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all the work of human hands

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The worst part is that Rei can feel it.

The soft rustle of the manes, intertwining with his own. He had desperately missed even the casual, accidental brush against other dragons, but he never wanted it like this. They’re slippery with some sort of – of treatment, of preservative, but it’s enough like the real thing that his body remembers, his stupid instincts thrumming with a split second of contentment before it rattles into nausea.

He tears himself away the second the hunters leave. The skins – they’re skinned – he can’t think. There’s nowhere safe to look. The boards of the wagon are rough on his hands, his palms. The humans had touched his mane.

Humans don’t have claws or fire or teeth. They just have these stupid stubby flesh digits, so they had to go out of their way to hurt people.

And it shows. There is so much careful work. The claws are so clean. The way the bodies have been sectioned are so precise, from long experience. The hunters had talked about it, brisk and business-like. Rei can’t stop imagining them snapping his neck just as neatly.

The older dragons had told stories of how ruthless the hunters had been. But they hadn’t told him what they did after the murder.

It meant nothing to them. There is nothing to them; just big stupid animals that they can catch out of the sky and turn into money. If Rei were still dragon-shaped, they’d run him down without a second thought too.

There’s a very small skull on the table; smaller even than Rei had been. He wants to be sick.

Which is when he hears someone jump up into the wagon.

Hammer shouts from the doorway, limned in fire-light. Rei can’t see his face from this angle; it’s too dark.

“Rei!” Hammer says again, coming forward to clutch his elbows. Rei still can’t move, heart rabbiting in his chest.  “Rei, c’mon,” he says, and starts talking about something stupid, the way he usually does, except he calls Rei dragon.

Hammer, when they first met, thought dragons were just animals.

“You… believe I’m a dragon,” Rei feels the walls press in on him.

“Well, yeah. Kind of hard not to after that lightshow in Green Valley.” Hammer looks impatient. He doesn’t look like he’s going to eviscerate Rei, but maybe that will come later.

“You..know I’m a dragon,” says Rei, surrounded by the husks of people he could have known. Taken apart by humans like Hammer, no claws but the ones they make themselves, “and you would still help me?”

Rei isn’t sure what he’s expecting. Maybe for Hammer to pause. Maybe for a flicker of fear or pity or disgust to show in his face. He’s been at Hammer’s side for not very long, but he tends to react quickly.

So he does. Hammer, as always, has the grace of a brick wall. “Uh, yeah? What else am I supposed to do?” His voice has a small laugh in it. He props his hands on his hips, like this is the most ridiculous thing Rei has ever asked him.

It is. Rei realizes. It is the stupidest thing he’s ever asked Hammer, whose first instinct was to give a random naked man his own clothes. When Hammer leans forwards to take his elbows again, Rei lets him pull him upright, warmth coming through the jacket, through Hammer’s palms, grounding and safe and not the nicest person in the world, but someone who would never actively try to hurt him.

He follows Hammer back to Von like a hatchling, dumb with relief that he’s finally out of that horrible wagon.

Through some miracle, the three of them manage to hide in a little cave until the hunters are gone. Rei breathes a sigh of relief when the last wagon sallies out.

“They’re gone.” he says, slipping back from the mouth of the cave. They haven’t lit a fire, so the only light is a sliver of the moon’s from the entrance. Using that, Rei can find Hammer’s pale coloring in the gloom. He lets his mane brush against Hammer’s as he passes, and even if Hammer squawks in protest, it’s. Nice.

“Rei, don’t dump your hair on me, it’s so heavy.” he grouses, pushing it off him. “Is this a dragon thing??? I hate it.”

“Wait, what?” Von pipes from the other end of the cave, where they’d been trying to count their supplies by feeling it blindly (it had not been going well). “Rei, is it a dragon thing? Can you do it to me?!”

Rei was planning to anyway, but it means he gets to fluff his hair a little more aggressively, something he was sure Hammer wouldn’t like. Von giggles under the onslaught, like he always imagined a close nestmate would.

“Ok, enough, Hammer’s right, your hair is so heavy.” Von says, reaching out and smacking lightly at Rei. “Let’s sleep, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Rei says, feeling his heart settle for the first time in hours. “Let’s.”