No one knew why the Fae slammed the doors on Underhill. No warning came before they were sealed shut, trapping the creatures from human myth forever in the mundane human world.
When the mythfolk realised what had happened there was panic, because it was impossible. They'd never survive. Without Underhill, without their home, to retreat to, to escape to... Underhill was the reason they'd managed to stay nothing but human legend and human myth; none of them could live wholly in the mundane human world and not eventually be caught.
In the aftermath of the disaster, in their desperation to find a way to survive, factions were ignored, old hurts and grudges forgotten, ancient rivalries set aside.
In the end it was Stark the Elder who saved them. Stark who was better known as Stark the crazy, Stark the strange, Stark the odd. Stark who no one had ever taken seriously because he was too obsessed with human invention, with human ingenuity, with all the pitiable products humans created out of their mundane necessity.
But mythfolk needed a way to hide in plain sight; the mundane world was now their only world, no convenient Underhill to duck into if they skirted too close to exposure, and Stark found the way. He took his knowledge and his strange magic, twisted it with science and a barely-born power called electricity, and created charms to hide mythfolk from mundane human sight, to make their eyes skate over anything which, by mundane human standards, couldn't be.
With Stark's charms and the ability to shape themselves into human form they eased into human society.
Stark the Elder never stopped searching for a way to punch through the barrier between worlds and find the way home. He never succeeded, but his ever more erratic experimentations did open a door. He found the way to the lower planes and suddenly the higher demons—incubi and succubi, yaogui and daeva—were free to walk the mundane world at will.
Luckily for the world they were intelligent, rational. They helped Stark bar the door against the mindless lower demons who, drawn from the substance of the lower planes itself, were a potential endless horde. In exchange they were given charms of their own and the mythfolk's numbers swelled.
As they grew more comfortable hurts and grudges were remembered. Ancient rivalries were recalled. Old factions reformed and new ones were born, springing from shared species and shared gods and shared resentments. Mythfolk postured and threatened and struggled for what scraps of power they could find.
But quietly, very quietly.
Stark's charms were potent but even they couldn't hide all-out war.
By the time Buchanan hatched, mythfolk were living side-by-secret-side with humans, nestled in like a guest they didn't know was there and couldn't ask to leave. Their secrecy was preserved by the charms of Stark the Younger, successor to his father, who matched the ever increasing sophistication of humans with evermore sophisticated charms.
It was preserved, too, by the shared iron commitment to one rule: do not expose us.
It was a rule Buchanan was in no danger of breaking when he tumbled, weak and panting, legs and wings akimbo, to sprawl like a flat black shadow on shattered egg shell and glass-smooth rocks.
His clutch hatched high atop a mountain Aerie, sheltered from the elements not by a mother's wing or a father's body but by high walls and a sturdy roof. Dragons came together to create a new generation, sometimes as loving mates and sometimes by formal arrangement, but the clutch was tended and raised by others.
Dragons were the least affected when the doors to Underhill slammed shut. Before, they'd lived high in their mountain Aeries, apart from other mythfolk. After, they lived high in mountain Aeries in the mundane world, apart from other mythfolk—except for the svartálfar, the metalsmithing dwarves who dwelled in the caves beneath their Aeries. The svartálfar traded the right to live there for their skill as craftsmen, their services as liaisons to the world, and their silence on the matter of dragons. It was a symbiotic relationship of sorts (although if you asked the svartálfar on a bad day they were more likely to mutter about parasites).
Dragons kept to themselves.
Dragons did not leave their mountains.
Even to other mythfolk, dragons were practically legend.
Buchanan was too young to understand any of that. But from the moment he pulled himself up, blunt-headed and wobbly, limp wings trailing behind him, he was desperately curious. As he grew he drove his clutch-watcher to distraction, poking his sharp nose and stubby wings into every nook and cranny, every room and forbidden place, he could find.
And there were a lot to find.
The Aerie was a place of great caves, carved from living stone, rock worn smooth by scales and claws. But dragons liked comfort in both their forms, and so houses clung like lovers to the mountains' curves, crafted from stone and metal and smooth wood, filled with luxuries bargained for by the svartálfar and paid for with much-begrudged dragon gold.
Buchanan was determined to explore every inch.
He was seven, barely old enough to flap short distances on his own, when the red dragon arrived. The dragons in Buchanan's Aerie were all blue or black or deep green—Buchanan was coal black, streaked with silver at claw and wing—and he greeted her arrival with unmitigated glee.
Natasha, which was the red dragon's name, seemed amused by her tiny shadow. She announced that Buchanan was a ridiculous name for a dragon so small and promptly christened him Bucky.
Bucky loved her instantly.
As he grew she taught him and trained him. All dragons learned to fight on the wing, with flame and claw, and on two feet, with sword and knife, but Natasha wasn't satisfied with what he was learning.
She taught him more. She taught him to be better.
Taught him to fight with both his bodies. Taught him to fight with tricks and with his mind and ruthlessly. Taught him to use human guns, which shocked every dragon in the Aerie because mythfolk didn't use guns and dragons especially didn't resort to fighting with something so very human.
The dragons' separation was born primarily of arrogance and an innate confidence in their own superiority—over other mythfolk but particularly over humans. Despite that, Bucky knew about humans and their lives. However much dragons might disdain humans they lived in comfort using increasingly sophisticated human inventions, relying on increasingly sophisticated Stark charms to keep their Aerie and its comforts hidden from human eyes.
But Natasha had lived among them. She told him of faraway places, of life in the cities, of what it was like to live shoulder to shoulder with mundane humans and with other mythfolk, the very people dragons were supposed to disdain.
Bucky never mastered that particular lesson—it never quite managed to stick in the face of Natasha's training and Natasha's stories.
He snuck into the caves of the svartálfar and befriended the smiths, who grew fond of a dragon who would pitch his flame just so when they were working with a tricky bit of metal, who would listen for hours to their tales, who would curl up around their forges and doze.
He flew far and wide away from the Aerie, watching the world from high above. He was careful, carrying Stark's charms to shield himself from mundane humans and their electronic eyes, from their radar and satellites. Even being seen by other mythfolk would be questionable—it having been made clear to him that dragons preferred to keep their existence the stuff of rumour and legend—but for that he'd have to rely on caution and skill.
Dragons did not come down from their mountains.
Except Natasha had. Natasha had been living in the wide world before she'd arrived in Bucky's Aerie, even if she'd been doing it on two legs, had been living a life of adventure, had met an incredible array of people.
Bucky wanted that.
What he didn't want, he realised far too late, was to inadvertently veer into the territory of a hydra.
As its many heads lifted above the ocean, roaring in anger and lashing out at him, he backwinged desperately, flamed a warning, but even with all Natasha's training he knew it wasn't going to be enough.
Sarah Rogers was three months pregnant when she knew something was wrong. She was a healer, she could feel it, feel the wrongness in the tiny body taking shape inside her. Knew her son might not make it to term. But she was a healer and she'd already lost her husband. She'd be damned if she'd lose their child, too.
It was touch and go, her power wobbling as it sometimes refused to distinguish between herself and her child, the wrongness in her child's body echoing through hers. It wasn't pain, not quite, but she wouldn't have cared if it had been—that was how a healer knew what to heal, knew how to mend what was broken, and this was her son.
The fisher clan, made up of selkies and kelpies and merfolk, who'd offered her a place when her husband died, rallied around her. Healers were prized, especially when your clan went after hydra and kraken, and her gift meant she straddled the line between mundane and mythfolk—after all, somewhere in every gifted human was a splash of mythfolk blood.
Sarah knew they were helping her for her own sake, not just because she was their valuable healer, but in the end she also knew it was up to her.
She did everything she could, gave him everything she had, and it was enough to see him born: weak and sickly, but alive. Still shaky from labour she cradled him close and poured power into him, grit her teeth against the echo of his hurts, of his body's flaws she could feel like they were her own.
And under it all felt the murmur of a warm green gift that matched her own.
Her son was a healer. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. The gift was middling rare, wasn't usually passed down through family lines, and she couldn't help but wonder if he'd always have been one or if she'd made him into this, washing him in her power while he was still in the womb.
Then he looked up at her out of bright blue eyes and saw her and nothing else mattered.
Steven Rogers never grew as tall or as big as the other human children, certainly never reached the size of the mythfolk children, but he didn't let it slow him down. In their small coastal city he was the only human child with a gift, but he knew to keep quiet when he was with mundanes. Knew to keep the secret.
When Steve was nine he got into his first fight, defending a selkie girl against a couple of shifter kids who'd been taunting her about her sealskin, trotting out the old horror story of The Selkie Bride. He'd bloodied their noses before they put him down, but he was grinning around his split lip and bruised ribs when he finally made it home. "She was scared, ma. It's not just a story to her." Sarah didn't say a word, just healed him around a wince and a disapproving frown.
It wasn't the last fight he got into, not by a long shot. Sarah learned to deal with it. "You're a healer," she said to him one day when he'd come home limping, his jacket torn, one eye black. "You're not supposed to hurt people."
His look of devastation, of betrayed anguish, nearly broke her heart. "I'm not trying to hurt people, ma. I'm trying to stop people doin' that. Sometimes that means you've gotta make 'em."
"Oh, Steven." She'd hugged him tight. "I love you." Eventually he'd wriggled away, childish dignity not able to tolerate her embrace for too long, but he was grinning.
When Steve was nineteen Sarah went out with the boats as she sometimes did when the clan were hunting kraken, their parts of great value to magic-using mythfolk.
They never came back.
As Steve aged the pain lessened but it never truly left him. Some pain never does, but he knew, he always knew, that he'd been loved.
Many years later, Steve was walking deep in the forest that stretched to the sea, following his instincts and his nose and the pull of his gift.
When it was over, when there was time to think, he'd wonder how he didn't see it. How he'd missed the giant black bulk curled in the clearing between the trees, head down, eyes squeezed shut, sides heaving.
What he noticed was the silence.
The missing birdsong, the strange stillness.
The coppery smell of blood.
Maybe all of that was why he didn't see it.
He wasn't prepared for the deep rumble, like the earth itself was angry at him. When his eyes landed on the dull black, the streaks of silver, the spattered red, his brain couldn't make sense of it, colours and shapes without context.
Then there was no time. It was rising over him, wings half unfurled, teeth gleaming.
Steve stumbled backwards, but there was nowhere to go, nowhere to run, no point in running. His back hit the dirt. Hot breath rolled over him, smelling of smoke and fire, and the red-gold eyes were flickering, gleaming, the tip of the dragon's nose—dragon dragon dragon, his mind chanted, dragon—not quite touching his chest.
Steve was surprised at how calm he felt. It was hard to be afraid, the same way it was hard to be afraid of a storm, of lightning. They were forces of nature, too big to really grasp, and the dragon's teeth were the length of his forearm.
Teeth didn't bite him, claws didn't shred. The dragon shuddered and twitched and seemed to fold in on itself. It collapsed. Not on Steve. It heaved as it fell and its head, the long length of its neck, hit the ground next to him.
A new wave of coppery blood scent filled the air and Steve suddenly understood why the smell was so strong. What remained of the dragon's left foreleg was a mangled, torn mess. "That," he said, eyes fixed on the shattered bone, "that doesn’t look good."
There was a snort and a cresting wave of smoke. Steve didn't know much about dragons, no one knew much about dragons, only legends and stories and maybe they weren't even around anymore.
Except here one was and Steve was pretty sure it had just said the dragon equivalent of, "No shit."
"Can I— I can help you." He gulped, cold all over at the thought, but there wasn't a choice. "I'm a healer. The biggest thing I've ever worked on is a horse, not that I'm comparing you to a horse," he added quickly, "but I'll try if you let me." The more he studied the dragon, the long, elegant face, as long as Steve was tall, the wide bottom jaw, jutting forward a little, giving the dragon a weirdly familiar stubborn look, the more pain he could see. "Please."
The dragon finally nodded and Steve scrambled to his feet. He crouched in front of the mangled foreleg, studying it. There was almost nothing left below the shoulder. "I'm going to touch you." Waiting for a response and not getting any, he reached out, hesitating before making contact.
This was going to hurt.
Understatement of the century there, Steve. Breathing deep, he pressed his hands against the dragon's shoulder and carefully reeled out his power.
The dragon's pain punched him between the eyes like a hammer, burnt through him, he could feel it, feel it like it was his arm that had been torn away, ripped, shattered. He started panting, the world swam around him, and he clenched his eyes closed and hung on, dug deep. The dragon was too big, his pain too much, but Steve would be damned if he'd let it beat him. He clenched his hands—two hands, he had two hands—felt scales digging under his fingernails and used that to focus.
Not his leg gone. The dragon's. Not his pain. The dragon's. Ride it don't let it ride you. Don't set it free or it goes back to the dragon.
Gradually, he brought it under control; rose to the surface, floating on top of the pain. It was still there, beating in his awareness like a second heart, but he could think around it. Work around it. Think past the agony even as his body screamed at him.
There was so much damage, like something had grabbed the dragon's leg and twisted it around and around then pulled, ripping bone, tearing muscles, snapping tendons.
Steve could heal this but he couldn't save what was left of the leg. He gathered up the pain, holding it, and carefully slid out of the dragon's body.
To stagger, knees wobbly, and be caught by the dragon's head. His arm was draped over the long length between the dragon's eyes and his nose, those eyes looking up at him in shocked relief. Steve quickly caught his balance and straightened, left arm throbbing with echoed pain, left hand flat against the dragon's shoulder. "Feels better?"
The dragon nodded.
"I can do that, at least." The dragon looked at him in question. "I can heal you, but the bits of your leg that are left, I can't save them. There's not going to be anything below the shoulder when I'm done."
The dragon looked at his leg, at the mess of bone and tendon, the blood, then gently touched Steve with its nose. Steve wasn't sure, but he thought there was something a little sardonic in the set of its head, something a little better than what I've got now in its eyes.
"Okay then." This was what Steve did. He healed people. All kinds of people. Whoever needed it. Apparently that now included dragons. "Okay," he said again and pressed his other palm against the dragon's shoulder, took a deep centering breath, and sent his powers flowing into the dragon's body.
It was hard with that much damage to stop himself from pouring everything in like a rushing river, wild and uncontrolled, knowing that the faster he healed the damage the faster he could let go of the pain, but he reined them in, forced them to trickle slowly. He cut off blood flow to the bits of leg that couldn’t be saved, accelerated their death, felt them dry up and drop away, leaving a clean, smooth expanse of scaled skin.
He was starting to fade, pouring so much power into the dragon, but he was almost there, almost done, the pain was almost gone. He planted one last spark, a seed of healing to grow over time and ensure the dragon's health, and let go.
Felt himself drop back into his body, felt waves of exhaustion spread over him and through him and drown him, and slid down the dragon to hit the ground.
* * *
Steve woke to a pitch black sky. The moon was gone, the stars gone, and he gasped, struggling to sit up. The sky moved, replaced by a red-gold eye, and he realised it had been the dragon's wing. The dragon was curled around him and its wing had been folded over him.
The dragon nudged him and Steve definitely thought there was concern there. "I'm okay," he said, and realised he might be overstating things slightly. "You're just kind of big. Took a lot of energy." The dragon snorted softly, smoke curling into the air. Steve felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "I know, stating the obvious. How are you feeling?"
Poking its empty shoulder, the dragon tilted its head back and forth, then nodded.
"Good. You should be fine. You'll be fine." Steve paused. "You will be fine, won't you? With only one front leg?"
The dragon nodded and blew a long warm breath over Steve. It smelt of campfires and woodstoves and comfort. Hesitantly, he raised one hand and slowly, tentatively, settled it on the dragon's nose. When the dragon didn't object, held still under his touch, he rubbed his thumb gently over the scales. They were smooth, almost soft, and the dragon's eyes slipped shut. "You should leave," he said quietly. "Pretty sure no one knows you're here, we'd already have company if they did, but someone will find you if you stay."
The dragon sighed and lifted its head, kept lifting it, sat back on its haunches, tail curling around its claws.
Steve clambered to his feet. "Are all dragons like you?"
The dragon tilted its head, gaze locked with Steve's, then shook it once. It spread its wings and Steve backed away, kept backing, and the dragon beat its wings, building up momentum, then crouched low and shot up into the sky.
Steve kept watching until long after it was out of sight.
It didn't really hit him until the middle of the night. Steve sat straight up in bed from a deep sleep, eyes wide, one hand clutching the blankets. "I met a dragon," he whispered. "I healed a dragon."
He never told anyone. In the first place, he wasn't sure anyone would believe him—some days, he barely believed it and it had happened to him.
And in the second place...the dragon was his.
A memory he could cherish. Something just for him.
It was his dragon.