Prologue



 

“Sungmin-hyung!” The other man’s head snapped up at his call from his work, his wine red hair flipping about wildly to settle against his forehead in damp strands strewn across his face before his eyes lit up.

 

"Junyoung!"

 

His hands dropped the greased leather strap he was holding, a dull thunk against the side of the saddle as metal met the molded, tough skin. "What brings you out here so early?"

 

He rubbed at his hands, oil glistening across calloused skin as he set the darkly-stained cloth aside with a slight grimace. The other man laughed, pulling at his tunic in the sticky heat of the summer day; despite how early it was the sun’s gleam was already a dull, constant heat that lulled one into seriously considering inactivity. The leaves of the trees in the glade cast dark, soothing shadows across their skin and clothes, sunlight sparkling through the gaps in the leaves as an orange glow. Already the heat of the sunrise had Sungmin's tunic clinging loosely to his body, the sleeves pushed up his arms as far as they would go.

 

"Early? I just saw Oromis-elda." Sungmin groaned sympathetically, nodding when the taller man motioned to the other rag, a silent question on his lips. Junyoung snatched up the cloth and held it against the mouth of the bottle, his fingers lightening as oil began to seep into the cloth, staining it dark and vivid in stark contrast to the faded color of the rest of the worn textile. "And you know how Oromis is; as far as he's concerned, sunrise is excruciatingly late in the day and how ever will I manage to become a Rider with that sort of schedule." He huffed, driving his rag roughly against the grain of the leather so Sungmin winced at his force. "A man needs his sleep, I say! You don't function otherwise."

 

"And yet you still find it in yourself to challenge Kangin-sshi to see which of you can go without sleep the longest." Junyoung stopped his work, straightening up with a mock-outraged finger pointed squarely at Sungmin as a guilty and slightly exasperated grin spread across Sungmin's face.

 

"I'll have you know I won that bet, if you'll recall!"

 

"Only after you two threatened to drive everyone crazy - I don't think even Jungsu-hyung wanted to deal with you after that, he was honestly wondering if he should have drugged you both."

 

"You just have a blatant bias against the loud ones, hyung," Junyoung protested, taking up his rag again with a hurt glance towards him.

 

"Yah, In my recollection, I think it ended with the both of you getting absolutely drunk off of some of Oromis' antique wines and with the forest in an uproar with Andy-sshi searching for 'two young upstarts who would be better off learning what in the forest would be liable to prey on them rather than me hunting after them', I believe he said – so it definitely isn’t just me.”

 

"I'll bet Oromis was in complete agreement with that," Junyoung grumbled, swatting at a delicate leaf that had fluttered atop his head.

 

Sungmin nodded in strict agreement, but the eye he cast on Junyoung was a bemused one as he fiddled with one of the silver buckles on the saddle, hands working over it meticulously with another cloth until a gleaming silvery sheen glinted between his fingers. "You have to admit, he has a point." His dark eyes gleamed in the glare of the sun, and Junyoung made a disgruntled sound as he tossed his cloth back at Sungmin playfully, the shorter man yelping a "Hey!" as oil lightly made its mark across his tunic.

 

"Just for that, you do the rest of the saddle on your own, hyung!" Sungmin snorted, picking up the abandoned rag from the leaf-strewn forest ground as Junyoung looked on, one leg up on the elegant wooden bench and a mischievous look in his eyes.

 

"Where are you going? To get another scolding from Oromis, I wager." Junyoung shook his head, smiling ruefully as he ran greased fingers through his hair, sweeping it back from his forehead.

 

"Actually, today the hatchery's going to be open to the trainees." Sungmin looked confused for all of a few moments, but then his eyes lit up extraordinarily.

 

"Today? Really?" Junyoung laughed and nodded, suddenly as a loss for words as he stood before Sungmin with his lips parted.

 

"I hope," he finally got out, words still unsure, "that I can make it today." Sungmin's smile was faint but nostalgic; in the days when they had all been trainees, unsure of whether an egg would hatch for them, nights spent dreaming, sleep-hunting the silvery-flamed brand of the Dragon Riders' upon one's palm, Junyoung had been one of them, wanting and waiting and wishing for the dream to come true and not knowing if it would ever come. And now...

 

"I miss those days," Junyoung said quietly, the only sound accompanying them the birdsong in the distance. Sungmin felt something stir in his chest - those days when they had hoped, had wished so fervently for, had culminated in himself standing there, before Junyoung, a Dragon Rider in rank and skill, and his friend, for all of his occasional cockiness and bullheadedness, set apart from him. Oh, but the want for wings and sky!

 

"I know," Sungmin sighed out, calloused hands lowering to the familiar molding of the saddle as he traced his fingers in the delicate etching along the edge in elvish runes. Junyoung suddenly brightened up, a smile on his face and in his eyes as he pumped a fist into the air, his tunic sleeve sliding down stickily to his shoulder, silhouetted dark against the sun's rays.

 

"I'll make it," he promised, the confidence back in his voice and stance. "We'll be a team again. And even if I don't, there are other ways."

 

Sungmin's smile wavered a bit; only a few Riders in training, at this time in the height of their relationship with the dragons, ever managed to continue their education past this point. There were indeed other ways to form a cohesive unit, other ways they could still do it.

 

But this was the only path they'd ever dreamed of.

 

Sungmin reached up across the giant saddle to clasp Junyoung's hand in his own. "Good luck," he murmured, suddenly serious. "We miss you, come back soon."

 

"I will," Junyoung said, unusually steadfast and all traces of humor in his voice gone. "See you later, hyung."

 

They tightened their grip to each other briefly before Junyoung's fingers slid from his own and he tore off into the forest through the trees, weaving in and out amongst the scattered trunks and feet grinding dry, brittle leaves into fine dust in the dark soil.

 

Sungmin looked back to his saddle with some amount of regret, strangely more self-aware as he picked up the rag again, but another sound dissuaded him from his work in the form of loud wing beats thundering in his ears. Sungmin, called a voice somewhere in his mind, like wings unfolding within his chest as he reached out towards the deep, all-encompassing sound.

 

Jangmi-ah! He glanced up above him, the skies not yet evened out to pale blue and still of the dull orange-branded haze of sunrise, the dragon's deep pink belly melting into the reds and oranges and violets that yet still remained as she swooped overhead, wings flaring as she banked and came in for a landing upon the ground. Her claws kneaded the soft earth beneath them as she landed, sweeping up crackling leaves in her talons as she slowed, leaving long, thin trails behind her. Her great horned head loomed far over his as she took in a deep breath of the warm morning air, exhaling with a small pink flame and a thin furl of smoke from her nostrils.

 

"How was your hunt?" he asked her, and he was immediately swept up in the sound of a pleasured rumble and images of a mighty buck crumpling beneath her claws; the blood still painted her jaws, and rivulets of it ran in the scales of her talon, outlining ever minuscule scale in rusty crimson.

 

It goes well, she purred, stretching her wings out to their magnificent wingspan as far as they would go until a branch snagged the pink membrane between her wings and she winced, wings snapping back to her back sharply.

 

"Go clean up, would you?" Sungmin laughed at her, and the crimson eye that stared ominously back was ignored without further fanfare as she lapped dolefully at one claw, scraping away the blood. "The stream's that way, just beyond the pines; I'm going to stay here and finish up."

 

We may welcome some hatchlings to the ranks today, she murmured in his mind as she leaned down, nudging him slightly with her nose. It would be nice to have yet another one among us, and for some of your friends to finally gain flight, she went on, nostrils flaring slightly at the scent of the oil that coated him. And you’ve not a reason to get me to go wash off, not when you smell rather unappealing yourself!

 

“I’ve never claimed to be a bouquet of roses, you,” he retorted playfully, swatting the rag at her so she shied back in disgust.

 

Keep that filthy thing away from me, she growled in warning, her bony eyelids clicking as she blinked.

 

“Yah, just go!” Jangmi exhaled a deep, heated breath that warmed his back before she rose.

 

You missed a spot, she said, tapping one hard, cracking area on the saddle with her claw before leaping off into the air, her flapping stirring up dirt and dust into the air as he coughed, waving his hand in the air over the saddle in a vain attempt to keep it from being dirtied.

 

When he finally glanced up at the rustle of feathers in the tree over his head, Blodhren, the elven king’s enchanted white raven, was eying him critically with one baleful crimson eye.

 

"Good morning, Blodhren," he said carefully, sweeping the bangs over his eyes out of his face. "How are you doing this day?"

 

Blodhren did not even seem to notice that he had spoken, continuing to look on as though an odd marble statue carved into the branch of the tree. Then he suddenly croaked, shattering his porcelain composure, "To be wont to dream is to dream of want, and wont to want is death itself."

 

The raven left off with a dry, cackling laugh reminiscent of a death rattle that had Sungmin’s hair standing on end as the raven fluttered to a branch nearer to Sungmin, tilting his head in a disconcerting fashion as he continued to watch Sungmin’s every movement.

 

Suddenly there was a thud of air that battered the tree branches yet again, Jangmi snapping audibly at the raven’s tail as he exploded into the air, shrieking indignantly as he hurriedly made his escape. We’ve no time for your riddles today, raven, she warned him, a snarl curling from deep within her belly as she settled herself back onto the ground. Were he not the king’s pet, I’d have made a snack out of him long ago, she hissed, jaws closing with another ominous snap as she pawed at the dirt, irritated. What did he say to you?

 

 She turned her attention back to him as she folded her legs beneath her, rather like an extremely large cat were it not for her rose quartz scales and long, elegant neck, curling up upon the ground to watch him work.

 

‘To be wont to dream is to dream of want, and wont to want is death itself’, he repeated slowly, trying to grasp each word as he recited it.

 

After a moment’s pause, she asked, Did his words unsettle you?

 

Perhaps, he answered her, much preferring the silence as he went on. Blodhren never lies.

 

So indeed they say, she said, closing her eyes. The passage of time is so very strange indeed; who is to say Blodhren will not begin to lie?

 

Something tells me he wouldn’t do that merely to spite us. Sungmin paused, lowering himself to the ground beside the table to wring the rag in his hands. Maybe it’s not a good idea, but I wonder what he meant.

 

It is unwise to discount his words, but perhaps he did not mean it in a literal sense. A cool breeze swept through the trees, soothing to the skin but chilling through his tunic, the sun overhead still clothed in the haze of fog and clouds.

 

We can only hope, Sungmin spoke in response, the rag drying uncomfortably between his fingers as he rolled the cloth in his hand.

 

It has been very quiet lately, Jangmi observed. I do not like it; a forest is still only when there are hunters about. Apart from myself, I mean, she added almost primly, and he couldn’t help the slight smile that came to his face as he pulled himself up and off of the ground once more with the table’s edge, wiping grime and dust unto his pants as he set to work on the saddle again.