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dreaming again of a lonesome road

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Pain burns him from every direction. There is no quiet, no solace, no balm to soothe him, breath heaving in his lungs, and he cannot move fast enough to escape the sounds of pursuit from all corners. They are everywhere. They have already taken an arm from him, and he can’t think about it, he can’t, he can’t, because thinking will freeze him and he must keep moving.

If he stops, he dies.

He can’t shake the feeling that he’s dead no matter what he does.


 

As it turns out, finding the trail of a mythical creature that does not want to be found is exactly as hard as Kurapika expected it would be.

Kurapika sits himself by a stream, cupping his hands in the cool, clear water. He splashes his face, chasing off the exhaustion lingering like an unwelcome shadow with the chill, and settles himself to take stock of his supplies. He has enough food for a few more days, especially with the deer meat he has from a lucky encounter two days prior. The man he spoke to in Kamakura wasn’t lying; there isn’t much game to be found on the mountain. Carefully, he spreads out a map, chewing on a torn corner of bread. He has to figure this out, and sooner rather than later. On the off chance that this is a wild goose chase, he’d rather waste less time than more, and his letter is racing to his contacts as quickly as possible, given the spring thaw.

Today, he thinks, tracing one finger across yellowed, crinkling parchment, he’ll follow the river upstream. He hasn’t been too far up there, yet, and everything has to drink eventually.

Hopefully, it won’t be long.


 

Muggy air fills his lungs, tinged coppery with blood and exertion as he stumbles across uneven ground. He cannot escape. A rustle off to his left. He shies from the noise without thinking. There, the break of the flatlands. He sobs out a breath, a high-keening noise that he can’t quiet. Desperation drives his steps onward. He’s so close, now. Trees beckon him into the deeper swamp where he will be safe, where the open sky and empty ground will not expose him, where he can recover and kill these marauding-

A distant thud.

A dull pain in his chest.

Stumbling forward a few steps, he looks down. He cannot stop moving. If he stops, he dies. He has to know why his lungs are stuttering now, why he can’t breathe. Why he’s fallen to his knees. He’s stopped. He can’t die. He can’t. He was so close.

Protruding from his chest is the glistening shaft of a spear. Drops of blood gush out in time with his racing pulse.

Curious, distant, he touches it. Then looks up. His vision swims like he’s underwater, moving half of a beat behind his head. Feet surround him, legs, until he meets the startling, black gaze of a man with a cross on his forehead. The man smiles as though what is occurring before him is only of passing importance. He bares his teeth as best as he can, lunges through the pain, hurts-

Kurapika wakes in a flash, heart pounding. He presses his palm to his chest, like he can somehow calm it from the outside, feeling it thud beneath his skin. Feeling the unbroken skin there.

Living.

Alive.

He is still alive.

A dull, angry red glow fills the small space he’s wedged himself into, and Kurapika lifts his hand in front of him, viewing it in the light bleeding from his eyes. Red from the tips of his fingers to the crevices and folds of his palm. Another dream of death at their hands, familiar-unfamiliar uncaring eyes watching him until he wakes.

Kurapika lets out a long sigh, as though the slow exhale will push out the helpless rage that shakes him to his core. Carefully, he sits up, shivers as the cold air hits him. The pale, weak light of dawn has not yet begun to leak into the small cave Kurapika made into his shelter last night, but he will not sleep anymore. Not after that terrible of a wake up.

But, he thinks, hands stilling, he should have some time. The dream had been hot, humid. A low swamp, far from here. It will take them time to find his trail, to come here before anywhere else. Time enough to evade them for a little longer.

Kurapika makes his way from the crevice after folding up his bags, chewing on a piece of cured meat. It isn’t much for breakfast, but he’s running low on fresh supplies. He’ll have a chance to hunt later, either while he’s on the move or when he’s stopped for the night again. Below him, the mountain sprawls, resplendent in spring’s awakening glory, of new greens mixing with the deeper evergreens. The sky above has lightening to a pale blue and pink, hints of gold beginning to mix above the clouds. He watches it for a moment, breathing steadily. The phantom pain still lingers, his lungs struggling to realize they can draw breath fully, but he forces himself through it. In. Out.

Kurapika shoulders his pack and moves on.


 

The forest is quiet around him as Kurapika makes his way higher and higher up the mountain. Out here, the air is sweet and clear, nothing like the dust of Yorknew. It’s familiar in a way that makes his throat tighten. Kurapika forces the thought, the recognition down. He can’t get caught up in the details like that. Pausing, he takes stock of his position by the stream, standing out on a tall rock, the roar of water around him. Far below him, the forest sprawls, green and waving like the ocean in the breeze. Speckled here and there in clusters are the rooftops of Kamakura, red-tiled and visible even from this distance.

He nods to himself, then walks back to the trail. It’s fading out fast, and comes to an abrupt stop only twenty feet further on.

It takes him a moment to realize that the only sound is that of his own movement.

Damn. He should have been more careful. Kurapika’s steps falter, and he lifts his nose to the air. Acrid. Smoke. Different than the earthy smell of woodsmoke. It carries the overtone of sulphur and something else that Kurapika cannot put a name to, and Kurapika crouches down, lowering himself into the underbrush as he examines his surroundings. If he’s already been spotted by a predator, he has to hope he can find them before they decide to pounce. His heartbeat and his carefully controlled breathing fill his ears. The birds and other wildlife remain silent, waiting, watching.

He lowers his hand to the hilt of his swords.

And then.

Kurapika sees. There, past the large trunks of the evergreen trees, a shadow moves. Dappled green-gold with the sunlight filtering through leaves, Kurapika almost mistakes what he’s seeing for an outcropping of rock, or perhaps the trunk of a fallen tree, until he realizes that he’s being watched back. Green eyes, greener than grass, than colored glass, than emeralds themselves, as green as Kurapika’s turn red, cat-slit and intense, meet his startled gaze.

For a moment, the only sound Kurapika can hear is the soft rasp of his own shocked inhale.

And just as quickly as they appeared, the beast is gone.

A surge of motion, too fast to follow. A rush of air.

The trees rustle overhead and Kurapika sees, briefly, the flash of scales, a glittering rush through the foliage. He darts after them, catching a glimpse of a tail, of crushed grass and snapped branches, but there is nothing there beside the trail left behind. His heart is pounding, sickening, loud in his throat and ears in a strange mix of dread and elation. Kurapika lets himself grin. Triumph, sharp enough to taste, hot and blood-sweet, fills his mouth.

“Finally,” he whispers. “Finally. I found you.”


 

The new trail leads him even further up the mountain. It disappears at the first clearing it crosses, though, and Kurapika examines the flattened grass there with a frown and a soft curse. Probably the first place that was wide enough for the Dragon to spread their wings. Kurapika resigns himself to searching in the area for any nearby caves in the blind hope that the Dragon was startled enough to not lead him in the wrong direction.

First, however.

First, he must prepare.

Kurapika kneels at the edge of the clearing, pulling his pack off to sift through its contents. He pulls out a worn stone with a groove in its center, a brush, a vial of ink, and a wrapped object, setting them off to the side

Taking a deep breath, he squares his shoulders.

He’s done this before, uncapping the ink with careful fingers and pouring it into the stone. He’s let it pool there, dark and waiting while he prepares the brush and removes his shirt, leaving him topless and shivering from nerves on the mountainside. His hands can’t shake while he’s doing this. One line out of place, and it won’t work. Kurapika breathes steadily, settling his nerves. Places the handle of the brush between his teeth.

He unwraps the knife.

Letting it rest against the palm of his off hand, Kurapika centers himself, eyes closed. He’s practiced everything up to this part before, and it will make this no different. He can do this.

With a swift motion, he cuts his palm open, squeezes the resulting blood into the stone, letting it mix with the ink until it’s a deep, unfathomable red. The cloth, he uses to stem the flow of blood from his palm. He takes the brush from between his teeth and dips it into the ink before swiftly drawing the seal onto his arm. A practiced motion here, a curve there, a final line, and he holds the intricate marking before his eyes, turning his arm back and forth to examine it.

“Done,” he murmurs, voice foreign and distant.

It will hold. It has to.


 

Kurapika keeps his shirt off while the ink dries, marking out a few caves here and there that he should check out from what he can see above him. Finally, he redresses, wrapping his throbbing, injured hand. The sun has moved past its peak, and the bare rocks radiate heat against his skin. Kurapika sticks to the shadows as much as possible, noting the increasing frequency of claw marks, broken branches, the occasional scorch mark here and there, along with curiously green patches of moss, the size of a child’s handprint. He touches them with curious fingers.

Soft. Kurapika smiles, an odd fondness for the resilient proof of life curling around his breastbone.

And then he hits a patch of burned earth. The smell of smoke and that odd scent again. Kurapika sniffs, trying to place it. Something medicinal? Camphor, perhaps. He follows the burned earth, the smell getting stronger as he goes, until, there, a curve in the mountain face. Kurapika’s steps slow as he approaches, rocks scraping against his back as he presses himself against them and edges forward. The mountain extends in front of a cave like a natural balcony, flat bare rocks exposed to the sunlight. Scuff marks are apparent everywhere Kurapika puts his eyes, ranging from light, white scratches to deep gouges, and every surface has suffered the glassy touch of fire.

And curled in front of the entrance to the cave, massive head resting on clawed paws, is the Dragon Kurapika has been looking for.

They’re large. Much larger than Kurapika gave them credit for, though it’s hard to get a truly accurate assessment on size when they’re laying as they are. In the shadow of the mountain, their scales are a dull grey, head crowned with a fringe of black and curling, ridged black horns, like ram’s horns.

Wind pushes out of the cave like a breathing thing, ruffling Kurapika’s bangs. He keeps himself pressed close to the side of the mountain, heartbeat sounding loud in his ears. So close.

The Dragon’s head lifts. Their tongue flickers out, searching. Then their mouth opens, revealing rows of sharp fangs. They speak, deep, “Come out, kid, I can smell you over there.”

Kurapika can feel their voice in his sternum. His skin, from the back of his neck down his spine, prickles with the cold fingers of nerves, but Kurapika stands firm, pushes himself away from the rocks, and steps forward into the sunlight and the intense green gaze of the Dragon. His earring touches his neck, fluttering with his hair in the high mountain breeze as the Dragon inspects him head to toe. Finally, he seems to pass some sort of internal muster, as the Dragon resettles their paws, claws clacking on the rocks.

“A Kurta,” the Dragon says with some interest. “I haven’t seen one of you in a while.”

In a while? Questions flood Kurapika’s mouth. Almost no one knows of the Kurta, outside of the fairy tales and rumors they allowed to circulate, not anymore. Kurapika presses down on the sting that brings, on the surge of quiet desperation. “You know my family?”

“I do. I don’t know why one of you has bothered climbing all the way up here, though. I said I wasn’t to be disturbed.”

Kurapika blinks, shakes the odd comment off. “I have a request to make of you, Dragon. I wish to stay here with you, to learn from you and aid you however you wish.”

The Dragon makes an incurious noise, looking down their muzzle at him. “That’s nice,” they say, uninterested, “But again, I said I wasn’t to be disturbed. I have no reason to let you stay. I’m a dragon. Plus, I don’t need help, which means I don’t need you.”

“That may usually be so, but I’m afraid there’s danger coming your way,” Kurapika says. He clenches his hand, feels the tight throb of the cut on his hand. “A group of ...mercenaries, we’ll call them, is going around hunting dragons, and they’ve been met with significant success. I’d like to offer my services to help keep you and your horde safe.”

“Mercenaries? Not going to get more specific with that? A random bunch of humans doesn't really concern me, no matter what their, uh, success is like.” The dragon squints, their black keratin ridge of spines flattening slightly. “That didn't come out quite how I wanted.”

Kurapika makes a rude noise under his breath. Damn it. Fine. If the Dragon wants specificity, then they're going to get it. “The Phantom Troupe is not a group to take lightly.”

That gets their interest. “The Phantom Troupe?”

“Yes. They've begun hunting dragons for the thrill and the money. I know their patterns and I am a strong fighter. Let me stay with you, and I can help keep you and your horde safe.”

The dragon cocks their head, considering, and then, in their large, cavernous voice, says, “No.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Kurapika mutters. Then louder, “Accept the help, will you? You’re a sitting duck out here.”

“No one’s found me yet.”

Kurapika raises an eyebrow, then pointedly waves a hand at himself.

The Dragon’s second eyelid flicks across, back in a milky screen, then they scoff, the breath of air blowing his tabard like a flag. “Yeah, like you didn’t just get lucky.”

“I don’t have to be lucky if I can be smart. The Phantom Troupe, they don’t have to be either, and they know what they’re looking for. They’ve found other dragons before. Better hidden ones than you.”

“And I said no. I meant it, too. So get out of here, before I decide that human flesh doesn’t sound as awful as I thought it did a few centuries ago. Kurta or no, I don’t need some lamb knocking around up here and disturbing all my things.” And they turn, dismissive, to leave.

“No, please, just-! Listen to me, please!” Kurapika says, scrambling forward, reaching out. All he has to do is touch them. That’s all the books said, a moment of physical contact and-

His fingers brush the trailing edge of the dragon’s tail and-

His mind unlocks.

Or no, not unlocks. Expands. As though a door, previously unknown, suddenly opens, a breeze rushing through him, carrying confusion and anger and an old, keen sense of grief that could drown him without a moment’s hesitation. Kurapika is huge with it, with so much more, years and years and years of solitude and experience. Emotions, fiery and bright and loud and so so much, echo around him, thoughts and panic and all over, the words “what is happening, what did you do?”

And just as abruptly as it opened, it closes.


 

A heart beats beside his.

Thud-thump.

Thud-thump, thud-thump.


 

“What the hell did you do, boy?” The Dragon’s voice, previously dismissive and condescending, is furious, dark and deep, rattling Kurapika from his toes to the very hairs on his scalp. He feels oversensitive, fever-hot and flushed with sensation of a heartbeat, thrumming hard enough through him that his bones ache with it. The Dragon circles around him, body low to the ground as they pace the same path over and over again. Kurapika can’t even keep up, wants to keep touching the Dragon, to know their mind just like before.

“Oh my god,” Kurapika breathes. “They were right.”

“Who was right? What did you do?”

Great, he’s saddled with an idiot. Kurapika rolls his eyes. “Oh for- Were you just not paying attention at all earlier? I am a Kurta.”

“I’ve known Kurta before, child,” the Dragon says, irate. “I’m not a hatchling.”

“Then you know that we are, were, dragonriders. We all were,” Kurapika says, proud, confident. This is all falling into place perfectly. He doesn’t have explain his history to this creature the way he thought he might, which shortens his time. This is working out perfectly, because now, all he as to do is wait and-

The Dragon lifts their head high as they come to a stop before him, condescending from their horns to their claws to their tail. “I know,” they say silkily, “that what you just did wasn’t a rider bond. It’s marriage link. Who here doesn’t know much about the Kurta, hm? Because it appears I know more than you.”

Kurapika freezes.

What?

That’s…

That’s impossible. He researched his family’s texts for countless hours, days, months, before he even left, and practiced their shapes over and over until they were more muscle memory, ingrained in him like a carving, than anything else.

All he says, however, past the red flare of embarrassment, of anger and pride, is, “I knew what I was doing.”

“Do you really?” The Dragon’s tail slaps against the floor. “I fucking doubt it, given the shame you’re feeling.”

The swear startles him. The Dragon shakes his head with a rattle of the keratin spines on his fringe, before moving into the cave and there’s a curious tug at his sternum, urging him to follow, to stay close. If he could just touch him again, he’s sure it would go away, but. The entire cave is deeply saturated with the smell of burnt wood and camphor, bits and pieces of cloth scattered in odd swaths of half-hearted decoration. There’s some human furniture here, as well, old and decrepit with disuse, and, distracted, Kurapika looks at the layer of dust covering everything with distaste.

There isn’t a hint of gold anywhere.

“This is it? This is your cave?” Kurapika asks as the Dragon arranges themself in the cavernous space, wings shuffling when they lay back down on their side with a great groan.

“What, were you expecting more?” They snort, ruffling Kurapika’s clothes with the force of their breath. “I’m not about to just up and show you my horde when we’ve know each other for all of ten goddamn minutes. I’m not a hatchling.”

Kurapika draws himself up, stung but trying not to be. “That wasn’t-”

“Oh don’t bother, it’s what everyone comes here for.”

“It’s not-”

“Humans never learn to tell the truth, do they?”

“Well dragons must never learn to shut their mouths and listen for once, do they?” Kurapika huffs angrily, waves it aside. “What did you mean about the bond? I know what I researched. I know what I was doing.”

“I’m glad you’re so certain, because this is a bond, that much you got right. But a rider bond is just supposed to put the rider and dragon into sympathy with each other. Like, the mental version of a hand-hold.”

Kurapika crosses his arms. “And this?”

“Who isn’t paying attention now? This is marriage. Full integration of our minds. We won’t be able to be apart for too long without suffering consequences. Pain, nausea, disorientation, panic, all the way to hallucinations too.”

Side effects. Kurapika remembers those, some half-burnt pages here and there talked about them, but he assumed it had just been if the bond had been completed incorrectly. Not…. this. Damn. How had he managed to mistake this much? Gotten this much wrong? Damn it.

“Hope you’re ready for that. You don’t just shackle yourself to someone like this with no preparation,” the Dragon says, sullen.

Or no, they don’t.

They don’t say it at all.

Instead, the very thought itself is simply there, in Kurapika’s mind. It’s less invasive than he thought it would be from the literature he studied. There’s a clear separation between Kurapika and the Dragon that makes the thoughts unobtrusive, like hearing a whisper.

“It’s customary to ask my name before you bond yourself to me, you know.” The Dragon lets out a long, low exhale, rattling, grumbling, “If it wasn’t for your eyes, honestly, I’d just ask how you got your hands on Kurta documents and escaped with your life. What, did you get exiled or something before you completely finished your trained? Ever think there might have been a reason for that?”

Kurapika slams the end of his wooden sword into the stone with a huge crack. The Dragon startles at the noise, then peers curiously at the large cracks on the floor of the cave.

“You damaged my floor,” they say, petulant. Kurapika rolls his eyes. Not even a blink at the power and skill it took to do something like that? Just a comment on the floor? This Dragon is honestly grating on Kurapika’s frayed, scattered nerves.

“Then what is thy name, oh Great Dragon, that I might know how to address thee properly?” he asks acerbically.

Large green eyes regard him for several moments before a snort ruffles Kurapika’s tabard. “No need for the “thee” and “thy” nonsense. “He” and “you” work just fine. Not some old, stuffy fart after all.”

“Not a hatchling, not an elder, just a thorough pain in my ass.”

And,” the Dragon says over Kurapika’s grumbling, “the name is Leorio. I’d say it’s a pleasure, except that you’ve already mucked that up, so there’s not much of a point.”

“If we’re going to be stuck together, at least until I can figure out how to fix this, the least you could do is be civil, you oversized lizard,” Kurapika snaps. Leorio draws himself up, huge with flared wings and fringe, but Kurapika holds up a hand and, miraculously, Leorio stays whatever he was about to say. Stiffly, Kurapika says, “I need space. I just want to get away from you for a moment.”

“Oh, I’d love that too, but because of you, we really can’t, now can we?” Leorio shoots back. Then he deflates, ridges settling back down as regret fills the space anger leaves behind. He pokes his nose at a hollow in the wall to Kurapika’s right. “But there is a room over here. The door doesn’t exactly lock, but it’s more private than being out here. We’ll be near enough as long as I stay out here.”

Kurapika looks at the hollow. He needs the space, he does. His skin is prickling all over, hot pins and needles and the crawling sensation of panic and dread shortening the breath in his lungs, but even just the thought of not seeing Leorio makes something clench, hard, in Kurapika’s chest.

Fine. He’ll just have to ask, then.

“And will you?” At Leorio’s curious mental nudge, Kurapika grits his teeth, clarifies. “Stay?”

Leorio settles onto his haunches, curling his paws beneath his breast, nictitating membrane flickering over his eyes once more. “I will.”

It will have to do. Kurapika nods, more to himself than anything else, and goes into the room, lighting the single torch on his way. It’s more a smaller cave than a room, technically, and there’s less of a door than a plank of wood hinged on one side and tied on the other, and Kurapika paces the length and breadth of it. Worry and anger and disappointment all threaten to choke him, and he can’t. He can’t believe he messed up. He messed up the bond seal. He messed it up beyond all recognition, and Leorio had noticed before he had. How could he? How did he get it wrong? After all this time, after all his studying?

What had he done wrong?

(The book he learned from was burned beyond most recognition, and all he had learned was the bits and pieces of scattered text he had managed to put together in a coherent bit and he had been so proud; he had learned something of his family’s, something of his clan’s, and he got it wrong. And that stings like he has lost them anew.)

Kurapika smoothes his hands down his face. He steadies his breaths by force of will alone and sits at the desk, pulling an aged, damaged book from of his pack. He has to start somewhere. Might as well be here.


 

Kurapika slams his book closed, breathing hard.

Nothing.

Days of searching, of translating and trying to piece together the burned pieces of the Kurta books Kurapika travels with, and there’s nothing. Nothing about how to break or reshape a bond that’s been formed. No leads, no idea how to reverse his apparent mistake. After days, now, of sitting in this small room and listening to the rasp of scales, the turn of pages, and the rattle of another being’s heartbeat echoing in his skin. And he has absolutely nothing to show for it.

(And that’s something the books didn’t mention; the heartbeat that Kurapika feels separate from his own within him. The first night, it kept him awake, throbbing from head to toe, and the subsequent nights have been only mildly better, exhaustion rather than anything else pulling him under the veil of sleep and always, always, that heartbeat, no matter which way he turns.)

“Hey, boy.”

Kurapika jolts. Eyes the door suspiciously. “What?”

“You need food. Come eat.”

“I’ve eaten.”

Leorio snorts, and Kurapika can see his shadow pass in front of the door to the room Kurapika has more or less claimed as his. “You ate over a day ago, and you didn’t sleep last night. The light from the torch kept me awake, and believe me, you need to eat something before your hunger overcomes your manners and you attack anything that moves.”

“I think that might just be a you thing.”

But he’s not wrong, is the problem. Kurapika can feel himself fading, can feel the headache threatening behind his eyes and the dull pain of hunger. His hands are shaking when he holds them out in before his eyes. With a low sigh, Kurapika stands from the desk situated in the small room (and how did it even get here, what use does a dragon have of a human sized desk?) and exits to the main cave.

Leorio watches him from a perch beside the entrance of the cave, paws folded almost delicately before him in an almost cat-like stance. As Kurapika moves towards him, heading for his pack resting on the floor, Leorio stretches, smug looking. “I knew you were hungry.”

Full of himself, Kurapika thinks, and he should have expected the blast of stung pride flooding his mind for that. It makes a small, unkind smile dart up the corner of his mouth, wry delight warring with the ever-present worry of being in the presence of a dragon who is not exactly fond of his continued stay. Kurapika steps forward the last few feet under Leorio’s watchful gaze with one hand extended, fingers brushing the barest tip of Leorio’s wing.

“Good morning, Leorio.”

Leorio jerks his wing away, huddles over himself closely, wary and guarded. Kurapika tries to not let that hurt. “A bit late for that, isn’t it?”

“A bit, yes. But better late than never.”

“Better late than never. What a lazy phrase. Just get it done right first. Useless humans. Learning your clever little tricks wrong. You’re only here in my cave because if I shoved you off the mountain, I’d be swooping down to save you, and I don’t care enough to bother.” Leorio’s teeth bare as he settles his wings once, then again after rubbing his face on the tip of the one Kurapika touched. “The biggest favor you could do me right now is fixing this.”

Kurapika thinks to the single book he has left, and sighs. He says, the words torn from a deep place within him that is caught between being proud and being honest, “I don’t know if I can. Not with what I saved from-”

He cuts himself off, teeth clicking together.

“”What you saved from?”” Leorio leads, head cocking.

“What I’ve gathered from the books I have with me,” Kurapika clarifies. There’s a quiet mental press at that, as though Leorio is ascertaining his honesty, and Kurapika holds himself up against it until the touch retreats.

Leorio decides, apparently, that the topic isn’t worth his attention anymore, laying his head back on his paws. “Food is over there by the fire. Feed yourself and then get back to work.”

Kurapika’s hands clench, his spine jerks straight, anger welling from every pore at Leorio’s dismissive tone. He opens his mouth, prepared to just go back to his room and not eat at all when his stomach grumbles, loud and aching, a visceral pain that has him almost bent in half. Stony-faced, all too aware of Leorio’s scrutiny, he moves to the fire. The fare is more or less what he expected, finding cooked chunks of meat, though the presence of warm bread is a welcome surprise.

He tears off a few pieces of each and eats under Leorio’s watchful gaze. Every time he so much as turns his head, Leorio’s eyes are on him, wide and unblinking, and Kurapika’s skin crawls. “Can you just stop?”

“What?”

“Watching me all the time? It’s unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary? For me to keep an eye on the meddling stranger who appeared out of nowhere, bonded himself to me, and is now living in my caves? I’m sure you haven’t pulled your head out of your ass enough to notice, boy, but you’re not the only one being affected by this fucked up bond you’ve gotten ourselves into. Forgive me for being cautious.”

“Fine! Then I’ll sleep outside starting tonight and as soon as I can, I’ll just go back down to the village at the base of this mountain and tell them their legendary dragon exists and is ripe for the slaughter, nothing to be afraid of! See how you like the bond when you have death looming on the horizon.”

“You are just the bitchiest little thing, aren’t you?” Leorio lets out a long breath, forming a large cloud of steam, but does not lift his head from his paws. “Besides, you can’t go anywhere.”

“What do you mean?”

Slowly, as though Kurapika is particularly poor at listening, Leorio says, “You’ve bonded yourself to me. Come now, you’re supposed to be clever. I’m sure you can figure it out.”

Kurapika growls, an action that’s only embarrassing when Leorio does it back, but louder and far more threatening. Still, Kurapika stands his ground, planting his hands on his hips. “I don’t see you trying to figure out a way to break this bond. Watch your tongue, you overgrown lizard.”

“You didn’t see me bonding us either, did you? Fix your own mistakes.”

Anger spreads up him like a fire, and Kurapika doesn’t have to hold his hand before his face to know his eyes are bleeding red light. “Fine. I will.”

And Kurapika stalks back into his room, sits at the desk with a screech of wood over stone and slams his book open.

He can figure this out. He has to.

Maybe he picked up the wrong symbols, or got them confused. He practiced until he could do it with his eyes closed, but that means nothing if what he was practicing was intrinsically flawed. There has to be something about the dissolution of bonds somewhere, something that Kurapika can put together and shake until it comes out right again. Even if he has to make it up himself somehow through the cobbled and lost bits of knowledge he has drawn together.

Hours pass like this, Kurapika hunched over the tan spread of books. His eyes grow heavy. He cannot sleep. Leorio’s pulse thuds through his body, rattling him to his marrow every time he closes his eyes, and it will not let him rest. He gnaws on his thumb, the pain forcing back the fog of tiredness that threatens him at every turn. Nothing. Maybe back in the section with the sigil patterns? There might be a way to connect those in an undoing ritual, he thinks. His fingers catch the page, slowly turning as the words come closer to his face, as Kurapika, raw with the force of holding himself awake, slumps over. One long breath becomes two, becomes his eyes fluttering shut, becomes the quiet sound of Leorio’s breaths filling the air as Kurapika succumbs.


 

Kurapika wakes up warm.

Actually, no, Kurapika wakes up moving and is fuzzily confused as to why he’s warm, first and foremost.

“Shh, shh,” he feels instead of hears, a gentle touch to his mind. “Go back to sleep, little Kurta.”

He wants to, he does, but the heartbeat in his body is terrible and loud and it makes his bones ache and he can’t sleep, he can’t.

Except.

It’s not there.

Kurapika almost sobs from relief, sinking gratefully into the warmth surrounding him. The terrible heartbeat has finally quieted to only a sound beneath his ear, and something shifts around him, curls closer. Forcing his eyes open, Kurapika sees grey scales, the curl of black horns. He’s inside the circle of Leorio’s neck and chest, tucked against the dragon’s breastbone, and Kurapika is so desperately grateful for the relief of sleep that he only closes his eyes. Gentle reassurance flows from Leorio, gruff but soft.

Kurapika fades back into sleep, and spares only a moment for the memory of being carried to the main cave, cradled beneath his arms and knees in a way he hasn’t been since he was a small child, before he lets it go and thinks about it no more.


 

They don’t talk about it. Kurapika walks on eggshells around Leorio, stiffly grateful for the space of a day, unsure how to bring it up, if they need to bring it up; how, exactly, do you thank someone for the best sleep you’ve had in months? His only consolation is that Leorio seems equally uncertain, gruff and brusque, huffing off to sulk, tail lashing like a cat’s in a corner of his cave.

But as the day fades and the evening begins, Kurapika looks at the lonely desk in the antechamber that has become his. His mouth screws to the side.

Leorio looks up when Kurapika sits beside him. A note of surprise sings through their bond, but Leorio shifts to accommodate him without a moment of hesitation. Just touching him settles Leorio’s pulse in Kurapika’s body, and Kurapika smiles, tucks his hair behind his ear, and reads, tucked into the curve of Leorio’s leg and chest.

“What’s that?”

“Hm?”

“That,” Leorio says, as though it’s any more illuminating when he says it a second time. Leorio huffs, and a rush of images hit Kurapika’s mind, focusing on one particular sigil.

Kurapika looks at his book. The sigil sits innocuously on the page. He squints at Leorio, who only flicks his second eyelid at him and waits for his answer, evidently finding the discovery that he can see through Kurapika’s eyes something he doesn’t need to bother talking about. Shaking his head, Kurapika begins to explain. “It’s a connection piece. Meant to symbolize the connection between your energy source and your main sigil, like a twig between two torches.”

“That’s a terrible metaphor.”

“You do better and I’ll listen,” Kurapika sniffs. “Besides, that was a simile.”

“Simile-schmimile, it was awful.”

The evening proceeds like that, and Kurapika is startled by how comfortable it is, to sit against the leg of a dragon and read and explain his family’s texts, Leorio’s nosy curiosity a welcome companion as he flips through the pages.


 

That becomes their ritual. Kurapika reads in the curve of Leorio’s legs as he tries to put together a way to alter their bound fate into something different. He sleeps there too, moving only to get food or take care of other necessities. It’s … nice, almost. Companionable in a way Kurapika hasn’t known in too long.

Light hits Kurapika’s eyes, jarring him from his slumber. Kurapika grumbles, shifts, squints at the dawn, rising bright and cold outside the cave’s mouth. Uncoordinated with sleep, he pushes and squirms his way free from the circle of Leorio’s body, hissing at the cold touch of stone beneath his feet.

The wind ruffles his hair once he exits the cave. This high up, Kurapika’s breath forms clouds, obscuring the view below as they form and fade. The horizon is blue tinted from distance, fading hills paler and paler as they go, and Kurapika sits, legs crossed, on a rock that’s more moss than stone, and watches the slow progression of the sun. His mind turns over the ink sigils he’s studied for the last few days, idly wondering why he’s trying so hard to fix a mistake that works in his favor. His goal is accomplished perfectly by stalling until the Phantom Troupe shows up. It’s pride that’s keeping him working, however. Leorio’s distrust of his abilities rankles. Besides, the inaction would drive him mad, and it hurts nothing to seem busy.

There’s a quiet noise from behind him.

“I was thinking,” Leorio says, rumbling voice soft.

“Dangerous.”

“Watch it. Anyway, I was thinking that we could both use a change in scenery.”

“I can’t go anywhere, as you so gladly enjoy explaining to me.”

Leorio huffs, a small puff of fire escaping his nostrils. It’s a petulant move, and Kurapika has to push away a smile. No, he can’t risk getting attached. “No, brat, you can’t go anywhere unless I go too. Not until the magic settles down, which is what I was trying to explain to you before.”

“If that’s what you consider an attempt, it was a poor one. Your explanation now makes more sense.”

“I have to be obtuse. It’s part of my phenotype as a mythical beast. Anyway, less talking, more action. Let’s go.” And he shakes from head to tail, like a dog shaking off water. Kurapika shields himself reflexively, the sudden motion startling.

When he uncovers his face, Leorio is kneeling beside him.

Well, as much as a dragon can kneel, anyway. Semantics and the difference between their respective anatomies makes terminology a fickle thing, as they’ve argued about several times in the last week or so. Kurapika isn’t sure what to make of this, though. What does Leorio want him to do? Weren’t they going somewhere? Carefully, he steps forward, makes as though to move around Leorio to start on the path, and he’s blocked by Leorio’s head coming around, staring at him impatiently.

“Well?” he asks.

Startled, Kurapika says, “Well what?”

Leorio regards him for a few moments. His mind is inscrutable when Kurapika reaches out, clumsily pressing a query into the space between them. Leorio shakes his head in a remarkably human gesture before he stands and walks down the path, scales gleaming dully in the early morning light. “This way,” he says.

Kurapika can’t help but feel like he’s missed something important, but he follows anyway.


 

Leorio leads him to a small glade, where part of the river has eddied into a pool of sweet, cool water. Its mossy banks are covered in flowers, and Kurapika feels a small part of himself relax, marvelling in the picturesque scenery.

“Go on. You’ve been trapped for a while, so you might as well take the time to get clean.”

He doesn’t need to be told twice. Kneeling by the bank, Kurapika cups his hands in the stream. Cold water flows over his skin, the familiar sensation grounding him, as though it washes away more than the dirt visible. He sighs, closes his eyes for a moment. Sunlight beats down, warming his shoulders, and slowly, Kurapika sheds his tabard, setting the blue and red cloth to the side. With the same economical motions, he takes off his pants and shirt, folding them carefully, his hands leaving wet imprints behind.

He takes a deep breath, fully exposed to the mountain air.

Then he dives into the stream.

Breath shocked out of him almost immediately, Kurapika wastes no time at the bottom of the river, kicking back up to suck in air. He flings his hair back, gasping. Damn. No matter how well he prepares himself for it, cold water always knocks the breath straight from his lungs. He shakes himself, ducks back under once, again, lets himself sink.

Finally though, he has to come up for air. Kurapika kicks off the bottom, inhaling roughly once he breaks the surface, and he pushes his hair away from his face. His skin prickles. Kurapika carefully takes stock of his surroundings, well familiar with the sensation of being watched. The forest is quiet over the roar of water, in the way of animals cautious of new things. The noise levels haven’t changed significantly since he’s been splashing around. Probably not a predator. There? No, a bird takes wing as he watches.

As it turns out, though, he doesn’t need to be subtle about figuring out what, or who, exactly is watching him.

Perched on a large outcropping of rocks by the opposite shore is Leorio.

Kurapika feels a hot flush try to chase off the chill of the water, and he purses his lips. “Can I help you?”

Leorio’s fringe flares. “I’m just watching to make sure you weren’t drowning!”

“Believe me, I would have made more of a fuss if I had been close to drowning.”

“I don’t know this, you clearly have a poor sense of self-preservation. You bonded yourself to a dragon! Maybe you were just looking for a way to end up on the bottom of the river.” Leorio leans his head forward in a remarkably graceful arc, touching the river’s surface with a flicker of his tongue. “You humans are always baffling. I think it’s about time you get honest with me, though,” Leorio says, and Kurapika cocks his head.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” he says, tail lashing just a little at the tip, a betrayal of the tightly locked irritation Kurapika can sense, “that you should tell me why you’re really here. Soaps are in that sack there, by the way.”

Kurapika’s lips thin. Mindful, he presses them back out, neutralizing his emotions and reactions. Carefully, he makes his way to the bank once more, picking through the bag Leorio brought along and finding the soaps inside. He takes some, lathering it between his hands and beginning to wash his hair. “I already told you this.”

“You’re maintaining that it’s because a few dragons have been killed? What proof do you have? How do you know that there’s a single group of people going out killing dragons, hm?”

“I dreamed it.”

“Oh, a dream? How lucky, a dream. That’s some concrete, indisputable evidence.”

“I don’t need indisputable evidence to know what’s true. I’m not trying to take them to court. I’m trying to stop them from killing more, Leorio!” Kurapika dunks his head in the water. Suds float down the stream, and when he breaks the surface again, he finds Leorio pacing the bank, like a caged animal. Pushing his hair back, Kurapika watches the dragon lash his tail against the ground, irate. “They’re killing your kind. I told you why I came here.”

“Yeah, and it’s not because they’re killing dragons.” Leorio’s fringe bristles, and he whirls, neck and head arching into Kurapika’s space. Kurapika can see his face reflected in Leorio’s green eye. “It has to do with all of that fury buried in you. Wanna tell me what that’s all about?”

Kurapika tries to not look angry, but looks matter not at all when an insistent, nosy dragon has a back door directly into your emotions. He can control his tells as much as he likes, but it does him no good. Still, the ritual of controlling his breaths steadies him. In. Out.

“Your eyes are red, Kurapika,” Leorio says, not unkindly. “What aren’t you telling me?”

God, he’s exposed here in the middle of the water. Kurapika forces himself to relax, head to toe, but makes his way to the bank anyway, aiming for his pile of clothes. He isn’t foolish enough to think it will make him feel less on edge, but the sooner he can be not-cold and not-naked, the better. “Those monsters killed my entire family. Forgive me for trying to save yours.”

Leorio’s disbelief is tangible, coating the back of Kurapika’s tongue. “The Kurta? No, they aren’t all…”

The way he trails off is only half due to whatever small amount of tact Leorio possesses. Kurapika isn’t foolish enough to think that the sudden wave of loss, deep and untouched by time, doesn’t have more to do with it. Kurapika nods, tight with grief.

“Wait, then… you’re absolutely self-taught, aren’t you? That’s why you don’t know much about bonds.”

“No, they hadn’t covered that by the time…”

“Oh, Kurapika…”

Kurapika cuts him off. “Don’t apologize. I’ve heard enough “sorry”s for a lifetime.”

Leorio cocks his head as he lays down, keeping himself mostly on eye-level with Kurapika. “Have you heard any at all?”

“One is enough.”

“Still, though. A few scattered dragons is much different than an entire clan.”

“A few?” Kurapika begins, prickly and irate, but Leorio cuts him off before he can get started.

“How many of us did you really think there were?” Leorio asks with a long exhale. “Even before this focused hunting, we were diminishing. Dragons fade, Kurapika, especially with waning magic or hordes, and keeping a large enough horde to remain healthy draws too much attention.”

“You aren’t fading,” Kurapika points out.

“I don’t have the most typical ideas of constitutes a horde. It keeps me safe, for more than one reason.”

Kurapika raises one eyebrow wryly. "Because it makes you worthless?"

Wow, rude. If you have to be here, the least you can do is make yourself useful.” Leorio flops onto his side, one wing lifting almost lazily. “Wash me.”

Kurapika snorts. “You have to be joking.”

“Cleanliness is very important, Kurapika, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He can’t quite manage to muffle his laugh. “Alright, alright, you big monster. What all do you need?”

“Oils and the sandsoap are in the bag. Sandsoap first, then oils.”

“Yes, yes.”


 

“In the old days,” Kurapika says in a soft voice as he scrubs, and Leorio lifts his head from his paws, fringe flaring to direct sound better, “the Kurta used to bond with all manner of dragons. We would protect them from people taking their horde, encourage them to not be unreasonable about their goldlust, even negotiate in the case of dragons taking people for their hordes. Connections like that… they were the thing of legend in my village. Everyone hoped that they would find a dragon they could mediate for. But. The Kurta being able to bond and control dragons was a poorly kept secret. Everyone knew, one way or another, that if there was someone around a dragon, it was probably a Kurta. We were… renowned, I suppose.”

“Hey, hey, careful with the wings, will you?” Leorio lifts his wing, accommodating Kurapika’s searching fingers even as he gripes. “They’re delicate.”

“You’ll just complain about everything, won’t you?” But Kurapika makes sure to be careful as he picks at the rough scales there, smoothing oil over their surfaces. They’re quiet for a bit, surrounded as they are by the noises of the forest, and Kurapika focuses on just the simple, circular motion of his hands, the glide of oil over grey, glittering scales.

Achingly, aware that he’s revealing too much, Kurapika murmurs, “I was looking forward for that. To being a part of something larger than myself like that. Now, I suppose, it can’t happen.”


 

Leorio curls around him for hours in the glade, large head resting on the ground near his feet once they’re both clean so they can look at each other. Kurapika lets him, doesn’t kick him away, not with the sour-sweet taste of Leorio’s regret and sympathy slowly passing over the bond.

“I didn’t mean to come off so blase about it,” Leorio begins after they’ve sat in silence for a while. “I just… Dragons aren’t exactly social creatures. We don’t mingle. Too greedy, not a good mix in close quarters because we’re constantly jealous and trying to steal space and things from others, and it tends to end bloody. We also don’t keep addresses, so we don’t… send mail. Or try to keep in contact. I don’t, anyway. They might be killing other dragons, but Kurapika, the last live dragon I met, I lost years ago, many, many years ago.”

“That shouldn’t mean that you’re unconcerned about the rest of it.”

“I am concerned. I’m just asking for you to be honest.” Leorio blinks slowly. “We’re bonded, for good or for bad, and if you’re going to be my rider, then you have to trust me.”

Kurapika clenches his hands where Leorio can’t see them and doesn’t think of the decade of mistrust he’s learned already. “You don’t trust me,” he says for lack of anything else to say.

“Yes, I do. What, do you think I’ve just been letting you sleep in my cave for nothing? I do trust you enough to not kill me. The question is,” and here Kurapika is caught in Leorio’s emerald gaze, pinned in place and burning with the fires within those eyes, “do you trust me to do the same?”


 

(“Yes, of course,” Kurapika says, but later, hours later, when the last candle Leorio has lit is finally guttering down to a stub. He’s already curled into Leorio’s breastbone, like a small child or a favorite stuffed toy, but the truth is, Kurapika feels more at home here than he ever has before, and that’s what keeps scaring him.

He’s running out of time. He can’t forget. He can’t let himself forget.)


 

If he’s being entirely honest, which he hardly ever is, Leorio doesn’t quite know what to do with a human child.

Well, human adult. Possibly. Ages are hard for him to tell, alright? And Kurapika is small and slight enough for things to be confusing. After a certain point of “small child,” all humans look around the same age until their hair starts going white, and when you witness the birth and death of so many, they all sort of look the same.

Anyway.

Kurapika is a constant throb of anger at the back of his mind, like the pulse radiating from a wound. Even when he’s calm, it’s only dulled, placed under a bandage or something instead of truly dispersing. The only time it disappears is when he’s asleep. Or when he’s bathing in a stream with Leorio, but that’s neither here nor there. He hasn’t seen this kind of driven obsession since the last Dragon he encountered, pale white and lusting over anyone powerful enough to catch his attention. Leorio knows the lengths a being can go, to quench a fire like that.

It worries Leorio, honestly.

And so he curls around his rider, his, and thinks back to a dusty old village and running with human feet across the battered ground with the blue sky huge overhead, the constant feel of another person’s hand in his. Quietly, as he drifts to sleep, he wonders if he can soothe this pain to make up for what he failed to do before.


 

“I need to go to the village,” Kurapika says one morning, as spring fully hits the mountain.

Leorio lets out an irate sigh. “It’s always something with you isn’t it? Fine, but you’re getting me deer, and I’m not going to wait around for you forever, so you had better keep it quick.”

“I will, I promise.”


 

The village of Kamakura is small. Larger than its surrounding compatriots, it acts as a central hub for the local market, people coming to peddle their wares and services. Even so, Kurapika, in his white clothes and bright tabard and fine blond hair, stands out like a sore thumb, an unfamiliar and occasionally unwelcome face. Kurapika keeps his eyes down and his mouth shut for the most part, trying to minimize his presence. He has to not come off as a threat, and to people as insular as this, everything, and everyone new is a potential threat. He’s a stranger here. He has to be careful.

Late afternoon sunlight lights the cobbled paths to the market. Leorio had taken a while getting them down here, grumbling the entire time about how big of a hassle it was. Kurapika is almost certain that he led them on a very circuitous route in the vain hope that Kurapika would give up before they got to the town, but he should have known better. Human or not, Kurapika can out-stubborn Leorio on almost anything. There are people and stores still open for business, even as it edges towards the end of the day, the scent of bread and cooked meat wafting around every corner. It’s enough to make his stomach growl.

<Have you found the deer yet? What’s that smell?>

Kurapika snorts. <That’s bread, Leorio. And stop it, I’ll get your deer, alright?>

<You’d better, after dragging me all the way down here. I don’t like it this low. I feel exposed. You’re taking too long.>

Pointedly, Kurapika stops paying attention to Leorio’s whining. He picks a stall, finally, owned by a gruff-faced man that squints at him no more suspiciously than he does anyone else. A dragon’s maw arcs down from a nearby rooftop, and Kurapika examines it idly as he haggles. They trade, coins and some furs that Kurapika has kept from his hunting for food. Kurapika gratefully takes the warm bread and meat, packing the rest of it away for later.

“You again, huh?” the man says. “Surprised to see you back, hunter. The game’s still not that good around here.”

Kurapika makes a noncommittal noise. “I’ve been staying further up the mountain. Maybe it’s better up there?”

It takes a moment for the man to even look up. The man squints, first at him, then up, up, up, before clicking his tongue. His large exhale is heralded by a sizable plume of smoke from his cigar. Kurapika sees almost a frown cross the man’s face before the expression is wiped away. “Further up? Nothing. A few old, abandoned caves that some folks like to claim all manner of odd things live in, but nothing else. Not even animals like going up there.”

Kurapika hums. Not quite assent, nor dissent. Nothing aside from rumors? A few stories, most likely from the local drunks, to keep children from wandering into dangerous caves. After all, nothing could possibly make its home up there without significant signs of its habitation.

Nothing that most humans cared to encounter, that is.

A slight smile quirks his lips, and Kurapika is surprised to find himself feeling fond.

“Thank you for the information,” Kurapika says at last, nodding slightly. It’s not surprising when he gets barely even that in return, the man watching him with suspicious eyes. He turns to leave, then pauses. “Sir, another question? Why are there dragons on all of the doors here?”

The man flicks his eyes to the symbols, to the dragons carved into every available surface, and shrugs carefully. “Old local legends. People are superstitious, is all.”

He’s sure they are. Kurapika makes his goodbyes and leaves without any further questions.

After all, Leorio’s heartbeat is rattling in his bones, and he can feel the Dragon’s impatience at every delay. And he still needs to pick up some deer for Leorio to eat.


 

The deer is a lost cause. No one has managed to hunt any successfully in a few weeks, and Kurapika would rather the villagers keep the meat for themselves. He’ll just have to hunt some on his own. Maybe get Leorio to help, assuming the Dragon hasn’t just depleted their population to almost nothing. Before he leaves town, though, there’s one last errand he must do. Kurapika makes his way to the outskirts of Kamakura, to a small guardpost there.

“Has there been any mail sent here for me?” he asks the courier stationed there, and isn’t surprised when he shakes his head.

“Sent off the message you gave me, though. Should get there in a week or so, probably.”

Kurapika nods. “I’ll be back in another month or so. Hold onto anything for me until then, please.”

“Will do, sir.”


 

After that, and with no deer to show for his troubles in town, Leorio starts dragging him out of the cave daily. There’s almost no rhyme or reason to where they end up. Sometimes, it’s back down to the stream. Others, it’s deep into the forest, where Leorio will wander seemingly aimlessly for hours until he hustles Kurapika back to the cave, bristling and growling low under his breath.

Honestly, Kurapika wouldn’t mind so much, except that getting more than fifty feet away from Leorio makes him feel like he’s coming apart from the inside out.

“What do you keep running off to the woods for?” Kurapika snaps one morning as Leorio nudges him out of the cave with a nose to his back, irate. It’s a beautiful midmorning. Kurapika was hoping he could have gotten more time with his books because he missed something, he knows he did.

“They’re my woods. No one is going to tell me to stop going out there, especially not a blonde toothpick of a human being,” Leorio says with a snort that releases a small amount of flame. It’s an impressive sidestep of the question, and Kurapika raises his eyebrow, crosses his arms. Leorio knows he knows. The way the dragon won’t make eye contact is a good tell.

There’s the sound of distant thunder. Leorio scents the air with a flicker of his tongue.

“It is my business when you keep dragging me off with you. And you don’t let me know what you’re out for. I can help, you know.”

Leorio studies him, fringe flaring around his curved horns. “I suppose. But today, I’m looking for herbs you’re probably unfamiliar with.”

Kurapika crosses his arms. “Try me.”

Thunder sounds again, and Kurapika checks the sky, bemused. Everything is clear. There are hardly and clouds in the sky, either near or far, so where on earth is this coming from? He opens his mouth to start to ask, and Leorio sighs before he even draws breath.

“I suppose you’re too clever to just shrug that off?” he asks, resigned already.

Kurapika lets his raised eyebrow speak for him.

For once, something that won’t be kept from him. Leorio’s thoughts grumble, incomplete and only mildly irritated sentences about curious humans and their insistence on knowing everything emerging, but he moves towards the entrance of his cave, away from the edge. “Come on, then. They’re being loud enough that it’s impossible to try and pretend I live on this mountain alone.”

“‘They’ as in one or multiple?”

“Two of them, shitty brats the both, though only one is making all this racket right now. The other is probably just egging him on.” Leorio’s grumbling distorts along the rocks, his words quiet enough that Kurapika can’t quite make them out. It sounds like he’s just bitching, though, so he’s content for the time being to just follow Leorio. “I was hoping to keep him from this a little longer,” Leorio grumbles once he’s settled finally, sitting back on his haunches. “At least until after you fixed the mistake you make.”

Kurapika’s jaw tightens. “I keep telling you-”

There’s a bright flash, lightning from a clear blue sky, and the sharp scent of ozone floods the air. Reflex makes Kurapika throw his hand up over his eyes, but the light came too quickly for it to matter. He blinks rapidly, trying to coax his eyes into clearing quicker, and through the impressions left behind on his sight, two figures become clear.

Two young boys stand before them. One slight and dark, tanned skin and black haired, grinning irrepressibly, the second fair, white-haired, glowing slightly from the lightning still arcing off him, sizzling on the ground below.

The dark-haired one waves, chipper. “You alright, Leorio?”

“I’m fine, you brats, but you startled my-.”

“Who’re you?” the boy asks, bouncing over without listening to Leorio. Kurapika’s eyes widen. Flowers sprout in the boy’s wake, flashing in bright patches of foliage the size of his footprints. He remembers, in a flash, the hand print sized patches of moss, inexplicable yet delightful. “I haven’t seen you before.”

Leorio’s fringe flattens, teeth baring. “He’s not staying. Don’t get attached.”

“I’m Gon!” the boy says, blithely ignoring Leorio’s grumbling as he offers his hand to Kurapika. He smiles, wide, guileless, and Kurapika can feel some of the suspicion and worry loosen. Leorio, sulking at the back of Kurapika's mind, seems oddly offended that Gon instantly likes Kurapika.

Kurapika takes his hand, bemused, but charmed despite himself. “Kurapika. A pleasure to meet you.”

“Sorry, we just don’t get many humans here.”

“Are you a dragon then, too?”

“Oh no, no, I’m not. I’m just-” Gon is cut off by Leorio’s maw coming down over him and bodily picking him up. Jolting forward, Kurapika almost reaches out to stop him until he realizes that Gon is laughing, and Leorio is being very careful with his teeth as he carts the boy off and shakes him gently. Like a cat and kitten.

Well then.

That still leaves another new guest, and Kurapika turns to greet him, somehow unsurprised to find him already sauntering forward. “And… you are?” Kurapika asks the other boy, tilting his head curiously.

The boy, tucking his hands deeper in his pockets, looks between him and Leorio and Gon before seeming to come to an internal decision. “Killua. I’m Gon’s friend.”

“Are they always like this?” Kurapika asks.

Despairingly, Killua just closes his eyes, nods, pinching the bridge of his nose, and says, “Yes.”


 

They settle down eventually, allowing Killua and Gon to fully finish up introductions while Leorio sulks on the edge of his cliff. Kurapika levels Killua, surname Zoldyck, with a searching look. “Wait, Zoldyck? Isn’t your family magic?”

“Witches of all kinds, though we’re usually ritual focused. That’s us.”

Huh. Last he heard, the Zoldyck family did reside on a mountain, but he was almost certain it was in the southern half of this mountain range, which is close to two months of travel from here. Kurapika tilts his head, curious. Above him, he's peripherally aware of Leorio mimicking the motion. “What in the world are you doing here?”

“I guess… you can kind of say I’m his,” and here, Killua hooks his thumb at Gon over his shoulder, “priest. Sort of. More or less, anyway. So I live here now.”

“You need a priest?” Kurapika asks Gon.

Flowers sprout around the boy’s feet, and he wiggles his toes in them, smiling at them even as they climb his legs. It seems takes him a moment to realize that he’s been asked a question. Gon looks down at his feet again, and the plants still twining up his legs, before looking at Kurapika and shrugging. “Sort of, yeah. I mean, I’m a… well. Uh. It’s hard to explain. I’m part of the forest.”

“So, a forest spirit?”

Gon lifts his hand, making a noncommittal see-sawing motion. “More or less. What I am doesn’t exactly translate well. Someone has to keep the mountain alive.”

“Wouldn’t Leorio’s residual magic do that on its own?”

“Mm, not quite. It’s kinda more like… a dragon keeps a mountain safe. Without him, I wouldn’t be here,” Gon says, and the flowers and vines begin to wither. “It’s alright though. Between him and Killua, everything around here is safe. Everything and everyone.”

Kurapika steps forward, hand half outstretched to - do something, the sudden decay of the flowers unsettling some instinctive part of him. He stops, though, looking to Gon. “Is that supposed to happen?”

Gon smiles, gentle. “Everything living dies, Kurapika.”


 

After that, the two boys are frequent visitors to Leorio’s cave, filling the space with laughter and shouting as they heckle Leorio until he snaps at them. It’s more teasing than anything else, and Kurapika feels nothing but a radiating sense of fondness from Leorio, so he doesn’t bother taking it seriously. It’s… almost cute, actually, watching them climb around the large Dragon as though he’s some kind of gym, Gon leaving bits and pieces of plant matter in his wake as he clambers up and sits on Leorio’s head. Kurapika smothers a laugh in his sleeve and swats Killua away from the stove as he cooks.

The mountain is in the firm grasp of summer, the sun beating down unrelentingly. The air might be clear and cool and the breeze almost constant, keeping them from the baking heat that Kurapika remembers from his summers in the Kurta village, but the sun alone keeps them returning to the eddy pool in the mountain spring.

The days get longer, and the heartbeat that throbs between Kurapika and Leorio settles into something manageable, even when they wander apart from each other.

Kurapika’s letter goes unanswered, and he hates that a small part of him is relieved.


 

He’s so cold.

Sky above, he’s so cold. He hurts with it, but he can’t move. They’ve been playing with him for hours now, and it’s so close to being over. It’s so close to finally being over, and he can just go to sleep, slumped in the wires he’s tangled up in.

A step in front of him.

He doesn’t even have the energy to jerk forward, to try and take off the hand that cups his cheek and raises his head, but he wants to, with a fire that still burns in his gut. A pity he can’t; he doesn’t have the fuel to burn, but anger and hatred still boil in his blood when he meets the smoke -grey gaze of a man with uncaring, incurious eyes. The man reaches forward with his other hand,

<Kurapika.>

a knife held there and-

<Kurapika, wake up.>

He can’t breathe or move when it’s pushed forward,

<Kurapika, wake up!>

Kurapika shoots up, gasping for breath. His side hurts, hurts so much, but his arms are free, he’s free and alive and-

Pissed.

“What were you doing in my head?” Kurapika shouts, struggling free of sweat-drenched sheets.

“Yeah, you’re going to need to roll that back in,” Killua says, crouched in front of him as he surveys Kurapika with electric blue eyes, “or that’s gonna kick you in the ass.”

“Ugh, Gon, no, I’m okay he’s just. Angry. He’s so angry,” Leorio grumbles, letting his massive head rest in Gon’s lap.

“I’m made angrier by nosy dragons going around and poking their noses in my business without my permission,” Kurapika snaps, because Leorio, that had been Leorio, waking him up. Leorio had seen. Which meant that Leorio knew, and Kurapika's skin crawls with the unwelcome sensation of vulnerability, like something with teeth has seen his soft underside and he can't move in time to protect it.

Leorio deigns to open one eye, and honestly, Kurapika doesn’t even need the mental connection to feel the disdain coming off him like waves, but it lends a whole new, unwelcome dimension to it anyway. “You were having a nightmare,” Leorio says, saccharine sweet and ingenuine. “Forgive me, boy, if I was trying to soothe it.”

“I’ll forgive you if you never do that again, damn it. What’s in my head is my business.”

“It was before you bonded us like an idiot! What’s yours is mine now too, in case you’ve forgotten, and that means your dreams and nightmares too.”

“I don’t need you snooping around.”

“I don’t need to be either, but I was just trying to get you to wake up. I’m sorry I cared!”

Gon and Killua have, wisely, deserted the cave, letting the two of them argue it out before they bother coming back in for the night. Kurapika sighs, rubs his eyes. His anger is a pulse at the back of his eyes, spreading like light down the curves of his face. It hurts, makes him sick and disoriented with it, and Kurapika presses the heels of his hands into his eyes like that will stop them from burning red.

“Knock that off,” Leorio says gently. “You’ll only make it worse.”

Kurapika gives him an unimpressed look.

“Yeah, yeah, keep the attitude. Look, I’m sorry, I hadn’t meant to snoop. I just went deep enough to yell at you a little.” Leorio pats his front paw on the ground in a clear invitation.

Kurapika sighs, but goes over anyway. The dream rattled him more than he wants to admit. It could have been Leorio’s cave for all he saw of it, it could have been Leorio, and Kurapika doesn’t know what he’d do without the cranky Dragon bitching in the back of his head constantly these days. He doesn’t want to think about Leorio, strung up like a fly in a spider’s net.

...Actually, come to think of that, in the dream, he hadn’t been in a Dragon’s body. But it was clear that he was still a dragon. Kurapika frowns, considering.

“I heard dragons have human forms they may take,” Kurapika says as he sits in his spot by Leorio’s front legs, smoothing his hands across the scales on Leorio’s chest. They’re a little dry, Kurapika’s hands. Chapped from the wind. He’ll have to put some lotion on them again to soften the skin before they begin to bleed. “Do you, also?”

Beside him, Leorio stills.

“I will shed my skin for no human,” Leorio says quietly.

Kurapika isn’t sure what to make of that, honestly. He prods at the link between them, a gentle query.

“Why not?”

“I will say this once, so listen closely. I will never take human form again,” Leorio growls. Fury and sadness, an old, old hurt, flares up the back of Kurapika’s mind, staggering in its depth, and Kurapika breathes through it, lets it settle heavily within him until the wave recedes.

Leorio watches him for a moment, then snorts. He stands, disturbing Kurapika from his place to his corner of the cave and curls up on the small platform of gathered cloths, tucks his face and muzzle beneath his tail, as a cat does.

And Kurapika says nothing. He goes too. He turns back to his books. Holds them up to examine their titles again, as he has over the last few months. Finds that his hands shake. Slowly, he lowers them again and just breathes. Words in this moment mean nothing. This well of sadness is not his to explore, and Leorio does not seem more eager to talk about it than Kurapika does.

After all, both of them felt the answering echo, the familiarity Kurapika has with that sort of pain, welcoming it to him like a second skin.

“I had a friend, a long time ago. A human boy.” Leorio shifts, grumbling. “It was a while ago, a long while. Longer than I care to remember.”

“Yes, I understand, you're old.”

“Shut up, brat. We used to play together all the time as kids. He was as close to me as a brother, and I loved him like I loved nothing else. Pietro was mine in a way I had never known before. He was family.” Leorio lets out a long breath, shifts his head to look at Kurapika instead of the wall. “I loved him. But he was sick. Something treatable, but expensive, and, well. My horde has never quite been typical. I would have given it, for him, but no doctor would even see him. Not with the pitiful amount we scraped together. It was... awful.

“He died like that. In pain and wishing for a better life, and it was human greed that left him that way. Not mine. Theirs. After losing him, I.... I've never. I can't bring myself to be human without him. It hurts too much.”

And this too, Kurapika understands. Too well, almost. His mouth presses into a sympathetic line. He has nothing to say that will make a difference, but Kurapika sits by Leorio and leans against him. Leorio shifts, moving to rest his great head in Kurapika’s lap, solid and warm, and allows Kurapika to gently stroke the soft ridges around his eyes with contented breaths.

He just has to hope it will be enough.


 

“Don’t you ever miss it? Being around humans?” Kurapika asks later.

Leorio’s mind shrugs. It’s an interesting thing to experience, that very human gesture transferred mentally. “Not particularly. I mean, I like conversation. But I have Gon and Killua for that.”

“And me,” Kurapika says before thinking about it.

Leorio blinks. Something about him radiates contentment, like sunshine, pleasant and warm. It settles the last of the hurt still lingering between them, a peace offering. “And you.”


 

Summer bleeds into fall. The mountain becomes colorful in a way Kurapika’s never seen, trees going golden between green, and Kamakura becomes used to the peculiar man who lives up on their mountain and drops by once a month or so. They open up to him, accept him as one of theirs, and no longer look strangely at the slight man walking their streets in bright clothes. Leorio doesn’t even have to go down with him anymore, doesn’t have to pace the treeline and snap him up as soon as he gets back, and while Kurapika enjoys the return of his independence, he misses the idle conversations they had as they walked.

Kurapika comes back from the town with a frown on his face and a distant look to his eyes. He’s distracted setting out the food he’s brought back, jumping from bag to bag without finishing them first, leaving trails of half-packed bags behind.

“What’s the matter?” Leorio asks, nosing at the table.

“The Meier’s girl isn’t getting better, and now four other kids have gotten sick too. A few adults. The town is worried, from what I can tell. And their doctor is stuck a few towns over until the passes clear, and… well.” Kurapika’s mouth twists. “It’s not like any of them can really afford to try and take all of their ill to the closest hospital, either.”

Beside him, Leorio has gone curiously still.

Kurapika sighs. “There has to be some way I can help. The people here are more understanding than I expected.”

“They’re good people.”

“They are.” Kurapika shakes his head. “Anyway. Lunch. Let’s get to work on- Leorio?”

He catches only a glimpse of a tail slinking around the corner and he blinks, mouth twisting to the side. “Well, fine then. I’ll have lunch on my own. And I’ll eat all of his deer.”


 

Leorio doesn’t show up for the rest of that day.

Or the next day.

Or the next.

Kurapika is pacing the outside of their cave, gnawing his thumb bloody while he worries. Did they get him? Did the Phantom Troupe manage to…?

No, he would have known. He would know. Leorio’s still out there, just. Distant. And an asshole, for making him worry. An asshole, when he knows what this will do to Kurapika, when he knows that the longer he stays away, the worse Kurapika will feel; cut off and abandoned and what if Leorio doesn’t want him anymore? No, no, that’s irrational, Leorio can’t leave him alone like this, what if he isn’t safe?

“He’ll be back soon,” Gon says confidently.

Kurapika wishes he had that faith. The taste of copper fills his mouth. “Leorio’s an idiot. He’ll get himself hurt out there with no one to look over him.”

Gon takes his hand, pulling the bloodied fingers away from Kurapika’s mouth, and it’s only then that he realizes how badly he’s shaking. He forces a smile on for Gon’s worried eyes, unsuccessfully tries to retrieve his hand.

“Sorry, I’ll be alright once he gets back. I just-”

<Hey, can you two clear off the landing pad for a sec?> a familiar voice asks, and Kurapika’s head snaps up, up, unerringly towards a distant smudge in the sky. <It’s a little tricky to land with you both standing there.>

Pulling Gon back towards the mouth of Leorio's cave, Kurapika watches Leorio come in for an ungainly landing, burdened as he is by two large baskets hanging to either side of him, attached to a harness Kurapika vaguely recalls seeing piled into one of the disused corners of Leorio's main cavern.

“Where have you-?” Kurapika begins to ask. Leorio brushes past him and Gon both as though he doesn't hear, nearly knocking a napping Killua over as he sweeps into the cave and beelines for one of the tables, surrounded by dried herbs that Leorio and Kurapika have collected all spring and summer. Relieved and irritated with it, Kurapika half-jogs after him. “Leorio. Where have you been?”

“What did you do to your hand?” Leorio grumbles, staring at it. He shakes his head. “No matter. Come here.”

Kurapika holds his hand closer to his chest and tries to ignore the twinge of vulnerable hurt coursing through him. No matter. Right.

“Kurapika. Give it here, let me fix it. I can bug you about it once it's done healing,” Leorio says again, nosing at Kurapika's injured hand insistently. “What, are you trying to convince yourself that I'm not worried about you? Please.”

“You disappeared for three days,” Kurapika says instead of anything else. He does offer his hand, shivers when Leorio breathes on it, the cool tingle of his healing magic still unfamiliar.

“Yes, and it was important, otherwise I would have brought you along too. That should do it. Here, grind this,” Leorio instructs, prodding a basket full of bark at him. “Carefully, mind you, and down to as fine a powder as you can manage.”

Kurapika takes the basket, and an attached list. Kurapika reads down the list, eyebrows furrowing. He knows these ingredients. He’s seen them before, in apothecaries, but their mixture is a bit unusual, and he tries to put what he knows together with the ingredients before him. Curious, he looks up at Leorio. “A fever remedy? Is that what this all is?”

“It’ll help stop the spread of the disease below. It’s no panacea,” Leorio says, automatically prickly with pride. “But it should still help them. I don’t know how to get it to them. I can’t take it down, and it’s not like I can just give it to Gon.”

“Why not?” Gon asks.

Leorio levels the little forest spirit a look that could curdle milk. Kurapika says nothing at all, watching and waiting for the inevitable capitulation. Gon pouts. Flowers spring up along his puffed cheeks. It does nothing to alter Leorio’s mood

“You,” Leorio says slowly, as though he’s talking to a particularly difficult student, “Are the god of this mountain.”

“Yeah, and?”

And? What more do you need? You shouldn’t just waltz into Kamakura like it’s nothing!”

Gon shrugs. “Killua and I go there all the time. It’s not that big of a deal.”

Leorio turns his gaze to Killua, who shrugs, unrepentant even in the face of Leorio’s anger.

Muffling a laugh in the corner of his wrist, Kurapika is reminded of nothing less than a father ineffectively scolding his children.

“Okay, all of that aside, you can’t show them how to make it, can you? You both don’t have the patience for remembering all the steps and explaining it to them, and no doctor or townsperson would accept medical advice from children like you.”

“You don’t know that!”

Leorio squints at both boys. “Yes, I do. I’ll just… Have to write it all down somewhere or something and find a way to get it delivered…” And he wanders off muttering to himself, nosing around his shelves and scratching at some barrels he has stored.

Kurapika looks at the list again and its old, yellowed parchment, and commits it to memory. First, the willow bark. Then the rest, step by step as he readies the ingredients under Leorio's watchful and occasionally criticizing gaze. They aren't making much, not at first. Leorio plans on delivering the ingredients, ready to mix but not fully together, so Kamakura can learn in case it happens again. How he's going to explain it to them is another matter entirely, but Kurapika secrets all the steps away into the annals of his memory, as sure as he ever stored any of his family's magic.


 

He works long into the night, and wakes curled into Leorio’s chest, feeling and hearing the surge of Leorio’s heart below his ear, and settles back to sleep with a contented sigh, certain that everything is right in the world now.


 

Waking, Kurapika manages to pull himself from the comfortable space he’s made for himself, and he wanders out of the mouth of the cave, sitting on a rock. Morning has come and passed, but the landscape below him is fogged over, trees disappearing into the mist like tall gray-green spires. Sunlight filters through in patches, lighting spots in a gilded haze, and Kurapika sighs, breath misting up to join with the rest. Isolated hilltops of trees, distant, raise out of the fog like islands.

Scales scrape over the rock behind him, and there’s a quiet rattle as Leorio rests his head beside Kurapika.

“Pretty day, isn’t i?” Leorio asks after a few minutes of companionable silence. The only thing that flows between them is the same peculiar distraction-hyperfocus pulses that come from being recently awoken. Kurapika reaches up, scratches gently at a spot under Leorio’s eye ridge that he can feel bothering him. He gets a low, pleased rumble for his efforts, and smiles.

“Yeah, it’s very pretty.”

“My mountain.”

“Gon’s, technically.”

A puff of fire clears the air momentarily as Leorio snorts, offended. “Mine.”

“Yes, yes, alright.”

There’s a brush against his mind, gone too fast for him to fully explore it. All he gets is an impression of possession, of territory and want and need curling so tight around his heart that taking is the only way to truly loosen it. Of Leorio, pressing in closer to everything he considers “his.”

Kurapika nudges him none-too-gently, pinning him in place with an unimpressed look. “Keep that to yourself, please. I’m no item to be owned.”

Leorio snorts again, free of accompanying fire. “Should’ve thought about that before you signed on to be a dragon rider, then.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re my rider, Kurapika. You’re mine. As good as gold. As the rest of my horde, too, for that matter. That’s why you couldn’t go too far from me at first. The bond makes you as good as mine as anything else in there.”

“I am not part of your horde,” Kurapika says, sharp, drawn tight.

Leorio’s eye shifts from the view over the mountains and valley to meet Kurapika’s stare. “Calm down, red-eyes. It’s your mistake, not mine. And you don’t see me shoving you back into my lair, where you’re safe and supposed to be, do you?”

“How hard do you have to repress the urge?”

“Let’s just say that I’d be more comfortable with you inside, rather than out.” Leorio sighs. “I’m glad you came here, though. Even if your “mercenaries” never show.”

Kurapika would rather not think about that, and he purses his lips, looking away from Leorio.

“They’re probably never going to come here, you know,” Leorio says offhanded. His disdain is clear, aggravating like an open sore at the back of Kurapika’s mind. It circles him, watches him, and try as he might, he can’t quell the pulse of irritation that causes. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly high profile here. A little town full of incurious people at the foot of a mountain? It's not enough to get their attention.”

Kurapika swallows back several sharp retorts. The mountain is pretty like this. He doesn’t need to spoil it with his bad mood. “A village full of people who still worship the idea of you isn't suspicious at all?”

“That’s …. Different. Plus, between me and Gon and Killua, no one gets far enough up here to have actually seen me. Not in a few generations anyway.” Leorio makes a considering noise. “It might be about time for me to show myself again, actually.”

“How old are you?”

I’m only nine hundred years old,” Leorio says, lifting his head proudly.

“Only.”

Leorio squawks, frill flattening. “For a dragon, that’s very young, thank you very much.”

Kurapika stands, staring out over the land below. It’s familiar and foreign all at once, the dissonance rubbing him the wrong way. He breathes deep, settles himself, hears, almost as though from a distance, himself ask, “Why do you think they won’t come here?”

For a long, startled moment, Leorio doesn’t answer. Kurapika looks up at him, watches the way Leorio blinks, cocks his head. “I mean, after all, it’s not like any of them know I’m here.”

A sick stab of guilt shoots through Kurapika. He drops his gaze instead of continuing to meet Leorio’s eyes. He doesn’t want to explain. He doesn’t. But he can already feel the crawling suspicion in the back of his mind.

“They don’t know,” Leorio says again, and he cocks his head the other direction, scales sliding against each other with a hiss of movement. “Do they, Kurapika?”

When he says nothing, the suspicion turns to anger.

“Kurapika, what have you done?”

He can only shake his head. He knew it was too good to last, especially with the letter-

No.

Leorio latches onto the thought greedily, and he hauls it to him in a way that makes Kurapika feel sick. “You alerted them?” Leorio asks, and Kurapika’s mind flashes to a note, plain and white, dropped into the hands of a waiting courier before the first growth of spring truly came over the area. He pulls it back, but-

It’s too late.

Leorio is swelling like an inferno at the back of his mind, inarticulate in every way, but angry, furiously so, and Kurapika closes his eyes to it.

“I needed to make sure they came here,” Kurapika says, stiff.

“And if I wasn’t here?”

“Then they might have come anyway, and I could’ve at least had a slight head start on them.”

Leorio’s frill flares and his fangs bare, a large, terrifying maw of sharp, glistening teeth. “And what would you have done, Kurapika, if they had never come? Would you have stayed here forever, mine, or just until you had enough and got impatient?”

“Well,” Kurapika answers, “As you enjoy reminding me, I can’t leave your side, so-”

“Would you have killed me yourself, then?”

Kurapika’s mouth hangs open, frozen, rejecting even the idea of it. “I would have… I wouldn’t have done that, how dare you even think-”

“Then how could you think inviting them here was a good idea?” Leorio snaps.

“I-...” Kurapika has to explain this. He has to. He has to explain that it wasn’t personal, it’s why he sent the notice before he ever met Leorio; if he had waited, he never would have the nerve to invite his clan’s murderers to his doorstep using someone else as collateral. “I didn’t have any other choice.”

“Bullshit.”

“I did what I had to.”

Bullshit,” Leorio hisses. “You had other options. You just picked the easiest one. I trusted you to not kill me, and this is what you were planning all along? I just hope you’re ready to die too, kid, because when that group of mercs comes through here and get me, the backlash alone will get you, assuming your pride doesn’t get there first.”


 

He doesn’t see Leorio for days after their argument.

Every day, Kurapika works on the remedy, follows the notes taken down during Leorio’s ramblings and mutterings, caps it off into little bottles that he lays in a leather pouch.

Every night, he sits outside until the moon is high, and waits for the glimmer of grey scales in the moonlight, the shine of too-green eyes, until he is exhausted, his hands gnawed bloody, and one of the boys force him back to bed. His mental questions to Leorio go unanswered except for quiet pushes of <Leave me alone.>

He does not sleep well.


 

Kurapika isn’t expecting it, is the worst part.

He takes the remedy to town, sits with the quarantined children as he explains how to make it to their parents, to anyone who will sit and listen. He brushes off their thanks, but accepts one of the parents, Hans’, insistent offer of a drink finally, because he’d like something to warm him up before he heads back up the mountain. Hans claps him on the shoulder, familiar and fond enough for jovial contact.

When they enter the bar, an unfamiliar man straightens from where he is hunched over the bar top. He is huge in every sense of the word, a veritable giant of a man, and Kurapika gives him a curious glance, same as the residents of Kamakura. He would normally pass the man off as just another traveller, stopped in their town for a night.

Save for the spider, clearly visible on-

Kurapika can’t breathe.

“Hans, I can’t, I’m sorry, I have to go,” he says, his voice coming to his own ears as though from a distance. His blood boils in his skin, an anger that has not diminished over the long years flaring to life once more. He has to leave now, or risk the townspeople he just saved as collateral damage in the fight to come.

“Kurapika, come on,” Hans wheedles, tugging on his arm. “You’re almost never down here. A man needs a drink, living alone like you do!”

“No, Hans, I just- I forgot something. I’ll be back later, alright?”

They let him go finally, and it is with a peculiar calm that Kurapika leaves. He walks with no destination aside from “Away,” and it leads him to a quarry. Hemmed in by rock on all sides. It will do. Of all the people the Phantom Troupe had to send as a vanguard, it had to be Uvo. And when Kurapika is taken off guard, too, no time to prepare. Damn. Damn. If it had just been someone else. If he had noticed sooner, before Uvo had seen him...

<Leorio.>

<I told you to leave me->

<I’m sorry.>

That’s all he gives himself time for. He feels Leorio’s repeated queries, at first petulant with the residue of their argument, then insistent. Then, when that doesn’t get Kurapika to respond, even to tell him to shut up or go away, they get worried. Kurapika shuts the door in his mind; Leorio doesn’t need to know how this will end.

He breathes in. The air is sharp against the back of his throat, burning cold all down his lungs. Out in a fog.

He opens his eyes. Lifts his head. And there, in the moonlight, is the giant, Uvo.

“I didn’t expect to find you here, little brat,” Uvo says.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you either, but neither of us can have what we like, can we?” Kurapika says, throat dry.

“What was it, three years ago? When you last tried to stop us from our little hunt? I’m surprised your ribs healed. Do they still hurt in the rain?”

Kurapika grits his teeth. The taste of blood seeps into his mouth, and he breathes. “Not as much as your knee must. Don’t worry, though, I’ll be sure to be more thorough this time.”


 

He can’t make it down fast enough.

Leorio breaks almost every tree he comes across on his way down, the need for stealth forgotten in the wake of the hole Kurapika has left behind, because his stupid dumbass rider closed the fucking door in their minds, and sure they’re in a bit of an argument right now, but that’s no need for acting like you’re about to face your death!

(Except, and Leorio doesn’t like to think about this, he’s trying his very best not to, there was the repeated cycle of spider spider spider running in the back of Kurapika’s thoughts, and Leorio has seen enough of his nightmares to know where that ends.)

He follows the pull of Kurapika’s stuttering, wavering heart all the way to a ravine, a large quarry of rocks dug out. Blood spatters across all of it, mostly from the body of a large man, slumped over in the moonlight, but Leorio focuses in on the smaller form of his rider, his boy, his Kurapika, coated in blood that is both his and not. He scrabbles across the rock, ungainly in his panic.

The only good thing that comes of it is that all the noise makes Kurapika’s eyes open.

“Stupid, stupid,” Leorio cranes his neck, examining the limp form below him with one eye, then the other. Kurapika’s clothes are soaking up his blood swiftly, the fabric turning a sodden, desaturated red.

Kurapika reaches up.

<Your fussing is almost sweet.>

“Don’t you even think about it,” Leorio growls. He presses his nose into Kurapika’s hand, desperate for the contact, for the magic swelling within him to course between them and do something. Stupid, naturalistic, uncontrollable bullshit, it neverwants to work when he needs it to. It surges now, but aimless, uncertain of how to fix the bleeding body below him.

<Think about what?>

“This isn’t the time for being coy, asshole. You know damn well “what.”” Leorio huffs, focusing hard. Damn it, come on. Stop the bleeding first. Everything else can come after.

<Are you worried? It’s okay, you shouldn’t be.>

“Bullshit, I shouldn’t be. You’re bleeding out. If I don’t-”

<It’s okay, Leorio. I was supposed to die with my family anyway. I’m just a little late. Just be careful without me, alright? You can hardly take care of yourself without me around.>

“Oh don’t you fucking dare. Boy! Kurapika!”

Leorio is more frantic by the moment. Kurapika is so tired. Even the shouting can’t keep him awake. Worry batters at his mind like the flutter of a butterfly’s wings against cupped hands, like Kurapika’s pulse against his. He has to do something. He has to do anything, anything at all, if it just gets Kurapika to stay with him.

Anything.

He has to get Kurapika back to his cave. He can't hurt him more. He has to bring him back to the cave, where he belongs, where he'll be safe, which means he'll have to carry him, which means...

Leorio closes his eyes.


 

If Kurapika just sleeps for a while, he’ll feel better. He’ll feel nothing at all. It’s fine. It will be fine. Even Leorio is distant like this, fading as everything does. And just before Kurapika falls asleep, warmth cradles him. Arms, like his parents, hold him to a beating heart. Thud-thump. Thud-thump.

Thud-thump.


 

He wakes up.

No, wait. That can’t be right.

But here he is, awake, looking up at the familiar rocks that make up the dome of Leorio’s cave. Pain radiates like heat along his side, and every breath is restricted. He doesn’t understand. He was going to die. But Leorio….

Leorio.

Kurapika jerks upright. Then muffles a yell as agony arcs through him.

“Ah, you’re finally awake,” Leorio says. Relief washes over Kurapika, a slight balm to the rest of his pain, as he presses a hand to the tender side of his body. He looks toward the voice, and finds….

A man.

Kurapika blinks, first at the unfamiliar man, then at the horns curving out of his skull, large and ridged like ram’s horns. Then again at the claws tipping the man’s hands. Kurapika stares at the man before him, taking him in all at once, then slowly, bit by bit. He’s tall, lanky, with wide shoulders and a broad chest. He’s dressed properly, in a jacket that goes to his wrists and buttons up the front, a subtle gray fabric that almost seems to blend into the dull background of Leorio’s cave. His face is well balanced, handsome in an unexpected way.

And skeptically, hoarsely, Kurapika asks, “Leorio?”

“Yes? What? Why are you looking at me like that? Haven’t you ever seen a human before? I mean, I thought you knew that I could do this. Did I forget something?” Leorio, and it is Leorio by some mystery, holds out his hands to check them, frowning intensely over his nails.

For all that he had claimed to never take human form, Leorio seems remarkably comfortable like this, a pair of small teashade sunglasses perched on his nose, blocking all but the barest glimpse of glittering green eyes. Kurapika’s gaze returns again and again to Leorio’s eyes, vibrantly green, pupils vertically slit even like this. It’s the only truly familiar part of him.

“It hasn’t been that long since I was a human,” Leorio mutters, petulant.

“Most people,” Kurapika says wryly, “don’t have horns.”

“Well, these bad boys are part of the look, so deal with it.”

“What happened?”

“Some idiot decided to run off and almost get himself killed on some misguided attempt to avenge his entire family.”

Kurapika bristles. “It was not misguided, you asshole! I’m sorry I was try-”

“And in the attempt,” Leorio continues as though Kurapika didn’t interrupt, “he learned absolutely nothing about his enemies, only revealed that what they’re looking for is in the area, and did I mention he almost got himself killed?”

“You might have, yes. Just once or twice.”

“Well, he did,” Leorio, the man who speaks in the voice of Kurapika’s dragon, smaller now with the human ribcage, sniffs, prim.

Kurapika tries to sit up, winces at the pain in his side, in his head. Still, he persists upright, until he feels a gentle hand help, supporting his back. “That doesn’t explain… this.”

“You said yourself that dragons have human forms.”

“And you told me that you would never wear that skin again.”

“Then we are both of us liars, because you said you thought your plans through. Nowhere in your plans should I have ended up having to stitch your skin back together!” Leorio snaps. His mouth is sharp, brimming to the gums and lips with fangs.

Ah, that explains the pain in his side.

Leorio deflates, teeth returning to normal, and he rubs the bridge of his nose. “Lift your arms; I need to change your bandages.”

Kurapika does as he’s bid, wincing as the gash on his side pulls. Deftly, Leorio removes the strip of linen, examining the wound with gentle fingers. His touch is soft, barely skirting the sensitive skin of Kurapika’s side. Warmth flares in its wake.

He sucks in a tight breath and locks down on his emotions.

Hard.

Leorio, of course, catches it, and squints up at him, familiar green eyes over the rims of unfamiliar smoked glass in an unfamiliar face. “Hurts or ticklish? If it hurts, just say so. Shit like that’s important for me.”

“Sorry,” Kurapika says after a moment’s pause. “Habit. But it was ticklish.”

“It’s alright.” After giving him a curious look, Leorio resumes his examination, even gentler than before, and Kurapika closes his eyes to it.

He makes sure to keep his mental lock as tight as possible. For his sake, more than anything else, because it’s one thing to become begrudgingly fond of your dragon.

It’s another entirely to find him attractive.

But he is, is the problem. Leorio, in his human form, is tall and well balanced. His strong jaw, outlined with a hint of stubble, leads to a gentle, expressive mouth and a straight nose, and his eyes, the only part of him that remain completely unchanged, are a beautiful green. Leorio is handsome, even with the odd black-clawed hands and curling horns. And Kurapika, vulnerable and grateful for the chance to even be alive, feels something gentle crack open in his sternum that he hadn't fully allowed himself to feel.

To distract himself- and distract Leorio too, tutting as he is over Kurapika's bandaged side- Kurapika clears his throat. “So, what happened?”

Leorio stills. “What do you mean?”

“You told me once that you would never taken human form again.” Kurapika looks pointedly at Leorio, from his bare feet to the tips of his horns. “And yet here you are.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t particularly enjoy the sensation of you bleeding out in my head, and as it turns out, claws get a bit in the way of stopping that. You’re welcome for saving your life, by the way.”

“It makes us even.”

“Ah, right, because you’re here to keep me safe from dragon hunters, right?”

“Because I killed one of them before you found me injured.”

Leorio squints. “One of them.”

Kurapika lets out a tense breath. Now is not the time for Leorio to be testing his patience, but the dragon has never had the best sense of timing. “Was I unclear? Perhaps you should take a dip in the stream yourself, clean out your ears. I know that hearing is among one of the first things to go in someone so elderly.”

“I’m not old! I’m not even past my first millenia! But at least I wasn't stupid enough to wander down to the town and think that I could fight a member of the Phantom Troupe and get out alive!”

“That's not-”

Turning from him, Leorio goes to a bench Kurapika had never quite understood before. He sets the tools, medicinal and otherwise, down, spreads them out, and begins to clean them carefully, checking each from every angle before he sets it down. He lets Kurapika struggle with his words the whole time, silent and waiting. “That's not what?”

Time for the truth to come out, then. Kurapika sighs, looks to the side. “I wasn’t even down there to find him,” he admits quietly.

Leorio pauses. In his peripheral vision, Kurapika can see Leorio’s hands lower, and he sets his tools carefully on the table. “Then what were you doing?”

“I was… taking the medical supplies to the town. The remedy you were talking about. I made it for them and showed them how, so they can make their own. I just….” Kurapika trails off, unsure of how to continue. He tries again. “You care for them, even if you’re more a legend to them than anything else, and they've been good to me when they didn't need to be. It's the least I could do.”

For a long moment, Leorio is quiet. Kurapika doesn’t know what to think of it. He can’t get anything for their connection, as Leorio, for once, keeps himself carefully separate. Then, he smiles. It’s like the sun coming out from behind clouds, wide and bright. “Aw, you’re just a giant softie, aren’t you, Kurapika?”

“Like you’re one to talk. A compassionate, generous dragon? No one would ever believe me.”

“Ugh, that’s stereotyping, and I thought you were better than that.”

“Out of curiosity, can't you just heal me?”

“I have to recharge at least a little, Kurapika. I already healed you quite a bit, which is why you're even conscious right now instead of curled into a fever-ridden little lump. You've been healed enough, for now. Now, you just need to rest. So stop yapping and lay back down, okay?”

The moment is over, the tension lessened between them once again, and when Kurapika subsides into an uneasy slumber, it is with the comforting sounds of Leorio clattering around, smaller now than he's used to, but welcome and familiar.


 

He knows these woods.

Intimately, now, with how frequently he's gone wandering around them. He knows the sweet hand prints Gon leaves behind in moss, like reminders of where he's been and how he shapes the wilderness. He knows where the streams meet together, bowing out into a large, rushing river, full of fish and cool through the summer. He knows this mountain.

He shouldn't be here. Not right now. Not like this.

Something is wrong. Kurapika moves carefully, steps quiet as he makes his way through the underbrush, trying to figure out what exactly makes his skin crawl. It's silent around him, animals and birds all gone the way they do in the presence of a predator. It's different from when Leorio is with him. Because Leorio isn't with him. Leorio isn't here at all. He has to find Leorio, make sure he's safe.

A rustle in the trees.

Kurapika forces himself forward, branches and roots come up fiercely over his feet now, tripping him as he rushes forward, heedless of scratches and-

A spider, ten legged, terrible, crawling over skin and bones and Leorio, they're going to-

“Shh, shh,” he hears, and he comes awake with a start, a gentle hand brushing his sweat-damp hair away from his face. Leorio hovers over him, braced on one arm, searching Kurapika’s face with earnest green eyes. His hand stills on Kurapika’s cheek once he notices that Kurapika is awake. “Hey, sorry. You were having a nightmare.”

Kurapika leans into it, turning his face into the gentle sweep of Leorio’s thumb. “I didn’t mean to wake you,” he says, which is not quite “I’m sorry,” but serves the same purpose anyway.

Leorio shakes his head. “It’s alright.”

Is it really, Kurapika wants to ask, but he swallows it, ignores the knowing looking Leorio gives him. Instead, he lets himself curl around Leorio’s warm body, a poorly formed parenthetical that begins with Kurapika’s head in Leorio’s lap. Fingers stroke through his hair, all the way down to his scalp the way he likes, and Kurapika lets out a low breath, relaxing bit by bit into the bedding.

Leorio’s hand, warm and smooth, traces Kurapika’s face. It seems too much for just such a simple touch, contact alone shortening the breath in Kurapika’s lungs, but he represses his reactions, locking them firmly away before-

Another hand comes up to join the first.

“Hey now,” Leorio murmurs gently, unbearably gently, “We know each other too well for you to be hiding from me like that.”

Pride itches at Kurapika, and he isn’t bold enough to shove it back. “We hardly know each other at all, as you enjoy reminding me when that particular argument weighs in your favor.”

“It doesn’t right now, and I’m very good at applying double standards. Another thing we have in common.”

“Hush, you.”

Leorio won’t move. Not that Kurapika is exactly trying to get away, because he absolutely could if he wanted to, and not even the latent threat of dragon claws pricking the side of his face can stop him. If he actually tried to pull away, he knows Leorio would let him. Without a doubt, without a moment’s pause. Kurapika reaches up, wraps his fingers around Leorio’s wrist with the full intention to push the touch away.

His fingers curl, press, against the soft thump of Leorio’s heartbeat at the tender underside of his wrist. And Kurapika holds Leorio there.

“Hey,” Leorio says again, even softer, somehow impossibly more intimate than before.

Kurapika wets his lips with a slow, uncertain dart of his tongue. He doesn’t miss the way Leorio’s eyes dilate, nor how they follow the motion. “Hey.”

“I'm, uh...” Leorio leans forward, until his words are but a breath against Kurapika's mouth, whispered and soft. “I'm glad you're safe. I was really worried about you.”

Thud-thump.

Well.

“I'm... glad too,” Kurapika admits, like a secret. Like he's supposed to be ashamed of his desire to survive. Leorio doesn't catch that much, at least, and when he tilts his head to align their noses, Kurapika turns with him. When he tilts his head up, the brush of Leorio's lips against his own feels inevitable in a way that settles Kurapika's jittery, ravenous heart. Like something important locked safely away. Like earning the sunrise. Like home.


 

(Leorio's hands skim low, leaving tingling and relief and agony in their wake, and Kurapika arches into the press of his mouth, his tongue, his fingers, because in this, he, too, is greedy, wanting, and Leorio gives him so much. So much, and Kurapika wants more. The heated air between them; the electricity passed along their skin; the overwhelming swell of Leorio's love, rising in Kurapika's mind to swamp him and drown him. Kurapika grips him close, closer, hitches his leg over Leorio's hip with no care for the pain.

“Kurapika,” Leorio warns, but Kurapika tightens one hand around the curve of Leorio's horn, the other in the short hairs at the nape of his neck. Tugs, demanding.

“More, Leorio. Give me more.”

And Leorio lowers his teeth to the side of Kurapika's neck, bites, holds on, and does.)


 

Later, much later, when Leorio has returned to his dragon skin, curled up with his head in Kurapika's lap, Kurapika reaches up, smoothing his hand across the familiar ridges of Leorio’s scales. “I was sad,” he murmurs, “that you never shed your skin for me. I thought I was going to die without getting to see it.”

Leorio blinks one massive eye. “Was it really that important?”

“To me, perhaps. I wanted to see how you looked.”

Kurapika senses a change in intent, and he isn't surprised when Leorio's body glows slightly, then reforms into something smaller, more human. He is a little taken aback by the nudeness of Leorio's body, all long limbs bare and exposed as Leorio moves to straddle his lap, grinning wickedly. Visibly preening, Leorio gestures grandly to himself. “And do you like how I look?”

His voice and mouth are dry, even as Kurapika reaches out, digs possessive fingers into the curve of Leorio's hip. “You're alright.”

Leorio only raises his eyebrow smugly. Mentally, he presses into Kurapika's warm, awakened interest, winding like a cat, and Kurapika gently pushes him out of it, embarrassed, fond, shyly pleased at being able to be embarrassed and fond.

“Are you ready for the Phantom Troupe?”

Leorio accepts the change in topic, settling his weight firmly in Kurapika's lap, arms looped behind his neck. “Probably. I mean, you beat that punk earlier. Can't be too much harder, right? We'll have each other.”

“Maybe. But if I'm going to be honest... I wouldn't be so sure of it. They've won battles with other dragons before. Some of them were bound to have riders, and yet all of them so far have been wiped out. If we aren't able to kill all of them, we won’t be able to stay here. You’ll have to leave your horde behind,” Kurapika says apologetically.

“Yeah, well.” Leorio shrugs. “Jokes on them. I don’t have much of a horde anyway. I doubt they'll recognize the medical texts as valuable. Everything else important is here.”

Kurapika tilts his head. “Where is it?”

Leorio smiles, gentle and wide, and when he reaches out to touch Kurapika’s cheek, he’s somehow not expecting it, his breath stuttering in his lungs. Tenderly, Leorio says, “I’m talking about you.”

Then he adds, like an afterthought, “Idiot.”


 

It's only a matter of time at that point. Uvogin was their vanguard, sent ahead to verify the claims, and lucky strike on Kurapika or no, he's still dead. The others will come looking for him as soon as he doesn't report in, assuming they aren't already in Kamakura. They only have a few days, at most, to hide what they can of Leorio's horde, to pick what they'll be bringing with them. None of this has been made easier by the boys' suddenly disappearing.

Kurapika can only hope that Killua talked some sense into Gon. That maybe, they're holed up somewhere, safe. Away from this mess.

(He also knows better, but damn he can hope.)

“Hey, Kurapika, can you get the dried herbs from the table? We should be able to bring those down to Kamakura so someone can get some use out of them,” Leorio asks, shirt sleeves pushed up to his elbows as he works. Kurapika can't fight his smile at the sight of Leorio, slightly disheveled as he casts about the piles and piles of books for something specific, muttering to himself all the while.

Someone steps onto the rock.

Kurapika feels it as a disturbance deeps and wrong in the core of him, and he finds himself at Leorio's side without registering how, exactly, he got there. He blames dragon magic for it, since Leorio's head has snapped up, human nostrils flaring wide as he stares at the intruder. The man, who stands, hair like a flame over his head, at the edge of the ledge leading to Leorio's cave with a wide, unsettling smile stretching, pale, across his lips.

“Oh now isn't this domestic,” he purrs, voice low.

Leorio tilts his head. Kurapika can see his pupils tighten, vertical slits narrow as he takes in the man standing before him. Then his teeth bare, too large for his mouth and viciously fanged, scales rippling unnaturally across his skin.

“You,” he snarls.

The man, golden eyed and grinning, waggles his fingers at Leorio like a small child. “Me.”

“Get out of here, you lecherous piece of shit. The Phantom Troupe-”

“Is on it's way, yes,” the man interrupts, indolent, examining his fingernails with no sense of urgency. Wait. Kurapika's eyes narrow. Not fingernails. Claws. Gold like his eyes, sharp and bright in the sunlight, which means- “I'm well aware. I'm part of them, after all.”

A dragon.

Leorio growls, a subvocal noise that is hardly audible for how deep it is. “Part of them? They kill dragons! What are you doing helping them? What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m getting something out of it, obviously. It's been... fun, in its own way! I wouldn’t be here still otherwise. Come now, Leorio, all that time alone surely hasn't rotted your brain that much, now has it?”

“You’ve been helping them kill dragons? Your own kind? That's a new low, even for you, Hisoka.”

The man, Hisoka, shrugs lightly. His hands, glittering gold tipped claws sharp in the low light, spread wide, uncaring and menacing. “I was looking for a challenge. And besides, if I’m with them, it will be even sweeter when I kill Chrollo.”

Kurapika’s mind goes white. He can't tell if the anger is his or Leorio's but it's theirs no matter what, strong as it reverberates between them.

“What can be worth killing your brothers and sisters?”

The man laughs. The sound is chilling, utterly without conscience. “Brothers and sisters? Other dragons? Please. They’re a challenge. They’re all a challenge. After all, what’s better than fruit fully ripened?”

Fury rips through Kurapika, and he stifles a cry, staggering against Leorio as it tears him apart, from throat to sternum to belly. All deep, rending anger. It grows and swells within Leorio’s tight inhale, with him shifting and breathing out, the air out of his mouth rippling with heat. Kurapika is held up by an arm around his waist. With Leorio pressed against him like that, he can feel the scales ripple over his skin. He can feel the first push of claws. He feels how Leorio struggles to pull the anger back under his control.

“But that's not all there is right now, is there? After all, Uvo was killed by someone very strong, and it certainly wasn't you, Leorio.” And for the first time, Hisoka turns his golden eyes on Kurapika, smiling wider and wider until his face is an unsettling mask of pleasure. “Was it the last Kurta, here?”

Pushing Kurapika just the slightest bit behind him, Leorio bristles angrily. Curls of fire crackle out of his mouth when he speaks, but Kurapika can't look away from Hisoka's bright eyes. “It was me. He should have known better than to come into my territory like that.”

“Tt, Leorio. Someone needs to teach you to lie better. You're a gentle boy. Powerful, but kind. Your magic is centered towards healing and renewal. You couldn't have been... vicious enough, to tear him apart like that. Not someone like Uvo.” Hisoka tilts his head, considering. “This one here, on the other hand...”

Pulling his eyes away from Hisoka's is more effort than he expected, but Kurapika manages before he squares his shoulders and retakes his place beside Leorio, one hand on Leorio's arm. Hopefully, the touch will be enough to stop Leorio from doing something stupid, like attacking Hisoka. The move seems to only amuse Hisoka, however. He begins pacing, stalking the border of the cliff-face with long-legged steps.

“Oh I could just take your golden little prize,” Hisoka purrs, slinking around them like a big cat encircling its prey. “I’d love to having him crowning my collection.”

“He’s not a thing to be taken.”

“Everything is just waiting for its time to be picked.” Hisoka lifts his head as the trees rustle, branches shifting unnaturally in the absence of a breeze. “Especially little mountain demigods who are still ripening.”

“Leorio,” Kurapika starts quietly, but it’s too late.

Leorio’s lips pull back from his teeth, sharp and gleaming and distinctly, inescapably inhuman. His breath comes out in plumes of smoke and steam, curling bits of flame around the vicious points of his fangs and the tense cut of his cheeks. “You won’t lay a single finger on anything that is mine.”

“Oh hush now, will you? Honestly, you should be grateful to me. I came all the way out here first, just to give you a head's up! Now you won't be surprised by the rest of them, now will you?” Hisoka sketches a wide, entirely gratuitous bow. His teeth, in his grin, sharpen, lengthen, as the gleam of scales ripple over his face. His body lengthens, limbs stretching in the faint glow of light that heralds a transformation. “I hope you're ready to play. All of you. Ta, now!”

And with the faint glimmer of laughter lingering in the air, Hisoka's white scales disappear into the forest. He blends almost effortlessly, and try though he might, Kurapika can't track him long.

“Damn,” he mutters.

“Man, we go on a fishing trip for two days and everything just starts to happen, huh?” Killua asks as he and Gon come out of the trees. “What the hell is going on here?”

Gon frowns. “Kurapika, are you hurt?”

Waving him off, Kurapika shakes his head. “I'm fine, now. Leorio fixed me up. And... there's quite a bit happening right now. Let's say that the Phantom Troupe has come here, and we're getting ready to fight them.”

“That's... uh. Wow.”

“Now onto important matters....” Kurapika levels Gon with a look. “Demigod?”

“Oh, yeah! Dad’s wandering around somewhere. Being magical. Doing things. It’s not really a big deal,” Gon finishes with a shrug, poking at the moss growing under his feet.

Kurapika pinches the bridge of his nose. “It’s the kind of thing one mentions to a friend.”

“Eh. It sounds like bragging.”

“That doesn't...” Kurapika sighs. “Alright, just. Since you're both here, help us move this.”

“And then we're going to help you fight, right?” Gon asks, chipper as always now that he knows he's not in immediate trouble. The wind rustles the trees around them, sharp. Birdsong returns slowly, assuaged now that they're sure the danger has passed.

Kurapika grasps Gon by the shoulders, shaking just a little as he does. The boy is so fragile, so slim. He's so young. It's all Kurapika can do to drag breath through his lungs and tell him, “No.”

“Aw, what?”

“No, Gon. You and Killua are going to get to somewhere safe. If you're a demigod, you shouldn't be put in harm's way over something like this.”

Gon's mouth twists. It's like he doesn't even notice the hands on his shoulders, staring up at Kurapika with his feet rooted firmly to the ground. “But it's you and Leorio. You're like family. I'm supposed to help when it's the two of you.”

“Gon,” Killua says. “Argue later. Let's help right now.”

Kurapika and Gon examine each other for a moment before Kurapika relents, releasing Gon and stepping back. “Alright, come on. Over here first. Leorio can-”

When they turn around, Leorio is nowhere to be found.


 

They should have expected the ambush, Leorio reflects.

Of course, you know, they didn't, which is why he's crouched over himself, gritting his teeth through the pain of a fist slammed into his stomach, but whatever, right? Hindsight and all. Kurapika is frantically searching for him, and Leorio can only barely pull together the concentration to press back against him, let him know that he's safe, he's alive, right now anyway. As long as this placid fuck in front of him doesn't get bored and decide that Leorio's spine better serves him outside his body rather than in.

Stalling. He has to stall.

Leorio draws in a large breath. “Okay, so I have to ask. Why dragons?”

Their leader, the man who crawls through Kurapika's nightmares like a determined cockroach, holds up a hand to stall the next blow. The girl, pink haired and slight, huffs, but does as he orders. “Hm?”

“What, do you all have grudges against dragons or something? One of them eat your parents? Destroy your village? Something?” Leorio asks, spitting blood out onto the ground.

The man with a cross on his forehead just blinks slowly. He seems to be giving the question a surprising about of consideration before he smiles, gentle, as one would smile at a confused child. Asshole. Leorio just wants to eat him and be done with it. The man says, “No, dragons are just powerful, and therefore a challenge. And their hordes… Who wouldn’t want that?”

“Damn, see, I was hoping there’d be an actual reason beyond stupid human greed.” Leorio cracks his neck. “I hate it when I'm wrong.”

“Machi,” he orders. “Continue.”

If he could just... get these cuffs off...

“Yes, Chrollo.”

Chrollo, honestly. What kind of stupid fucking name is that? Terrible, is what it is. Something a hatchling would come up with during games of make-believe, only it's carried over into every aspect of their life now. Like Leorio insisting on being called Sir Leorio when he was younger, before he found out exactly how many knights it takes before a dragon gets done idealizing them.

(Six, by the way. Lances work pretty well as toothpicks.)

Still. Not exactly the time to be thinking about it.

“I’m going to enjoy pulling your scales off one by one,” Machi hisses in his face, reeling back for another hit.

It's her magic that keeps him stationary, tied to one place as though with invisible thread. Leorio can hardly even move his arms, and boy, is he trying to move them right now because yikes, honestly, what the fuck. Leorio blanches. “Woah, there. That’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

Before he says anything more, though, there's a sharp rustle in the trees. Machi isn't the only one to look as a deep grumbling begins, the earth itself spliting, and when the dust begins to settle, they all watch with an anticipation that sets Leorio's teeth on edge. And there is Kurapika. Head held high, eyes blazing scarlet. Fury and beauty incarnate, and Leorio has only once been happier to see his rider.

“Get your hands off my dragon,” Kurapika hisses, and for the first time, Chrollo takes his gaze away from Leorio.

Leorio grins and, for just a moment, his mouth has far, far too many sharp teeth. The moment of victory fades all too fast, though, as Chrollo and Kurapika size each other up. Chrollo holds up a hand to stall any move Kurapika might make.

“Calm down, little rider. One move, and your dragon will die.”

Kurapika's eyes flash between Leorio and Machi, red as blood. His hands tighten where they rest, and it's honestly a bit telling that Leorio is surprised when Kurapika doesn't immediately rush forward to attack. That urge, the primal need to fight and kill and avenge is all Leorio can hear from Kurapika, now that they're both done being relieved to see each other again.

Almost absently, Chrollo speaks again, this time to Leorio. “I must admit, I'm surprised to see a dragon with a rider again. It's almost unheard of. Dragonrider? That’s what he told you, isn’t it? I suppose he’s not quite wrong, but he’s not telling you everything either.”

“Knock it off with all of this riddle nonsense,” Leorio snaps, “or I’ll demonstrate the most effective way to gut a human being.”

Picking up from where Chrollo leaves off, Machi crosses her arms. “The Kurta clan are well known for their bonding magic, frequently used on dragons, yes.” Machi leans forward, grinning, blood flecked on her teeth. “Bonding magic. Blood magic.”

There’s a moment of silence.

Leorio snorts. “And?”

“A-and?” Machi stutters, clearly taken aback at Leorio’s nonchalance. “Blood magic is taboo!”

“Yeah, yeah, because it’s dangerous and things get a little iffy when someone’s life essence get involved, blah blah blah. Power-mad humans cause a bunch of problems with nature’s whole sense of balance. But you’re saying that like I don’t already know about their magic. Of course I do.” There we fucking go, Leorio thinks, grim. He flexes, testing the limits of Machi’s slacking hold on him. His wrist is free. Carefully, he makes a fist. A disk of light appears below it, a howling abyss of wind and rage. “Dragons created blood magic, asshole. Who do you think taught the Kurta?”

And then he punches straight through the disk. His fist collides with Machi’s cheek with the loud crack of knuckles against bone.

God, he loves it when shit like this happens.

Of course, it doesn't last long. His burst of movement breaks whatever tense standoff they were all having, and Kurapika and Chrollo disappear with flutters of movement, the sharp rattle of chains the only thing that lingers. Machi straightens, blood dripping from her mouth. She wipes it with the back of her hand, fury blazing in her eyes.

“Don't worry, dear, I'll take this one,” Hisoka says, sauntering forward in the self-assured way he has.

Leorio tenses, readying another shot of the portal beneath his fist. Of course. Of course it wouldn't be easy enough for Hisoka to just sit out while he fights Machi. He should have known the eggsucker was going to make this difficult. He's always been a pain in the ass, no matter how many centuries its been since Leorio's seen him last.

And then Hisoka, grinning, executes a sharp pivot, bringing his heel up straight into Machi's face.

“Shit,” says Leorio, impressed despite himself.

Of course, then he's swarmed by a dark haired girl and what looks to be a mass of bandages vaguely shaped like a human, and he grits his teeth, only barely aware of Gon and Killua getting involved too. They tackle the blonde woman and a guy with a sword, Gon laughing wildly. “Shit.”


 

They fight.

Chrollo presses him for the first moment, materializing fire and weapons with hardly a pause, one hand always on his grimoire. He's the most experienced caster Kurapika's ever had the misfortune of running up against, and, just as in Kurapika's dreams, his expression hardly changes. Just something approaching boredom.

He can do this.

“I'm impressed, little dragonrider. Few manage to hold up even this long. But I'm afraid it's all in vain.”

Kurapika doesn't dignify him with a response.

“After all, your dragon? Oh, little dragonrider,” Chrollo says, soft and uncaring. “He’s already been taken care of by now.”

“The fuck he has,” Kurapika snarls. He knows better. He can feel the thrum of Leorio's heart within his own, but the reminder is just another lance of desperation. Kurapika's vision swims with red.

Chrollo moves, suddenly, impossibly fast. He's positive his eyes are glowing by now, but he can't bring himself to care as he matches Chrollo's moves one by one. Almost too slow, here, almost falling for a feint, there. Chrollo gets through, slamming a knife into the side where Uvo got him before. Kurapika goes flying. The world greys out. Forcing himself to his feet has never been so hard, but.

All he has to do is touch him. Skin to skin.

Just a single touch.

It's not easy.

He presses himself up, just in time to get his swords up, blocking more aggressive attacks from Chrollo. It makes his wound throb, a constant reminder. Kurapika's block goes wide, high, and Chrollo slashes in again. Kurapika isn't fast enough to get back in time, not from the deep cut that now stains his tabard from shoulder to hip, but. But, in the heat of the moment, an opening.

Kurapika's finger brushes the back of Chrollo's hand.

Electricity sizzles through him. Chains shoot out of the ground, snapping around Chrollo's ankles and wrists before he can escape. Red ink spreads like fire, like vines, growing swiftly across the gap between Chrollo and Kurapika, coating their skin from head to toe. Kurapika reaches out, putting his hand on Chrollo's struggling head like a benediction. He shakes, inhales, grates out, “I hope this hurts.”

“What-” Chrollo gets out, before there's a flash of light.

It flares, bright, brighter, then, all at once, condenses with a deafening lack of noise, as though it sucks all the energy out of the air itself. Then, the light fades.

The gem falls to the rocks below with a clatter.

Kurapika is a little disappointed that it didn’t shatter, honestly.

He sinks to his knees, reaching out. He has to grab it. If he takes it, he can make sure it will be destroyed, and Chrollo with it. His fingers touch the floor, his hand, his arm, his shoulder, his side all following. One after the other in an ungainly slide.

Oh.

He can’t feel his fingers.

That’s. Alarming. These side effects shouldn’t be showing up yet.

He reaches out again, fingers barely managing to close over the crystal, though he has to check and double check to make sure that yes, it really is there. That Chrollo is truly in the palm of his hand, ready to be put to death as surely as his family and all of those dragons were. Kurapika smiles. Just a bit. A slight uptick of his lips as vicious satisfaction tears through him. He reaches out to close the door, not wanting Leorio to see-

Where Leorio is supposed to be, there is a blank void.

No.

Kurapika, finding reserves of desperate energy he didn't know he had left, pushes himself up, up, up, damn you, keep those legs moving, because he has to know if Leorio is alright, even with the sick unsteady pulse of grim certainty already pounding at him. The cave isn't far, just a few steps, a bit of climbing from where his trap had been laid. Kurapika staggers up and takes stock.

He doesn't like what he sees.

A blonde woman has Gon and Killua, weapons on each, eyes locked with Hisoka's indolent gaze. Behind her is Leorio's body, sprawled unnaturally, limbs splayed and uncomfortable, and Kurapika can't stop the quiet, wounded noise he makes soon enough. The woman's head snaps up, over, pinpointing him with an uncomfortable amount of accuracy.

“You,” she says, icy.

Moving into the circle of light around them, Kurapika's mouth is drawn tight. “Me.”

“Where's Chrollo? You haven't killed him,” she says, cutting off any ideas Kurapika had about lying to her, “We would have felt it, but he's-”

“Incapacitated,” Kurapika offers without a smile. “For lack of a better term. I sealed him.”

The woman bristles.

“Now, you need to move away from my dragon.”

“We should just kill him,” she hisses.

Kurapika shrugs, hoping beyond hope that it's as unaffected as he's trying to make it. “Then I kill Chrollo. Or, better plan, you move, and I let him live.” For now, anyway, he thinks, but he doesn't dare to even blink.

Her grip on the two boys flexes, relaxes, and her mouth stays in a flat, sharp line. “Then I'll kill one of the two of them, instead,” she says silkily. 'After all, they're like family, aren't they, little Kurta?” Her knife digs in just a little deeper on Killua's neck, and he shows a remarkable lack of distress at the feeling, bright red slinking down the knife's edge, down Killua's pale throat.

Something slams into the ground beside her, just barely missing her skull, and Kurapika wishes he was less impressed with how composed she remains, hardly blinking, even with the thin line of blood that appears on her cheek. He chances a look down only when she does to see a single, gold-headed pin, about six inches long, buried in the dirt.

“Unhand my brother,” a lyrical voice says.

Looking up, Hisoka grins, wide, foot still braced on Machi's throat. “Illumi, marvelous timing as always. Couldn't you have hurried up just a tad and dealt with one of the others first?”

“You had it well enough controlled until you let my Killua get hurt.”

Hisoka sighs. “Oh Illumi. Single-minded as always.”

“Think fast, dragonrider. I have all the time in the world to wait, but your Dragon's blood is getting thinner all the time.”

Kurapika ignores them. He has to. There has to be something else, besides the battered body laying there. This close, he can feel the tremor of a pulse that isn't his in his blood. There has to be some way he can help. Some way someone can help. Desperate, he looks at Gon, who only shakes his head, heedless of the weapon leveled at him, lips bloodless, face wan.

“There’s nothing I can do,” Gon says, voice choked. “I can’t heal him. Not like this. He’s the one with healing magic.”

Kurapika looks at the gem in his hand. If he takes the time to destroy this, properly... Leorio's heartbeat stutters once, and Kurapika sighs, pushes up his sleeves. “Move aside,” he says, rough.

“Give us Chrollo and I’ll move,” the woman says. Kurapika looks at her, tired, teeth clenched tight. Then, he holds up the gem pointedly before tossing it out on the mountainside. There’s a clink, the faint sound repeated as the gem falls down several ravines, before there’s silence.

He grins, teeth showing. “Have fun finding that. Don’t worry, he's all in one piece. Magic won’t let him break. Though you're going to have a time getting him out again.”

“I ought to-” she begins, jerking forward, but a hand on her arm staves her off. The man beside her, mouth set in an unforgiving line, shakes his head, silently motioning her away, and, miraculously, she goes.

Kurapika just wishes he could kill them as the Phantom Troupe, bloodied and weary, file away from Leorio's prone body. After letting Machi up, Hisoka remains, hovering a middling distance away, and Kurapika can't even bring himself to care.

“Oh,” Kurapika says as they begin their descent, almost absent, “I wouldn't get any ideas about killing me, either. The magic is set to lock him in there forever if I'm not alive. So, you know, be careful about what you're planning.”

The vitriol filled looks he gets for that almost, almost make it worth it. Almost. But now that he's here, now that their footsteps are fading into the quiet background noise of the forest, he feels none of the triumph he was expecting. Just … emptiness.

Only once they all disappear does Kurapika cross to Leorio and kneel.

Luckily for both of them, he’s already bleeding. Hopefully, this won’t take too much more. He hasn’t been keep as close track of himself as he should have been, and he’s going to end up regretting it if everything he spent for Chrollo leaves him unable to help Leorio. Absently, he asks, “Gon, can you bring me a plant? Something small, like one of those flowers he loves so much.” He doesn’t even wait for Gon’s footsteps to fade before he asks Killua, “Bring me those candles sitting in my room, please? I’ll need another source of heat to make this work.”

“This is stupid, you know that, right?”

“Blood magic always is, Killua, and I’ve only rarely been accused of intelligence.”

Luckily, Killua doesn’t try to talk him out of it, leaving Kurapika to begin drawing symbols on the ground with blood, trailing them up both his and Leorio’s arms to their chests, circling both their hearts. Leorio’s breathing is shallow, worryingly so, and Kurapika’s jaw hurts from how tightly it’s clenched.

“Don’t you give up on me now, you stubborn bastard. One fight and you’re like this? Pathetic,” he mutters.

A soft laugh. “Don’t ever be a nurse, Kurapika. You have terrible bedside manner. Besides, you can’t say anything different.”

“I can say differently,” Kurapika says. He doesn’t know how much of his relief is leaking through at the sight of one of Leorio’s eyes open, focused up at him. “My fight was much harder, and you had backup.”

“Hey now.”

“Don’t you hey now me. It’s true and you know it.” Carefully, Kurapika lifts Leorio’s head into his lap. Leorio tries to help, as much as he’s able, even when he earns himself a slap on his uninjured shoulder for his trouble.

“What’re you doing?”

He almost lies. It would be easy, and the excuses are right there at the tip of his tongue, but Kurapika lets the urge subside. Leorio deserves more than that. Especially if this doesn’t work. Finally, he says, “Just some temperature regulation.”

Leorio squints. He’s tired, very tired, but he’s fighting it, prodding determinedly at Kurapika’s mind. “And?”

“And some blood regulation, unless you’d like to die here alone.”

“Dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Risky.”

“I know. And I’m doing it anyway. You’re in no position to tell me no.”

“I am in every position to tell you no, thank you very much.” A shadow of a grin crosses Leorio’s face. “After all, I’m not the one who mistook a rider bond. Are you really sure you should be trying this?”

Kurapika lets out a choked laugh. He tries to respond in kind, but when he opens his mouth, he’s just shaking too hard, lips trembling, vocal chords unsteady. If he tries to talk now, the tears that are suddenly threatening will overflow, he just knows it. So he bows his head over Leorio’s. Clenches his teeth. Shakes his head.

Leorio looks like he's about to say something, but a wave of pain passes over him. Kurapika rides it with him, trying his best to bolster him.

<Come on, Leorio, hang on,> he pleads.

Leorio says nothing.

“Here, the flower,” Gon says, pressing it into Kurapika's hands. He sounds like he's speaking from the other side of a glass door, distant and warped through the filter of Kurapika's panic. “And Killua has the candles you asked for too.”

“Thank you, Gon.” With deliberate motions, Kurapika sets them in a circle around him. He places the flower, carefully preserved with the soil still clinging to its roots, on the center of Leorio's chest. It will work. He'll make sure of it, one way or another.

Absently, he asks, “Killua, light the candles for me?”

Light flickers around him. He breathes in, focusing on the scent of camphor and wood, so intrinsically Leorio that, even now, some part of him relaxes.

He breathes in.

And quietly, Kurapika begins to speak in a language no one has heard in years.

The room fills with a deep red glow. It spreads from the candles to the lines of blood surrounding Kurapika, throwing the room into sharp relief. Shadows deepen, and all the while, Kurapika focuses on pushing the light down the dark lines towards Leorio. From his heart to his Dragon's. Pain arcs like lightning across his entire body, his racing heart thundering in his veins, inescapable and terrible. He is too hot and too cold all at once, in agony no matter which way he turns as he feels his flesh knit together, as he draws the fire around him deep into his core and pushes it towards Leorio's flickering light. He can't die here. Kurapika won't let someone else suffer for his mistakes. Not anymore.

And then, like breaking the surface of water, it is done.


 

Kurapika sits back on his heels, vision swimming with black spots and discolorations. His clothes are soaked, in either blood or sweat, and his chest heaves for breath, but it is done. Carefully, he presses his fists into his knees, bracing himself as he leans forward and checks Leorio, his pulse, his breath, his mind, too quiet at the back of Kurapika's. Nothing, time and again, nothing. Kurapika can't even feel the now-comforting thud of his Dragon's heartbeat alongside his own.

Shaking, Kurapika sits back.

He closes his eyes. Stifles his next breath, which comes out as a caught sob despite his best efforts. He has nothing left in him to give. Chin to chest, he can't bring himself to move even his hands away from the sides of Leorio's face.

He croaks, “Leorio...”

Nothing happens. He wishes for something to change, for the sound of his voice to miraculously stir Leorio, but that is too much to ask. Of course he couldn't be left with something, someone good. Not after everything he's done.

Still.

Kurapika bows his head. Lowering it, he presses his nose alongside Leorio's, his lips brushing Leorio's forehead. Quietly, he begs, “Please wake up. I didn’t have any other choice. Please, Leorio, you can’t just leave me here.”

Thud-thump.

“Hey now, that’s some pretty arm-twisting stuff to say.”

Kurapika jolts up.

Green eyes hazy but alert, Leorio watches him. A smile curves the corners of his mouth. Roughly, he says, “Hey.”

“Hi,” Kurapika whispers, before he ducks down again, pressing his face tightly against Leorio's, ignoring the burning of his eyes and the gasping of his breath as relief swamps him, leaving him speechless in its wake. He's alive. Leorio's alive, his heart alongside Kurapika's once again, his mind prodding insistently at Kurapika's in the aggravatingly persistent way Leorio has.

<Hey now, come on, don't cry, dearheart.> Leorio nuzzles his cheek, his stubble scratching slightly. <I'm alright.>

Kurapika shakes his head. Alright? He's hardly alright. Now that Kurapika can focus past the joy of Leorio being alive, he can take better stock of their injuries and what he's finding isn't good. He knows that Leorio might be healed enough to be conscious, but what Kurapika did was mostly a patch job. It would have been better if he hadn't been injured himself, but. Kurapika can't bring himself to speak. Clumsily, he presses his mind to Leorio's. <You almost weren't.>

<Yeah, well, we're even now, right? Let's just promise to avoid this shit again.>

<You know I can't do that.>

<Then it sounds like you're not doing it alone anymore. You're mine, remember, Kurapika?> One of Leorio's fingers traces his cheek, clawed and gentle. <Wherever you go, I go too.>

<Sap,> Kurapika admonishes. Leorio gives him a knowing look, clearly feeling the warm glow of pleasure Kurapika can't bring himself to squash.

“How touching.”

Right. Other people are here, watching Kurapika with his face against Leorio's. Carefully, he leans back, and meets the impassive eyes of the tall man who interrupted the fight earlier. Kurapika knows Hisoka said a name, but he can't think of it right now, dizzy as he is. He's standing nearer to Killua than he is anyone else, and once Kurapika is upright, he seems to brush them off entirely, shifting his gaze to Killua.

“Are we done here?” Hisoka asks lightly.

Leorio snorts. “Honestly, clown, I'm surprised you stuck around this long. You can go fuck off any time you feel like it as far as I'm concerned.”

“I was waiting, very politely, for Illumi to finish his business. A dragon can't just wander off without their rider, you know.”

“You could have left any time you felt like it, Hisoka. I wouldn't have minded,” the slender man with the musical voice says, and Kurapika scowls at him.

“You’re no rider,” Kurapika says, accusingly, as though it makes a difference to anyone but him and his clan’s traditions.

Turning to look at him again, the tall man only blinks placidly at him before tilting his head with a long fall of hair. His voice lilts and falls through his words like the rise and tumblr of a steam, lyrical and unnerving paired with his emotionless face. “I am exactly what I need to be. I am a ritualist. So no, I am not a dragon rider. Hisoka is completely worthless as a dragon, as it stands, so I don’t see the point.”

Behind him, Hisoka mimes clutching at his heart. “So cruel, Illumi.”

Ah, that's what his name is.

Illumi ignores him completely, choosing instead to examine Killua. If he sees how badly Killua's hands are shaking, he says nothing. Kurapika wishes he could tell what Illumi is thinking, but his expression remains simply serene. “You really should come home, Killu.”

“Not gonna happen.”

With the air of a long argument that he has yet to win, Illumi sighs. “Hm. Mother will be so disappointed to hear that. But you'll tire of playing out in the woods eventually. When you do, make sure to come back home to your real family, alright? We miss you.”

Killua's mouth twists sharply to the side. “Sure. I'll keep it in mind.”

“Then we're done here. Come along, Hisoka. You can play later.”

“Aw, how boring.” Hisoka sighs. “At least let me play a little?”

“No.” Illumi tilts his head, expression impassive as he takes in Killua again. For a long moment, nothing happens. The two brothers merely observe each other before Illumi's chin lowers slightly. . He turns on his heel. “My job here is done.”

They leave without another word.


 

Kamakura and its mountain fade into the distance behind him as he walks, pack shouldered high. Kurapika keeps his eyes firmly fixed on the road ahead. The sun is bright and warm as it rises, and he can already feel the trickle of sweat down his back. It's the only warmth he has, as the mountain air whips cold around him, but he can't bring himself to stop. Or look back. He has to leave.

Kurapika's eyes prick as he moves through the gradually less familiar forest.

He pretends it's just because of the wind.

Thud-thump.

Kurapika's head jerks up.

No.

<Go away, Leorio.>

Expectedly contrary, Leorio doesn't seem to listen. He circles overhead, a large shadow, before making for a clearing shortly ahead of Kurapika, who rushes over, heart pounding, irate. Leorio lands, quaking the very ground beneath Kurapika's feet.

<Where in the world do you think you're going?>

Right. Kurapika squares his shoulders. “What I've come here for is done. I can't stay here anymore. I won't just be a sitting duck waiting for them to come back, so I'm leaving.”

Leorio snorts, the breath ruffling Kurapika's clothes. He should have known, and he did, honestly, that Leorio's disappointment would be suffocating, but he has to push through. He has to. It's for his own good. If Kurapika disappears, it won't be as easy for the Phantom Troupe to find Leorio again. After all, they only found him in the first place because of Kurapika.

“Don't be stubborn, Kurapika,” Leorio says. “They'll find me regardless of whether or not you're with me. Better for you to stick around to keep me safe, right?”

Kurapika shakes his head, teeth gnawing on his lip until he tastes copper. “No, no, I-. They have to have me if they want Chrollo to be free again. Without complications, anyway. And you can't leave here. What about Gon? He needs you to keep his mountain safe.”

“Gon's strong. He can handle himself here with Killua. Besides, he's getting ready to travel.”

Kurapika blinks. “He can leave?”

“You thought he couldn't?” Leorio shrugs his shoulders, form shifting from dragon to human. He shoves his dark-clawed hands into his pockets and levels Kurapika a look over his teashade glasses. “Gon can go anywhere he wants to. He just picked this mountain because he likes it here, but if neither of us is going to stick around, he said he doesn't want to. He and Killua are going to explore. Maybe find Killua's family and figure out what's all going on there.”

“Aside from the fact that they're a bunch of crazy ritualists?” Kurapika can't help asking.

Leorio snorts. “You use blood magic. You can't judge anyone else for being crazy.”

Kurapika shrugs one shoulder, looking away.

“Kurapika,” Leorio says seriously, a gentle touch to his chin tilting his face up. He’s very close, Kurapika notices. And his eyes, slit-pupiled and searching, are very green. “I’m going to kiss you. Don’t do anything drastic.”

“I wouldn’t-” Kurapika begins to protest, but before he finishes, Leorio’s lips are there, against his.

Soft gentle passes of their mouths. Barely touching more than a few seconds at a time, Kurapika lets Leorio coax him open in gentle, gentle motions. Kurapika reaches up, hand sliding to the back of Leorio’s neck, curling in the soft hairs he finds there, and tilts himself a bit forward, a bit up, a bit closer.

“See, now, that wasn't so bad, to just react like a typical person, instead of one obsessively bent on revenge, right? See? This is what it looks like when your priorities are in – Mmph!!”

Kurapika grabs Leorio by the lapels of his stupid suit and kisses him right on his stupid, loud, overactive, lovely mouth. “If you don't quit talking, right now, you'll never, ever, get to kiss me ever again. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yeah, with the sheer number of “ever”s in there, I think I got the message.”

“I don't know, sometimes you can be very dense.”

Leorio snorts. “Let's stop fiddling around. Come on, let's get out of here. Remember: Where we go, we go together.”

“Alright, which book did you steal that one from?” Kurapika asks, but his face is hot.

Leorio looks at him knowingly then shakes it off, taking his skin with it as scales ripple across him in place of human skin. Leorio blinks a large, green eye at Kurapika. Settles to the ground and extends one leg. “Hop on. We have a long way to go.”

And Kurapika, hesitant, does.

It's odd, being on the back of a dragon. Like a horse, but taller, harder, and Kurapika grips the small ridges in Leorio's scales with nervous fingers, his thighs clenching around Leorio's neck as Leorio tells him to hang on, flapping his great wings. Once, twice, a sudden surge of motion and a moment when Kurapika thinks he's going to lose whatever meager meal he's had today, and then-

<Kurapika, look.>

Slowly, he opens his eyes.

The forest below them is like an ocean, rippling and waving with the wind. It's beautiful, watching the earth fall away from him. His hair is whipped from his face as Leorio flies, and for once, Kurapika feels a deep part of him relax. He clenches his hands on some of Leorio's scales.

<Are you okay?”>

<Yes.> Kurapika lets out a breath, a smile turning the corners of his mouth. He's traveling, but not alone. <I'm just fine, Leorio.>

Together.

It doesn't sound so bad after all.