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not the plan

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Baekhyun sits quietly in the cave, biting his fingers and holding as motionless as possible. He wants to explore the cavern, to find where the dripping stalactites hang and what is scuttling across the hard stone ground, but there's something heavy that keeps him still. The air is clear; he can see as far as the mounted lanterns illuminate, but it feels thick and is hard to breathe in.

He can feel that he's being watched.

It's a prickly sensation on the back of his neck—the tiny hairs standing up and whimpering—not all fear and not all excitement. If his brother had just stayed with him, he would feel a lot better, but once reaching the mouth of the cave, extending into a short tunnel before finally opening into the lit cavern beyond, Baekbom ruffled Baekhyun's hair, patted his shoulder, and pushed him into the tunnel.

The door closed, and Baekhyun could only walk forward. He tried to find a latch or handle to open it again, shouting until his throat hurt, but they must not have heard him.

The ground is uneven and dry, dark gray shale and something glittery. Looking up, Baekhyun can't see the ceiling aside from nearby rock formations. He taps his fingertips on his bottom teeth, gazing around the cave. The whole point he's here isn't immediately evident; he's all alone. Maybe it's a bravery test.

Swallowing thickly, he gets to his feet and rubs his hands over the back of his pants. "Hello?" His voice echoes. "Anybody there?" He waits a couple heartbeats, counting them in his ears, and spins in a slow circle. "My name's Baekhyun. I-I'm eight years old..." Vibrations beneath his feet tickle his feet and increase, shaking his bones so much he falls back on his butt. The shaking stops, continues, stops, continues in a pattern that he suddenly understands.

Footsteps.

Bits of gravel drop to Baekhyun's left, falling in a sheet leading towards his right. The air is even heavier, suddenly rancid, like rotten eggs. He hasn't eaten all day, and he was hungry, but his throat constricts and stomach heaves.

Baekhyun. It's a voice in his head, scratchy and deep.

He pulls his legs to his chest. "H-Hello?"

Behind you.

Baekhyun's body goes cold. He doesn't want to do this anymore; he wants to go home. He wants to get out of this cave and never think about dragons again.

Behind him, feathers and scales fall and evaporate to smooth skin and human limbs. "Baekhyun." The voice is smoother and lighter, now, but somehow sounds the same as the one in his head.

The boy jumps, looking over his shoulder with a wet sniffle. He doesn't see a dragon. There's a boy, closer to Baekbom's age, tall with a rather sour face, wearing loose clothes that Baekhyun doesn't recognize. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and gets to his feet. He stands nose-to-navel with the stranger.

The stranger gets down on a knee, chasing Baekhyun's nervously shifting eyes and holding them with an uncomfortable intensity that had the boy picking at his pantlegs.

Outside and far out of harm's way, the adults observing congratulate one another tentatively. "It looks like a match."

"Well done, everyone. It was the right time, after all."

An older man, graying at his temples and wearing charming wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth offers a hand to Baekbom. "Congratulations! Another trainer in the family; your parents will be proud."

He accepts the handshake with a half-hearted smile and nod, but his attention remains on the wall of monitors, focused on the couple of blue-tinted angles of the cave he'd left his baby brother in.

Dragon trials have two common outcomes: Immediate rejection and death or, ideally, acceptance and formation of a bond. Regardless of the outcome, a team of Dragonists watch, taking note of everything done right and everything potentially wrong.

Baekbom feels his own dragon in his blood, bonded beside his own soul and matching every beat of his heart. If he calls, the dragon will answer, but calling also jeopardizes the entire mountain and everyone in it.

The dragon currently observing his brother is relatively young, as far as dragons are concerned, and was caught due to its own clumsiness more than the hunters' skills. Still, it is a rare Chinese dragon, and, clumsy or not, rarer dragons are more valuable for their skills and world wisdom.

Baekbom sidesteps a couple of Dragonists to point to the monitor. "What is he doing?" His brother is in the dragon's arms, looking tired. Typically, when a dragon accepts a child, they retreat to their cave alone for quiet contemplation or rest or something—no one's entirely sure, and asking a dragon what they do doesn't get much more than a shrug—and the child leaves the cavern to continue preparations and training.

He's never heard of anyone accepted as fast as his brother.

"This isn't right. Baekhyun should be coming out, not going deeper. Isn't it too soon?" The others shake their heads at his panic, watching with keen curiosity and something in their eyes that Baekbom does not like.

He watches his brother being carried from one camera angle to another, until the final monitor before the darkness of the cave falls like a sheet. The dragon stops, looks over his shoulder, and stares directly at the camera. There's no sound, but Baekbom learned Mandarin from his own dragon and reads its lips—

My treasure.