“Well,” Jae-ha remarked, looking around. “This is a rather nice predicament we’ve found ourselves in, isn’t it Shin-ah?”
Shin-ah grunted, and honestly, Jae-ha couldn’t blame the kid. Mostly because no matter how hard he looked, he couldn’t see anything but darkness. Triggering a cave-in had seemed like a smart idea with the pissed off Kai soldiers on their tail, but he had neglected to take into account their distance from Kouka. That was, it was far enough that kicking through the impressive amount of rock before him would take a lot more time than causing it all to fall had.
“Usually I’d congratulate myself on a job well done, but I think I did it too well this time,” Jae-ha sighed.
Shin-ah grunted again, and Jae-ha frowned. While his brother still preferred silence to words, with the encouragement and help from everyone else he had gotten better at speaking. Usually he would have by now. Turning slightly away from the sealed exit, he peered into the dark and tried to find his brother.
A hum. Jae-ha strained his eyes in the sound’s direction so hard he thought he might magically inherit the Seiyuu’s power, but nothing happened. The cave was pitch black; he couldn’t even make out the glow of his brother’s mask.
“Shin-ah, are you ok? Where are you? I can’t see—”
Something touched his calf, and Jae-ha jumped so hard he had to whirl an arm out so he didn’t crash, headfirst, into the ceiling. He hit the ground with a thump, unusually unsteady as his breath came in pants.
An apologetic hum came from a few feet away, and Jae-ha laughed shakily as he realized the touch had come from Shin-ah.
“No one else needs to know about that, ‘k? Especially not Hak or Kija.”
Shin-ah giggled, but then his breath hitched and oh, Jae-ha’s chest hurt listening to his brother try to breathe right. Trying, and failing.
Jae-ha dropped to his hands and knees and crawled towards the sound of panicked breathing, afraid that if he did it standing he would step on his brother by accident. The sting of dirt embedding itself in his hands when they scraped over the rough rubble barely registered.
“Hey, hey Shin-ah, it’s ok, ok? It sounds like you might have cracked ribs, or broken, and Yoon is going to kill you but other than that you should be fine—”
Jae-ha’s own breath stuttered as his searching hand found Shin-ah’s chest—his chest, and the small boulder sitting on top, right where it landed when he caused a cave-in.
Slim, calloused fingers touched his own, fumbling in-between them to squeeze. Jae-ha forced himself to breathe, squeezed back, and then forced himself to let go.
“I need to get the rock off, Shin-ah,” he murmured. “It’s going to hurt, but we can’t risk it crushing you any more than it already has.”
“Ok,” Shin-ah said, and the word whistled between his teeth like they were clenched tight enough to crack, and Jae-ha wished his brother didn’t have the power he did. No one else would have been able to see how his face crumbled before he steeled it again.
Jae-ha leaned forward, hands feeling carefully around the rock. He didn’t dare try lifting it without an idea of the weight, which just left gauging the size of the thing.
It was large enough that it stretched from Shin-ah’s upper chest down to his stomach. No doubt it would be nearly impossible for Jae-ha to lift; he didn’t have Kija’s dragon arm or Hak’s superhuman strength. He would have preferred to kick it with his leg, but that carried too much risk for the body trapped underneath. Though maybe…
Jae-ha stood and toed the space between Shin-ah and the rock with his right leg. His shoe was too big to get much leverage, but… Jae-ha sat back down again and took a deep breath. Until now, he had been able to mostly ignore the fact that he was trapped. Shin-ah came before his own fears.
That hadn’t changed, no matter how much he hated the idea of being trapped and shoeless. Shin-ah came first, he repeated to himself, and stripped his right boot off as fast as he could before placing his bare dragon foot in-between his younger brother and the rock. He was surprisingly ok, he realized. His heart beat somewhat faster, but other than that, he was ok.
“Worry over brothers trumps my own fears,” he laughed softly. “Shin-ah, you’re a miracle worker, you know that?” And with the Blue Dragon’s hum in his ears, he bent down, heaved the rock entirely onto the arch of his foot while enlarging his leg, and launched the rock into the far wall. Beneath his feet, Shin-ah’s breath became more rhythmic.
Jae-ha took that sound, wrapped it around himself like Gi-gan’s shawl, and knelt back down to check on his brother. His hands pressed along the warmth of Shin-ah’s ribcage, as sure and steady as he could make them when his entire body shook with fading adrenaline.
“‘M ok,” Shin-ah murmured, words whistling still—not as much, though, as if his jaw had relaxed somewhat. Which made sense, since at least a third of his ribs were broken.
“I know you’re still in pain,” Jae-ha said, and smoothed a hand over his brother’s head to push his furs out of his eyes. “I can’t do anything here. I need to get us out.”
A hand squeezed the knee of his dragon leg. Jae-ha choked on a laugh, stood, and walked back to the blocked exit, hands out to find it in the dark. He would trust his brother to keep breathing—to keep fighting, like only a dragon could—while he focused on getting them out—on fixing the damage he had caused. That was the least of what he owed Shin-ah.
Jae-ha and Shin-ah had been missing for more than an hour, and Hak felt like Kija had grabbed his heart in his dragon hand and squeezed. If anyone asked, though, he would deny it—for those of the group left under his care, he had to remain calm.
Kija himself was even more restless then normal, muttering under his breath about how inefficient the dragon bonds really were. Yoon couldn’t stop biting his nails. Zeno looked ready to kill someone for every minute longer it took them to reunite the group, and the blood from Kai soldiers that coated his arms didn’t help—and neither did Yona, walking by his side with fire in her eyes and a quiver full of arrows on her back.
So Hak ignored how his eyes ached, dry and irritated from not blinking enough, and looked obstinately forward. Without Shin-ah there to catch the smallest details, someone had to keep their eyes open.
Then Zeno twitched, and Kija actually jumped.
“They’re close!” the White Dragon shouted, and before Hak could stop him, he darted away through the forest, Ao staring back at them from where she hung onto the end of his hair.
“Aren’t you coming?” she seemed to say.
As Hak stared at the squirrel, everyone else ran after Kija, until there was nothing the Dark Dragon could do but follow them—not that he wanted to do anything else.
Hak caught up with them a few minutes later, next to some fallen boulders blocking the entrance to a cave. Loud thumps and scrapes echoed from inside, mixing with that of those outside trying to claw their way in.
“Shin-ah!” Kija yelled, voice breaking. “Jae-ha! Can you hear me!?!”
There was nothing but muffled yelling back. Despite how much closer they seemed to be, a rockfall and hard work stood in their way now.
Not that they bothered breaking the whole wall down. The second Jae-ha’s leg smashed a hole big enough, Kija fit his claws into it and tore it three sizes bigger with a shrieking crack.
“—can’t carry him alone!” filtered through the space now, and the part of Hak that had relaxed with the opening tightened up again automatically. If Jae-ha couldn’t carry Shin-ah alone… that meant the Blue Dragon was injured enough to need carrying. It meant he was injured enough that Jae-ha, typically more than capable of carrying any of them, didn’t trust himself not to injure him further.
“Kija,” he commanded, and took pride from the fact his voice never wavered. “Can you—”
He didn’t have to say anything else; Kija threw himself into the cave as fast as he could. For the next few minutes, though, there was nothing Hak could do but wait. Yona and Zeno shouted encouragements while Yoon tossed in bandages, and even Ao had darted in after Kija, but Hak could do nothing but breathe, waiting to see if his family was ok.
Kija emerged from the cave first, his dragon arm enlarged to the point that he could cradle his younger brother and Ao in that alone. They had removed Shin-ah’s robe and shirt to make room for the bandages now wrapped around his ribs. His mask and furs had been left as they were, though, so Hak couldn’t see his face that well. But from his limp position…
“He’s unconscious,” Jae-ha rasped as he joined them. “Has been for awhile, I think, though he was awake at one point.”
“Let’s make camp here then,” Yoon declared, and glared around to prevent anyone from arguing. There were finally things Hak could do, though, and with that in mind, he set about raising a tent.
Shin-ah woke to the sound of Hak sharpening his glaive. He shifted where he lay, his mask a comforting weight on his head and Ao nibbling on his finger, and the Dark Dragon looked up.
“Shin-ah,” he acknowledged.
“Hak…” he rasped back. The throbbing pain in his side told him not to sit up, so he didn’t even try, just shifting his thumb to rub over Ao’s head. “Where’s Jae-ha?”
Hak glanced away, then set his glaive aside. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground of the tent, but somehow managed to slouch and feign nonchalance anyway.
“Where’s Jae-ha?” Shin-ah repeated.
“Droopy-Eyes hasn’t stopped sparring with the forest since we got you out. Quite frankly, I’m starting to be worried for the trees.”
Shin-ah didn’t need to hear anything else; despite the pain, he managed to get his arms underneath himself, leveraged his body up—and then Hak pushed him back down, hand gently gripping his shoulder.
“Just because I’m worried about Jae-ha doesn’t mean I’m not also worried about you.”
Worried… Shin-ah quirked his lips, and Ao chattered a laugh. Hak sighed, but smiled back.
“Yes, I’m worried about both of you, I admit it. So is everyone else, and that’s unacceptable. But we can’t help it. Jae-ha won’t say anything about why he feels guilty, and you have multiple broken ribs. So you know what? You’re going to stay here while I get Jae-ha, and then you two are going to make up. Got it?”
Shin-ah stared back at him, eyes wide, but nodded. He needed to see Jae-ha, so he might as well let Hak bring him to him.
Apparently reassured that he wasn’t going anywhere, Hak nodded back and left. Shin-ah closed his eyes and focused on his breathing, imagining it as the tide pulled by the moon, while he waited for his brothers to return.
Not that it took too long. A minute later, Hak ripped the tent entrance open and dragged Jae-ha inside, the elder yelping and held captive by an arm around his neck.
“Hak— Hak, let go of—”
“Jae-ha,” Shin-ah murmured, and the other dragon froze, but turned as best he could to look at him.
“Shin-ah,” he muttered. Neither of them said anything else, just looking at each other, and Shin-ah shifted awkwardly in his bed. He was always quiet, but Jae-ha was the loud one, the eldest brother, the—
“Talk,” Hak ordered, and dumped Jae-ha on the floor. “Honestly. Don’t make me call one of the others in here, they’re upset enough as it is.”
“Pukyuu,” Ao joined in, rubbing her cheek against Hak’s.
Shin-ah slumped the best he could under their joint gazes, and Jae-ha groaned, “Stooooooop, you’re going to kill us. Just come down and join us.”
Hak froze, and the Green Dragon flopped over onto his back, head propped against Shin-ah’s bed and eyebrow raised. But apparently, making sure the two of them were ok overruled Hak’s desire to do the opposite of whatever Jae-ha said, and he sat down next to Shin-ah’s feet.
“Talk,” Hak ordered again, crossing his arms.
Jae-ha sighed and looked down, rubbing his dragon leg, but then turned to face them. “I’m sorry—”
“No,” Shin-ah blurted. His brothers both startled, staring at him, and he flushed under the mask. But— “No,” he repeated firmly.
“Shin-ah,” Jae-ha began, forehead wrinkling. “I broke your ribs.” He tried to keep going, ignoring how Hak jolted, only to have to shut his mouth abruptly when Ao tried to feed him an acorn. Shin-ah quirked a smile; she always knew when to interfere.
“It was an accident,” he insisted.
Jae-ha frowned at him, but couldn’t do much with Ao still trying to feed him. Hak, however, had no such compunction.
“You caused the rock fall, didn’t you? And it broke Shin-ah’s ribs.”
A guilty look came over Jae-ha’s face, and he hung his head.
“But you got him out, too. Kija helped, but you were already working hard when we got there. So technically, whatever debt you owed for the accident, you’ve already paid. Especially with those hands of yours.”
His what? Shin-ah’s eyes darted to them, and Jae-ha tried to hide them, but a familiar steely look came into Hak’s eyes—the one he wore whenever Yona did or thought something that endangered herself—and he quickly locked Jae-ha’s hands in full view of Shin-ah himself.
They were covered in bandages. They weren’t bloody, like he had feared, but he could still see the edges of red, raw scrapes underneath. He reached for them slowly, aware he was in no shape to sit up, and Hak sighed.
“Honestly, the two of you are hopeless. Jae-ha, lay down next to Shin-ah; I’ll join you after I’ve told the others you’ll both be ok.”
“Pukyuu!” Ao replied, jumping down to nestle against Shin-ah’s collarbone. Jae-ha just stared down at them, though, so he moved his other arm to the side, creating a Green Dragon-sized space beside him.
“You’re too sweet, little brothers,” Jae-ha said, blinking rapidly as he lay down.
“It’s not sweet,” Hak dismissed. “It’s—” He stopped, brow furrowing. His mouth opened, closed—and then he turned and left the tent.
They both stared after him, and Ao chattered a laugh.
“And we’re the hopeless ones,” Jae-ha sighed, but he did lay down as Hak had said. He didn’t press into his side like usual, though, and Shin-ah frowned.
“I don’t blame you.”
“What?” his older brother started. The bed shook as he twisted, and Shin-ah could feel him staring.
“I don’t blame you,” he repeated. “So you can’t blame yourself.”
“Oi, what happened?” Hak said, stepping into the tent again. “Droopy-Eyes is crying!”
“No I’m not,” Jae-ha sniffed. It would have been worrisome, but then he buried his face in Shin-ah’s shoulder.
Hak stared down at them, so Shin-ah opened up his other side as well. It had worked with Jae-ha, so it should work with Hak, too, right? Besides, he’d already said he would join them.
Ao scrambled to burrow in his hair when Hak sat down stiffly on the edge of the bed, and then eased back. Shin-ah hummed, happy to have them all there. Big brothers were a lot of work, but that was the point of family. You took care of one another. And Shin-ah and Ao… well. They had more family than just each other, now.