The Autumn Festival always began with the dead. Little wooden boats set into the sea, filled with prayers and tidings, off to reassure the dead they were not forgotten. All the daylight was spent preparing for this, the first night of six, celebrating one of the four major festivals.
Now that the sun was down, and the dead honored, the fun began. The dragons were masters of the wind and seas, and both were ever changing. For every wrecked ship, another reached shore. For every storm, there was a sunny sky. Those who loved and worshipped the storm dragons never stayed defeated for long.
Aoi opened the jug of wine he had made and specifically saved away for the occasion. It was not a sweet wine, but sharp and potent. It held a hint of the sea, a bit of the rough landscape he called home. Nothing, he was certain, like the fine wines of the cities, the strange drinks of the various ports and harbors which Nori frequently visited.
Small fires dotted the beach were many villagers had formed clusters. Others roamed from group to group. Between the fires and the full, fat moon, there was enough light to celebrate until alcohol and exhaustion finally forced them to their beds.
He took another swallow of wine and glanced at the nearest fire, the figure standing there, wondering if the day would ever come when his desire to never look away finally faded. Somehow he doubted it, and he didn’t really want it to, for all he knew very well nothing would ever come of the feelings he’d long carried.
Nori had always been handsome—breathtakingly so. He was also smart, hardworking, and skilled at so many things. Everyone had assumed he would leave the village to go to the city, make something of himself there and leave the life of a simple villager behind.
Except he had chosen to be a simple sailor. A common enough choice in Stormlands, but not what anyone would have expected from Nori.
Aoi tried to look away, really he did, but Nori was more beautiful to him than even the seas. Tall and deeply tanned, body molded from a sailor’s life, pale green hair pulled back in a simple braid. A silver hoop hung from one ear, and a coral necklace wrapped around his throat.
Everyone was still relieved his ship had not actually been lost at sea; he could just hear Nori recounting the tale for the millionth time.
He wished he knew what to say, but being in love, it seemed, was not enough to know what to say or do. So he watched, and wished, and daydreamed hopelessly about what it might be like to gain Nori’s attention.
Then Kaoru came up and wrapped an arm around Nori’s waist, and Aoi looked away, a sharp, stabbing ache in his chest. I know our parents disliked each other, and that I am the poorest man in town. I have no great education, will never be more than a simple fisherman, and am not anything special to look upon… I am hardly worthy of the chief’s nephew, but I love you. Can we not start again, just you and I, and leave the complications to be taken away by the tide?
Even in his head the words sounded stupid and pathetic, the words of a dumb fisherman trying to catch something too big for his net. The wine tasted bitter and unpleasant on his tongue now, and he nearly tossed it away as he heard Kaoru giggle.
Ignoring the festivities, he watched the sea, soothed by the sound of the waves upon the shore, shivering as the cold water brushed against his ankles. He should have stayed at his little hut and celebrated in private…but he wanted to see Nori, even if he could only watch him from afar.
Drinking more wine, he let his mind wander aimlessly, from Nori to the sea to fishing to the weather and back to Nori.
He was stirred from his drifting as he felt, more than heard, someone sit down beside him. Lifting his head, which was beginning to feel heavy from the wine, he glanced with disinterest at whoever had decided to bother him—and nearly choked. “N-Nori?” He set his jug down hastily, alcohol-warmed skin flushing even warmer. “What—um. Enjoying the festivities? I bet our little village celebration does not compare to the splendid ones they must have around the world.”
“They can be beautiful, even mesmerizing,” Nori said, then shrugged. “But there is nothing like home.”
Aoi nodded. “Everyone is so happy you are honme.”
“I am sorry I worried everyone,” Nori said, then hesitated.
Aoi offered his jug. “Would you like some wine? It’s not much, just something I made myself…” Because he was too poor to buy the good celebration wines sold at market and by merchants that occasionally passed through. Some years, he couldn’t even afford to make it.
Nori accepted the jug and drank deeply, licking his lips as he finished. “That is the best wine I’ve tasted in ages.”
Aoi doubted that, but nodded and murmured a thank you.
They lapsed into silence again, and Aoi swallowed against the stupid things he wanted to say, because Nori had never sat with him like this—just the two of them, tucked away in the dark, everyone else a distant murmur. He didn’t want to ruin it by saying something stupid, drive Nori away with his awkwardness, his stupid, hopeless dreams.
“Um—” Nori stopped, and Aoi would have thought he sounded nervous, except that was ridiculous. “Everyone has been saying… is it true that you gave up your mother’s pearls to the temple…because…to…for my safety?” The last words came out in a jumbled rush that took a moment to understand.
Aoi’s face burned when he finally did. Storms take it, he should have known the village would rush to tell Nori that. If they worked half as hard as they gossiped. “Yes,” he said quietly. “Everyone was worried about you and I… it was all I could do to help.” He remembered the odd stranger, though he could not picture him clearly, who had told him that Nori was safe. That moment of relief, of joy, was worth his mother’s pearls and more.
Nori touched his hand, and Aoi could barely breathe as Nori turned it and pressed something into his palm. “It’s not much,” he said quietly. “I am sorry that you lost your mother’s pearls over me. I am not worth that, Aoi.”
Yes, you are. The word stuck in Aoi’s throat. Desperate for distraction, he tried to examine what Nori had given him, even though it was far too dark to be possible.
“A black pearl,” Nori said. “An earring. It caught my eye, and something told me to buy it. It’s not nearly enough to compensate for the necklace, but I want you to have it.”
Aoi stared at him, not certain or not if he was grateful for the dark. “I can’t accept this,” he said. A black pearl was worth far more than his mother’s necklace.
Nori wrapped Aoi’s hand around the earring. “I want you to have it,” he repeated. “I’ll be upset if you refuse. All right?”
“All right,” Aoi said quietly, sharply aware that Nori had not yet let go of his hand.
Silence felt between them again.
He had to say something—anything—but before the words made it out, Nori spoke again. “Aoi…” Nori shook his head, then nodded, then started speaking again. “I know our parents disliked each other, and you don’t get along with my uncle. I was never as good a swimmer or fisherman as you, and being a sailor has made me sort of rough… I’m not the prize everyone always said I would be, but… well, I think about you a lot when I travel, and I always hated that you must dislike me. I’m hoping that maybe I’ve been wrong all this time, and that we could start over… please?”
The surf seemed to pound in Aoi’s ears, even as the rest of the world went completely silent. He stared in disbelief at Nori, only jerking out of it when the post of the earring suddenly dug into the palm of the hand he had unwittingly tightened around it.
“Yes,” he finally gasped out, when Nori began to look worried. “I don’t hate you. I never hated you. I just—Nori—”
Nori laughed, the sound of it a bit shaky, and cut off Aoi’s fumbling attempts to speak with a kiss that spoke volumes.