The day of the choosing is the most important day in the life of any inspiring rider. Your future will be decided in a matter of second and only those who are worthy enough to be chosen will be given the blessing to become riders.
Childs from the age of six to twelve are brought every year to the nests, up in the mountains, where the dragons lay their eggs. It is said that the earlier a child bonds with a dragon, the stronger their connection will be.
If the dragon and the rider grow together as a pair, then it will only mean great prosperity to the pair. There aren't many cases of kids being chosen when they are only six, but every time it happens there is a party in the village.
Shiro doesn't get chosen at six or at seven. He's fine with it, he doesn't really care about being a powerful rider. What he wants, what he most desirers in his heart, is to fly.
Whatever dragon will choose him, if a dragon ever does, Shiro will treat him with respect because he knows the gift that it has been bestowed upon him. The possibility of exploring the roaring skies, to feel the wind in his air whenever he wants.
Shiro is eight today, and the entire village is in uproar. Apparently one of the strongest dragons of the hoard has mated for the first time in years. Shiro isn't really interested.
He hears that it was the dragon of one of the legendary paladins of the past, but while the idea is incredible, Shiro only cares about earing the voice of his fated partner.
it might not happen, his grandfather had reminded him, with a gentle but sad smile, but Shiro felt it in his bones. There was something calling him and he recognized when someone was screaming his name.
The tour of the nesting grounds is a long tedious process, where every one of the kids is slowly dragged in front of every single egg, hoping that one will react to the kids. If it doesn't, the egg is left there to be taken care by the parents.
Shiro doesn't want to wait. He makes sure that the teacher is distracted before sneaking out of the group, running as fast as he can towards the voice that keeps calling his name. It's a strong voice, deep and self-assured, and it promises him everything he ever wanted.
He stops dead when his feet bring him to the nest of a magnificent black dragon he had never seen before. It looks old, older than most, and its wings show many scars of battle. The dragon looks imposing, looking at him with yellow eyes. If the dragon wanted, it could kill Shiro in an instant, with just a claw.
Instead, the beast studies him.
It's searching for something, but Shiro isn't sure what, and for a second he worries that maybe, in his haste to finally reach what was so intensely wishing for him to come, he had stumbled upon something he wasn't allowed to see. An area of the nesting ground where riders were never supposed to enter.
Shiro takes a step back, scared, when he hears it again. It's not just a voice, it's something deeper than that, like a part of his soul is reaching forward desperately.
The dragon looks at him and then bows, shifting to the side. It's there that Shiro sees it, the egg laying on the dragon's side. It is, as the scale of the mother, completely black and it looks to be bigger than the ones he had seen before.
And Shiro knows, with finality, that the egg is his.
He steps forward, hesitating only a second before he extends his hand and touches the dragon's body. It's cold body is rough to the touch, but power vibrates under its skin. "I'll take good care of your child," he promises, with as much seriousness as a eight year old can muster, "I will never let anything happen to them."
The dragon seems surprised for a second before Shiro hears a slight chuckle. He knows that only their rider can hear a dragon's voice, but still he knows what that dragon is thinking and he feels honored to receive her approval.
Shiro goes to the egg next, picking it up. It's warmer than the dragon's skin had been, and he holds it as close to his chest as he can.
"I will take care of you," he promises again, with a little smile. And the feeling of contentment he feels through their bond makes him relax immediately. If they are together, he thinks, nothing bad can ever happen.
They find him almost an hour later, sitting down on the nest, with the dragon grooming him like she would her child.
When they tell him that he's going to be the rider of the daughter of the most powerful dragon in existence he still doesn't really care. He thinks both his dragon and her mother like that.
Black breaks out of the egg shell a week later. Shiro had been sneaking out to the nest a lot, and while most of the dragons stayed there to nurture the child that were not bonded, Shiro doesn't know why Black's mom is still there, but he's glad she is.
Black seems bigger than any of the other whelps, and she seems to be stronger too. Her mother is much bigger than any other dragon Shiro has ever seen, so it seems to fit really.
He brings Black to meet her mother immediately, and they look into each other eyes for a long time. Shiro doesn't know what they tell each other, can only hear vague sensations from Black, but the next day the older dragon is gone.
It seems like she completed her mission.
Black and Shiro's connection grows stronger over the years, and the day they are allowed into the air it's like they were both born for it. There is no hesitation in their movement, they fly like they couldn't imagine doing anything else.
The other riders seem to struggle with their first flight, insecure in their bond and in their capabilities, but Black is stronger than any other dragon even at her young age, and Shiro's weight is nothing to her.
They take to the sky and Shiro screams delighted the whole time. This is everything he ever wanted.
No one really knows the origin of the dragon riders, why this symbiosis was formed, but most of the sages talk about a great war and the bond between human and dragons to be the only thing that had managed to put a stop to the destruction.
The stories also foretold that in time of misfortune a larger number of whelps will find their rider, sensing the incoming catastrophe.
Two years after Black is born, almost every egg finds it's rider. And everyone recognizes the signs: dark days are ahead.
He and Black grow into one of the best pair of the training grounds, flying faster than almost every other recruit. With one notable exception.
While Black, having now reached her full size, is the largest dragon of the camp, Red is the fastest. She is built slimmer than Black, and her wings are smaller, as to allow her to fly quicker. Shiro's dragon is sturdier and has more stamina, but when Red flies in the air, it looks like she's dancing. Her flaming red scales whirl in the air with agility and grace, and Shiro could look at her for hours.
Her rider, Keith, was one of the few kids who had been chosen when he was six. While Shiro still didn't really believe that the strength of the connection depended on the age one was chosen (after all for him and Black had all just a matter of right timing) there was no denying that the bond between him and Red looks almost effortless.
Sometimes, watching them in the air, Shiro wonders where Keith ends and Red begins.
He knows he sounds like a besotted fool when he thinks about the other rider and his red companion, and he's man enough to recognize the signs without Black's amused laugh in his hears. He has fallen in love with Keith's ability and technique in the air first, and with the man himself second. It isn't his fault if Keith looks beautiful in the air, is it?
Keith never really interacts much with the other riders, favoring the company of their dragons, but Shiro can admit he has been insistent in his tries. Many times, he has invited Keith to fly together or just let their dragons play. And while Keith always looks a little confused when he asks, he always accepts.
Shiro's goal is, one day, having these little interactions become normal between them.
Maybe, one day, he'll ask Keith to let their dragons free for an afternoon and go and drink something at the village tavern. But until then, he enjoys the days of flying together, laughing over little competitions.
He can't imagine a better life than this.
Shiro is twenty-one when the air of war reaches them. it hangs in the hunched shoulders of their teachers and the nervousness of the dragons - who have always been better at sensing tragedy than their riders.
A great force rides from the north and while they don't have dragons, they have terrible machines that are said to be able to wipe out an entire dragon squadron in a second.
Black presses closer to him when she hears the news, a kind of sick sensation growing inside of her. Shiro tries to placate her as best as he can, but he doesn't know what to do.
He knows that they will be the first to fight, that it will be expected of them. Shiro and Black are the stronger paired bond of the new recruits, and Black's lineage means that there are a lot of expectation placed upon them.
Shiro has never wanted to fight, but he won't hesitate if he needs to.
They tell him that Black must have chosen him for this, because he was supposed to lead them to victory just like the great paladin of old.
Shiro doesn't think they are right, but he takes their hopes and their expectation and he uses them to make himself go forward.
The air in his hair isn't as clear anymore. A battlefield isn't the best place to enjoy flying, and it has been long enough that sometimes Shiro struggles to remember the joy of just flying around with Black and Red, he and Keith laughing and racing like dumb kids.
These days, when they manage to have a second for themselves, they just close their eyes and try to enjoy the quiet.
War has a way to ruin everything it touches and after a year, Shiro is just tired.
It happens because of a stupid mistake and one moment he's riding on Black, destroying one of the Galra's flying machines, and the next he's in the air, falling to his death.
He can feel Black's panic, a loud shrill in his ears, and he thinks he hears Keith call his name, frantic and scared.
But everything is gone a second later, and Shiro doesn't hear anything else.
Shiro thinks he's dead for only a second before the pain starts. It's stronger than anything he has ever felt in his life and he screams as loud as he can.
It doesn't feel like physical pain, it's like someone is reaching in the deepest part of him and twisting. It takes a little while for him to understand that whatever is happening, it's like his bond with Black is weakening. He can't hear her anymore, his companion through life, the one thing that was always supposed to be a certainty.
And she slips between his fingers.
Shiro screams louder and doesn't stop.
Shiro is changed by the experience. Even when one of the Galra helps him escape and gives him one of their machine to reach home, Shiro is hollow.
Where once Black's presence stood, there is nothing now. And the loss and the pain overwhelm him.
The closer he gets to home, the more he sees dragons without riders circling him, trying to see what a Galra ship is doing in Altean territory. They might attack him before he lands, but at this point Shiro already feels halfway dead.
Still, he doesn't expect a dragon to cut his path so suddenly, and he swears to avoid impact. He's hasn't with the machine, and his movements aren't elegant, but still he manages. When Shiro has regained control of the craft he looks outside the window to see what dragon had almost crashed into its plane and he sees Black's big wings under him, shadowing his craft. She's silent, or maybe he just can't hear her anymore even at this distance, but her stance speaks loudly.
She's protecting him, signaling to everyone else that he's not to be touched.
If he cries in the ship, then no one can hear him.
They make tests, but they don't seem to be able to figure out how they broke the bond. He isn't ready to have them prod him too much, but at the same time he's desperate for any news.
The reality is that they can't help him.
No one has ever really understood the mystic bond between a rider and his dragon, and it had seemed almost blaspheme to try and experiment with it. It was a gift, and as such it wasn't meant to be questioned.
Now, Shiro pays the price.
When he leaves the healer's tent, he's not surprised to see Black curled op just outside the door, as he had left her, but he startles at seeing Keith beside her.
Shiro hadn't known Keith was on site. Most of the riders have been called for a battle east, and Keith as the second most qualified rider of their squadron (now the best) would have been the logical choice to lead in his absence. So Shiro is surprised to see him here.
"Keith," he calls, confused, "what are you doing here?"
Keith's eyes are focused on him, and Shiro knows that the other is cataloguing his wounds. Everything they have done to him. A part of Shiro wants to hide in shame, cover the sign of the abuse he has suffered, but a true rider wears the scars with pride.
Strangely, he remembers Black's mom. Her wings had been full of scars, her scales worn by time. And Shiro had admired her strength, he hopes someone will admire his too.
"We searched. Me, Red and Black," Keith explains, incensed. "We never stopped."
There is something more that Keith isn't saying, he knows. And yet, Shiro doesn't press. He' still a little fragile, and he thinks that whatever is boiling under the surface is too much for him right now.
Instead he does what he should have done years ago.
"Do you want to get a drink with me?" he asks, feeling the courage build inside him slowly. He deserves this, he thinks, something good for once. Something he wants so desperately.
He can't hear Black's feelings, but he wants to believe she's proud of him.
Keith is shocked, on the other hand, and he looks at Shiro like he thinks that his injuries are more severe than they appear. Shiro can't really blame him.
Still, he smiles when Keith says yes.
It takes them five days before he tries to mount Black. They had hoped that their connection would flare up again living in close proximity, but the wall between them stays solid.
They are no more than strangers now.
Keith and Red watch them with apprehension, scared of what it might mean for them, but while their emotional connection is gone, Shiro knows Black.
In the years they have spent together, growing and working side by side, they have created an alphabet without words made of actions and gestures. He can't feel her emotion, but he recognizes the way she tilts her head, or the flutter of her wings when she's nervous.
They know each other better than anyone else in the world.
So Shiro gets on her back and strokes the scale of her neck and tells her to fly and Black does so readily.
She soars into the sky in a second, just like the first time they flown together. The air smells different now, though, not as fresh, not as pure; but Shiro closes his eyes and enjoys it.
They fly together just like always, almost as if their connection was still there, ready to be sparked again.
"We'll be fine," he murmurs to her, because if this is the most they'll ever get, it will be enough, "I'll never let anything happen to you."
And for a fleeting second, he feels her voice, sweet as the first day he heard it, promising the same thing to him.