Mako Mori is 16 when a dragon is brought to the Shatterdome. She is torn and tattered and missing her riders. They’re dead, the staff says when they think Mako can’t hear, one buried and one you can’t recognize. This one has dead eyes, they say. Won’t last long.
Mako doesn’t understand, not completely. Dead but alive? It sounds like the old tales of the Deadwalkers Chuck likes to tell at night. Something to scare you, real in the night, nothing but false shadows come morning.
The dragon sleeps in a clearing a half-mile from the Shatterdome. She refuses to come into the keep with the other dragons. Getting ready to die, that one, Tendo Choi, Head Dragon Keeper, tells Mako’s father when Mako is supposed to be studying.
That first night, the dragon keens and keens and keens. Mako cries into her pillow and does not sleep until dawn.
Mako sneaks away from Hermann’s mathematics lessons in the early afternoon. She takes a basket of herbs and bandages and goes to find the dragon.
She is slumped on her side when Mako finds her, a tower of dull night-blue in ruins.
There’s a rule in the Shatterdome: Don’t touch the dragons unless they give their express permission. Some people don’t listen, still think that dragons are just dumb beasts that humans have tamed in their fight against the Kaiju. You can always tell who those people are. They’re usually missing a hand.
Mako swallows and walks towards the dragon.
Mako stops ten feet from the dragon’s head. Her eyes are closed. Every breath looks heavy; Mako can feel the exhalations from where she stands. The dragon doesn’t open her eyes.
Mako waits and waits and waits some more. The dragon has to know Mako’s there, has been there. Sweat trickles down between her shoulder blades.
The silence and anticipation builds and builds under Mako’s lungs until: “I have some things that may make you feel better.”
The dragon opens one yellow eye. She looks at Mako and the overwhelming grief from last night comes rushing back. The dragon sighs and it sends Mako’s dress fluttering around her ankles. The dragon rolls until her other side is exposed. Her eye closes.
Mako stands still for another moment, then takes a hesitant step forward. Nothing. She takes another, bolder, step. Still nothing. She walks all the way around to the dragon’s left side, as confident as Chuck through any hall in the Dome. Nary a twitch from the dragon.
Mako looks and her face falls.
The wing membrane is more shredded than not, slashes still oozing something thick and putrid. The fine bones running down between what’s left look broken in some places. The great bone along the top is bent in a way that turns Mako’s stomach.
Mako closes her eyes and Tango stands before her, black as night and as big as a mountain. Mako opens her eyes and steps forward.
“I can fix this,” she says to the dragon, “but it’ll hurt.”
The dragon lifts her head and brings it around to Mako. Her right eye is crisscrossed in open gashes. “Why bother, child? Even if you can, which I doubt, who is to say that I will fly again? What use is a dragon who can’t fly?”
Vengeance is an open wound filled with embers. They flare to life in Mako and anger boils low in her belly. “You’d just give up then? Lay here and die, alone and a coward?”
The dragon staggers to her feet. She’s unsteady and probably hasn’t stood for days. “Do not dare to preach to me, child. You know nothing and presume much.”
A shot of fear jumpstarts Mako’s heart. And her mouth. “I know that everyone has lost someone. I know that lying down is easy. I know that the nights are dark and lonely and there’s no one there. I know that there is always someone worth fighting for and lying down is as good as killing them.”
Either the dragon finds Mako’s words pleasing or her strength gives out. She lays back down, the leaves in the trees rustling, and Mako’s head is still attached to her body.
“There is no one left for me to die for, child, but waste your time if you’d like.”
Mako’s lips purse in anger but a polite “By your leave” is all she says.
It’s still months before spring and the days are short. Still, by the time the sun begins to set, Mako’s dress is torn, her fingers are bloody with splinters, and the dragon’s wing is splinted, stitched and smeared with poultices. The gashes over her eye are too wide. Mako has packed those with more cotton and poultice.
The dragon says nothing when Mako takes her leave.
Stacker is waiting for Mako when she slips between the great wooden doors of the front hall of the Shatterdome.
“I hear that you missed the rest of your lessons this afternoon,” he says.
Mako wants to hunch in on herself, hide her muddy skirts and scratched hands. She stands as straight and tall as any dragon rider. “That is correct, sir.”
“Where did you go?”
“I saw the dragon,” she says.
Sensei tilts his head back and studies Mako. “This way, Mako,” he says as he turns down a hallway to his quarters.
Sensei’s quarters are stone, like most of the Shatterdome. Most riders have bright tapestries depicting their battles, the sun a bright halo behind them and their dragon and their partner. Stacker has just enough to keep the rooms warm and they are all seaside cliffs from places Mako has never seen.
Mako sits in a chair in front of Sensei’s desk. He pours tea and they sip it.
“What did you think?” Sensei asks from the chair next to Mako’s. It’s not a polite, parental question; he wants her opinions, her assessments, the way a general wants a report from his scouts.
Mako presses her lips into a line. “She won’t move. She doesn’t want to get up.”
Sensei tilts Mako’s head until she’s looking at him. “She might not make it, Mako. Sometimes, we do everything we can to heal someone’s body but the heart? That is something that everyone must heal for themselves. Do you understand?”
Mako wants to jump up, tea spilling to the ground, and shout from the top of the dragon keep that she can fix this, she can, she can save her, the dragon will fly again. But Mako just nods once.
Sensei drops his hand. “Then you have my permission to try.”
Mako can’t help herself; she flings herself onto Sensei, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. There is tea on her dress, though it’s hard to tell with the rips and splatters. Sensei, for his part, just hugs her back.
“Thank you,” she whispers into his neck. Mako steps back and bows properly, like her mother taught her. “I will do my best. Permission to be dismissed?”
Sensei stands and bows back. “Permission granted. Remember Miss Mori,” he says when Mako is at the door. “There are some wounds you can’t heal.”
Mako nods and disappears to wash the mud out of her hair.
That night, the dragon is silent.
Mako wakes before the sun the next morning. She throws on warm clothes and boots faster than a sparrow. She steals into the kitchen to sneak hot rolls before she’s off to the dragon keep with its big domed roof at the center of the Shatterdome.
Tendo is already awake, leafing through the books. Coffee steams at his elbow. Mako stands in the doorway until he looks up.
“Mornin’ Mako!” he says around his breakfast. “Come in!”
Mako sits across from Tendo, makeshift bag of breakfast on her knees. “What can I do for you?” Tendo asks.
“The dragon,” Mako says, fast and tripping, in case someone is waiting to say No, you cannot heal a dragon, you are too small, too young, too inexperienced. “I need to know how to fix her.”
Tendo straightens up in a hurry. “Mako,” he says, as if she’s a frightened animal he’s trying to soothe, “she has a lot of injuries and I don’t kn-”
“I want to try,” Mako says firm as she can. “Someone has to try and I want to. Sensei said I could.” And if Mako’s chin tilts up in a dare, Tendo ignores it.
Tendo watches Mako for a long minute. “Alright,” he says. “What do you know and what do you need?”
Mako edges forward in her chair and starts the litany of everything she does and does not know.
A week goes by and the dragon’s wounds look less red, leak less ooze. It worries Mako, that the infection hasn’t gone away, but Tendo just has her change the bandages five times a day instead of twice. It will either work out or it won’t, he tells her, there’s only so much we can do. She has to do the rest. She’s silent about the whole thing, save for heavy sighs when Mako asks and pokes and prods her into turning this way or that.
Another week and the infection’s gone, but the wing membrane just won’t hold the stiches. Patience, Sensei says. The membrane is strong enough to hold a dragon and her riders aloft, but particular about how it’s done. Keep it moist, he says, don’t keep poking holes with needles trying to stitch it. Mako keeps the eye roll to herself.
Three weeks mark the arrival of the Hansens. Hercules is nice and Sensei is fond of him (half the Shatterdome, Mako included, thinks fond lacks a certain romantic connotation), though Mako can’t find it in herself to care for the brother, Scott.
Then there’s Chuck.
He’s the same age as Mako, the same gangly limbs and disdain for most things that aren’t dragons. He dogs her all week, wants to come see the dragon, begs and needles and pushes.
For the most part, Mako ignores him and casts her eyes to the heavens, wishing she could go back to Midwinter and stop herself from dancing with Chuck. You dance three times in one night with the same boy and he thinks it’s destiny.
The last straw, though, happens when Chuck opens his mouth and says, “Those Beckets were sub par riders, always were, and their dragon was no better.” It could be the sub par comment. It could be the fact that he’s talking about the dragon like she’s already dead and she’s not, she’s not, it’s been three weeks and she’s still here, we’re all still here.
Mako leaves with tears she won’t let fall, not in front of Chuck. Chuck stays hunched over in the hallway with a bloody nose.
Mako runs all the way to the clearing, feeling every inch sixteen and failing. She trips every other step, eyes too blurry, breath too short. She collapses on a log at the edge of the dragon’s clearing and cries.
“You are dripping water on my tail,” the dragon says. Her voice rumbles like boulders tumbling down a mountain.
Mako is on her feet faster than an eye can blink. “Apologies,” she says, bowing low. It’s one thing to cry on a log in the woods. It’s quite another to cry on a dragon that isn’t yours. They’re picky about who they choose, dragons, and this one has tolerated Mako’s ministrations because she has nothing better to do.
The dragon tilts her head to one side, just a little. “I did not say that I minded. Only that you were doing so.”
Mako looks up. “How was I supposed to know that?” she says. She claps a hand to her mouth, eyes wide. “Apologies,” she stammers, “I did not mean to speak so rudely, I-”
The dragon lowers her head until her nose is a foot from Mako’s belly. Their eyes are level.
“You remind me of my nestlings,” the dragon says. “Stubborn, those two were.” Her eyes darken and the grief is familiar. She flexes her shoulders and lifts her head to blow hot air on Mako’s face. “You, at least, think.” A pause and the dragon looks at Mako out of the corner of one eye. “Usually.” She sounds teasing and the world order rearranges itself. (Or, that’s how it feels to Mako.)
“Your nestlings?” Mako asks, brushing at her cheeks.
The dragon lays her head back down and sighs. “Yes,” she says and closes her eyes.
Maybe not all that rearranged.
Spring comes rolling across the lands surrounding the Shatterdome in dense fogs and rumbling thunderstorms.
Mako stands in the first downpour of the year trying to cajole the dragon into coming into the keep, just until the rains stop.
“The rain is good,” the dragon says. For the most part, she ignores Mako, save for spreading her right wing so that ends of Mako’s hair dry before she heads back to the Shatterdome.
Sensei meets Mako in the front hall with a towel and a bundle of dry clothes. He hands the towel to her with a smile.
Mako grimaces back and towels off her hair, following behind Sensei to his office.
“Not going well?” he asks as Mako changes into the dry clothes behind a screen.
Mako makes a face at the wall. “She is stubborn,” she says. “Today, she insisted on staying outside in the rain while teasing me about how I looked like a drowned rat,” Mako comes out from behind the screen, wet clothes folded neatly in her arms. She sets them in an empty chair and sits in the other.
Sensei (poorly) hides his smile behind his teacup. “Dragons make their own rules,” he says.
Mako purses her lips; she understands the joke, she just wishes dragons weren’t quite so finicky. She says as much when she takes her own tea and Sensei laughs.
The spring rains fade and the flowers bloom, coating everything in a fine layer of yellow dust. Mako spends the first three days of the bloom unable to breathe through her nose.
“You’re unusually loud,” the dragon says and she sounds like she’s smiling.
Mako sniffs as loudly and as disdainfully as she can with watering eyes. The dragon laughs in her throat.
Mako checks the dragon’s wing, the membrane whole but weak and lined with thin scars and the bones straight, grumbling good-naturedly while she does it.
“You’ve never told me your name,” Mako ventures when she’s done, lounging against the dragon’s left leg.
The dragon goes still, the gentle hum she’d begun halfway between Mako’s exam ending mid-note.
“We are named for our riders,” she finally says, “one given to us from each. I no longer have two riders.”
“But you have one, don’t you? One rider?” Mako asks, hesitant and careful. Dragons may make their own rules, but they don’t always share them before they’re changed again.
The dragon huffs out a breath. “I suppose. No one’s seen him since his brother fell and we slew the one called Knifehead.”
She doesn’t say anything else, and it’s the warmest it’s been all year. Mako is nearly asleep when the dragon finally says, “Danger. The younger gave me Danger.”
“What about the older?”
“That name, dear child, is as dead as he is,” Danger says, though there’s not as much heat as there could be.
Mako lets it go and falls asleep.
Years pass, Mako is 20, and the Kaiju are bolder. And winning.
Mako dumps the bag holding her leathers at the edge of the clearing.
“You’re in a mood,” Danger says from where she’s curled up in the last sunny corner.
Mako pulls on the leathers. “Sensei has gone west,” she says.
Danger stands and stretches, body longer and leaner than it was when she flew with her nestlings (never the Beckets, not to Danger, but sometimes Raleigh and Yancy, if the moon is high enough and the skies clear enough). “Interesting choice. Nothing but cowards out there, building walls for naught.”
Mako snorts. “You’re one to talk,” she teases.
Danger blows enough fire to singe the grass. “Not the same.”
Mako smiles, small and genuine. She puts a hand to Danger’s snout. “I know, and I’m glad you never gave up.”
“As am I, though it had less to do with me, and everything to do with your stubbornness. I have seen mountains bend for less.”
Mako presses her forehead against Danger’s for a long moment. She has a feeling this may be the last time they fly together; she’s in charge while Sensei’s away, and once Becket’s back, Mako doubts she’ll be as welcome to Danger as she’s used to.
For now, Mako climbs up Danger’s leg and sits at the base of her neck. Danger lifts off, and the world falls away.