange, as they are now out of the city and appear to be completely alone in these abandoned streets. “Make sure you hide the cart well, keep it out of sight of the windows.”

“May I ask, why are you so concerned with being hidden?” Momo asks suspiciously from the cart, the reins in his hands as Isuzu and Rei attend Ikuya, making sure the young boy doesn’t slip away from them before they can get him help. “I haven’t seen even a hint of a single person since we left the markets.”

Asahi halts in his tracks, fingers twitching nervously by his sides. “Like I said, my mate and I are wanted by traders. We are arena fighters from the Eclipse, for one thing. Prized tokens to the right collectors. And my mate… Well, let’s just say that he is something very special. I’m sure you know all about that, don’t you, Makoto?” and he throws a sly wink over his shoulder at said Omega, and Makoto blinks at him blankly.

“What?” But Asahi has already continued walking. Makoto, still standing prone on the cobbles, looks to his friends for answers as the cart passes him. “No, seriously, what?” He jerks into motion and hurries to catch up to Haruka, who stares at him questioningly. Makoto holds up his hands. “I have no idea what he means.”

On the cart, Gou crawls up to sit beside Momo, her eyes narrowed behind her mask as she stares at the back of Asahi’s head intently. “Eclipse fighters, he says?” she asks herself, thinking hard. Just outside of Sol to the north, a large arena had been erected during the territories’ civil war over two hundred years ago. The then-king of the Sun Territory used it to pit prisoners of war against each other for sport in anything-goes fights to the death. Being allowed to live was the prize for being the last one standing. It became known as ‘Eclipse’ during a legendary battle between a Sun Omega and a Moon Alpha, their magic wielding so powerful they had created a lunar eclipse in the middle of the day. Once the war had come to its bloody conclusion, the royal court of Sol had continued to use the arena for their own entertainment, and certain fighters became celebrities amongst the crowds. Gou had often been dragged there by her father, though she and Rin had never liked the fights much, all the blood giving them both nightmares as children.

However…

“Momo,” she says to the Alpha beside her. “Did you ever see any of the Eclipse fights from, say, five years ago and before?”

“Sure did,” Momo says cheerfully, flicking his eyes to her briefly. “Seijuro used to take me and Isu to them on his days off, although I was only really little for most of them. Why? Do you recognise him?”

Gou hums thoughtfully. “Maybe. I remember my father raving about a red-headed Alpha who preferred fighting with weapons over magic, who often fought alongside an Omega who wielded magic like nothing anyone had ever seen before. Their names escape me, but Asahi certainly resembles the description…” she purses her lips. “There was some scandal about them several months ago, but I removed myself from arena gossip when I was thirteen and old enough to be disgusted by it, so I never followed the stories very closely.”

“I never heard about it,” Momo tells her, shrugging. “Although, no one in the barracks ever spoke to me unless they were giving me orders,” he adds, throw-away like, “so that’s not much of a surprise.”

Gou’s hand is small and warm when it lands on Momo’s wrist, holding on tightly for a moment. “No one would ever say it to my face, but I know that my father’s lords used to watch me walk through the halls to my lessons and whisper about my brother, like I could’ve stopped him leaving if I was stronger.” She sighs, and Momo turns his arm so that she can slip her fingers into his cupped palm, the rough leather of the reins brushing Gou’s skin. “I remember hearing someone say, ‘How can that little girl grow up to be anything more than a pretty wife if she couldn’t even stop a weakling Omega prince from letting his hormones abandon his kingdom’. I was ten, and people still blamed me for Rin’s choice to leave.”

“I guess I kind of forgot that your experiences are almost the same as mine and Isuzu’s,” Momo whispers, and he offers her an apologetic smile. “I’m really sorry that Rin didn’t make it. I remember him, he was always so nice to me when he visited us with Sei.”

“He would have been the king the Sun Territory needed but didn’t realise it did,” Gou says, turning her eyes ahead once more. “But I couldn’t ever fault him for wanting to get away from our father.” She huffs out a laugh. “I mean, look at me. Running away, just like him.”

Momo bites his lip. “Do you think they thought of us at all? When they were running?” His voice drops down until Gou has to tilt her head towards him to hear. “Do you think Sei ever thinks about me?”

“I’m sure he does,” Gou says, and the back of her throat aches. She wills herself to stay calm; she has already cried once over her brother today.

Their conversation is brought to an abrupt end by Makoto nearly careening straight into the horse’s side. The horse whinnies, its hooves clicking on the pavement as it skitters sideways away from the sudden presence, and Haruka grabs at Makoto as Momo pulls the reins up short. His hands catch around Makoto’s waist, pulling the Omega upright, but Makoto tugs out of his hold, eyes intense as he stares at… something.

Asahi has stopped walking with his arm half-raised, hand on its way to pointing between two buildings, but he has frozen to watch Makoto with interest.

Everything around Makoto has faded away, in his mind. His skin is too tight, getting tighter the closer he gets to wherever Asahi is leading. When he rubs his hands over his arms, he can’t tell if he is really feeling tiny vibrations under his skin or if it is his imagination playing tricks on him. Lights start to dance before him, tiny floating orbs glowing in a bright white trail that only he can see, snaking their way between hulking grey shapes he can’t focus on properly. Somewhere in his distant memories, he can hear his mother whispering to him softly, instructions told to him every day of his childhood until he was taken away to work in the Kirishima Estate.

‘If you ever lose me, my Makoto, just follow the lights back home…’

Makoto’s feet are moving one in front of the other without him even noticing, following the light like he did when he was lost in the market or awake in the night from a nightmare. “Mother…” he whispers, a hand reaching out as if to touch the lights shining before him. “Mother!” The lights are flickering by the door of a tiny shack, wedged between the buildings. It feels like electricity is shooting across his skin as Makoto nears the door. “Mother, are-”

“Hayato!” a voice calls, and the door is wrenched open even as Makoto reaches for the handle with fingers almost vibrating. “Hayato, is that-?”

Standing in the doorway is one of the most beautiful people Makoto has ever laid eyes on. Hair curls down past his shoulders like a blanket of roses, and every line of his body flows into each other like water, even under the heavy cloak draped over him. A shaking hand reaches up to pull a strip of fabric away from vibrant eyes, and Makoto gasps at the tracking trails of pink and silver marring pretty round cheeks. The magic crackling in the air between Makoto and this stranger Omega is palpable, and they each raise tentative hands to touch their fingers together.

Makoto yelps when something zings up his arm.

“My goodness,” the Omega breathes, his eyes wide. “Look at you, you’re so grown up.” He moves out of the shack and into Makoto’s space, and Makoto’s protests die in his throat when the cloak shifts enough to reveal the round shape of a pregnant belly and bowing legs struggling to keep the clearly weakened Omega upright. Scarred hands take Makoto’s face in a soft grip, eyes that seem to smile raking over Makoto’s features in intricate detail. “You look just like your mother.”

Throat closing over, Makoto swallows ineffectively a few times. “Wait, you… you know who I am?”

“Kisumi!” Asahi interrupts whatever was about to happen, suddenly appearing beside Makoto. The Alpha reaches out and Makoto is quite shocked when instead of touching a shoulder or his mate’s waist, Asahi clamps his hands over apparently-Kisumi’s eyes, Asahi’s breaths coming out in short pants as he presses his forehead to Kisumi’s temple. “What are you doing outside?” Asahi whispers, and Makoto can scent the worry wafting off Asahi in waves. “Your eyes are starting to go again, please put your blindfold back on, please.”

Grabbing Asahi by the wrists, Kisumi pulls the Alpha’s hands away, obediently keeping his eyes closed as he presses kisses to the heels of Asahi’s palms. When he releases, Kisumi pulls the material back over his eyes. “I’m sorry, Asahi,” he says, and he cups Asahi’s face in one hand, uses his thumb to find Asahi’s lips for a sweet kiss. “But, I felt Makoto approaching, and I thought…” he breaks off suddenly, lips pressed in a tight line. “I thought he was Hayato.” Kisumi’s shoulders droop slightly. “And I think he might have thought I was someone else, too.”

“How do you know who Makoto is?” Haruka asks icily, and Makoto startles as he is pulled backwards several steps, Haruka stepping in front of him protectively. He hadn’t even noticed Haruka walk up behind him. The rest of their friends are still absent, likely in the process of hiding the cart, and Makoto had nearly forgotten that Haruka had been walking alongside him as they followed Asahi. “Who are you?”

Kisumi turns in the direction of Haruka’s authoritative voice, his head cocked like an exotic bird. “Who are you?” he counters, a smirk dancing across his face. “My name is Kisumi.” His head turns again, facing in Makoto’s general direction. “Your name is Makoto? You are Midori’s son, aren’t you?”

“How do you know my mother?” Makoto asks, and there are so many more questions he wants to ask Kisumi. What on earth were those lights? The feeling of being drawn together like magnets? Are the scars on Kisumi’s face the same as Makoto’s? What is causing them?

Instead of answering, Kisumi taps Asahi’s cheek to get his attention, and he whispers something to the Alpha. Asahi murmurs an affirmation, although he doesn’t look particularly happy about it, and he crooks his arm, Kisumi taking Asahi’s elbow in hand. Asahi leads Kisumi very, very hesitantly out of the doorway, looking every which way like a hawk as he helps his Omega cross the small distance to where Makoto is standing. Haruka starts up a low rumble in the back of his throat, but is silenced by a touch from Makoto to the side of his neck, long fingers caressing his scent gland in reassurance. With a slight bow of his head, Haruka steps aside and Kisumi takes his place in front of Makoto.

“Lean down, Makoto,” Kisumi says, and Asahi guides Kisumi’s hands up to Makoto’s face.

Wary, but curious, Makoto does as instructed, that same zappy energy exploding across his skin from Kisumi’s touch. Kisumi presses their foreheads together, and the world gets swept out from under Makoto’s feet as images and sounds suddenly flood his mind, flashes of memories and moments from a life not his own.

He sees an island bathed in soft pink light, and a family sailing away on a boat, pregnant mother and tiny child clinging to his side. They are joined by others, and there is Makoto’s mother among them, his father right beside her. Makoto sees Sol as he remembers it from his childhood, strange children with glowing eyes playing in the dirt as adults watch them cautiously, carefully, letting no one else near. The castle gates loom from the depths of the memories, fear painting everything as the chambers of the king’s harem appear, only to be replaced by the blood-soaked holding cells of Eclipse on the city’s edge. Asahi strolls through Makoto’s head, loud and brash and brandishing a spear, a lance, two swords, different weapons as he ages. Great fights play out in shuddery colours, Asahi always right there, pink and white magic engulfing opponents who aren’t felled by Asahi’s hand.

Makoto is seeing Kisumi’s life woven before his eyes, the love that bloomed between fighters trapped in cages, their eternal devotion and the death sentence that followed when their Bonding had been discovered. A daring escape made in the dead of night, when not even the flares of Paradise had been shining in the sky. Stowed away in a city where no one knew their faces until a slip in the market revealed their true nature, forcing them into hiding once more.

“I don’t understand,” Makoto breathes, and Kisumi pulls back. “My parents were from Sol… what is that island?”

“Not the city of Sol, Makoto,” Kisumi says delicately, and he moves his hands from Makoto’s face to take Makoto’s own hands up, holding them to his swollen chest. “The Island Solar, off the coast of the Moon Territory.” A sly grin erupts on his face when he hears Haruka’s gasp of recognition. “Makoto, you are not of the Sun Territory. You are from the Star Territory, just like me.”


Ikuya’s first memory, is of drowning. His second, of Hiyori.

Hiyori pulls Ikuya out of the depths of the water’s clutches and back onto the safety of the river bank. Ikuya was barely three, and Hiyori nearly five. It is the start of a love that will last their lifetime, and maybe even beyond that. Time from there passes strangely for them, Ikuya and Hiyori in their own world, everyone else moving around them. They are Bonded by Ikuya’s fourteenth birthday, Hiyori’s teeth sinking into Ikuya’s neck as they press through the heat that had sprung upon Ikuya suddenly, the scent of his first slick like fresh mint. Ikuya had bitten right back, teeth almost fang-like as he immerses himself in the heady sweet apple of Hiyori’s Alpha pheromones.

An even more private world is suddenly open to them as a tether settles between them, thin as silk and strong as steel. They can see into each other’s hearts and minds, feel one another in their very souls.

But for all that Hiyori is an assured constant in Ikuya’s life, there are others. Seijuro, bold and brash and forever pulling Ikuya and Hiyori out of the scrapes they worked themselves into, ready with a reprimand and a praise interchangeably, and forever with that fond smile on his face. Natsuya, Ikuya’s precious brother, a protector, a teacher, a father-figure in their shared lack of one, a story teller when Ikuya comes to him with questions. And then there was Nao, Natsuya’s mated Bond, always there, always at a distance, never cold, yet not quite warm either. Ikuya loves his family dearly, looks up to Seijuro, relies on Natsuya, and is fascinated by Nao.

Nao is pretty, soft, but with hidden razorblades in his smile, magic crackling off his fingertips to keep unruly Alphas in line and a poisonous aura that lures and traps and consumes. Ikuya wants to be like him. But, Nao avoids touching Ikuya where possible, although Ikuya doesn’t notice until he is well on his way to ten, and he sees Nao ruffling Hiyori’s hair one day. Jealousy flares up in him over the action.

Ikuya presents as an Omega at twelve, and Nao won’t even look at him.

Natsuya tells Ikuya not to worry through a tight-lipped smile and a fierce hug. “Nao doesn’t hate you,” he reassures his distraught brother, petting Ikuya’s dark hair and cradling him close as he cries into Natsuya’s shoulder. “I promise.”

“That’s easy for you to say!” Ikuya sobs, and the memory of Nao’s hand on Hiyori’s head sours his stomach. He bats Natsuya’s hand out of his own hair. “He loves you!”

Natsuya leaves the room quietly.

Ikuya is fourteen and Bonded to Hiyori for less than a week the night Nao wakes him and asks Ikuya to come with him on a walk. Ikuya is so shocked, heart pounding, that he nods without a word and follows his brother’s mate out into the darkness. They end up on the bank of Ring River, their veins alight in the light of the moon, and Nao pulls a twisted knife from his belt. Fear grips Ikuya for a moment that stretches on forever, before Nao holds it out of him, the hilt cold on the backs of Ikuya’s fingers.

“Hold this,” Nao says to him quietly. “Let me teach you about luna forging.” He glances up at the sky. “There is a blue moon tonight.” And Ikuya watches in awe as Nao curls his fingers and silver-blue magic consumes the knife, seeping into the metal and changing it before Ikuya’s eyes. “Blue moons give us more power,” Nao exclaims. “Pushes our magic to the edges of its limits.” The light between his hands dissipates, and the knife Ikuya is holding is completely transformed.

The blade is now long and straight, thin and strong and wickedly sharp, the tip a needle-like point that seems to glisten in the moonlight. A hunting knife. “Why are you showing me this?” Ikuya asks, and his voice quavers. Nao has spoken more words to Ikuya this night that he has every other night combined.

“You are Moon blood,” Nao says simply. “As am I. The territory is beyond repair, its traditions all but lost to history. You are my family, even if we weren’t already bound together by Natsuya, and I have been cruel to you.” His hands shake as he reaches up to his neck. The necklace he always wears, adorned with feathers and glass beads, falls into is hands, and Nao brings it to his lips for a moment, eyes closing. Ikuya can’t tell if his expression is one of love, or pain – Ikuya is not old enough yet to learn that those two emotions are not always mutually exclusive. “This belonged to my mother, and now it’s yours,” Nao whispers.

Ikuya stands frozen as Nao clasps the necklace around Ikuya’s pale throat, the beads sitting heavy in the dip of his collar, the feathers brushing his skin. “Thank you,” Ikuya says, and he has to lower the knife to the ground, afraid he might drop it otherwise. “I thought you hated me,” he can’t help the words as they tumble out. Ikuya raises his hands to his face, feels his flushed cheeks under his fingers.

“I could never hate you, little moon,” Nao says, and there are too many emotions in his voice for Ikuya to comprehend.

Nao touches Ikuya for the first time that night, pulling the young boy into an embrace that feels like it has waited a life time to happen.

Hiyori is sitting on the edge of Ikuya’s bed in the dawn light when Ikuya returns, his skin bleeding pale pink and peach to match the sky outside the open window. “Are you alright?” he asks as Ikuya settles into his arms, pulling Hiyori down to lay beside him. “You’re trembling like a leaf.”

“Have you ever heard Natsuya mention our parents?” Ikuya returns a question for a question. He locks eyes with Hiyori, and Hiyori shakes his head after a moment of thought. “If magic passed on through the maternal bloodline, how could Natsuya and I be brothers, when I am Moon, and he is Sun?”

And Ikuya harbours those suspicions until the week leading up to his sixteenth birthday, when it becomes just too much. Nao has become a more solid presence in Ikuya’s life, going from tutor, to companion, to confidant, to a parental figure, despite how much Ikuya had fought off the feelings associated with that development. He has to have answers.

“Natsuya,” he says to his brother on that fateful morning, his voice both hoarse from his night activities with Hiyori, and trembling from his nerves. “Will come with me on a walk?”

“Of course,” Natsuya replies, and he follows Ikuya without a second thought, unease only creeping up his spine when they are seated on the bank of the river, that accursed stone taunting him with its message from beside Ikuya’s hip. “What is it, Ikuya?” he asks curiously, rubbing the back of his neck. “I take it that you wanted to ask me something? Something important, given that you dragged me all the way out here.” He briefly entertains the idea that Ikuya is about to ask him about Bonding, has seen just how close Ikuya and Hiyori have gotten since Ikuya presented. Natsuya isn’t a fool – he was a teenager in love once, too – he knows that the two have mated.

What Ikuya asks makes Natsuya feel like a teenager again, though his teenaged self who had been scared and lost, stumbling through the Forests blindly, blood on his hands.

“I have to know,” Ikuya begins, and a new resolve settles in him. “Are you and Nao my mother and father?”

Five full minutes of Natsuya’s throat flexing over a lump that refuses to disappear follow, and Ikuya waits them out impatiently until Natsuya finally opens his mouth. His face is ashen, a sadness so raw in his eyes that Ikuya nearly rescinds the question before Natsuya answers. “Yes,” Natsuya says. “And no.”

The ground drops out from under Ikuya, and he feels light headed, bracing himself on the carved rock by himself as he sways. “What. What do you mean? Either you are, or you aren’t, there is only one answer. Are you my father?”

“I’m your brother!” Natsuya exclaims, and he is suddenly right there in front of Ikuya, his large hands tight on Ikuya’s biceps. Ikuya can feel Natsuya trembling. “I am your brother, Ikuya,” Natsuya repeats, his head dropping until Ikuya can’t see Natsuya’s face for his hair obscuring his features. “So, no. I am not your father. But,” and his voice hitches. Ikuya realises with dizzy horror that Natsuya has started to cry, his shoulders trembling even as he grips Ikuya’s arms tighter. “Nao is your mother.”

“Wh-what?”

Natsuya points with one shaking hand, the skin on Ikuya’s arm where he had touched tingly and cold. “You were born right here on this bank. That rock you are clutching should have been your gravestone.”

Ikuya can’t comprehend these words.

“Nao was given to me as a gift on my ninth birthday,” Natsuya says suddenly, his voice void of emotion. He moves away from Ikuya, folding in on himself as he tells his story. Unlike all the other stories Natsuya has told Ikuya, the start of this one fills the young Omega with dread. “He was little and weak and his family had been bought by my father from a slave trader. My father thought it would please me, having someone other than the little princeling to play with.” Natsuya scrubs at his face, suddenly determined to finish without crying. “At first, he was little more than a toy in my eyes. I was a spoiled brat, the son of a rich and noble lord who was in the king’s good graces. But he won me over, and I was in love with Nao before I even knew what love was.

“We presented at the same time, such close quarters keeping us in sync with each other. I knew then, that I would make him mine and keep him by my side forever. He was treated cruelly by the other house staff and I feared leaving him alone with my father after I came home from a day in the castle to find Nao beaten black and blue at my father’s hand.” Natsuya swallows uncomfortably. “We mated on his first heat, fifteen years old the both of us, and we fooled ourselves into thinking we could stay like that within the walls of the city, the little lord and his Omega maid. Nao’s second heat came, and I left him in my bed to get us some food for the week, ready to lock my door and look after him.”

Ikuya is torn between wanting to stop Natsuya, doesn’t know if he wants to hear how this story ends, and urging him on, his thirst for answers stronger than his self-preservation instincts.

“When I returned, Nao was gone.” Natsuya shudders all over, his eyes far away as the sun rises above them, the shame and regret plain on his face. “So, I followed his scent, all the way to my father’s chambers.” He spares the details of what he had seen, the picture seared into his brain still, almost seventeen years after he had peered through the open door into his father’s bedroom. It’s more for his own sake, though, rather than Ikuya’s. “It took months after to coax a single smile out of Nao, but by then we knew that something was wrong. He was sick, tired, his body changing. It wasn’t until we felt that first fluttering movement under our hands that our young, stupid naïve minds understood what was happening.

“We told select friends, those we could trust – Prince Rin, rest his soul, and two guards who had always been more kind-hearted than the others – and when the Paradise flares began firing a few weeks later, we ran.” Natsuya has to pause for breath, covering his face with his hands and breathing slowly. He had never intended to tell Ikuya the truth. He drops them to his lap, and catches Ikuya’s gaze, both of their faces blotchy and set like stone. “I promised Nao as we ran through the Forests of Treachery that I would kill the child as soon as it was born. We thought that something created in such an evil way must surely be the spawn of evil itself.”

Ikuya’s heart turns to ice in his chest, and he can’t breathe.

Natsuya reaches out for him suddenly, taking Ikuya’s hands in his own. “You had lilac hair when you were born, just like Nao. But your eyes… they were mine. Are mine. I looked at you, a rock over my head ready to strike, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So, Nao took you from me and waded into the river, intent to drown you himself, and he saw you as he held you under the water, and he couldn’t do it either.” He tilts his head to the rock beside Ikuya. “You were born innocent, Ikuya, and we loved you so much. Nao cursed himself for what he almost did, and the force of it was enough to affect you, your hair changed as he held you, the same colour as the water Nao nearly drowned you in. That’s why he could hardly bare to look at you as you were growing up, he felt so guilty for what he had tried to do.” Tears finally begin to well in Natsuya’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, Ikuya. We never wanted you to find out. We always wanted to keep you happy and safe.”

Rage hits Ikuya full-force suddenly, and he leaps to his feet. Natsuya is afraid for a moment that Ikuya is going to strike him, and he raises his arms halfway to his face cautiously. “What sort of father could do that to his son?” Ikuya cries, his hands fisted at his sides. “Just take the person his son loves? How dare he! How dare he do something so vile to another person!” He can’t even begin to try thinking about it, Nao and Natsuya just a year younger than Ikuya is now, faced with something adults are supposed to deal with. “Why didn’t you kill him?!” He unwillingly places himself and Hiyori into the story, and Ikuya can hear himself demanding the head of the man who had wronged him, be it by Hiyori’s hand or his own. “How could you let him live?”

“He was my father,” Natsuya whispers, eyes downcast. “I was scared.” He keens, high in the back of his throat, and then he looks at Ikuya in pure agony. “I wish I had killed him! The only thing keeping me on this island instead of going after him is the thought that leaving Nao like that would kill us both. I can’t leave my family like that, I’m not strong enough.”

Ikuya has heard enough. He runs away from Natsuya, stumbling in the grass to heave his breakfast up before taking off again. Ikuya finds himself in Hiyori’s arms without even noticing, but nothing Hiyori does can calm Ikuya down, until Hiyori drags the Omega into bed and wraps him up with arms and legs locked tight around his trembling body, physically holding Ikuya down against the mattress until Ikuya passes out with a tortured groan.

As day turns to night, and he wakes again, Ikuya stares silently at the ceiling of his bedroom. An idea strikes him before he is even properly conscious, and he knows he must act on it before his resolve crumbles. Ikuya slides out of Hiyori’s loving hold and dresses, kissing his sleeping Alpha deeply and mouthing a silent promise to come back soon. He sneaks into Natsuya and Nao’s room where the two are curled up on top of the sheets, still in their day clothes, hands reaching out for each other even in sleep. They must have been up half the night talking, and Ikuya can see tear tracks on their faces, still fresh enough to gleam in the light of his hands. He finds the knife Nao had forged in the blue moon, holds it close to his chest as he cherishes the memory in a new light, and then tucks it into his belt before kneeling carefully on the mattress.

A kiss pressed to Natsuya’s cheek, glad his brother sleeps like the dead. “I’m sorry, Natsuya,” Ikuya whispers. “But I can’t let this go like you did.” And a kiss pressed to Nao’s, a hesitant hand curling into the very tips of lilac hair. “Mother,” Ikuya says the word aloud like a prayer. “I understand you now, and I am so, so sorry.” He retreats for the door, looking back over his shoulder. How he wishes in that moment that the two people on the bed were indeed his mother and father, instead of his traumatised half-brother and rape victim mother. “I love you both.”

Ikuya steals a boat from the watch tower and sails across the river, determination on his face. He is going to find Lord Kirishima – the man who fathered him – and Ikuya is going to kill him and bring his head back to Paradise.

Ikuya’s first memory is of drowning, and his second memory is of Hiyori. If his last memory will be of avenging the wrong that created him, so be it.

-

Pink light streams under Ikuya’s eyelids, bright and invasive, and he groans. When Ikuya tries to bat the light away, his hands won’t move, and he falls completely still, hardly daring to breathe. Is he still drugged? Pain is radiating from the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and his head is pounding like a drum. What had he just been dreaming about?

“Wake up, Ikuya,” an unfamiliar voice croons, warm and inviting. Ikuya wants to follow that voice, and he is suddenly made aware of a slim hand stroking through his hair. The air smells like sweet powder and peaches. “Open your eyes, you can do it.”

Ikuya blinks. Once, twice, three times. The pink light dances away before he can get a good look at it, and Ikuya finds himself staring up into a pretty, scarred face, a curtain of blushed hair tumbling down to tickle his nose as the Omega leans forwards. His eyes are bound with a strip of cloth, and Ikuya tenses under his hand. “Who are you?” he asks thickly, and the pain suddenly increases tenfold. Ikuya winces, tries not to cry out. “What happened? My friends are-”

“They’re right here,” the Omega says calmly, his nails raking over Ikuya’s scalp. It feels so good that Ikuya nearly melts. “See, look over there,” and the hand gently turns Ikuya’s head so that his tired eyes can come to rest on the sprawled out forms of his friends, asleep on the floor several feet away. “My name is Kisumi, I healed your wound.”

The faintest memory of a blade to his throat surfaces in Ikuya’s mind. His eyes widen to the point of strain, and he struggles to sit up. “Hiyori!” he calls desperately, finally getting his hands to move to his Bond mark, finding some kind of salve smeared over it. “Hiyori, where are you?!”

Ikuya can’t feel Hiyori at all.

“Easy, easy,” Kisumi whispers, his hand returning to Ikuya’s head after a moment of indecisive hanging in the air, unseeing from his blindfold, and stroking his hair. “The salve is keeping your Bond numb while it heals, to stop you and your mate going into shock. It will wear off soon enough.” He shifts slightly, discomfort flicking over his face behind the cloth as a hiss filters out of his mouth. That sweet, powdery scent grows in intensity, and Ikuya finds himself trying to find the source, nose whistling from the dust in the air. “Down here, kiddo,” Kisumi says, his head tilting towards the sound. He moves his hand to his belly, and Ikuya gasps. It isn’t unusual for those who have run to Paradise to start families, but Ikuya has never been this close to a pregnant Omega before.

Behind Ikuya, a commotion stirs, a cacophony of Ikuya’s name being called all through the – Ikuya glances around at what appears to be a small wooden shack full of dark scorch marks and holes in the roof – shack, and suddenly Makoto and Rei are enveloping him in their arms, dragging him away from Kisumi slightly. “We’re so sorry!” Rei cries into Ikuya’s shoulder, and his glasses are missing, his face creased on one side from the straw he had been sleeping on. “We never should have taken our eyes off you!” Makoto is nodding vigorously on Ikuya’s other side, and Ikuya can do nothing but curl hands around each of their faces and drag them in close.

The relief coursing through him – they were worried! they care! – is a shock, though a welcome one. These are good people, and somehow, they have become Ikuya’s friends.

A very sleepy Nagisa informs them that the sun has yet to rise and they should all go back to bed, for there is the rest of their journey ahead of them the following day, and Makoto tells Ikuya that Ikuya has been asleep for nearly three days.

“We thought you were going to die,” Makoto whispers, still holding Ikuya against his side. Rei had long since returned to Nagisa’s embrace, the pair wrapped up in a cloak beside Gou and Isuzu, and Haruka had migrated across the room to press against Makoto’s back. He, too, expresses his relief that Ikuya was back with them. “When Momo and Nagisa carried you in here, Kisumi told us that even his magic might not have been strong enough to save you, but he was persistent.”

Ikuya is quietly filled in about their new companions, and he eyes them off where Kisumi is now laying back against his Alpha’s chest wearily, Asahi’s arms a strong support around him. “Why are his eyes bound like that?” Ikuya asks absently.

“Have you heard of the Star Territory, Ikuya?” Haruka asks, and Ikuya shakes his head. His education on the land they live in had been quite stilted, neither Natsuya nor Nao possessing much knowledge outside of their own territories due to the age they had been when leaving Sol. As he speaks, Haruka runs his nose over the side of Makoto’s neck as the Omega busies himself overseeing Ikuya’s wound. “The Star Territory is a cluster of three small islands off the coast of the Moon Territory: Polaris, Sirius, and Solar. Each island draws its magic from a different star – the North star, the morning star, and the sun.” Ikuya has seen the book Haruka has amongst his things, and assumes that he is reciting knowledge gained from that. “The magic of the Star Territories is extremely powerful – it was rivalled only by that of the Soul Territory, which has been destroyed – but unwieldy, and when the people of the islands shut themselves away from the rest of the land during the Great War, it grew to be too much for the people to handle. Some say-”

Kisumi’s fond giggle interrupts Haruka’s little speech, and Ikuya turns to look at him. “My, my, you’ve certainly read your history book.” He turns his nose over his shoulder. “Asahi, help me sit up, please?”

“You need sleep,” Asahi groans, but his face is relaxed. It’s an argument they have many times. “Here, take my hand.”

Once seated upright, Kisumi says, “That is true, the magic of my people became too strong for their bodies, and it began consuming them, and they called it Stellamorbus – star sickness. It ravaged the islands for over a hundred years. When I was a child, the High Praetor of the territory gathered together parents and children who appeared to not be affected by it, and sent us to the mainland, hoping we could either find a cure or at least continue the bloodline of our magic.” He rubs a hand over his eyes, the soft material bunching slightly under his fingers. “Although I never had the sickness, the pup has driven my magic through the roof, and I can’t control certain aspects of it anymore – the starlight in my soul has started to burn its way out through my eyes, not unlike Stellarmorbus.”

“Kisumi says that it can happen even to those who aren’t sick when they are put under a great deal of stress,” Asahi adds, his chin hooked over Kisumi’s shoulder. “I assume that is what’s happening to Makoto.”

Ikuya startles, looks up at Makoto. “You’re from the Star Territory?!”

“So Kisumi tells me,” Makoto says bashfully, and he tentatively touches the scars on his face, identical to the ones Kisumi bears. “My parents were apparently amongst the people of Solar who were sent to the mainland. A group of them travelled to the Sun Territory hoping that being somewhere where at least one of their start held power might help them find an answer.” He shrugs helplessly. “I had no idea, I can barely comprehend it.”

Ikuya makes a strange face. “That is pretty awesome,” he breathes, meaning it. “I didn’t even know that such a place, or such magic, even existed.”

“My memories of the islands are fuzzy,” Kisumi says in Ikuya’s general direction as Asahi finally convinces him to lay back down. “But I can remember the way the sand on the beaches of Sirius glowed pink in the light of the shooting stars that fell every year, even though I will never see them again.” He cradles the great swell of his belly gently. “And at least now I know that the little one and I aren’t the only ones in the world.”

Their conversation peters out as sleep gradually takes hold of them all, until only Makoto is left awake, nestled against Haruka and still holding Ikuya to his chest as the young boy sleeps fitfully. Makoto’s hand clenches unconsciously in the thin fabric of Ikuya’s shirt as he stares at Kisumi in the semi-darkness, light from the moon filtering in through the hole in the roof. He has had three days with the Star Omega now, and Makoto still can’t quite believe that they are the same ilk, despite all the signs pointing to that being the missing piece of the puzzle.

Rei had been absolutely fascinated in-between berating himself for not realising sooner – he had read every book in the castle library on the enigmatic Star Territory and its super-magic beings, eagerly discussing his knowledge with Kisumi with bright eyes and hands itching to take notes. The three who had lived their lives in Matsuoka castle were more interested in Asahi – Gou still hesitant to confirm if Asahi is indeed the legendary Eclipse fighter or not, and Momo and Isuzu glad to have a new sparring partner, the three of them exchanging weaponry and combat techniques with gusto. Nagisa, of all people, appears to get baby fever, happily spending hours at a time at Kisumi’s side to leave Asahi free to pack up the few belongings he and Kisumi possess, ready for the journey ahead.

Makoto blinks, a jolt of heat shooting through him. Golden light sparks at his fingertips, and he hisses. It has been over five days since he last took a suppressant, too busy worrying about Ikuya and then having to reassess everything that he thought he knew about himself. Haruka definitely purchased some from the market, but they are most likely still in their bags in the cart. His heat will be on him in full force soon. Makoto hopes the suppressants Haruka purchased in the market are strong, his body burns them off quickly. “That is probably a Star thing too, isn’t it?” he asks himself, frustrated, tilting his head back to rest more comfortably against Haruka. Careful not to wake either person sleeping beside him, Makoto reaches into the pocket of his tunic and withdraws the ownership papers for his family that Haruka had stolen from Lord Kirishima.

Certificate of Ownership for Family Tachibana, the parchment reads in dark bronze ink. Makoto brushes his thumb over the names listed beneath the header. Midori (adult female), Alpha. Yukio (adult male), Omega. Makoto (child), Omega. Ren (infant), Unknown. Ran (infant), Unknown. Once again, the black strike through the last two names makes Makoto’s heart constrict uncomfortably. He had been taken from his parents at six and never saw them again. Makoto didn’t even know that they had had more children. Dragging his eyes away before he does something ridiculous like cry and burn a hole in the paper, Makoto looks at that word that has been a great source of interest ever since Asahi and Kisumi had invited them all inside to talk, rather than standing out and exposed in the street.

Place of Origin: Sol.

Makoto has been staring at that word now for three days, and he is sure that he isn’t imagining the smudge at the end of the word, the small ‘ar’ that has been scrubbed off the paper, presumably with the tip of a fingernail. Who had tried to hide the truth of his family’s heritage? Why had his parents never told him? If Kirishima hadn’t attacked Makoto like that, would Makoto have ever found out?

“Mako?” Haruka murmurs sleepily, his arm snaking around Makoto’s waist to finally pull him down horizontal. Ikuya makes a small noise as he is shifted too, but doesn’t wake up. “Makoto, put that away. You need to sleep.” He uses two fingers to turn Makoto’s head enough to share a kiss, pausing with the tip of his tongue pressed into Makoto’s bottom lip as he takes a deep breath through his nose. “Cherries,” he breathes slowly, the words fanning across Makoto’s cheeks in a warm puff, making Makoto’s eyelids flutter appreciatively. “Your heat is still coming.”

“I know,” Makoto says, and he pulls his head away. “Bring me a suppressant in the morning?”

Haruka nods, tucking his face against the back of Makoto’s neck. “Of course, love.” His fingers trail lazily over Makoto’s hip as the two fall asleep in the moonlight.

Morning comes to the sound of feet clanking on the stones of the street outside. Asahi stirs first, the lightest sleeper in the entire room, and he crouches over Kisumi with his head cocked, listening intently. Silently, he wakes the others, a finger pressed to his lips for each of them. “There’s a patrol on the streets,” he says quietly when everyone has gathered around the straw bed. “We’re going to back everything up and leave out the back alley. I don’t think they are here for us, but it pays to be cautious.” He kneels on the bed and helps Kisumi to his feet.

It is almost reminiscent of their escape from Sol, though they this time they have more hands, and no guards directly chasing after them. Isuzu takes the reigns and carefully leads the horse and cart from the workhouse, patting the beast’s nose fondly. “Such a good boy,” she tells it. “When we reach the Forests, we’ll set you free.” The cart is heavy with all their belongings and nine people, but the horse is strong, and he pulls them with ease. “Come on, let’s leave this seedy city. Paradise calls!”

Asahi puts his arm around Kisumi’s waist and holds his Omega close, his free hand tangling with Kisumi’s over the swell of their pup under Kisumi’s clothes. “We can’t thank you enough for taking us with you,” Asahi says to Haruka and Ikuya, the two sitting the closest to him. Kisumi hums his agreement, his head turned in to Asahi’s chest. His blindfold is down around his neck, but his eyes are still closed, wanting to feel the wind on his face properly. “I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t come across you.”

“I could say the same to you,” Ikuya replies while Haruka is still mulling Asahi’s words over, and he touches his neck tenderly. The salve is starting to sink into his skin, feeling returning back to his Bond mark little by little. He can feel Hiyori again, faintly. “Thank you, both of you.”


“So much has happened in such a short amount of time,” Rei says tiredly into Nagisa’s shoulder. The two are wedged in the back corner of the cart, tangled together in an effort to get a short nap in as they head away from Blaze and towards the Forests of Treachery, almost a full day after first sneaking out of the city walls. “I can hardly process it all – Ikuya nearly dying, Makoto being Star blood, Asahi and Kisumi…” he trails off at the mention of the last two, the new additions to their group, and he and Nagisa turn their heads slightly to watch the Bonded pair. “I hope Kisumi and the pup will be alright through the journey.”

Nagisa strokes a hand through Rei’s hair and he smiles against Rei’s temple. “I think Kisumi is much stronger than he appears.”

“Just like you, hey?” Rei says, kissing Nagisa’s jaw. His head drops down, his body following suit, pillowing his cheek on Nagisa’s stomach as Rei slides his glasses off. A sharp headache has been plaguing the reaches of Rei’s brain for the last few hours, getting stronger the longer they travel. A slight groan passes his lips as the pain flares for a moment before settling back into tolerable levels. “Are you nervous, Nagisa?” he asks, settling further into the give of Nagisa’s body, the Alpha’s arm draping warmly over his back. “About leaving the Sun Territory?”

“Not at all,” Nagisa chirps, curling the soft strands of Rei’s hair around his fingers. “Because I’ll have you with me.”

As Rei shuts his eyes against the pain growing ever stronger in his head, he hears Momo asking, “How long until we reach the trees?” in a curious voice that sounds overly-far away, and Rei can just picture the energetic Alpha leaning halfway out of the cart to see further ahead. Apparently correct, Momo lets out a short yelp and the cart rocks to one side as Haruka reprimands him for acting like an idiot. Much of the following conversation passes in a blur to Rei, but he distinctly remembers someone saying ‘less than a day’ in response to Momo’s question.

“Kisumi, when is the baby due?” Makoto asks, his voice gentle and reverent as he sits beside the older Omega, the two of them sharing a small meal of dried fruit and bread dipped in the leftover honey Rei couldn’t fit into his medical bag. Makoto can’t help but be slightly jealous of the scarred-over Bond mark on Kisumi’s neck, and the satisfied glow of a pregnant Omega that surrounds him, now that he knows Kisumi and Asahi were once bound by the same rules preventing Makoto sharing those same things with Haruka. His thighs twitch under his elbows, and Makoto frowns down at his legs, wondering why he is reacting like that. “Will you be alright with the cart movement?”

His fingers sticky with honey, Kisumi licks his lips, and Makoto quickly hands him another piece of bread, his gaze lingering uncomfortably on the cloth binding Kisumi’s eyes. “Don’t worry, Mako,” Kisumi reassures him, tearing the bread into small strips and wrapping each clumsily around the dried berries he has such an apparent fondness for. “This little pup won’t be gracing us with its presence for another month or so.” And he strokes a hand over his belly, fingers bunching slightly as the touch is met with a flurry of movement. “Spirited little thing, I bet you get that from your father.”

Asahi, perched in the rear of the cart with his bow slung across his shoulders and an arrow twirling idly in his fingers as he keeps watch, turns his face to grin at his mate, love radiating off him in hazelnut-scented waves.

“Is it kicking?” Makoto asks in awe, suddenly overly-eagre to feel that for himself. Kisumi nods, and he sets his food aside to feel for Makoto’s hand, urging Makoto to touch. The movement under his fingers is almost imperceptible, but it still knocks the breath out of Makoto. “Wow…” He presses his palm down on the cloth of Kisumi’s tunic, and nearly jumps out of his skin in shock when an arm wraps around his waist. “Haruka!” Makoto whines, spilling fruit all over his lap as both his hands jump to cover his heart, like that will help its wild beating. “You scared me!”

Kisumi laughs brightly. “I wish I could have seen your face!” he giggles, and Makoto shoots an ineffective glare at him before turning to Haruka.

There is a strange light in Haruka’s eyes, and Makoto wonders what his Alpha had seen in Makoto’s own face as he felt Kisumi and Asahi’s pup move under his hand. Makoto knows that Haruka wants those things just as much as Makoto himself.

“Are you okay, Ikuya?”

Ikuya startles at the sound of Nagisa’s voice, and he looks across the cart at the small Alpha, still holding Rei’s half-asleep form against his side. “What?”

“Are you okay?” Nagisa repeats, not oblivious to the detachment the youngest Omega of the group has shown towards the unborn baby that now resides with the group. He knows that that is unusual behaviour for an Omega, particularly a Bonded Omega, like Ikuya. Though Nagisa himself is more child-sensitive than Rei, he has definitely seen Rei fawn over Kisumi and his child when Rei thinks that no one is watching him too closely. “You appear to be quite uncomfortable.” He says it quietly, not wanting to attract the attention of the other occupants of the cart.

Biting his lip, Ikuya shuffles down to the back of the cart, snorting when Momo dives for his now vacated spot, thrusting his ginger head between Gou and Isuzu’s shoulders to butt into whatever conversation they had been having. Ikuya settles himself just beyond Nagisa’s feet, wary of disturbing Rei when he is so obviously not feeling well. “I am not uncomfortable,” he tells Nagisa honestly, twisting his fingers in his lap. “But I’m not exactly comfortable either.” Is there even a word that describes the in-between state of the two? The dream that had played out like a moving picture in Ikuya’s head during his three unconscious days has been rearing its ugly head when he least expects it, making unwanted images of his brother and Nao on their run to Paradise. Having Kisumi so near is fuelling those thoughts, giving them shape where Ikuya does not want it.

“Why?” Nagisa asks, though his face says that he will not press the issue if Ikuya chooses not to answer.

Although Makoto and Haruka remind Ikuya of his family, Nagisa and Rei are something that he hardly gets to be around – people his own age. Aside from Hiyori and the Paradise Regent, who are both still a few years his senior, the residents of Paradise are largely older adults and very young children. Ikuya has started to feel a kinship with Nagisa and Rei as maybe-friends, and he hopes that they might feel the same towards him.

Ikuya decides to trust Nagisa with some of the finer details of his story.

“My mother is my brother’s mate,” he explains quietly. “His name is Nao. Nao was…” he suddenly finds it hard to say the word, although he is sure he must have said it to Haruka at some point. “Nao was raped by Natsuya’s father when he was a maid in the house, and he and Natsuya escaped to Paradise while he was still pregnant with me.” Ikuya swallows, gaze focused on the steady rise and fall of Rei’s chest so that he doesn’t have to look at Nagisa. “Seeing Kisumi sometimes makes me think of what,” he hesitates, tongue flicking against the backs of his teeth, “what Nao might have looked like. When they were running. And that makes me really, really sad.”

Nagisa doesn’t say anything, and Ikuya feels embarrassed heat rush into his cheeks. Suddenly, a hand wraps around his shoulder, and he finds himself being pulled into a one-armed hug. “I’m sorry,” Nagisa whispers to Ikuya. “I don’t know what I should say to you. That’s a burden that no one should have to bare. You’re so strong, Ikuya, and so is Nao, and your brother, by the sounds of it.”

Another hand touches Ikuya, fingers light on his ribs. Rei is barely awake, his hand shaking with the effort to keep it upright. “Just remind yourself that this baby isn’t you, and Asahi and Kisumi are not your brother and mother.”

That thought does make Ikuya feel a little better. “Thank you, Rei,” he murmurs, and Rei smiles at him lopsidedly before finally giving into the restless sleep calling his name.

True to Isuzu’s word, the sun is barely setting when the first line of trees appears before them, the sky above them a pleasant peaches-and-cream colour, cloudless and promising. Ikuya can almost picture the way the colour would look splashed over Hiyori’s skin as the two of them lay sprawled on their bed, wearing nothing but the sheets pooled around their waists, and Ikuya aches to experience that again. The connection between he and his Bond still has not fully blossomed in his veins yet, and he grows more and more anxious with every hour that passes where he can’t feel Hiyori’s heartbeat alongside his own. To distract himself, Ikuya turns his sights to the trees, as dark and foreboding as he remembers them being from his journey through to Sol.

It had been night when Ikuya crossed into the trees, however, and seeing them in the light of day makes his stomach turn. Had he left Paradise at a different time, crossed into the Forests of Treachery in the light, Ikuya suspects that he might have turned tail and run back home. Though they are nowhere near the thick, ancient trunks that twist and gnarl through the heart of the Forests, the fringes are still terrifying, stark white bark like bone tearing through the flesh of the earth to reach their twisted fingers towards the sky. Brittle silver leaves mottled with black cling to the branches, deathly still even as a light breeze whistles between the trees. These trees are the barrier to the Forests, a warning to turn to back – danger and death lie beyond.

“This is where we have to leave the horse,” Gou tells Isuzu, and she soothes her hands over her girlfriend’s when Isuzu’s fingers tighten on the reigns. “You know that we can’t take him with us.”

Isuzu nods stiffly. “I know.” She never, in her wildest fantasies of leaving for Paradise, ever pictured herself getting so attached to the horse they would inevitably need to transport them. “I just worry. What if something bad happens to him?”

“Then that is what fate has in plan,” Gou murmurs, and she knows that they aren’t comforting words, but that Isuzu needs to hear them all the same. In all their years together, Gou has learned that Isuzu is a great believer in the hands of fate.

“You are right, of course,” Isuzu replies. Without warning, she pulls the reigns up short. “The last leg of our journey is upon us,” she turns in her seat to tell her companions. “Unload the cart while I free the horse. Momo,” she addresses her brother, who nods, “burn the cart when our belongings are off it. We leave no trace.” All through the first few trees are dotted the rotting remains of carts and wagons from previous Paradise seekers. “And let’s hurry, we should cross the Deadlands boarder before dark.”

Cart stripped, bags distributed, and Isuzu’s oddly heartfelt farewell to the horse completed, they enter the Forests of Treachery in the Sun Territory, heading south east, towards the Deadlands. Ikuya swallows a dry lump in his throat when he suddenly realises that his time to do his part for the company has come. He hopes the markers he left for himself survived. He relaxes ever-so-slightly when, after just a few minutes, he spots one – a string of red thread tied to the trunk of a tree. The spool had been in the bottom of his bag from when he had tried to fix a cloak he had accidentally put a hole in, and it became far more useful for a different purpose.

“There,” he announces, pointing out the thread. “I left markers like that every few trees for my journey home again. If we keep following those, we will make it straight through the Forests and out the other side, and then we will only have the grasslands and Ring River to cross.”

Rei’s hand is strangely clammy when he rests it on Ikuya’s shoulder in a victorious pat. “Wonderful!”

“It may not be as easy as that,” Kisumi suddenly says, an arm looped through Asahi’s for balance and guidance over the root-covered forest floor. “Ikuya may not have been affected by crossing the territory lines, because he has never been to his blood territory, and Makoto, Haruka, and I will not be either, as none of us are from the Sun Territory.” His face is grave. “But the rest of you will, crossing into a different magical stream is extremely taxing on the body.”

Momo and Isuzu share concerned looks. “I didn’t even know that something like that existed,” Isuzu says, and Gou is nodding along beside her. “How do you know?”

As Kisumi speaks, Rei wishes he had the energy to retrieve his notebook from his satchel to take notes, but it is taking every shred of his concentration to keep walking in a straight line. He has absolutely no idea what is making him react like this – not even his heats leave him so physically exhausted, and it is only getting worse with every step he takes.

“I remember when we sailed from the Star Territory,” Kisumi says lightly, tapping the side of his head. “As we crossed the line that marked the boarder of the territories and entered Moon land, we all grew incredibly sick. One older Beta with us, her heart nearly stopped beating. That’s why so many of the party followed Makoto’s parents to Sol – the sun is a star, like I said. They hoped that being near its own magic would stop that from happening again.” A tremor runs through him. “It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, I still remember the sensation vividly, even though I was only three at the time.”

“Shit,” Nagisa says, scrubbing a hand over the back of his neck, skin slick with sweat from the weight of the water cannister on his back. “And you’re saying that something like that will happen to us when we cross into the Deadlands?”

Kisumi nods. “Thought, not as extreme, most likely, given that the magic of the Deadlands is long dead, pardon the word. But you will still be leaving the land of your magic.”

“How does Paradise affect magic, Ikuya?” Makoto asks, hoping to distract everyone from thoughts of what is abruptly coming upon them.

Ikuya is in the middle of replying, “Paradise is a central force, all the Territories intersect into it in some way, so all forms of magic are equally strong,” when they actually reach the Deadlands boarder.

The group stops on the precipice and observes in shock. The boarder line really does resemble a line, as if some giant child had taken two different coloured blocks and slammed them together. On their side of the line, the trees have bled from the skeletal trees of warning to more regular trees, dark brown and imposing with their height, vines weaving through the higher branches to carve up the light of the setting sun. On the Deadlands side, even the ground is black, like all the life has been sucked from it. The trees are squat and spiky, reminding Haruka of the spiny urchins he had once fished from Lapis Peninsular as a child still living in his blood territory, and the dirt resembles fine ash instead of earth. Jagged rocks pierce the trunks of the trees as if the had fallen from the sky. Even the air looks different – hazy and dim.

It is a place truly deserving of the name ‘Deadlands’.

“Are you ready?” Kisumi asks, the first to move. It is understandable – he cannot see the terror laid out before them. “Just follow me, one foot in front of the other. We are not the first people to cross this boarder.” His words bolster them, and Haruka is the next to cross, Makoto’s hand held tightly in his as the step into the Deadlands together. “Asahi?” Kisumi calls softly.

Asahi lifts his chin. “Coming,” he says boldly, and he too steps across. Kisumi is there to steady him when his knees buckle, soft lips pressed to Asahi’s temples as Kisumi strokes his hair, whispering to him too low for any of them to hear. It barely lasts a minute, and Asahi straightens, thanking Kisumi for his support with a sound kiss to the lips. “Who’s next?” he asks, looking back to the others.

Shoulders set, Gou steps forwards, and Momo and Isuzu follow quickly after. They, too recoil for a moment, the feeling not unlike missing the last step at the bottom of the staircase and feeling like you have left all your internal organs behind on the stair above. Ikuya strolls across with ease, leaving only Nagisa and Rei standing in the Sun Territory.

Rei is visibly sweating, his skin pale in places and flushed in others, but he puts on a brave face, and offers his hand to Nagisa. “I have no magic,” he says, steeling his voice so that it doesn’t tremble. “This shouldn’t affect me at all.”

“My hero,” Nagisa says with a smile, and the two step over the boarder together.

Nagisa feels bile rise in his throat, his body going numb for a few seconds, before all feeling rushes back to him. “That wasn’t too bad, as long as I never have to do it again.” He laughs, brushes himself off. “How are you feeling, Rei?” Rei doesn’t answer. “Rei?”

The whole group peers around Nagisa to where Rei is standing, just inside the Deadlands boarder. He is shaking like a leaf, but it is not just him. The very ground under Rei’s feet is trembling too, ashy dirt flying up in small puffs of inky black and tiny pebbles bouncing like oil in a hot pan. Rei has his hands pressed tightly to his mouth, holding in either vomit, or a scream, no one can tell. His glasses slide right off his nose and clatter to the ground, and an answer presents itself. Rei’s hands fall to his sides as he screams, the sound ripping out of him.

Before anyone can even think of being shocked by that, the unimaginable happens.

Rei’s veins light up a brilliant purple, glowing in the darkness of the Deadlands like brilliant fireworks, before Rei crumples in on himself and collapses.

Nagisa is barely fast enough to catch him before Rei’s head hits the ground, his bloodshot violet eyes rolling back in a dead faint.


Standing knee-deep in the cold water of the stream by their hut, Sousuke eyes off the fish darting past his ankles, thin spear raised aloft to strike. He is wearing nothing but his thin underwear, the thick, glossy scar on his shoulder starting to ache from the chill in the air, but he has been cooped inside on his rut for four days, and his growling stomach demands food. A slow mover catches his eye, fat and begging to be caught and cooked, and his arm flicks forwards instinctively. Sousuke retracts the spear with his prize wriggling on the end, and he grins viciously. His Alpha side is still prominent, and he is acting on one of his most basic instincts besides mating – to hunt and provide.

“Breakfast won’t be long,” Sousuke calls into the hut as he settles on the bank to kill and gut the fish, certainly large enough to feed his entire family. The fire by the door is already lit, and he can practically taste the fish on his tongue already.

An exhausted moan sounds from inside the hut, and Sousuke winces – this had been a particularly strong rut, and it hadn’t been easy on either of them. “Sousuke,” that beautiful voice calls out plaintively. “Sousuke…” The ‘come hither’ is unspoken, yet heard all the same.

Shaking his head fondly, Sousuke sets the fish aside and ventures back into the hut, peering into the small bedroom at his beloved mate. Sprawled out on their bed in all his naked glory is a thoroughly debauched once-Prince Rin, his long red hair splayed across the pillow as his bitten chest heaves slightly, an arm thrown over his eyes. “What is it?” Sousuke asks gently, trailing his eyes over the dark bruises and bright red bite marks littering Rin’s skin. His hands have left perfect impressions on Rin’s thighs, and Sousuke preens at his handiwork. Although, he winces when he sees that his exuberance has left blood trailing down Rin’s neck – Sousuke must have bitten the Bond mark again. “Are you alright, my love?” Rin moves his arm to stare up at Sousuke, and his face breaks out into that devilish grin Sousuke loves so much.

“Of course,” Rin says, voice hoarse from spending four days using it rather enthusiastically. He, too, observes his mate – Sousuke hasn’t escaped the marking, Rin is a possessive Omega. Scratches run from chest to groin, shoulders to tailbone, thumbprints bruised into Sousuke’s collarbones. “I feel amazing, but…” Rin’s smile drops slightly, and worry creeps into his eyes. “Where’s my baby, Sou? I miss her.”

Sousuke smiles gently at Rin, and he touches a finger to the small purple stone dangling from his ear, feels the magic inside it thrumming up his hand. He sends a pulse through it, back to the parent stone the earring had been chipped from. An answering pulse comes back, and Sousuke drops to his knees beside Rin. “She’s on her way now,” he reassures his mate, pulling the blankets up around Rin’s hips and kissing him fiercely. “Don’t worry.”

“Thank you,” Rin murmurs, and the light returns to his face. He rolls onto his side, joints cracking audibly, and he sighs contentedly. “Did you say something about breakfast?”

“I caught a fish,” Sousuke explains, leaning in to kiss Rin once again. “I’ll be back shortly, once it’s cooked. Are you okay to rest here for a while? I was pretty brutal on you…”

Rin flaps a hand dismissively, reaching for the bowl of water by the bed. “I’m more than used to it, you animal,” he teases, taking a long sip from the bowl. “Go away and make it up to me with food.”

“Your wish is my command,” Sousuke says, almost mocking, and he stands, leaving the hut once more.

He is finished preparing the fish and is turning it slowly over the fire when he hears the sound of small footsteps in the undergrowth, and he lifts his head, eyes sharp until the tiny girl bursts into the clearing, red eyes flashing in the setting sun.

“Papa!” she calls, and Sousuke has to sit the fish aside once more to catch his daughter in his arms, swinging her up to kiss her forehead. “You and mama took so long!” she complains with a pout so much like Rin’s Sousuke nearly laughs out loud, but she kisses his cheek anyway.

“Sorry, Kou,” Sousuke tells her sincerely, holding her with his good arm to press his other hand to his chest. “How was your hideout?”

Kou opens her mouth to answer, and is interrupted by Rin saying, “Is that my baby I hear?” and Sousuke looks over his shoulder to see Rin leaning in the doorway, wrapped loosely in a hand-sewn robe. His grin glitters in the light when Kou lets out a loud exclamation of ‘MAMA!’ and wriggles out of Sousuke’s hold to throw herself at Rin, burying her little face in his hip. His hand settles in her dark hair as he holds her against him, the last bit of tension bleeding out of him now that his family is all in the one place again. “I missed you, Kou,” Rin says quietly, bending down to kiss the crown of her head. “Did you miss me?”

“Always!” Kou replies adamantly.

Rin sits beside Sousuke at the fire, Kou curled in his lap as Sousuke finally finishes cooking the fish, pulling a stone knife out to portion it out. “Careful, it’s hot!” he has to scold both Rin and Kou as they reach for their shares with grabbing fingers, identical innocent expressions on their faces. Sousuke loves them so much.

The family of three eat slowly, the meal hindered by conversation as Rin and Sousuke hear all about their daughter’s adventures for the past four days. Just as Kou is starting to flag against Rin’s shoulder, ready for bed, and Sousuke is collecting up the fishbones for disposal, Sousuke’s head snaps up, his nostrils flaring and his eyes flashing. Purple magic crawls up his veins as he stares off into that plain of existence only he can see.

“What is it, Papa?” Kou mumbles sleepily, yawning into Rin’s chest.

“Sousuke?” Rin questions when Sousuke doesn’t answer. “Sousuke.”

“Take Kou inside,” Sousuke says lowly, standing up. “Someone like me just entered the Deadlands.”

Chapter Text

Something spicy is wafting its fruity scent around the room, and Hiyori cracks his eyes open. For the first time in days, he feels life creeping back into his tired body, and he braves the blurry world to sit up in bed without assistance. Although his connection with Ikuya is still tenuous, fluttering like the fragile wings of a bird, Hiyori can sense it stronger and stronger with every hour that passes. He is still in the dark about what happened to his mate, but he knows for certain that Ikuya is alive and kicking, which is all that Hiyori really cares about in the grand scheme of things. Without restraint, his stomach lets out a curdling growl, and Hiyori starts to peer around blindly for the source of the pleasant food smell, his glasses missing in action somewhere on the bedside table.

A blob of silver hair and midnight blue robes catches his eye, and Hiyori turns to the person at his bedside. “Aii,” he breathes out at the sight of his young, regal friend, his voice still hoarse and harsh in his throat. The bruises have healed to sickly yellow patches on his neck and jaw and the backs of his hands, and his broken fingers are itching like hell against the splints and bandages, but Hiyori finds himself almost grateful for the physical reminders that both he and Ikuya pulled through whatever tried to cruelly rip them apart. “What are you doing here?” Surely the Paradise Regent has better things to do than sit by Hiyori’s bed with an enormous bowl of spiced pudding in hand.

“I came to see you, obviously,” Aiichiro says evenly, his spoon clinking against the side of the earthenware bowl resting in his lap. He reaches up and tucks his hair behind his ear, the silver tresses down for once from their usual decorative comb. Hiyori didn’t realise how long Aiichiro’s hair had gotten over the past months, the tips brushing his narrow shoulders. A testament to how rarely they get to see each other. “Nao has been keeping me updated on your recovery,” Aiichiro explains to Hiyori, “and a meeting I had planned for this afternoon fell through, so I thought I would check on you myself.” He smiles at his childhood friend, and Hiyori returns the gentle expression, even though he can tell that Aiichiro is lying through his teeth. There has to be another reason the Paradise Regent is here, Hiyori just has to wait his friend out. Aiichiro is notoriously terrible at keeping up any sort of façade around his friends.

Then, Hiyori’s stomach growls again, calling for food. “Oh dear,” Aiichiro laughs, his usual stoic expression cracking into a sweetly mocking smile. “Would you like some pudding, Hiyo?” He holds his bowl out to Hiyori, the spoon circling the rim to point towards the bed-ridden Alpha.

Thick custard is swirling around the dark, sticky pudding, and it takes all of Hiyori’s will-power to stop himself from just grabbing the bowl and smashing his face into it. He’s so hungry, memories of the past few days hazy and disjointed, but together enough for him to know that Nao has been waking him three times a day to force broth and milk-soaked bread down his throat, and he is desperate for something with a little substance and flavour to it. “Gimme the pudding!” Hiyori whines, holding his bandaged hands out pleadingly. “Please, Aii?”

“Sit back, don’t spill it on yourself,” Aiichiro tells Hiyori sternly, waiting for the Alpha to do as instructed before he hands the bowl over. It takes Hiyori a few attempts to grasp the spoon in the few working fingers he has at his disposal, but he manages it with his tongue poking out between his teeth in concentration. Aiichiro watches Hiyori eat his way through half the bowl with his face getting more and more crumpled in the effort to keep his mouth shut before his resolve cracks and he spills the truth to Hiyori. “I didn’t come just to see you!” he blurts out, wringing his hands in his lap. “Not today, anyway.”

“Well, yeah, obviously,” Hiyori snorts, custard dripping down his chin before he wipes it off with the back of his hand, catching it in his bandages. “You wouldn’t be here in the middle of the day if there wasn’t something else going on that you wanted to tell me. You always have meetings and outings to attend, so you’d wait until your day was finished before visiting, because you don’t know how to take a break.” Hiyori grins at Aiichiro, cheeks bulging slightly with the amount of pudding stuffed in his mouth. “That’s why you’re such a good Regent.”

Aiichiro briefly turns pink, but Hiyori misses it in favour of spooning huge portions of pudding into his mouth, coughing through a dry patch occasionally when he runs out of custard. “Do you want some water?” Aiichiro asks, voice shaking slightly. Hiyori hums thoughtfully, and the Regent busies himself pouring a cup from the ceramic jug on the bedside table, suddenly clamming up and unwilling to talk as a crease appears between his brows.

“Aii,” Hiyori rasps, settling the bowl in his blanketed lap and fiddling with the spoon. “I can tell when you’re over thinking something. Your face gets all scrunchy. Sit down and tell me what’s going on.” He pats the mattress by his thigh. “Come on, little brother, you know you can trust me.”

Exchanging the empty bowl for the cup of water, Aiichiro forgoes the chair and sits down cross-legged on the edge of the mattress, playing idly with the hem of his regal robe. “The day of your… accident,” he starts, unsure of the right word to use for what happened to Hiyori, “Seijuro came to me and begged me to send out a search party for Ikuya.” He has Hiyori’s full attention now, the Alpha nearly spilling the water down his chest as his hand dips slightly. Aiichiro can’t look at him properly. “I said that I wouldn’t send anyone out while there are people arriving at our shores, not if he wants to take Natsuya, too.” He quickly holds a defensive hand up, heart jack-rabbiting, when Hiyori starts up a litany of low growls, threatening. “Calm down,” he begs Hiyori, his chest curling tightly in mild panic. “I told him that I’d give Ikuya another week to come back, and then I would lead the party myself.”

Hiyori narrows unfocused eyes at the regent, all those years in their childhood running rampant on the streets of Aero letting him in to all the quirks and ticks of the younger boy. “Why are you telling me this if there’s still two days until that deadline?”

“You know we have informants in all the major cities around the land,” the regent says quietly. It’s common knowledge, that older Paradise citizens who are no longer content with the monotonous lifestyle that comes from inhabiting a land-locked island sometimes offer their services off the island, keeping Paradise up to date with the comings and goings of the outside world. Aiichiro waits for Hiyori to nod before he continues. “I received word this morning from an informant stationed in Blaze, in the Sun Territory. The whole territory is in turmoil because their princess disappeared from the castle the first night the flares fired, but some other talk is being passed around. About a young, rogue Omega who tried to kill a lord has been seen passing through Blaze, heading towards the Forests with a large group from the capital city.”

“Ikuya,” Hiyori says breathlessly, and Aiichiro nods, his face taught. Something dark clouds Hiyori’s chest. “What is it? What did the informant tell you?”

The dark velvet folds of Aiichiro’s robes flow over each other as he shifts uncomfortably. “Talk is circling wildly about the group, aside from Ikuya’s presence with them – slaves who belong to a high-ranking lord, castle guards and a library clerk, and the rumours even talk of the princess running among them.” Hiyori’s face is very clearly asking, ‘And what does this have to do with me?’ and Aiichiro is quick to answer the unspoken question: “King Matsuoka has sent a small legion after his daughter, he has no heir if she disappears.” Aiichiro swallows, nerves cruelly crawling up his spine. “The soldiers passed through Blaze last night, calling for information. A slave trader told them that an Alpha in the group exchanged a large number of pearls for supplies, and that they left the city with two prized fighters who escaped from the king’s death arena and are wanted back for a hefty reward.”

“So, it sounds like the king wants them all back in his cage, then,” Hiyori says bitterly. His true concern is only for Ikuya, but he can’t help but hope that the rest of his mate’s apparently found companions escape safely too. Ikuya is resourceful and fiercely independent, he wouldn’t have joined forces with just anyone who was promising him safe passage back to his home. He has either found some kindred spirits, or they are offering him something he can’t refuse. “And he isn’t afraid to use force to get what he wants.”

Aiichiro nods, his face dark. “We don’t know what route Ikuya has taken, or what route the soldiers are on. They may meet in the middle, or one may reach the banks before the other, but I will not stand idly by while both my citizens and innocent people seeking refuge here are put in harm’s way.” He leans forwards and carefully takes one of Hiyori’s hands. “Seijuro and I are taking a small party across the river tomorrow morning,” he explains. “We are going to help stragglers complete their journey, search for Ikuya, and hopefully head the soldiers off before they make it too deep into the trees.”

“I want to come,” Hiyori says immediately, trying to throw his covers off and climb out of bed.

“Absolutely not,” a third voice from the door barks, Nao striding into the room and forcing Hiyori back onto the mattress with forceful hands. “You and I are staying here until you can stand upright without blacking out,” Nao tells Hiyori firmly. He glares the Alpha into submission in a true feat of strength, hands on his hips and his teeth bared ever so slightly. “You’re no use to anyone like this, now shut up and focus on getting better.” In a fit of familial protective rage, Nao turns on Aiichiro and glares at him, uncaring that he is the Paradise Regent, and greatly outranks Nao. “And you, what were you thinking getting him all worked up like this?!”

Whining under Nao’s impressively terrifying gaze, Aiichiro says, “I thought he should know! Please don’t be mad at me, Nao,” and he pouts up at the older Omega, his blue eyes wide and watery, and Nao deflates immediately, reaching out to ruffle the regent’s hair. “I’m sorry,” Aiichiro continues, face downcast as he stares up at Nao through lowered lashes. Hiyori has to hold in laughter at the oldest trick in Aiichiro’s book, especially when it effectively cracks Nao’s worried shell, and he hurries to reassure the regent that he isn’t that mad at him. “I should go now,” Aiichiro says once Nao has busied himself checking the bandages on Hiyori’s neck. The regent pauses halfway to the door and looks back at Hiyori’s face. “You’re wrong, you know,” Aiichiro tells Hiyori softly, smiling at him. “I would come and see you during the day.”

As Aiichiro leaves the room, Hiyori staring after him with his mouth hanging open, Nao says, “He did. The second word reached him, he ran straight here in the middle of a meeting with the housing committee. We were still bandaging you up, and the regent helped us hold you down when you wouldn’t stop thrashing.” Nao runs his fingers through Hiyori’s hair fondly, petting his cheek. “He loves you a lot, Hiyori. You know that, don’t you?”

“I do,” Hiyori says, smiling towards the door. “Aii is my family.”

Just outside the door, Aiichiro grins and shakes his head. “Stupid big brother,” he murmurs, pushing off the wall and heading out of the infirmary.

Nao bustles around the room fixing blankets and straightening the curtains while Hiyori finishes the last of the pudding Aiichiro left him, and Hiyori watches the Omega flit around like an anxious butterfly. Hiyori yawns, sucking in a deep breath, and he frowns, tapping his tongue against his teeth. There is a sour taste in the air. “What is wrong, Nao?” Hiyori asks once noticing that the scent is rolling off Nao, setting the empty bowl aside finally. “Are you worried about Natsuya leaving?”

“Of course I am,” Nao snaps, the shock of his voice making Hiyori sit up straight, unused to hearing Nao raise his voice at all. Nao grimaces, touches his fingers to his lips, and pulling them away stained red from a split. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you like that.” He takes a deep breath, fingers moving up to rub circles into his tired eyes under his glasses. The skin under his eyes is puffy and bruise coloured. “I’m so worried that I haven’t slept in days. Everything is worrying me – Natsuya, Ikuya, you… I can’t keep food down, and I’m afraid that if I sit down, I won’t be able to get up again, and-” Nao trails off in a gasp when Hiyori’s bruised fingers close around his wrist and yank him onto the bed.

Hiyori wraps Nao up in as tight an embrace as he can manage, tries to pour as much comfort into his scent, rubbing his cheek in Nao’s hair. “I know the feeling,” he croaks. He just wants Ikuya safe at home again. “I don’t want them to leave either.”

Sighing, Nao settles against Hiyori’s side and closes his eyes. At least he will get to see Natsuya one more time before the search party sets off.

Oblivious to the turmoil he is leaving behind, Aiichiro continues his slow walk down through the streets of Paradise until he breaks out between the buildings and onto the grass flats. Seijuro, Natsuya, and three others are waiting for him by the riverbank, a boat moored a few feet from the water’s edge. “How’s Hiyori?” Seijuro asks as soon as the regent is within earshot.

“Raring to come with us,” Aiichiro answers dully, hanging his head slightly. “You were right, Seijuro. I shouldn’t have told him where we were going.” He rubs his hands over his arms under his robes before shedding the heavy garment, planning on leaving it behind so that it neither hinders him, nor identifies him. “We need to leave right now,” he says once he has readjusted the rest of his clothing, the blue of the sky playing across his skin like strokes from a brush. “I told Hiyori we were leaving tomorrow morning, and I have no doubt that he will try to sneak out of the infirmary during the night to stow away with us. We have to leave before he does that.”

Natsuya’s breath hitches. “But Nao-” he starts.

“I’m sorry,” Aiichiro says, reaching out to wrap his hand around Natsuya’s elbow. “I know I said you could have some time to say goodbye, but not if it is going to put Hiyori in danger.”

Mouth snapping shut, Natsuya nods. He wants to bid his mate farewell, but he wants to keep Hiyori safe too. Hiyori is Natsuya’s younger brother just as much as Ikuya is. Natsuya doesn’t want to put Hiyori any closer to danger than his extremely terrifying brush with a snapped Bond already has, because he knows without any doubt that Hiyori will indeed try to follow them, no matter what condition he is in. “As you wish, Regent,” he says, quietly. He hopes that Nao can forgive him for leaving without warning. Natsuya ruffles Aiichiro’s silver hair as he walks past the young Omega towards the boat. “Come on then, may as well leave while we’re standing here.”

The party of five clamber into the boat with Seijuro and Natsuya at the oars, and they push off towards the opposite bank, away from the safety of their Paradise home and towards the dangers of the Forests of Treachery, and the army of the Sun Territory. Somewhere in those trees, Ikuya is trying to make his way home, and King Matsuoka is trying to stop him.

“No looking back,” Aiichiro commands, one knee up on the prow as he gazes steadily at the tree line. “We will help whoever we come across seeking passage to Paradise, and put down any guards who are foolish enough to cross our paths.” At his hip, a row of half a dozen daggers are strapped to his belt, each one gleaming and needle sharp at the tip. He and Hiyori survived for eight years in the Aero slums, and the journey to Paradise with some of the older street kids. The Regent of Paradise is more than just a pretty face and soft Omegan charm.


Sousuke stands in the doorway of their little hut, watching Rin rock Kou to sleep in her tiny patchwork hammock, running his hands through her dark hair as he sings to her softly. His voice is still scratchy from the days he spent with Sousuke while his Alpha was in rut, but sweet all the same, the words loving as Rin reaches up to wipe a tear away from his eye as it slides down his pale cheek. Guilt flares up hard in Sousuke’s chest as he watches his mate start to cry, and he wishes he could turn away, but he is enraptured in Rin’s song, a lullaby Sousuke’s mother sang to them both as children when the Omega was still Rin’s nursemaid in the castle.

“No sun nor flame shall lay its claim, while I watch over you,” Rin sings, and more tears drip from his lashes, his other hand smoothing the blankets over Kou’s small body. “The seas may roar, and skies will fall, I will look after you.” His voice hitches, and Sousuke has to press his palms to his own eyes as they burn. “My love for you, my child, is true – however far you roam.” And Rin turns his head, crimson eyes landing on Sousuke. “My dear youngling for whom I sing,” Rin swallows audibly between measures, and Sousuke can feel his swirling emotions through their Bond, love and fear and determination and acceptance, “my soul will guide you home…”

Rin,” Sousuke whispers, and he stumbles the few feet to Rin’s side, collapsing to his knees and gathering his Omega into his arms, rocking Rin in time with the lullaby that trails into silence between them, his hands pressed tightly between Rin’s prominent shoulder blades. “I’m sorry, but I have to go. I don’t want to leave you, but-”

Shaking his head against Sousuke’s chest, Rin wipes his face and sits back slightly to level a sharp expression on Sousuke, who clams up to let Rin talk. “I don’t want you to leave, either, but I also think that you, of all people, deserve to find your kin. Sousuke, you have been alone for so, so long. If someone else like you is out there, then I couldn’t bare it if I held you back from finding them.” He finally manages his signature sharp-tooth grin, sitting sprawled in Sousuke’s lap with his robe falling open at the front, his hair a tangled mess, and his skin a patchwork of bruises. “I promise I won’t let anything happen to us, as long as you promise not to let anything happen to you.”

Sousuke kisses Rin soundly. “I promise,” he says gravely, laying a hand over his heart. Deep in his veins, he can still feel an unfamiliar tug, magic kept long dead and buried risen to the surface to claw its way back into the light. Somewhere, out there in the Forests, in the Deadlands, someone just like Sousuke is lurking. Someone who grew up thinking they were broken for not having magic, who has just discovered how very wrong they are. Sousuke remembers the night he crossed the boarder into the Deadlands, his arm nearly severed at the shoulder as Rin tried in vain to keep him upright, begging Sousuke not to leave him. He remembers the purple light and the unimaginable pain as his limb had sewn itself back into place.

He hopes that whoever has just stumbled into the Deadlands isn’t in any sort of situation like that.

“Kou has the other shard of the stone,” Sousuke reminds Rin, cradling Rin’s face in his hands and staring into his eyes. They both raise a hand to touch the purple gem dangling from Sousuke’s earring, feeling the pulse of magic under their fingertips. The other half of the earring pair is hanging on a chain around Kou’s neck, its magic beating in time with the rhythm of her heart. “So, you can always reach me immediately.”

“Just don’t be too long,” Rin says breathlessly, pulling himself to stand on shaky legs. Although his face is blotchy from tears, and his body is trembling, to Sousuke, Rin looks every bit like the towering pillar of royal strength he never had the chance to become. The Sun Territory had been robbed of a gracious king by the foul, malicious monster still sitting on the throne. Rin puts his hands on his hips and he looks down at Sousuke imperiously, a vision of pale skin and his dark flowing robe. “Travel light, travel safe, and don’t do anything stupid. No damn heroics, you honourable bastard!” Rin narrows his eyes, grabs Sousuke’s chin in his hand to hammer his point home. “You come back to me, Sousuke Yamazaki,” he commands, leaving no room for argument. “Don’t you dare die on me again.” And he lets his hand fall from Sousuke’s skin to hover in front of the Alpha’s nose.

“I wouldn’t dare,” Sousuke says, taking Rin’s slender hand in his own huge one and letting the Omega haul him to his feet until he is towering over Rin once more. He surges in to claim Rin’s mouth, dipping him backwards as Rin’s hands settle around Sousuke’s shoulders. With one last lingering kiss on his mate’s lips, and a brush of his hand through his sleeping daughter’s hair, Sousuke shoulders his bag and his weapons. “I sharpened your sword,” he tells Rin, nodding to the elegant sword usually carried by the high-ranking soldiers of the Sun army, stolen by Rin from the armoury the day he left his old life behind. “Use it liberally. Don’t let anyone touch you.” With those parting words, Rin nodding stoically, Sousuke opens the door and steps out of the hut, following the fuzzy, numb feeling of his magic to his mysterious goal.

He sings his and Rin’s lullaby under his breath as he walks, hopes Rin can hear it on his end of their Bond, almost hopes that whoever this new stranger is can hear him to, that they find the same comfort in it that Sousuke does. Sousuke’s voice is strong and deep, resonating in the trees and filling the oppressive silence with gentle sound that almost seems to drive back the darkness. Sticky tendrils of sluggish, dying magic cling to Sousuke’s feet like creeper vines, trying to draw him down to feast on his own magic, thrumming and alive inside him, but he pushes on, his song giving him courage and drive.

Sleep now, my little tiny child

Sleep now, your dreams are nigh

Sleep now, my little tiny child

Sleep now, the moon is high

Though caught and stark within the dark,

The stars will guide you home

My dear youngling for whom I sing,

My voice will guide you home

No sun nor flame shall lay its claim

While I watch over you

Though seas may roar, and skies will fall

I will look after you

My love is true, my child, for you

However far you roam

My dear youngling for whom I sing

My soul will guide you home

Sousuke loses all sense of where he is going after a few hours once he has left the safe familiarity of the section of the Forests he and Rin have claimed as their own, clearing out the dark and breathing life and magic into the ground again. All the trees look the same as he walks forwards, and black extends wherever he looks, the ashy ground claiming his footsteps and the branches above so tangled together that not a single beam of light can shine through from the sky. He even loses track of time, unsure if it is day or night as he continues walking, now relying solely on the shaky grasp he has on his magic with no one to teach him to hone it properly, the way Rin had learned in his childhood. Kou has yet to present any form of magic ability, but Sousuke is sure that she, too, will inherit Rin’s sun magic.

All he can do is hope that his magic won’t lead him astray – Rin is counting on Sousuke to come back to him, so come back to Rin Sousuke will. All around him, Sousuke can sense the souls of multiple people stumbling blindly through the Forests, trying to make their way to Paradise from whatever sorry territory they originated from. Sousuke’s heart aches for them. Every year, he and Rin watch what feels like hundreds enter the Deadlands looking for a safe path through the trees, only for a handful to make it out alive. He and Rin learned the price of travelling through the Deadlands firsthand, losing their closest friends in the trees, and almost their own lives until Sousuke’s newfound magic had kicked in to save them.

The Deadlands are called that for a reason, the magic of the ancient Soul Territory dying over and over again, barely kept from collapsing completely as the very ground absorbs the magic of those who dare cross its boarders, the trees soaking up their life energy. Sousuke has learned the land’s history through years of living there, the story coming to him in dribs and drabs in his dreams, the Great War that caused Paradise to close its boarders leaving the Soul Territory and the Sky Territory in a deadly civil war around the island fortress, shedding their blood into the trees. The Forests of Treachery poisoned the two armies, fuelling their fight until the Sky Territory emerged victorious and the Soul Territory disappeared into the mud.

Generations of Soul-blooded people lived their entire lives without a shred of magic gracing their beings, spread throughout the land as slaves, prisoners, and pets, oblivious to their lost and bloody heritage. Only by crossing back into the home territory can their magic be awoken, and Sousuke is on the path to find whoever this new person is. He is quietly grateful that every second or third tree he passes has red string tied around the trunk, no doubt left behind by someone on their journey to Paradise.

His search leads him almost to the very edge of the Deadlands, and Sousuke finds a fear almost two decades old surfacing in his memories. This is where he and Rin lost sight of Seijuro in the thick of the guards chasing them, where Natsuya and Nao were dragged into the trees by thick tendrils of decaying magic, where Sousuke was sure that he was going to bleed to death in Rin’s arms as Rin sobbed for Sousuke not to leave him. Shivers race up his back, and Sousuke forces himself into high alert, his eyes peeled for any sign.

In the distance, a brilliant pink light is flickering amongst the swollen trunks of the spiked black trees, and Sousuke has to blink several times and rub his eyes to make sure he isn’t hallucinating it.

“What the hell?” he murmurs, coming to a standstill and gazing at the rather pretty light in awe. “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” Raising a hand, palm-up to the hidden sky, Sousuke feels his magic stirring more and more, and it seems to be calling him in the direction of the mysterious light. “Off we go then,” he says to himself, pulling his feet out of the magic grabbing at his heels and walking on.

Three things hit him the closer he gets to the light

First, is a full-body buzz as his blood sizzles, veins glowing a dull purple with his magic swelling in power. The second is a warm, comforting sensation that settles over him as he breaks through some of the trees and the pink light hits his skin, like the cold nights when Rin wraps around him completely.

The third is the overwhelming scent of cherries.


The world is white, and Rei is falling into it. Shapes of vague people flit in the corners of his vision as he moves slowly, a butterfly trapped in honey, slung over a strong back. Voices call out to him from the past, his mother, his grandparents, his great-great-great grandfather, whispering the story of the Bonded kings of the Soul Territory who bound their peoples’ magic into a huge amethyst pulled from the Stream of Spirits in the heart of the territory. The stone sat proud in the throne room for centuries, until a mercenary from the Sky Territory shattered it with a diamond dagger and scattered the pieces while the magic leaked into the ground.

A song whispers through his head, sung to him in the cradle, comforting Rei on the nights when he cried into his mother’s chest, mourning his lack of magic, thinking himself broken.

My dear youngling for whom I sing My soul will guide you home

“Rei, are you awake?” Nagisa’s voice shatters the white void and Rei jolts into consciousness with a scream, flailing against Nagisa’s back as the Alpha walks carefully through the undergrowth. “Rei?” Nagisa hurries to lower Rei to the ground, grabbing bony wrists in gentle hands as Rei seems to struggle against an invisible assailant and holding them to his chest, pressing kisses to Rei’s knuckles. Around them, the rest of the group stops too, gathering around them as Nagisa calls out to Rei. “Come back to me, Rei,” he whispers. “Open your eyes.”

Blinking, Rei does as his Alpha asks, violet eyes unfocused as he tries to look clearly at Nagisa without his glasses on. “Na-” he swallows thickly, feels his body trembling wildly. “Nagisa…” it comes out as a harsh crack, his voice rasping out horribly. “What… happened?”

“Magic happened, Rei,” Nagisa says, half a smile playing across his face, like he is unsure if he is allowed to smile over this. “You have magic, baby.”

“Magic?” Rei gasps. He doesn’t feel like he has magic. Rei feels like he has been run over with a cart, dragged over hot coals, turned inside out, and then stuffed with shards of glass. “Not… Not possible. I don’t… have magic.”

Very, very slowly, Kisumi lowers himself down to kneel at Rei’s side with help from Asahi, and he blindly inspects Rei, hand glowing pink with his healing magic as he uses that to assess what he can’t see for the blindfold. “It seems that you do, actually,” he tells Rei, blunt but kind, and he feels along Rei’s arm to cup the back of Rei’s hand where Nagisa is still holding both appendages hostage. “It was triggered when you stepped over the Deadlands boarder. I have never felt anything like that before – the others say it was purple! – and like nothing I have ever heard of. Whatever kind of magic you have, it is ancient and powerful, and it certainly did a number on you. You’ve been unconscious for almost an entire day.”

Rei stares at the Star Omega incredulously, even though Kisumi can’t see the expression on his face. “I have magic?” he asks, the very phrase feeling foreign in his mouth. He seeks out Nagisa’s eyes, trusts that the person he loves more than himself won’t lie to him about something so important. “I really have magic?” Then why doesn’t he feel any different? Rei remembers the feeling of Makoto’s magic crackling over his skin, how it had sung in is blood. There is nothing like that inside him now.

“You really do,” Nagisa is quick to reassure Rei, releasing Rei’s hands long enough to wipe away the tears that start to gather in the corners of Rei’s eyes. “Come on, let’s get you sitting upright.” And he helps Rei slowly fold up into a sloping seated position, Kisumi’s hand on his shoulder as Rei leans heavily against Nagisa. Dipping a hand into a pocket of his tunic, Nagisa withdraws Rei’s glasses and slides them onto the Omega’s nose. “There you go, now you can see properly.”

His head spins from the movement, but Rei is grateful that his vision has cleared up. Letting his cheek fall to rest on Nagisa’s chest, Rei glances around at the rest of his friends. Asahi, at his usual position guarding Kisumi’s back, both of them looking exhausted, and Ikuya behind them, keeping his eyes on the trees around them. The young Omega looks skittish, wobbling unsteadily on his feet. Momo is flagging heavily between Gou and Isuzu, his sister and her girlfriend holding him upright. A dark stain glistens on the front of his shirt, the bandages Makoto had painstakingly wrapped around the wound Momo had sustained all the way back in Sol shredded and hanging off him in cindered tatters. Isuzu dabs at her brother’s bleeding neck with a blood-stained cloth, eyebrows drawn in in worry. Rei frowns, anxiously glancing around for Makoto and Haruka.

“Makoto…” he calls weakly, finally spotting the older Omega, sagged in Haruka’s arms with the scent of his heat wafting off him so thickly it is practically visible in the air, swirling like translucent fog and filling the clearing with the aroma of cherries, tinged with the bitter tang of an Omega in heat left unattended for too long. Rei makes the mistake of inhaling deeply, preparing to ask if Makoto is alright, and the cloying scent fills his nose. “No,” he chokes on his own breath, clapping his hands over his face to try and block it out.

The last thing the group needs is both Rei and Ikuya going into sympathy heats. Ikuya already looks like he is starting to succumb to it, his minty scent already stronger, fresher somehow.

“This is bad,” Kisumi grumbles, and he reaches up to remove his blindfold, handing it to Asahi as he squints around in the dark. He rubs a hand down the side of his belly to feel the comforting kicks against his palm before pinching the bridge of his nose. Kisumi ignites his other hand with pale pink flames that light up the entire clearing, drawing gasps from everyone around him. “We don’t have a choice anymore,” he tells the group at large. “Rei is still to weak to move while his magic replenishes from a total dispel, and Makoto needs his heat dealt with right now or he runs the risk of serious internal injuries.” Kisumi throws his flame into the air, and it hovers just below the inky canopy of the trees like their own private star. “We’ll have to camp here for the night. Ikuya,” he turns to Ikuya with bright eyes glowing with magic, “are we near one of your markers?”

Ikuya points a quivering finger to a loop of red string tied to a tree. “We are,” he confirms, and his voice is strained. “I need to sit down.” And he does just that, his legs crumpling out from underneath him and sending his small body toppling into the ash-like dirt. “Don’t mind me, I think I might just lay here for a little while.” Ikuya’s chest is heaving, sweat starting to bead on his skin.

Rei can feel it too, heat sparking in his belly, lancing up his spine. He grits his teeth, presses his hands more firmly to his nose.

Gold light explodes from the side of the clearing where Makoto and Haruka are still hovering on the brink of falling to the ground, pale steam curling up from Makoto’s face as he starts to cry. Fat tears of bright golden starlight splash to the ground, only to be immediately absorbed by the spongey black dirt under all the dust, the earth seeming to greedily drink the magic up. “I don’t want to!” Makoto sobs, and Haruka tries in vain to soothe his Omega’s frayed nerves and volatile reaction to what his body is doing. “Can’t you do anything to make it go away?!”

Kisumi shakes his head. “You know I can’t, it has set in too much for any sort of suppressant to stop it.” He sighs, upset at upsetting Makoto. “I’m so sorry.”

“What do we do, Kisumi?” Nagisa asks frantically, pulling away from Rei and covering his own nose with the collar of his tunic, eyes wide. “His scent is so strong…”

A cold, sinking sensation takes Rei over when he remembers that he and Nagisa are not actually mated yet. For all intents and purpose, Nagisa is an unmated Alpha who has no ties to any specific Omega, confronted with the incredibly enticing scent of a mature Omega in the throes of a deep-seated heat. “Nagisa, are you-” Rei starts, only to be cut off by a harsh growl.

Eight heads turn, Makoto too busy trying to stay upright to look, to stare at Momo. Even slumped back in his body and he strength waning from his injuries, they are very quickly reminded that Momotarou is also an unmated Alpha, and a young and inexperienced one at that, easily swayed by his hormones. Momo growls again, top lip pulled back and his teeth gnashing. His eyes are alight, bright gold and pupils so contracted they are almost invisible. He jerks himself backwards, snarling. “Momo, it’s okay,” Makoto says weakly, his fingers digging harshly into Haruka’s arms. “You just need to breathe, I know you won’t hurt me.”

“Bring him here,” Kisumi commands, panting as he turns to sit down properly, Asahi dropping down behind him so Kisumi has something to lean on. “All of you, come away from Makoto. Come here.”

Asahi wraps an arm around Rei’s shoulders and pulls him down to nestle against Kisumi’s side, stares pointedly at Ikuya and points to Kisumi’s other side until Ikuya drags himself across the dirt to collapse with his nose buried in Kisumi’s shoulder. “Isuzu, Gou, bring Momo over to lay by his legs,” Asahi instructs, his face carefully neutral. He clearly does not like the idea of the rest of his travelling companions crowding around his heavily pregnant mate like this, but has no choice. “Kisumi’s scent should clog his senses, and you Betas will neutralise anything that makes it past.” He looks over at Nagisa, who is still hunched uncomfortably at Rei’s side, face covered as he breathes heavily through his mouth. “Nagisa, you come here too. Hold Rei, it’ll make you feel better.”

Nagisa nods and hesitantly moves over to crowd against Rei, pushing his face into Rei’s ribs and inhaling deeply, trying to commit the scent of blooming roses to memory to ward off the fruity sweet cherry. Slowly, however, much to the relief of everyone squashed together in their makeshift nest, the combination of pregnant Omega and two strong Betas is enough to combat the scent of Omega heat long enough that none of them notice Haruka pull Makoto away through the trees, his face stricken. A trail of golden tears mark their trail until they, too, are consumed by the magic-hungry ground.

“Makoto.” Haruka’s soft voice breaks through the panic boiling over in Makoto’s head, and he blinks red-rimmed green eyes at Haruka, trying as hard as he can to focus on his mate’s face. “Makoto, tell me what to do,” Haruka begs, and it is so unlike his usual stoic, reserved self that it cuts Makoto to the core. “I don’t know how to help you!”

Pain ripples through Makoto’s body with every breath that shakes through his lungs, white hot and burning him alive from the inside out, his very being crying out for the most primal of pleasures. Slick coats his thighs, pooling in the backs of his knees because he can’t muster the energy to straighten them properly, and every single organ in his body below his diaphragm feels like they are on rampage to pierce through his paper-thin skin and spill onto the ground, if only to relieve the pressure inside.

All around them, the Forests of Treachery’s darkness is suffocating, the very shadows seeming to reach out and wrap the tormented pair up in their grips, no longer content with leeching off Makoto’s tears.

“I’m scared, Haru,” Makoto says, finally giving in to the pull of gravity and sinking down onto his knees. He throws his arms around Haruka’s thighs and presses his wet, drawn face into the Alpha’s thigh, rubbing scarred cheeks over rough cotton as Makoto whimpers high in his throat. Haruka’s pants singe as golden starlight touches them. “I’m so scared, and everything hurts, and I just want it all to go away.”

“Tell me how to make it go away,” Haruka sobs, wincing through the pain in his thigh from Makoto’s tears, bending down to engulf Makoto in his arms, burying his face in sweaty hair as he clings to Makoto’s back for fear of the Omega suddenly disappearing in the dark. “I can’t stand seeing you in pain.” Makoto’s scent is clouding every orifice of Haruka’s body, sinking into his pores, clinging to his eyelashes. If he were a lesser Alpha, he fears that he would simply take his pleasure from Makoto and be don’t with it. But Haruka loves Makoto with more than his entire soul, and he could never, ever hurt Makoto – break his trust in such a cruel way, even if the dirty deed would finally sate the biological treachery of Makoto’s heat – so he will wait for whatever command Makoto gives him. Even if that command is to turn away and leave Makoto to suffer through the night in solitude, anything to help Makoto keep what little control he has of the situation.

Makoto digs his fingers into the meat of Haruka’s thighs and bites his lip until blood drips down his chin alongside those tears and he pulls away from Haruka, whining like a kicked dog as he wipes his face, burning his hands in the process. “You can make it go away,” Makoto breathes, his voice so fragile it almost hangs in the air between them. His eyes slide shut, and he shudders, his hands turning soft against Haruka’s thighs. “I know you can do it so that I’m not scared anymore.”

Swallowing thickly, Haruka lets himself join Makoto on the ground, and he takes his mate’s face in his hands, brushing over scars both old and fresh with his thumbs until Makoto looks at him. “Are you sure?” Haruka asks, even as his throat dries out with each gasp of bitter, cherry flavoured air he drags in. “I need to know that you want me to do this.”

“I want you to do this,” Makoto croaks, sliding his hands up Haruka’s sides to grip at his shoulder blades. He sighs out a belly-deep breath and then turns his face, baring his neck to his Alpha. “And I want you to do that,” he whispers, brushing his fingers over his scent gland. It is flushed dark red with Makoto’s heat, pulsing with the beat of his heart, and Haruka’s eyes snap to it, unable to look away as he licks his lips. “I know we were going to wait until we got to Paradise,” Makoto mumbles, curling his fingers over the gland, “but I can’t. I can’t hold out any longer. I’m too afraid that something is going to take you away from me.”

Haruka’s head dips down as if drunk, Makoto’s hand falling away as Haruka grazes his scent gland with cool lips, the hint of teeth. “Alright,” he says, wrapping his arm around Makoto’s waist, feeling the sticky heat of the Omega’s skin through his clothes. Haruka folds down backwards, black dust erupting around him as his cloaked back hits the ground, Makoto pulled flush to Haruka’s chest. “But stay up on top,” Haruka whispers, hooking his fingers in the waistband of Makoto’s pants and starting to peel the slick-soaked material off his mate’s body. “That way you can stop whenever you need to.”

“Thank you,” Makoto says gently, and Haruka loses all his breath when Makoto suddenly smiles at him. Eyes closed and his head tilted to the side, it’s the first real smile Haruka has seen on Makoto’s face since the day Lord Kirishima attacked him. “Thank you, Haruka.”

“No,” Haruka says, finally feeling the arousal brought on by Omega pheromones starting to sink into his system. “Thank you, Makoto.”

Even in the total darkness of the trees, they keep most of their clothes on, their bare legs wrapped in Haruka’s cloak and their shirts pushed up under their arms to keep skin contact as Makoto’s thighs fall apart around Haruka’s hips, the Alpha holding him close and strong in the embrace of his arms. Makoto cries out in pleasure with every touch, the hot hands brushing his skin bringing relief wherever they wander, easing the tension in the small of his back and the harsh jumping of his belly every time he pants a breath in. His skin feels taught and too tight, but Haruka works him over with loving ease, pressing fingers into him and stroking him gently from the front. Neither of them notice dark tendrils of magic curling around them as Haruka slides into Makoto’s slick-drenched entrance, his hands holding canting hips still as Makoto claws at the ground, bursting into tears when the horrible hot pressure inside him finally, finally starts to dissipate, hot liquid gold splashing dangerously close to the wild strands of Haruka’s dark ocean of hair on the Forests’ floor.

For the first time since the left Sol in a burst of rainbow fireworks, Makoto can forget cruel hands and clawing fear, his mind sinking into the safe bliss of his Alpha’s scent and persistent lips.

Grunts and pants fill the air, dampened by the trees, mouths joining and biting and licking as hands fly and their chests heave, sweat and slick making everything wet and slippery between them. It barely takes any time, finally finding something that feels good in their current world of running and fear, and to Haruka it feels like he has barely been inside his mate before his knot begins to swell. As they are tied together, Makoto’s head thrown back so far his curves to the point of discomfort, his orgasm hitting him like a punch to the gut, Haruka surges up after Makoto with his teeth bared. The points of his incisors pierce Makoto’s skin and Haruka bites down, claiming his mate as his Bond. Makoto screams, and Haruka freezes, terrified that he has hurt Makoto, until he realises that the sound is one of deep-seated pleasure, Makoto’s flailing hands finding purchase on the back of Haruka’s head, holding him down and driving his teeth in deeper.

Blood drips down Makoto’s neck, pooling in the hollow of his throat and shimmering crimson and gold in the dark, sparking with magic but not burning. The second Haruka unlocks his jaw, tongue flicking over the bleeding scent gland and chasing the electric flavour down his mate’s skin, Makoto yanks Haruka’s head up by the hair and sinks his own teeth into Haruka’s throat, an uncharacteristic growl high in the back of his mouth.

The world between them shatters as Haruka howls in a pleasure he never knew existed, and then reshapes itself into a new world of brightest light and colours so pure Haruka struggles to even name some of them. Water bubbles out of the ground where his skin is touching the earth through the folds of his cloak, seeping into his skin so that a blue glow fills the clearing with the gold light already dancing around them, and above their heads the very trees crack their branches apart, white starlight breaking through the leaves.

They are Bonded at last, and nothing but death can ever separate them again.


Hiyori winces when the floorboard creaks under his foot, and he pauses, listening around the room for someone to come hunting after the noise. No one approaches, and Hiyori continues his trek down the infirmary corridor, shrouded in the darkness of night. The inky black of midnight washes over his skin, the constellations appearing as freckles on his cheeks. His strength isn’t back enough to use his magic properly, otherwise he would have just jumped out the window of his room to ride an air current down to the ground, but it relaxes Hiyori to see a physical sign of the magic in his blood. Reaching the last stair case, Hiyori is halted in his tracks by a terrible sight.

Nao is crumpled at the foot of the stairs, his hands clenched so tightly in his hair he is pulling the long silver strands out in chunks. Bile is splattered at his feet, and his sobs are audible from the tops of the stairs. Hiyori can’t tell if Nao has fallen, or if that is just where he ended up while vomiting. “Nao!” Hiyori calls, taking the stairs two at a time to reach the Omega. “Nao, what happened?”

“Why are you out of bed?” Nao asks, his voice husky. “You shouldn’t be out of bed.” Something is wrong. Nao’s eyes are unfocused, his body swaying from side to side as the moon lights his veins up. Hiyori puts his hands on Nao’s shoulders, turns him around so that Hiyori can see him properly. “Natsuya didn’t come home,” Nao says blankly, his head lolling to the side. “The search party left as soon as the Regent reached the banks of Ring River.” He slowly puts his hands over his ears, head dropping down between his knees like he can block out the world around him. “He promised he would say goodbye,” Nao whispers, fingers curling, nails pressing into his neck.

Hiyori can’t think of anything to do other than stroke his hand through Nao’s hair. “I’m sure he didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye,” he offers quietly, and he loops his hands under Nao’s arms, pulls the Omega away from the bile on the tiled floor.

“They never do,” Nao says, pressing his thumbs into his cheeks. He chokes on a sob, curling in on himself even tighter. “Ikuya didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye, but he did anyway,” Hiyori opens his mouth to defend his Bond, but his words die in his throat when Nao continues, “He died and didn’t say goodbye to me.”

Hiyori’s mouth falls open in shock. Ikuya… died? But that can’t be – Hiyori is still alive! Mere minutes ago he had felt Ikuya calling out for him through their Bond. He doesn’t notice his touch turning harsh, splinted fingers digging into Nao’s biceps to get his attention. “Ikuya isn’t dead,” Hiyori growls. “He is not dead.”

“Not your Ikuya,” Nao agrees, shaking his head. “Not my son. My Ikuya. Big brother.” And his voice is so small and quiet, Hiyori almost could believe that he is talking to a young child. “When we came to Sol from Luna. He tried to stop the guards from touching me, so they killed him.” He shudders from the memory. “I was five. They gave me to Natsuya soon after that. He promised he would never leave me without saying goodbye.”

Wrapping his arms around Nao, Hiyori says the only thing he can say. “They will come back to us. They have to.”

They sit at the foot of the steps in silence until the sun starts to rise, and only when his skin has stopped glowing does Nao lift his head. “You shouldn’t be out of bed,” he repeats himself from several hours ago, side-eyeing Hiyori. The look holds no heat, Nao’s eyes bloodshot and red-rimmed, his glasses tucked into the collar of his top. “You haven’t finished healing yet.”

“I know,” Hiyori says, nodding his head slowly. “I’ll go back now. Turns out there was no point in me getting up in the first place.”

“Because you were going to sneak into the search party’s boat and stow away with them?” Nao asks, though his tone suggests he already knows the answer, so Hiyori doesn’t bother giving it. “Thought so.” Nao sighs deeply, and tilts his head onto Hiyori’s shoulder. “I’m glad you didn’t make it,” he admits. “I don’t know what I would do if my entire family left me here on my own.”

Hiyori hadn’t even thought of that. “I’m sorry, Nao.” He climbs to his feet, holds his hand out for the Omega. “Come on. We both need sleep.”

“My how the tables have turned,” Nao remarks, and he takes Hiyori’s hand, wobbling up to his feet. He almost keels over once he is upright, retching and covering his mouth with his sleeve as he coughs more bile up. “Damn this worry to hell,” Nao growls fiercely. “Help me upstairs, please.”

Once the slow journey back to Hiyori’s room is complete, the two lie side by side on the mattress with the soft quilt settled over them, the curtains drawn and all the lights turned off. Nao rolls onto his side with his back to Hiyori and pulls the quilt over his head, and Hiyori pretends not to notice when Nao starts to cry quietly. “Is Ikuya really your son?” he asks instead of saying anything else, curiosity gnawing at the edge of his mind.

“Yes,” Nao says, voice watery. “He left here to kill his father.”

Hiyori bites his lip, and decided that that is plenty of personal questions for one day. He slides further down the bed and folds his hands over his chest, closing his eyes, and hoping that sleep comes quickly for both of them.

All they can do now is wait.


The pink light and thick scent lead Sousuke to a small clearing, more a break in the trees than anything else, and he squints against the bright light, trying to see what is actually in the middle of the clearing. People, there are people curled up on the ground under a floating ball of pink fire. Sousuke has to sit down in the spiny roots of a tree to contemplate this sight, having never seen anything quite like it before. He can feel intense magic rolling out of someone in that little knot of people, something electric and alive, almost smothering the magical fingerprint of the person that Sousuke is looking for.

Somewhere in that clearing, another descendent of the Soul Territory is waiting.

Sousuke has to find them, has to help them with the horrific transition from having no magic to having far too much of it. He stands up, steps forwards. His foot cracks a root, and he freezes when the silhouette of someone sitting up in the middle of the clearing appears. The dark figure is careful in their movements, rising onto shaky knees. Sousuke watches two thin hand reach up to pull a strip of cloth away from their face and two glowing eyes opening before unimaginable pain hits him.

When his senses return to his body some several minutes after the fact, Sousuke feels like he has been tied to a stake and roasted alive. “Ow,” is all he can muster, even the inside of his throat raw and hot. He blinks, and his eyes feel like they have been boiled in his skull. Someone is crouched over him, sharp knee pressed into Sousuke’s chest, an Alpha from the Sun Territory glaring down at him suspiciously. Is this the person who had knocked him down? Sousuke doesn’t think so, he can’t sense that awesome magic coming off him.

“You aren’t a guard,” the Alpha says smartly, and it’s only then that Sousuke can focus on the silver arrow tip hovering inches from his nose, the Alpha poised over him with drawn bow in hand and his lavender eyes narrowed dangerously. “Who the hell are you?” The Alpha growls. “How did you find us?”

Sousuke coughs, dry heat coating the back of his throat. “Sou… Sousuke,” he manages to rasp out. He doesn’t even want to think of moving, Sousuke thinks his skin might peel off if he does. “Was following a – magic trail.” He tries to lick his lips, and the arrowhead dips a little closer. “Smelled an Omega… saw the light.” His eyes slam shut, fear spiking in his heart. He can’t keep looking at that arrow, can’t face the idea that he might be seconds away from leaving his Bond and child behind, abandoning them just like he promised he wouldn’t. At least his last thought will be of Rin, and of Kou.

“Wait, Asahi!” an authoritative calls from close by, and Sousuke sucks a breath in, cracking one eye open.

The Alpha and his weapon have pulled back, and he is looking curiously back into the clearing. “What is it, Gou?”

Gou? Sousuke opens his eyes even as his brain screams at them to keep them shut and keep a tiny portion of the pain at bay. He could start crying where he appears to be laid out in the powdery dirt off to the side of the clearing, squinting through hazy eyes at the figure of an angel standing just a few feet away. “Gou-!” he croaks, voice cracking horrible. “Gou!”

“Sousuke,” the girl murmurs, and she covers her mouth with her hands, knuckles whitening as she presses her lips together to keep her sobs in.

There, in a dank clearing on the Deadlands boarder in the middle of the Forests of Treachery stands the princess of the Sun Territory, and Rin’s little sister. Gou Matsuoka. Sousuke hasn’t seen her since she was eight, a pocket rocket of a little girl zooming through the halls of Matsuoka Castle, barely reaching Sousuke’s chest and always keeping a sharp eye on her overly-emotional older brother even when Rin thought she wasn’t looking. She’s alive. She escaped her father.

Rin had spent countless days and sleepless nights agonising over leaving her behind, so focused on escaping the future the king had planned for his ‘useless Omega son’ that he had almost been willing to leave both Seijuro and Sousuke himself behind if the guards had shown the slightest hesitation in leaving. Naming their daughter after Gou had done little to ease Rin’s guilt, but he had tried to put it behind him for the sake of their new family. Sousuke can only imagine just how ecstatic Rin will be when he finds out that –

“Don’t hurt him!” Gou pleads, and Sousuke grunts in pain when she bodily throws herself between his chest and the Alpha with the bow and arrows who Gou had called Asahi. Surely he couldn’t be Asahi the Armoury, Sousuke finds himself idly wondering, his pain-addled brain recalling an image of the famed and aptly named multi-weaponed assassin of the Eclipse Arena, face hauntingly similar to that of the man before him. “Asahi, please, I know him!”

Asahi and Gou lock eyes, lavender on ruby, in an intense stare-off until, very slowly, Asahi nods his head, and tucks both bow and arrow into his quiver. “Alright, princess, I trust your word,” he says quietly, though he does shoot a warning look at Sousuke, Do anything threatening and I will end you. “Kisumi, do you think you can heal him?” he asks aside, and Sousuke can’t turn his head to look without the skin on his neck and shoulders screaming in pain, the old wound in his shoulder flaring back to life again.

“Of course I can,” a new voice scoffs from a little ways away, followed by, “if someone could kindly help me over, lying on the ground like that has given me one hell of a back ache.” And a very pregnant Omega is brought into Sousuke’s line of sight, Gou still clinging to him as her shoulders shake, seemingly unable to move or talk beyond that for the emotions overflowing in her. Sousuke reels back slightly from this new person when he sees the blindfold, remembering the strip of fabric being tossed aside moments before the source of all this pain had been unleashed on him. “I’m sorry,” Kisumi says, and once again, Sousuke thinks he recognises that name and face. Kisumi, Death Bringer, Asahi’s arena partner had been called, the Omega who defied the king from the centre of his harem and wielded magic the likes of which no one in Sol had ever seen before. “I didn’t mean to hurt you so badly,” the Omega is still talking softly to Sousuke.

Sousuke can barely manage a groan of acknowledgement, and Gou pulls away from him at instruction from Kisumi, her face red as her hair and covered in messy tears. “What… did you do?” Sousuke asks haltingly.

Kisumi taps a finger to the bridge of his nose, helped by Asahi to kneel at Sousuke’s side. “Star Magic,” he explains, “I saw you in the shadows of the trees. Saw the sword on your back and thought you were a guard. I hit you with Seirios Fire without even thinking about it.” His face scrunches up. “It’s truly incredible that you even survived that.”

Ice washes through Sousuke’s system. He has heard the term Seirios Fire. He has seen gladiators in the Eclipse Arena reduced to piles of cinder from a single blast of it. He thinks it is less incredible, and more a heaven-sent miracle that he is still alive.

“Let me just heal you up,” Kisumi whispers, voice laced with guilt. “I really am sorry.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sousuke says hoarsely. “You were protecting your family.” His eyes flick to the Omega’s round belly in understanding. Rin had set an entire troupe of Sun Territory soldiers ablaze with the sun’s flames while pregnant with Kou before Sousuke had even lifted a hand to defend his mate and unborn pup. “I understand.”

Much, much later, Sousuke has no memory of what actually took place while Kisumi healed him. He remembers yet more pink light, then nothing, and then he is blinking himself into awareness, seated upright and surrounded by strangers with Gou plastered to his side. Asahi and Kisumi are sitting opposite him, turned in towards each other as they talk quietly, and Sousuke cannot, for the life of him get the image of the two people before him to blend with the image in his memory of the single most deadly fighting duo from the Eclipse Arena. He is quickly distracted from those thoughts by the two obviously-siblings on Gou’s other side, the girl with her hand folded over Gou’s ankles like it belongs there, and the boy staring at Sousuke in open fascination, his face nearly a carbon copy of what Sousuke remembers of Seijuro. There is yet another Sun Alpha, hunched slightly away from the rest of the group, arms caged protectively over two Omegas lying on either side of him, one incredibly young and in the throes of what smells like a sympathy heat, and the other…

Sousuke sits up straight, all his energy snapping back into his body at once. He shakes Gou off gently despite her complaints, and lurches across the group, pulled on the end of an invisible chain. Growls echo around him, and he isn’t surprised to find another arrow aimed at him. He is more wary of the little Sun Alpha, who has his sharp fangs bared and a lethal hunting knife held confidently in hand, pulled from who knows where.

“I don’t mean any harm,” Sousuke says immediately, hunkering down lower to the ground to appear unthreatening. “But I’ve been looking for him,” he tries to explain. Rin is usually much better with words, able to understand exactly what Sousuke means before he has to stumble over himself and his half-formed thoughts. “He’s like me,” he tries weakly. Soul magic isn’t as easy to display as the other magic of the land, and he doesn’t know how to explain it to these people.

He is saved by the Omega himself, pushing the small Alpha away so he too can sit up, wide violet eyes peering at Sousuke curiously from behind dirty hair and red-framed glasses. “You are of Soul descent?” he asks, almost sounding excited, crawling forwards a pace until he is nearly nose-to-nose with Sousuke in the glittering light of the pink fire still lighting the clearing. “You’re like me.”

Sousuke nods. “What is your name?” he asks breathlessly, so badly wanting to add ‘brother’ to the end of his question, but unsure if that is an appropriate level of affection after a thirty second meeting.

“Rei,” comes the reply, accompanied by a sweet smile, and he reaches out a hand absently, touching Sousuke’s cheek as if to make sure that Sousuke is real. They both gasp, the world tilting and throwing them into the strange between-world Sousuke has come to call Spirit World, where he has found himself able to communicate with the many, many lost souls wondering through the Deadlands. “Beautiful,” Rei breathes, eyes flitting around as if he can’t quite decide what to look at first. “I think I dreamed I was here once.” He closes his eyes and hums. “I heard someone singing.”

“Could have been me,” Sousuke admits, settling down on his front more comfortably, recognising the tune being hummed to him as the lullaby he had sung to make himself feel closer to Rin while they were separated.

Outside, with those unable to see the Spirit World, Gou lets Isuzu pull her away from Sousuke. She hasn’t said a single thing since she recognised him, even half-blackened and burned from Kisumi’s well-meaning attack. Those teal eyes had still shone through, reminding her of the junior guard who had taken to keeping her brother company, even though Rin had had his own personal guard to do just that. Her heart is thudding loudly in her chest. Ikuya had said that the guard who had made it to Paradise was Isuzu’s brother, but if Sousuke was right here before her…

She can’t bring herself to interrupt whatever magical bonding that Rei and Sousuke are locked in, their foreheads dipped down to be pressed together, the occasional purple spark floating around their heads like fireflies, but she so desperately wants to ask. If Sousuke is alive, then is Rin? Did her brother survive whatever attack caused their friends to think they had been killed?

“Don’t interrupt them,” Isuzu murmurs in her ear, and Gou wants to snap at her, angry suddenly, because Isuzu knows that her brother is indeed waiting for her in Paradise while Gou does not, but Gou deflates, sinking back against Isuzu’s chest. Gou knows that her girlfriend meant nothing by it. “I know what you want to ask him,” Isuzu says, reaching up to twirl Gou’s hair around her fingers, her cheek resting on the top of Gou’s head. “Just be patient.”

Isuzu knows her so well.

Meanwhile, Ikuya is struggling badly. His body had succumbed to the potent pheromones Makoto had left behind, and the sympathy heat was in full swing. It wouldn’t last the way an actual heat would, but it was still painful, especially with being so far away from Hiyori. Until the suppressants kicked in, he would have to writhe in his own slick for a little while longer. Lying with Nagisa is helping, the gentle scent of Alpha and friend reminding him almost of Natsuya, not as familiar as a family scent, but close enough to. Nagisa cards his fingers through Ikuya’s hair, his own reaction to Makoto’s heat long gone. “I hope Mako and Haru are alright,” he says to Ikuya, and Ikuya nods against Nagisa’s knee. “Mako looked ready to shake apart at the seams.”

“If he did, Haruka will put him back together,” Ikuya mumbles, having the utmost faith in the Water Alpha to take care of his mate. He presses his fingers into his Bond mark, seeking comfort, and his body starts to relax when he feels Hiyori sending him back a soothing wave of warm love through their slowly repairing connection.

Momo, seeing that everyone but him was busy with someone, decides that he should probably stand on guard somewhere. Although one person to discover them had turned out to not be a threat, he knows that the same can’t be said of everyone walking around the Deadlands. He stands and takes up his sword, pausing to tell Isuzu where he is going. It has been several hours since they were forced to stop to accommodate what had happened to the Omegas of the group, and Momo is starting to get little jolts of anxiety shooting through his head when he realises that they have heard neither hide nor hair from Makoto and Haruka in all that time. They can’t possibly have gone that far away from the clearing… Momo should probably go and look for them.

He leaves the clearing and lights his palm with the last reserves he has of his magic until the sun rises again, using the gold flame to see the forest floor beneath his feet, heading in the same direction Haruka had taken Makoto. Taking another step, Momo recoils slightly when he puts his foot in a puddle of black water, a cold wash of it flooding down the side of his shoe. “Shoulda put my damn boots on this morning,” he grumbles, pulling his foot back and angling his fire so he can make sure than nothing else is lurking in the general area. Everything in front of him is a twisting, thrumming mess of black, and Momo instinctively recoils from it.

It looks like hundreds of oily black snakes have massed among the trees, the vine-like seeming to have erupted from the very ground, all wriggling and reaching for something lost in the mess. Momo stares for what feels like hours, trying to make out what on earth is happening right before his very eyes, and realises that these things are not snakes, not vines, but shadowy extensions of the very earth he is standing on, coated in black mud and blacker magic, sluggishly moving and wrapping and absorbing. Above the entire horrific mess, a single hole on the canopy emits moonlight down onto the mess, and Momo could lose his breakfast to the sight.

He has to find Haruka and Makoto, take them back to the others. Warn everyone about… whatever this is.

As Momo shines his fire around, looking for a path around the horror before him and the golden flame getting duller and duller as something starts to leech at what little magic he has left, something out of the corner of his eye catches his attention. Small flashes of whatever the shadows are coiling around are occasionally visible, and Momo definitely just saw a foot. A foot wearing Haruka’s boot.

Momo’s sword is in his hands in seconds, and he leaps into the magical fray without a second thought, using as much strength as possible to send his flames crackling down the sunflare-forged blade. He hacks at the tendrils holding his friends hostage, panting from the exertion, but watching victoriously as they are each sliced away one by one in clouds of black sparks. Momo uncovers his friends from the mess, first Makoto, and then Haruka laying beneath him, every inch of their visible skin covered in tiny, bleeding pinpricks where the foul tendrils had sunk into their pores to drain their magic from the inside out. Sure that the ground beneath his feet once more is just plain old dirt, Momo drops down at their side, heart nearly leaping straight out of his throat when the thought that they might be dead crosses his mind.

But, and Momo sags in relief, Makoto lets out a soft, content sigh.

Not dead, asleep, the two wrapped snugly in Haruka’s cloak, Makoto’s head pressed under Haruka’s chin, their legs tangled together. They must not have even notices what was happening around them, sunken so deep into their slumber.

Momo is loathe to wake them, knows that sleep has been dancing just out of Makoto’s reach for days, but after what Momo had just witnessed, he doesn’t want to leave them alone to the mercy of those disgusting magical tendrils. He can only think that the Deadlands itself is trying to harvest magic from wherever it can get it. Carefully – he doesn’t want to startled either of his friends – Momo shakes them both awake. The scent of Makoto’s heat – strong enough mere hours ago to drive Momo to the brink of an animalistic break – has all but disappeared, and Momo is quick to spot the dark, bloody scabs of claiming Bond marks. A grin blossomed on his face and he has to fight to keep a congratulatory cheer from slipping out, settling instead for a slightly more enthusiastic shake to each of their shoulders.

“Wake up, you two!”

Groggy moans rumble out of Haruka’s chest, and he blinks his eyes open. Momo’s grin shatters in an instant. Haruka’s eyes are jet black, sclera and all. Makoto lifts his head up and looks at Momo.

Makoto's eyes are black too.

Chapter Text

Makoto and Haruka sit on the edge of the cliff, the smooth surface under their palms the purest opal coating the rocks below. So much like the Topaz Cliffs off the coast of Sol, the Opal Cliff of the Moon Territory offer a breathtaking view of the ocean rolling below them, and further cast eye on the three glittering islands on the cusp of the horizon.

The air is crisp and cool, scented faintly sweet, inviting. Below them, the waves are royal blue with soft heads of pure white foam, the sound of them breaking onto the opal rocks soothing, relaxing them both into a nice lull of serenity. Nothing can hurt them as they sit there. They are on top of the world, together and in love, and completely out of harm’s way.

“There it is, Mako,” Haruka says quietly, turning to his mate with a light smile on his face. A thin circlet of silver and tiny lapis stones rests in his dark, inky hair, the jewel-like blue flowers woven in the shoulder-length strands making his eyes shine even brighter. “There’s your homeland.” And Haruka points across the foaming sea to the largest island, shining like a nugget of gold in the morning sun. “Solar.”

A fine chain of hand-woven sea silk and white gold thread shines around Makoto’s neck, a single pearl the size of a beetle hanging from it, dripping down his throat and kissing the thick scar marking his chest. His flowing white shirt billows in the light breeze as Makoto tips his head onto his Alpha’s shoulder, hand caressing the barest hint of their pup starting to grow inside him under the cloth. “I can’t believe it is right there in front of me,” Makoto breathes, eyes alight, and the blood vanishes on Haruka’s next blink. “I’m going to see the place where my parents grew up.”

Haruka’s smile widens. “I bet the island is as beautiful as you,” he says, running his hand up Makoto’s spine to drag his fingers around the curve of his Omega’s neck, touching Bond mark and the chain of the betrothal necklace. They plan to marry officially when they return from Solar, their union recognised both by magic and by law in the eyes of all who come across them. “The boat should be here soon.”

“Who was docking it for us, again?” Makoto asks, a slight frown creasing his brows together and he tips his head up to look at Haruka. His own hair is twisted around the stems of white snowdrops, both he and Haruka finally able to bathe, clean, and clothe themselves in the luxuries provided to them by their lodgings in the grand palace of Mira.

Threading his fingers through Makoto’s hair, careful not to dislodge the beautiful flowers, Haruka has to think about that for a second. He had been prepared to instantly answer, but now that he actually has to open his mouth and put voice to word, the name has vanished from the tip of his tongue. One of their friends was bringing them a boat so they could sail to the island, but Haruka can barely picture them in his head, let alone recall the name. How very strange, he is usually quite adept at remembering names – had to be when his daily life had consisted of faces and places, and constant looming danger, but…

Haruka blinks, and stares out at the ocean, the islands in the distance. For a moment, there had been a disconnect between the movement of the waves and the placement of the islands, as if either the water or the islands themselves were not really there. Haruka fights to follow that sense, but a blanket of cool ocean breeze washes over him like a blanket, the familiar salty-sweet tang of home settling into his lungs. There is no danger here. There never has been any danger here. He and Makoto are perfectly safe. The boat is coming, and then they will sail for Solar.

“Is that the boat, there?” Makoto asks curiously, and he pulls away from Haruka to peer over the opal-coated ledge of the cliff, eyes fixed on the ocean below. He leans out further, pointing into the distance.

Haruka is overwhelmed with the feeling that something is wrong suddenly, that everything around them is not what it seems. The world he and Makoto are seeing is fake. An illusion. Haruka jolts, physically jolts, and his senses clear. He can taste it now, the magic in the very air, making him see and feel these things. Reaching out to put a hand on Makoto’s hip, to pull his mate close, keep him safe from this cocoon of magic surrounding them that is keeping them blind and dumb, Haruka freezes at the tragedy beginning to play out before him.

With his perception of this false world shattered, the world itself begins to shatter. Starting with the opal cliff face that Makoto is still kneeling on.

“MAKOTO!” Haruka yells as the opal beneath Makoto starts to crack, impossible splits carving through the impenetrable surface as if it were nothing more than butter left in the sun. “NO!”

Makoto looks over his shoulder desperately, his hand stretching out as the opal begins to crumble away, splashing into the water far, far below. “Haru, what’s happening?” The white silk shirt catches the roaring wind and disappears, the flowers in Haruka’s hair following suit. Their eyes widen in tandem as they see each other for how they really appear – filthy, emaciated from hunger, dressed in the shreds of rags, and so, so scared. “Haru!”

“Take my hand!” Haruka screams. “We have to find our way out of here!”

Their fingers brush, almost gripping, and the edge of the cliff falls away. Makoto falls with it, his nails scratching deep red marks into Haruka’s palm. “HARU!”

Haruka stands frozen as blood wells in his palm and drips onto the dulled and ragged edge of the cliff. Above him, the sky has turned grey, the clouds fizzling away to nothing, and the islands of the Star Territory crumble and sink beneath the blackening ocean waves. Makoto is still falling, hands still held up to Haru as if the Alpha can still reach him from the ever-growing distance between them.

“Help me,” he says, and the wind snatches his voice away. “I don’t want to leave you!”

No. Haruka doesn’t want Makoto to leave him either – not after everything they have already been through to get this far. Haruka can remember it all now. The night they left Sol, what spurned that decision to leave, escaping the city and nearly losing Ikuya to slave traders, finding Asahi and Kisumi, what happened to Rei when they crossed into the Deadlands. Haruka remembers Makoto’s heat finally overwhelming the Omega, strongest of his ilk to make it so far in his condition, and he remembers the exact moment they finally, finally became one in every sense of the word. The Bond mark on Haruka’s neck, long scarred over in this world of falsehoods, breaks open again because it is fresh, it is new, it is exciting. And Haruka isn’t about to let some lustful, hungry magic take his mate away from him within the same hour they were Bonded.

Haruka doesn’t even blink before launching himself over the broken edge of the cliff. This world is a fantasy – hitting the water from such heights will not hurt him. Haruka reaches out for Makoto, and he catches his mate in his arms and pulls Makoto close seconds before they hit the water, and everything turns black. Makoto clings to him in the total darkness, even the blue glow of Haruka’s magic not enough to break through the clinging, cloying, alive black of the water encasing them, dragging them down.

The depths of the ocean seem never-ending, and both Makoto and Haruka remain in each other’s arms even as the water starts to seep between their lips, dripping into their lungs. Drowning is supposed to be like falling asleep, and dying in Makoto’s arms is the most appealing way Haruka can think of to die. But not right now, not tomorrow, and not in this false, evil world. Haruka kicks against the water, tries to summon a current to push them back towards the surface. The silvery trails of bubbles from Makoto’s nose and mouth are already starting to peter off, the thump of his heartbeat fluttering wildly against Haruka’s chest, the rapid beating of it the only sound Haruka can hear in the total darkness of the ocean around them. He must work quickly.

Despite being surrounded by the very thing that fuels his magic, Haruka struggles against it, and he wonders if this is how non-Water mages feel when they have to swim. It refuses to respond to his call, continuing to pull Haruka and Makoto downwards, though the seafloor never gets any closer to them. Will they just continue to sink forever?

WAKE UP, YOU TWO.

Makoto’s eyes fly open sluggishly, locking onto Haruka’s. What the hell was that? The voice echoes all around them, the water vibrating, twisting and rolling, sending them tumbling through its watery clutches until only their steely grip on each other’s hands is keeping them together in the roiling current. “Don’t let go!” Haruka yells, something he has always been capable of doing while being underwater before, but remembering too late that this water is apparently resistant to his magic.

His lungs flood, and Haruka chokes, the sensation alien and ugly as he splutters.

They are both on the brink of drowning, their hands starting to weaken as they can no longer keep their eyes open properly. Air floods around them suddenly, and Makoto vomits black water down his front, Haruka following suit, and they are lying on a solitary rock in the middle of the violently bubbling ocean.

“What the hell is happening?” Makoto asks, his voice tight and hoarse. “Where are we?”

Haruka shakes his head, the water slowly draining out of him. “I have no idea. This is magic beyond anything I have ever heard of. I don’t think this is even a real place that we are in.”

“Was that Momo’s voice in the water?” Makoto shuffles across the rock to throw a weak arm over Haruka’s waist, the Omega shivering violently in his soaked clothes. Haruka isn’t fairing any better, shaken to the core from his magic not working. “Haruka?”

It isn’t like some horrible nightmare – it is some horrible nightmare. And one that they cannot seem to wake up from, no matter how hard Haruka slams his fist against the cracked surface of the rock that has emerged to rescue them from the jaws of drowning, only to leave them stranded in an endless sea of roaring black waves, icy cold water slapping down on them with every break. Just when Haruka thinks that nothing could possibly make this any worse, the next wave to tower over the rock is cleaved in half by a golden head as a serpent rears from the water, a tongue of fire unfurling from its mouth of razor teeth.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Makoto whimpers, covering his face with his hands as the impossible sea monster looms over them, baring down to take them in its horrible maw. “I want to wake up now. I want to wake up now!” And he thrusts his hand out, his own golden flames shooting from his palm to meet the beast head on.

The roar that echoes through the slowly crumbling world is enough to rupture eardrums, the sea snake coiling back on itself as its scales ripple and burn at the touch of Makoto’s starfire. All Haruka can do is grasp Makoto’s side and watch in awe as his mate continues to hold the monster back, the scream tearing from his throat seeming to fuel the fire. Surely that is how they will break out of the nightmare – they must kill the beast!

-

The terrified, pained scream that echoes through the clearing like the roar of a bull shatters the calm silence of Rei and Sousuke’s Spirit World, and they both heave great gulps of air as they are forced back into the realm of the living, rolling onto their sides and staring around with unfocused eyes. Rei feels more alive than he ever has in his entire life, his whole body thrumming with energy, and it takes him a couple of seconds to register what is happening around him as the faint purple glow around him sinks back into his skin.

“That was Momo!” Isuzu cries, panic clear on her face as she leaps to her feet and draws a knife from her boot, eyes flicking around the clearing. Gou allows herself a moment to appreciate how attractive that move was, before snapping into the mindset of a serious tactical leader, ears pricked for anymore sound. “He sounded in pain – and scared,” Isuzu continues, her sharp eyes inspecting every tree and every shadow for what had dared make her little brother sound so scared. “Did anyone see which way he went?”

Weapons are seized as Nagisa dutifully points in the direction he had seen Momo slip through the trees; Isuzu, Sousuke, and Asahi all heading for the source of the scream, hesitant about what they may find. The others stay put at a stern look from Gou, who is quick to point out that neither Rei nor Ikuya have fully recovered, and Kisumi is exhausted from using far too much of his magic and the sheer exertion of travelling while so heavily pregnant.

“Nagisa, you keep them safe for now, I will sweep the perimeter,” Gou says, deadly serious as she too unsheathes her own weapons – two ornate push daggers usually concealed in the lining of her sleeves. She settles the blades between her fingers, using one to gesture as she continues speaking. “Momo won’t have gotten very far, but that shout was loud enough to attract the attention of anyone nearby. If I know my father at all, he will not just sit back and let me escape.” Her face is dark, and Nagisa can see the cut figure of the war queen she could grow up to be in the set line of her jaw, the flash of her eyes. “He has more than likely sent a troupe of guards after me, who may indeed catch up to us if they manage to track our movements.”

Kisumi, who is clearly struggling to say sitting upright now without support from Asahi, smartly calls his pink flame down from the top of the clearing, plunging them into semi-darkness as he keeps it held close to his chest, hands cupped on the curve of his belly. “Be careful yourself, princess,” he says, and even his voice sounds as strained as he looks, sweat starting to bead at his temples, matting his hair to his neck and causing his blindfold to cling uncomfortably to the tops of his cheeks. The glow from underneath the cloth is starting to grow in strength. “Don’t wander too far away on your own.”

“I won’t,” Gou promises with a gentle smile, “Mama.” And Kisumi pokes his tongue out in her general direction at the teasing nickname.

In the crushing darkness of the trees, Sousuke looks to Isuzu walking beside him, thinking of a time when a completely different Mikoshiba took up post at Sousuke’s side, tall and loud and brash, and oh-so brave. Sousuke remembers turning back to look over his shoulder, Rin’s hand clasped in his left and his right being crushed by Nao, to see Seijuro hovering in the gated entrance of the city, bathed in the rainbow lights of the Paradise flares as he gave one last, slow wave in the direction of his childhood home. “Goodbye,” he had said, voice clear and strong in the night air. “I’m sorry for leaving you.”

While no where near as tall as Seijuro, Isuzu has the same strength and bravery oozing from every orifice as she holds her knife at the ready, sharp eyes fixed ahead for any sight of her younger brother. Content that Isuzu is more than capable of handling herself, Sousuke sets his own sights on the task at hand, focuses on tuning into the magic of his blood territory to see if he can find something the two Sun Territory people with him won’t be able to see. Somewhere ahead of them, Sousuke can feel a concentration of the dark, decaying magic he has seen claim so many lives before.

The Deadlands sucks the magic from every soul it brings to grip, leaving dry, dead, and blackened husks to crumble away to dust. Sousuke looks down at his feet, squinting in the darkness at the puffs of ashy, black dirt kicked up by his feet, and he shivers. That dirt is all that remains of the victims of the Deadlands.

After being left in the Deadlands, half-dead and alone, Rin and Sousuke had almost been taken themselves, Sousuke lying helpless on the ground as he watched the disgusting black tendrils erupt from everywhere to wrap around Rin the second the sun had broken the trees to touch the Omega’s skin. Only when Sousuke had dug deep into the reserves of his newfound magic, calling forth the spirits left wandering the Forests of Treachery to pull the black magic from Rin’s pores, from his heart, from his very soul, were they left in peace to run blindly until they found a place where they felt they could build their home. Sousuke’s magic began to eat away at the darkness, carving out that place of safety around their little hut – the river running clear, and greenery starting to burst into life around them.

As sun and soul combined, life had begun to restore in the Soul Territory.

Sousuke is drawn from his thoughts – all of them drawn from whatever had been keeping them silent on their search – as flames erupt ahead of them, blindingly bright in the intense black of the trees. “That’s starfire,” Asahi says, breathless with dread. “Makoto-”

“Makoto!” Isuzu calls out, already sprinting forwards after rubbing her eyes to clear her sight up, knife twirling in her hand. “There must be something happening if he’s using his magic like that!” She glances over her shoulder at the two motionless Alphas, Sousuke with his sword in hand and Asahi with an arrow notched but lowered to the ground. “Come on,” she snaps, pointing her knife towards the second burst of white-gold starfire that bursts between the trees. “He and Haruka might have dealt with Makoto’s heat by now, but he’ll still be fairly weak, and that magic looks like it needs a lot of energy to be sustained.”

Their footsteps are deafeningly loud in the near-silent Forests, cracking roots and shifting stones flying from under their feet as the three of them sprint the short distance to the gap in the trees where Makoto’s starfire is still burning.

Isuzu’s worry switches targets immediately as she lays eyes on her brother, forced to his knees with his sword raised defensively in front of him. “Momo, no!” she shrieks, seeing the horrible burns streaking down the left side of Momo’s body, his arm and chest blackened, his leg quivering and wet with red. His face has escaped damage, but his neck wound has cracked open further. Momo’s sunflare blade is glowing white-hot as it takes the full brunt of the starfire being rained down on it, and Isuzu desperately following the burning path to a sight that sends her stomach shooting straight down into her knees. “What the hell…?”

Makoto and Haruka are crouched like wild animals under the trunk of a tree that has been cracked completely in half, Haruka crouched protectively over Makoto as the Star Omega keeps up a steady stream of starfire, the Alpha guarding his back as if expecting an attack from behind. Both of them have eyes as black as coal, the darkness starting to spread through the veins in their cheeks, consuming them from the inside out. Makoto’s lips are already black, peeled back over his teeth in a feral snarl, and the blackness is sweeping down the sides of Haruka’s neck.

“What’s wrong with them?” Asahi gasps, so shocked by the sight that his arrow clatters to the ground. “Are they possessed?”

“No,” Sousuke growls, and his sword clatters to the ground. He takes up a gentle stance – almost graceful, Rin had once described it – his hands loose at his side and his feet hip-width apart as he keeps his head bowed slightly. He remembers this, has seen it countless time over the years. Only once has he ever managed to repel it, the image of a wild, black-eyed Rin forever scarred into his mind. “They’re being eaten.”

Isuzu chokes on her tongue. “Eaten?” she whispers, horrified.

“By the Deadlands. It is trying to replenish its magic by eating the magic and life force of anyone it ensnares in its clutches.” Sousuke takes a deep breath. He doesn’t know these people, not in the slightest, but they are friends of Gou, and – moreover – friends of Rei. Rei is his friend, his family, and Sousuke will protect what is dear to his family. “Isuzu,” he says calmly, closing his eyes as he concentrates on the spirits of the Alpha-Omega pair before him, “you and Asahi need to drag Momotarou away. I’ll handle these two.”

The day that Rin had nearly been taken by the Deadlands – the first time Sousuke had ever used his magic properly, still barely able to believe he had any at all – Rin haltingly told Sousuke that he had not even realised what was happening to him. The dark magic that was consuming him had filled his head with wonderful images to keep him calm. Sousuke can only imaging that that same magic is now showing something awful to these two people so that they will defend themselves against their own friends, leaving them to the mercy of the Deadlands’ magic.

“Don’t kill them!” Momo suddenly grunts, his sword dipping slightly. He looks over, golden eyes pleading. “Please don’t kill them, they don’t know what they’re doing!”

“I’m not going to kill them,” Sousuke promises him. “But you need to get out of the way.” He offers the young Alpha a reassuring smile. “You’ve done a good job, kid.”

Asahi, the only one used to being around Star Magic, easily spots a weak flickering in Makoto’s starfire, and he and Isuzu dive for Momo, dragging him sideways. As soon as they are out of Makoto’s line of sight, his magic fizzles out as he looks around in confusion, black eyes glinting like beetles. “The serpent is gone, Haru,” he says, voice unsteady. “Did we kill it?”

“We’d be awake if we killed it,” Haruka grunts. “Be careful, something else might come out.”

“My gods, they’re awake in there,” Asahi says, releasing Momo so the younger Mikoshiba can slump against his sister. Asahi crouches beside the young Alpha and carefully unwraps Momo’s burnt fingers from around the super-heated hilt of his sword. “Come on, Momo, you can let go now. You’re safe, we need to take you back to Kisumi.”

Isuzu looks back at Makoto and Haruka. “Shouldn’t we wait for them?” she asks hesitantly.

“No,” Asahi replies firmly. “I think Sousuke knows what’s going on far better than we do. Momo needs healing right now or he’s going to go into shock.”

Sousuke can hear Asahi and Isuzu carrying Momo away, and he sighs in relief, now able to completely focus on what he has to do. Only spirit magic can break the hold the Deadlands have on Makoto and Haruka, and Sousuke grits his teeth, always unsure about what will happen when he uses his magic. When he broke Rin out of it, he had summoned the spirit of the long-dead queen of the Sun Territory – Rin’s mother. Deciding that the Omega is the biggest threat to him right now – the Water Alpha has nothing to summon his magic from – Sousuke keeps his eyes shut and reaches out with his magic, touching the mind of the man in front of him.

“Haru, did you feel that?” Makoto breathes, jerking slightly. Just for a second, his eyes clear up, green irises peeking through the black.

“No?”

A tingling numbness rolls down Sousuke’s spine, his fingers flexing as he finds the feeling he is searching for. “Come to me,” he says, and opens his eyes. Purple light flares in his veins, and he slowly draws his hands up and together, a sparkling ball of magical energy forming between his palms. “Come to me,” he says again, a little more forceful. Heat beats against his neck as the amethyst shard of his earring awakens, strengthening his magic as he calls on the Spirit World. “Come to me!”

The light between his hands drops to the ground like a stone, splitting the earth and scattering the ashes. It melts and spreads and two small figures emerge from the shimmering pool, tiny hands clasped as the look up at Sousuke’s towering form.

“Hello,” he says softly to the children standing in the light of his magic, bright green eyes wide in awe under their dark, messy fringes. “I don’t know you, and you don’t know me, but do you think you can help me?”

“Yes,” two reedy voices whisper, and the children turn, walking out of the light. The colour leeches out of them the further away from Sousuke they go, and his heart clenches horribly as he gazes after the souls of two dead children who can’t possibly be any older than Kou. He wonders who they are to Makoto. His children? Siblings, perhaps? The Omega rears back as the children come to a standstill in front of him, raising his hands ready to attack again, but something stays his movement. Two little pairs of arms wrap around his hips. “Let Makoto go,” the children’s voices echo on the wind. “You cannot have our brother.”

Makoto collapses like a puppet with its strings cut, all the dark magic receding from his body and shrivelling away back into the ground, and Haruka lunges forwards with a snarl, only to be stopped by a tiny hand touching his wrist. “Who are you?” he growls, flinching away from the spirit. “What are you?”

“Give him back to Makoto,” the dead children tell the Deadlands, both of them now clinging to Haruka’s hands. “You cannot have him either.”

Sousuke watches as Haruka, too, falls to the ground beside his mate, his skin returning to its normal colour. The children return to Sousuke’s side, and one of them tugs the leg of his pants. “What is it?” he asks them, crouching down to look them in the eyes. Spirits deserve respect, even the little ones. Especially the little ones.

“Look after them,” the children say, and they turn as one to look at their older brother. “He never knew us, but mother told us stories of him. We loved him even though we only ever heard her stories.” The children’s eyes are piercing when they cast their gaze back on Sousuke. “Do not let harm come to him, or we will not come back if you call.”

Sousuke diligently lays a hand over his hear. “I promise,” he says, and he means it. “Thank you for your help,” he tells them, and he ruffles their hair. “But before you go, can you tell me your names?”

“Ren,” one says.

“Ran,” says the other.

“Can you tell me how you died?” Sousuke asks, his curiosity getting the better of him.

The children shake their tiny heads, already starting to fade away as Sousuke’s spell begins to break down now that it is no longer needed. “No,” they whisper. “We do not know.”

“Thank you,” Sousuke says again, and he waits until the spirits have completely vanished before stepping towards the unconscious pair. He checks their eyes before anything else, awkwardly pinching their eyelids open to find green and blue eyes partially rolled back. It worked – the spirits had brought them back from the brink of total consumption. “You are both going to be very weak for a long time,” Sousuke tells the two, even though they probably can’t hear him. “But at least you’re alive, and free of this place’s grasp.” He grunts as he slings the short Alpha over his shoulder, adjusting him carefully so that Sousuke can also scoop the Omega into his arms. It is difficult – the Omega is nearly as tall as Sousuke himself, but Sousuke has the benefit of well-trained muscles and a regular diet for the past sixteen years, leaving him strength enough to compensate for one tall, malnourished Omega. “Now,” he says to himself, glancing around and realising one fatal mistake in his earlier plan. “How do I get you back to the others?”

And so focused on that task is Sousuke, that he fails to notice the shadows of people tailing him in the darkness.

-

Kisumi hates the sound of crying, he always has, ever since he was old enough to understand that people cried over more than a skinned knee and having your favourite toy taken off you because you broke your mother’s favourite vase. He himself has shed more than his fair share of tears in his lifetime, from being forced out of his home to his time spent in both the king’s harem and the Eclipse Arena, and he had long since vowed to only cry over happy things, like the day Asahi said ‘I love you’ for the first time. But, right now, Kisumi wants to cry. He wants to cry because Asahi and Isuzu have returned with Momo and Momo is barely clinging onto consciousness, reeking of burned skin and melting metal as Isuzu holds her younger brother in her arms like he might get swallowed into the ground if she lets go.

“What the hell happened?” Kisumi barks, scared out of his mind because he can’t see anything and he doesn’t know if it is just Momo who is hurt, or if Asahi has been injured too. “Where is Makoto?” Makoto is not with them, Kisumi can smell that much, nor is Haruka, and that adds even more fear to the harsh stone of it settling into Kisumi’s stomach because Makoto is family. Kisumi had been able to smell Sousuke’s overt joy at meeting Rei, the pregnancy sending all of his senses into hypersensitivity, and Kisumi had understood that feeling implicitly – that is exactly how he had felt upon opening the door to his and Asahi’s shack in Blaze – stupidly expecting Hayato, only to find Makoto standing there instead.

Warm, familiar hands soothe down Kisumi’s arms, and he leans into Asahi’s touch instinctually, inclining his head when Asahi drops his mouth down to murmur in Kisumi’s ear. “Sousuke is dealing with Makoto and Haruka,” he says gravely, hands finally settling, one cupping Kisumi’s chin and the other pressed lightly to his stomach, a sturdy kick reaching Asahi’s palm after a moment. Though movement from their pup would usually bring Asahi unbridled joy, in that moment it does little more than cause his lips to twitch up slightly. “It would appear that this wretched place isn’t as dead as its name would imply. Mako and Haru have been, er…” he fumbles for words, unsure how to put it to his blind mate in Asahi’s rather frazzled state, “possessed by some sort of dark magic and Makoto attacked Momo with some form of starfire.”

“Possessed?” The gasped word comes not from Kisumi, who has been stricken dumb with shock, but from Rei, looking up at Asahi from where his head is pillowed in Nagisa’s lap, the two having been busying themselves trying to keep Ikuya’s mind off the sympathy heat still ravaging his body. Ikuya himself is looking far better than he did an hour ago, although his face is still flushed red and he has long since discarded his pants once the material became slick-soaked enough to start chafing his thighs, the wet garment bundled up and buried to keep the scent hidden. Rei sits up fully, staring at Asahi and Isuzu with his mouth popped open in fear. “Are they going to be alright?”

“I can’t worry about that right now,” Isuzu grits out, not unkindly, but her tone still brusque. Momo is starting to shiver violently in her arms, his head thrashing against her shoulder, and Isuzu’s heart turns to ice. She turns hard, desperate amber eyes to Kisumi, who is still silently seated on the ground, the parts of his face visible a mast of awful surprise. Burning pink drops of light slide wetly out from under his blindfold, rolling off the point of his chin to sizzle on the thick cloak covering the distended swell of his belly. “Kisumi,” forcing her voice to drop into a gentler measure, Isuzu addresses the Star Omega, “can you heal Momo?” Her words catch in her throat, and she looks around frantically for Gou, seeking comfort in her distress. “Please,” she begs, voice finally cracking. “Please don’t let him die.”

Asahi slams his eyes shut and grits his teeth, knows that unless Makoto is returned to normal and somehow learns the full extent of healing magic within the next half hour, Kisumi is the only hope Momo has of surviving the night. He can smell the dangerously low dip in his mate’s energy – both magical, and physical. Kisumi has been awake for far too long, in far too terrible conditions, the emotional upheaval of the past day sending Kisumi’s hormones into overdrive. Not to mention the huge amounts of magic Kisumi has burned through, having already performed one major healing that night.

As much as he has come to truly care for his new companions, Asahi is a mated and Bonded Alpha about to become a father. There comes a time where his pregnant mate becomes his sole priority. “I do not think that-”

His words are cut off as Kisumi’s hand claps over Asahi’s mouth. “Don’t,” Kisumi hisses. “Don’t you dare say that I can’t help him.” He reaches up with his other hand and rips his blindfold off, revealing more of those beautifully dangerous tears sliding out from under the lashes of his closed eyes. “If you do not let me heal him, then you are not the Alpha I vowed to spend my life with. You can’t be.” Kisumi swallows thickly, cracks his eyes open enough to see Isuzu crumbling to the ground, rocking her brother against her shoulder, her wet cheeks glittering in the dim light. “Now move.”

Feeling like a hand has wrapped around his heart and squeezed, Asahi bows his head, and backs away from Kisumi, a low whine slipping from his lips. “I’m sorry,” he whispers.

Five pairs of eyes watch Kisumi pull himself up onto his knees, and then his feet, taking purposeful steps until he is right beside Isuzu. “Lie him down,” he says, and then he points to where Asahi has moved to sit by Ikuya, face clouded with guilt. “And go and sit by Asahi.” Kisumi waits for Isuzu to move away from Momo, and then holds his hands out, lets the starlight in his soul seep out, burning white hot in his veins and bursting from his hands.

The stars are ancient, older even than time itself. Their magic blesses those of their territory with skills beyond comprehension to most, passed down from generation to generation so that their traditions are never lost to the same time that bestowed their knowledge upon them. Although healing magic is not the sole property of the Star Territory – the people of the Sky and Moon Territories have mastered the craft, and so had the people of the Soul Territory, once – they are the strongest healers in the land, sought after far and wide way back in the throes of history before they concealed their existence, fearing the exploitation of the cruel Sun Kings who have reined for so long. Kisumi can feel every charred inch of Momo’s skin, his boiled blood, his burned muscles, and with the barest twitch of his fingers, Kisumi sews the young Alpha back together.

Momo blinks his eyes open after a minute or two has passed, golden irises almost completely swallowed by his pupils until the contract to their normal size. He gasps in a heaving lungful of air, slowly raising his hands to touch his cheek, his chest, his shoulder, feeling out the shiny new skin that has replaced the acrid peeling burns that would have claimed his life. “Where are Haruka and Makoto?” is the first thing out of his mouth, and he pushes himself up on trembling arms.

Light is still dancing around Momo’s body, and Ikuya stares in hazy wonder. He had been the unconscious recipient the first time Kisumi used his magic to its full extent; and writhing around in his own slick the second time, so this is a first for him, and an awe-inspiring one at that.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Rei asks Ikuya quietly, and Ikuya nods. Rei and Ikuya are sharing Nagisa’s shoulders to lean on, Nagisa more than happy to provide his future mate and their friend physical comfort and support as they need it. “Sousuke told me that I can learn to do that too,” Rei says, turning his face just enough to catch Nagisa’s eye. The smile that Nagisa flashes Rei, proud and happy and so in love all at once, makes some of Rei’s worry and trepidation melt away. He doesn’t have to be scared of anything as long as Nagisa stays by his side.

Isuzu can’t contain herself any longer, and she scrambles across the ground like some sort of crab to fling herself at Momo, clutching him so tightly he thumps on her back for release. “You damned idiot,” she cries, and Momo freezes when he realises that Isuzu is actually crying, the few remaining tatters of his tunic getting soaked as she sobs into his chest. “You stupid, brave, wonderful idiot.” She pinches his side, not harshly, but sharp enough to sting a little, and Momo yelps obligingly, slinging his arms around her and patting her back. “No more heroics, I’m begging you.”

“I don’t have a sword anymore, so I don’t have much of a choice,” Momo says lightly, casting his eyes over to the warped remains of his sword, melted paper thin in the middle from the strength of Makoto’s starfire. Gods save anyone who ever makes Makoto mad enough to actually use his magic in a fight – Momo can see now how Kisumi must have dominated the Eclipse Arena, even without Asahi at his side. “I hope Sousuke brings them back soon,” he murmurs.

When Kisumi finally lowers his hand, having been keeping a low magical pulse flowing over Momo to catch any minor injuries he might have missed, he turns on his heel and approaches Asahi. He nudges the Alphas legs apart with his foot before sitting down in the gap, his back to Asahi’s chest. Asahi remains silent through the process, allows Kisumi to manipulate his arms until Asahi is cradling both Kisumi and their pup in his arm, Kisumi’s head tipped back on Asahi’s shoulder. “I didn’t mean what I said,” Kisumi tells Asahi levelly, his voice hoarse with exhaustion.

“Yes, you did,” Asahi counters. “And you were right to say it. I would have no right to call myself a good father if I let a friend die while there was something that could be done.”

Gradually, the entire company regroups, Gou emerging from the trees and instantly settling against Isuzu as her girlfriend continues to watch over Momo. Rei, Nagisa, and Ikuya move closer to Kisumi and Asahi, hesitant conversation haltingly started between them as they wait for any sign of Sousuke. It takes over an hour for Sousuke to finally stumble back into the clearing, eight sighs of relief sounding as they all see Makoto and Haruka clutched in Sousuke’s arms, both asleep but alive and alright. “Glad to see you made it, kid,” Sousuke tells Momo proudly as he lays Makoto and Haruka down gently on their backs, the two instinctively rolling in until their foreheads are touching. The fresh Bond mark on Makoto’s neck is visible to anyone who cares to look, bringing smiles to the faces of their oldest friends when Rei and Nagisa see it.

Momo practically glows under Sousuke’s praise. It has been many years since he last heard kind words from an older Alpha, none directed at him since Seijuro had run to Paradise, and it means even more coming from Sousuke, a trained castle guard who is still quietly regarded as one of the best Matsuoka Castle ever hosted. Across the board, they are all brimming with questions for Sousuke – Momo and Isuzu want to ask after Seijuro, both hoping that Sousuke might be able to provide the closure on why their brother abandoned them. Gou needs to know if it is just Sousuke living alone in the Forests of Treachery, or if Rin lives alongside him still. Nagisa wants to know what separated Sousuke from his friends while they ran, and Ikuya wants to know why Sousuke never moved on to Paradise after the fact.

Rei has more questions than any of them, and he hopes he will get his answers in due time. But, for the time being, he settles on the one he knows must be plaguing everyone’s minds. “What happened to them?”

“The Deadlands tried to cannibalise their magic,” Sousuke says darkly, his eyes slitted against the memories – both of what had almost happened to Rin, and what he had just witnessed that night. “Have you noticed the black tendrils that slither from the ground occasionally? -grabbing at you while you walk, tying you up in your sleep?” He receives hesitant nods all around, and Sousuke presses his thumbs into the bridge of his nose, elbows resting on his bent knees. “It’s all that remains of the magic of the Soul Territory, desperately absorbing every drop of magic it can to try and stay alive; revitalising itself. Makoto and Haruka were almost totally consumed by the time Momo found them – they would be horrible, dried out shells right now if not for him,” and he flashes Momo a brief smile, his face softening slightly. “I had to call on some spirits to help me bring them back.”

Nearly bursting at the seams with curiosity, Rei scuttles right away from Nagisa and perches in front of Sousuke, violet eyes glassy with fatigue, but bright with inquiry. “What kind of spirits? Can I learn to do that too?!”

Sousuke moves gently and puts a large hand on Rei’s head, mussing the long strands of dirty, inky hair as he does. “I’ll teach you some day,” he promises, before a poignant look crosses his face. “I believe I summoned Makoto’s younger siblings,” Sousuke admits, and he is surprised at the surprised reactions that gets from his new acquaintances. Sousuke had assumed that they were all aware and familiar with each other’s stories. “Were you not aware that his siblings were dead?” he asks hesitantly.

“Not exactly,” Gou says delicately, eyes flicking sharply to Makoto’s prone form as if checking that he is still asleep. “We suspected that they were dead, but Makoto did not find out that he even had siblings until very, very recently.”

“I see,” Sousuke replies, Gou’s words explaining the odd things that the child spirits had said to him. He lapses into a brief silence before addressing Momo one more time. “I hope you won’t hold Makoto’s actions against him,” Sousuke tells the young Alpha, and Momo quickly shakes his head, wincing afterwards as he clutches his temples, the healing process still working out the last few bumps and scratches. “The magic that the land consumes its victims with puts their minds into a heavenly dream to prevent them from struggling, but that dream turns into a nightmare if an outside force steps in. It makes them see and feel things that force them to turn on whoever might be trying to save them.”

Momo nods, the movement far more subdued than his previous one. “I thought as much,” he rasps, throat still a little inflamed. Golden eyes turn to Haruka and Makoto, the newly Bonded pair still curled in towards each other and their faces finally lax and peaceful. “I don’t think I could ever hold anything against them.”

“Sousuke,” Ikuya timidly breaks the moment, getting stronger by the minute but still rather peaky in the face and naked from the waist down, “I don’t… I don’t know much of the history of the land.” He pauses, rubbing his hands over his arms uncomfortably. “Could you.” His voice cuts off as Ikuya ponders his words carefully. “Could you tell me what happened here?” His wide, garnet eyes glitter under his sweaty fringe, almost too large for his small, round face. Everyone in the circle is painfully reminded about how young Ikuya is, how dark his upbringing was.

Paternal instincts roar to life in Sousuke’s chest as he carefully examines Ikuya – the dainty shape of his features and the colour of his eyes suddenly reminding Sousuke of two friends he had always thought were lost to the Forests. Hope burns in his chest, big and bright and warming him from the inside out as he gazes down at the child Nao had carried from the gates of Sol. Rin and Sousuke were not the only survivors of their little group, Nao at least having made it Paradise if Ikuya’s very presence is anything to go by. And so Sousuke carefully explains the history of the Soul Territory to this miracle boy. His voice is low and soft as he speaks, talking as if he was telling the story to his daughter, keeping his sentences short and his words simple.

-

A gentle voice spinning a story breaks into the silence of Haruka’s mind, and he slowly opens his eyes. The first thing he sees is Makoto’s face before him, soft and pale, eyes closed, so close that Haruka assumes that their foreheads must be touching. Makoto, Haruka tries to whisper, but he can’t make his lips move. Makoto?

Haru… Makoto’s voice echoes in Haruka’s head, and Makoto’s eyes twitch behind his bruised eyelids. Haru, I can hear you. A feeling of warmth settles in Haruka’s chest, broad and unfamiliar and oh-so welcome over all the pain also rolling around in his body.

The voice in the background is telling a story. “Several hundred years ago, before the war that made Paradise close its boarders, the Soul Territory was ruled by two kings, Bonded to each other in body, heart, and spirit. Together, their power was so great and their people so strong, that the balance of magic in the land was unsettled. Their people grew sick, their magic overwhelming their bodies as they fell into the illness, getting trapped in the world of the spirits they had once commanded.”

Bonded in body, heart, and spirit. That is what the warm feeling is. We Bonded, Haruka thinks, and he feels rather than hears Makoto’s light, fond laugh. It worked. Makoto twitches, curls his fingers into the dirt. Open your eyes, Haruka pleads. Slowly and painfully, Haruka moves his hand from his stomach, reaching out with fingers that shake so badly he thinks his hand might just fall right off his wrist. One by one, his unresponsive fingers wrap around the back of Makoto’s hand and hold on for dear life. The distance between their bodies is barely half a foot, and just that simple movement seems to have sapped all Haruka’s energy out. I’m so weak, he thinks. What happened to us?

“Desperate to save their people, the kings went to the Stream of Spirits in the heart of the territory, their most sacred place and the mythical source of all their powers, and begged the ancient deities for help,” that smooth voice continues, and Haruka is momentarily lost in thought, following along with the story. This is not in his history book. “The cloudy waters cleared and bore forth an otherworldly amethyst, colour swirling in its depths and larger even than the kings’ newborn child. Taking the great gem back to their palace, the kings bound their people’s magic to the stone, restoring balance, curing the illness, and bringing back those lost on the brink of death.”

Is that what happened? Did Haruka and Makoto nearly die?

I remember a cliff, Makoto says – is ‘says’ the right description? – and a soft sigh leaves his lips. His eyes are still closed, though his body is moving more now, Makoto’s hand turning slightly in Haruka’s grip. And I remember falling. The ocean…

The sea monster, Haruka adds, not ever wanting to remember the pain of watching his entire life fall from the edge of the crumbling cliff. Did we kill it? Or did. Was there something else?

“And so, the amethyst sat for centuries, cared for by the people and their rulers alike, keeping the magic of the Soul Territory intact and equal across the land. Until the war came.”

My… my siblings, two little children. An intense wave of sadness washes over Haruka, and he watches with half-lidded eyes as tears start to bead under Makoto’s lashes, completely clear and ordinary in every way. Either Makoto’s power surge is over, or all their magic has been completely drained somehow. They were so young, Makoto sobs in Haruka’s mind, you don’t think they were that young when they… when they… He can’t even finish his sentence, a real sob gasping out of his mouth as his tears start to drip over his scars, leaving the pink and red marks wet and glistening.

Haruka aches to be able to move freely, to wrap Makoto up in his arms and comfort him. He can feel Makoto’s pain, his sadness. Haruka saw the children too, so young and small, barely reaching Makoto’s hip with their pretty little faces and bright green eyes. They had emerged from the water with their hands clasped between them, standing in between Makoto and the great sea monster as it snapped its jaws shut and disappeared back into the black ocean with its scales singed off and its flesh cracked open, and Haruka had watched as the twin children had put their arms around Makoto. The world around them had finally faded away, and now Haruka awake and aware, and back in the clearing with his friends.

Beyond them, in said clearing, the story is still rolling on, and Haruka starts to listen more intently, something telling him that this is important information. “As the feared war king of the Sun Territory swept across the land to conquer all in his sight, the other territories of the land were drawn into the melee, each vying to become a worthy opponent of First King Matsuoka.” A violent shudder shakes Haruka at the name, the fear ingrained so deep in his mind that the mere mention of it makes him recoil. “Separated by the Forests of Hope and Paradise Island, the Sky Emperor reached out to the Soul Queen to form an alliance – together, they would cut the Sun Territory off from the peaceful, weaker territories further east. The deal was sealed in the union of their children, and for nearly a decade their combined force held off the advance.”

And that is when Makoto’s eyes finally crack open, brilliant emerald peeking out at Haruka until Alpha and Omega are staring at each other. Makoto blinks, tears clinging to his lashes, and he draws in a shuddery breath. “Haru?” he croaks, and the storyteller’s voice quavers, attention turning to the two on the ground.

“However, on the eve of the tenth year of the alliance, tragedy struck, and the child of the Sky Emperor stole into his husband’s throne room-” the unfamiliar voice cuts off completely when Haruka starts to move.

“Makoto,” Haruka replies, and he has to force himself to have the energy to move, pulling his body to half settle over Makoto’s in a fierce display of protectiveness, his Alpha nature determined to keep his mate safe even if he is weakened to the point of near immobility. He can scent their friends on the air, but there is someone else there too, an Alpha that Haruka doesn’t know. “Are you alright? Can you move?” he asks in a low voice, caging Makoto’s head in with his forearms as he flicks blurry, unresponsive eyes around for the source of the foreign Alpha scent.

His gaze lands on the seated figure of a hulking male Alpha several feet away from where Haruka and Makoto have been laid out on the ground, and Haruka hesitates partway through a threatening growl when he sees both Ikuya and Rei fawning on either side of the Alpha. Ikuya is practically sprawled in the Alpha’s lap, clearly hanging on every word the man had been saying, and Rei has his head resting on the Alpha’s knee, Nagisa folded down over Rei’s back and half-asleep, completely relaxed and unthreatened. “Haru,” Makoto whispers, slight complaint in his voice as he weakly presses against Haruka’s chest to urge his Alpha off him. “I don’t think he is a threat.”

Haruka doesn’t think so either, now that he can see clearly. The Alpha, who has stayed utterly calm and silent through the whole endeavour, looks not unlike a doting father as he patiently allows the teenaged Omegas to use him as a pillow, resting back on his arms and regarding everyone around him with open, unassuming teal eyes. “Who are you?” Haruka asks, sitting back on his heels and ignoring the pain in his everything as he maintains his protective posturing while Makoto is still on the ground.

“Stop it,” Makoto murmurs, reaching up and tugging Haruka to sit down properly. “You don’t need to do that,” he says, wrapping a hand around Haruka’s shoulder to use as leverage as he very carefully pulls himself upright, leaning heavily against Haruka as Makoto sways, looking unsure if he can stay upright. “I think he was the one telling that story.”

The Alpha nods in affirmation, a strangely haunted look creeping into his face as he watches Makoto sit up. “My name is Sousuke,” he says, voice deep and slow. “I followed Rei’s magic trail here.”

“Rei…” Makoto breathes, sluggishly turning to look at said Omega. “You really have magic?”

It takes the entire group nearly an hour to completely update each other on everything that has happened in the last two days, from Rei’s magic, to Haruka and Makoto’s Bond, to what happened in the dark of the Forests. Makoto is beyond horrified to learn what he had done to Momo while possessed by the Deadlands’ magic, discovering that the great sea monster he thought he had been battling turned out to be Momotarou all along, crawling across the small group to practically grovel at Momo’s feet until Momo throws his arms around Makoto’s waist and clings on until Makoto stops crying. “You didn’t know what you were doing,” he tells Makoto firmly. “I know you would never willingly hurt me, ever.”

“Even so, I’m still the one who-”

Isuzu settles her hand in Makoto’s hair over Momo’s shoulder. “Makoto, we saw what happened. You were utterly at the mercy of the magic possessing you – you thought you were protecting your Alpha.” She smiles gently at him. “Sousuke told us that that magic is strong enough to turn Bonds against each other.”

“How are you two feeling, Ikuya? Rei?” Haruka haltingly moves to sit closer to his friends, keeping a careful eye on Makoto as the Mikoshiba siblings and Gou comfort him. Ikuya looks a little worst for wear, a bit grey around the edges, but Rei is practically glowing with excitement, eyes alight and his lips trembling in that way the means he is trying to repress the hundreds of questions waiting to tumble out of his mouth. Haruka receives two firm nods, grins from both parties making pleasant warmth settle in Haruka’s belly. His family is safe. Makoto is safe. Haruka is safe.

Ikuya runs a hand through his greasy hair, and reluctantly says, “I miss Hiyori, and I am more than ready to go home, but the last few hours have been quite peaceful.” He rolls onto his back like a cat and smiles up at Sousuke. “Sousuke was just telling us the history of the Deadlands. I had no idea the story was so involved.”

“Indeed,” Kisumi agrees from where he and Asahi are stretched out on their sides and slightly separated from the group, having been allowing Sousuke’s story to lull them to sleep. This is the first time he has spoken since he and Asahi had had their little difference of opinions, and Haruka can sense the ever-so-subtle tension that still clouds the two. “I had never heard the intricacies of the story, either.”

Makoto finally pulls out of the small group huddle that he had been enveloped in and returns to Haruka’s side, face wane but smile wide. “I would like to hear the rest of it, actually,” he says, turning that sunny expression on Sousuke. “If you wouldn’t mind continuing, of course?”

Returning the smile, Sousuke inclines his head slightly. “Where was I up to?” he asks Rei and Ikuya, looking down at the two Omegas, their attention suddenly re-captured. It is so much like telling stories to Kou that Sousuke feels a brief pang of homesickness for his family, and he reaches out briefly to Rin, running his finger over the stone of his earring. Almost instantly, he receives little nudges back, and he can breathe easy again. Hopefully, tomorrow morning he will be able to convince the entire group to come with him back to his hut – the entire patch of the Forests that he and Rin live in has been eradicated of dark magic, everyone will be able to rest easy for as long as they like. He is quite surprised that Gou hasn’t asked him about Rin yet, but Sousuke is sure that the questions are coming.

“The child of the Sky Emperor sneaking into the Soul Territory throne room,” Rei replies diligently, chin propped up on his hand as Nagisa’s hands knead gently at his hips before the Alpha settles down on his back again.

“Right, right,” Sousuke says. He clears his throat and waits for his audience to settle themselves again. “However, on the eve of the tenth year of the alliance, tragedy struck, and the child of the Sky Emperor stole into his husband’s throne room and shattered the amethyst with a blade carved from the walls of legendary Diamond Valley that splits the Sky Territory in two.” A gasp draws itself out of Ikuya, and Rei bites his lip anxiously. Sousuke flicks his eyes around. Even the standoffish Asahi seems to be hanging off every word. “As the heir to the Soul Territory lay dying at his mate’s feet, his life force tied to that of the great gem, the pieces of the amethyst were collected and whisked away, sold and traded and lost throughout the land.”

Rei’s sharp eyes catch the brief flicker of movement as Sousuke fingers the purple gem dangling from his ears again, and the Soul Omega wonders briefly just how close to home some of those amethyst shards ended up. Now that he knows – amethyst is not a common stone in the Sun Territory, yet many lords and ladies in the king’s court, not to mention the king himself, own many pieces set with the beautiful purple stones, all of them heirlooms passed down through the generations – he is sure that the various pieces of amethyst jewellery Lord Kirishima owned were shards of the Spirit Amethyst.

Oblivious to Rei’s trail of thought, Sousuke continues the last part of his territory’s history. “The Soul Territory fell, its soldiers turned on by those of the Sky armies, their blood spilling into the trees as Paradise closed its boarders. That was the day the Forests of Hope became known as the Forests of Treachery.” He falls silent as the very trees seem shudder at the utterance of their old name, a name that had once been one of hope and unity before the Great War. Shaking his head slightly, Sousuke says, “It was revealed that the Sky Emperor had struck a new deal with Sun King, both leaders fearing the vast and varied powers of the Soul Territory. Magic fled from the peoples’ veins, the Stream of Spirits running black and poisoning everything it touched. The trees died, the ground cracked, and the magic of the Soul Territory was lost forever.”

Sousuke says nothing for a while after that, enough time passing that Isuzu – who secretly loves stories, but would never admit that to anyone – blurts out, “Is that it?”

“Of course not,” Sousuke rumbles, a grin spreading across his face as he taps his nose mysteriously. “I just wanted to see the looks on your faces.” He laughs good-naturedly, and the others join in.

It is nice, Haruka finds himself thinking, looking around at ten smiling faces, feeling his own expression start to lift. A moment of peace.

All around them, shadows move in the darkness, beginning to surround the clearing.

The second half of Sousuke’s story ends up having to wait, as a loud snore from his lap cuts him right off, and he looks down to see Ikuya curled up and asleep, his arms wrapped around Sousuke’s leg. “Poor little thing,” Sousuke says sympathetically, unwinding Ikuya’s limbs from his calf and gently moving the young Omega so that he can lie down flat next to Rei. Nagisa has fallen asleep too, arms and legs wound loosely around Rei as he nuzzles into Rei’s shoulder. “You all reek of exhaustion, you should sleep.” He rolls his shoulders, his neck cracking. “I can keep watch, if you want.”

Asahi shakes his head, and urges Kisumi to bend one of his legs up slightly as Asahi stands and collects his quiver and bow. “You’ve done more than enough for us today,” Asahi tells Sousuke, sincerity ringing in his words. “You have brought heritage and family to Rei, saved Makoto and Haruka from a threat we didn’t even know existed, and you have also managed to keep our spirits up despite those things.” He taps his own neck as he says, “I can see your Bond mark, and you act as a father does – I can tell that you’ve left your family behind to come to us. So you, of all of us, deserve to rest tonight.” He shoulders his quiver, plucking an arrow out. “I’ll keep watch.” He crouches down one last time to turn Kisumi’s face up, kissing his Omega soundly before walking away several paces with his arrow notched to the string.

It takes surprisingly little time for snores and heavy breathing to fill the clearing, two small clumps of people on either side of Sousuke sleeping soundly. Kisumi gets folded into Gou, Momo, and Isuzu’s arms, the three worried that he might get too cold without his usual Asahi-shaped back heater, and Rei gestures for Haruka and Makoto to help bracket Ikuya up between the four of them, Nagisa still passed out on Rei’s back. Sousuke stretches his arms back and rests his head on them, staring up at the dark, leafy canopy until his eyes fall shut.

Asahi’s ears are particularly sharp, his eyesight well honed and used to being shut away in dark spaces. You don’t become known as an Arena assassin if it is easy to sneak up on you. He is on his fifth loop of the first line of trees surrounding the clearing, roughly an hour and a half after first taking watch, when he gets the feeling that he is being watched. Not wanting to use magic lest it give him away if whatever is in the trees is just passing through, Asahi raises his bow, draws the string back as he takes slow, precise steps forwards, listening intently.

He can hear footsteps getting closer, the sound muffled and faint thanks to the soft earth, but he picks them up none-the-less. Many footsteps. Armoured footsteps. You can be as light and as careful on your feet as you want, but Asahi is intimately aware with every clink and shift of the golden armour of the Sun Army.

They have been tracked down!

Eyes darting around wildly, waiting to see where the soldiers will break the trees first, Asahi shouts, “Wake up!” and then his razor vision zeros in on the dull flash of armour between the trees. The twang of his bowstring barely registers, and a fully armoured soldier is falling dead from the tree line, Asahi’s arrow protruding from the side of her neck. Asahi can hear frantic movement from the clearing, and he turns on the ball of his foot, loosing a second and a third arrow as he sprints for Kisumi.

“Kill the bowman!” a voice booms, and Asahi pitches himself forwards in pure reactionary fear.

Knees cracking hard to the ground jolts Kisumi awake, and his heartrate spikes when the first thing his oversensitive nose registers is the scent of Asahi’s blood. Without thinking, he rips his blindfold off, staggering awkwardly to his hands and knees, and comes face to face with the sight of his Alpha lying face down on the ground, an arrow piercing his back.

“ASAHI!” Kisumi cries, and he lurches forwards, his vision nearly whiting out as his magic roars to life in the fraction of a second, bright pink starfire engulfing Kisumi’s violet eyes and erupting from his hands. Thick tongues of crackling flame snake down his arms and he hauls himself to his feet, teeth bared in the most ferocious snarl any of his friends have ever seen.

“No, Kisumi,” Asahi’s panting voice reaches him through the sound of Kisumi’s own blood rushing in his ears. “I’m okay, it hit my quiver!”

That isn’t enough to quench the flames. Kisumi is hellbent on destroying whoever dared hurt his Alpha, the father of his unborn pup!

All hell breaks loose as the Sun Army soldiers burst from the trees, stealth no longer needed now that their cover has been blown. Sousuke rolls to his feet with his sword in hand, Kisumi’s feral growling reaching him as his blade swings up to clash with that of a tall Moon Beta with a thick slave collar visible above his chest plate. Throwing the pale-haired man back a step, Sousuke’s eyes widen when he catches sight of Kisumi, and he is eerily reminded of his first look at the Omega just yesterday – a deadly black silhouette in the middle of raging pink light.

Floundering at Kisumi’s feet, Asahi struggles to pull the arrow free, the tip of it barely scratching his back through the thick hide of his quiver, but still posing a threat should he accidentally roll on top of it. Kisumi is about to explode and he has to warn his friends.

Sousuke and Isuzu are the only ones with real weapons now that Momo’s sword is twisted and melted beyond recognition. Ikuya’s hunting knife, though deadly in its own right, is next to useless against heavy armour and strong Alphas armed with maces and lances and short swords, Gou’s push daggers similarly unsuitable right now. Haruka and Nagisa are relying on magic – neither of them have used any in days, and are more than pent up with it – Haruka drawing water from the ground and pouring it directly into the helmets of anyone who draws near, and Nagisa sending sharp bursts of gold flames across the clearing, his teeth bared and hackles raised. Rei and Makoto, crouched over Ikuya defensively, have no means of protecting themselves, and neither of them are particularly skilled fighters, but their eyes are fierce, and their faces set. They won’t go down without a fight.

A fight that is about to be rendered unnecessary for all of them, as Kisumi’s harsh, guttural growls reach fever pitch, morphing into terrifying animalistic howls as his magic pushes against the physical constraints of his already over-tasked body with all its might. Asahi manages a sharp, “Everybody run!” seconds before Kisumi lets out a deafening scream.

The desperation in the sound spurs them all into new action, Kisumi’s friends drop their arms and do as Asahi commanded, sprinting away in whatever direction yields an open path. Behind them, the clearing explodes with pink fire and white light and unimaginable heat. Over their heads, the trees catch and burn and crumble to ashes to let the stars shine down on the star being born in the middle of the Forests of Treachery.

“Run,” Asahi pleads weakly, protected only by the last shred of Kisumi’s control that prevents him from harming his mate. “Run and don’t look back.”

-

After the blast of light behind him dies down, Momo is left stumbling blind through the Forests, branches whipping his face and smacking his arms as he pants and cries and tries so hard not to lose his footing. The only sound is his feet on the ground, his harsh breathing, and the erratic thump-thump-bump! of his heart in his ears. He doesn’t need to be able to see to know that, somewhere, somehow, he has lost Isuzu and Gou – he knows the three of them dived for the same opening between a handful of guards to stunned by what was happening to Kisumi to notice them escaping. Momo had ricocheted off Gou’s shoulder, the two of them being sent stumbling in opposite directions as the jack-knifed into the denser trees, and he has no doubt that Isuzu would have gone after Gou before worrying about Momo.

He can’t hold that against his sister – if Momo had a mate, he would probably put them first too. He is more than used to playing second string.

All he can do is keep running and hope that he either does a wide enough circle to end up back where he started, or that he crashes into someone he knows and not a stray guard. Whatever Kisumi has done has rendered the Forests completely silent, and Momo hopes that the pregnant Omega survived the endeavour, large bursts of magic like that can be detrimental to pups who are so close to being born.

“I don’t know where I am,” Momo says to himself, “and I don’t know where I’m going.” The sound of his voice keeps him running forwards, veering lightly to the right to keep in a loop in the hopes of coming across someone else. “I have no weapon.” His foot catches on a thick root and he nearly hits the ground, catching himself on his palms. “I have no magic.” Palms bleeding, Momo pushes himself onwards, trying as hard as he can to try and spot anything in the trees other than trees. “And I am completely alone.” Saying it out loud really hammers home just how completely out of his depth and in danger Momo is in that moment.

The tree trunk comes out of nowhere. Momo is looking straight ahead, eyes straining as hard as he can to spot gaps in the trees, and he still runs headfirst into it. It’s spiny and covered in rough, peeling bark that digs into his skin as he yelps in pain and crumples to the ground in the harsh cradle of its petrifying roots. Winded, white spots erupt across Momo’s vision as he stares at the tree with wide eyes at the spear-like branches protruding from the swollen trunk. If he had hit it a few inches over in either directions, he would have been skewered straight through.

All Kisumi’s hard work healing his injuries is rendered moot when the shiny new skin that has replaced the burns was shredded by the bark, and Momo’s head throbs in time with his rapidly escalating heartbeat. He does not know if he is going to throw up or pass out.

Momo passes out, a darkness so black that it looks white descending over him as the silence swells to a dull roar and pain licks down his entire body. Maybe falling unconscious is the best thing right n… ow…

… Light pierces under Momo’s closed eyes. His face twitches. A groan wheezes out of his mouth, and his eyelashes crackle when he tries to open his eyes. Pain crashes down on him like he just ran into the trunk of the tree for a second time. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Momo chants, slamming his eyes shut after cracking them open a sliver and being assaulted by bright light that hurts all the way to the back of his head. At least he can feel the familiar tingle in his skin as sunlight soaks his body, magic starting to flow through his veins again as he lays folded in on himself awkwardly. “Deep breaths,” he whimpers. “Deep breaths, eyes open…” He trails off and wrenches his eyes open, forces himself to look around the immediate area. The searing agony that rockets through him leaves him floundering for breath, crying out for his sister.

By the time Momo can move without crying, the sun is no longer shining directly through the gaps in the canopy above him, but is still filtering through the thick, dark leaves and casting eerie, mysterious shadows around. He can’t tell if it was cracking his skull against the tree or just what the Forests actually look like, but all the colour seems to have been leeched out of his surroundings, everything painted with muted browns and greys, strong blacks and an off-white shine. Silvery haze fills the air, making all the lines murky.

That is what makes it so easy to spot the bright red string hanging limply from the branches just a few feet from where he is very slowly and excruciatingly getting to his feet. One of Ikuya’s markers! If Momo can find the next one – he at least knows which direction he needs to go in, instinctually knowing which way the sun is – and the next one after that, he can find his way to Paradise and wait for his friends and family to catch up. Momo stumbles feebly to the tree with the string tied to it, clutching at the branches as he keeps his eyes focused on that bright splash of colour in this monochromatic world. He turns his head, following the sun, and peers around.

There! Just within sight is another length of red string.

His entire world suddenly narrows itself down to red string and moving forwards as Momo haltingly makes his way from tree to tree. He is weak, he must stop for long periods of time in-between short distances of movement, and a quick inspection of his chest with trembling hands reveals that he quite possibly has fractured or broken several ribs. Moving his arms too much tugs the scabbing skin that had been scraped raw by the tree bark, and his left eye keeps drooping closed, Momo fearing something might have been knocked a little loose in his skull after the collision.

The sun starts dipping out of sight, and Momo lights a flame in his palm so he can keep seeing. He wants to stop and sleep, but he is too afraid. And so, he keeps moving, lost in the comforting, repetitive pattern of string-tree-string-rest-string-tree-string-rest. The further along he gets, the more Momo is convinced that he can hear people moving in the trees ahead of him. At first, it was just the faint sound of the echoes of voices. Then, a distinct murmur. Now, he thinks he can actually see a pale figure weaving through the trees in the darkness beyond the reach of his small flame, and Momo can’t tell if he is hallucinating or not. He doesn’t want to call out in case the figure is dangerous.

“-uro? Is that you? Seijuro!” The clear, piping voice clears suddenly, and Momo sways to a standstill as an unfamiliar person steps into his line of sight. Momo stares openly at this beautiful Omega standing before him, all long silver hair and blue eyes the colour of the clearest summer skies. His skin is pale to the point of translucency, but rolling black patches wash across his face and arms, twinkling with tiny constellations as his skin mirrors the night sky. Momo has never seen Sky magic in person before, and the diagrams in the books Rei had shown him fell completely short of the mark in portraying the utter beauty of it.

He wonders what the sunrise would look like in wisps across those blue eyes. “Who are you?” Momo asks hesitantly. He always knew that one should never underestimate Omegas because of what they are, but after the things he has witnessed lately… Momo is on high alert. He won’t let a pretty face sway him.

“You’re not Seijuro,” the Omega says delicately, eyebrows pulling in slightly as his gaze trails over Momo appraisingly. “You’re injured.” He takes a step closer, and Momo is drawn by the fineness of the clothes he is wearing. They might be dusty and well-worn, but that isn’t enough to mask the quality of the cloth, the fitted cut of his pants and the fine embroidery on the Omega’s vest. Sousuke’s story of the treacherous son of the ancient Sky Emperor rears its head in his memories, and Momo reels back. The Omega freezes, raises careful hands to show he holds no weapons. “I mean no harm,” he says quietly. “My name is Aiichiro, I can help heal you if you’d like.”

Momo’s pain aggressively makes itself known at the mention of his injuries, and he finds himself nodding without even thinking about it. He just wants to be able to take a full breath again, wants the pain to stop. Offering Momo a small, kind grin that reaches all the way into the depths of his eyes, Aiichiro takes careful steps into Momo’s space, icy blue sparks starting to dance on his fingertips as he cautiously reaches for the scrapes on the exposed skin of Momo’s cheek. For some reason, the air between them is thick, and Momo half expects his short breaths to start coming out in white puffs.

The cool, comforting scent of vanilla cream fills Momo’s nose, thick and sweet and his head dips forwards towards it, forehead resting on Aiichiro’s shoulder as the Omega’s soft hand presses into Momo’s cheek. Pale magic swirls from where their skin is touching, and Momo hisses when he feels his skin start to itch and knit back together.

Something suddenly occurs to Momo as he sinks further and further into the oddly comforting hold of the Omega, and Momo shoots upright again, setting big hands of Aiichiro’s shoulders. Aiichiro squeaks, his calm façade cracking into a nervous expression. “What is it?” he asks, not pulling away but looking like he is getting ready to if Momo turns violent. “Did I hurt you?”

Momo shakes his head and locks intense gold eyes with vibrant blue. “Earlier,” he gasps, “when you came out of the trees. Were you calling me Seijuro?!”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Where are we going, Rei?” Ikuya wheezes, his arm caught up in Rei’s white-knuckled grip, the two of them sprinting through the Forests, Nagisa being towed along on Rei’s other side. Their backs are burnt, not badly enough to incapacitate them, but badly enough to hurt, shiny red skin pulling taught as they tear forwards, motivated only by fear and pain. “Rei!” Ikuya tugs his arm sharply, pulling Rei off course just in time to avoid the solid trunk of a tree he would have otherwise run into head-first. “What the hell happened back there?!”

Nagisa shakes his head frantically, actually struggling to keep up with the two Omegas as blood oozes down his thigh, sliding around the back of his knee and dripping into the back of his shoe. One of the soldiers had knifed him during the melee in the clearing, a dark blade made out of some sort of rust-coloured metal that had blistered Nagisa’s skin on contact even before pushing through skin and muscle to scrape bone. He can only pray that the dagger missed the major arteries – bleeding out in the middle of the Deadlands is not the way Nagisa wants to die, thank you very much. “Kisumi exploded,” he pants, not sure what other word could possibly be used to describe the sight of the Star Omega obliterating the entire clearing in a plume of vibrant pink fire. “Gods, I hope he survived that.”

Fear is the only thing that is still propelling Rei’s legs on, and he can barely draw breath to reply to either his mate, or his friend. All he remembers of the attack on the clearing is Asahi yelling at them to run, and watching a soldier from the sun army plunge a knife into Nagisa’s leg before everything gets a little blurry. He had had enough of his wits about him to stuff his glasses down the front of his shirt to keep them safe, one arm hooked out over the collar, and that didn’t help the fuzziness of his memories for just a few hours ago. All Rei can focus on is find safety, protect family, get away from danger. He doesn’t know if they are being followed, if any of their friends are still alive, or if he is even going in the right direction.

The right direction towards Paradise at least. Something deep inside Rei is guiding his feet. To where, he doesn’t know, but it feels right. Maybe it’s this brand spanking new magic he has barely had the chance to explore or even think about, maybe it’s just the fear talking, but his instincts are taking him somewhere, and Rei is too afraid to question it.

“I don’t know where I’m going!” he calls over his shoulder, desperately trying to keep his grip on Ikuya and Nagisa, so deathly afraid of losing them in the Forests, losing them to the darkness that nearly took Makoto and Haruka away without any of them knowing. “But something is telling me to keep going this way.”

And so they run, all day and half the night, until Nagisa loses his footing again, injured leg bowing awkwardly, and he cries out in pain, suddenly clinging to Rei’s arm with both hands frantically. It almost brings the three of them to a domino-like standstill, Ikuya colliding into Rei’s back and squeaking when Nagisa’s knee jabs into the back of his bare thighs, starting them all moving agian. “If you don’t know where we’re going, why are we still running?” Ikuya asks, and he sounds so frightened, nosing at the back of Rei’s neck like a young child seeking comfort from its mother as they walk, carefully navigating around near-invisible obstacles in the dark. “We’re getting too far away from my markers, if we get lost we-”

And then they break out of the trees into open plains.

“What the hell,” Nagisa says, breathless from exhaustion, his eyes wide and glassy as he peers around at the new world laid out before them. “Where are we?”

Twisted black grass curls up knee-high from the cracked earth, the dry, brittle blades whispering and reedy in the faint breeze that drags through the never-ending field before them. The night sky stretches high above them, visible for the first time since they entered the Deadlands, and Ikuya’s skin bursts into a bright silver glow as the waxy moonlight touches him all over, a stunned gasp leaving him as his magic replenishes in force. Nagisa hisses as a spike of pain flares up in his injured thigh, and he glances down in concern, blanching silently when he sees tiny sparks of silver flashing in the gory depths of his wound. He covers it with his hand, trying not to think about it, and glances up again. Three gasps sound as they fully take in the sight before them.

Neither of them are looking at the dead land, the moon, or the twinkling stars that seem to be shining with more vigour than usual, however. Their eyes are fixed on the hulking, spindly ruin of a building jutting out from the trees on one side and sinking into the ground on the other.

Rei can feel his heart hamming against his ribs, so hard he thinks it might just pop right out as he starts taking hesitant steps towards the ruin, fumbling at his chest to slide his glasses on, eyes abruptly focusing on walls of shattered glass and columns of pale marble that have been cracked and cleaved to pieces. Something inside is calling to him.

“Rei!” Nagisa calls, painfully lurching forwards to follow his Omega as Rei walks purposefully onwards, the barest hint of trepidation just clinging to the corners of his eyes. “What are you doing?” He manages to catch a shaky arm around Rei’s waist and drag him to a brief standstill. “That place looks dangerous…” Nagisa murmurs against Rei’s shoulder, nosing over the thrumming pulse point just under Rei’s scent gland. All traces of the sympathy heat have left the Omega, even the lingering odour of fresh roses is starting to fade. Ikuya hasn’t been so lucky, still reeking of mint and naked from the waist down, clad only in a sweaty, singed tunic that barely reaches halfway down his trembling thighs. “We shouldn’t be here, we’re too exposed out of the cover of the trees.”

“We won’t be exposed inside,” Rei says, voice oddly soft and calm, eyes never once straying from the jagged edges of the bones of the building before him. “Nagisa,” he says, still not looking at his Alpha, violet eyes wide and shiny behind the grimy lenses of his glasses, “something in there is whispering my name. I can feel it in here.” And he presses a hand to his chest, fingers curling in over his heart. “It wants me to go inside.”

Ikuya, shivering in the cold and trying in vain to pull his tunic down for more warmth, his back aching and stinging, clicks his tongue agitatedly. He shoulders past the bickering couple and disappears into the shadows completely, only his glowing silhouette visible as he walks up to the remains of the great doorway as Rei and Nagisa stare after him with open mouths. “Looks like some kind of castle,” Ikuya calls out to them, disappearing inside the building. Nagisa lets out a strangled sound and Rei starts to tug him after Ikuya. “It’s sort of warm in here, hurry up!”

Breaking away from Nagisa, Rei follows Ikuya into the darkness, leaving Nagisa to limp awkwardly after them, his leg starting to spasm and the pain lancing through his blood. “Wow, it is warm in here,” Nagisa marvels, finally clearing the door and feeling like he has just stepped into a bubble of dry air, gentle heat surrounding him and instantly relieving the shakes that are plaguing his arms and hands. The trembling in his legs continues, not caused by the chill outside. The light from Ikuya’s skin is enough to grant them sight of the gigantic once-entrance hall they have walked into, long decayed and reeking of dust and death. “Don’t wander too far,” Nagisa warns when he sees Rei starting to explore the depths of the room, weaving in and out of destroyed furniture until he reaches the crumbling foot of an ancient stone staircase. “Please,” he continues, and the tone of his voice catches Rei’s attention, pleading and uncertain. “Don’t go where I can’t see you, baby,” Nagisa whispers, finally giving into the pain in his leg and sinking down onto the rust-coloured tiles.

If he thinks about it too hard, Nagisa knows that the tiles probably aren’t actually rust-coloured, but that thought sends chills up his spine, so he ignores it.

“Just follow me if you’re worried,” Rei says, but the easy joke falls flat with the tension in his face. “You can follow me, right?” he asks, hope on his face, which shatters into a tight expression when Nagisa shakes his head slowly, both hands wrapped around his thigh now, teeth gritted and his eyes half-shut. “Nagisa?”

“It’s just the pain,” Nagisa is quick to reassure Rei, floral distress reaching him even from across the spacious hall. “You can keep looking around just… stay where I can see you. Just so I don’t worry.” And the two share understanding smiles, Rei nodding his head, and continuing his examination of the room.

Ikuya sidles over to Nagisa and kneels beside the Alpha, brows creased and his bottom lip protruding as his intense eyes bore into the side of Nagisa’s head. “You’re lying so that Rei doesn’t get worked up,” is all he says, and then tilts his head down to inspect Nagisa’s wound. “It doesn’t look like you’re bleeding out,” is Ikuya’s unsteady diagnosis after a few silent moments and some gentle prods with his fingers. “But beyond that, I have no idea. Despite the amount of time I spend in the infirmary, I don’t have a lot of medical knowledge, I’m sorry.”

A wan smile on his face, Nagisa peels a bloody hand away from his thigh and makes to pat Ikuya on the head comfortingly, before realising just how much blood is coating his palm and deciding against it. He settles for leaning in to bump his forehead against Ikuya’s cheek, rumbling quietly in the back of his throat. “It’s alright,” he says, returning the slight affection as the young Omega nuzzles against him with a soft whine. “This isn’t your fault, it was that creepy Beta that pulled a fucking knife on me in the middle of a magic fight.”

All Nagisa can think is that at least the odd silver flashes have disappeared from his wound.

“You should go keep an eye on Rei for me,” Nagisa tells Ikuya, trying to hide the pain that has now crept into his voice. “He’ll get lost and fall down a hole or something.” It brings a small giggle out of Ikuya, and he nods, climbing to his feet and leaving with a quick hug around Nagisa’s shoulders. Nagisa watches him leave and then drags himself across to an over-turned table, leaning his aching back against it and resuming his tight grip on his thigh, hoping the pressure will help ease the fiery agony boiling under his skin. “Shit,” he hisses. “This is bad.”

He spreads his fingers enough to see more of the damage, and balks when he sees black and red spiderwebs of pulsing veins starting to spread out from the stab wound, blood still sluggishly leaking from the deep gash. The dark blooms of colour have spread all the way to his knee, up past Nagisa’s groin, and possibly even over his hip. His heart stutters at the sight.

“This is not a normal stab wound,” he mutters to himself, and sets his fingers alight, gold flames crackling as he brings them closer to his leg. Hopefully, cauterising the wound will stave off any infection until Nagisa can find proper help. He casts his gaze around and seizes the broken bar of a chair leg in his free hand, jamming it between his teeth to bite down on. This will go smoother if he doesn’t have two frantic Omegas hovering over him.

On the other side of the hall, Rei thinks he might have found what was calling out to him across the Deadlands. In the very back corner of the entrance hall, he has stumbled across a marble pedestal, lying on its side and cracked completely in half. He brushes careful fingers over the warped settings still bolted to the smooth top, and Rei can imagine the beautiful cradle of silver filigree that it might have once looked like, large enough to hold something large and precious. Shining purple dust coats the inside of the twisted metal, and as Rei drags his fingertips through it, the powder sparkles to life, purple light dancing all the way up Rei’s arm. He inhales sharply, head snapping up as sharp heat shoots up his veins and wraps around his heart.

Ikuya, who had been mere seconds away from putting his hand on Rei’s arm, leaps back in shock, and gazes around in abject wonder as purple flashes start to glow from all around the room, so bright that it makes his own glowing skin look dull in comparison. “What is that?” he asks, eyes wide and a grin starting to tug his mouth upwards. “It’s so beautiful!”

“So this is what magic truly feels like,” Rei says, totally awed. The glow doesn’t diminish even when he pulls his hand away from the shattered pedestal. He has an inkling of what used to be kept in its intricate cradle, what the flashes of light around the room are. “Spirit Stone.”

“Like the one in Sousuke’s story?” Ikuya excitedly crouches down by the nearest purple light, fishing around in the dust until he has a glowing piece of purple amethyst pinched between two fingers, no bigger than the head of a pin. “It’s so heavy,” Ikuya breathes, and he startles a little when Rei plucks it out of his grip, holding it up almost reverently.

The amethyst piece starts to pulsate, flickering in time with the beat of Rei’s heart. “Help me find more,” Rei says. He can feel power swelling in his body, the room coming to life with the souls of the dead around him, silvery shadows flickering around in a dance of the lives they once lived. He can’t make out faces, nothing distinct yet, but he thinks that maybe, with more of the stone, he could find out what happened here. “This must be the castle of the Soul Kings. Well, what is left of it.” Rei recalls all what little information the library in Matsuoka Castle had had on the Soul Territory. “Spiritus, this place was called.”

Desire to collect all that remains of something so precious to his lineage consumes Rei as he skirts around the grave-like hall with single-minded focus, almost hunch-backed as he scrambles for every glint of light the room has to offer. He scrambles around like a field mouse, Ikuya following suit, until he has two palms cupped around a pile of amethyst gravel, a breathtaking thrum of magic that seems to sing as it is warmed in Rei’s hands.

“Rei, you’re crying,” Ikuya murmurs, leaning his head on Rei’s shoulder as the two stare down at the precious cargo in his hands. He reaches up to brush the glistening tears off Rei’s flushed cheeks.

“I’m so happy,” Rei says, his smile wide enough to dimple, skin lit up with purple magic so vibrant it is even shining in his eyes, his hair beginning to lift off his shoulders slightly, ghosting around his face. He looks ethereal. “I can hear the souls of my people in the shards.” His voice is shuddering with the emotion rolling through him. “I have people, Ikuya.”

Ikuya wraps his arms around Rei’s waist, sharing in his happiness. “You do.”

Together, they cross back to where Nagisa is still lying by the door, intent on showing the Alpha what they have discovered.

Nagisa is deathly still, smoking hands limp by his side.

-

Burning flesh fills the forest with a foul stench, thick enough that Albert claws his way back through the trees with his arms wrapped around his stomach, gagging on every breath that doesn’t rattle with the blood starting to well in his lungs. His collar is digging into the jagged cut across his chest, the plates of golden metal designed to protect his breast bone and the tops of his shoulders have been completely cracked off by the heat of the blast from the Omega arena fighter. Albert is sure that something in his back had been badly damaged when he had been thrown into a fight with the tiny blonde Alpha he believes used to belong to Lord Kirishima – Albert’s left leg is dragging half-limp behind him as he staggers back towards their camp, and wet prickles of pain are flashing up from the knee of that same leg all the way up to the bottom of his ribcage. He had lost his prized dagger in the skirmish, at the very least, the blade of blood moon iron passed down to him from his great grandmother.

The King is going to be furious at them – not only was the small troupe of guards returning without any of their targets in tow, but their numbers have been completely decimated in a matter of moments. Albert, who had been knocked to the ground by a giant Alpha man none of them had known was there and managed to crawl away after another disastrous clash with a different Alpha before the clearing had exploded in pink flames, appears to be one of two surviving members of the detachment. He can certainly hear someone else making their way in the same direction, at least. Unless the blow to his head from the huge Alpha had damaged his hearing. Albert is dreading the reactions of the King and his lords when all that is left of their elite squad come back to them in tatters.

All they had to do was bring back the princess and the two arena fighters – the princess to be married off, and the fighters to face the public execution they had already escaped from once. The King cared not what happened to the rest of the group: the two defected guards, the castle librarian, the rogue Omega from who knows where, and the traitorous members of Lord Kirishima’s house staff.

Privately, Lord Kirishima had instructed them to drag the rogue Omega to him by the hair if they had to.

They had not been expecting the strange Alpha, vaguely familiar to Albert, or that the Omega once known as ‘Death Bringer’ would still be so incredibly powerful.

“Hey you, Moon Beta,” an authoritative voice barks from a way off to Albert’s left, and he stumbles to a stop with a pained groan as everything on the lower left side of his body screams at the sudden movement. “Hold up right there.” And Albert watches as Captain Kinjou appears from between trees. The violent, feral captain of the guards is a sight that brings back Albert’s urge to vomit – half his face and his golden hair have been burned beyond recognition, white bone shining through the blackened flesh, his right arm flayed open from armpit to wrist, and an arrow shaft shiny with blood protruding from the middle of his stomach. “How did you escape the blaze?” the captain asks, almost sounding suspicious, close enough to Albert’s face that Albert can see his boiled tongue flicking in his mouth. “Everyone else got burned to ash, but you’re still standing.” The grin he flashes, half twisting flesh and half exposed teeth, makes Albert’s stomach recoil.

With a shudder, Albert recalls the rumours that Kaede Kinjou had sacrificed his own Omega to the ancient gods of the Sun Territory in exchange for nigh godly power himself. He feels neither pain, nor fear, and the thick, ugly scar where his scent gland used to be is often cited as proof of the rumours’ truth.

Albert fears for his life as he haltingly explains what happened, how he had been easily overpowered by the huge, mystery Alpha and thrown directly into the path of the tiny Sun Alpha. The two had exchanged blows – the skin under Albert’s arm guards is pink and shiny from the golden fire that had super-heated the metal – and Albert had managed several slashes at the little Alpha with his dagger before it had been smacked out of his hand by a wave of dark, frigid water. Taking that as his cue to leave, Albert had crawled from the clearing just in time to be thrown clean into the air by the explosion. He had landed heavily on his back on something hard and sharp, to the sound of his spine making a sickening crack sound.

Captain Kinjou sneers at Albert with his nightmarish face, and grabs the Beta’s arm with his mangled right arm, blood soaking both of them as he forcibly drags Albert through the trees with that same demonic grin on his face. “We’re back,” he crows, sounding proud of the fact that only two survived what should have been an easy raid. “And you’re not going to be happy about it!”

Seated in a loose circle around a firepit burning with bright yellow flames is the royal party. Lord Kirishima, older than all the other lords, lounges on a long, plush pillow covered in dark copper velvet, his gnarled hand wrapped around the bony hip of a startingly young, whip-thin Omega boy, glassy eyed and trembling as he shies away from the hungry glances from all the lords surrounding him. Opposite Lord Kirishima is the Lord Sugimoto, and the Lady Amakata, their heads bent over a detailed map of the land as they whisper plans and eat jewel-like fruit from a bronze dish laid out between them. Captains of other guard units mill around, the shadows of the rest of the army visible in the flickering light of the fire, but Kinjou only has eyes for the final two figures beside the fire.

King Matsuoka, in all his armoured, gold-encrusted glory, sits regally in a low-slung throne of lightweight white wood and crushed velvet of the darkest wine red, a single shard of glittering purple amethyst fixed to its head. A goblet of mead clutched in one hand, and the hilt of a sunstone knife in the other, his burning eyes fix on the two mangled soldiers standing before him, his darkly-clad body guard resting on his heels behind his master.

“And what made you think you had the right to appear in my presence in such a state?” the King purrs, that Alphan tone of command and authority laced in every word. “When my guards come to give their reports, I expect a certain degree of cleanliness, Captain Kinjou.” His glowing blood-red eyes trail over the gory mess of Kinjou’s face and body, barely sparing Albert a second glance after cataloguing his leg and the blood dripping down his chest. “I take it that you two are the only survivors?” he says, looking bored but sounding sharp. Albert has to resist taking a terrified step behind Kinjou.

Fear is not an emotion in Kaede Kinjou’s repertoire, and he cocks a hip and offers the King a sarcastic bow. “My deepest apologies, your majesty,” he simpers in insincerity, rolling his one remaining golden eye to fix the King with a wild look. “It would appear that your information on the princess’ escape party was incomplete, or totally wrong. Not only do they appear to have gained an ally or two, but Death Bringer has only grown stronger in his condition.”

“Are you telling me that one single Omega wiped out an entire troupe of my best soldiers?” the King barks, rage starting to boil to the surface of his mind, enough so that all those gathered can scent the pepper of his anger in the light breeze. “What did he do – fuck them all to death?” The King’s prejudice against Omegas had only turned into outright hatred after his son presented, spurred on by the treacherous disappearance of said son.

Kinjou throws his head back and howls with laugher, his jaw dropping open far wider on the burnt side, the tendons holding his mandible in place completely eaten away by the fire. “If only!” he crows, uninjured hand coming to rest on his heaving stomach. He grabs the arrow and rips it from his gut without a second thought, flicking the shaft into the fire where the magic tip explodes in a shower of white-gold sparks. “It would seem that Star Omegas should not be messed with while carrying pups.” Kinjou pauses as the King sucks in a shocked breath at this news before continuing. “He turned the entire clearing where they were resting into an inferno – it must have been visible for miles.” He would never dare directly challenge the king, but the intention is there in his words.

The King raises a crimson brow, schooling his face back into a careful expression of disinterest. “And tell me, Captain, do you know if my daughter and any of her mutinous friends survived this ‘inferno’ along with this lamed Beta and yourself?” Albert startles at being addressed, and hastily bows his head, and action that the King waves off before asking, “Tell me, little Moon rat, what is your story?”

And even as Albert starts collapsing to the ground from the pain in his left side that has swept up to take his arm under its hold, ice crawling up his spin, he relates the tale once again, trying as hard as he can to keep his face turned towards the King. As he speaks, Albert’s mind is caught between two trains of thought. The first is blistering worry, because the pain in his leg has turned to a numbness so thick he almost thinks that he has left his leg behind in the forest. And the second is confusion. Albert is from the Moon Territory, he grew up on the legends of the Isles of Stars, the three beautiful islands glittering on the horizon. But he never, ever though that the stories might be true.

King Matsuoka makes a thoughtful sound in the back of his throat. “Well then,” he says demurely, his voice dripping like acid. “I suppose that if any of them did survive the blast – and no doubt they did, I always find that slippery cockroaches seem to survive even having their heads removed – at least one of them won’t make it past sundown tomorrow. Blood moon iron is deadly to Sun magic.” Those eyes that will probably haunt Albert to his grave narrow slightly. “Are you sure you landed a hit with your dagger before you lost it?”

“Yes, your highness,” Albert manages to gasp. He has hit the floor of the Forests without even realising, crumpling in on himself as it feels like his spine starts to turn to dust. “I stabbed him in the thigh.”

“Excellent,” the King says, and Albert startles when the large Alpha suddenly snaps his fingers. Beside the King, and just a little behind, the cloaked and masked Alpha body guard climbs steadily to his feet and moves into the circle of light, looking to the King for instruction. The King waves him forwards with a finger tipped with a filigree claw. “Heal him,” the King commands coolly. “This Moon Beta has served me well, have someone escort him back to Sol. He may work wherever an extra pair of hands is needed in the castle.”

Kinjou sputters indignantly, blood and spittle flying out of his shredded mouth to hiss and bubble in the fire. Lady Amakata covers her mouth delicately, looking rather ill at the sight of the man, burnt flesh peeling off him in chunks. “What about me?” he practically whines, picking at the torn flesh of his arm absently as he watches the King’s body guard walk silently across the tiny clearing to kneel beside Albert, the Moon Beta really failing now, his eyes clenched and his teeth gritted as all the colour starts to drain from his skin. “I get healed too, right, your majesty?”

In the blink of an eye, the King is on his feet and crowding over Kinjou with his teeth bared, threatening enough that even the crazed captain of the guard faulters slightly under his intense glare. “If I choose to have you healed, Kaede Kinjou, it will be for no reason other than the continued need of your services. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that I will not grow tired of your insolence eventually.” His hand curls pointedly around the hilt of his sword again as the King leans in to whisper, “I have always wondered if your sacrilegious power would still work if I cut your head off.”

The King’s body guard ignores the altercation, holding strong gloved hands out over the wounded soldier as black and white sparks start to dance on the tips of his fingers. His entire body is swathed in glossy indigo fabric from his cape to his gloves and tunic, complete with solid leather boots riveted with silver studs from mid-calf to heel. The man has two half-swords, one strapped to either hip. As is tradition for all the royal body guards, his face is masked, the full-face covering blocking off even his mouth – the only splash of colour is two piercing green eyes peering out from the depths of the mask. The black-white glow builds over Albert’s body, the Beta groaning weakly as he slips in and out of consciousness, his spine snapping back into place with the most disgusting sound he has ever heard, his ears ringing from the force of it.

With a sharp tug of pain, his leg straightens out, the feeling returning to it in agonising waves. Albert’s chest wound heals to a barely noticeable scar stretching over his collarbones.

“Alright, enough,” Kinjou growls, and he side-steps the King to grab the shoulders of the body guard, hauling him upright and spinning the man around. They match each other for height, but there is an aura of evil threat radiating off Kinjou as he jabs a finger into the centre of the mask, those green eyes flaring wide behind it. “Leave the rat, make me look human again.” He grins his ghoulish grin, fingers tightening on the man’s shoulders. “Come on, get to it.”

“Keep harassing my guard and I will skin your whole face off with my bare hands,” the King says lowly, once again seated in his makeshift throne. “When you have been restored back to your usual insufferable self, select a new troupe from the army and send the rest back to Sol, too. Tomorrow morning, we head for Paradise. My daughter will come home, by force and in pieces if need be.” The fire glints off his teeth terribly. “Now someone bring me another glass of wine and an Omega. I shall retire to my tent for the night.”

As the King leaves, his guard swats Kinjou’s hands away, his irritation palpable even through his depersonalising uniform. “Stand still,” he says, voice quiet, but harsh. He clearly holds no positive feelings for the deranged man before him.

Still gasping like a fish on the ground, the pain of his injuries lingering even after their source has been eradicated, Albert watches with wide eyes and a wider mouth as that same black-white magic begins to glow from the guard’s hands. Albert has never even heard of healing magic like this, let alone seen it. Healing magic is something that comes naturally to the people of the Sky and Moon Territories, but… nothing like this. No healing magic is strong enough to regrow skin, muscle, blood. To replace flesh that has been cleaved away, and realign veins with such precision. And at such rapid speed, too. Albert wonders if this magic could even bring someone who is dead back to life.

As his face heals over, Kinjou starts laughing, the sound cracked and manic in the relative silence of the Forests. “Crack my ribs so I can see if I can feel it,” he crows, flexing the fingers of his right arm just to watch the muscles in his arm bulge one last time before the skin knits closed over it. “Fuck, I’m going to kill that Star bitch with my bare hands, I don’t care if he’s pupped or not.” Rolling his shoulders as the burns flake away, Kinjou turns his mad golden eyes on the man still healing the last of his wounds, and reaches up a twitching hand. Without warning, Kinjou plucks the mask off the guard’s face, grabbing the startled man roughly by the cheeks and dragging him in for a harsh kiss that is more teeth than anything else.

Albert blinks, the thought of an Alpha kissing another Alpha having never crossed his mind before.

The guard reacts violently, his hands curving, claw-like, and slashing at Kinjou’s arms. Blood erupts between their mouths, and Lady Amakata lets out a little squeal when something red, wet, and fleshy suddenly plops to the ground between the feet of the interlocked guards. Kinjou reels back with an excited cackle, blood spraying from his mouth as the body guard spits red-flecked saliva onto the ground before covering his face with his hands as he bends down to retrieve his mask. As he replaces it, Albert catches sight of smooth skin marred with long tracking pink scars down the man’s cheeks, and a dark forelock of hair tumbling out from under his hood.

“At’s ‘e spirif!” Kinjou garbles out, and Albert gags on bile when he realises that the guard has bitten the tip of Kinjou’s tongue clean off. “-Ow hea- ih bah.”

“I hate you,” the guard hisses, still fastening the straps of his mask behind his head, so quietly Albert almost can’t hear him. “You have no respect for anyone.” He snarls under his breath, and heals Kinjou’s tongue back, no doubt fearing the wrath of the King should Kinjou keep them up all night spitting blood and making wordless sounds at the top of his lungs.

Kinjou huffs, flicking his new tongue around disgustingly. “Omegas don’t deserve my respect. What are they worth other than being breeding mares for the superior sex?”

The guard’s hands clench into fists at his sides, but he says no more as he turns on his heel without another word, heading in the direction of their tents.

“I know your secret, Tsubasa!” Kinjou calls after him, voice mocking and threatening at the same time. The guard responds by turning on his heel and whipping a dagger from his sleeve to land directly between Kinjou’s eyes before storming away. Albert is completely lost, and he jerks up onto his knees when Kinjou is suddenly crouching before him, yanking the blade out and dragging his tongue up the blood-stained metal. “You, rat,” Kinjou addresses him gruffly. “Go pack your stuff up, you’re going back to the castle with the rest of the leftovers in the morning.” He taps Albert harshly in the middle of the forehead with his wet finger, leaving a smudge of bright red behind. “Ask around the other Moon slaves. If any of ‘em have weapons made out of that blood moon iron stuff, I want them handed directly to me. If there’s a weapon out there that I can use to be even more of a nuisance to my enemies, then. Well. I want it.” And his grin is so terrifying with the blood leaking down his face that Albert nods dumbly before climbing to his feet and scampering away as fast as his shaking legs will carry him.

A violently trembling Omega steps into the clearing, completely naked and covered in scratches and bitemarks, a piece of parchment held in his hands. He passes it to Lord Kirishima with a low, stiff bow, and leaves again, squeaking audibly when Kirishima swats at his slick-coated thighs. Pushing his own Omega to the ground to place his feet on the boy’s knobbly back, Kirishima peruses the note from the King. “It seems our instructions for tomorrow are to kill whoever we come across on our journey to Paradise. The only ones to be taken alive are the King’s daughter, and the pup of the Star Omega, even if it has to be cut out of him. The King has declared former Eclipse fighters Asahi and Kisumi traitors to the Sun Territory and has stayed their execution in the city in favour of killing them on sight. The same judgement has been dealt to the other slaves, the castle workers, and the rogue Omega.”

“And why has our royal leader not told us this in person?” Lord Sugimoto asks in mild disdain, displeased as usual at being left out of the loop. Lord Sasabe had always been the favourite over Sugimoto. Of course, that has changed significantly in the weeks since the night the Paradise flares began firing.

Kirishima flicks the little parchment piece into the fire. “It seems that the King saw fit to leave us after finding his satisfaction, rather than retiring. Apparently, there is something in the Deadlands that he wishes to find.”

High above them, nestled in the spiny branches of the decaying trees, Isuzu and Gou share frantic looks. They had almost stumbled blindly right into the clearing where the King and his men had sat, escaping into the trees at the last moment while they were distracted by the arrival of Captain Kinjou and the Moon Beta. “We have to warn the others,” Gou breathes, her entire body feeling weighed down with guilt. This is all her fault – her father has never shown involvement with the Paradise Run like this before, not even when Rin had run.

“How?” Isuzu asks, heart clenching at the thought of Momo being cornered, alone and injured, by the wild man who now possesses weaponry that can kill all those who bare the magic of the Sun. “We don’t know where any of them are.”

“We’ll just have to look for them,” Gou says, determination in her voice. “Right now. We need to leave right now, while they are settling in for the night.”

Silently, the girls slide down the tree’s trunk and sneak away into the depths of the Forests, trusting their noses, sharp eyesight, and the connection to their friends to lead them in the right direction.

Gou spares a final look over her shoulder to where their clearing had once been, totally out of sight in the dark and the distance. “I hope Kisumi is alright,” she says, and Isuzu wraps her arm around Gou’s waist in lieu of a response, pulling her away from what has happened, and towards what must be done.

-

Sousuke is standing at a metaphorical crossroads. He is also lying on the ground. On one hand, he could climb to his feet and seek Rei out again, the young Omega had fled into the woods with Nagisa and Ikuya hot on his heels and Sousuke’s paternal nature does not like the thought of three teenagers getting lost in the Deadlands. On the other hand, as his senses return to him, all he can smell is pain and fear from the clearing just behind him, Sousuke having dived out of range of Kisumi’s fireball. His sense of loyalty refuses to let him leave injured friends behind when he might be able to help them.

His moment of indecision is made when a short, grief-stricken shriek reaches his ears.

Asahi.

Digging strong fingers into the scorched bark, the tips dusting off the top few layers of fine white ash, Sousuke hauls himself to his feet. His skin feels over-heated and tight, but not badly burned – not a dissimilar feeling to being out in the sun too long, with the promise of Rin’s cool hands and soothing creams to make him feel better. Sousuke takes a moment to orient himself, and by the time he is placing careful feet back onto the sticky-hard ground of the clearing, melted rocks and armour puddling in the skeletal remains of soldiers and plant-life alike, Sousuke can hear a litany of wretched sobs in the shape of Kisumi’s name tumbling from Asahi’s cracked, dry lips.

Before Sousuke can get too close to the pair – he can’t quite see them properly, blindingly bright light still clinging to Kisumi’s body as he lies deathly still in the arms of his Alpha – he nearly trips over two more uninjured people in the clearing. Makoto lays protectively over Haruka, his large size coming in handy for once as he had thrown himself to cover his Alpha, a cocoon of golden starlight wrapping around them to shield them from the Seirios fire.

“Are you conscious?” Sousuke asks, voice a little ragged, as he couches beside the two, carefully rolling the Omega onto his back so that Sousuke can check his breathing. Slitted green eyes peer up at him, hazy and unfocused, but alert all the same. “Come on, Makoto, speak to me.”

“Haru.” Makoto’s voice cracks sharply. “Is Haru okay?” A trembling hand reaches up to fumble at his neck. “Feels hot.” He thumbs over his new, shiny pink Bond mark, the skin around it a little red from the heat, but not quite burnt like anyone else would be.

Sousuke casts a quick look over the Water Alpha, who is starting to move, his face scrunching up as he opens his eyes. When he sits up, he leaves behind a patch of dingy grass in the shape of his back, the very edges of it starting to smoulder just a little. “I’m alright, Makoto,” Haruka says around a cough, reaching out and draping an arm over Makoto’s stomach, pressing his face into the Omega’s chest. “You saved me, love. You did such a good job.”

Makoto preens under the praise, the strength slowly returning to his body. As Haruka is helping him sit upright, Makoto suddenly flies forwards on his own, eyes wide as he scrabbles at the ground. “Kisumi!” he cries, looking around frantically. “Where’s Kisumi, is he-”

“You idiot!” Asahi’s desperate voice reaches them, and three heads turn to stare at the sorry sight playing out across the clearing. “Why did you do that?!” Asahi asks, voice breaking over a sob. “Why?”

Blood soaks Kisumi’s teeth as he manages a weak grin. “Sorry,” he rasps. “Mother’s protective instinct. Couldn’t stop myself.” His chest heaves. “Had to keep you safe.” His hands reach down to cradle his belly automatically. “Had to keep you both… safe?” Voice rising up at the end questioningly, Kisumi flicks his eyes down to see what the others can already see plain as day.

The light of his starfire has finally died down to the point where his body is visible again, although he wishes now that it wasn’t. Sparks still crackle across his slick, flushed skin, fizzing angrily and sputtering away into the baked ground like hot coals from a fire. His body, all of them well used to seeing him plump and soft and pretty with pregnancy from his face to the shapes of his limbs, looks deflated and deformed, like he is sinking in on himself from using so much of his magic at once, his clothing all but eaten away. Kisumi’s hair is wafting around his head like a crown of pink smoke, his eyes are a swirling mess of red and purple as he gazes up at Asahi with an expression of pure fear, his skin-and-bone hands clutching at Asahi’s shoulders.

His belly is covered in a spreading stain of horrible, dark red under his pale skin.

“Nononono,” Kisumi pants, the dread in his voice like ice in the veins of all those looking on. He wails, “Asahi!” and looks frantically up at his Alpha.

Makoto, Haruka, and Sousuke almost end up in an undignified tangle of limbs as the three leap up to speed to the ailing Omega’s side, Makoto overtaking both Haruka and Sousuke as he crashes to his knees with trembling hands hovering over Kisumi’s own. “What’s happening?” he whispers. “Did something hit you?” Kisumi is shaking, starting to quake like a leaf in Asahi’s arms as Asahi tries to keep him calm in vain. Crystal clear tears splash down Kisumi’s cheeks, landing on his shoulders as Asahi chokes on a sob. Managing to shake his head, Kisumi grabs one of Makoto’s hands in a white-knuckled grip. “What? What is it?”

“I used too much magic,” Kisumi cries, voice hitching in time with the heaving of his swollen chest. “My body is consuming all the energy it can find.” And he presses Makoto’s hand down on the curve of his stomach, Makoto balking when he can feel the tiny pup inside starting to fail through his magic. “She’s dying…” Kisumi squeezes his eyes shut, back arching as pain rips through him, frail body starting to thrash.

Haruka crowds in on the other side of Kisumi’s shoulders, helping Asahi hold the Omega still in case he hurts himself, and Asahi turns wet, pleading eyes on Sousuke, sitting on his knees by Kisumi’s legs. “You have a child,” Asahi says, void of emotion in his efforts to keep from panicking completely. “Please, you have to know what to do.”

“I…” Sousuke does not know what to say. True, he has a child, and he has experience with a pregnant Omega. But, this? This is beyond his knowledge. Rin is the one who has studied medicine, who knows how an Omega’s body works – who has hands-on experience with pregnancy. Sousuke appraises Kisumi, lip caught between his teeth. Even though the Star Omega isn’t his mate, instincts are instincts, and his instincts are telling him to look after and protect. “My mate… my mate knows medicine. He would know what to do, but I don’t know…” he trails off, eyes stuck on the grotesque sight of that ominous red stain blooming across Kisumi’s belly, “I don’t know if Kisumi will make it back to where I live. I’m so sorry, Asahi.” Sousuke’s own eyes start to burn, his brain screaming useless, useless Alpha! Bad protector! at him.

One look at Haruka tells him that the Water Alpha is not faring much better, lips peeled back in a worried grimace as he watches Makoto watch Kisumi with wide, frightened eyes. Asahi hunches over Kisumi with a guttural yell, wordless and raw as his hand joins with Kisumi’s over their dying pup, feeling Kisumi’s pain like a knife through their Bond, the fragile little life they had made starting to ebb away right before his eyes, mere inches under his palm.

Makoto shakes his head, pawing at his ear with his free hand. Over all the noise, he can hear a fluttering thump-thump-thump, and the wet, ragged sound of Kisumi’s lungs rattling with blood. “What’s that sound?” he asks himself, and Makoto catches Kisumi’s eye, their hands wrapping around each other again as Kisumi makes a face at Makoto. That strange connection between them opens up again and Makoto can see pictures of Kisumi’s thoughts. “You’re dying, too,” Makoto breathes, and Asahi’s head snaps up, his scent icing over with horror.

“No.” Asahi shakes his head, moving his hand from Kisumi’s stomach to cup his Omega’s face. “No, I can’t lose you both. Tell me he’s wrong.” Kisumi’s lips press tightly closed, eyes sliding to the side, signing his own death sentence, and Asahi makes a high-pitched ‘hiii’ sound, his mind going blank. “No.”

“Cut,” Kisumi says, blood-fleck spittle flying off his lips. “Cut your Bond out, Asahi. I won’t take you with me.”

Asahi growls at him. “I’m not going to do that, you… you!” And he finally bursts, hunkering down over Kisumi’s stuttering chest as his broad shoulders shake, Asahi’s breaths tearing out of him like someone is reaching down his throat and dragging each one out by the feet. “It can’t end like this, not when we’re so close to having everything!”

“Makoto, you have to save her,” Kisumi says, his fingers settling in Asahi’s hair comfortingly. “Save our pup for me, please.”

“I don’t know how to do that,” Makoto whines, high in his throat in distress. He can feel weak little nudges under his hand, can hear the rapid-fire desperation of Kisumi’s heartbeat. Makoto grinds his teeth together anxiously. “Kisumi, I don’t know how to use healing magic yet!”

“Yes, you do,” Kisumi grits out, eyes starting to roll from the pain, the tremors in his body ever-present and without pause, now. “You are Star blood, Makoto. Healing magic is your birthright. Sky and Moon can perform cheap imitations, but healing is the realm of the stars.” He throws his head back with an agonised groan, his legs starting to seize under the light touches Sousuke has been running over the damp skin in an attempt to soothe Kisumi. “Follow the lights, Makoto!”

It is all too much for Makoto. The sounds – Asahi’s sobbing, Kisumi’s struggling heartbeat – and the scents, all the blood, the burning wood, smouldering skin as the sparks of Kisumi’s expiring magic land on Asahi’s exposed arms. Even the sight makes Makoto recoil. He doesn’t want to see Kisumi’s sallow, dying face; doesn’t want to see the bloom of blood on Kisumi’s belly. Makoto doesn’t want to see the unwavering faith and hope in Kisumi’s eyes that Makoto is not deserving of in this instance.

“Forget about me.” Kisumi’s words ring in Makoto’s ears, and Makoto closes his eyes, afraid of looking anymore. “Just save her. Cut her out of me if you have to.”

NO!” Makoto screams, finally clapping his hands over his ears and curling his shoulders in. He can feel himself trembling.

Cool, soft hands over his own, fingers slotting between Makoto’s, firm lips press into the back of his neck. Breathe, Haruka whispers through their Bond. You can do this, love. You can use my strength. We won’t let them die. Makoto is nodding before Haruka has even finished his thought, steeling himself for what is to come.

Sousuke looks perturbed, still sitting awkwardly by Kisumi’s leg. He is the only one who can see the silver shimmer surrounding Kisumi, the line between life and death blurring as Kisumi and his pup fight to stay alive, and it scares the hell out of him. As Sousuke spirals a little, unable to really do much to help other than try to keep Asahi calm while his world crumbles down, his magic starts to let loose, silvery shapes and shadows flickering around them all, trying to take shape. A persistent one hovers by Kisumi’s head, tiny hands combing through slick pink hair as the child coos out comforting words only Sousuke can hear. He tries not to think about the last time he was forced to watch an Omega’s unborn child die. “Healing magic takes lots of focus,” he tells Haruka dully, Makoto’s hands still covering his ears. Haruka flicks bright blue eyes in Sousuke’s direction, nodding shortly. “Keep him calm.”

A hand flails out and wraps around Makoto’s wrist, Kisumi tugging until Makoto’s ears are uncovered again. “I can help,” he wheezes. “Like when we first met, I can show you what to do.”

Folded neatly over Makoto’s back, Haruka closes his eyes and presses his nose against Makoto’s scent gland, feels their Bond sweep through him. Like gently floating in a warm pool, Haruka lets his strength wash over him and into Makoto. He can see inside the connection Makoto and Kisumi have made, the two Star Omegas sitting under the crystal flow of a beautiful waterfall, rainbows dancing on the crest as Haruka basks in the current created at the foot of it. He can’t hear them, but that isn’t important. All he has to do is make sure that Makoto stays focused.

Kisumi is speaking to Makoto, but not in words. He can’t explain the sensation as knowledge suddenly flows over him, water trickling into his body and filling the crevices in his brain with generations of traditions that he has missed out on. Beyond the waterfall where they sit, he can feel Haruka’s presence in his very blood, bolstering him as he turns to the task at hand with a growing sense of trepidation.

Beyond the mental world shared between Bond pair and Star Omegas, Sousuke nudges at Asahi, makes the Sun Alpha sit back on his heels as Makoto suddenly raises his hands, brows furrowed in deep concentration. White-gold magic crackles between his palms, and a relieved smile graces Kisumi’s face as Makoto starts to bring his hands towards the ailing Omega. But it drops into one of confusion when Makoto bypasses Kisumi’s stomach completely and presses his glowing hands to Kisumi’s chest.

“No, save her!” Kisumi gasps, flailing a little, trying to make Makoto move his hands down. “Makoto!”

“I’m sorry, Kisumi,” Makoto says, voice shaking but face determined. “I can’t save one without the other – even with your help, I can’t distinguish between you and your pup.” He grunts, sweat beading and rolling down his temples. Haruka holds him tightly, arms around Makoto’s waist to physically hold him steady. The white-gold glow swells to encase Kisumi’s entire body, sizzling and crackling, just a little lop-sided but clearly working. “You’re both pulling through,” Makoto pants. “You didn’t save our lives just to die when our prize is in reach.”

Kisumi’s hand falls over his peaky forehead, and he closes his eyes with a weak laugh. “You are just like your mother,” he says, giving in to the mulish set of Makoto’s jaw. He can already feel his energy replenishing, all the burst blood vessels and ruptured organs fitting themselves back where they belong alongside the stray splinters of bone. Even the pain in his stomach fades away to nothing, and Kisumi feels tears dripping down his face as the sluggish movement inside him becomes more lively. “So stubborn. I guess it’s a gift.” Warm fingers circle his wrist and Kisumi cracks an eye open to see Asahi crowding over him, rumbling deep in his chest. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, Asa,” Kisumi is quick to reassure his Alpha, Asahi’s wrought out distress a tangy, sour note in their Bond. “I didn’t mean to worry you.”

“You did more than that,” Asahi chokes, cupping Kisumi’s slowly healing face in his hands, thumbing over the soft plumpness that is beginning to fill out again. “I will never, ever leave you. Do you understand?”

Nodding faintly, Kisumi says, “Yes. I do.” He leans up and captures Asahi’s lips in a gentle kiss. “I’m so sorry, baby.”

Sitting cross-legged and watching Makoto methodically heal both Omega and pup, that tiny silvery spirit still keeping a watchful eye over Kisumi, Sousuke contemplates what to do next. Part of him still wants to look for Rei, but the most prevalent want in his heart is… “Rin,” he breathes, thumbs pressing together in front of him as his eyes track a drop of sweat roll down Makoto’s arm.

Sousuke wants to go home.

After what could have been hours, Makoto finally collapses back against Haruka, his Alpha cradling him down onto the ground so he can lay flat. The white-gold glow dissipates into the air, and Kisumi runs cautious hands all over himself, audible sighs of relief echoing all around him, the weight in the air lifting so suddenly he struggles to breathe for a moment. “You did it, Mako,” he says, pride dripping off every word. “You did it!”

“I did,” Makoto agrees breathlessly, looking like he would quite like to sleep for several days after such a feat. The smile on his face is wide and bright, and he leans into the hand Haruka has threaded in his hair like a cat getting its ears scratched. “But…” And the smile drops, everyone looking to him tensely. “Your pup is strong and healthy, but I don’t think she’s going to wait for the end of the month to come.”

Kisumi gulps. “Fuck,” is all he has to say on the matter, hands settling on his stomach warily.

“We need to go back to where I live,” Sousuke says, barely even having to think it through. “It is a safe place – free of dark magic, and well protected from anyone we don’t want coming near us.” He rubs the back of his neck. “My mate can help Kisumi if the pup does decide to come early. We can rest, find the others, and then you can all move on to Paradise when you are ready.”

Asahi nods firmly. “I like the sound of that. We all need to recuperate.” He climbs to his feet and studies his mate carefully. “Can you walk, Kisumi?”

“Not yet,” Kisumi says truthfully, still running hands over his belly with careful touches. He stills suddenly, touches his hair. “Was there someone else here?” he asks at a whisper, eyes flicking around curiously. Sousuke can see the pink glow of his magic already starting to build back up in the depths of those violet eyes. Kisumi will need a new blindfold soon. “I swear, I could feel someone stroking my hair.”

“There wasn’t anyone other than us,” Asahi is quick to reassure him, smoothing Kisumi’s fringe off his face and kissing his forehead. Pursing his lips, Kisumi settles back into his Alpha’s arms.

They have no belongings left to carry other than the ones they had been in possession of before the attack, everything else either taken by their other companions or destroyed in the blast. When they prepare to leave, Asahi wraps Kisumi in his cloak to cover the Omega once the remains of his clothes proved to be more ash than cloth, and turns to Sousuke with his cheeks stained as red as his hair. “Your sword is gone,” he states, ever practical. “But my bow and arrows are not. If you would do me a favour…?”

“I can carry Kisumi while you keep guard,” Sousuke says easily, nodding his head to the younger Alpha, knows on a personal level how much it must be hurting Asahi’s instincts to have to defer the direct care of his mate to somebody else. And so Sousuke scoops Kisumi into his arms, the Omega nothing in Sousuke’s grip despite the added weight of a pup. None of these people have had a decent meal in years, Sousuke reminds himself, vowing to feed them as much as they can stomach once they have arrived at his hut. “Now, follow me.”

And Sousuke doesn’t have to worry about getting lost as he sets off, Makoto and Haruka trailing in between Sousuke’s lead and Asahi’s rear guard. Wherever Rin is, Sousuke can find him.

-

Pale dawn light seeps through the thick canopy of leaves over their heads as they trudge onwards, and Seijuro sucks in a deep breath as the tiny spots of light touch his skin, twinkles of gold bursting across his arms and face as his magic awakens for the day. Behind him, Natsuya manages to tilt his face towards the light from where his forehead is pressed into the bark of a thick, gnarled tree trunk. Spittle and thin bile streak down the trunk in silvery trails, and Natsuya wipes his chin, pulling away from the tree on unsteady feet, groaning out a complaint as he traipses the few feet to close the gap between himself and Seijuro, his fellow Alpha sparing him a worried glance.

“Exhausted already?” Seijuro teases his friend lightly, settling an arm over Natsuya’s shoulders and leading him forwards again. Their small search party had separated once the Forests started to thicken; small, nimble Aiichiro slipping into the tightly woven trees that grow closer to the heart of the Deadlands, and Kazuki and Takuya leading dribs and drabs of people fleeing their home territories to the banks of Ring River. Seijuro and Natsuya are continuing on down the long-abandoned trading route that had once been used by the Sol soldiers to chase people as they fled the Sun Territory, but has stood overgrown and unattended by the King’s men for nearly a decade now. “You’re getting old, little lord,” Seijuro adds, poking Natsuya’s cheek before reaching up to push aside a broken, low-hanging branch lest either of them crack their heads on it.

“If I’m old, you’re ancient,” Natsuya says, the quip lacking any of its usual bite as his head droops tiredly onto Seijuro’s shoulder. He is silent for several minutes as the two walk on, keeping an eye and ear out for any sign of Ikuya – Natsuya sure that his brother would have left behind markers of some sort to aid his return – and then he speaks again. “It’s Nao,” he mutters, raising a hand to rub at his Bond mark subconsciously, dropping to press at his chest in mild discomfort. “He was so upset when he found out that I left him without saying goodbye, and he’s alone and afraid and sick.”

Seijuro cocks an eyebrow, looking down at Natsuya’s drawn face. “Sick? Is he alright?”

Shrugging, Natsuya presses against his chest more firmly. Nao is asleep at the moment, fitfully curled up with Hiyori in the house that usually houses five, Seijuro’s room standing empty and Natsuya and Ikuya’s sides of their respective beds cold as Nao and Hiyori stay firmly on the couch in the central room, wrapped in blankets. “I don’t know. Neither does he – he can’t tell if it’s his nerves playing up, or if there is something else going on with him.”

“We’ll be home soon enough, and then you can look after him,” Seijuro is quick to reassure Natsuya, patting his arm comfortingly. “Now, eyes open. Ikuya inherited his intelligence from Nao, and his markers aren’t going to be easy to spot.” And so they keep walking, Natsuya pulling away from Seijuro slightly to scamper ahead whenever he thinks he has spotted something. “I wonder how the Regent is getting on,” Seijuro thinks aloud after an hour or two, the path stretching on before them like a dark, winding throat. “It’s been over a day since we separated.”

“You know, I’ve never been able to tell if you’re sweet on him or not,” Natsuya says conversationally, slanting a look over his shoulder and narrowing his eyes at Seijuro.

Seijuro makes a non-committal sound, one shoulder lifting slightly. “Aiichiro is a beautiful Omega, and I’m sure he’ll find someone amazing one of these days. But…” he glances up into the trees, thinking, and then grins at Natsuya. “You know me, I fall a little bit in love with everyone I meet.” He shoots Natsuya a playful wink, and Natsuya snatches up a handful of brittle, black leaves that he lobs in Seijuro’s general direction. Seijuro laughs, and scratches the back of his head. “All the same, I hope Aiichiro hasn’t run across any trouble.” He laughs lightly. “Well – I hope trouble has not run into Aiichiro. That’s a more accurate assessment.”

A snort makes its way to Seijuro as Natsuya turns his peaky face up into a small beam of light struggling through the overgrowth. “Gods save anyone foolish enough to engage that Omega in hand-to-hand combat. He’ll leave them in shreds before they’ve even drawn a weapon.”

Beyond the two Alphas, deep in the tangled heart of the Forests, Aiichiro leads Momo by the hand, the exhausted boy stumbling nearly blind behind the Sky Omega as he tries to keep his eyes open. “We’re nearly there,” Aiichiro tells him softly, glancing over his shoulder at half-lidded golden eyes and fiery hair in desperate need of a wash. He hasn’t explained where ‘there’ is yet, but Momo is beyond the point of caring – he just wants to lie down and not get up for a very long time. Aiichiro and Momo haven’t spoken much since they ran into each other almost twelve hours ago, Momo too tired and Aiichiro too uncharacteristically nervous in this Alpha’s presence, his face still feeling warm long after Momo had lifted his head from Aiichiro’s chest and apologised profusely for invading the Omega’s space.

Aiichiro doesn’t have to ask, however. He has a gut feeling that this boy is Seijuro’s younger brother, and he hopes that if he follows his own path backwards, he will eventually run into said man. It has not been an entirely unpleasant trip – as much as Aiichiro wants to find Ikuya and bring him safely back to Paradise, he certainly isn’t complaining about spending time with this endearing Alpha who smells warm and comforting, like the caramelised figs Aiichiro likes to buy in the Paradise markets. Warmth floods his cheeks as he finds himself thinking about ways to get to know Momo better, thinking about spending time with the Alpha. “Don’t fall asleep on me now,” he says, a little breathless, feeling Momo’s head starting to dip down onto his shoulder. “We’re so close.”

True to his word, just a short half hour later, Aiichiro picks up the sound of familiar voices. He slowly brings Momo to a standstill and then cocks his head, listening intently as his long silver hair cascades down his shoulder. ‘Natsuya, do you need to sit down?’ Seijuro’s worried voice reaches Aiichiro, and something sour bubbles in the Regent’s stomach. Is Natsuya hurt? He leans into the sound, closing his eyes as he concentrates, trying to pinpoint their direction. Thanks to his years as a street urchin, skulking in the dark and hiding in shadows, his eyes useless, Aiichiro has sensitive hearing and an innate sense of direction.

“This way,” he says to Momo, starting to walk again. Aiichiro has to turn back and wrap a sturdy arm around Momo’s waist, the Alpha settling gratefully into the supportive grip as his head continues nodding down towards his chest, nearly asleep on his feet. “Just keep your eyes open a little longer…” Aiichiro pants. Momo is heavier than he looks, almost at the point of being dead weight against the Omega’s side.

Within a few steps, the Alpha and Omega break through the trees onto a distinct path that carves through the Forests, no matter how thickly overgrown it is with vines and ash-grey ferns. Just beyond them is the bright splash of colour that is Seijuro’s hair, held off his face with a lilac bandana as he rubs his hands soothingly over Natsuya’s back. Aiichiro’s worry spikes as he watches Natsuya heave violently, doubled over as he coughs bile into the black dirt as his feet.

“Are you sure you are alright?” Seijuro asks, oblivious to Aiichiro’s slow approach, Momo’s forehead now pressed firmly to the back of the Omega’s neck, blindly allowing Aiichiro to lead him onwards.

Natsuya waves Seijuro off. “It isn’t me who is sick, it’s Nao – this is just a sympathetic reaction from our Bond.” He wipes his mouth on the corner of his cloak and rubs his stomach with an uncomfortable grimace on his face, wondering what on earth is happening to his precious Omega to make him so constantly nauseous. He stands up straight, pressing shaky fingers to his temples as he keeps his eyes squeezed shut for a moment. When Natsuya opens his eyes, the first thing he sees is Aiichiro standing just a few feet away, waiting patiently for their attention.

Then he sees the person being half-dragged behind the Paradise Regent.

“Holy shit,” Natsuya breathes, and he throws his hand out to grasp at the back of Seijuro’s tunic to pull the older Alpha back. “Seijuro.” He tugs forcefully at the material, has to make sure that he gets Seijuro’s attention. “Seijuro.”

“What?” Seijuro turns, focused entirely on Natsuya, clearly afraid that something else is happening to his friend.

Natsuya points with his free hand. “Look.”

Seijuro does as instructed, looking up and smiling warmly when he catches sight of the Regent. “Aiichiro!” he says, voice and eyes bright. “You found us quickly. Did you stumble across.” And he stops talking abruptly, mouth closing with an audible click. Seijuro blinks once, very slowly, his eyes threatening to bulge right out of his head. A single, heartbreaking whine works its way out of Seijuro’s throat, and he throws himself across the distance separating him from Aiichiro, who smartly steps aside to allow Seijuro’s arms to close around the slowly crumpling body of his baby brother. “Momo!” he sobs brokenly.

Eyes prising open with great effort, Momo chokes on Seijuro’s name, surging up with the last of his energy to throw his arms around Seijuro’s neck, burying his face in his brother’s collar. “Am I dreaming?” Momo whimpers, eyes closing again as he nudges his nose into warm skin and inhales the tangy scent of fresh lime that faded from their home many, many years ago. “Please don’t let this be another dream. Not now.”

“I’m here, I’m here,” Seijuro chants, voice soothing as thick tears drip down his face to pool in the hollow of his throat, cupping a hand over Momo’s tired face and cradling the younger Alpha in his arms. Aiichiro watches as Momo’s body slumps completely, utter relaxation settling over him as he finally slides away into a deep sleep that has been calling his name for days. The three gathered around him know nothing of the specifics, but they have each made their own arduous journeys to Paradise, so they sympathise none the less. “I’ll still be here when you wake up,” Seijuro says, whispering into Momo’s damp hair. “I promise, I won’t leave you again.”

Natsuya has tears glittering in his own eyes as he watches the reunion, even as it is cut short by Momo falling asleep. “I can’t believe it,” he says quietly, and he bites at his thumb in awe, some strange hollow emotion trying to edge its way into his heart. Just because Natsuya has not found his own brother yet... “Regent… how on earth did you find him?”

Aiichiro is watching the Mikoshibas with the softest eyes Natsuya has ever seen the enigmatic Omega make, and he has to wonder if it is one or both of the Alphas before them that has earned such an expression. “It was an accident,” Aiichiro explains, and he can’t help but smile as Seijuro climbs carefully to his feet, Momo cradled to his chest not unlike a parent carrying a child. Natsuya has many memories of Seijuro coming back to the house with a sleeping Ikuya in his arms exactly the same, the little boy exhausted from a day running rampant around the island. “I was following some red string that had been tied through the trees, and I saw his hair shining in the dark – he was using a ball of sunlight to guide his way. I actually thought he was Seijuro at first, until I-” Aiichiro cuts himself off, cheeks flushing pink under the blue patches of sky rolling across his face.

“Until you what?” Natsuya teases, not as enthusiastic as he would usually be, but teasing none-the-less.

“Scented him,” Aiichiro admits after a beat of stubborn silence, his jaw set mulishly. “Shut up,” he grumbles when Natsuya starts to giggle at him, a sound that quickly trails into a weak, wet cough, and Natsuya spits onto the ground with a deep-set frown. “Are you sure you’re alright?” Aiichiro parrots Seijuro’s words, attention now torn between Seijuro himself as the older Alpha approaches them with slow, measured steps, and Natsuya, who still looks a little grey in the face.

Natsuya huffs, used to being the worried instead of the worried-over. “I’m fine, it’s Nao who isn’t.” His expression is blank, too many conflicting feelings in his head to bother translating them across his face. The most overwhelming one is the urge to go home to his mate.

“I think I should go back to Paradise,” Seijuro’s voice breaks into their stilted conversation, Natsuya and Aiichiro both looking over to him. Momo is dead asleep in Seijuro’s strong arms, his brother’s tuning clutched so tightly in his hands his knuckles are white. “I can tell that Aiichiro has healed him a bit, but he needs proper medical attention. And when he wakes up, the two of us… well, we-”

“You’ll need to talk. Time together,” Natsuya says, the sudden bright look on his face not quite matching the subdued tone of his voice. “Completely understandable. Finding family is a wonderful thing.”

“Natsuya…” Seijuro says, the single word holding all the weight of years of friendship, family, and understanding. He doesn’t elaborate, eyebrows tilted down and his mouth set. As much as Seijuro wants to drop everything and focus solely on his little brother now that they have been reunited, finding Ikuya is still his top priority. The young Moon Omega is the closest thing Seijuro has ever come to having a child of his own – Seijuro was the first person to hold Ikuya, Nao and Natsuya frozen in place on the banks of the river, the first person to hear Ikuya’s cries, to see his eyes open. Seijuro bites his lip, looks down at Momo’s sleeping face.

Aiichiro steps in before Seijuro is forced to make a decision. “Momo is strong,” the Regent says simply. “He made it this far, surely he can begrudge you a few more days. He only said a little about the people he had been travelling with, but he did mention a young Moon Omega who had come from Paradise.”

“Why didn’t you say that earlier?” Natsuya snaps, not allowing Seijuro a moment to respond as he rounds on Aiichiro. “Who else could that be other than Ikuya.”

“I’m sorry, Natsuya,” Aiichiro says, sounding a little terse at being spoken to in such a way. They might be away from Paradise, but he is still the Regent. “At the time, my only thought was of bringing Momo to Seijuro. Surely, you would have wanted me to do the same if it had been Ikuya that I had stumbled across?”

It’s a low blow, but it works, Natsuya deflating slightly as he nods. “Yes. I understand.” He crosses his arms. “Sorry.”

Seijuro shakes his head in fond exasperation at Natsuya. “Come on, idiot. Let’s keep going.” He readjusts his grip on Momo, who mumbles something in his sleep that brings tears to Seijuro’s eyes again. The Alpha flicks golden eyes up to bore into Aiichiro’s own bright blue. “Thank you for bringing him back to me,” Seijuro says, so earnestly that Aiichiro’s heart skips a beat or two. “I don’t deserve it after the way I left my family behind, but I can’t ever thank you enough.”

Aiichiro just smiles at Seijuro, bowing his head to accept the thanks, and the three set off again. Natsuya clicks his tongue. “Did you say markers made out of red string?” he asks thoughtfully, and Aiichiro nods. “Ikuya accidentally cut a hole through his favourite red cloak a few days before he left home,” he says, and runs his hands through his hair. “He tried to sneak away to fix it before Nao noticed and gave him a lecture about being careful with weaponry, and he would have still had the thread in his bag…”

-

The pieces of the great Soul Territory amethyst scatter over Nagisa’s chest as Rei collapses to his knees beside the prone Alpha, now-free hands darting in every direction, unsure where to touch first. Nagisa’s eyes are closed, bruised-looking and covered in red veins that are rapidly spreading over his entire face. “Nagisa!” he cries, finally getting his hands to settle on Nagisa’s neck, searching for a pulse. It’s nearly a futile attempt – Rei can hardly feel anything over his own racing heart, the rapid flashes of purple all around him no longer appearing beautiful. Now, they just make his panic spike more. A weak fluttering under Nagisa’s skin cuts through the fog in his head, like the wings of a hummingbird, just present enough for Rei to feel it, and he chokes on his breath. Relief and fear are fighting each other to be his primary emotion. “Nagisa, wake up!” He strokes a tender finger down the bridge of his Alpha’s nose. “Please, wake up.”

Nagisa mutters unintelligibly, nose scrunching under Rei’s finger, eyes cracking open just enough for a magenta sliver to be visible. “Rei.” His voice sounds like sandpaper, dragging over his tongue and falling heavy in the air of the room. “What happened?” He tries to sit up suddenly, only one eye responding properly, widening in realisation. The whole right side of his body barely responds. “My leg!” His chest heaves. “I cauterised it, and then-” Nagisa lets out a horrible wheezing sound and folds back down onto the ground, fingers clenched tightly. “I can’t breathe,” he pants, dragging one hand up to press at his chest, his throat, nails scratching at his skin. “Can’t breathe!”

“Don’t do that, you’re going to hurt yourself,” Rei begs, grabbing Nagisa’s scratching hand and holding it tight. “Ikuya, make sure he doesn’t move too much, I need to check his wound.” It takes everything in him to keep his voice from wavering as Rei reluctantly lets go of Nagisa and allows Ikuya to take hold of the Alpha’s hands, Nagisa looking even more red and flushed in comparison to the pale silver glow still clinging to Ikuya’s skin. “How long ago did you cauterise this?” Rei asks, anything to keep Nagisa talking. Nagisa’s thigh is a mess of blackened fabric and smoking skin, and Rei can hardly see anything properly.

Grunting, Nagisa manages to grind out, “An hour? Two? Whenever Ikuya went over to keep an eye on you.” He falls still as Rei carefully starts to peel the burned remains off his pants away from the wound. “Did I black out?” He is starting to sound a little better, though whether that is genuine, or put on to keep Rei at ease, Rei doesn’t know. Nagisa winces as cautious fingers prod his thigh, the flesh around the wound raw and tender, and Rei startles to discover that it is cold to the touch, almost freezing.

Brows creasing and his tongue poking out, Rei wipes at what looks like black and red grime covering Nagisa’s skin, trying to get a better look. It takes his shaken mind a minute or two until he realises that there is nothing but small flecks of dried blood clinging to Nagisa – his skin itself has been stained deep black and vibrant red, the colour pulsating out from the wound. “This can’t be…” Rei swallows thickly, unwanted pages of medical tomes flashing through his mind. Different types of magic-infused metals and the effects they have when mixed with other kinds of magic. He knows that Ikuya’s hunting knife, made of blue moon steel, would not injure someone beyond the usual injuries of a knife wound – unless they happened to be from the Sky Territory, thee mixture of the two magics creating a vitriolic and deadly reaction. Momo’s sunflare sword, or what was left of it, would have burnt Haruka alive should the Water Alpha have touched it. 

Rei has seen carefully inked drawings almost identical to what he is now seeing on Nagisa, and the more he moves Nagisa’s clothing, the more he sees the poison spreading, the colours spreading over his chest.

The tall Beta soldier with the ashy hair. Rei can just barely recall the man, but he was the last person Rei can remember seeing Nagisa fighting, golden flames colliding with silver light until Nagisa had bodily thrown the larger man to the ground. That is when the knife had been drawn. Nagisa has been stabbed with a blade forged from blood moon iron, and he is dying. Being poisoned, painfully, from the inside out as the dark moon magic battles the sun magic that lives in Nagisa’s very soul.

And Nagisa knows it, too. He has gone completely still and quiet on the flagstones, just watching Rei with his half-open eyes, full of love and overwhelming acceptance.

“No, no, no,” Rei whispers, reaching up to furiously scrub at his own eyes, praying to anyone who is listening that he is imagining the damning web of deadly magic ravaging his Alpha’s body. “This can’t be possible.” When he blinks, tears starting to burn in the corners of his eyes, Rei can still see the awful marks. The wound is pulsing with cold magic, Nagisa’s cauterisation merely slowing the ascension of the poison, but no where near enough to stop it completely. They need healing magic. “Ikuya!” Rei barks, looking up to the other Omega frantically. “This is moon magic – you must be able to do something!” The world is starting to feel funny around Rei, like he can only hear out of one ear, an invisible hand gripping his throat.

As his tears blur his vision, Rei can see a quivering silver outline start to form around Nagisa.

Ikuya, sitting on splayed knees, fidgets with his necklace nervously, the singed feathers cracked and brittle under his twitching fingers. He shakes head, utter hopelessness creeping into his face. “I don’t… I don’t know anything about healing magic. Nao says that I’m not strong enough yet!” He curls down on himself, reeking of distress as he continues to clutch at Nagisa’s hands with his own not already at his throat, teeth bared in a grimace. “I’m so sorry, I don’t know what to do.”

Rei doesn’t know what to do either, and he crawls away from Nagisa’s wounded leg, losing control of his limbs and simply lying down alongside his mate, throwing an arm out defensively as Nagisa curls towards him. Ikuya whines and backs away from the pair, reaching up to tug at his hair. “Nagisa,” Rei says, cups Nagisa’s face in trembling hands. “Don’t you dare die on me, not when we’re so close to having everything.”

Nagisa cracks a small smile and nuzzles into Rei’s hand, breathing deeply with his nose against Rei’s wrist. “I’ve loved the smell of roses since I was three years old,” he tells Rei, and he sounds like every word is taking an extraordinary amount of effort. “The day I met you was the best day of my life.”

“Don’t talk like your life has already finished,” Rei croaks, his voice sealing up as he starts to cry. “We have so much waiting for us – a Bond, a family, freedom. You have to be there to watch me learn how my magic works. I have to,” he chokes, throat closing, but he pushes on, “I have to see your face every morning when I wake up, and every night when I go to sleep.” He presses his forehead to Nagisa’s, feels the icy chill in his Alpha’s skin but maintains contact even as shudders roll through him. “You have to look after me.”

“You don’t need me to look after you anymore,” Nagisa says, and with every ounce of energy he has left, he pushes at Rei’s chest, turns the Omega down onto his back, and Nagisa settles his head on Rei’s chest, ear pressed to his heart. He smiles in the direction of Rei’s face. Silver sparks are exploding behind his eyes, and Nagisa lets them drift closed, taking each carefully measured breath expecting it to be his last.

Rei lets out a long, low whimper, levers himself upright and cradling Nagisa against him, curled down over his Alpha like Rei’s body weight can keep that shining soul threating to burst from his skin tethered to Nagisa somehow. “You’re not allowed to leave me,” he cries, “you promised you would never leave me!” And Nagisa’s eyes fly open in confusion when Rei’s fingers press against his lips, prising his mouth open.

“What are you doing?” he tries to ask, but the words stick. They won’t come out. His tongue has stopped working. His last thought is that he knows exactly what Rei is trying to do, and Nagisa fights the all-consuming silence to protest, to stop Rei from following Nagisa into the darkness.

Cupping the back of Nagisa’s head with his other hand, Rei desperately brings the Alpha’s face up to his neck, shivers when he feels Nagisa’s waning breath fanning over his scent gland. He pulls down on Nagisa’s jaw, fingers hooked over bloody teeth, and withdraws his hand just enough to push Nagisa’s mouth to his skin. “Take me with you,” he pleads, distantly aware that Nagisa has gone completely limp in his arms. “Please, I don’t want to live without you.” Rei’s eyes burn and burn and tears splash down his cheeks as he forces Nagisa’s jaws closed, one hand tender on Nagisa’s chin and the other twined in dirty golden hair, and sharp teeth pierce his skin.

“REI, NO!” Ikuya’s voice reaches him through a veil, a thick curtain of the finest velvet as Rei slumps forwards, sprawled over Nagisa.

“I love you, Nagisa,” Rei whispers, and he swears he can hear Nagisa replying, I love you, too, but no sound reaches his ears as his world slows down to a standstill.

Nothing.

Rei is violently wrenched from whatever cool, dark place he had started to sink into by small, strong hands grabbing his shoulders and pulling with all their might. Nagisa’s teeth slide out of his neck, and Nagisa falls from Rei’s grasp, and Rei screams. He thrashes wildly, because he can’t hear Nagisa’s heartbeat, can no longer smell fresh raspberries that remind him of warm summers and crisp winters, and the loving, protecting Alpha who is supposed to stand with him on the banks of Paradise.

“NAGISA!” the sound rips out of Rei’s throat, and he continues to fight the hold on him, thin arms wrapped around his torso, clinging desperately and dragging him further away from his Alpha. “NAGISA, WAKE UP RIGHT NOW!” He can feel blood trickling down his neck, and he screams again, bucking his head back and coming back to himself for the briefest second at the sickening crack of a nose breaking, followed by a wounded shriek of pain. The arms release Rei and he tears away from Ikuya, darting towards Nagisa’s prone body. “Nagisa, please, don’t go!”

Ikuya cups both hands over his face, feels hot wetness gushing between his fingers and tears clinging to his lashes because Nagisa is dead and Rei has gone mad, and Ikuya just sat there and watched it unfold and wished he was home where nothing bad could ever touch him.

Neither Omega notice the amethyst shards beginning to glow again, brighter than before. So bright it would hurt the eyes of anyone who looked at them as Rei hunches over Nagisa, swaying and sobbing and begging his Alpha to come back. Ikuya curls up in a ball, crying and repeating, ‘Rei, stop, just leave him’ over and over, scared out of his mind.

Rei feels like he is no longer in his body. He can see himself on the ground, dirty, dishevelled, screeching like a banshee, and Nagisa beside him, cold to the touch, skin a waxy red-black mess of still-pulsating magic. All around them, silvery figures are rushing like leaves in a blizzard, whipped into a frenzy as Rei’s untethered control of his magic slips away completely and begins to run rampant in the heart of the home of his ancestry.

Even if he had been coherent enough to witness what his own magic was doing, Rei would not have cared. He will never care about anything ever again, because his heart has been ripped in two.

Nagisa is dead.

Nagisa is dead.

He refuses to believe the words, and cracks his eyes open. One look at his mate – prone, chest still, eyes wide and glassy – sends Rei over the edge completely, and the tiny drops of his own blood staining Nagisa’s lips are the final nails in the coffin.

Rei tips his head back and howls until his voice shreds and wrecks itself, and then some.

-

Rin wakes with a start to the sound of his baby screaming bloody murder. He has never moved so fast in his life, leaping from his lonely bed and sprinting into the next room in just enough time to catch Kou in his arms as she tumbles from her hammock, reaching for him blindly with wildly grasping hands.

“What is it, baby girl?” he coos at her, trying to calm her down as she wriggles in his grip, curling in close one second, and nearly kicking him away the next, still screaming at the top of her lungs. “Kou!”

The little girl flips out of his arms and onto the floor of the hut, and Rin could start crying there on the spot because he has never heard his baby make a sound like this before, not even when she was dragged kicking and screaming into the world in the middle of the heaviest snowstorm of winter just to let the world know that she did not appreciate the frigid chill in the air. Rin lights a fire in both hands and sends them circling the room as he swoops down to gather his daughter up against his chest, pressing her face to his neck and scenting the top of her head, concentrating every pheromone on calming her down.

Something wet drips onto his bare chest, Rin wearing nothing but his favourite robe to bed, and he thinks Kou is crying until he looks down.

Red. Red like his hair. Red like Kou’s eyes. Red like blood.

Drops of blood roll down Rin’s skin, still bruised yellow from Sousuke’s rut, and glistening in the light of his sun fire. He takes Kou’s tiny shoulders in hand and pulls her back frantically, eyes flicking over every inch of her for signs of injury. Her hair is matted to her neck as blood oozes from her ears, it drips from her nose and leaks from the corners of her eyes, and Rin has to hold back a scream of his own.

Kou’s eyes are lit up bright purple, the colour sweeping down her little body and settling in her veins.

“Impossible,” he whispers, his mate’s magic filling their daughter. Rin doesn’t understand. Children always inherit their magic from their mother parent.

“Mama!” Kou sobs, her little hands finding the soft fabric of his robe clinging to his shoulders and grabbing on. “Mama, it hurts!”

“What hurts, baby?” he asks desperately, calls out to Sousuke through their Bond for some kind of help. All he gets back is a confusing flash of pain. Shit, he thinks. “Where do you hurt, Kou? Mama can’t help if you don’t tell me what is wrong.”

Kou dissolves into proper tears, surging forwards to bury her face against Rin’s stomach. “He’s so sad,” she babbles, hands sliding from Rin’s robe to cover her bleeding ears. “He won’t stop crying!”

Across the room, a tiny purple light bursts into life, glowing so bright that Rin has to stop looking at the spot on their small table where he had laid Kou’s earring, the polished jewel dangling from the hook the source of the light.

“I don’t understand,” Rin says, trying to keep his voice level. “Are you talking about Papa? Is Papa sad?” He balks when Kou shakes her head, just repeating herself again. Rin is at a loss of what to do, and he reaches out to Sousuke once more, stronger this time, trying to throw his presence into his Alpha’s consciousness.

All he gets is a vision of Sousuke collapsed on his knees, head pressed into the ground as blood bubbles from his ears, a vaguely-familiar looking pink-haired Omega shaking his shoulder desperately. Whatever is happening, it is affecting both Rin’s husband, and his child, and he can do nothing but watch.

Across the Forests, Kisumi clings to Sousuke’s shoulders, trying to shake the large Alpha out of whatever magic vice that has him captured in its grip. When Sousuke finally lifts his face from the ground, he is streaked with blood from the eyes down and Kisumi dry-retches at the sight, falling back into Asahi’s grip as his own Alpha frets over him. They had been walking along, the same as they had for the past day, until Sousuke’s knees had buckled and he began careening to the ground. He had had just enough of his wits left about him to cushion Kisumi’s descent to the floor of the Forests, Asahi immediately there to pull his Omega out of harms’ way as Sousuke had hunkered down close to the ground with a barely repressed growl of agony.

“What is it?” Kisumi yelps from the protective cage of Asahi’s arms, and even as he is pulled back a little more, Makoto and Haruka crowd around Sousuke, concern radiating off them.

Sousuke grunts, and swats at his head like a dog with a fly in his ear. His magic swells up, veins turning purple, and his eyes glowing even under his eyelids. “Rei,” he grunts out finally, and Makoto seizes up, his hold on Haruka’s arm so tight the Alpha winces. Sousuke spits blood into the dirt. “Rei,” he calls out, voice sounding odd and far-away, like he isn’t speaking to the people in his presence. “Rei!

 

Chapter Text

Just as Isuzu and Gou are settling down to sleep, buried in the ditch created by a felled tree and the soft black earth, they hear armoured footsteps heading in their direction, tramping over twigs and gasping tendrils of magic alike. It has been several hours since the girls slipped away from the royal camp to look for their friends, and their bodies had demanded rest after the extreme amount of physical activity they have been forced to do in the last several days. Isuzu is dozing half asleep against Gou’s shoulder, her arm thrown over the princess’ waist protectively, but Gou is still fully awake, rattled from seeing her father so soon after being sure she was free of him forever. She is the one who hears the footsteps, who shakes Isuzu’s shoulder to wake the former guard, who pricks her ears up and listens intensely.

Her father’s voice rings out clear in the deathly silence of the Forests, and Gou slaps a hand over her face to keep her shocked cry inside.

“This blood moon iron has me wondering,” King Matsuoka says as he walks closer and closer to the place where Gou and Isuzu are sprawled in the dirt, “just how something so dangerous to the people of my bloodline was allowed to be brought into my army.” The ice in his voice is palpable, a tone Gou is more than familiar with, having heard it on the daily while growing up as she failed again and again to meet her father’s expectations as his heir apparent. The King snaps, “I hope that when we return to Sol, you will not fail at such a duty again. Do not forget that your family’s safety comes at the price of your undivided loyalty to me as my body guard.”

Isuzu breathes out, “Oh shit,” against Gou’s collarbone, and Gou glances down at the horrified look on her girlfriend’s face.

“What?” she asks as quietly as she can, curling in tighter against Isuzu as the flames in her father’s hand, lighting his way through the dark, bleak Forests, get too close for comfort.

“He’s with Hoshikawa,” Isuzu whimpers, and she honestly looks more terrified now than she ever has over the entire journey. At the questioning look Gou shoots at her, Isuzu says, “He’s the King’s personal body guard.”

Gou raises one of her eyebrows critically. “I know who he is,” she says, “what is the big deal about him? You’re my personal body guard.”

Isuzu shakes her head. “You don’t understand. The King tested Seijuro to take the position of his personal guard when his previous one was killed during a riot. Seijuro didn’t meet the King’s standards, but Hoshikawa did.” She makes a face when Gou nods at her to urge her on. “Seijuro was sixteen and had already been serving the prince for four years, Hoshikawa was only ten at the time – he’s the youngest personal guard to a reigning monarch in history. I’ve seen him take out an entire legion on his own. His magical prowess is legendary amongst the guards. Momo and I sparred against him once, he flattened us both without even drawing a weapon.” Isuzu draws breath. “There were even talks of putting him in the Eclipse to go up against Kisumi, but nothing ever came of it because the King relies on him so heavily.”

Her stomach flipping over, Gou swallows nervously without reply. She has obviously interacted with the man her father trusted to watch his back at every given moment, but she knew nothing about him. Hardly knew him as anything other than the shadow that has followed a step behind her father for nearly twenty years. The royal guards have always had to wear a mask of some description, but the full-face mask the King forces onto Hoshikawa is beyond any covering Gou had seen before, leaving only the man’s eyes exposed. She had once idly wondered if the mask even allowed the man to speak. She looks over to where her father has paused his walking. She balks for a second, thinking that he had heard them talking, until she notices that he is waiting for someone.

Sure enough, his darkly-clad body guard steps into the circle of the King’s firelight, sans both his cape and mask. Gou and Isuzu both gasp in silence upon seeing Hoshikawa face for the first time. “No way…” Isuzu whispers, eyes widening almost comically as the scars on Hoshikawa’s face are thrown into sharp relief by the light of the fire. “No way.” Shiny, white, healed-over tear tracks are scarred into the man’s pale skin, so familiar to Gou and Isuzu now after travelling with Makoto and Kisumi.

“He’s from the Star Territory,” Gou marvels, and both girls sit up, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation the two are having. Isuzu unsheathes her sword. Just in case. “I can’t believe it. No wonder he’s as strong as you say he is…” She purses her lips. “I wonder if my father knows?”

Isuzu snorts, rolling her eyes. “I bet he does.”

“Forgive me, your majesty,” Hoshikawa says, his smooth voice even and uninflected. “I was unaware of the existence of blood moon iron. I will ensure that only your most trusted guards have access to it in the future.”

King Matsuoka purses his lips. “Good,” he says, and then casts his head back to peer up through the trees. Gou follows her father’s line of sight and discovers that she and Isuzu have chosen one of the only patches of trees in the Forests that opens up so that you can see the sky. A handful of stars are shining down on them, sending rivulets of sparkling black dripping down what little of Hoshikawa’s skin is visible. “Have you caught their trail yet?” the King asks, hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “If what you say is true, that a total exhaustion of magic would be enough to send that Eclipse fighter into labour if he survived it, then it won’t be long now.” He puts his other hand on Hoshikawa’s shoulder and clutches so tightly his nails would split flesh if not for the leather armour the guard wears. “Do not let me down, Tsubasa,” the King purrs dangerously. “You know what happens when you disappoint me.” Hoshikawa nods obediently, and King releases his shoulder. “Now find that Omega bitch. I cannot trust any of those fools back at the camp to bring me the pup in one piece, no matter what instructions I left them with.”

“A question occurred to me when we were listening in one the lords in the army’s camp,” Isuzu whispers to Gou. “Why would the King be after the pup of two people he intends to have executed?”

Gou is already frowning at her father, thinking hard. She is mulling over the laws of her people, trying to think of a reason why her father would be so insistent on finding Kisumi that he left his entire entourage behind to do it. Something occurs to her, and her stomach drops into her knees as cold realisation sweeps over her. “He doesn’t want Kisumi,” she says lowly, mulling over the information they already know. “He wants the pup. Clearly, he knows that Kisumi is Star blood, and presumably his pup will be, too.” She grits her teeth. “But that’s not the only reason. There was… a rumour. When I was little. That my uncle had an illegitimate child. Older than both Rin and I.”

“That would make him a potential successor to the throne, if he was claimed by your family,” Isuzu mutters. She knows how this works. It has happened in the Sun Territory before – a barren King, a King whose children have died, claiming the child illegitimate or otherwise of his other relatives as his heir to maintain the Matsuoka bloodline, no matter how thin the connection.

“Yes,” Gou says. “If my father hadn’t sent the child to the Eclipse Arena in the hopes of eliminating the threat.” She snorts. “He probably regretted that decision as soon as Rin presented as an Omega.”

“Wait.” Isuzu thinks she can see where this is going. “You’re not saying that… Kisumi?

Gou shakes her head, rolling her eyes. “No, we both know that Kisumi came to Sol from Sirius when he was a child.”

Asahi?!” Isuzu gasps, a little too loud. They both smack hands over each other’s mouths as Hoshikawa’s head turns in their direction, green eyes glittering in the light of the fire. “Shit.” Two sets of lungs burn as the Betas hold as still as possible until the guard looks away again. “Do you think he heard us?” she hardly breathes. They let another minute pass, eyes fixed on the King and his guard as the two dangerous men wait in the starlight for… something to happen. “Are you saying that Asahi is technically your cousin?”

Shrugging one shoulder, Gou raises a hand dismissively. “I don’t know for certain, no one would ever tell me something like that. But, my father would know. And why else would he want the baby so desperately? My brother is dead, and my father is clearly prepared to drag my body home if he has to. He needs an heir.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?!” Isuzu hisses. “Don’t you think that that is something that Asahi should know?”

Gou flails her hands. “It only just occurred to me! It’s a miracle I even know that much considering how much effort my father puts into keeping me segregated from-”

And that marks the end of their conversation, as both girls are distracted by Hoshikawa swinging in a half-circle, his eyes unfocused, and he starts walking off into the trees again, leaving the King scrambling to follow him. The look in his eyes is one that Isuzu has seen before, back in Blaze, the day Makoto followed a trail of lights only he could see right to the doorway of the hut where Kisumi stood waiting for him. If people of Star descent can track each other, then Hoshikawa has clearly picked up Kisumi’s scent, and he is leading the King straight to Gou and Isuzu’s friends.

“We have to follow them,” they say in tandem, and ignoring the screaming of their bodies to just lay down and sleep for several hours, the girls get to their shaky feet. Gou takes Isuzu’s hand in both of hers, and Isuzu is shocked to find the princess trembling. “Are you alright, my love?” she asks, her voice soft and concerned as she pushes Gou’s dirty hair off her face and kisses her forehead sweetly. Gou says nothing, just leans her head on Isuzu’s shoulder for a moment, soaking up her warmth and strength. “Seeing him was a fright, wasn’t it?” Isuzu guesses, and is rewarded with a nod from Gou. “I’m so sorry.” And Isuzu wraps her arms around the love of her life, letting Gou cry out all her frustrations into the night. Once she has finished, small sniffles leaving her occasionally, and the collar of Isuzu’s tunic soaked through to the skin, Isuzu pulls Gou’s face back and kisses her. “It’s alright.”

Gou smiles at her, wobbly and sad, but a smile none the less. “Now,” she says, thick and strained from her cries. “Let’s follow them before they get too far ahead of us.”

Isuzu creeps out from behind the tree first, fully expecting Hoshikawa to be waiting on the other side with his deadly swords and deadlier magic, but he is not. She gestures Gou out behind her, and they begin to cautiously edge through the trees in the same general direction as the King and his body guard. It takes nearly two hours for them to even know if they are on the right track – and if it weren’t for Isuzu’s sharp eyes catching sight of moving sunfire in the distance, then they almost certainly would have lost their targets for sure. Staying at a respectable distance, far enough away to not be seen, but close enough to not lose the King, is a difficult task. Isuzu has basic tracking training, but Gou has nothing, walking blindly behind her girlfriend and concentrating on keeping her breathing and her footsteps as silent as possible.

The King is ruthless to Hoshikawa, keeping the man moving even when Hoshikawa starts to tremble, his hands pressed to the sides of his head as he forces himself to concentrate on the dancing lights leading him onwards. He did not get to eat before the King dragged him from the camp, and even he gets knocked back by using too much magic, having performed two large healings within minutes of each other. If it weren’t for the stars above them, he would have crumpled to the ground mere hours into the search. As it is, Hoshikawa fears that he is mere moments away from doing so anyway, guilt warring away inside him along with his forced loyalty to the King and fear for his family left behind in Sol.

Eventually, as the sun starts to peak through the trees and the Betas have to follow at an even further distance as their veins light up in response, Hoshikawa shakes his head and begs, “Please, my King, no more tonight. I fear I will lead you astray in this state.” He turns longing eyes on the curve of a small stream that they have stumbled across, the clear water calling to his parched throat. Even his legendary stamina has limits, and the King has been driving him forwards for the good part of six and a half hours.

King Matsuoka is not pleased by his subordinate’s request, but he relents none-the-less, having no other way of tracking down his prize. Gou has seen that expression of disappointed resignation on his face thousands of times in her life. “Fine. Sit. You may have until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and then you continue on.” And the King and his guard sit, the King resting his back against a tree as he dozes off, and Hoshikawa crawling on hands and knees to drink from the stream, wetting his hair and pushing the indigo strands back off his face.

Gou and Isuzu quietly creep up to a large outcropping of rocks a stone’s throw away, and are pleasantly surprised to discover a tiny cave hidden underneath the rocks. Exhausted, they crawl inside, the opening so small they barely fit. They are far too tired to wonder at the presence of thin fur rugs and manmade braces holding the cave roof up as they settle down on the floor, wrapped in each other’s arms in the confined space. Isuzu is a light sleeper, well used to being roused by the clanking of armour. She will hear when the King stirs again.

Hoshikawa returns to the King’s side and lays down at the man’s feet, his chest heaving with exertion and his eyes flicking over to the rocks by the stream. He knows that they are being followed, and he is almost certain he knows who it is – he has trained with the Mikoshiba siblings enough over the years to pick up Isuzu’s scent. No doubt, the princess is with her too. However, the King has not instructed him to find the princess, or her traitorous guard, and so he draws no attention to them, hoping that they will eventually decide to be smart and leave while they are still alive. He closes his aching eyes and turns his thoughts to other things. Hoshikawa has his suspicions about why the King wants to get his hands on this pup so badly, but it is not Hoshikawa’s place to question his master.

That does not stop the guilt from eating away at him. He knows of Kisumi, Death Bringer. Both as an awed fighter in the Eclipse Arena, and as Hoshikawa’s kin. They were familiar with each other on the boats and the long journey to Sol from their island homes in the Star Territory, although they were quickly separated once reaching the city as Hoshikawa was taken in by the castle as a guard in training, and Kisumi as an Omega slave in the King’s harem. To think that he is betraying his own blood more than he already has by pledging allegiance to the barbaric King of the Sun Territory makes Hoshikawa’s skin crawl.

He can only hope that divine providence intervenes, and force his hand one way or the other.

Hours later, the sun fully realised in the flashes of bright blue sky, Isuzu is indeed wakened by the sound of the King’s armour clinking as he stands. She nudges Gou gently, laying her hand over Gou’s mouth to prevent any sound coming out as they listen for the King’s orders. “Get up,” the King commands, and Isuzu winces at the sound of booted foot meeting leather-covered ribs. “I have special orders for you.

Hesitantly, Isuzu pulls herself forwards on her elbows to peer out of the cave. The King is standing over Hoshikawa as the guard gets to his feet, looking far more steady than he did when he asked for a respite. “What is it, my King?” Hoshikawa asks obediently.

“Go find me that pup on your own,” the King says, boredom prevalent in his voice. “I have grown weary of the search. I shall wait here. You are to return within three days, with the pup and its parents’ heads, or I shall name you a traitor and send word back that your family is to be executed in their places. Understand?” And he smiles at Hoshikawa, a horrible, evil expression. He reaches for his belt and removes the muzzle-like mask from it. “Put this back on if you cannot stomach the thought of your old friend knowing it is you stealing his child and family away.” He throws it at Hoshikawa’s feet and laughs as the guard bends to pick it up, holding it to his chest with fingers shaking in rage. “Well, Hoshikawa? Will you do as I ask?”

Hoshikawa bows stiffly. “Yes, my King. As you wish.”

The King nods. “Good. Now go.” He puts his hand on the hilt of his sword. “There is a matter here that I must deal with.”

As Hoshikawa turns from the King, he sees the King level his eyes on the outcropping of rocks beside the stream. His heart sinks. He had hoped that the princess and her guard would be smarter than that. Knowing that there is nothing he can do, Hoshikawa pulls his mask on and sets his eyes on the lights ahead of him.

He has a mission to complete.


Sousuke’s skin is still stained with flakes of dried blood. Kisumi can feel it under his fingers when he touches Sousuke’s neck to get his attention.

“You can put me down if it is too much for you,” Kisumi says, again, fiddling idly with the collar of Sousuke’s shirt as the small company trudges on through the Forests of Treachery. “Really, Sousuke, if I’m too heavy, or you are too tired, you don’t have to carry me anymore.” He clears his throat, tucking his hair behind an ear and leaning his cheek against the Alpha’s warm neck, eyes squeezed tightly shut. They haven’t been able – nor have they wanted – to stop and construct him a makeshift blindfold, and Kisumi has been desperately keeping his burning eyes closed for hours now, terrified of accidentally hurting his mate or his friends. “I can walk if it makes it any easier on y-”

No,” two Alpha voices growl at once, Sousuke’s chest rumbling against Kisumi’s side and Asahi’s adamant command reaching Kisumi’s sensitive ears from all the way at the back of the group, Makoto and Haruka weary and stumbling between them. Asahi abandons his position taking up the rear guard to jog up beside his Omega and the Alpha carrying him. “You stay right where you are,” Asahi says levelly, trying with all his might to remain calm in the face of all that has happened since yesterday morning. “If Sousuke says he can still carry you, then he can still carry you.”

Kisumi sighs in resignation and nods his head, laying his cheek against Sousuke’s shoulder and resolving to nap until they decide to take a rest. Makoto is insistent that Sousuke sit down every few hours to have some water and allow Makoto or Kisumi to look him over. They are all still deeply shaken from the incident the previous night. The image of Sousuke writhing on the ground with his hands clasped over his ears, blood oozing between his fingers, and screaming out for Rei like a dying animal is imprinted firmly in all four of their minds. Kisumi can see it playing over and over again on the backs of his eyelids, can still hear Sousuke’s desperate voice cracking and splitting over each shout of Rei’s name ringing in his ears.

The entire ordeal, for Kisumi, comes back to him in three distinct flashes of panic. The first had been when Sousuke collapsed, startling Kisumi half to death with the fear he was about to be sent crashing to the ground. Sousuke, however, had had enough wits left about him to cradle Kisumi gently to the ground and then roll him onto his side. After that had been the moment when Kisumi looked over his shoulder to see red. Red everywhere – Sousuke’s ears and nose dripping with it, foamy red saliva sliding down his chin, and his eyes flashing bright purple as the Alpha cried tears of blood. The third and final bout of panic had come as Asahi had dragged Kisumi away from Sousuke, large hands on Kisumi’s wrists as the Omega tried to comfort his friend. Not one of them had known what was going on, no one knew what was causing the bleeding, and nothing Makoto or Kisumi tried to do would stop the blood from dripping down onto the black earth below Sousuke’s head.

It had taken hours for Sousuke to finally fall silent, slumping against the ground with a painful whimper, his dazed eyes staring far away into the distance. And then, he had sat up, wiped his eyes, and asked what everyone was standing around for.

Like nothing had even happened.

Kisumi is jolted out of his thoughts by the light rumble of laughter deep in Sousuke’s chest, hard muscle pressed against Kisumi’s swollen side. “What on earth could you possibly be laughing at?” Kisumi asks, dry, clicking his tongue and trying to keep a small smile off his face just in case Sousuke has gone insane from blood loss or something equally ridiculous and life threatening.

“I can feel the baby kicking,” Sousuke says softly, and Kisumi realises that the little kicks against his side must be strong enough for Sousuke to feel through the clothes separating them. “I’d nearly forgotten the sensation.” He sounds so wistful that Kisumi risks the boiling magic finally starting to build back up in his soul to open his eyes a crack and observe the breathtaking expression on Sousuke’s face, so full of nostalgia and longing. Sousuke blinks, feeling an odd heat radiating below his chin suddenly, and he looks down just in time to see the bright pink light in Kisumi’s eyes being shut off as he closes them once again. He wonders just what the Omega saw. “My daughter’s name is Kou,” Sousuke says after a few minutes of silence, listening back to the quiet conversation Makoto and Haruka are having with Asahi about the latter’s life in Blaze. “She turns six this winter.”

Tilting his head back against Sousuke’s neck again, Kisumi runs his hands over his belly, pressing his palms soothingly into the sore spots along his sides. “What is she like?” he finds himself asking, trying to imagine how his own daughter might turn out. If we make it, he thinks darkly, and immediately feel a reprimanding jab through his Bond with Asahi, his Alpha always acutely aware of when Kisumi’s mind threatens mutiny. “Tell me about your family,” Kisumi asks tiredly.

Sousuke smiles at the Omega drifting off in his arms, hitching Kisumi up just enough that his head slots neatly into the junction of Sousuke’s neck and shoulder, reminding Sousuke so much of Rin. “We live in a hut that we built out of river stones and wood, in the only safe part of the Forests – the only safe place in the entire Deadlands.” He thinks Kisumi might mumble a small ‘why?’ at him, but Sousuke can’t be sure. He answers regardless, readjusting his grip on Kisumi’s legs and back, trying to keep the pregnant Omega as comfortable as possible in such awkward travelling conditions. “Just like Asahi, Rin is from the Sun Territory. Somehow, the combination of our magics began purifying the clearing where we live, and the Soul magic started to flow through the land again. I hope that, one day, we might just see the Soul Territory regain its heart once more.”

“That would be nice,” Kisumi whispers, and something occurs to him. “You are the guard who escaped Sol with the prince and the young Lord Kirishima,” he says, grinning faintly. “So, Prince Rin is still alive, then. I’m sure the princess… will be…” he swallows, starting to fade quickly into sleep, “I’m sure she will be happy.” He raises a hand to paw sloppily at Sousuke’s chest. “You know, Ikuya is the younger brother of the young lord?”

Sousuke stops in his tracks, staring at Kisumi with wide eyes as the Omega slips away into unconsciousness before Sousuke can respond. “What?” he asks, aghast. Then, he stumbles slightly when Makoto walks right into his back with a grumbled complaint. “Shit. Sorry, Makoto.”

The Omega shakes his head, skirting around Sousuke to peer at the Alpha with narrowed green eyes. “Do you need to sit down?” he asks suspiciously, reaching over Kisumi to run careful fingers over Sousuke’s forehead, the only one of the group even close to being tall enough to do so. “You look… peaky.”

“I feel peaky,” Sousuke replies monotonously, reeling over the information that has just been handed to him. All these years, Sousuke and Rin had been under the impression that the baby Nao had been carrying was the child of his mate, the young lord he served, and that the two were running to Paradise to escape the punishment that would undoubtably have fallen on them should Natsuya’s father had found out. “I don’t understand,” Sousuke mutters to himself, barely cognisant of his companions gathering around him and Asahi gently hauling his sleeping Omega into his own arms as Makoto and Haruka make Sousuke sit on the ground. He looks up at Haruka, knows that the young Water Alpha will be bluntly honest with him. “How can Ikuya be Natsuya’s brother?”

Haruka tilts his head thoughtfully. “The rumours about Lord Kirishima’s treatment of his Omegan staff hold more than a grain of truth,” he says, eyes flicking over to Makoto and his careful words belying a wish to spare his mate the true harshness of what he wished to say. “Nao was not the first, nor the last. He was just one of the lucky ones who got away.”

Stomach plummeting into his heels, Sousuke unwittingly recalls all the nightmarish stories about Lord Kirishima that had been whispered around the halls of the castle and in the streets of Sol. Wandering hands barely hidden in public, Omegas being taken in and then thrown out within months over and over again, murmurs of children with the Kirishima eyes being raised in the slums by single mothers with pale collar marks still stark on their necks. By the looks of Haruka and Makoto, Lord Kirishima may have stopped collaring his servants, but he hasn’t stopped exacting his power over them. Sousuke scrubs at his face with his hands. “Oh gods,” is all he can think of to say. “Those poor boys…” He is talking specifically about Nao and Natsuya, but he knows that they probably were not the only ones affected by the tyranny of Lord Kirishima. “We didn’t know.”

“No one did, until Ikuya told us,” Makoto whispers, his arm settling around Sousuke’s shoulders comfortingly. “Don’t think about it too hard.”

Sousuke nods dumbly, and lets Makoto poke and prod at his ears and under his eyes.

A little way away from the impromptu check-up, Haruka hovering at Makoto’s side and clearly wanting to press Sousuke for more information on what on earth had happened to him and why he had been calling out for Rei like his life depended on it, Asahi holds Kisumi close to his chest. The Omega is sound asleep for once, curled up to his Alpha’s body with his relaxed face tucked into Asahi’s shoulder, hands folded neatly over his belly. Asahi covers Kisumi’s hands with his own, twining their fingers together as he drops a kiss to the Omega’s forehead. It’s dark and cold in the Forests, several more hours to go until the sun begins to rise, and as he casts his gaze up through the gaps in the branches to the starless sky, Asahi sends a prayer up to whichever magical deity still watches over this damned, awful part of the land that his mate and pup survive the rest of their journey.

One close call had sent Asahi to his wit’s end. He dare not think about what the world would come to had their pup died from Kisumi’s magic depletion.

“Please, please don’t ever take him away from me,” Asahi begs the sky, his chin resting softly in familiar pink hair. “Not after everything we’ve been through – the arena fights, the running, surviving on our own…”

Kisumi grunts, twitching a little in Asahi’s hold. “I won’t leave you, silly Asahi,” he murmurs, words thick and slurred against Asahi’s collarbone. Groggy, Kisumi tries to lever himself upright, and ends up pouting at Asahi with his eyes still firmly closed until the Alpha wraps Kisumi up in his arms and helps the Omega sit upright in the space between Asahi’s thighs, legs hooked over Asahi’s hips. Kisumi pants, exhausted from even that simple movement, and rests his forehead against his Alpha’s, their Bond singing at the physical connection. He reaches up to brush feather light fingers over the scarred Bond mark on Asahi’s neck, drags them up over jumping pulse point and that sharp jawline Kisumi is prone to nibbling on during his heats. He touches Asahi’s face, the swell of his lips and the roughness of his cheeks in desperate need of a shave. “I love you,” Kisumi says, his thumb dragging Asahi’s bottom lip down as he leans over his own belly to kiss his Alpha.

Responding eagerly, Asahi locks strong, scarred arms behind Kisumi’s back, deft fingers kneading at knots and sore spots as he tilts his head to taste his Omega’s mouth. It is in that moment that he comes to the realisation that this is the first time he has kissed Kisumi since the Omega was nearly taken away from him, and Asahi doubles down on his efforts, sliding one hand up the tense line of Kisumi’s spine to tangle in long pink hair, using the new leverage to pull his Omega in as close as possible. Kisumi pants into Asahi’s mouth, and Asahi swallows the breath sounds, Alpha jealousy making him wary of attracting the attention of his nearby companions.

Only Asahi gets to witness Kisumi in this state.

Clinging to Asahi is the only thing on Kisumi’s mind as his hands dig into the thick meat of the Alpha’s shoulders, holding on for dear life as the pressure behind his eyes suddenly has to fight the fire in Kisumi’s body for dominant place in his senses. His insides are twisting and turning in a way that Kisumi has never felt before, hot and not-entirely pleasant. Kisumi purrs low in his throat when Asahi skilfully works warm hands between the layers of woollen cloak to touch Kisumi’s skin, feeling all the bumps and ridges of burns and scars from years fighting in the arena, and Kisumi actually briefly considers mating right there on the floor of the Forests of Treachery, in front of three of his new friends and completely exposed to whatever danger might just stumble across them in such a state.

He catches himself on the brink of asking Asahi to mount him, and pulls back, the wet slide of their mouths loud in the relative silence. Kisumi tries to say that they should stop, that the time and place is so wholly inappropriate, but he is cut off by Asahi himself, the Alpha’s hand sliding hotly down the small of Kisumi’s back to cup snugly under his ass.

“Pregnancy really does get you wet from the smallest kiss, doesn’t it, baby,” Asahi marvels, and makes to touch his Omega far more intimately upon meeting slick wetness between Kisumi’s cheeks.

Kisumi goes completely still at Asahi’s words, taking stock of his own body for several moments. “Asahi,” he says, feeling a little bit like he has been punched in the stomach. He is nowhere near aroused enough to be producing slick, pregnancy hormones be damned. “Asahi, that isn’t slick.”

It is Asahi’s turn to freeze, leaning his head away to stare at Kisumi’s face as the Omega slowly opens his eyes. The two retract their hands from each other’s bodies, blinking very slowly in tandem as Asahi raises his hand to his nose, his skin shining wetly even in the dull light around them. He scents his hand, that sweet powder smell that has been clinging to Kisumi for months so strong that both of them flare their nostrils over it. “Pup,” Asahi says smartly.

“Pup,” Kisumi repeats, shocked. He can feel it now, now that his brain knows what that unfamiliar churning deep in his gut is, the sinking-tugging behind his navel of something starting to move. He surges forwards suddenly, grasping Asahi’s biceps up tight in clawed fingers. “Asahi!” he yelps, eyes wide and burning with pink light threatening to overflow and burn. “Asahi, the pup!”

Asahi lets out all the air in his lungs and wheezes for a moment, and then takes Kisumi’s face in both hands and kisses him firmly. “Wait right here,” he says, and then carefully extracts himself from under Kisumi’s legs. He snorts when Kisumi grumbles something that sounds vaguely like ‘Where the fuck do you think I’m going to go?’ at as Asahi stands up and sprints over to the rest of their companions. “Sousuke!” he barks, doubling over and panting a little from the sudden bout of speed, “How far away from your hut are we?!”

“About three hours,” Sousuke replies, looking at Asahi with concern in his eyes and waving off Makoto as the Omega continues fretting over him. “Why?”

“Makoto was right,” Asahi says, words blurring together, and both Haruka and Sousuke notice that Asahi is nearly vibrating where he is standing. “The pup isn’t going to wait until the end of the month.” He can no longer keep the huge grin off his face. “She’s coming right now.”

A beat of silence passes before Makoto jumps nearly a foot in the air and runs right over to where Kisumi is sitting with his knees drawn in and his feet splayed out, cradling his belly with a sharp wince on his face, eyes barely keeping closed. “Are you alright?” Makoto asks, crouching down beside Kisumi and putting a hand on his shoulder. He can feel the magic crackling under Kisumi’s skin, starting to pulse out of him in little waves.

“Feels weird,” Kisumi says, voice breathy and strained. “Doesn’t hurt.” He swallows. “Yet.” More swallowing, until he finally turns his head and spits on the ground, tiny pink sparks popping across the dead leaves on contact. “There is this dull pressure right here,” and he presses his hand to the underside of his stomach, wincing as he does. “It’s actually starting to make me feel a bit ill. Is that normal?” And he turns his head in Makoto’s direction, cracking one eye open slightly to peer at Makoto blearily.

Makoto can only shake his head. “I don’t know,” he replies. “I haven’t had very much experience with child birth. Or any at all.” And he shrugs hopelessly. “But as long as you’re not in immediate pain and we can move you, Sousuke says we are almost at his hut, and his mate can help you.”

“Good,” Kisumi grunts, face screwing up. “Okay, the pain has started to kick in. Ouch.” He gasps, back arching, and then settles back down again. “And it’s gone again.”

“Are you alright to be moved, Kisumi?” Sousuke asks, hurrying over with Asahi hot on his heels and Haruka trailing behind picking up the few meagre supplies they still have with them. He looks quite uncomfortable with Asahi’s bow and arrows held awkwardly in his hands. Makoto shoots him a sympathetic look, helping his Alpha by taking the weapons away from him. Sousuke kneels on Kisumi’s other side and holds his hands out, allowing the Omega to climb into his arms and hold on around his neck. “Ready?” Sousuke waits for Kisumi to nod, and then stands, bringing Kisumi along with him. Kisumi gasps, flailing a little and burying his face in Sousuke’s chest. “Kisumi…”

Asahi is right there in an instant, his magic starting to crackle over his skin as his nerves shoot through the roof, golden flames jumping along his joints. He reaches up to brush Kisumi’s hair behind his ears. “Kisu, are you-”

“I’m fine,” Kisumi is quick to reassure his Alpha, one stray hand ending up tangled with Asahi’s over Kisumi’s chest. “Just some twinges where they’re supposed to be. You just worry about getting us to our destination safely, and I’ll concentrate on our pup. Sound like a deal?”

Nodding firmly, Asahi takes up his weapons from Makoto’s hands, the tall Omega gladly handing them over and returning to Haruka’s side with an excited grin starting to spread across his face. Haruka casts his eyes over Kisumi, and his own mouth turns up at the corners. Something bright and beautiful is about to happen, even in the darkest place on earth. Asahi straps his quiver to his back and salutes his mate diligently. “Deal!” he says, and turns to Sousuke. “Lead the way,” he tells the older man.

Sousuke adjusts his grip on Kisumi to make sure he won’t drop the Omega, and sets off towards that tugging, longing sensation, the thread connecting him to his mate. To Rin. “I’m coming home, baby,” he whispers, and takes the first step.


The sun rises, and Rin wakes as it breaks through the clouds, light pouring in the unblocked window of his tiny room. It has been mere hours since he finally calmed Kou down enough for the little girl to fall into an exhausted sleep against his chest, where she is still curled up with her hands balled under her chin. Rin had tried his best in the light of his own waning fire to wipe the blood from his daughter’s ears and face, but he can see now that dark flakes of it have dried to her neck, her hair, and to Rin’s own skin. He looks at her sleeping face – finally peaceful after the terror of the night – and decides that they both deserve a good soak in the bath. “Time to wake up, baby girl,” he coos to her, brushing her dark hair off her face and wincing when he can hear the dried blood crackling beneath his fingers.

“Head hurts,” Kou whines, curling further against him, turning her face to hide from the light in the window, only to be met with the light of her mother’s skin. “Mama, too bright,” she mumbles.

Rin manages a small smile at her antics as Kou squeezes her eyes shut against the offending light, and forces his sleepy brain to dim the golden glow in his veins. “Sorry, Kou,” he says, gently starting to pry the clumps of her hair apart while she is lying still. “How would you like a bath today?” he asks her lightly, already well aware of how much his daughter loves bathing.

She brightens immediately, little head popping up and a grin fighting its way onto her peaky face, crimson eyes shining. “Yes!” is all she has to say on the matter, wiggling out of Rin’s arms and sitting up on the thin mattress, which is already starting to compress flat on Sousuke’s side from the sheer weight of the huge Alpha. Rin groans, thinking about how much work it is gathering and drying the moss to stuff the damn thing with. “Come on, Mama!” Kou grabs at Rin’s hand and starts to pull, and Rin laughs quietly.

Apparently, the ordeal last night was not enough to keep his daughter’s spirit down.

That thought makes Rin remember the rather shocking reveal of Kou’s magic bloodline, the image of her purple veins vividly etched into his mind, and he pauses midway through sitting up with his bottom lip caught between his teeth. He wishes that Sousuke was there. Sousuke would know exactly how to handle this, would know what is going on. Sousuke would have a reason why their daughter seems to be exempt from the maternal lineage of magic inheritance. Rin’s heart aches – he misses his mate, and it has barely been four days since the Alpha left.

“Mama!” Kou’s voice snaps Rin out of his thoughts, and he strokes her cheek in apology before climbing the rest of the way out of bed. He takes the quilt with him to air out while they bathe, and he scoops Kou into his other arm, carrying her out of the hut into the cleared part of the Forests that they call home. “Can I help fill it?” Kou asks excitedly as Rin sets her down so he can peg the quilt over the thin line of finely woven cotton stretching from the hut to the nearest tree, and the little girl runs for the huge buckets hanging on hooks along the side wall.

Rin nods as he smooths out a crease in the fabric, calling, “But only one of the small buckets, I don’t want you to hurt yourself!” as he does.

While Kou busies herself picking one of the buckets, carved out of pale logs of wood cut from branches of the same giant tree he and Sousuke had built their hut out of, Rin walks over to the final remains of said tree. Rin grabs his own bucket, much larger than the tiny ones he allows Kou to handle, and turns to the bath he and his mate had created. The huge stump of the tree, wider across than Sousuke was tall, had been too much for them to even think of removing, the roots boring deep into the ground and webbing out so far that the thin tips have broken the banks of the river, the tree drinking from the clear waters while it was still standing. Injured and scared, Rin and Sousuke had curled up in the shadow of its branches for days, holding each other in the dark and praying that maybe their friends were still alive and would come and find them.

But no one ever came.

Eventually, their injuries had healed, and they began to notice the darkness lessening as each day passed, the sun starting to touch new greenery as the grass grew through the ashes. They had agreed to stay, to nurture the tiny patch of life springing into bloom around them, cutting the tree down with what little weaponry they had left and dragging stones from the river. With their hut built, Sousuke had carved out the centre of the stump, and Rin had polished it smooth with rough bark and wet gravel from the bottom of the stream. Together, they had sealed the wood with sap from the neighbouring trees, thick and dark red as it hardened like glass. They could fill it with water from the stream and empty it out through a carefully plugged notch at the base. Neither of them realised, as Rin had heated that first lot of water with the blaze of his fire, how revitalising a simple hot bath could be until they had gone months without one.

Bathing had become a regular occurrence after that, and something that Rin had taken great pleasure in introducing his daughter to once he deemed her old enough.

“Mama!” said daughter’s voice breaks him out of his memories as he pulls the woven grass covering off the bath, and Rin looks across to her, smiling as he watches Kou run over with her chosen bucket in hand. “Are you ready to get the water, Mama?” she asks him, and Rin nods in response, lets Kou grab him by the hand, dragging Rin and his bucket to the edge of the stream.

Rin has no idea where the stream flows to, he has never been brave enough to follow it to its end, but Sousuke and Kou have walked its bank as far as Sousuke felt safe to travel with his daughter, and that is how they had found Kou’s cave. Her cave is where she goes on the handful of days a year when her parents have to deal with ruts and heats, a well-hidden outcropping of rocks that have a small, warm cavity beneath them. Sousuke reinforced it with strong pieces of wood, furnished it with the thin furs of the tiny deer that occasionally migrate through the Forests, and made sure she knew basic food and water gathering and self-defence before being willing to leave her there alone for several days.

Dipping his bucket into the cold, clear water of the stream, Rin pauses for a minute to cup his palm in too, bringing his hand to his face and having a drink to wash the taste of sleep from the back of his mouth. “Here, Kou,” he says, scooping more water into his palm and letting his daughter take small sips from it too. “Now, be careful not to trip over with that bucket, and let me lift it up to pour in the bath.”

“Yes, Mama,” Kou drones obediently, too excited to even think of not doing as he asks.

Between the two of them, it takes just over half an hour to fill the huge stump with water – when Sousuke is there to help, the whole process takes significantly less time, as Sousuke can carry two buckets at once – and Rin has worked up one hell of a sweat by the time they are done. If he didn’t already want a bath, he certainly needs one now. He sends Kou back inside for towels and clean clothes, while Rin returns the buckets to their hooks, picking up the small box of jars full of dried blooms and herbs he has cultivated from the odd plants that grow in the clearing. The tiny red flowers sooth his aches and muscle pains during heats, the flat purple leaves remind him of the scent of his mother’s perfume, and the curled black herbs that grow at the foot of the trees relax the mind and body. He takes the clay jar of black herbs and carries it back to the bath, along with the pot of soap paste Rin makes from the flesh of the odd succulents that crop up in the dirt occasionally.

Kou has returned by the time Rin is lighting his hands with bright golden flames and plunging them into the water. The sun beating down on his back keeps his magic alight even as the water hisses and bubbles around his hands trying to douse the flames. Eventually, the whole bath is steaming, and Rin remove his hands and retrieves the jar, sprinkling the black herbs across the bubbling surface to allow them to soak in the hot water until mother and child can get in.

The towels in Kou’s hands have been procured from not-so-lucky Paradise hopefuls that Sousuke and Rin ran across. It did not take them long after starting their lives in the Forests of Treachery to get over the guilt of stealing necessities from the dead. Sousuke often summons the souls of those they posthumously relieved of their belongings to thank them for some of the more expensive or luxurious items they pilfered. Most of their clothes, weaponry, medical supplies, and hygiene products have come from people trying to escape to Paradise who have not survived the journey through the Forests.

“Alright, clothes off and in a pile so I can wash them,” Rin instructs once the water has cooled down slightly and won’t threaten to burn his daughter’s delicate skin, and Kou eagerly wriggles out of her night gown and lets Rin hoist her up and over the edge, settling her in the water. He is quick to remove his own robe and climb in too, sighing belly deep as the heat of the water sinks into his skin. “Come here, Kou. Let me wash your hair,” Rin says lightly, sitting on the bottom of the bath and letting Kou perch on his knees as he scoops up the pale grey soap paste and massages it into Kou’s dark hair, working the knots and dried blood out with deft ease. Kou hums to herself as Rin washes her skin, her little fingers tapping against the surface of the water and playing with the swirling herbs floating there. “Does that feel better?” Rin asks her once he has double checked that there is not a single trace of blood on her.

Kou nods, leaning back against her mother’s chest with a small smile. “Don’t forget to wash you, Mama,” she reminds Rin dutifully, pointing to the dried flecks of blood on Rin’s hands.

“Thank you, sweetling,” Rin says, and dips his hands in the water, reaching around Kou so he can scrape the blood off with his nails. As soon as Kou is sure that Rin has finished cleaning himself, she grins cheekily and splashes a handful of water directly in his face. Rin gapes at his daughter, more than used to Sousuke being on the receiving end of their child’s antics, and splashes her right back with both hands. “Run, run, run Kou,” he teases her, chasing the giggling child around the bath with small waves of water. As they play, the last bit of fear and tension from the night before melts away, and Rin can finally relax, content to spend time with his daughter and wait for Sousuke to return.

Rin can feel his Alpha getting closer by the minute, the cord of their Bond starting to slacken now that it is no longer being pulled taught across the Deadlands.

The water cools to the point of being at the brink of uncomfortable, and Kou’s head suddenly snaps up mid-splash, her giggle dying on her tongue as she stares at something over the edge of the stump. “Oh,” she breathes, and dives for the edge. “Hayato!” she exclaims brightly, waving her tiny hand. “You’re back!”

Silence replies to her greeting, but Kou’s smile just gets even wider. “Where did you go?” she asks, tilting her head towards the answer that never comes.  Rin crosses his legs and watches the one-sided exchange with a new understanding, tucking his wet hair behind his ear as Kou makes to climb out of the bath. “Don’t look,” she snaps at thin air, glaring until her face settles in satisfaction and she climbs out of the bath. Rin scoots over to the same edge and lays on his stomach in the lukewarm water, resting his arms on the ledge and his chin on his arms as he watches his daughter quickly dry herself and dress. “Hayato, why did you go away?”

The morning after Sousuke had left, Rin had had to calm Kou down from some minor hysterics because her imaginary friend had disappeared and she couldn’t find him anywhere. Rin, who had never needed an imaginary friend because he always has Sousuke and Seijuro around him while growing up, had been highly entertained the day Kou had come back from her cave after one of Rin’s heats with Hayato in tow, dragging her new ‘friend’ around with her everywhere for nearly a year up until that day when Sousuke left, and Hayato apparently followed after him. But now. Now that Rin knows that Kou has inherited her father’s Soul magic. He has to wonder.

Is Hayato a figment of Kou’s imagination, or is he a spirit that she has befriended? It would make sense that Kou, born with her magic fully formed and flowing through her veins unlike her father, would be more in touch with it than even Sousuke.

Kou and Hayato are still talking. Well, Kou is still talking, pausing between sentences for the replies only she can hear. Eventually, she turns to look at Rin, an air of urgency about her. “Mama, we’ll be back later,” she says, her hand wrapped around nothing as she starts walking along the edge of the river. “We have to go to the cave!”

“What?” Rin splutters, pulling himself half out of the bath and staring after her. “Why?”

“I have to get something for you!” Kou replies, as if that makes any sense. She smiles at her mother, crimson eyes twinkling in the sunlight. “We won’t be very long, I promise. Don’t worry, Mama.”

And before Rin can think of anything to say other than, “Be careful!”, Kou has run off into the trees, following the path of the stream to wherever her cave is, shouting, ‘I will!’ as she disappears from sight. Rin stares after her with his mouth popped open, unsure of what has just happened. Either his daughter has just run off somewhere after nothing, or an actual spirit has led her away, and Rin does not know how to handle either of those possibilities. He turns and sinks back into the water, lighting his palms absentmindedly and reheating the bath until it is almost boiling, his Sun Magic leaving his body capable of tolerating much higher heats than his mate and child. “She is going to be fine,” Rin tells himself firmly. Kou can look after herself, both Rin and Sousuke had seen to that. She could wield a knife and disarm her father before she could speak. “She will be fine.” Rin stretches out in the hot water, floating amongst the herbs with his eyes closed as the sunlight dances across his wet skin.

Very rarely does he ever get a moment to himself like this, and for good reason.

The shadows can reach him when he is on his own.

He dares not nap while in the bath, but he doesn’t feel the need to get out just yet, enjoying the heat and the calming scent the herbs give off as they unfurl in the water. Rin sings to himself, warding off the paranoia, the phantom feelings of those shadowy tendrils binding him tight and sucking him dry of life and magic.

Somewhere out in the Forests, beyond the safety of the hut and its clearing, feet tramp on the ground. A twig snaps, and Rin sits bolt upright, sending water cascading over the edge of the bath. Fire crackles to life in his hair and along his arms, eyes darting around frantically in search of whatever made the sound. It is a deeply rooted human fear: to be caught, naked and alone, in a moment of peace.

Another twig snaps, and Rin falls silent with a warble. The only thing he can hear is the thumping of his own heart in his ears. His sword is still inside beside the bed. Rin was an idiot to leave it behind!

Movement! A large body tears through the trees on the other side of the stream, and a deep, familiar voice bellows, “Rin!” across the clearing, Sousuke plunging into the stream and wading across it in four long steps.

Rin’s breath sticks in his throat, and his flames disappear with an audible crackle and tiny plumes of smoke on his skin. He nearly trips in the bath as he leaps over the edge, the loud, heart-wrenching cry of “Sousuke!” tumbling out of his mouth almost reverently. Not caring that there are more people emerging from the trees behind Sousuke, or that Rin is wet and naked and Sousuke looks like he has been dragged through the wringer three or four times, Rin meets his Alpha halfway to the bath and throws himself into Sousuke’s arm. The pair tumbles to the ground, Rin laughing and crying happily as he wraps his arms and legs around as much of Sousuke that he can reach. “Sousuke,” he says again, and nothing else, because Sousuke seizes Rin’s face and kisses the words out of his mouth.

Sousuke’s hand is huge and heavy in the wet strands of Rin’s hair, holding the Omega’s head still as Sousuke moves away from Rin’s mouth to nuzzle against him, their cheeks brushing and breath mingling as Sousuke ducks his head, teeth scraping down Rin’s neck to rest against his Bond mark, dragging in a deep breath of Rin’s spicy chili scent. “Fuck, I missed you so much,” Sousuke growls, and Rin curls into him, his own sharp teeth latching onto Sousuke’s jaw for a moment. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Rin chokes, face wet with tears, curling his hands around the back of Sousuke’s neck as his Alpha lies completely on top of him, pressing Rin into the ground so Sousuke can scent mark him all over. “Don’t you ever leave me for that long again!”

He feels like it has been five months since they last saw each other, not five days.

Their sweet reunion is abruptly cut short but a sharp cry of pain from one of the four other people who are waiting on the other side of the river. Rin pauses midway through leaving a claiming bruise on the underside of Sousuke’s chin to peer over his Alpha’s shoulder at these newcomers. Two Alphas, one red-haired and tall, and the other starting to glow blue in the presence of water. Beside them, an Omega with scars dripping down his pretty face like angry tears. Rin smacks Sousuke’s shoulder repeatedly until Sousuke sits back and lets Rin crawl out from underneath him.

The red-haired Alpha is cradling a pregnant Omega in his arms, pained whines reaching Rin from the Omega’s mouth.

Sousuke stands and removes his cloak, draping it around Rin’s naked body and helping his mate to his feet. “He needs help,” Sousuke says quietly, cupping Rin’s cheek one more time before taking Rin’s hand and leading him to the others, carrying him over the water so he doesn’t get too cold. “So much has happened, and I have to sit you down and tell you all of them, but right now…”

“I understand,” Rin says seriously, his feet touching the ground again. “Take me to him.” His own stomach clenches empathetically as he watches the Omega try to curl in on himself in his Alpha’s arms, crying out wordlessly. “How long has he been like that?” Rin asks as he and Sousuke quickly approach the group.

“An hour,” Sousuke replies instantly. “Maybe two. I was carrying him, but I had to give him back to his Alpha when the pain started up so Asahi could keep him calm.” He sees the flicker of recognition at the name on Rin’s face. “Yes, that Asahi. Eclipse Arena Asahi. And the Omega is Kisumi.”

Rin sucks in a sharp breath and worries his lip between his teeth. “Wow,” he says, and then overtakes Sousuke when the scent of blood hits his nose, worry bubbling in his gut. “Put him on the ground,” is the first thing he says to these strangers, authoritative tone garnering the reaction he wants as Asahi nearly drops the Omega in shock. Rin kneels down next to Kisumi to take stock of what he is dealing with. A strip of roughly cut material is bound around Kisumi’s eyes, black burn marks streaking the fabric. “Can you hear me?” he asks, touching the back of one of Kisumi’s hands.

Rin doesn’t even hear the shocked gasps or see the reactions of the three people standing around him. He is too focused on Kisumi’s clawing hands, wrapping them up in his own and projecting a wave of calming pheromones at the terrified Omega in front of him as Sousuke quickly takes charge of introductions. “This is my mate,” he says, gesturing down. “This is Rin.”


Nao thanks Aki profusely as the Sky Alpha waves goodbye to him on the front step, leaving behind a large bag of shaved ice from her family’s sweet stall in the market. It is cold, white, unflavoured, and Nao has to carry it with two hands into the kitchen area of the house. He sets it on the wooden counter top and carefully spoons some of the ice into a soft cloth, wrapping it up several times and setting it aside. The rest of the ice gets salted and put in the small ice chest under the counter in case he needs it later, and then Nao takes the cloth and walks into the darkened living room. “I’m back, Hiyori,” he says, keeping his tone light and gentle so he doesn’t aggravate Hiyori’s migraine any more than it already is. “Do you think you can sit up a bit for me? I have some ice for your nose.”

A groggy moan echoes from the couch, the blanket lump on the cushions stirring as Hiyori’s wane face appears, flushed red in the cheeks and white everywhere else aside from the sluggish ripples of cloudy sky that mar his face. His eyes are bloodshot and rimmed with itchy pink, salty tears brimming in the corners and sliding down over the spectacular bruise staining his nose yellow and purple. “Thanks,” he rasps, and pulls himself up achingly slow to lean back against the couch. “Fuck, it hurts so much.”

“I know, little cloud,” Nao says soothingly, walking over and laying the ice over Hiyori’s nose. It isn’t broken, despite how it looks. Ikuya’s on the other hand…

Hiyori had snapped awake several hours ago, screaming bloody murder and frightening Nao half to death in the process. Nao flailed around under the quilt until he had managed to light candle on the low wooden table off to the side of the couch, and reached for Hiyori in concern, wrapping the sobbing boy up in his arms and holding Hiyori tightly. Hiyori cried out his mate’s anguish onto Nao’s thin shirt, his fingers twisted in the off-white cotton as he soaked the front with tears and spit. It hadn’t lasted too long, and right when Nao thought Hiyori was about to calm down, he had jerked from Nao’s grip so suddenly Nao’s shoulder wrenched, hissing as Hiyori clasped his hands to his face and bellowed in pain. When Nao had finally managed to prise Hiyori’s hands back into his lap so Nao could inspect what on earth was hurting the poor young Alpha, he had found nothing. No blood, no disfigured cartilage, just the red blush of a freshly broken nose and Hiyori whimpering out for his Omega.

Now, all Nao can do is tend to Hiyori’s phantom injuries and nurse his aching heart until Ikuya’s heart stops breaking, wherever he is. Whatever is causing it is beyond their control, whatever has happened to Ikuya is beyond their knowledge, and Hiyori can do nothing except try to comfort his mate through their Bond, the strands of it twisted and frayed from the stress and the strain it has been put through since the night Ikuya slipped away in a boat to avenge his mother’s honour. “Lean against me,” Nao murmurs as he settles himself beside Hiyori, patting his own shoulder invitingly. How he wishes Natsuya were here with him, to help look after Hiyori. To help look after Nao. It hasn’t happened yet that day, but he can already feel his weakened stomach bubbling, threatening to reject the small amount of food he has eaten recently.

Damn this worry that plagues him, making him sick and unable to look after himself and those who rely on him.

“I want to go and find him,” Hiyori says, lilting sideways and leaning up against the older Omega, tucking his face into Nao’s neck and breathing in the warm, comforting scent. Hiyori never knew the person who mothered him – never knew either of his parents – but sometimes he likes to imagine that they shared the same scent as Nao. “I want to hold him in my arms and never let anything bad ever happen to him again.”

“So do I,” Nao whispers, reaching up to run long, trembling fingers through Hiyori’s hair. The candlelight reflects off two pairs of glasses, folded neatly on the table. “I have to tell him how sorry I am. And how much I love him.”

Hiyori chokes on another sob, and he slides down Nao’s torso, burrowing into Nao’s lap and pulling the blankets up over his shoulders, covering his face. The clouds on his clammy skin are dark and grey, and Nao has to wonder if Hiyori has lost control of his magic enough to affect the weather outside their house. It has happened before. “He’s half my heart,” he cries, fingers digging into Nao’s thighs as he clings on to every scrap of comfort he can find. “I can’t live without him. I just want him to come home to me.”

“He will, Natsuya will make sure Ikuya comes home,” Nao says, not because Hiyori needs to hear it, but because Nao does. “They will both come home, Seijuro too, and our family will be whole again.”

The already stilted conversation lapses into nothing Hiyori’s shoulders continuing to shake under Nao’s hands as the ice slowly melts into a puddle in his hands. Nao strokes Hiyori’s back and stares off at nothing, basking in the gentle swell of Natsuya’s love he can feel being sent to him. He tilts his head back against the couch and sighs, deep in his chest. “It can’t be too much longer,” he tells himself. “How hard could it be to find one rebellious Moon Omega in the Deadlands?” The chuckle he lets out sounds more like a sob. “Ikuya, come home to me, baby…” As he speaks, the nausea hits him out of nowhere. “Hiyori,” he gurgles, trying to gently push the Alpha off his legs so he can stand up. “Hiyori!”

Hiyori drags himself backwards without a word, rolling onto his back and throwing the still-cold cloth over his eyes, burning and itching with tears he no longer has the energy to cry. A splitting headache is throbbing up and down the Bond, Ikuya curled up in some dark hall somewhere that isn’t at Hiyori’s side, bawling his heart out in solitude.

Darting up from the couch, Nao barely clears the ornate rug on the floor before his knees hit the flagstones and he heaves violently, wincing as his eyes burn and the acidic taste of vomit fills his mouth. It splatters wetly onto the stone, and he crawls away from it once he starts dry heaving with no result, wiping his mouth on the hem of his shirt. Nao feels disgusting, wrecked physically, drained emotionally, and now he has a floor to clean. “Come lay down,” Hiyori groans, and Nao listens, deciding the mess on the floor can wait until he is no longer seeing in double. Nao crawls across the room and climbs back up onto the couch, rolling over Hiyori and wedging himself between the Alpha’s sturdy body and the back of the couch, the stability already making him feel a little less like his stomach is trying to yank itself out of his throat. “You smell different,” is muttered against Nao’s bicep, Hiyori half turned in towards him.

“Everything I’ve eaten for the past two days is all over the floor,” Nao replies dryly. “I would imagine that I smell different.”

Hiyori shakes his head, nosing under Nao’s arm to rest his head on the Omega’s chest. Nao drapes his hand over Hiyori’s shoulder, holding the boy he sees as his second son close. “Not like vomit,” Hiyori says, nose wrinkling as he tries to clarify what, exactly, ‘smells different’. “It’s like… something sweet. Powdery.” He yawns, presses a finger to the swollen bridge of his nose. “It’s nice. I like it.” And then Hiyori falls asleep.

They will be woken far later in the night by the watch tower alarm bells blaring across the island. But, for now, they sleep.


Makoto’s knees buckle and he is kneeling with his head bowed before his brain has even processed what he is seeing, his eyes landing on red hair and Matsuoka teeth and reacting on pure instinct. He isn’t the only one – Asahi has dropped down too, a murmur of ‘your majesty’ on his tongue as he kneels half crouched over Kisumi, who looks rather confused behind his blindfold. Haruka stands stoically beside Makoto with his jaw set and his eyes hard. Trembles wrack Makoto’s thin frame as his lungs struggle to pull in air. His ears go fuzzy again, until Haruka’s cool hand settles on the back of his neck.

“It’s alright, Makoto,” Haruka says, calm and reassuring. “He is not who you think he is.”

True to Haruka’s words, when Makoto finally dares to flick his eyes up, keeping his head down, it is not the King of the Sun Territory standing before him, wrapped in Sousuke’s massive cloak, but someone much younger and far more beautiful. The Omega at Sousuke’s side is full of contradictions as Makoto stares at him – imposing in posture yet soft around the eyes, regal in the face yet wild around the edges. His hair is a silky wet mat of red sticking to his neck and the tops of his shoulders as he loses his grip on the cloak, and bright crimson eyes that hold none of the King’s malice and all of the same warmth that Sousuke possesses. The former Prince Rin Matsuoka is the picture perfect image of a freed bird, his gilded cage smashed and left behind as his clipped wings healed and he learned to sing again.

Rin hastily drops to his knees in front of Makoto and puts his hand under his fellow Omega’s chin, turning Makoto’s head up. “You don’t have to prostrate in front of me,” he says kindly, smiling at the young man so warmly Makoto’s cheeks flush pink. “I’m no one worth kneeling before.” Sousuke looks like he might disagree with that statement for a completely different reason, but he makes no sound other a small, knowing snort. Rin shoots him a narrowed-eyed look, and focuses his attention on Makoto and Asahi. “I promise you, I am nothing like my father. I’m glad to make your acquaintance. It’s an honour to welcome you into our home.”

Haruka hums in the back of his throat as his own words about Gou flash in his mind. You aren’t your father, he said to her. It would be an honour to travel with you. He grins ever so slightly as both Makoto and Asahi sit back on their heels, looking quite awed. Rin smiles at the two, an expression full of tentative friendship, and it only grows wider when it gets returned in kind.

“Thank you for returning my husband to me in one piece,” Rin adds, turning his smile up to Sousuke when his Alpha lays a warm hand on Rin’s shoulder, intimate and familiar. “I was worried he might have gotten lost.” He links his fingers with Sousuke’s and asks idly, “Did you find what you were looking for, Sou?”

Sousuke nods slightly, squeezing Rin’s hand. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he promises. Sousuke inclines his head towards Kisumi. “He dispelled almost all of his magic two days ago and had to be rapidly healed. It brought on early labour and none of us know enough about it to help him through it.”

“I see,” Rin says thoughtfully, and his entire demeanour shifting into something much more serious. He starts by running his eyes over the heavily panting Omega, who still looks quite confused due to his lack of sight. “Do you remember me, Kisumi?” Rin asks, voice light, as he reaches out to lift the blindfold up to set the poor man at ease and in control of all his senses for the moment. Four sets of hands instantly shoot out to stop him, including Sousuke, and Rin jumps in shock. “What the hell?”

“I do remember you,” Kisumi says, either oblivious to or ignoring the sudden tension around them. “Your father brought you to my first fight in the Arena. I remember you crying in the stands because you didn’t like the fighting.” He puts his own hand up and pulls at Asahi’s fingers where they have wrapped around Rin’s wrist. “I need to keep the blindfold on, so that I don’t hurt anyone, please forgive me.” He slowly works until he is the only one holding Rin’s hand, grip suddenly tightening as pain spikes at the base of his spine. “Ow,” Kisumi whimpers, Rin’s hand turning over in his to return the tight grip, “Ow!” He can hear Asahi starting to echo the sentiment, and holds fast to the steadying hand, grabbing on with his other hand too. Kisumi’s chest feels tight until it doesn’t, the pain ebbing away after several tense moments.

Rin strokes the back of Kisumi’s hand with his thumb. “Come on, let’s get you lying down somewhere comfortable so I can look you over properly.” He distinctly remembers everything that Kisumi is going through, and he wants to help as much as he can. “Sousuke, and… Asahi, right?” Rin waits for Asahi to nod. “Can you two help him up and across the stream?” Two more nods, and Sousuke steps around Rin to attend to Kisumi. Rin stands and offers his hand to Makoto, who takes it after a moment of hesitation and uses the extra support to pull himself to his feet. “You are Makoto, yes? Midori and Yukio’s son.”

“Ye-yes,” Makoto stutters, his free hand flying up to rub the back of his neck. “My name is Makoto. You knew my parents, your maje – uh. Rin?”

“Yukio was my Omega tutor when I was a child,” Rin explains, keeping one eye on the two Alphas as they carefully pull Kisumi up on unsteady legs and help him take each step towards the stream. Sousuke has to take Kisumi in his arms over the water, Asahi clinging to Sousuke’s elbow as he shares Kisumi’s pain with a valiant look on his face. “He was very kind to me, considering the amount of suffering he endured at my father’s hand.” But, Rin realises, he probably should not discuss that with the man’s son. “I’m pleased to meet you. Is this your mate?” And he gestures to the still unnamed Alpha, the dark-haired man staring at Rin with intense blue eyes and a strange set to his jaw.

Makoto releases Rin’s hand to pull Haruka forwards. “This is Haruka, he and I were servants to Lord Kirishima.”

Rin winces, possibly reading far more into that statement than what is there, but, then again, he could be completely correct in his assumption of what the two have been through in service to that horrible man. Once again, he reaches his hand out, and pauses with it halfway up as the scent of this Alpha registers. “…You are Water Territory,” he says, eyes wide. Rin remembers the day his father returned from his invasion of the Water Territory, thousands of slaves chained up in rows and being dragged along behind him by the Sun army. He had burnt the royal city of Mera to the ground, dragged the Queen and her consort into the street in front all their people, taken the Queen’s Omega before her, and then executed them both. Acid boils in Rin’s stomach as he looks at this remnant of that horrible day. How old would Haruka have been when he was dragged across the country after witnessing such atrocities? Five? Six? Younger? “You don’t have to touch me if you don’t want to,” tumbles out of Rin’s mouth as his arm drops back to his side, and Haruka’s whole face shifts, something raw and open touching the depths of his eyes.

Haruka’s hand darts out and clasps at Rin’s, dry and cool as he touches the tips of their fingers together before letting go. Rin gasps, bowing his head in return, recognising the gesture from his school books as a sign of forgiveness in the sign language of the Water people. “It’s nice to meet you, Rin,” Haruka says.

“You too,” Rin replies. He waits a moment for the air to clear, and then waves the two forwards. “Come over the stream,” he says brightly. “You’re safe from the Forests here. There is food, clean clothes, and I just reheated the bath, so please feel free to use it if you wish.”

Not needing any further instruction, Haruka sweeps his Omega up despite Makoto’s shrill complaints as he flails his lanky limbs, and splashes into the water. Haruka’s cheer of delight as he lights up bright blue on contact brings the smile back to Rin’s face, and he follows at a slower pace, holding tight to Sousuke’s cloak as he wades through the knee-deep water. He collects up the discarded clothing the pair leave in their wake as the head straight for the steaming bath, burning the filthy tatters to ashes in his hands. “Stay there as long as you like, I’ll have Sousuke bring you new clothes,” Rin tells them on his way into the hut. He passes the message onto his Alpha, who kisses Rin deeply on his way outside with two tunics folded over his arm. “Now,” Rin says, free now to focus on his patient apparent. “Let me see how far along your pup is.”

Asahi is seated beside the low-lying bed, elbows bent on the mattress as he holds Kisumi’s hands tightly, Omega and Alpha both gritting their teeth in pain as Kisumi lays on his side with his knees drawn up as far as he can bend them. “Is this normal?” Asahi heaves, laying his forehead on his fingers, entwined with his mate’s. “This pain?”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Rin tells him honestly, dropping Sousuke’s cloak to the floor and pulling on a clean robe. He kneels beside Kisumi on the mattress and helps the Omega roll onto his back. “It is his body preparing itself to bring your pup into the world.” He touches Kisumi’s cheek to get his attention. “Kisumi, may I touch your stomach?” he asks. Kisumi’s head jerks up and down in response, and he even helps Rin remove the cloth he is wrapped in, baring the huge swell of his stomach to the older Omega, his skin shiny and flushed red. “I’m sorry if my hands are too warm,” Rin quickly apologises, and frowns in confusion when his comment makes Kisumi laugh. “What?”

Kisumi shakes his head. “Don’t worry, I’m pretty heat resistant.”

“If you say so…” Rin mutters, and lowers his hands to feel over Kisumi’s abdomen.

Asahi growls, protective instincts flaring at seeing someone touch his Omega in such an important place, the sound hissing over his teeth, and Rin snaps his own teeth right back the way he often reprimands Kou when her tiny little ego flares up on occasion, as hot-headed as her father and as stubborn as her mother. “Sorry,” Asahi mumbles, looking away. “They’re alright, aren’t they?” The worry in his voice is palpable, and Rin raises an eyebrow suspiciously.

“What happened to him?” Rin asks, pressing in on Kisumi’s side and smiling a little dopily when tiny feet press back against his right hand.

“It’s a long story,” Asahi says, laying his head down on his arms and purring when Kisumi’s hand settles in his hair. “Just tell me that he’s okay.”

Rin assumes that someone will fill him in on the details later, and continues his examination. “My father refused to let an Omega take up sword arts,” Rin says, off-handed, hoping to relieve some of Asahi’s fears. “But I insisted that I wanted to learn something useful, so he let me study medicine. I helped in the castle infirmary during the days, and Sousuke and my body guard trained me with a sword at night.”

“Naughty,” Asahi laughs weakly. He taps Kisumi’s wrist. “Kisumi, don’t hold your breath like that. Just squeeze my hand when you’re in pain.” The exam continues with minimal talking until Rin sits back on his haunches, something uncertain playing on his face. Asahi spots it immediately. “What is it?!” he demands.

Rin runs his hands through his hair. “It’s the pup. It-”

“She,” Kisumi gasps. “She.”

“She,” Rin concedes. “She hasn’t moved into the right position.” He uses his fingertip to draw a line vertically down Kisumi’s stomach. “She should be lying like this, head down. But,” and he draws a second line, horizontally this time, “she is lying like this. Even if it was time for her to be born, you would not be able to push her out.”

Kisumi tries to sit upright, hands flying to his stomach in concern. “What can we do?” he whimpers. “Won’t she die if she gets left like that?”

“Yes,” Rin replies, honest as ever. He taps his fingers on his knees. “Does anyone of your friends possess healing magic?”

“Makoto does, if he knows what he is supposed to be healing,” Asahi quickly supplies, and Rin nods, tells Asahi to go and get him. “What? I don’t want to leave him!”

“I understand your instincts, trust me. But, when the time is right, I will have to operate,” Rin explains. “You are both filthy. So, Asahi, you are going to bathe now, while you can. Send Makoto in with a bucket of water from the stream and some cloths so Kisumi can wash too.” His eyes are hard. “And tell Sousuke to clean and sharpen his fish knife.”

Haruka and Sousuke sit side-by-side outside the hut, their backs against one of the walls as they watch the sun set, much later in the day. Kisumi’s pained cries have been echoing from inside for hours now, and both Alphas have been forbidden from coming inside to check on him, the hut already cramped enough with Asahi, Makoto, and Rin all crowded inside. Sousuke is fidgeting uncomfortably, his fingers digging into his own palms as he grits his teeth. Everything happening around him, the sounds and the smells of an Omega in labour, are bringing back memories of the terrifying night when Kou was born, snow falling down so thickly around them that Sousuke’s main worry had been that his pup was going to freeze to death the moment she was no longer being house in Rin’s naturally heated body.

“It won’t be too much longer,” Haruka tells him. He can feel the same tug on his Bond that he had felt the first time Makoto used his healing magic. It’s no where near as big or as draining, so he must only be healing something small.

Sousuke nods, his own Bond revealing Rin’s stress levels starting to decrease. “I know.”

Two identical shrieks of absolute agony crack the silence, both Alphas jumping in shock, leaping to their feet and ready to fight. The door of the hut bursts open and Asahi stumbles out, directly into Haruka’s side. “Look after him!” Rin bellows from inside. “And close the door!” So, Sousuke does as his mate requests, closing the door and then grabbing Asahi’s shoulders, pulling the still-screaming Alpha to the ground. He is trembling all over, arms wrapped tightly around his mid-section as he curls in on himself. Sharing a look with Haruka, Sousuke pulls Asahi’s arms away from his body as Haruka yanks the man’s shirt up. A thin red line is stark on Asahi’s tanned, scarred abdomen, looking more like a scratch than a scar. Thinking of the wickedly sharp fishing knife he had handed to Rin at the Omega’s request, Sousuke thinks he knows what is going on.

“They have to cut the baby out,” he murmurs, and Asahi nods, trying to speak and bringing forth only bile as he turns his head and spits into the grass. “This is a sympathetic reaction because of their Bond.”

Haruka bites his lip and pats Asahi’s shoulder, never really one for comforting anyone other Makoto. “Does it hurt?” he asks.

“Does it look like it hurts?” Asahi growls, glaring at the Water Alpha with tears swimming in his violet eyes. “My mate is getting a fucking pup cut out of his stomach because shitty Sun guards forced him to do something that has affected his body badly enough to need surgery, and I can feel every second of it.”

“Sorry,” Haruka whispers, withdrawing his hand a little sheepishly. That should have been obvious.

All sound from Kisumi cuts off abruptly and Asahi clenches his teeth so hard Haruka can hear his molars groaning under the pressure, the tears spilling over and dripping down his flushed cheeks. “Was it like this when your pup was born?” he asks in Sousuke’s general direction, and Sousuke tells him that he had been doubled over on the floor before Rin had even started showing outward signs of being in pain. “Fuck,” is all Asahi can think of in response.

One final scream rips through the clearing, and all three Alphas can hear Rin’s triumphant yell, followed by the distinct sound of a baby’s cry. Asahi starts to bawl properly, a grin stretching across his face so wide that it even makes Haruka smile. Bright golden light filters out from under the door and through the cracks around the windows, Makoto’s healing magic swelling in power and intensity until it vanishes, and all they are left with is the sweet melody of mother, father, and child crying in relieved tandem.

The hut door cracks open and Rin steps into the open, the knife held gingerly in his bloody hands but a big smile on his face. As he makes his way to the stream, he turns glittering eyes on the others. “She’s alive and healthy, and Kisumi is going to pull through after a really long nap.” He kneels on the bank and starts washing the blood away. “Sousuke, can you help Asahi inside so the three of them can have some time together?”

“Of course,” Sousuke says, and he picks Asahi up before the red head can complain about it, carrying him inside. Makoto greets them at the door with flushed cheeks and the same huge smile Rin had been sporting. “I’ve healed his wound, and changed the bedding.” He levels soft green eyes on Asahi. “Your family is waiting for you.”

“Take me to them,” Asahi tells Sousuke, and Sousuke obliges, carrying him into the small bedroom and lowering Asahi onto the mattress beside Kisumi, backing away and leaving the room immediately after, knowing from experience how important it is for a mated pair to bond with their child.

Asahi’s tears start flowing again the second he lays eye on his mate and child. Kisumi is barely awake, clothed in nothing but thin sheets and propped back on a pile of plump pillows, his arms curled protectively around a lump of soft woollen blankets. His blindfold is a discarded mess of singed fabric, and Asahi can see fresh tear scars on his cheeks, but Kisumi’s half-lidded eyes are the most beautiful, clear shade of purple, no hint of danger waiting to spring from their depths. Pulling himself up the mattress on jelly limbs, Asahi settles beside and around his mate, arm coming up automatically to help cradle the tiny pup resting against Kisumi’s chest. “Oh gods,” Asahi breathes, catching sight of his pup’s tiny face.

Her hair is a tuft of pink so pale it is nearly white, already starting to curl as Asahi pets its gently with one finger. Pale lilac eyes crack open and fix Asahi with a stare that makes him feel like he is falling into a starry galaxy. The tiniest coo leaves the pup’s lips, and Asahi is completely gone, pressing a kiss to Kisumi’s slick lips before laying his head down on Kisumi’s shoulders and just admiring the life they created.

“She’s real,” he says reverently.

“She is,” Kisumi agrees, his cheek descending to touch Asahi’s head as he scents his mate and then brings his pup up to run his nose over her forehead. “I can’t believe she’s here.”

“Have you thought of a name yet?” Asahi asks, his huge hand settling over the pup’s head, causing her to coo again, her tiny body stretching in her parents’ hold. They had avoided the subject of naming her for as long as they had known she was coming, afraid of naming someone they knew there was a high possibility of losing in multiple ways. Asahi can’t even bring himself to think about what might have happened if they had stayed in Blaze, neither of them knowing enough about childbirth to deliver her safely. The plan had always been for her to be born in Paradise, where Asahi is sure there are people who could have helped them. Running in to Sousuke had truly been the hand of Fate at work.

Kisumi is practically asleep, but he manages to say, “Hinata. ‘Born facing the sun’,” he chuckles, a tired, wispy sound. “Just don’t tell Rin and Makoto that. They might cry.”

“Hinata,” Asahi repeats, sounding the name out. It feels right in his mouth. “I love it.” He tilts his head up, kissing Kisumi one last time before the Omega gives in to the demands of his aching body and falls into what is, hopefully, a deep and restful sleep. “And I love you, my shining star,” Asahi tells his Omega. “All the way across the stars.”

And he keeps a watchful eye over his family until he, too, succumbs to the call of sleep, Hinata’s hand wrapped around one of his fingers.


Ikuya and Rei are still on the cold stone floor, their backs to the other as they each nurse their wounds. Ikuya cries for Hiyori, wanting his Alpha’s warm hugs and gentle voice. Rei cries in utter silence, his voice having long since cracked and taking strike in his throat. He clings to Nagisa, trying to wrap himself up in the the still-lingering warmth in the Alpha’s skin, his heart daring to hope that there is still a spark of magic in him. All around him, the fragments of the great amethyst continue to glow with almost blinding light, pulsing in quick time.

Nagisa lays as still and silent as the moment his heart stopped beating.

“Rei?”

His voice bounces off the walls as he takes slow, cautious steps through the unfamiliar white halls.

“Rei?”

Still no answer.

“Rei, where are you?”

Nagisa wraps his arms around himself and continues looking for his Omega. He can feel Rei’s presence, somewhere deep inside him, knows that Rei is nearby, but no matter where he looks, Nagisa cannot find him.

His feet are bare, and Nagisa honestly cannot tell if he is wearing clothes or not, but his skin is cleaner than he has ever seen it, and the wound on his thigh isn’t even an afterthought in his head, no sign of it when he had checked. He doesn’t know if it has been minutes that have passed since he sat up in the huge white hall, looking around just to find himself alone, or hours and days and months of walking in circles in this strange, alien place.

“REI!” he yells, hoping that, this time, he will hear that sweet voice calling back to him. Nagisa tilts his head, listening, only to get nothing in response. Again.

He doesn’t know where he is. He doesn’t know what has happened. And he doesn’t know where Rei is.

Nagisa is scared.

Eventually, he comes across a flight of white stairs. Everything here is white. It is not a clean, comforting white. The white is stark. Empty. Like all the life has been sucked out of it along with its colour. Nagisa puts his foot on the first step and starts to climb. His hand is on the bannister and he doesn’t even remember putting it there. “Rei?” he calls, halfway up. “Rei?” he calls again, standing on the top step.

Another white corridor. He thinks he can see the outline of doors, statues, and paintings. Like he is in the memory of a place. “Rei?”

A blur of movement startles Nagisa so badly he nearly falls back down the stairs as a blurry figure runs past him, the ghost of a laugh echoing around in a thousand fragments. A flash of dark blue hair, bright violet eyes.

“Rei!” Nagisa cries, tries to run towards the retreating figure. “Rei, is that you?” The apparition vanishes, and Nagisa’s heart clenches. He knows that that wasn’t Rei, the man too tall and broad to be Nagisa’s beloved Omega. “Rei?”

He walks and walks, checks room after room, and all he finds is white, white, and more white, until suddenly he is walking on pale grey marble. Veins of royal purple swirl through the cold stone and Nagisa is so overcome that he sinks to the ground and kisses the seam of colour, tears splashing down and revealing fine sparkles in beneath his fingers. Somehow, he has fond a part of this scary place where the life has not left. Rei has to be here, if he is anywhere. Resolve renewed, Nagisa scampers up and off, following the colour as it grows in richness and intensity, rippling wood panelling the walls, the vibrant paintings, and the shining silver of the statues.

A door ahead is slightly ajar, beckoning Nagisa forwards with even more colour, actual sound pouring out from the small gap, the fine playing of a harp filling his ears. Nagisa speeds up, feet slapping on the marble floor as grasping hands reach for the ornate door handle.

“REI!” he exclaims, flinging the door open.

It is not Rei sitting inside, but a man dressed in tasteful finery as he sits in the window with a harp balanced between his legs. His hands still on the gossamer strings, shining in the light of a phantom sun shining in the window, and turns to look at Nagisa. Shock crosses his face, hazel eyes almost indignant at being faced with another person in his presence.

“Who the hell are you?” Nagisa blurts out, frozen in the doorway with one foot still in the air behind him.

The man raises his eyebrows, holding his head up high. The action makes his head of dark, glossy hair tumble around his face in thick curls. “I am Azuma,” he says regally, eyes so deadly Nagisa feels his knees quiver. “King of the Soul Territory. Who are you, Sun-spawn, to dare to set foot in my castle’s grounds?”