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Imperial Retrograde

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Izuku’s soft fingers brushed against a dew-coated petal. He lifted his hand to his mouth and bit his thumb, frustrated at the blank page in the journal on his lap. Eyes snapped back to the plant on the table before him, with petals fixed in an odd formation--like a helmet--and a shade of purple he’d never quite seen on a flower. 

 

Testing its properties had been difficult. He’d fed the seeds to one of the mice who frequented the Imperial Palace’s greenhouse, and he’d found it dead shortly after. So the flower was deadly, it seemed, yet undeniably beautiful. But what to call it?

 

It had several names in the land it came from, but the Lusunian troops never gave him much information on the places they found his plants. All they did was dig them up, hand them off to an apprentice botanist to care for on the long trip back to Rhodin, Lusun’s capital city, and then it would fall into Izuku’s care, no information on its origin, except for the gnawing in the back of his mind urging him to discover it all on his own.

 

Afterall, he’d always been a curious one, fascinated by the things altogether unknown to the men and women thriving within Rhodin’s walls. 

 

The bell tower chimed in the distance, seven times in a row, and the bouncing of Izuku’s pencil came to a halt. He furrowed his brows and looked around him. He saw how the setting sun cast light through the green, tinted windows of the greenhouse, how rays of light cut through the foliage of every plant, fruiting tree, deadly flower, and hanging vine adorning his workspace to bathe the cobblestone floor in a subtle glow. When the sun rays hit the mosses climbing the stonework of the inside wall, they shone almost yellow.

 

 Izuku looked towards the middle of the path, between the sacks of potting soil and clay pots, to see how the light changes from green to a panel of deep blue, a yellow moon bathed in orange and red flames centered inside it. If he looked to the stain glass window that the picture was from, the one situated high between the greenhouse panels at the end of the walkway, he’d see the Lusun Imperial Emblem, the moon set aflame in the night sky. 

 

On the ground it just looked like a break in the color scheme, and Izuku spent enough time in the greenhouse to know that when the prismatic light hit the center of the cobblestone, it meant his work day was over. He looked once more at the flower on the table in front of him, and decided against rushing on a name. Instead, he scribbled ‘ unknown’ where the title should have gone, followed by a note to whoever would read his work:

 

 

Though beautiful, this floral specimen is fatal upon ingestion. Yet to be tested on a human subject, the seeds still produce lethal consequences within mere hours of a Rattus argentiventer’ s ingestion. 

 

Caution is advised.

 

 

Good, he thought, admiring the elegant loops of his cursive. Nodding to himself as a gesture of his own approval, he fitted the pencil behind his ear and smacked his leather-bound journal shut. Izuku hopped off his stool and reached for his old, tattered satchel. He realized that it wasn’t practical, not a good look for the head of botanical and zoological studies for the Lusun Empire, but it had been a gift.

 

His mother had saved for it, had asked the Queen for it. She’d come home with the purse of coins, shook it in front of Izuku’s face, and said she’d be getting him a gift before his apprenticeship was over.

 

Izuku slid his journal into the middle flap, and smiled fondly at the object of his memories. He’d really done the woman proud. 

 

The bell chimed again, loud, powerful. The Church had always been aggressive with the songs that rang from their bell tower. Izuku had always wondered why; Why was it so loud? Was the intensity of the note from pride, or was it a warning?

 

But the answer had never come to him, and it would be absurd for the revelation to come to him now of all times, so he adjusted the bag’s strap on his shoulder and sauntered off towards the bronze doors that would lead into the west wing of the Imperial Palace. As he strolled down the path he brushed his fingers against the waxy leaves of the Yucca plants, and the hanging, wild foliage of the Trumpet Vines. He plucked one of the orange flowers out of the foliage on his way to the door, lodging it in his hair before wrapping his hands around the Greenhouse door’s bronze handle and pushing with all his might to get it open.

 

He slipped through the crack, not bothering to push the door any further than necessary. He huffed when he was done, placed one foot ahead of the other, and quickly made his way down the hall with a hop in his step. He crossed by the royal halls, embellished with ivory and gold, then all but ran past the Blue Chamber, not even daring to glance at the ebony door haunting the end of the corridor.

 

He didn’t stop until he’d made it to the center foyers, where he climbed a flight of stone steps. He didn’t bother to admire the gothic architecture he’d grown up with, or the gargoyles glaring down at him from the top of the vaulted ceilings, and made straight for the door hidden at the edge of the throne room. The throne room was beautiful to say the least. Council benches made of carved, dark hickory wood were fixed between high pillars on either side of the room. The only thing in the center was the ivory and marble throne carved with a sun and moon on either side of the head rest. The seat itself was made of red silk and gold-spun thread, but according to Shouto, who’d sat there once or twice during his father’s long, drawn out lectures on ‘being king’, it wasn’t very comfortable.

 

The door on the wall behind the throne, hidden by its bulk, was painted navy. The yellow moon was painted in the center, embellished with flecks of gold just noticeable above the red and orange flames. As Izuku approached it, he could hear his footsteps echo off the cold, stone walls, making it sound like there was a legion of men following behind.

 

Izuku hated it. He ran to make the steps end quicker, and knocked on the door three times, a pause between the first and the second rap of his knuckles against the wood. He heard the heated conversations inside grow hushed, and the door creaked open mere seconds later. 

 

A blue eye peaked through the crevice, the flesh of the lid burned and disfigured. “Prince Shouto,” Izuku smiled, shoulders loosening upon the recognition of his highness and his friend. He watched the eyes grow wide when Shouto realized it was Izuku before him, and the door opened entirely. The prince stepped out, hair perfectly split down the middle so that the red of his father and white of his mother did not mix.

 

He wore the yellows and blues of the kingdom, and he looked regal in them. He smiled however faintly he could, and shut the door behind them. “Izuku,” he said, his voice calm despite the intensity at which he held his posture. To Izuku, it seemed like he hadn’t quite realized they were alone and he didn’t need to maintain the formalities anymore. “Were you needing something?”

 

Izuku nodded once, quick and precise, and held his finger high in a gesture for patience. He unclasped the flap of his messenger bag, stuck his hand inside and retrieved a twine - bound stack of papers. One hand on the bottom of the pile, another on top, he presented it to Shouto with a slight bow. “Botanical and zoological reports from the latest trip to the Northeastern colonies, my future king!”

 

A tch! left Todoroki’s lips, and Izuku looked up out the tops of his eyes to smirk at the way Todoroki looked around to see if anyone was watching the display. The prince yanked the stack of papers from Izuku’s hands and tucked them beneath his arm. “Will you cease your attempts in trying to humiliate me? I’m a prince, but I’m also a man who does not enjoy being the center of every man, woman, and child’s attention.”

 

“You’ll have to get used to it, oh Heavenly Leader, because that’s what it’ll be like when you’re king.”

 

Izuku would have been lying to say he didn’t find it amusing how the corners of Shouto’s lips curved downwards and his nose scrunched in clear distaste. “Don’t remind me, please. I’d rather ignore that for the time being. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Yamaks are causing issues in Korisha again, and it’s pertinent to our capital interests that we keep the territory.”

 

Izuku’s own face contorted at the mention of them, the savage men who burned their rural villages to ash and ran away with crops and resources their people labored to create. Beasts. Madmen. Izuku didn’t have a high regard for those people, and would unfathomably hate them if he didn’t hold such an intense admiration for their strength and expertise in one particular field.

 

“It’s the dragons,” Todoroki hissed. “They’re burning our ships before they can barely make it off the Maum Shores. Were it not for the harpoons, they’d have burned our docks.”

 

Izuku felt like choking. It was unbearably hard to control the urge to ask more, to inquire on just how many ships a single dragon could burn, and how many soldiers died under its fiery breath, static tails, or acid touch. “Anyways, I’m thankful for the records, Izuku. I’ll read them on my trip to Yuora next week. I’ll need some decent reading material.”

 

“Wait, you’re actually going down there?” Izuku gawked. That was dangerous; far too dangerous for a prince. “Sho, you can’t. It’s too dangerous.”

 

Shouto’s shoulders were finally sinking. The stiff posture he held around other officials began to wither away in the presence of his friend. “Izuku, as much gratitude as I have for your concern, you know that I don’t necessarily have a choice. The kingdom comes first, and the troops need someone with military skill to guide them.”

 

“But-”

 

“-Besides, Izuku, I’ll be in Yuora, not Maum, so you don’t have to worry about those Yaks getting to me. Thank you for the research, Izuku, but I must be going before father,” he said the last word with ice in his tone and in his veins, “sends someone for me. I will see you before I leave, I presume?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Why don’t you come to dinner one night? Momo has been asking about you.”

 

“I would like that.” Izuku smiled genuinely, though he didn’t try to speak further. Shouto gave a quick bow of his head and turned back to the door, and Izuku did his utmost to let him leave. He bit his tongue, stopping himself from calling out for more information. He wanted to know more--the curiosity gnawed at his brain--but he knew how dangerous it was to ask for information on the Yamaks. They were monsters, murderers, and no matter how invested Izuku was in the history of dragons, in the secret powers that the Lusun were unaware of, he wouldn’t go against the Todorokis--against the men who’d set into motion the laws of poaching and hunting the Yamak’s weaponry beasts into extinction.

 

Izuku simply nodded his goodbye at the navy door, to Prince Todoroki, King Enji, and their many advisors behind it, and glided off back the way he came. He cared less about admiring the architecture as he went, and more for the low growling in his stomach. He hustled down the stone steps into the main foyer, arched ceilings looming over him, and made his way towards the main entrance without a second thought as to how intimidating the halls looked for anyone who hadn’t grown up within them. 

 

The guards at the entrance in their steel armor and navy sashes stopped Izuku, crossing their spears in his path, and Izuku sighed and rolled his eyes. He began the long process of pulling his bag off his shoulder and removing all his belongings onto the floor. Then he stood up straight, unfastened his green leather vest, and slipped off his boots. As one of the soldiers grabbed the bag and searched for any secret pockets, another came up behind Izuku, placing his hands on his waist and scaling them up, then down, in search of hidden objects. 

 

Izuku thought they would trust him after all these years, but apparently growing up in the castle did not free the Guard of any suspicions that Izuku could hurt one of the Royal Family. It was, unfortunately, a curse Izuku had to bare with gritted teeth. As the soldiers cleared him to pass, he adorned his discarded clothing and moved on without thinking anymore of the topic.

 

The reinforced doors opened to the bridge, a metal invention that could split and lift, cutting off any traffic, at the press of a button. The bronze flooring clunked underfoot, and Izuku was of the impression that when he glided his hands over the golden railing, it was the most expensive thing he would ever touch. He peeked over the edge at the roaring water below--not a moat, but violent, man-made rapids--and decided he’d rather die in town than die on that bridge.

 

So, he hustled to the other side, repeated the security process with the armored soldiers, Lusun’s emblem branded on their chests, and watched as the golden gates parted just enough to let Izuku through into the Imperial City of Rhodin, where every cobblestone street teemed with trade and song. 

 

From where he stood, Izuku could only see heads bobbing in the crowds, and the smoke rising from food stalls on each of the footpaths. Izuku’s stomach roared like a lion--and Izuku would know after studying them for so long--so he adjusted the strap of his bag and melded with the crowds, dipping between barterers and women with young children on their shoulders. 

 

He smelled bread in the distance, followed his nose through spice stalls--hardly even touched by a public unable to pay such steep prices. Then, he cut through a narrow alley and into the main market, blanket-shadowed stalls hounded by buyers searching for the latest gadgets and gizmos distributed to the markets by Todoroki’s top inventors.

 

There was a man beneath a red-hooded stall, too large to fit, but making it work. He served hot buns to the people smacking endos on his counter. Izuku beenlined for it, raising his hand high and smacking it on the old, wooden counter with a thud! 

 

“SATO!”

 

The hulking man turned from the tray in his hand to search the crowd for his caller, before his eyes fleshed out Izuku and a grin spread across his face. “Oh? The great and powerful Midoriya had descended from the castle to grace us with his presence?” He slid the tray onto a cooling rack and dusted his bare hands--dead and burned from years at the oven. 

 

Izuku made a show of artificial laughter and leaned into the counter. “You are so funny, Sato. You know, I think the King’s in the search for a new jester. Want me to give him your name?”

 

Sato scrunched his nose. “I’ll pass, Midoriya. Working in a place like that- I don’t know how you do it.”

 

“Oh, c’mon, it’s not that bad!”

 

“Don’t get me wrong, the Todorokis are good leaders, but that castle…” Sato pushed off the counter and went to check the cooling rack. “What about the Blue Chamber? That shit is terrifying.”

 

“You learn to ignore it.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you do. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s uncomfortable,” he said. Sato’s eyes looked out to the bustling streets, and Izuku followed his gaze. It was congested now, people bumping into each other and barking at one another to ‘watch where they’re going’. Sato tutted. “Too many people in this city. Anyways, Midoriya, what can I get you?”

 

“Meat pie, if you will.” 

 

Sato grabbed a meat pie from the racks and wrapped the pastry in a foil paper. Izuku reached into his bag for a few coins, but huffed when the satchel flap got in the way. He tucked it between the back of the bag and his hip, and yanked three endos from a fold inside the bag. He reached out his hand to Sato and-

 

“-GET THE FUCK BACK HERE YOU GODDAMN TRAITOR!”

 

Izuku furrowed his brow and whipped his head around almost immediately, looking out into the crowded street. The whole path was congested, but the head count was larger a few meters ahead, a crowd forming on the street. It looked like they were forming a circle. 

 

“HEY! WATCH WHERE YOU’RE GOIN’!”

 

Izuku heard a smack, and then jeers and shouting started. He took a step towards it, curious, and heard a symphony of gasps and ooo! ’s that could only mean someone just got hit. He took another step forward, but that’s as far as he got. Something hard--a body--knocked into his side, and he stumbled into the baker’s counter. Whoever collided with him was gone before he could find them, but Izuku’s side hurt from where the edge of the counter smacked against his waist. He hissed, rubbed his palm against the flesh, and looked back out at the crowd. 

 

Sato tutted. “You better be careful, Midoriya,” Satou said, a little too serious for Izuku’s tastes. “There’ve been a lot more fights recently.”

 

Izuku furrowed his brows. “Why?”

 

“Dunno,” the baker shrugged. “Some people are spoutin’ nonsense about war. Stupid if you ask me. Lusun is doing good, so there’s no point for a war. But there-” Sato shut his mouth quickly and cast a quick glance down his stall. No one seemed to be paying attention, so he leaned closer to Izuku, who noted the distinct smell of yeast on the baker. “There was a knight about a week ago- he slayed a young dragon in the Northeastern forests. He turned it in, obviously, but he kept a claw.”

 

“That’s not unusual, Sato,” Izuku explained, shaking his head at his friend’s concern. Maybe he didn’t know, not working in the castle, but anyone who poached a dragon was permitted to keep a trophy. So said the king.

 

“No, Midoriya, you don’t get it! He was showin’ it off down at the Ol’ Sunstone Pub. Went to bed that night, and they found him with his throat slit.”

 

Izuku furrowed his brow. “Someone stole the trophy?”

 

“Well, yeah, but it’s not about the trophy getting stolen, it’s about who stole the trophy. The knife they found in his bed--they say it was a Yamak’s.”

 

What?”

 

Sato shrugged. “It’s what they’re sayin’ down here in the streets, Midoriya. Now, whether it’s a drifter or a rider, we dunno. But people are thinkin’ they’re trying to attack the Capital now.”

 

“But I haven’t heard any of this back at the palace!” 

 

Sato snorted, shook his head, and pushed off the counter. “You wouldn’t, Midoriya. From what I here, you don’t leave the greenhouse or stables unless you’re forced. Anyways, here’s your meat pie,” he said, tossing the foil-wrapped pastry to Izuku. “Now, you better get home before that fight turns into a street-wide brawl.”

 

Izuku nodded, dropped the endos in Sato’s hands, and stored his pastry in his bag. He flipped the flap shut and waved his goodbyes before dipping between the stalls and down an alley. 

 

Rhodin was a maze if you weren’t careful. When the city had been constructed, Izuku heard, people had found bodies in the alleyways, where one would starve if they couldn’t find their way out. Izuku didn’t think it logical, though it made for a good story to scare children into behaving. But he knew these streets, grew up finding the quickest route to the castle from his mother’s home, and so dodging between stone and warped wooden homes, smelling smoke from the chimneys and hearing the tinkering of metal in the smith and machine shops. An ever present smell of oil wafted through the alley, and as exciting as it was to be in such an age of progress, Izuku hated it. He only wanted to smell the morning dew on his plants and the earth under his feet. 

 

He craved it like a starving man craves bread. 

 

As he dipped from side-street to side-street, finding his way home, his mind wandered back to Sato, his conversation on the rumors circulating the streets. It was insane. A war? What war did Lusun possibly face? Who would be their enemy?

 

The Yamaks could slit the throats of Lusun’s knights all they wanted, but it didn’t change the fact that the Yamaks were infinitesimal compared to the Empire’s numbers.  Even if the barbarians believed they had a right to the lands of the Lusun, burning down cities and murdering families, they couldn’t win. It was impossible.

 

Their only advantage was their dragons, but the Lusun had been handling the issue. Any dragon found in the west was a dead dragon or a dragon mounted on the wall. Sure it disappointed Izuku, who’d wanted to see a live dragon at least once before he died, but he cared for his country more than his own curiosity. 

 

He squeezed his bag strap and huffed, shaking his head of the thoughts. There was no point thinking about it any longer. It would only upset him. He marched on, dipping by backdoors where children fed stray cats, and under laundry lines tied between buildings. It took well over an hour and a half for Izuku to get to his small, two-room cottage on the edge of Rhodin’s outer walls. Here, there were trees, a barn, and space for a garden. Izuku knew he was spoiled to have this, the only spacious land inside the walls. He was grateful. 

 

As he approached his own door, a beat up, chipped wood door, he heard a meow at his feet. He looked down and found his milky-white barn cat by his boot. He smiled and leaned down to pet it between the ears. “How are you, Muna? Catch any mice?”

 

The creature purred and hoisted itself onto its hindlegs to nuzzle its head against the bottom of Izuku’s bag. He chuckled. “Did you smell the pie? Do you want some?” Muna meowed once more, and Izuku made for the door, unlocking it with his skeleton key and pushed it open. 

 

Midoriya’s workshop, and home, could have fit in the Todoroki greenhouse two-fold, but Izuku really didn’t mind how small the place was. As soon as he entered, he was always overwhelmed with the aroma of dried plants bound and hung from his ceiling, as well as the warmth from the hot water pot constantly boiling over the hearth. His bed was in the corner, a cot with thin blankets, but it was enough, and Muna was usually lying there on his pillow when he returned from work.

 

There was an office in the back, but he didn’t often do work there. There were too many reports, too many books. It was like wading through a lake of paper. He mainly stuck to his research-laden dinner table and the bookcase of journals and test tubes in the far corner.

 

Izuku sighed in contentment, always happy to look over his small personal space, and followed the cat into the cottage. “I think it’s pork today,” he told her, before lifting his pack off his shoulder and haphazardly dropping it on the kitchen table.

 

THUNK!

 

Izuku stopped halfway to the hearth. His whole body went stiff, and he furrowed his brows in absurd confusion. That thunk was loud, like a book, but there were no books besides his journal in his bag. And his journal was small, light. Meat pies are too soft to sound like a rock hitting wood. He bit his lip, aggravating it until it was red, and walked back over to the messenger bag. 

 

Muna rubbed her nose against the flap, and Izuku shooed her. He flipped open the flap and clenched his jaw. There wasn’t a reason to be nervous, so why were his hands sweating? He’d just had his bag checked at the castle. He knew what exactly was in his bag:

 

A work journal.

 

A meat pie.

 

Endos.

 

...a dragon egg…

 

Izuku blinked, not recognizing the glittering white oval now sitting atop his emptied bag. No, it couldn’t have been a dragon egg. He had no idea how he could even come across a dragon egg here in Rhodin where harboring a dragon was punishable by death.

 

He’d never risk it.

 

His heartbeat pounded in his ears, his head feeling impossibly hot. That wasn’t possible- it just wasn’t. He backed up, shook his head and buried the heels of his palms into his eyes, rubbing the illusion from them. 

 

But when he opened them up, the egg was still there, now with Muna rubbing her cheek against the rounded surface. She was too rough with it, too hard, and the egg started to roll off the bag with a thunk, off the edge of the table a second more.

 

Izuku dived for it, as if instinct played a role and he couldn’t allow the egg to fall. So, he caught it a foot off the ground. Now in his hand, he could see how it glimmered with every turn, how soft and smooth the shell felt in his hands. How warm. 

 

He gulped staring down at it, wondering if this was a sign from God, wondering if his silent wish to see a dragon had manifested into this. Because this was not what he had intended. This was a crime.

 

If God thought his silent wishes for a dragon were actual pleas to heaven, the God needed to fucking take it back, because this- this was not okay. He didn’t want to die.

 

Panic set in, his hands starting to feel slippery, and his mind racing a mile a minute. “Fuck,” he hissed. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

 

He ran for the door. 

 

There was only one way for him not to be beheaded in the city streets--though he was Shouto’s friend, so maybe they’d give him a private execution--and that was to turn in the dragon egg to the nearest soldier before he’d held it too long and suspicion could be cast. He reached for the doorknob, had just wrapped his hand around it, when he felt the egg move in his palm. At first, he assumed he’d had a bad grip, using only one hand while he opened the door. Then he heard tapping, and the faintest, almost nonexistent, scratching from inside. Faint, but it was there. Something tapped the inside of the egg, and then it moved again. 

 

This dragon was hatching.

 

It was about to hatch, and Izuku was there for it. A once in a lifetime experience was rattling in his palms that he may never see again, and so he bit hard on his lip and contemplated the ethics of waiting to turn the dragon in after it had hatched. He could say it had been a surprise, that he’d found the egg and it had burst before he could hand it over. Maybe they’d let him keep the shells for research. “What are you doing, Izuku?” he asked himself, cursing under his breath. “What the fuck are you doing?”

 

He inhaled through his nostrils and scurried back to the table, setting the egg atop his bag once more, using the friction from the fabric to keep it from rolling off. All he did was watch. In the silence, he could hear shouting from town. He imagined people were getting festive. It was almost time for the Summer festivals, so it made sense.

 

As his mind wandered, a crack split in the egg. It was large, a little gaping. He leaned forward, and another crack appeared. Tapping echoed on the inside of the shell, and then a beak popped out from where the cracks intermingled to create a weak point.

 

“Oh my God,” he whispered to himself, sucking in his breath as Muna knocked against his legs. Another peck of the beak against the shell. Was that an eye? It was red; it glimmered like rubies embedded in the Todoroki throne. 

 

He flinched backwards when the shell burst. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t expected the violence of a dragon bursting from its egg. Muna hissed at his feet and dove beneath his cot while Izuku blocked his face from incoming projectiles. But then he heard a little squeal, soft as a newborn kitten--and Izuku had raised plenty of those. Slowly, hesitantly, his arms fell from around his face and his chest grew tight at the infant curled on his table.

 

No bigger than the journal where Izuku wrote his notes, the white, iridescent lizard uncurled spindly, opaline wings and flicked its small tail. It coughed--could dragons cough?--and its needle-sharp teeth glittered in the dim, warm light of the cottage.

 

A baby. 

 

It was so small, so fragile looking. Izuku stepped closer to the table, and the instant his foot stomped upon a broken eggshell, and the dragon looked up to lock eyes with Izuku, something melted inside his terrified heart. He closed the distance, careful not to spook the infant, and extended a curled finger to its nose. 

 

Always let the creature smell you, Izuku reminded himself. That way they do not fear you.

 

He stopped breathing, stopped moving. He didn’t blink. He was centimeters away from a dragon, and his mind was racing with the possibilities of being incriminated, of being seen and hung in the city square. But more so, he burned with curiosity, with adrenaline.

 

Cold, somewhat slimey, the dragon nudged its head against Izuku’s finger, and he melted. Rubbing its cheek against his knuckles like a cat begging to be pet, sounds of purring vibrating from its throat, Izuku looked at it with fascination and a sudden sense of doting.

 

“H-hello, there,” he cooed, bending down to look at the creature at eye level. “You’re quite beautiful aren’t you?”

 

The dragon’s small, clumsy legs pressed forward, and Izuku had to stop himself from fleeing. He gripped his hands on the table ledge and tried to steady his breath. The infant glittered and sparkled like a river in the setting sun’s rays. One of its red eyes found Izuku’s and, oddly enough, he felt he understood them. 

 

The dragon was calm, happy to be in Izuku’s presence, feeling secure in Izuku’s small home with Muna cowering under the bed and Izuku ogling its spindly wings. It nudged its cheek against Izuku’s nose, and Izuku pressed his eyes shut and laughed at the new sensation. 

 

Then there were claws on his neck, and the hair on his nape moved as the dragon climbed around it and settled itself on his shoulder, so small he hardly felt a shift in weight. It nipped playfully at his ears, then mewled like a kitten. Izuku laughed harder. “You can’t do that! You make me like you, and I’ll get in trouble!” he said, rising to his feet. “What if the Todorokis found you?”

 

Another mewl, this one far more lazy. The beast didn’t seem to care, or that’s what Izuku’s heart told him. And strangely, he felt he couldn’t disagree. This young creature curled up on his shoulder, nuzzling into him like a baby nuzzles its mother… how could he say no?

 

“Well, fuck me, I suppose. You’re not going to let me give you up  easily, are you?” A rumble from the dragon’s throat echoed near his ear, and Izuku sighed, bowing his head. “Well, what should we call you then? If you’re going to make life hard on me, I’m going to need a name to scold you with.” 

 

He somewhat expected the beast to answer, to give him the name it wanted. As he waited for a response, in the few moments before he realized he was being ludicrous to expect an answer, he realized that the baby needed food. All newborns did. He turned towards the bookshelf on the far left, searching for an instrument to feed the hatchling. “Don’t know what you are yet… something unisex, perhaps? How about Chiisa?”

 

No, was the word that echoed in his mind. 

 

“Paipp?”

 

No, something else. Something urged Izuku to cross out each name the moment he said it. He felt there was a guiding force, an invisible hand leading him to the proper path.

 

He closed his eyes and centered himself, steadied his breathing and tried not to focus on the screams from town. They were getting louder now, more aggressive. Had the games begun?

 

He lifted a finger to rub at the dragon’s head, and focused on an answer, urging one to come to him. “...Eri?”

 

The dragon purred against his shoulder and nuzzled into the green leather of his vest. Izuku laughed. “Alright then, Eri, what are we going to do with you? Are you hungry?”

 

He reached up to the top shelf, searching for his mortar and pestle, but halted in his movements when there was scuffling outside his door. He furrowed his brows, strained his ears, and in a cottage so silent that the dropping of a feather would cause a ruckus, he heard nothing. Simply the screaming of the townspeople as they got drunk off ale and sang their folk songs of myth and victory. His fingers wrapped around the mortar.

 

A violent crash sounded at the door, echoing off his stone walls, and he whipped around so fast that Eri screeched on his shoulder. His hand hit a jar, the container thrown off the shelf to smash onto the floor and surround him in a sea of glass. Izuku only registered it for a second, then jerked his eyes to the entrance. His door was on the ground, and a man stood on top of its warped panels. 

 

Shocked, terrified, his heart beating in his throat and his head pounding like a war drum, he dove for the kitchen table. Sliding under it as the man glanced towards the bed. He felt Eri’s claws at the back of his head, latching onto the back of his scalp. Her small tail flicked against his nape. 

 

From the ground he watched Muna dart for the exit, and then the coarse leather and fur lining of the intruders boots. He peeked out from beneath the table and gawked, his throat aching and his hands shaking when he reached his limit on fear and adrenaline. 

 

The man before him was not Lusun. He wasn’t anyone from anywhere Izuku would know. His dress was Lusun, Izuku knew that by the fitted brown slacks, loose-armed cotton shirt, and the red leather vest hanging off his shoulders. 

 

But that was where the similarities ended.

 

Glass beads and sharp teeth hung from strings around his neck. His shirt and vest ripped open, Izuku saw scars and red markings along his pectorals. Tattoos of dragon heads and fire. There were scars on his face, holes in his ears and in his brows. Blonde locks stuck out like they'd never seen a comb, braided along the sides to make the top seem feral. 

 

“DOKUNDE KOKAI TEVOS DRŌG?” His voice boomed off the walls and filled Izuku with dread. He wondered if the man had seen him, or he’d been so filled with rage that he’d been blind to Izuku standing in the corner. He hoped it was the latter, and he appeared to be right when the man stomped past the table, straight for the cot, and ripped the pillow off like he’d expected something to be under it. Izuku couldn’t see his face from that angle, but he saw how his shoulders went rigid, and flipped the cot by the frame. 

 

A deafening, inhuman roar echoed outside, and the shiver that ran down Izuku’s back was like nothing he’d ever felt before. The man-- the Yamak-- ran back to the threshold, looked out towards town, towards its bright light, then shouted something incomprehensible to Izuku in the other direction. The roar, the terrifying roar that followed his cry, was of a dragon.

 

A live, full grown dragon. Izuku would have bolted for the door to see if the live image matched the one in his head if his feet weren’t fused to the floor boards, if the barbarian didn’t carry a menacing dark-stained sword, and if his face wasn’t specked in blood and bruises. The intruder ran back into the house; Izuku blinked and the man was at the table, breathing heavily just above the surface. Izuku tried to center his breathing and stop himself from losing consciousness. He felt lightheaded, like there were spots in his vision and he wasn’t entirely steady on his own two feet. 

 

A fist slammed down on the table above him, and Izuku jumped, knocking his head on the surface above. He yelped, hissed at the burning in the back of his skull, and heard a loud crash.

 

The table was gone, and the Yamak glared down at him with murderous intent. “ DOKUNDE?” he spat, his saliva spraying down on Izuku’s cheeks.

 

“H-huh?” Izuku stuttered, looking up at him with a quiver in his lip and terror in his tone. He could hear the screaming from town better with the door gone, could hear that it wasn’t joy but fear and fury from which their voices grew. Maybe they’d seen the dragon. Maybe they’d be there soon to rescue him, if only he could stall his own end. “I-I don’t know what you- what you’re saying?”

 

The man’s scowl twitched, his hooded eyes growing darker if at all possible. Izuku, heart pounding, body shaking with cold sweat, only tried to keep breathing, but at this rate, he’d buckle and slip into unconsciousness before help arrived. 

 

“Where,” the man started, his accent thick, consonants clear and distinct and vowels almost nonexistent. He took a step forward, and bent down to Izuku’s level. “Is my egg?”

 

“Y-your egg? I, um, I don’t-”

 

“- Miekshan deku,” the man spat. He extended his arm and calloused, bruised hand. Fingers closed in around Izuku’s throat before he could defend himself, and he was lifted to his feet. He thrashed, grabbed the man’s wrist with both his hands and tried to pry him off, but the barbarian's grip was like a vice, and his eyes were unrelenting. His nostrils fumed, and tight lips curled up in a vicious growl. “ Where is my dragon egg?”

 

Izuku couldn’t answer; he couldn’t even breath. The fingers clenching down on his windpipe were strong. No matter how he clawed at them, he could feel the blood cut off at his neck, could feel the pounding in his head and the burning of his throat. White spots dotted his eyes, and no matter how many times the barbarian screamed the question in his ear, he couldn’t respond. Something scratched the back of his head, claws digging in his flesh as they crawled towards his scalp.

 

Then the pinpricks were gone, and all he heard was a quick shout of surprise. The hands contracting his airway disappeared, and he fell onto the floorboards, his hands and knees cutting into glass shards while he sucked in breath after breath, trying his best to come back to himself. He heard a screech, his heartbeat picked up again, and he looked up to find Eri’s teeth sunk into the man’s hand. He flailed at first, trying to get the beast off.

 

And then he stopped. His eyes expanded wide, shocked. He froze, staring down at the monster like he couldn’t believe it. His eyes whipped back to Izuku, heaving on the floor. “You…” his voice quivered, from anger, not fear. “You hatched the egg?”

 

“I- I, um,” Izuku tried, but his throat burned.

 

The barbarian pinched Eri’s neck, and the young dragon unhinged its teeth. He sat it lightly on the pillow that had been discarded to the floor, and stomped towards Izuku. “YOU HATCHED MY EGG! YOU KNOW WHAT THIS MEANS?” he screamed, grabbing Izuku by the wrist and hoisting him up on to his feet. His hands burned; he felt hot blood drip down the palms. “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’VE DONE?”

 

Izuku didn’t.

 

How could he? A dragon egg finding its way to his bag, hatching on a table in his cottage? He didn’t know what it meant, or why a Yamak would storm his home. He didn’t know , but what could he say? What should he say?

 

Izuku choked, the sound not reminiscent of any word in his dictionary. It was simply frazzled, strangled sounds.

 

There was a huff outside his door, and the Yamak whipped his head around to shout something incomprehensible to the beast outside. Izuku could hear soldiers in the distance, warning shouts and the clopping of hooves on cobblestone paths. Salvation was close. 

 

His lips quivered upwards in a smile, the faintest of smiles, and the man turned back to him with a seething expression. Nostrils flaring, grip on Izuku tightening to the point it could pass as a tourniquet, the barbarian used his free hand to draw his sword. It glistened in the light of the fire, the bronze hilt reflecting the licking flames in the fireplace. Izuku focused on it, scared of focusing on anything else. Scared of panicking anymore.

 

Izuku saw it climb high in the air, saw his bloody hands, pinprick wounds from Eri’s bite, as he raised the sword above his head. Izuku craned his neck upwards to see it. In the glow of the cottage he saw the glint of the handle slash down through the air. He heard a crack! 

 

His legs gave out.

 

Everything went black.