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Dragon's Bite

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Kazuki lingered in bed as late as he could, savoring the day. It was finally here, his twenty-sixth birthday; after today, he would be a free man. After today, he would no longer be a prince, he would just be Kazuki of Shizu, fryer of fish and chips. He and Jin would run away to the coast together, Jin would get his boat, and Kazuki would open his fish and chips shop. Life would be hard, but good, filled with generous helpings of love and laughter. Finally, he would have peace. Privacy. Perfection.

“Forgive the intrusion, Highness, but the king requires your presence.”

Stifling a groan, Kazuki rolled out of bed and rushed through a shower, then let his steward help him into appropriate attire. He always hated this part, the need to appear just so for formal audiences with the king. And there would be no doubt that was what this was going to be. Maybe he would get lucky and it would be simply a formal recognition of his birthday? His luck wasn't that good.

The court felt ominous in its relative emptiness as Kazuki was formally announced. His parents, two of his father's ministers, and a soldier in unfamiliar military garb. A frown briefly flickered across the man's face, but Kazuki had no way of knowing what it meant.

“Your Majesty,” the man said as he turned towards the throne, some sort of protest still on his tongue.

“If your sovereign wants this treaty, it will happen through our son Kazuki or not at all.”

Kazuki felt a lead weight drop into his stomach. No, this couldn't be happening. Not now, not so close to his freedom! But he could only watch as this stranger bowed, then squared his shoulders and walked over to him. Cold, that was the impression he gave, cold and dark, a professional killer hiding behind a handsome but remote facade. He was older than Kazuki, though not by much, with a number of awards or favors on his uniform jacket. Someone of rank and achievement, entrusted with an important mission. The black-haired foreigner hesitated a moment, then pulled something from his pocket.

“Forgive me, your Highness,” the man mumbled at the same time someone grabbed Kazuki in an iron vise grip. Before he could even form a protest at being manhandled, the stranger grabbed him by the chin. Pain shot through his bottom lip twice, once on each side, leaving behind the taste of blood and metal. Kazuki's blood ran cold at the realization of what had been done to him, the betrayal burning colder than winter's frost through his veins. Not merely bargained or bartered away for the sake of diplomacy, but sold.

“Take him,” the soldier said gruffly. “The carriage waits.”

“Father!” Kazuki shouted, but his father could have been made of stone for all the reaction he showed as Kazuki was dragged from the throne. Not even the wetness of his mother's cheeks could counter what he was feeling. Betrayed, sold to a man he didn't know, and for what? He screamed, but no sound came out. Then he cursed and thrashed until someone hit him over the head. In a daze, time passed without him until he was dumped into a fine carriage.

“Kazuki.”

His brother. What was his brother doing here?

“Kazuki, listen to me,” Teru said, clutching his chin and forcing him to look at him. His dear brother, second in line to the throne and yet always so worried about everything.

“Six days, Kazuki. If I don't hear from you in a fortnight, I'll come after you myself.”

“I assure you, Highness, that will not be necessary,” the soldier murmured.

“See that it isn't ... Commander,” his brother growled. Teru descended from the carriage and the door closed, leaving Kazuki alone with his pain. War be damned, he would not write to his brother, no matter what. He would not let himself remain a prisoner of these people.

~*~*~

The carriage rattled through the countryside without stopping until evening. Kazuki huddled into a corner of the bench, watching warily as the soldier from before, his uniform jacket strangely absent, let himself into the coach.

“We can't stay here long, but I thought you might want to stretch your legs. And I brought something to help with your lip, if you'll let me.”

“Like you care,” Kazuki muttered, wishing he had a knife, something with which to defend himself.

“I serve the crown of Ise, you have my word, no further harm will come to you.”

“Am I supposed to believe your word is worth anything?” he sneered. Anger flashed in black eyes and involuntarily he felt himself cringe back away from the other man.

“Do you want the medicine or not?” the soldier snapped, a tiny balm pot in his hand. As much as Kazuki wanted to insist he needed nothing from this man, he instead said nothing. A moment of silence and then the older man sighed and opened the small pot. The pungent aroma of herbs filled the coach as the soldier dabbed his pinky into the balm.

“It's not what you think, you know,” the other man said as, with a surprisingly gentle touch, he started applying the balm around the rings punched through his lip.

“You asked me to forgive you,” he muttered in sullen argument.

“Because I knew what you would think. But in Ise, only crown consorts are allowed to wear the dragon's bite. My name is Yuu, by the way.”

Kazuki wanted to tell the man he really didn't care, but that seemed a poor response for the cooling numbness of his lip. However, he was not prepared for the feel of the man rotating one of the rings piercing his lip.

“What....”

“You need to periodically rotate the rings, keep them clean, until the bite heals, or it won't heal properly.”

“You could have just said that,” Kazuki muttered, rotating the other ring himself. Less because he cared about healing properly and more to keep this Yuu from trying to do it himself.

“Come, you should really stretch your legs while we're stopped,” Yuu said, backing down out of the coach. Peering past the man a moment, Kazuki turned to one of the bags riding with him, pulling out a light scarf and wrapping it around his head and face. Regardless of what Yuu said, he didn't want to risk being recognized.

Stepping down from the coach - and ignoring Yuu's hand in the process - he was surprised to look back and see it had been stripped of anything that could have marked it as a royal transport, though he knew from riding inside it that was exactly what it was. How long had his father been planning this then? At the time, it had all felt like it was happening too quickly, but this coach, the bags filled with his own clothes and books ... this was something that had been at least several hours if not several days in the planning. And yet he had been kept in the dark until the last moment. Why?

“Not much to look at anymore, but she'll get you to Ise in good time and reasonable comfort.”

Kazuki didn't comment, glancing around. They were stopped just outside a small village, but other than that, he had no idea where they were. Or why they couldn't stay, for that matter.

“Why aren't we staying here?” he mumbled, stepping around behind the coach at the sound of approaching hooves.

“Because of that,” Yuu said with an almost predatory smile. “We'll make camp in a couple hours, but we won't be stopping in an inn until we cross into Ise. You can sleep in the coach, no one will bother you. Unless you're secretly plotting to slit our throats and make a run for it, in which case I'd suggest you don't.”

Kazuki scowled behind his scarf, circling back around the carriage now that the rider had moved past them, and climbed back into it. He might be willing to stay silent and thereby passively encourage his brother to provoke an international incident, two weeks from now, but that was different. He wasn't trained for any of this; fifth in the line of succession, he was supposed to be a free man now. Certainly he had no illusions about his ability to escape three trained killers, even in the dead of night. Maybe especially in the dead of night.

Besides, where would he go? Back to his father's palace, where he would, at best, be detained and then shipped to Ise under an even more substantial guard? He didn't even know where he was to find his way back to either the palace or Jin, not that he could stick Jin in the middle of this either. This really was the worst day of his life.

~*~*~

“Are you sure this is such a good idea?” Hiro murmured, jerking his head over his shoulder.

“No,” Yuu confessed with a low sigh, watching the coach from across their small camp. “But the crown needs this alliance. He won't run. The Shizu see facial piercings as marks of low class and he is still a prince.”

“More like a sulky child if you ask me,” the other man said in a low grumble.

“Yeah, well, I didn't,” Yuu snapped. “Go sleep, both of you. I'll take first watch, then you, then Natsu.”

Hiro was still muttering as he bundled into his sleeping furs, but Yuu was no longer listening. Ise was a small kingdom, they didn't have much to offer their neighbors, but the wind said the distant Joseon king hungered for conquest. Alone, they were vulnerable, but allied to Shizu and her alliances, they might be safe from the demon king. Of course there was still the small problem of the crown not having any daughters old enough to wed Prince Kazuki properly, but ... one problem at a time.

Yuu was surprised when, an hour into his watch, Kazuki appeared cradling a steaming mug.

“I'm not trying to escape,” the prince said as he handed Yuu the mug. “Just thought you might be cold out here.”

“Thank you,” he said softly, taking a cautious sip. Just tea, a little bitter but still warming. “You didn't have to do this.”

“Yeah, well ... little point in being angry with you. Just following orders, right?”

“Something like that,” he agreed, frowning a little before pushing the mug back into the prince's hands. “I think you need this more than I do.”

“I'm not staying,” Kazuki said with a shake of his head, wrapping his arms around himself a bit more tightly. “Just ... wanted you to know that I don't blame you.”

Not sure what to say, Yuu nodded, watching as the prince turned and hurried back to camp. He wasn't sure he believed it, but ... it was almost a start. Too bad it wouldn't survive the truth.

Sighing at his own melancholy, Yuu finished his tea as he watched the night. The sooner they were back in Ise, the better. For everyone.

~*~*~

By the end of a full day of travel, Kazuki was virtually climbing the walls of the coach in his boredom. He had never before been so alone while traveling and the thought of continuing like this for another five days was enough to bring tears of frustration to his eyes.

“My lord? Are you injured?”

“It's nothing,” he muttered, wiping his face on his scarf. Not Yuu this time, but one of his companions. “Are we stopped for the night then?”

“Yes. The commander thought you might want to join us? The food isn't much, but....”

Kazuki mumbled something and waved the man away, then turned to his bags. Of course he already knew what was in each of them, having recognized the look of several of them and gone through them already last night. And yet still he pretended to be searching for something that didn't want to be found until the soldier took the hint and stepped down from the coach. It wasn't that he liked being alone, but he didn't want to seem too eager to join these men, either. They were, after all, just common soldiers. He might not have much else, but Kazuki still had his pride.

Stepping down from the coach, Kazuki was a little surprised to see thick trees all around them. At a second look, he realized they had left the Kings' Road entirely, instead using a less traveled gravel track. The carriage itself sat uncomfortably close to the road, but ahead he could see two field tents set up on the far side of a small fire. Yuu was minding a couple of pots while one of the others was tending the horses and the third was.... Kazuki quickly averted his eyes, scooting around the fire to put his back to the tents. Even so, his skin itched with the reminder that it had now been two days since his own last bath,

“We can't get far off the road here, but you can have the second tent,” Yuu said with a small gesture. “We'll even put the bath in your tent after dinner so you can have some privacy, if you like.”

“Thank you,” he mumbled, not sure what to do with himself. He stared at his hands just to keep from making an idiot of himself, his tongue absently turning one of his lip rings. The snort caught his attention, but he was still surprised when the small pot was pressed into his hands.

“Can you do it yourself?” Yuu asked in a low undertone.

“I'm not an invalid,” Kazuki muttered, scowling up at the man who had stolen his future, even if he had just been following orders. The way Yuu held up his hands and backed off sent a brief flicker of shame through him, but he stayed quiet. Intellectually, he knew lashing out at Yuu was useless, but.... Twisting open the pot, he carefully applied the soothing balm, then pocketed the small jar so he could reapply it whenever he wanted, instead of waiting for Yuu to dole it out to him.

Dinner was had in silence, Kazuki's head down in a mostly futile effort not to notice that he was surrounded by three very attractive men. Yuu had a sort of lanky grace that reminded him a little of Jin, though a bit taller. Of course, as professional soldiers, all three were obviously muscular and fit. Worse, when they left him alone in the second tent with the heated bath, all he could think about was that brief glimpse of the one who had been bathing himself earlier. Strong pecs, defined abs, arms of steel, and thighs thicker than some trees. And that sharp V of muscles that had sent Kazuki's gaze straight to a beautifully formed cock. Shame hit him hard, but even that was not enough to stop the lustful thoughts, imagining what it would be like to be fucked by that man.

Two days and already disloyal to Jin? Pathetic. As if there's any chance of a professional soldier like that being interested in that sort of thing.

Closing his eyes, he tried to think about Jin instead, but it hurt too much, knowing he would never see that smile again. Sinking lower into the tub, he wondered what would happen if he just died here. A simple drowning, he would never hurt agin. There was water enough, but could he really do it? Could he really take his own life, be that selfish? And what would happen to the treaty? His father had said the treaty would happen through him or not at all. Shizu had many allies, she was well protected, but what of Ise? These men had come for a reason, he couldn't help thinking they had to be a bit desperate. And desperate people would do anything.

Huffing a sigh, Kazuki settled into the tub and stared up at the tent's ceiling. He would have to marry into the Ise royal family, obviously, maybe even give them an heir, depending on the woman's place in relation to the throne. He could do that, right? Sleep with a woman enough times to get her pregnant? He wouldn't necessarily enjoy it, but it wasn't like he hadn't ever slept with a woman in the past. He would do his duty.

And if they didn't need an heir from him, or perhaps afterwards ... well, maybe an arrangement could be made. This was a political alliance, after all, so perhaps a mutual agreement to both look the other way? He couldn't send for Jin, obviously, but if his three escorts were any indication, finding an attractive man to help satisfy his needs might not be that hard. Yuu was handsome enough, for one. And kind, more so than Kazuki probably deserved, considering how he had been acting, how he had treated the man from the start. He could perfectly recall that little boyish smile, too. From there, it was easy enough to imagine Yuu walking in, offering to wash his back. Kazuki shoved aside the little voice inside his head still muttering about disloyalty and let his imagination run free. Those calloused hands on his skin, moving him into position. A deep sigh as he imagined nipping kisses and possessive mumbles as Yuu claimed him, those strong hips moving nice and slow. And it would be slow, so slow, driving him mad with lust until he was putty in the other man's hands. The more he thought about it, the more urgently he stroked himself, pressing his lips together to keep from moaning, even though it ached. He absolutely couldn't afford to get caught like this.

Kazuki's fantasies were interrupted by a rustling of the tent flaps. He sat up sharply, intending to snap at whoever had dared enter without his permission ... but there was no one there. Another bit of rustling, but still nothing. For a moment he thought he heard scrabbling claws and then a tiny dragon's head popped up over the rim of the tub.

He couldn't help it, he shrieked as he scooted back against the far side of the small tub. In a heartbeat, Yuu and the bathing beauty from earlier were in his tent with naked blades at the ready, sharp eyes quartering the tent for signs of danger even as Kazuki scrambled to cover himself, or at least his still semi-erect cock. The two soldiers seemed to notice the small dragon at the same time, Yuu's expression souring while the other looked rather like he was trying hard not to laugh.

“Don't start, Hiro,” Yuu growled as he sheathed his sword. “And tell Natsu he can stand down.”

“Sir,” the other soldier said, bowing to them both before stepping back out of the tent.

“I see you've met Suzu,” Yuu said, nodding to the little dragon still perched on the edge of the tub. “It's all right, she won't hurt you.”

“What ... what does she want?”

“To be nosy, mostly, I'm guessing. Come on, Suzu, let's leave the prince to his bathing, yeah?”

The little dragon tilted her head to one side and chirped, but didn't move. Now that he was over the shock of her sudden appearance, Kazuki could see she was really quite beautiful, iridescent green scales with a blue-ish purple mane and gold-tipped black horns that almost glowed in the lamplight. He couldn't tell clearly, but she didn't look much longer than his arm, sleek as a ferret, with an ancient intelligence glittering in her eyes.

“Suzuya!”

Another chirp, a flirt of her blue-purple-tipped tail, and the dragon was just gone. Kazuki blinked, but no, she had just disappeared, as if she had never been.

“Sorry, I can't completely control her. But like I said, she won't hurt you, she can't. She's vowed to protect the Ise crown family.”

“But I'm not –.”

“You're a crown consort. She's curious, but she should leave you alone for a little while. Sorry again.”

Kazuki didn't know what to say, watching as Yuu bowed and left. A dragon. He had just met a real dragon.

~*~*~

Yuu couldn't say he was surprised to see Hiro and Natsu standing with their heads together, snickering like a pair of handmaidens. He still scowled at them, though, walking over to his dropped mug. Empty. Well, of course it was.

“You know, if you want, Natsu and I could split the watch between us,” Hiro volunteered.

“... why?”

“So you can spend the night with your consort?” his friend said, giving him a look that said Natsu thought he was being ridiculous.

“... I haven't told him about that,” he said, shaking his head as he poured himself the last of that night's tea.

“You're going to have to tell him the truth at some point, you know. Sooner would probably be better,” Hiro said, frowning at him as well. “Especially now that Mistress Suzuya has chosen him.”

“One invaded bath doesn't mean anything except that she's nosy,” he argued, taking a seat at their fire. Natsu looked ready to argue when Hiro grabbed his arm and shook his head. Subtle it was not, but if it got them to shut up about it, he would take it.

“So,” Hiro said after a moment, “same watch rotation as last night? Or is it Natsu's turn for the dog watch?”

“If you two want to switch, that's up to you,” Yuu said, shrugging.

“Same watches then,” Natsu said, smirking. “I need my beauty sleep uninterrupted, thank you.”

“Well, I can't argue with that,” Hiro said with a laugh and Yuu had to bite his lip to keep from laughing as well.

:I could tell him.: Suzuya offered, though she didn't materialize.

“He's not ready,” Yuu mumbled under his breath, glancing over to where Hiro and Natsu were still bickering.

:Oh I don't know about that,: his dragon countered and the images suddenly flickering behind his eyes.... The implication was that Suzuya had already caught Kazuki thinking about him sexually. Yuu firmly shut off the stream and immediately he could feel her confusion. If it was true, then it was a breach of Kazuki's privacy of which he wanted no part. And if it wasn't, then that was even worse. Suzuya didn't understand, but he wasn't really in the mood to explain human privacy concepts to her yet again. He could feel a ripple of annoyance from her, but he pushed that aside, too. She could be annoyed with him all she liked, as long as she left Kazuki alone. He was going through a hard enough time without her messing around in his head, making things worse.

~*~*~

Kazuki was surprised to wake up actually feeling like he had gotten a proper night's rest. Then he rolled over and screamed again for finding himself face to face with a dragon. In a heartbeat, the one he assumed was called Natsu was in his tent, naked sword at the ready. Another beat and then man huffed, planting his sword into a tuft of grass.

“Mistress Suzuya, really?” the man asked, frowning. “We're in potentially hostile territory, could you not?”

“Shizu is not hostile territory,” Kazuki grumped, grabbing a fresh tunic and pulling it on.

“No offense, Highness, but these smaller roads have a known bandit problem. We took all the insignia off and these are obviously military grade tents, but desperate men will do anything.”

He couldn't really argue with that, though he did wonder why Natsu hadn't just left after he realized there was no actual threat. Until he noticed the little blue-green dragon winding herself around the man's shoulders. His was also an attractive face, hard but not unkind, with loose shoulder length black hair that rippled as he pushed it away from his face. He was making little cooing noises to Suzuya, to which she stopped on his shoulder, front claws brushing high cheeks as she clicked and chirped in response. Kazuki took advantage of the man's distraction to finish getting dressed.

He was maybe halfway through packing up his things again when he felt tiny claws pulling at his clothes. Turning, he could see Natsu trying to cover a smile with his hand. Suzuya had transferred herself to Kazuki's shoulder, an odd sensation of warm silky scales and impossibly soft fur rubbing against his neck. A front paw - hand? - landed on his cheek and she chirped at him, then nuzzled his cheek with her head and whiskers.

“The commander might have breakfast ready, I can finish up in here. Since she's hungry and all.”

“Uh, um, th-thanks,” Kazuki stammered. He could feel a hunger that wasn't quite his and wondered if that was the dragon. Dragon. Even feeling her warm and real on his shoulders, it was a little hard to believe. Grabbing his jacket, he nodded to Natsu as he passed the man, still feeling off kilter. As before, Yuu was cooking while Hiro, who hadn't quite turned away fast enough for him not to catch his amused grin, was packing up their camp. Shirtless. Kazuki swallowed hard and forced his eyes off the man and onto Yuu, though he wasn't sure that was much better, especially after the things he'd been dreaming overnight. On the one hand, at least he wasn't half naked. On the other hand, Kazuki's dreams had already given him plenty of thoughts about what the body hiding under plain clothes looked like.

“Did Suzu wake you? Sorry, like I said, she has a mind of her own.”

It was such a little thing, that fleeting, boyish smile, but oh did it do something to Kazuki's insides.

“It wasn't ... not really? I wasn't expecting to roll over and ... dragon. A real dragon. She's really real. Like warm and everything.

“Naturally,” Yuu said with another small smile, passing him a bowl of rice topped with egg and extra vegetables. “The daikon are her favorite, be careful or she'll steal it all.”

Kazuki had no idea what to make of Hiro's snort, ignoring it to take a seat beside their dying fire. Selecting a bit of daikon, Kazuki could have sworn he could feel Suzuya's happy thrum in his own chest as she munched. It was such a warm feeling, he had somehow fed her half his vegetables without even noticing. And would have likely fed her more if Yuu's hand hadn't stopped him.

“Don't let her con you out of your breakfast, yeah? You need to eat, too.”

He could feel a blush rising into his cheeks as he looked down at his bowl. Right. Breakfast. And then it would be back into the coach to spend the day alone.

:Not alone.:

He blinked. The words had been inside his head, but not his words, not even really in his voice. The little dragon yawned, then tucked herself around his neck like a scarf. Was she ... was she falling asleep? It sure felt like it. Afraid to jostle her, Kazuki ate slowly. No one said anything, the three soldiers somehow managing to keep busy while he ate. With what, he didn't know; all he could notice was Suzuya's warmth, the way having her sleeping on him was a comfort. Maybe ... he wasn't sure where she had been hiding up to now, but maybe he could ask Yuu about letting her stay with him today?

“Guess you're stuck with her for awhile,” Yuu said when Kazuki eventually finished his breakfast. “If she gets to be too annoying, just tell her to leave you alone.”

“And that'll work?”

“Probably not at first, but if you yell at her enough, she'll take the hint,” Yuu said with another of those smiles that made Kazuki's stomach flutter. He couldn't imagine yelling at a dragon, though.

A dragon. Settling in the coach, he dug up his book, but he couldn't make himself focus on reading it. Suzuya was so warm, so soothing, he could feel himself breathing with her. Maybe she had the right idea?

Kazuki startled awake when the coach jangled and jerked to a halt. Suzuya licked his cheek and then she was gone, but he didn't have time to think about that. Voices. And they didn't sound happy. Kazuki stole a quick peek past the curtains before fishing up one of his scarves. It felt a little soon, but they must have reached the border.

He was just nerving himself up for a second look when Natsu suddenly climbed up into the carriage.

“Good,” the man said, adjusting Kazuki's scarf to pull it up over his hair in a more feminine drape. “We were hoping using this road would keep us from boarder checks, but no such luck. Just keep your eyes down and don't speak, okay?”

Kazuki wanted to ask why, but the door was already opening again. The soldier that stepped up into the doorway was wearing the crest of the kingdom of Yamada and Kazuki immediately dropped his eyes to the carriage floor. Shit.

“... fancy carriage for a slave,” the soldier groused. Kazuki bit the inside of his cheek, waiting to see how Natsu would react.

“I just do what my crown orders,” Natsu replied with a shrug, as if it didn't matter, though Kazuki caught the way he had shifted, perhaps freeing his arm.

“Shame it's not later in the day,” the soldier said and something in his tone made Kazuki's skin crawl.

“All right, nothing to see,” the Yamada soldier bellowed a beat later as he stepped down from the coach. Natsu followed him to the door, but he didn't actually step down. Kazuki could hear the shuffle of horses and tack, but he didn't relax until he was certain the Yamada troops were riding away.

“Change of plans,” Natsu said as he sat back down. “We don't make camp until we cross back into Ise, day after tomorrow. Someone will be in here with you the whole time, starting with me.”

“I ... I don't understand.”

“Trust me, you don't want us making camp. On the road, the commander can use the urgent crown business card to keep us moving, but if we're visibly stopped for the night, those guys or others like them are going to insist on being allowed to use the slave themselves. We'll take breaks for meals and such, but other than that....”

“... why not just tell them the truth?”

“Aside from the part where it's none of their business?” Natsu said as the coach lurched back into motion. “Some reason you want to spend more time in Yamada?”

“Well no,” he admitted, though he was still feeling confused. But maybe he was thinking too hard about this. At least like this he wasn't alone? On the other hand, he didn't really know what to say, how to break the sudden silence between them. The way Natsu kept checking out the windows didn't help, each glance at passing trees making Kazuki's nerves even worse.

“Expecting trouble?” he asked at last.

“In Yamada? Always,” the soldier muttered. A beat and then he sat back with an apologetic look on his face. “Sorry,” he mumbled, tucking a loose strand of hair back up into the knot at the back of his head. “Is it making you uncomfortable?”

“Just a bit,” Kazuki confessed.

“Well, we can't have that,” the other man said with a smile that could melt hearts. “Mistress Suzuya would tear apart anyone trying to hurt you, but old habits.... What would help?”

“I ... tell me more about Suzuya?”

“Ah, that's ... not really my place. That's on the commander, you should really ask him,” Natsu said, a less than elegant dodge.

“Can't you at least tell me about dragons in general? I mean I always thought they were just stories, myths.”

“Yeah, no, they're real, but you really need to talk to him about it,” the soldier insisted, pulling aside the curtain to glance out the window yet again. Kazuki could feel it, Natsu knew more than he wanted to admit, though he couldn't even begin to guess why the hesitation. Huffing a heavy sigh, he started digging through his bags for the balm pot.

“Can you at least explain the dragon's bite?” he tried.

“Nope!” and damn the man for that stupidly cheerful note to his voice.

“What can you tell me?” he muttered, getting up to try another bag. So of course the carriage chose that moment to bounce over a rut or a root or something that sent him tumbling. Of course Natsu caught him easily, strong arms holding him so very carefully and there was that smile again.

“He told us about your birthday, what it meant,” Natsu said softly, not yet letting him go. “For what it's worth, I'm sorry. I don't know what you had planned for your private life, but the crown prince isn't a bad guy. If there's a way to still do it, he'd help.”

“And I suppose I should just take your word for that?” Kazuki snapped. He regretted his tone instantly, even more so when he caught the look on Natsu's face, like he was realizing he had said something he shouldn't have. And then cold professionalism was closing over that beautiful face, hardening it into stone.

“The balm's in that bag there,” he said with a jerk of his chin, pushing Kazuki back up to his feet. He stumbled as the carriage bounced again, but this time he managed to keep his footing. As much as a part of him wanted to apologize for lashing out, he wasn't sure how.

:Just say the words.:

The same voice inside his head that wasn't actually his voice, scolding him this time. As if it was really that easy. Finding the balm pot, he sat back down with it, deliberately not looking at Natsu while he soothed his aching lip. It wasn't like anything about this situation was actually Natsu's fault. And they were stuck together for the next couple of days, at the least, so....

“Sorry, I shouldn't have snapped at you,” he mumbled, still not looking up at the other man. Natsu didn't say anything and Kazuki swallowed down a sigh. Maybe the silence was better.

Except in silence his own mind could pick apart and obsess over what Natsu had said. They knew he had been hours from being a commoner. And from the sounds of it, they were taking him back to Ise to be wedded to a prince, not a princess. Not that Kazuki was against being with a man, of course, but how were they expecting an heir from such a union? Or maybe he was reading too much into Natsu's words? Yeah, he was probably reading too much into Natsu's words. What would a common soldier know about such things anyway? He was winding himself up over nothing. If anything, he probably just meant the crown prince, as his brother by marriage, would feel obligated to help Kazuki feel at home. Yeah, that was probably it.

~*~*~

Kazuki wasn't sure how many hours they spent in silence, it felt like an eternity, interrupted only once by a break for stretching his legs and answering nature's call. And then the carriage rattled to another stop and Natsu actually stepped out without so much as a word. He felt bad for the relief at being alone again, but things had been so awkward. Plus he was tired and hungry. Knowing he wasn't going to be able to sleep properly for the next two nights wasn't helping, either.

He was completely surprised when, a moment later, Yuu climbed up into the coach, pushing a warm bento into his hands.

“It's not much, but since you've been stuck with Natsu all afternoon....”

Kazuki didn't know how to respond to that, surprised to open the bento to find his favorite style of grilled eel on rice and fried vegetables.

“... how did you...?”

“Huh? Oh, um, lucky guess?” Yuu said with a shrug, but that little smile....

“... wow, are you a terrible liar,” Kazuki mumbled, picking out a slice of sweet potato. “Thank you.”

“Suzuya's doing, really. We'll stop again in about an hour so you can stretch your legs again and such. And then you'll probably want to try for some sleep.

Nodding, he wondered if he should ask about Suzuya now or wait. But he also didn't want to spend the next hour in awkward silence either, so....

“Natsu said I should ask you about dragons and Suzuya.”

“... of course he did,” Yuu muttered and Kazuki promptly regretted saying anything.

“Sorry, forget I asked,” he mumbled, dropping his eyes to his bento.

“Kazuki,” Yuu started, but he didn't get any further, the coach stopping abruptly with the scream of panicked horses. In an instant, Yuu was pulling him down to the floor of the carriage.

“Stay down,” the solider ordered before drawing his sword and slipping into the growing darkness. Kazuki's heart was pounding in his ears at the sounds of steel striking steel and wood. Was it bandits? Or worse? Yamada and Shizu were supposed to be allies, but from what he could recall, it wasn't exactly an easy alliance.

Someone was shouting something and then a great roaring wind rocked the carriage. Kazuki made himself as small as he could in the floor of the coach, fear clawing at him in the utter silence that followed. He strained to hear something, anything ... and nearly jumped out of his skin when the door popped open, an unthinking scream escaping him.

“Hey, hey, whoa, easy,” Yuu said, startling Kazuki even more by pulling him into a strong hug. “Easy, Kazuki, easy, it's just me.”

“Yuu ... what ... what happened?”

“Yamada raiders,” Yuu said with a snort. “Suzu took care of them.”

He nodded even though he wasn't sure he actually understood. Or cared. Yuu was still holding him and it was the safest he had felt in days. This was bad, this was very bad, the last thing he needed to do was get himself attached to some random soldier he probably wouldn't even see again after this week. And yet....

“Highness....”

“Whatever it is, Hiro, deal with it,” Yuu growled. A grunt and Hiro left, muttering something Kazuki couldn't quite catch. The feel of Yuu's arms around him was making it hard for him to care, though. He wasn't sure how much danger he had ever been in during the attack itself, but this carriage no longer felt very safe.

“Did we ruin dinner?” Yuu asked softly and it was such a strange, unexpected question that he couldn't even think of a single response. Kazuki knew he was supposed to be sitting back, that he needed to stop clinging like some damsel in distress, and yet he couldn't move. A hand rubbed along his spine and he shivered. He should be stopping this, he was a prince, Yuu was just a soldier. More importantly, he was already promised to another, there could never be anything between them.

The door to the carriage popped open again and only then was he finally able to pull away, hauling himself up onto one of the padded benches.

“My lord....”

“Dammit, Hiro, what part of 'deal with it' did you not understand?” the commander growled and Kazuki froze. Hiro was looking at Yuu, not him. Hiro had always been looking at Yuu, not him. What. The. Hell?

“I can't get us under way until Mistress Suzuya moves and you know how well she listens to me.”

A low snort and Yuu was pushing past an otherwise unmoving Hiro. Kazuki felt as if his whole world had come unmoored.

“He ... he's....”

“... he has a dragon and you, what, thought he was just another soldier?” Hiro countered with an arched eyebrow. Put like that, Kazuki felt even stupider. Is that why Natsu wouldn't tell him about Suzuya, to preserve the secret Hiro had just blown? And why had he done that? But before he could ask, Yuu was climbing back into the coach, pulling the door closed and giving them privacy.

“So ... we need to talk,” Yuu said softly, spinning the pin from his hair in his hands. He looked good with it down, straight black hair darker than raven's wings. It wasn't fair, how beautiful the man was.

“I ... you lied to me. Why?”

“We were just now attacked by raiders and you're wondering why a crown prince would be traveling incognito?” Yuu countered, that small boyish smile that made Kazuki tremble back on his lips. “Crown Prince Aoi of Ise, at your service, though I'm known to my men as Yuu.”

“And Suzuya?”

With a ripple of magic, the little dragon slithered down Yuu's arm, burping before curling up on his lap.

“My spirit guardian and companion since childhood,” the prince said, twisting his hair back up into the pin so he could run a finger along her ruffed spine. “Only certain members of the main Shiroyama clan family are even allowed to try for a dragon, though Suzuya picked me long before I could do that.”

Kazuki watched as Yuu removed his shirt to reveal an intricate dragon tattoo that curled over his shoulder and around his upper arm. The art was colored the same as Suzuya, even to the gold tips of her horns, and Kazuki only just barely caught himself from trying to touch it.

“When were you going to tell me?”

“When we reached the palace, probably. You have to understand, I thought I was taking you back to marry someone else, my cousin maybe. I'm next in line for the throne, a consort who can't produce an heir.... But Suzuya and the spirit guardians apparently have other ideas.”

At the sound of her name, the little dragon looked up, burped again, and then, catlike, stretched and hopped across the small space between them before draping herself across Kazuki's thighs with a happy little sigh.

“She's chosen you, I can't argue with that,” Yuu said with an oddly shy smile. “I wasn't completely sure until tonight. I'm sure it's not what you were expecting and it doesn't have to be ... I mean if you can't....”

Kazuki wasn't sure he understood what it was Yuu was dancing around saying, his eyes dropping to the dragon in his lap as he waited for the crown prince to just spit it out. She really was beautiful, though her belly looked a bit distended, as if she had just eaten an especially big meal. What did dragons eat, anyway? Well, anything they wanted, he supposed, but....

“I mean our union would obviously be about politics first, so if being with me ... as long as you were discreet I could just ... not notice any mistress you wanted to take. I'd understand.”

Kazuki could feel his cheeks heating at that. Oh. Maybe ... this was probably as good a time as any to tell Yuu about the plans that man had ruined by showing up when he had, right?

“I had a life, you know, a plan,” he said softly, lightly running a finger along Suzuya's side. “After that last birthday dinner, Jin and I were going to leave the capitol, move to a little coastal town we liked. I was going to use my crown stipend to buy him a fishing boat and us a little chip shop with an apartment above it. He'd fish, I'd cook, it would have been nice. Quiet and simple, you know?”

“I'm sorry.....”

That was it? That was all he had to say? Kazuki could feel anger burning in his chest and he closed his eyes, clenching his hands into fists at his side but not daring to speak. Grief was there, too, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to scream or sob, not sure which would come out if he opened his mouth just then.

The feel of tiny clawed hands on his cheeks was completely unexpected, Kazuki's eyes blinking open to see he was nose to nose with Suzuya. Her eyes glittered like black diamonds, her whiskers twitching as she studied him.

:It is proper to mourn,: the voice that wasn't his said in his head. :But Ise needs Shizu, needs you. As you will need each other.:

Kazuki's voice was stuck in his throat, he didn't know how to answer her.

“I'm not looking to force you into anything, Kazuki,” Yuu said softly and when had he moved to sit next to him? A crazed laugh burbled in his throat and he shook his head.

“No, no, of course you aren't. You just stole my future, forced these rings through my lip, and now say I have to marry you. But you aren't trying to force me into anything.”

“Kazuki....”

The hysteria in him rolled and shifted, bitter tears leaking down his cheeks. He was trapped. And even if he sat back and let his brother stage a rescue of him, what could Teru really do? Ise had dragons with who knew what powers, what could his brother do against that? What could anyone do against that?

Strong arms pulled him against a warm, bare chest, and his first instinct was to fight back. He struggled uselessly against the arms that held him until his strength failed, wracking sobs tearing through him as he collapsed against Yuu's chest.

“Shh, I'm sorry, Kazuki, I'm so, so sorry,” Yuu murmured, cradling him close. It wasn't fair, this would be so much easier if he could just hate Yuu for everything, but the man was too nice for that, had been from the start, really. From that first apology to the balm and even to letting him have a private bath and a tent to himself.

“Why can't you be horrible?” he whined, angry with himself for the tears he could feel gathering at the corners of his eyes.

“Excuse me?

“Why can't you be horrible?! I could hate you if you were just selfish or cruel or terrible, but no, you have to be nice. It's not fair!”

He could feel Yuu frowning at him, but it was the truth. This would all be so much easier if Yuu was some sort of hateful jerk so Kazuki didn't have to feel anything but contempt for him.

“Kazuki....”

This time when he tried to pull away, Yuu actually let him, at least at first. Kazuki could feel something quivering in his chest, and then Yuu was pulling him into his arms again.

“I've changed my mind, I don't think I could turn away while some other man loved you. Kazuki of Shizu, tell me how to win your heart?” Yuu murmured. Kazuki shuddered, then shook his head more firmly.

“It's not ... it doesn't work that way,” he mumbled, but he knew that wasn't entirely true. Yuu was already on his way to claiming a place in Kazuki's heart, even if he didn't want to admit it.

~*~*~

Yuu smiled as Suzuya subtly worked her magic on the prince in his arms, soothing him to sleep and then tugging a blanket over them both as Yuu got them settled for the night.

“Go tell Hiro he doesn't have to stop on our account for the night,” he directed her. “Unless you want to just fly us to Ise?”

:Defending you is one thing. Flying this coach that far would be much too dangerous to us all.:

A cheeky flirt of her tail and Suzuya disappeared. She was right, of course, but it would have been nice to cut their travel time even further. The coach wasn't the most comfortable sleeping, even with the lamp off, but he would make the best of it. At least Kazuki fit perfectly in his arms.

This wasn't at all what he had planned for this trip. He, Hiro, and Natsu were supposed to have been gathering intelligence to determine if Shizu was a threat or not. He certainly hadn't intended to return home with a consort. Especially not one like Kazuki, and not just because he was male. Two days and they would be in Ise. As soon as they crossed the border, he would dispatch a message to the crown, though he suspected rumors would get there first. They always did.

:Your father already knows.:

Yuu bit back a flare of panic. What ... how...?

:We chose Kazuki for you,: Suzuya sent, her tone smug. :Of course your father knows. Atsushinryo has never been able to keep things from him. Or your mother. She's probably even already planning your wedding.:

Yuu didn't know much about his father's dragon, but what she said made sense. He would, of course, still dispatch a message to the crown anyway, as a matter of protocol, but it helped to hear the news of his male consort wasn't going to be a complete shock to his parents. And if this helped make things easier for Kazuki, then so much the better.

:You worry too much, beloved,: his dragon scolded, though she still chose to stay with Natsu for the moment. Well, worrying what was a leader did, so she might as well get used to it, in his opinion.

:I AM used to it, my dearest love, but sleep now. The worry can wait for the morrow.:

Well, it would be beyond foolish to argue with his dragon. Closing his eyes, he thanked Suzuya for her patience. And hoped for only good dreams.

~*~*~

Kazuki ached, jolted awake yet again as the coach bounced over something. And yet he couldn't actually move, Yuu's arms as secure around him as they had been all night. How the soldier ... no prince ... how he could sleep through the uncomfortable night as he had was a complete mystery, as far as Kazuki was concerned. Then again, most things about Yuu were a mystery to him at this point.

He felt her before he saw her, Suzuya rubbing against his cheek briefly before rippling down his chest over Yuu's arms. She settled herself on top of him, gazing back up at him with glittering, ancient eyes.

“Why me?” he mumbled, not sure he wanted the answer. “Why now?”

:You are important, valuable in your own right. It could not have been arranged sooner.:

“I had a plan, you know, a life. You stole that from me.”

:Your fate was written in the stars long before I was even born, precious mate of my beloved.:

The little dragon stretched up to nuzzle his cheek again, tongue rasping against skin.

:I can't wait to meet the one who will bond with you!:

“Wh-what? But I'm not Shiroyama....”

“Neither was Father, Mother made him go through the trials to prove he was worthy of her,” Yuu said, startling Kazuki. “Suzu, let them know we're awake? I'm sure Hiro could use some sleep about now.”

Another flick of tongue to his cheek and the dragon vanished. Kazuki still didn't know how to feel as the carriage swayed and rattled to a stop, stiff and sore in ways he hadn't ever felt before in his life. And they still had another day and night before they could stop for a proper rest? He wasn't sure he would survive intact.

“You'll feel better after you've walked a bit,” Yuu said as he nudged him towards the door of the coach. He wasn't so sure of that, hesitating when the door popped open, but it was only Natsu.

“Natsu?”

“Hiro's gone ahead to get breakfast, figure we'll catch him after you've had a chance to stretch a bit. He and I swapped out early last night, but I can sleep in the box with him if you two....”

“... Natsu, we agreed....”

“Yeah and then Hiro blew your cover,” Natsu said with a playful wink, offering Kazuki a hand. Another beat of hesitation and then he accepted the help, wobbling a little as he stepped down. Kazuki glanced around, surprised to see they were surrounded by rice paddies dotted with bent workers tending the plants.

“What ... where...?”

“Shifted back to the Kings' Road after the, um, incident,” Natsu said softly, turning Kazuki away from the road slightly as a couple jangling riders approached. “It's faster and we've made pretty good time. Should reach the border about an hour after dusk, if our luck holds.”

Kazuki wasn't sure how to respond, sneaking a glance at the road. Mounted Yamada soldiers, though only two of them. On the other hand, he could see a caravan of some sort approaching from the other direction. Maybe the soldiers would leave them alone to focus on them instead?

And maybe flying monkeys would come serenade him with bags full of gold.

“Awfully early. Having trouble?” one of the Yamada riders asked.

“Is it?” Yuu said, making a point of checking the sun's place in the sky before shrugging and smiling casually. “The miles won't pass themselves. We're fine.”

Kazuki was quite certain he had stopped breathing, trying to will himself invisible before one of the soldiers could decide to ask questions. Maybe it worked, since they soon moved along. He hated this, wishing they could have taken some other route to Ise. Except there was no land route from Shizu to Ise that didn't mean passing through Yamada.

“We should have gone by sea,” he muttered, climbing back into the coach after relieving himself.

“Chartering a ship is expensive, we don't have regular trade relations with Shizu,” Yuu explained, sitting across from him. “Maybe next time.”

He couldn't help a little snort at that. Next time, right.

“... what, you think I intend to hold you hostage?”

“I think it doesn't matter what I think,” Kazuki muttered, pulling into himself and wrapping up in the blanket. It didn't help, though, Yuu's scent having somehow embedded itself in the blanket. And at the same time he couldn't just discard the thing, either; it was the closest thing he had to a way to hide.

“Well that's a shitty attitude to have. You're my consort, not a prisoner of war. Of course we'll visit your family. Kazuki, I'm not a complete bastard.”

Such pretty words, but just words. What were they really even worth? How was he supposed to know their true value when he didn't even know anything about Yuu ... except that he was all too willing to lie to him.

“Kazuki,” Yuu said, reaching across the coach to briefly squeeze his chin. “Give me a fair chance, yeah? Give us a fair chance. I know this wasn't your plan for the future, but give Ise a chance.”

He started to pull away when he felt the magic tingling against his skin, flowing down his arm not unlike water or silk. But instead of Suzuya's half familiar green and blue, the dragon that coiled around his arm was a misty grey with blue and white mane and gold-capped white horns. Kazuki blinked in mute shock as the unfamiliar dragon snaked around his wrist, nuzzling his hand a moment before sinking teeth down to the gums into the heel of his hand. Kazuki screamed and flailed, dragon claws sinking into his arm, and he screamed again. The carriage jangled to an abrupt halt even as Yuu moved to pull Kazuki back down onto the bench.

“Breathe, Kazu, breathe,” Yuu ordered, calloused hands cupping his face. “Deep breath, come on, Kazu, you can do this, just breathe with me, yeah?”

He was shivering, but it didn't actually hurt now. None of it hurt and he frowned down at his arm. The little grey dragon was still clinging to his sleeve, nuzzling his hand again, but there wasn't so much as a trace of blood. And yet he had felt those teeth, he was certain of it.

:Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.:

The word kept repeating in his head, he didn't know how to make it stop. His other hand was shaking as he brushed just the tips of his fingers against grey scales. Real. Well of course he was real, he could feel him, a warm and heavy weight on his arm.

“Who ... how ... what???”

“You should be hearing your dragon's voice by now,” Yuu said softly, his touch turning light. The tone reminded him of someone trying not to spook a frightened animal and he wasn't sure which of them needed it more, him or Ryuji.

“Ryuji?”

:Yes, sorry, yes, me, sorry, sorry, sorry.:

“I ... I don't....”

:Yours. Mine. Sorry.:

The little dragon nuzzled his hand, but Kazuki still didn't understand.

“Ryuji?” Yuu asked, rubbing one finger on the scales between the little dragon's horns. “Is that your name then, little one?”

:Ryuji, yes. Ryuji. Ryuji. Me, me, me.:

It was almost like the dragon was only just learning the words, reminding Kazuki of his toddler niece. Saki would repeat new words to herself just like that sometimes.

:She's cute. I want to meet her.:

Kazuki startled, caught off guard both by the full sentences and by how easily Ryuji had seen his thoughts.

:I am bonded to your soul, Zuzu-love, of course I can see your thoughts.:

“I ... what?”

“Told you the guardians had already picked you. Though usually they wait for the trials before bonding an outsider,” Yuu said, giving the little grey dragon a mock-stern look. Ryuji squeaked and scampered up Kazuki's arm to try to hide behind him.

“You're scaring him,” he muttered, reaching up to run his fingers along Ryuji's flank in reassurance.

:I couldn't wait, had to be now,: Ryuji insisted with a little huff. Curious as he was, Kazuki was also just a little bit afraid to ask what the dragon meant by that.

“Are we good to resume yet? Before Hiro freaks the fuck out and comes charging back here convinced we're under desperate attack?”

Kazuki flinched again at the unexpected intrusion of Natsu's voice and he could feel Ryuji puffing up on his shoulders not unlike a cat, whiskers bristling as he hissed at the soldier. Ashamed for his reaction, he reached up to try to soothe his dragon, but he wasn't sure it was actually working.

“It's all right, little one,” Yuu said with that same gentle, soothing tone as before. “Ryuji, this is Natsu, one of my personal elite guards, sworn to the crown of Ise. Natsu, this is Ryuji, Kazuki's spirit guardian.”

“An honor, my lord,” Natsu said with a fist to his heart and a bow of his head. “It is my pleasure to serve.”

“And to answer your question, yes, the screaming should be behind us,” Yuu added. Another nod and Natsu withdrew, yet Ryuji didn't really calm until the carriage swayed into motion once more. Only then did the grey dragon relax, settling around Kazuki's shoulders not unlike a shawl.

“Ryuji,” Yuu started.

:Nope. Mine,: the dragon sent, nuzzling Kazuki's cheek again. He could feel a warmth growing in his chest.

“Of course he is, but I'd kind of like to know why you couldn't wait even just three more days.”

:Too dangerous. Sister needed support. Yamada not to be trusted.:

“... you really think we'd be attacked again?” Kazuki asked, glancing down at his dragon. “Even on the Kings' Road like this?”

“I think any crown that employs its own fleet of pirates and bandits is not to be trusted,” Yuu said with a brief scowl. “On the other hand....”

He couldn't help the slight flinch at Yuu's touch, his cheeks heating in embarrassment at the feel of the man's thumb on his bottom lip.

“Completely healed,” Yuu murmured with a smile, his thumb brushing against one of the rings. “We could even change the jewelry if you wanted.”

“I ... I don't,” he mumbled, his entire line of thought derailed by the way his body reacted to the light tug on one ring. Unbidden, he found himself wondering what it would feel like to kiss someone now. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push away thoughts of Jin. Useless, it didn't matter, he would never see him again anyway.

“Kazuki ... may I kiss you?”

The request was so unexpected, his eyes shot open as he jerked back. Not that he had that far to go. And yet Yuu didn't push, even sat back himself, dropping his hands back into his own lap.

“Sorry, I just ... sorry. Forget it.”

“... yes.”

Had he actually just said that??? What was wrong with him? Pulling his feet up onto the bench, he hid behind his knees. Ryuji was making worried little noises, but he could tell his dragon didn't understand. And how could he, he was a spirit dragon, how could he understand human feelings? Hell, Kazuki didn't even understand his feelings anymore, how could he possibly explain them to his dragon? He certainly didn't expect the firm yet gentle fingers that tilted his chin up. Or for Yuu to be sitting next to him. Was that worry he saw in the other man's eyes? Yuu's thumb skimmed against one ring again and Kazuki shivered.

“Are you sure?”

“No,” he confessed, averting his eyes. And yet instead of flying into a rage, Yuu simply leaned in and kissed his forehead.

“I'll wait until you are,” Yuu said as he sat back, tugging aside a curtain to glance out the window. “Looks like we should be catching up with Hiro soon. And then breakfast.”

At the prospect of food, his stomach growled. Food would be a good distraction. He still had questions about this dragon soul bonding business, but they could wait for after breakfast.

~*~*~

After breakfast, during which Kazuki had needed to keep lightly bopping Ryuji to get his snout out of his porridge, it was almost a relief to climb back into the coach. Fussing with his bags, he arranged the space so he could actually lay down on the one bench, leaving the other clear enough for Yuu to sit.

“So, um, how does this all work?” he asked once they were under way again.

“You and your dragon? Well, that's up to the two of you, really. I can only help so much. Ryuji is your protector, yes, but also your partner; you'll have to ask him, talk to him about things.”

“Okay, but I don't even know what to ask,” he countered, laying back to scowl up at the coach's roof. Ryuji trilled a happy noise before curling up on his chest and promptly falling asleep.

“... I guess we'll check for your tattoo later then,” Yuu said with a little boyish grin. But unlike last time, it sent a shiver of horror, not pleasure, down his spine.

“Tattoo?! What the hell?!? Planning any more modifications to my body without my consent?!”

Kazuki hadn't even thought about it, really, too angry about this latest invalidation of his body autonomy to think what sitting up so suddenly would do to the dragon asleep on his chest. A dragon who was suddenly quite a bit larger, yet insubstantial as mist, his body passing through the walls of the carriage as if they weren't even real. A head nearly the size of Kazuki's whole body hung in front of him and when the dragon snorted, the heavy scent of temple incense washed over him.

:He who fights everything exhausts himself to no purpose. I am yours, but you would do well to remember that you are also mine, little Zuzu.:

“... my lord Ryuji, you are drawing attention to us,” Yuu murmured, his voice sounded muffled, perhaps for coming from inside the dragon's head. Another snort heavy with incense and the dragon dissipated not unlike mists in morning sunlight. Kazuki could feel his heart thumping in his chest, but Ryuji did not reappear, nor could he hear the dragon's voice, feel his presence in his head at all.

“I think you offended him,” Yuu murmured, leaning over to glance out a window. And then he started swearing, pushing open the door. Damp, chilled salt air. But that wasn't possible, they were a hundred leagues, at least, from the coast.

“No offense, sir,” he could hear Hiro saying, “but what the actual fuck?”

“Natsu asleep?” Yuu asked.

“Trying to be,“ the other man called down from the driver's box. Stepping out of the coach himself, Kazuki was shocked to see they were indeed at the coast, at the top of ocean cliffs. He could not even begin to guess how they could have gotten here. Or even where they were.

“... my lord?”

Out of habit, Kazuki turned towards the speaker, surprised to see a young monk, or maybe just an acolyte, standing there, his robes still held in his fists and panting a little.

“Go back and tell the temple we need quarters for myself, my consort, as well as my two men and our horses.”

“For how long, my lord?”

“Until my consort's dragon says otherwise, I suppose.”

If the young man's eyes got any wider, Kazuki suspected they would fall right out of his head. Stammering, he made a hasty bow and an even hastier retreat.

“Well, congratulations, Kazuki. You said you didn't know anything. Welcome to the Dragon Temple of Ise.”