The forest smells green.
It’s one of the first things Hajime has learned, a fact of nature, like the colors of the sky and the feeling of dirt between his toes and the warm, safe, home feeling that he gets when his mama smiles, or the excitement that bubbles up in his chest when his dad tells him stories of the places he’s seen, of daring flights at breakneck speeds, or treasures of gold and minerals found in abandoned mineshafts.
He’s going to be an adventurer too. He just knows it.
...and adventurers sometimes have to break the rules and maybe fly a little further than their mother allows. Yeah.
He’ll turn back soon, anyway. But how’s he gonna learn to fly higher if he doesn’t practice? And how’s he gonna be an adventurer if he can’t explore a little beyond the herb patches and the first few clumps of trees, where you can sense the village, Hajime?
Really, his mama ought to know that. Besides, he’s gone further than this already, with Hiro and Issei. Issei’s dad works the far-out fields so Issei knows his way around, too.
And even when he’s alone it’d be pretty hard to get lost, what with the overwhelming green smell of the trees in all directions except one - the orange, brown, home smell of their cluster of houses, always showing him the way.
Hajime thinks his mama worries too much, most of the time - and sometimes, he doesn’t even get that feeling from her. Sometimes she’ll say “not beyond the river” but she’ll be feeling and not beyond Matsukawa’s fields, because she knows that that’s where he’s going, anyway.
He’s a little beyond the fields now. It’s not his fault though, really, it isn’t.
There was a swarm of red fireflies, he’s sure of it, brighter and darker than any of the one’s he’s ever seen - it’s just that he’s sort of lost them now.
Well. It’s starting to get dark, and Hajime’s been hungry for the last half-hour anyway, so he might as well go home now.
“...I’m not done with you yet,” Hajime says to no one in particular. They’re probably lurking just out of sight, laughing at him.
Maybe they were faeries, not fireflies. He’s never seen faeries before, but he knows they’re small-
Well. Tomorrow. Because now, he’s really craving food.
He spins in mid-air, and then, just as he’s about to accelerate, he feels it.
He instinctively recoils at the feeling, tail swishing uncomfortably - it’s so large and strong and sad, and incredibly close. He’s not sure how he didn’t notice it before, this unknown voice screaming out, without making a sound.
He flaps in place for a moment, letting the turmoil wash over him. Whoever this is, whatever happened to them-
Hajime could turn back.
It’s none of his business. He’s already too far away from home.
He could turn back.
Slowly, he lets himself down into the branches of a nearby tree, till his claws touch bark and his wings fold down over his back.
He inches forward, then stops.
Someone is crying.
Hajime tilts his head, waiting, listening.
It sounds… like a person. A boy, maybe. Just around the next clump of trees, just over there. Close.
Hajime swallows the unease, afraid he’s already projecting it - he’s not scared (he’s not ), just… being careful.
Slowly, he makes his way over to where the feelings and crying are coming from. Carefully, and thankful for the dense cluster of branches, he climbs over to a nearby tree, one he can peer around, so he might catch a look at what-
He almost trips, because he’s so concentrated on the sound and the feelings, but there’s a branch that he catches hold of and it stops him from falling.
Straightening himself up, he narrows his eyes to find where the sound is coming from. He pushes a branch out of the way, freeing his line of sight-
It’s coming from one of those large trees with the hanging roots - wisteria, he thinks, maybe? This one’s blooming purple, standing out against the green all around.
Hajime squints, and makes out a figure down on the ground.
It’s definitely a boy.
He can’t be from Hajime’s village, though - the only ones the same age as him are Hiro and Issei, and none of the younger kids would dare to fly out so far. Well, maybe Taro would, but Hajime knows for a fact that he’s grounded after he punched Shigeru last week. Those two fight more than anyone Hajime knows, but are too good of friends to stay away from each other for long.
The boy down there can’t be much older than Hajime, he figures, but it’s hard to tell. He is curled up as small as possible, his knees drawn in tight to his chest and his face buried against them. That’s doing nothing to muffle his sobs, though, and he cries pitifully.
It makes Hajime’s heart ache.
Whatever’s making him cry, whatever’s wrong - Hajime’s struck with the intense desire to fix it. None of his friends have ever hurt this badly, and he does not like this feeling of sadness one bit.
Hajime takes a step forward, closing his eyes to focus. He’s not very good with transformations yet, but it’s easier to talk when he’s not in his true form.
It’s a weird sensation, to transform. Being a dragon is first-nature to him, and going back to his human shape always leaves him feeling a little bit lost. It’s as if he’s peeling away layers of himself, stripping his body of the things that make him strong and menacing, to move to a smaller, more convenient form.
He remembers the first time he’d stayed in dragon form for too long, his transformation back left him sobbing at the strange feeling, the incompleteness.
He’s used to it now, of course, and he manages to take a step forward in his human form. He wiggles his toes, fingers, then nose, just like his mama taught him, just to make sure everything transformed right. He sneezes quietly at the gesture, and reaches up to wipe his nose with his arm, pleased.
He slips the cloth he wears down off his neck and ties it back around his body. He’s not supposed to wander around naked, after all (he doesn’t see the big deal, but his mama tells him that’s not polite, and, well. The boy’s wearing clothes, too), and once it’s on, he climbs down the tree and lands quietly in the dirt.
Taking a deep breath, Hajime steps out into the light.
The boy freezes at the sound of his footsteps, his entire body tensing up, head still hidden behind his knees. Apprehension rises and swirls around Hajime, but it’s large and out of control, why isn’t he using it to sense-
Oh, Hajime realizes, and his eyes widen.
This is a human. Humans can’t control themselves like he can. Hajime’s dad says that’s why he doesn’t like being in their village too long - it’s confusing and heavy all over.
Hajime’s never been there, but he sort of gets what that means, now.
Tentatively, he takes another step forward. His foot cracks a twig or two, and the boy’s head snaps up.
He’s got tear tracks all over his cheeks, but he’s not crying anymore. Just staring.
“...hi,” Hajime says. “...my name’s Hajime.” It feels like the right thing to do. Nothing to be scared of there, after all. It’s a name.
The boy trembles anyway, eyes lingering on Hajime’s horns before flicking back over his face-
Scales. Right. Humans don’t have those, do they? Pity, really. He can already feel his bare skin getting cold, so he makes no effort to have the scales recede from where they are.
Instead, Hajime closes his eyes for a second, concentrating - and he manages to shrink his horns, just so.
The boy stares.
“...you’re lost,” Hajime says. “...right?”
The boy nods, stops, then shakes his head vigorously.
“...which is it?” Hajime asks. He’s making no sense.
The boy just shrinks back against the trunk of the tree, hands trembling a little. The afraid spikes up a bit.
Hajime frowns. “...t’s not me you gotta be scared of,” he says. “I can take you back home, if you want. You’re from the village, right?”
The boy looks down, biting his lip - and then, suddenly, he’s bursting into tears again.
Hajime takes a step back, startled, because the sadness and pain he’d picked up on before are rising fast, bearing down on him like physical weight. They’re so heavy he’s getting actual images; two kind, smiling faces, right before they vanish into black and cold and alone.
The boy whimpers, hugging his knees, and Hajime doesn’t know what to do. He can sort of guess what the feelings mean, huge and heavy, and oh, he’s terrified now, because it’s something he didn’t want to imagine-
He clenches his hands (hands, so weird - maybe he left the claws too long after all) into fists and forces the thought away. Stuff like this builds, and grows, and he really, really doesn’t want to think of what would happen if this was him, his feelings, his fear.
Instead, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and thinks of his mama, his dad, his friends. Don’t be scared.
He feels the calm building around him, and slowly relaxes his hands.
The boy isn’t moving, head buried in his arms again.
Hajime takes a step, and when he doesn’t react, he makes his choice.
He turns and flops down next to him, against the tree trunk. The boy is shaking, but he’s not running away, and Hajime takes that as a good sign.
They sit in silence for a bit, the scared boy and Hajime, projecting calm and listening for the sound of crying. He counts to 100, and then back again - and then he starts talking.
“My friend Hiro got lost in the woods once,” he says, and the boy perks up, just a tiny bit, not raising his head, but shifting his attention to Hajime.
“...he’s actually really fast, and smart, but he’n Issei sometimes go off too far, where they don’t know the way back, an’ then Hiro got stuck in some branches or something and he couldn’t get out, an’ when he did, he couldn’t find Issei or where to go.”
Hajime pauses to pick up a twig on the ground in front of him and starts doodling in the dirt, drawing random squiggles and shapes.
“Issei came home but Hiro wasn’t there, and his mom was real worried. So they set out to look for him. Found him, too - he don’t like to admit it, but Hiro actually cries a lot when he’s scared.”
He drags his foot over the ground, smoothing out the dirt, and starts drawing again. This time it’s a map; a circle for the village, lots of tiny triangles for the trees, and a long, winding line for the river.
“Mama says the river’s as far as we should go, on this side.” He points to it, and thinks he catches the boy looking, from the corner of his eye.
“...and up here” - he draws a square shape, above the trees - “‘s where Issei’s dad’s got his fields, and we’re not s’posed to go past there, either.”
He stops to think for a moment, trying to remember-
“This is where Hiro ended up,” he says, placing a small dot on his map, beyond the square, close to the river. And then, after a moment, “...an’ this is where we are, now.”
At this, the boy beside him lifts his head. Hajime doesn’t turn, instead he sticks the twig into the earth, in the spot he’s pretty sure they’re sitting in. More or less. Beyond the fields, but closer to the village nonetheless.
“...can you talk?” Hajime asks suddenly, turning to catch the boy’s gaze. His eyes look sore from all the crying, and he stiffens a bit, but he doesn’t look away.
“...yes,” he says, finally.
Hajime eyes the sky, colors already bleeding into orange and red behind the trees. It’s getting late, he knows his mom will worry - but he can’t leave this boy here, can he?
“You don’t wanna sleep out here, do you?” he asks.
The boy watches him for a moment, but then he shakes his head.
There’s no question, no doubt left in Hajime’s mind. He wouldn’t, either. He’s tried it, sleeping in the woods, and it’s not nearly as fun as it sounds. It seems the boy knows that, too.
“Well, then. Come with me.”
He scrambles to his feet, fully expecting the boy to follow - but he doesn’t. After a few steps, the afraid and cold is already fading, and Hajime turns to see the boy still sitting there, kneading his fingers together, looking after him doubtfully.
Hajime takes a breath, then walks back to him.
“...like I said. My name’s Hajime, and I’m not gonna hurt you. I’m gonna take you home, with me.”
Why is he still afraid? Hajime’s home is a safe place, it’s warm and way, way better than sleeping out here. He should feel it, Hajime is showing him.
“Your home?” The boy asks, and his voice is so tiny. So quiet. So scared.
It makes Hajime’s stomach twist uncomfortably.
“Yes,” he responds, and the boy looks at him nervously. Uncertain.
He decides to keep talking, feeling how that’s helping to calm the boy, helping him focus on something that isn’t pain.
“You haven’t told me what yours is, yet,” Hajime says, holding out his hand.
The boy blinks, tears still clinging to his eyelashes. He wipes them away, dragging his arm across his face, and sniffs.
“Tooru,” he says, and takes his hand.
Later, Hajime will be sure that he imagined it, but - there’s a flash of light when their fingers touch, gone after less than a second, like a spark snuffed out between their palms. There’s also an itch suddenly, at his side, and he shifts.
The boy, Tooru, glances at their hands for a moment, a small frown on his face, and Hajime reflexively squeezes his fingers. He looks up, and their eyes meet - Tooru’s are brown, and Hajime thinks there’s a new kind of warmth underneath the sadness there.
Something like hope.