“Can you see?” The blindfold was tight around his head, blocking out any light. Will shook his head.
“Good,” the director said with satisfaction. “And you’re comfortable?”
“As well as I can be,” Will said mildly, earning a laugh from the crowd. From the sound, he guessed there were about ten onlookers, maybe more. He’d never been uncomfortable with social performances, even when he came back from the war, but not being able to see people’s reactions made him more nervous - and more keen to hear smatters of laughter and good-will.
“Excellent! You have your prompt, the stage is yours when you’re ready.” There was the sound of shuffling, people moving around him, and Will fought the urge to reach up and tug the fabric off his eyes.
This was not how he had expected to spend his Friday evening. It was John who’d convinced him to go - “it’s improv,” he’d said, “but it’s fun, it’s good people! And it’s aimed at readjustment!” - so Will had, understandably, thought that they would go together. A text ten minutes before they were meant to meet told him otherwise. Can’t come, Iskierka needs me. P.S. They always blindfold newcomers to rid them of stagefright. Have fun! :) And so here he was, blindfolded amongst strangers to perform amateur theatre. The room was dusty and cold in the way all Edinburgh buildings were this time of year, but despite the high ceiling he felt confined within his own body. When he gestured that he was ready to start, his movements were choppy, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. He knew how to entertain people; all he had to do was act.
“Your Highness! This is the cave where the dragon was seen last - this must be its home!”
Will nodded and cleared his throat. Even though he still felt awkward and stiff, viscerally aware of his own body yet lacking any perception of it, the blindfold was bizarrely helping, and his voice was strong when he spoke. “Gentlemen,” he began. “I hope that you are all ready to lay down your lives for this cause. Britannia must be rid of this beast, and we must be its vanquisher!”
“Hear, hear!” the men and women around Will cheered.
“Aye, Arthur, well said,” said another, who Will thought might be Sir Lancelot. He supposed that a Welsh knight from the early Medieval period wouldn’t have said ‘aye’, but he couldn’t easily criticise Lancelot in his current position. “Shall we go in?”
“Let us,” Will said firmly, miming pulling out a sword. One of the others kindly helped him walk across the floor, surreptitiously touching his elbow to tell him when to stop.
“Who dares disturb me?”
The dragon spoke, and everyone else immediately fell quiet. His voice was resonant, with an unfamiliar accent and crackling with a natural intensity. Will took a deep breath. “I am King Arthur,” he said, “and I am here to make you pay for your sins against my people.”
“Sin?” the dragon said, rolling the word around in his mouth contemplatively. “I have committed no sin.”
“Wretched creature! How do you then define your misdeeds, your theft and murder?”
“I have only taken what I need. I am not like your men, full of greed and savagery -”
“Where is the need in harming - nay, killing! Killing innocent people?”
“Men who come here are not innocent,” the dragon replied, the sibilant syllables making a shiver run up Will’s spine. “They wish to kill me. Like you do.”
Will paused, caught out. “I do not wish to take the life of an atoning creature,” he said carefully, “but neither can I let an unrepentant one go free. It is my duty to this nation to see its people safe.”
“Are we not of the same nation, then?” the dragon asked. “I am as British as you, and I deserve the right to eat and live, as do all citizens of Britannia.” Quiet laughter spread across the floor. Will flushed, unsure whether he was being made the fool, but equally as hopeless to withstand the dragon in either case.
“What do you wish for, with these preposterous claims?”
“I wish for protection under the crown. If no one comes to harm me, I shall not harm a single man either, you have my word.”
Will hesitated. “It is hard to trust the word such as yourself.”
“Oh, believe thyself not to be some faultless saviour,” the dragon snapped. “I am equally as wary of your kind, for you have attacked me time and time before - yet I am offering you a truce, and you dare call me untrustworthy?”
“I suppose you are correct,” Will said begrudgingly. “What else are your terms? I swear I shall punish any man who comes to harm you, but you cannot steal and eat sheep as you like; they are not yours.”
“Then I shall buy them,” the dragon said immediately, and Will spluttered a laugh.
“You shall! With what coin?”
“I have acquired much treasure,” the dragon said, miffed. “Do not ridicule me, or perhaps I shall eat you after all.”
“You shan’t, or it would break our truce,” Will grinned. “Very well; in the name of the crown, I promise you that you shall remain unharmed by any man of mine, and you shall have the right to purchase livestock… to do with as you wish.”
Will held out his hand, hoping his intention was obvious enough, and after a moment, a warm, large hand enveloped his own, giving it a firm shake.
“And scene!” the director called, and the audience burst into delighted applause. Will took off his blindfold, smiling self-consciously as his eyes readjusted. There were a few more faces than expected, and although he couldn’t help but notice that a couple of the people at the back looked bored, the rest of them were giving him smiles as they met his gaze.
“Excellent stuff, mate.” The guy playing Lancelot gave his shoulder a friendly nudge, his accent even heavier now. “You’re a natural!”
“Thank you,” Will replied, embarrassed. The crowd dispersed to do exercises in pairs with some other signal from the director, and Will was left alone.
“I hope I didn’t give you any trouble,” a man said from behind him, startling Will so badly that he had to bend over, clutching his chest and wheezing. “Oh, I’m sorry! Sorry, I thought you knew I was still here…”
“It’s fine,” Will managed, taking a moment to breathe before he stood back up. He recognised the voice - it was the dragon. The man was tall and slender, with silky black hair pulled into a ponytail, high cheekbones and of Asian descent. He was undeniably, terrifyingly handsome, in the way ancient statues were handsome; he looked unreal, only made human by the embarrassed smile he offered Will.
“Hi,” the dragon said. Will’s face was hot. “I’m Lung Tien Xiang,” Xiang said, adding helpfully, “Xiang is my given name.”
“I - my name, I’m Will, Will Laurence,” Will said, clearing his throat. “Will is my - well, you know that. It’s nice to meet you.”
Xiang laughed and nodded, repeating the sentiment.
“Do you - are you here a lot, then?”
“Every week, if I can help it,” Xiang replied, smile small yet genuine. Will nodded, watching him intently. “I’ve been told I can be a little intimidating to newbies… I hope you didn’t find it too bad.”
“Not at all,” Will said, painfully sincere and embarrassed by himself yet again. “It was fun.”
“So you’ll come back?”
“Yes.” As soon as he said it, he knew it was true, made even more certain by the brilliant smile Xiang gave him in return.
There were a few more exercises to move through until the director dismissed them. Will was fairly certain the man was going easily on him, as the rest of the troupe seemed energetic still when they broke for the evening; but when he raised this worry with Xiang, the other man was quick to wave him off.
“No, it’s not because of you in particular,” he said. “We usually break earlier when there are newcomers, true, but we don’t work too long in general. Part of the adjustment, I suppose, we should all be in bed by eleven.” By a glint in his eye, Will gathered this meant that Xiang was rarely in bed by eleven, or if so, he wasn’t sleeping - the thought made him blush yet again, and he resigned himself to seeming perpetually sunburnt around Xiang.
“Right… I gather you’re all -” he hesitated. Two years of therapy hadn’t made labelling any easier. “Veterans,” he finished, although he hated the word; he’d never felt as young as he did stepping off the plane at Heathrow, stitches still in his shoulder as he returned home for good.
Xiang didn’t point out his hesitation, but only nodded. “It makes it a bit easier, when people know where - or what - you’re coming from.”
Will considered himself a well-mannered man, but he had to work unreasonably hard to ask just where Xiang himself was coming from. He carried himself with purpose, like he had been chosen for something, and Will was pulled to it like a moth, seeking the warmth of his resolve when he himself felt so lost.
“I enjoyed your portrayal of Arthur a lot,” Xiang said, taking the opportunity from him. “I’m glad you went with my unorthodox arguments.”
“They were certainly unusual, but you - the dragon, I mean - made sense. And I don’t think the Arthur of legend would want unnecessary bloodshed.”
Xiang nodded. “All your British stories of dragons are violent, I’ve found. It was nice to change that.”
“Is it a particular interest of yours?” Will inquired mildly. They were stepping out into the cold Edinburgh air, and he pulled his jacket tight around himself - but Xiang’s arm was warm and welcoming when it brushed against his. Will began to walk towards the bus stop, and Xiang walked with him.
“Yes, actually. I loved dragons as a child, and I suppose the affinity never went away.”
“But you prefer the non-violent ones?”
“I like the ones where dragons have agency. My favourite legend is a Chinese one my mother told me, about a dragon egg who was found by sailors.” Xiang looked younger as he talked, cheeks flushed with cold and eyes bright with enthusiasm. Will felt old and hollow in comparison, but when their eyes met, he couldn’t help but join in on the joy of Xiang’s storytelling.
“I’ve never heard of that one. What happens next?”
“He hatches, of course,” Xiang said, pleased. “And he falls in love with the captain.”
Will’s eyebrows rose. “Oh.”
“At least… that’s my personal interpretation.” Xiang looked away. The tips of his ears were red - from the cold, Will thought. “Every retelling says they have a unique bond, though, so that part’s for certain. And they changed the course of history, travelling all over China and showing people that dragons were just as brilliant as men, if not more.”
“Ah - agency.”
Xiang grinned, guilty. “You got me,” he said. “It’s a beautiful story, though. I’d love to tell it to you properly sometime.”
“I’d like that too,” Will replied sincerely. The bus stop was nearing, but he’d happily walk across the dark, cobbled city streets all the way home if it meant Xiang would keep him company.
“It’s a date, then!” Xiang sounded satisfied; more so than he ought, Will thought, as he had a fairly low opinion of his own company. Xiang stopped in the middle of the street. Will stopped too, looking at him quizzically, and Xiang pointed back the way they had come. “I live that way.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Will said, embarrassed.
“Don’t be,” Xiang said easily. “I didn’t want you to slip out of my grasp before I got you to say yes to a date.”
He could’ve asked the moment Will first saw him, but Will knew admitting to that would reveal him thoroughly to be a Victorian romantic. “You sound like you’re used to getting what you want,” he said instead, trying to tell if the gleam in Xiang’s eye was confidence or arrogance.
“I am.” Xiang gave him a sharp-toothed smile, and Will bit his cheek. A bit of both, it seemed, and no less attractive for it. “I’ll see you next week?”
Will nodded. “I look forward to it,” he couldn’t help but say, aware even as he did that he sounded shy and embarrassingly taken.
“Me too,” Xiang promised, before he turned and walked away, his dark coat fading into the shadows. Will stood for a moment, staring after him, before the loud arrival of his bus made him jump and swear, running to catch up with it.