The birds greet the dawn with their gentle chorus as the sky warms to the east. And with it, Anther wakes too. Or, at least he thinks he does, because for so long he had followed the quiet, unsung song of the world around him, so often waking before the sun could leave the embrace of the horizon so that he could meet it upon the mountain peaks, so surely he is awake, or waking. Only… he can feel a touch against the curve of his muzzle. One that no longer exists outside the realm of dreams. Deep in the contentment of his sleep-haze, Anther can feel the touch as sure as the ground that lays beneath him; just as he can hear the wordless voice that whispers the wind’s melody as sweet as the magic around him, weaving itself into a new day as the flowers open to greet the sun and the birds take flight on the southern breeze. Anther knows the feelings of those hands. He can’t mistake the touch of those fingers for anything else; having held them in such deep regard for so long that their weight against his scales soothes him of the pain that has been building-knotting-twisting inside his chest over the course of the past few days, ever since he lost the right to covet the comfort given to him by these very hands. Anther wants to open his eyes. He wants to see if this really is a dream or not, but his eyelids are as heavy as the stars that fall from the sky; his body held in the suspense of the fading nightscape, and his body won’t listen to him when he tells it to move, finding that he can’t; unable to fight against the weight that keeps his eyes closed, something desperate and pleading warming the back of his throat— “Sssh, Obí,” his voice whispers, so sweet and delicate; reminiscent of years past when his family’s terror-filled screams would haunt his dreams like ghosts of the dead; the sharpness of a sword cutting through the darkness like an executioner’s axe; the deathly rattle of chains that would disturb his sleep and chase him from any peace he’d be able to find that wasn’t settle in the touch of Thæon’s hands. Hands that trail up beneath Anther’s eyes, quick to catch a tear shed in frustration when he can’t open them, can’t see, can’t speak beyond a whimper in question to whether or not this is real, and by the stars, he begs for this to be real— “It’s okay. You’re safe now. It’s nothing but a bad dream.” No. This is a good dream. And yet while peaceful, it is torturous in nature. Dream or not, Anther has never felt so exposed to the emotions building inside him. All the aching and longing he had endured for the past seasons on loneliness—the bitterness of his heart’s rejection when Anther had shared the words that shattered everything; the double-edged relief at seeing his family like the touch of buttercups and plumerias and angelica blooms; this gentle touch that Anther thought would be forever barred from him—everything rising up and spilling out in a way that leaves him with regret coiling around his heart where breathlessness and empty lungs had been before. It all comes rushing out in a pitiful noise when he feels the touch being withdrawn from cursed scales. “No, please. Stay with me,” Anther begs, desperate to hold onto his touch just a moment longer, even if only this were his imaginings. Dream or not, he is not ready to lose this touch for a second time, his heart beating painfully in his chest and he can’t seem to take a full breath; the pain of his heart breaking forged into iron chains that wrap, serpentine and vice-like around his lungs, suffocating him from the inside as the fire in his heart flutters. “Stay,” he whimpers, and feels no shame for the tears he cries. Slowly, surely, Thæon’s hands return to cradle the shape of his muzzle, curling over his nose, tracing along the ridges of his face. There’s a touch of warmth pressed between his eyes; ghosting laughter caressing his scales like apple blossoms, and when he speaks, his voice is quiet that Anther strains to hear it over the fluttering wings of his own heart; “sssh Obí. Everything is okay now. I’m here.” “Stay,” Anther continues to plead, and will, for as long as he must to keep Thæon close. His eyes too heavy to open, his body refusing to move, but he won’t give up without a fight, and it’s with closed eyes and a mind fading into darkness that he is finally able to leans up and into the comforting touch of a palm cradling his cheek. He finds himself holding his breath when Thæon’s hand twitches against him, as if about to pull back, but at the sound of Anther’s whimper rising, the weight settles once more. Strengthens. Idly, Anther wonders if the boy can feel his heart beating wild in his chest, wondering if the way he runs his hands in circles is in effort to calm the racing in his dragon’s chest not simply to quieten the crooning whimpers that break on teeth and pour from his throat, crimson, like malicious tears. There is peace when a kiss and a promise is pressed to his brow. But the world can be cruel—Anther no stranger to the tricks gods play on mortals when he is no longer human—waking then, to find that it was nothing but a dream. His eyes opened to the sun fully risen and the sounds of the camp waking around him; Thæon nowhere to be seen, having taken the task of hunting food to bolster supplies for the morning meal. A glance to familiar faces shows that Morak has joined him. And so it goes, that Anther will dream of dawn in a wonder of apple blossom and glittering fire-eyes, cradling hands on his maw and a whisper of words meant for him and only for him. And then, he will wake to a world of grey skies and cold winds; his scales itching with a touch that never was and a chasm aching between himself and his Fireheart with the barest trace of sweetness against his scales and a question playing upon his mind like teasing laughter: was it truly a dream? The days stretched on as the party made their way north-west, with Anther guiding them towards the old, abandoned fortresses built along the spine of Tvawklaad’s western ridge. They used to be manned by Ered Naur’s soldiers back when the world was untamed and the kingdom spanned the vast reaches of Brærn; many outposts built up and built around until they became villages, towns and cities themselves, although there are a few in the mountains and those harder-to-reach along the slopes of Tvawklaad’s ridges that had been abandoned to time and the thievery of those that took profit from the misery of others. Even after all this time, with shattered memories and warped nightmares, Anther had remembered the path he’d taken to hunt; rather than heading south and deeper into the valley he’d later called home, instead pushing north before memories distorted and there had been old stone beneath his feet—beneath his claws—the heavy rattle of chains grating against blistered, burning skin and the pain of his screams; the sight of blood dribbling atop the mortar, drawing patterns as the pool grew beneath him as he was ripped open from the inside and fashioned into something monstrous. Anther didn’t tell the others just how much he remembered, or how the entrapping stone still dogged his dreams; choosing only to share the memory of heavy stone and mortar beneath his hands; the archway that they had dragged him through and the cold of the chill of snow on bare skin even in the morn of Young Summer when the snow had melted in the Thaw. He told them of the chains, and the nails that they had hammered down into rock, instead of earth. It was Morak who made the leap between flagstone paving and the old strongholds that lined the spine of mountains running along Ered Naur’s south-west coast; lookouts and fortresses built to act as the first line of defence against sea raiders, as well as fortified locations for soldiers to man while operating in the local area. Since peace had been made between the isles of L’laegyn and Ered Naur the cost for housing soldiers in the outposts outweighed their need, and so now only monthly patrols were made from the nearest villages and cities, meaning there were dozens of strongholds that would serve as the perfect hideout for a gang of bandits operating as poachers and fences. It was the group’s first real lead and an excited yet nervous energy joined them on their journey. Each night, Morak and Gryka would shadow-travel together, moving through the Shadow Realm to cover distance quicker in hopes to narrow down certain fortresses from the vast number that littered the wild slopes and valleys. All the while, he fed his magic into the air in imitation of a Threadweaver, trying to detect pockets of sudden magic, explaining that, “any mage, or mages, with the combined capability to cast a curse as intricate and as powerful as the one that has bound you for the past years wouldn’t be able to do so without calling upon their nature’s magic. We all have our source; all of them woven with the Realms and the magic of the gods, and if the mages are still here, they will be drawing energy and using that, we’ll be able to find them.” Apparently Morak had learnt the trick while travelling through the clanlands, having been constantly in contact with another’s magic that had been spread across the five territories like a magic net, and while Morak would never be able to cast his magic so far, nor directly affect the fabric of magic like a Threadweaver, he said that there could be more to learn by studying other’s magic than simply studying his own. Anther didn’t quite understand, but the conversation was a welcome distraction to pass the time.It was interesting to observe his new friends and the dynamics between them and the uses their magic brought to their group. Morak certainly pulled his weight with shadow-travelling and casting his net, but Gryka was as much a team player; scouting ahead in the day, slipping between the trees and the shadows like to scout the path and to hunt small game that would fill the other’s stomachs come sundown. Ríenn had her own hand in gathering food and scouting; using her Silver Tongue magic to talk to the birds and the gliders to learn of the forest and those that walked among the underbrush that might give tell to Anther’s cursers, while Torra would sing songs to keep the group’s spirits up and the ache of tiredness forgotten. Eidan wasn’t able to use their lightning magic properly without hurting themselves—their own skills anchored in fighting and defending with little more to do to help the group each night they settled for camp or wandered the wilderlands in the day; but each night they would accompany Torra’s songs with music from their tanglowin; a stringed instrument that they alternated between plucking and stumming; Perrin, Dornan and Stellan all humming along and helping when needed. It came as a surprise to learn that Perrin was Magikless, being a knight-in-training and in a position that would see him most often at a disadvantage against other magic-users, even if the intricacies in his scent that fluctuated like Thæon’s apple-soft-summer-warm and sometimes old and worn, like geodes buried in the earth. And of course, Thæon, who kept to himself and kept to his silence, sitting cross-legged in Bröder’s saddle for most of the journey; only deigning to unfold them when Torra joined him to give her own mount a break; her saddle laden with supplies as an excuse to join Thæon in his even if, more often than not, Anther’s own saddle sat empty when he wasn’t warming up to Ríenn or carrying Morak while the Shadowcast slept to regain strength after a long night of shadow-travelling. Eidan would climb up and settle in sometimes, under the guise of giving their mount a break, but more often than not they’d pull Torra in beside them; Anther’s saddle big enough for the pair of them; encouraging the knights and His Highness to do the same, enough that Anther wondered if Morak had not spoken to them where he was out of earshot, hunting or something, telling them how innately aware Anther is of their feelings and that he doesn’t deserve their fear. It’s flattering, and Anther appreciates the effort on his behalf. But the one person that he wishes wouldn’t hold him at arm’s length is Thæon. He keeps his distance and he keeps his silence for the journey as the company pushes ever onward; Morak slowly crossing off known fortresses off of their map—annotated by Stellan and Dornan helpfully—with his solo night flights; always turned away and no acknowledgement, even when Anther would deliberately “accidentally” bump him with his tail or step a little too close or brush past him in any way to turn his eyes for a moment. Rather than allowing himself to be overtaken by growing trepidation towards what might await him in the crumbling stronghold of mountain stone; rather than allowing himself to think about the pain that blossomed inside his heart with every cold shoulder, every turn of the head, every second of silence, Anther chose to throw himself into enjoying the time with his new friends instead. It didn’t take long to feel into an ease of pattern with them, and soon the days were passed in enjoyment. Anther felt a fast-growing fondness for all of them, overjoyed that he is accepted despite his claws and scales and the slight fear that had followed them from the village for a night or two. The cold-winter-coast fear in their scents soon fades to nothing and it isn’t long until Anther returns to his usual giddy playfulness that sees him and Bröder roughhousing when they stop for food, or near a stream, or to make camp for the night. He is no longer ashamed of his strength when it is Dornan and Perrin who climb into his saddle to join him for a hunt where he is quick to slaughter two boars, (one for his friends, one for himself); and now there is enjoyment found in the way they climb up to hold onto his harness as he races through the trees, darting quick and sharp and laughing as they scream and yelp adrenaline-sharp-excitement as the world falls away around them and he carries them just up above the canopy to skim the tree line. Still, there is the discordant guilt plucked from this heart strings when Thæon averts his eyes on the few times when Anther forgets himself and throws the boy a lopsided smile or snaps his teeth in that playful way he would incite a wrestle, a race; an invite to plunge into the lake side by side. The two of them still haven’t spoken with one another—as if it could be called “speaking”—since that night in his home valley, and while Anther understands that Thæon deserved time to understand and accept the truth, he can feel his own patience beginning to thin. He had hoped that all Thæon would need was time: time to come to term with the fact that his friend was in fact a cursed human, and that when the awkwardness had eased between them, then Thæon might accept Anther’s invitation to rekindle their friendship even if it might never return to what it once was with broken trust between them. And although it wouldn’t be what it was before, with touches given freely, secrets spilled in the dead of night, and Anther’s lips always a breath away from Thæon’s heart; he hopes that it would be a friendship nonetheless, and they would wrestle and spar like they used to. They’d hunt side by side, with a challenge burning the soles of their feet, and when Anther rose into the sky it would be Thæon settled behind his horns and their triumphant roars would fill the skies. Thæon just needed time. Anther just needed patience. But dragons can only be expected to wait so long, and it isn’t until three more days have passed, when the company have travelled far enough to have reached the low hills at the peak of Tvawklaad’s western ridge where the mountains stretch tall; white-capped and a collective of Yrnœu’s mountains— too many fortresses crossed off the list and a growing worry rising from all of them—when it is that Anther can hold onto his patience no longer; the fuse of his anger sparking with fierce determination. They had stopped to water the mounts in a feeder river that had crossed their path, Stellan taking the executive decision to call for a longer break, meaning that their saddles had been removed—Anther’s harness included—while everyone arranged themselves in a loose circle upon some tumbled rocks and fallen trees, eating the food that had be scavenged thanks to Ríenn’s forest friends and Torra singing an abundance of life into a nearby fruit tree: nearly exhausting herself but granting the company a helping of berries and fruits enough to fill them. There were plenty spare for Bröder to snuffle a few from their hands too. Instead of joining his friends and their concerned conversation as to how far their journey was taking them; weeks from his old village and much further than one would think thieves and greedy filth would drag someone for the sake of experimenting with their magic. Maybe it did make sense, but Morak and Dornan were worried that the mages were no longer operating out of the same abandoned fortress in which they had cursed Anther in and that wasn’t something he wanted to allow himself to worry about right now; turning away from their discussion and losing himself in the wonder of the foreign forest around him. It might be cowardice to avoid the truth, but Anther doesn’t care as he drags scents from the damp earth on either side of the feeder, pushing at the fallen pines with his nose, dragging claws through the fallen leaves to chase ribboning scents that wove through the trees, towards the creek and beyond it. Magic thrums through the pads of his feet, through his body, through the wind that dances around him with her voiceless whisper, listening to the trees that talk and the leaves that dance as he noses through a mound of deadfall to scare up the gliders; chasing when they scamper up the tree trunks and far from the reach of a nudging nose, but then he’s moving past, pawing at the entrance of a burrow that has been long-since abandoned and then beyond that still, to the soft earth near the river, where the grass has been ripped from its roots, some cut off in mouthing bites of blunt teeth and sharp hooves and the scent of something lily-white and sweet. Like the flowers that grow in Ma’s garden. Deer. A doe and her young. The wild in Anther’s body hums in victory, and he lets out a purr of excitement, throwing a grin to his friends, body shifting as the earth echoes his song in anticipation, resonant with the thrum of racing hooves on the other side of the trees, and Anther can feel a growl rising within him, wings ruffling and a snap of his teeth that had so often been an invitation to a challenge for Thæon and himself: to see who would be the first to be victorious in their hunt. But Thæon turns his head away. And Anther’s hunger becomes like ash in his mouth. His teeth snap shut again, loudly, as he turns forcefully towards the Fireheart where he sits between friends; everyone turning to him with wide eyes and the bitter sharp of fear as Anther embraced the intimidation of his cursed nature, head sinking lower to the floor as he would do when stalking prey; now, stalking the group with a growl in his throat and something wild in his voice the spooks the horses as they tug uncertain on their reigns—prey and fearful despite Ríenn’s endless reassurance that now stutters in her throat: the scent of fear on the wind marred by uncertainty and edge with questions that rise on berry-sweet lips, but Anther’s eyes are narrowed on Thæon and Thæon alone; another challenge bared in the snap of his teeth. A demand of attention and answer to the uncertainty that has plagued them both since leaving the oak-shaded field. Thæon turns his head away again. And the time for waiting has passed. Anther doesn’t know what emotions come over him, only that they burn as hot as the fire in his chest; claws cracking like lightning strikes with every step as he all but charges forward. The ground shakes beneath his rage, as if even the earth and its endless magic quivered beneath the might of this accursed beast, blood-red scales and dragon-fire burning in his eyes as he bears down upon where Thæon had sat; on his feet, the only one to be where everyone else reels back, thought Anther ignores their scattered shouts of surprise and alarm, so used to the shape of his body now that he doesn’t hesitate to snatch Thæon up in his mouth—lips covering his teeth, because while he is angry and hurt, he doesn’t want to hurt Thæon in turn—ignoring the way the bastard curses and swears and pummels his fists against Anther’s maw with a voice pitched in panic as if expecting blood— “Don’t wait for us, we’ll catch up,” Anther says to Ríenn where she’s sprawled in the mud, eyes wide in terror and something painful; wasting no more time with explanations when she’s not the one he wants to speak to; rising on his hind legs, his wings beating with the same strength of anger the ignites fire in the base of his throat; a growl tearing the quiet to drown out Thæon’s unrelenting curses as he kicks away from the ground and up into the overcast sky. The fists turn into clawing fingers, but they are human and they are weak; they do not hurt Anther as he carries them both higher into the skies, following the silver reflection of the creek as it flows downstream from feeder into stream into river. Thæon’s curses dissolve into bitten words, but Anther ignores them as much as he ignores the hands on his nose; the fingers curling around the lip of his nose, trying not to think about how they feel against his scales; a far cry from the soft affection his recent dreams have given him, or the way Thæon speaks his name like a curse now, when before there had been pride to colour his words. Anther rids himself of his thoughts and rides the wind current further downstream, ignoring her fond laughter too. The dragon carries Thæon until the river is deep, flowing wide and slow; the surface rippling with fish that jump at the pond skaters and the flies that hover near to the wild reeds and shallow waters. It reminds Anther of the lake he has left behind, and the memories of summer days he had spent with Thæon on the shore and on the cliff, learning to fly, learning to strengthen his wings until he was confident they could hold him above the water. But rather than find calm in the memories, it only serves to anger him further. In his pettiness, Anther drops Thæon into the river. “What the fuck was that for?” he snarled when he had resurfaced, spitting water out his mouth, fighting against suddenly soaking clothes and his own body that drags him. Anther isn’t so mean as to let him drown, even slightly, and keeps a careful eye, but Thæon’s feet catch the bed and he drags his wet, sodden body to the shallows; Anther designating himself to touch down on the back, claws digging into the sun-warmed grass, turning to meet Thæon’s anger with ire of his own; teeth bared in a snarl, tail slapping side to side. “You can’t ignore me forever you know!” Anther yells, his anger taking logic and leaving only the burning emotions that choke him like unshed tears. “And I know that I’ve made you angry, but if you won’t look at me, if you won’t even acknowledge I exist, then how—in the nine realms—am I meant to apologise. You won’t even let me apologise, so how can I fix this‽” Because Thæon has tried his damndest over the course of these two weeks to keep to his bloody self. He won’t answer the questions the others ask of him when they try to understand for themselves, and in some cases, acting on Anther’s behalf when he had asked Ríenn, or Morak, or one of the others to find out the reason why Thæon suddenly wanted to pretend that the dragon didn’t exist. The only one who had gotten close was Perrin; the two of them sat in front of the fire late one night, Anther not the only one to be feigning sleep; holding his breath when Perrin asked why Thæon was keeping his distance from Obí, and was it really such a bad thing that his dragon was actually human? And when the Fireheart hesitated, Anther had grown hopeful, only to see it all dashed when he finally spat out “it’s because he’s human,” and “fuck off Perrin, go crawl into his majesty’s bedroll and leave me the fuck alone.” “Well I’m sorry, alright? I’m sorry for being human, I’m sorry that you didn’t know, but I tried, Thæon, for weeks. I tried to explain to you that I was human and that I am cursed, but no matter what I did I couldn’t get you to understand!” He begins to pace back and forth, the dirt churning beneath his feet as his talons dig into the soft earth and tear it apart; the winds whispering where his wings won’t sit still, shifting back and forth with the desire to stretch them, to gather the winds to his side and rise into the air and far from this mess of a breaking heart and broken bonds. “I tried to do so many things, I tried to get you to see, but none of it worked and—yeah, I gave up,” he says, bitter laughter in his words. “You were still there, and you weren’t scared of me, and after a while I stopped thinking about it because I wasn’t alone and you didn’t see me as a monster and you knowing the truth just stopped being important. It wouldn’t have changed anything anyway.” Anther paces back and forth along the shore bank, sparks glittering in his mouth, turning his head to snap his fangs at Thæon when his emotions get too much to contain in words alone; tail smacking violently behind him but he’s too caught up in words he should’ve said long ago. “So I’m sorry, alright, that I couldn’t tell you the truth. I’m sorry that you wasted all this time looking for dragons that never existed in the first place, and I’m sorry that I am such a huge disappointment because I’m not a real dragon. I’m sorry that I was too much of a fucking coward to follow you out of the valley in the first place, but I was scared,” Anther spits, choking on the last word and it comes out half-way between a sob and a whimper; somewhere between monstrous teeth and lungs that can’t get enough air. He doesn’t have the words but he has the pain and it all comes up in a monstrous roar that sends animals fleeing for miles. “And I know—gods above—I know I’m a coward but it wasn’t just because someone would hurt me, or hurt you to get to me. I was terrified that this is what would happen,” Anther says, his voice dissolving into breathy whines, ignoring the prickling of tears welling behind his eyes, staring down at his claws as he buries them into the earth; great trenches of destruction wrought mindlessly. “I was terrified that you would come to hate me when you learnt the truth; I didn’t want you to think that I had tricked you somehow and that after everything you told me… about your dad and the elders in your homeland and every secret you ever told me…. I didn’t want you to think that you couldn’t trust me anymore.” Anther is surprised to find himself gasping, remembering nights under the stars when it was Thæon who was the one choking back sobs; when he had admitted his fears in the safety of knowing the Obí had held his secret, unable to share even if he wanted to. Now there is a threat of secrets spilled where Anther can talk to others, and though it is only Morak and Ríenn, it’s more than he’s been able to before and that is enough of a threat for Thæon. One that doesn’t exist, but there has been trust broken and Anther doubts Thæon would trust him if he said otherwise. His claws curl deeper; his breath coming shallow. “You were important to me—are, are important to me, Thæon,” Anther says, looking down, his voice quiet now; gentle in comparison to the emotions that churn inside of him like a tempest raging wildly. “I never wanted you to look at me in disappointment.” He lifts his head, ignoring his own tears, ignores the flinch of pain he is given in return. “I’d already lost my family. I’d already come to accept that I would never see them again, that no one would know that truth because I couldn’t talk, and I couldn’t… I couldn’t… “You and Bröder were all I had left and I didn’t want to lose you too.” Anther’s breaths comes hot and heavy, lungs heaving as he is crushed beneath the weight of his emotions. He had learnt so much from Thæon, but he hadn’t ever realised how much the man affected him; how alike they were in anger; shouting and yelling and spitting fire as if in need to destroy the world around them, to make it look how they felt on the inside, and Anther’s eyes drink in the sight of the charred earth around him from where his fire had taken to the ground and raced, free like flowing water, staining the ground like pooling blood; the way Thæon stares at him from the shallows of the river, drenched, unscathed, the world around him untouched where Anther’s magic had turned from harming him and he aches to shift this weight that bares down upon him; to be free of this pain; to have Thæon care for him once more even if it wasn’t to be how it once was. Anything is better than the silence. But all Thæon is doing is staring at him without a word to rebuke or reprove or even insult and it stings Anther like the crack of a whip that he doesn’t even mean that much anymore. His anger flares. “Well? Say something!” Anther’s snarls are sharp and unyielding, but even he can hear the plea woven into the very fabric of his words, and it hurts to be the only one trying to hold onto something he had thought they both considered something precious; it hurts for him to think that Thæon can throw away their time together like it meant nothing in the first place, and maybe for him that was true, but to Anther, Thæon meant the world. To Anther, Thæon meant— “I can’t fucking understand you, dumbass,” Thæon growls, dragon-like, feral, but it’s the truth and Anther blinks in shock as he stares at the human before him, realising the sharp lines of his frown isn’t anger or disgust, but frustration. A burst of laughter rises to his lip, sudden and unexpected. He can’t contain it, the noise bubbling in his mouth and in his throat because, honestly, that’s just perfect. Of course Thæon can’t understand him. That was the very crux of the problem, and Anther had been so wrapped up in his anger, so wrapped up in his impatience and pain and his want for what the two of them once had that he had forgotten that Thæon cannot understand him. And he had snatched him up in his mouth like a goddamn animal and whisked him away, against his will and dumped him in the river out of sheer pettiness. It all comes bubbling out in laughter, choked, hollow, ill-humoured. “No, I guess you can’t,” Anther laughed, near breathless. But it didn’t matter, because there was no one here that could understand him. He laughed and laughed and let his lungs stutter over the sound; head bowed to the ground and kept on laughing. It builds, from simple muffled amusement muted beneath deformed lips to pink-cheeked laughter, because the choice is either to laugh or to cry and Anther can’t bear to face his heartbreak. He lays his head against the burnt grass, no energy to fight against the noise as it grows, builds, rises. But the laughter is unsteady on Anther’s lips and he can feel something blue, purple, black-like-the-night on his tongue and the sound bubbles wetly into something different. The tears come freely then: the last of Anther’s fire snuffed out alongside his anger; exhaustion sweeping in and sweeping him off his feet. He manages to keep himself standing long enough to drag himself from the charred remains of his anger, towards the higher bank and the dry grass, the berry bushes, the lone willow that stretches lazily over the summer grass; Anther’s legs shaking as if it isn’t the world crumbling, but him, crumbling and he barely makes it to the shade before he collapses onto unburnt grass in chorus to the sounds of Thæon wading out of the shallows. Anther kept his face turned away, staring out instead across the scorched meadow and the grass; bitter, burnt, destroyed beneath the mark of his rage. Always a monster, he thinks, and closes his eyes. Keeps them as such when he feels the magic thrum in the air around him as the Fireheart drags his sodden body and dripping clothes from the wet of the river, the clinking of stones shifting under his feet, the whisper of the ash and destruction as he steps closer— Anther turns his head away from the noise, hiding away from his shame and everything that he’s not brave enough to face. And even though Thæon can’t understand him, he apologises. “I’m sorry I took my anger out on you,” he whispers. Still afraid. “So much has happened in such a short space of time and I guess I just had no more patience to spare. I had always hoped you would return, but it was never a certainty. And then suddenly, there you were, and then, so was everyone else, and my family and then everyone knew the truth,” he says, words flowing free and quick and without thought. “But then you were ignoring me and it was the very thing I had hoped never to happen, and it was painful that you threw away everything we had. That summer was important to me, Thæon, and to have you treat it like it never happened hurts so much and I—" “I still can’t understand you,” Thæon interrupts, and Anther’s words die in his throat, eyes fluttering open because he cannot help himself, and there was something mournful in the light of his desiderium; undying and altogether as mesmerising as the boy that unknowingly holds his heart in his hands. Anther couldn’t help the smile that played light upon his lips; perhaps one of the very few things that remained human about him. “I know. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry—” “Stop apologising.” Now that caught his attention. Anther lifted his head off of the earth; his shock giving him the chance to level wide-eyes with Thæon’s where he still isn’t quite brave enough; pain and fear swept aside for confusion expression in a tilted head. It brings amusement to Thæon’s scent; vanilla-bean, woodsmoke, mountain ash and the gentle fluttering of a young fire. “I thought that you couldn’t…." “I don’t always need to know what you’re saying to understand what you’re trying to tell me,” he says, and Anther’s heart tumbles at the familiar quirk of his lips, victorious and teasing. But the notion has a bitter after taste and Thæon’s smile falters as he looks away, kicking at the ground beneath him, uncharacteristically “Although I obviously missed the major parts.” Anther feels like his lungs have frozen in his chest, mouth dry, tears dry upon his cheeks. He stares, uncertain, not quite able to bring himself to hope, but he is as still as the mountains when Thæon closes the distance between them and, gracelessly, sits himself down as simply breathing; unaware that Anther has forgotten how. Something stutters in his lungs when Thæon leans back; a firm line of touch against Anther’s side and the dragon is left to stare, mind empty, eyes wide, body as rough as stone when Thæon takes a breath all of his own, and there’s something pained in his voice when he opens his mouth and lets himself speak. “I’m guessing that you dragged me out here so the two of us could talk.” He phrases it almost like a question, but they both know that there’s no other reason Anther would’ve brutally snatched Thæon up and dragged him out here to ignore one another like they’ve been doing for the past two weeks. “You’re angry at me,” and he says it like a fact, except that’s not right and Anther half-scoffs, half-laughs in disbelief. Thæon turns at that; an eyebrow raised, lifting higher when Anther lifts his chin off of his folded hands enough to turn his head side to side, gaze never breaking as he made it explicitly clear that, no, he was not angry. Frustration builds like bile in the back of his throat, because he can’t tell Thæon everything, now that he is finally willing to listen; settling for staring at him instead, unblinking, until Thæon turns face and leans back into his shoulder, just like he used to when they would star gaze, or cloud gaze, except that Anther lowers his head once more to lay on pillowed paws rather than where he would curl his head to cradle his human, nuzzled into his lap, where he’d trail idle fingers in a song known only to the pair of them. But Anther doesn’t deserve that touch anymore and he keep his chin rested on folded claws. “Alright, you’re not angry at me,” Thæon says, taking a deep breath, letting it roll through him. “So all of that,” he says, making an aborted movement with one hand towards the burnt grass and the scar of Anther’s destruction across the beautiful landscape, “that was all….” But words don’t come and he’s running his hand through his fringe three times in quick succession, tugging at the ends like he’s trying to ground himself in feeling; ordering thoughts because what he thought he understood is wrong and Anther doesn’t have the words to explain. All he has is the patience to wait for Thæon to find his words; to muddle his way through conversation, made only harder by Anther’s inability to express himself and the fact that he had chosen to have this conversation without Morak or Ríenn nearby to translate. Then again, that was for the best, Anther thinks, knowing how hard Thæon was with admitting weakness of any kind; having already learnt that, when Thæon’s words were edge with sparks and the sharpness of a knife’s edge, Anther had to keep his eyes turned away, lest Thæon think he’s been interrogated or looked down upon; having learnt that he didn’t take the time to choose his words with this much care unless it was something that was important to him. “I don’t get it,” Thæon admits, something fragile and comforting that he still chooses to admit that to Anther; knowing that he hates to be anything less than perfect. “If you’re not angry at me, then why are you angry?” he asks, rhetorical, ranting, waving an idle hand, “because it’s not like you’re angry at yourself, you didn’t do anything, you didn’t….” A spark ignites in his eyes, and Thæon understands. “You were apologising,” he says, lifting his gaze from where his gaze had turned away; brow furrowed with genuine surprise at what he sees reflected in Obí’s eyes. “What for?” This time its Anther’s turn to raise an eyebrow at him, head tilted, trying to fight the endearment that places a smile on his lips. He doesn’t want Thæon to think that he’s laughing at him, but he had thought that it would be obvious. Apparently, it’s not, and Anther heaves a sigh—fondly, of course—before lifting his head to free his claws from where he had been resting his chin so that he might drag a deformed, taloned-hand across his own chest. It was a simple raking of the scales, leaving trails of white from the pressure, but no blood rose between the cracks of his scales unlike before when he had been trying to dig at his plated armour and search for the pink flesh of human underneath; thinking the curse a cloak; thinking his real body was buried underneath. Thæon watched him with calculative eyes, realisation sparking like a fire. “You’re apologising… for being cursed.” “Close enough,” Anther hums, moving to lay down once more. Or at least, he tries to, but Thæon rounds on him so fast he hardly gets the chance. “Are you fucking stupid?” Yes, Anther concedes, but he doesn’t know what has caused Thæon’s anger to flare up with the intensity of an inferno— “Why are you apologising for being cursed? It’s not your fault. It’s not your fucking fault that you couldn’t tell me either because—Wait. That’s it, isn’t it?” he says, anger pushed aside for triumph and frustration and a thousand other emotions that burn Anther’s nose with their strength. “You’re apologising to me, because I didn’t know that you were human. Because you tried to tell me, but I was so fucking stupid I missed all the signs!” Thæon shoves himself up, onto his feet, Anther rising too, although he doesn’t get far before his heart turns back to him, pointed finger, snarls spiking his tongue. “You don’t have to apologise for a goddamn thing! That’s not—gods above, that’s not why I’m angry,” he says, running hands through his hair, pacing back and forth over the burnt ground, kicking at stones and sticks as words bubble up and spit out like embers. “Nearly—fuck, nearly three years, and all because I was so goddamn blind that I couldn’t understand what you had been trying to tell me! And I should’ve,” he says, his voice rising in volume and rage. “Gods, I should’ve known. Dragons were hunted to extinction during the White War, and I was too stupid to realise that, because—and I thought that, I don’t know, maybe you were like a dragonling—not a hatchling, you were too big,” he says, beginning to ramble, taking Anther’s place as he paces back and forth on the gras, turning on the ball of his foot, fire sparking like a fire fighting a snowstorm beneath his feet; unstable and threatening to catch the dry grass. “I thought that you were young, because even for your size you were clumsy and you didn’t know how to hunt or fly, and I had this stupid idea in my head that you had waken from hibernation thousands of years after—because we know that dragons were able to live for millennia and I thought—” Thæon cuts himself off, feet snapping to a standstill, breathing heavily. He was rough around the edges, his words painfully given, but they were given and not forcefully taken, and it is to these words that Anther gives his utmost attention, entranced, ensorcelled almost, watching Thæon’s lips curve and lilt and thin as he fights with himself simply to get the words out. “I stole those years from you because I didn’t understand,” he breathes, and it takes a moment for Anther to understand that, yes, Thæon was angry. But he wasn’t angry at Anther. He was angry at himself. “I am so, so sorry. I was so fucking selfish. I was so absorbed by this stupid idealisation that I had been the one to find the last living dragon, or to learn that dragons weren’t extinct after all,” Thæon says, fighting a losing battle against the sudden rain that traced silver down his cheeks. “I had fallen in love with this idea that it was going to be the two of us together,” he says, Anther’s chest tightening for a thousand reasons and a million more, “and all that time I didn’t realise that you were suffering. You were right next to me, and you were hurting, but all I could think of how strong the two of us would be, taking on the Scorched King, protecting my people and the clanlands.” “Thæon,” Anther croons, his voice as soft as he can make it in his disfigured, misshapen body, daring to finally take a step. “Thæon, that’s—” “It was selfish, I know,” Thæon laughs, but it’s wet and tear-stained and when he turns back to look at his dragon, Anther is overcome with guilt at how perfect his Thæon looks, even with tears in his eyes. “The whole things about trying to find your family was selfish too. I wanted to find them, not just because it would make you happy, and I did—I do, want to make you happy—” and Anther feels breathless that Thæon was still willing to admit that to him, “—but I wanted to find your family because I wanted you to feel indebted to me.” Thæon takes another breath, holding it when Anther pushes himself closer, eyes fixed upon the blond who looks for all the world like he wants to run away. “Why?” “I wanted you to stay with me. I wanted a reason for you to stay and I wanted to find your family but I didn’t because even if you somehow you felt like you owed me in some way, I knew that once you were reunited with them, there was no way you’d want to leave them,” he says, breathless. Tear-stained. “Why?” “You were my first real friend. And I know I have Torra and Eidan and I’dl back in the clanlands, but I trusted you so much more than I trusted them, and I actually care about what you think of me. I wanted you to see me as I am, see how strong I was for me, not for my title, not for the expectations the elders had of me to be the next Tæ’adanaï, and I was so wrapped up in the idea that the two of us fighting side by side,” Thæon says, and he’s starting to repeat himself, his words rushing hard and fast, and Anther steals closer as carefully as he can, eyes not leaving Thæon’s face for a moment, even when he is close enough for the boy’s hands rise, seemingly of their own volition, to cradle Anther’s jaw as he had so often done. “And when I learnt that you were human… I didn’t understand at first. I didn’t get it, and it felt like you had betrayed me,” he says, whispering, eyes clenched tight as tears trace down his cheeks. “You were my dragon. My dragon. And then you weren’t, and it hurt because everything I had imagined had been taken away from me again…. But then I realised I was the one who had hurt you first. I had betrayed you and the trust you had given me, because I wanted to bind you to me,” he says, taking a shaky breath. “And yet I knew that you would forgive me regardless. And I didn’t deserve that. I don’t deserve your forgiveness. I don’t deserve your friendship. “I don’t deserve you.” Gently, and slow enough for Thæon to step away should he want, Anther leans in just enough to hook the curve of his maw over Thæon’s shoulder, tugging him into his chest in simulacra to a hug, even though he doesn’t have hands. He can feel his breath flutter over his scales like bird wings; echoed in a purr that lifts, unbidden from his lips; the warmth pouring into him from the boy’s very soul and Anther breathed in deep, surrounding himself with the very being of his human. His Thæon. “I’m yours. I will always be yours,” Anther purrs as Thæon leans back, hands once again rising to cradle his jaw; Anther unable to deny him, his own heart fluttering at the tentative smile peeking at the corners of Thæon’s lips: something bright and new unfolding in Anther’s hands even if he is the only one that knows it’s there. Anther chances a smile. “I will always be here to remind you if you forget. I’ve waited for you all this time. Don’t think I would stop so easily.” “I told you, I can’t understand,” Thæon says, but he’s smiling and his tears have stopped. Anther hums wordlessly, nuzzling his nose in Thæon’s hands as he had done a thousand times before, and now, may do a thousand times more. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand,” he hums, as he is caught in Thæon’s hands, pulled in close so that the boy could press a kiss to his brow; another apology whispered for him and him alone. And not for the first time, Anther hates that the curse has taken, not just his words, but his hands, and his touch, just how Thæon holds Anther’s jaw and whispers promises against his blood-red scales. One day the curse will be broken, and then Anther will be able to speak the words he has held in his heart all this time. But he’s waited this long. He doesn’t mind waiting a little longer.
The twilight of evening was still touching the farthest reaches of the horizon, dusk barely growing old around them when Anther felt something scratch at his back, between the points of his second scapula and the spines that trailed like a mountain ridge down his back.