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Burn Ever Bright

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Stepping into the house is the hardest thing Gerard has done in his life.

Harder than the years worth of study, nights when he was so tired he’d fallen asleep on his books and woken with an ink-stained cheek and empty earthenware mugs ringing his desk. Harder than the physical training, the mornings he’d use five alarms to make himself get up and stumble outside, breath misty and chest aching as he started to run.

Harder, even, than the endless sessions with his counselor, and Gerard didn’t think anything could be harder than that. The hours he’d spent talking, emotions raw and insecurities exposed, his every vulnerability and fault put on show and picked over.

But Gerard had survived that. Survived all of his training, the selection, had forced himself to become one of the group of trainees, had made friends even -- and it all came to nothing.

Now he had to step into his home and admit that.

~~~~~

“Well?” Gerard’s mom is waiting in the kitchen. She’s wiping at a bench that’s already perfectly clean, and on the range a pan of potatoes is bubbling. Gerard doesn’t have to look at the oven to know some kind of meat is roasting, he can smell it, the scent of garlic overlain with a faint sugary sweetness, suggesting that somewhere, some kind of cake has been made and then hidden.

Gerard takes it all in -- his mom’s expectant expression, the celebration dinner, the sound of approaching footsteps from the rest of the house -- and all he wants to do is turn back and run.

He doesn’t. Gerard owes his family that at least.

“Gerard?” Gerard’s mom’s smile has started to fade, and she looks uncertain as she takes a step forward, dropping the cloth as she does so. “Gerard, honey. What happened?”

“I….” Gerard takes a deep breath, his voice cracking as he says, “I didn’t get chosen.”

“But every trainee gets chosen.” Gerard can see his mom regrets the words as soon as they slip out. But they still hurt, especially as she’s right, Gerard was supposed to be chosen today. It’s what he trained so hard for, what always does happen. “I’m sorry, honey.” Gerard’s engulfed in a tight hug, his mom clinging on, her hair rough against his face as she adds, “It’s just. I’ve never heard of that happening before.”

“Commander Drex says the last time was seventeen hundred and ten.” Gerard doesn’t add that the failed trainee then ran from the castle training grounds and threw himself into the nearest lava river. Gerard knows how he feels, right now it’s only his family that’s keeping him here and not running beyond the town walls and up to the pass. “Apparently it just happens sometimes, the dragons don’t connect, don’t sense anything worthy I guess.”

“Gerard Arthur Way, stop that right now.” Flawlessly, like this is something they’ve practiced before, Gerard’s mom steps to one side and lets in his grandma. Immediately she hugs Gerard close, crushingly so, directing feelings of love until she pulls back, grasping his arms as she says, “You’re worthy, more than worthy. If none of the dragons could sense that it’s their loss.”

Gerard wishes he could agree, but right now it’s impossible when all he can think of is snorts of derision, the way each dragon he passed looked aside, their attention on anything but Gerard. “Even the smallest didn’t want me. It chose to wait for the next batch of trainees instead.”

Gerard’s grandma tightens her grip on his arms. “Then it’s stupid.”

“It is,” Mikey agrees, and he’s angry, Gerard can sense that easily, how Mikey’s fighting for control as he scowls in the direction of the training grounds. “And not good enough for you. It’s probably the reject or something, doesn’t know a good rider when it sees it. They’re all stupid.”

“No.” Gerard shakes his head. As much as he wants to accept Mikey’s words, Gerard can’t. He’s spent years studying the dragons, their capabilities and intellect taken in through lessons and observation.He’s cleaned out pens, polished harnesses, watched as each year a new batch of riders and dragons bond and become one. He’s even talked to a few in both mind and voice. It’s why Gerard knows for a fact that the dragons aren’t stupid. “They’re not. They just don’t want me.”

“So they’re stupid,” Mikey says again, fierce and unrelenting.

“No, they’re….” Gerard breaks off, and knows he has to get out. Get away from his family with their sympathetic smiles and in Mikey’s case, simmering outrage. “I need... I’m going out for a walk.”

Gerard’s grandma tightens her hold, and for a moment he’s afraid he’s going to have to break free, but all she says is, “Okay. Go. But come back.”

All speech beyond him, Gerard nods, and as soon as he’s let free bolts for the door, not looking back when he hears Mikey being told to not follow.

~*~*~*~

Cert roll clutched in his hand, Gerard slumps on a rock, looking down at the lava river that bubbles close by. Outside of the town and this high in the mountain the air feels cold, but he can feel the heat from below. It’s scorching the front of his legs and Gerard’s skin feels dry, too tight, like his whole body could split apart in a moment.

Perfectly still, he waits for Mikey to come into view. For a while now Gerard's felt him approach and Gerard knows Mikey’s still angry. It’s an anger Gerard can feel easily, and it’s tempting to submerge himself in Mikey’s shared emotions, better that than the still overwhelming grief and rejection that Gerard’s holding himself.

“Gerard. Gee.” Mikey’s approach is slow at first, then, Gerard’s heart races with a shared wild burst of fear when Mikey sees where Gerard is sitting.

“I’m not going to jump,” Gerard says instantly, sorry that he’s frightened Mikey so badly. “I just needed to come here, and mom told you to stay home.”

“I gave you an hour and then I snuck out,” Mikey says, unrepentant and fierce as he walks close. “And you wanted to for a moment, I could feel it.”

It’s true, Gerard can’t deny that, but, the urge really was only there for a moment. Despite what’s happened, Gerard’s got too much to live for -- has Mikey and his family -- even if that life isn’t here. Standing, he waits until Mikey is close to his side, as always, his presence a comfort. “They didn’t want me, Mikey.”

“I know,” Mikey says in reply, and this time there’s no mention of stupidity or the dragons being wrong, just Mikey taking hold of Gerard’s free hand and holding on tight.

“I can’t stay here.” It’s what Gerard’s being thinking since he arrived at the river. Not that he wants to leave his home and the people he loves so deeply, it’s just, there’s no way Gerard can stay. He’s not strong enough to live and be labelled as a reject, to endure the mixture of sympathy and scorn each time he walks out of his front door. “I’m going to go away for a while, see what else is out there.”

“Okay,” Mikey says, his emotions so churned Gerard’s finding it hard to focus on one, but then, everything clears. “When are we going?”

“We’re not.” Gerard takes a step away, pulling their hands free so he can turn and look directly at Mikey, needing him to understand that even if Gerard’s heart breaks at the thought of leaving Mikey behind, it has to be done. “You’re staying here. I didn’t get chosen but you’ve still got a chance. You’ve just started your training. I know that you love it.”

“I love you more,” Mikey says simply, and plucks the cert roll from out of Gerard hand. Holding it up so the red reject stamp is exposed he adds, “This isn’t you. You haven’t changed just because a dragon said no. You’re still my big brother. You’re still Gerard, and where you go I’m going too.”

“It was more than one dragon,” Gerard says, but for the first time since this morning it feels like he can start to breathe easy, Mikey’s unrelenting loyalty and love starting to break through the ache in his chest that’s lodged deep. “And I don’t know where I’m going.”

Mikey shrugs. “So we’ll have an adventure.”

“We’ll probably freeze to death crossing the mountains or break our legs being chased by a hog.” And a thousand other things that could easily go wrong. Despite his long training, Gerard’s no natural survivalist and no matter where he wants to travel, they’ll have to get there by foot. “The whole thing could be a disaster.”

“It could,” Mikey agrees, unrelenting as he stares at Gerard. “But I’m still coming.”

“Fine,” Gerard’s not going to argue, it’s pointless even trying, plus, when it comes down to it, Gerard doesn’t want to. Which is weak and selfish, Gerard knows that, Mikey should be staying in town and working toward meeting his own dragon.

“Yeah, not going to happen,” Mikey says, and then, “And dragons suck. So just do it already and we can go home. It’s getting cold up here.”

Gerard sighs. “You’re not supposed to listen that hard, and I shouldn’t. That’s official dragon cert property.”

“Looks like trash to me,” Mikey says, handing the cert roll to Gerard, the scroll creased and smudged. “And trash needs to burn.”

Gerard looks at the rejection stamp that covers his name, the space left blank for his potential dragon match scored over. It’s his rejection staring him back in the face. His future destroyed with red ink. His chest aching with lost dreams, Gerard moves to the bank of the lava river and lets go of the cert roll, watching as it bursts into flames and turns into ash.

His past burned, Gerard waits a moment and then turns to his future.

~*~*~*~

Gerard’s mon stands in the doorway, as if she’s getting ready to physically stop them from leaving. “You can still stay. People will forget soon, and if they don’t, I’ll make them.”

As much as Gerard enjoys the thought of his mom threatening anyone making gossipy mean comments, Gerard knows he’s got no choice but to go. Dropping his bag at his feet he gathers his mom in a hug, squeezing and holding on. “I have to go, there’s nothing here for me now. But thank you for having my back.”

“You’re my first born, I’ve always got your back. Always.” Gerard’s mom tenses, and while he can’t see her face he knows that she’s frowning. “And if I hear John the butcher call you the reject again I’ll slap him and catch my own meat.”

Gerard wants to laugh and to cry, to hold onto his mom forever. “I love you. Thank you. I need to go.”

“I know.” A last kiss to his cheek and Gerard’s mom straightens, forcing a small smile. “Look after your brother. Don’t let him walk off a cliff or eat poisonous berries.”

“I’ll try.” That’s all Gerard can promise, especially as he’s not exactly sure what berries are poisonous himself. Needing to go now, before it gets too painful to leave, Gerard looks back to where Mikey is talking to their dad and Eleana. “I’ll send word when we get settled.”

“You’d better.” On that Gerard’s mom moves away from the door, emotions fading as she pulls up shields and prepares to watch her sons go. “I’ll be waiting, and know, this is always your home. Yours and Mikey’s both.”

“I know,” Gerard says and picks up his bag, awkwardly throwing it over his shoulder. Once it’s settled, Gerard staggering a little under the weight, he heads toward Mikey, pretending not to see how his eyes glisten. “Last chance. You can still stay.”

“Yeah, right.” A last look at his mom, dad and grandma, Mikey starts walking, Gerard there at his side as they walk out of the front door for the last time.

~~~~

“Which way now?” Mikey asks. An hour after leaving the town walls and they’re standing at a crossroad, looking between the roads that snake off into the distance. Most are well travelled, wagon ruts sunk into the dirt, but Gerard’s pulled towards the one that quickly dwindles into little more than a faint track. It’s also the one that heads directly towards the distant outer ring of mountains, the ones that tower over the home range that Gerard is used to.

“That way.” Gerard shades his eyes with his hand, trying to see where the track goes. “It just feels right.”

“The last travellers that went that way never came back,” Mikey says, and then adds, “Bravel the baker heard their packs were found torn apart at the foot of the pass and a gnawed thigh bone was caught in a tree.”

It’s a story Gerard’s heard too, the kind passed down through the cadet ranks, each time the details embellished a bit more. It’s also a story he doesn’t believe, well, most of the details at least. Gerard’s sure there’s some danger ahead, especially when the town guardians stop just short of outright forbidding anyone attempting the pass. It’s why, despite knowing Mikey’s more amused at the story than afraid, Gerard has to say, “We could go another way. Head toward Pratas instead.”

“I’ve been there a thousand times,” Mikey says. Pulling a pouch of water from out of his bag he takes a short drink, then offers the pouch to Gerard. “If that way feels right, that’s the way that we’re going.”

Gerard takes a drink of tepid water and then says, “Even if our legs are gnawed on by mutant hogs?”

“It’ll make it kinda hard to walk, but I’m up for it.”

“If they gnaw off your legs I’ll carry you,” Gerard says, handing the pouch back to Mikey. “Or drag you if you get too heavy.”

“At least I’ll be lighter without my legs.” Mikey flashes a smile while shoving the pouch back into his bag. “We should go, we need to find a place to sleep before it gets dark.”

“And to put up the shelter to hide from the mutant hogs.” Not that Gerard’s confident about how to actually make a shelter. He’s been taught, sure, but rigging up dragon tents with the help of other cadets isn’t the same as putting something up on his own. “Eleana did show you how to put up the shelter, right?”

“She did,” Mikey says, confidence soothing Gerard’s prickling fears. “And I’ve done them before, it gets cold at the lake bowl.”

Momentarily Gerard gets a flash of an image, Mikey hanging with a group of his friends, purple water lapping behind them and Mikey’s contribution to erecting the shelter being holding onto a rope. “Yeah, I can see you’re an expert.”

“You know it.” Mikey grins and shrugs his shoulders, getting his bag comfortable on his back. “Ready?”

“Ready,” Gerard says in reply.

~*~*~*~

In the end, it takes almost an hour to set up the shelter. It would have been less, but somehow they kept walking too long. Which was stupid, no matter how much Gerard was enjoying the walk, how, for the first time in days he felt free and unjudged, they should have stopped well before they actually did.

Now they’re finally inside, the light from their lamp casting shadows that ripple and distort. It’s the kind of creepiness that Gerard can appreciate and he settles back on his blanket, his feet aching and whole body cold.

“We’ve a choice of yak jerky or some kind of pickle.” Mikey holds up a small wrapped bundle close to his face, sniffing the contents. “It’s Elena’s gherkins.”

“Not mom’s cucumbers of doom?” Gerard has to make sure, because, as much as he loves his mom, he’s not about to risk eating something that previously resulted in explosive diarrhea. “Those things could unblock a drain.”

“They did, or else, you did,” Mikey says, amusement mixing with months old concern. “But no, dad took one for the team and accidently dropped the cucumbers in the firepit. Mom still thinks he loves them.”

Gerard reaches out and takes a strip of jerky, holding it up in a salute for his dad. “Way to go dad.”

Mikey takes his own strip of jerky and taps it against Gerard’s. “You think they’ll be okay? You know, now that we’re gone.”

It’s an abrupt change of mood and the ache Gerard still holds inside intensifies, his emotions and Mikey’s mingling together. Rolling so he can lie close to Mikey, Gerard presses their bodies together, providing comfort through touch. “They’ll be fine. Better than fine without me there.”

“That’s yak shit,” Mikey says instantly, poking Gerard in the chest with the jerky. “They love you and didn’t give a damn what some stupid dragons said. No one that matters does.”

“But a lot that don’t, do.” That’s an irrefutable fact, and no matter what Mikey says now, Gerard’s family will be better off without the present taint of a reject. “This way people will forget. Gerard the rejected dragon cadet will be lost to time. It’s better that way.”

Gerard can tell Mikey doesn’t agree. It’s there in the simmering frustration and anger that he’s trying to hold back, the way his hands are clenched as he pulls away from Gerard. “I hate them. And all of the stupid dragons.”

“No you don’t,” Gerard says and rolls more so contact remains between them. “And the dragons are just dragons. They know what they want, and that wasn’t me.”

“Like I said, stupid,” Mikey says fiercely, every other emotion suddenly drowned out by one as Mikey pushes himself up on his elbow and puts his leg over Gerard’s, a roll and quickfire movement that leaves Mikey draped over Gerard, pinning him down. “Everyone should want you. You’re amazing.”

“You’re biased,” and Mikey is. Always has been, his love for Gerard a constant that’s only grown over the years. It’s something that Gerard holds onto, something solid that gives him strength in the times he feels lost. “You’re also a bony fucker.”

“See if I try to warm you up again,” Mikey says, brushing a kiss against Gerard’s forehead. “No more Mikey blankets for you.”

“Is this what this is?” Gerard can’t help grinning, all too aware Mikey’s motives have little to do with body-blanketing warmth. “Because if so, you suck at being a blanket. You’re not wide enough for optional coverage.”

“Yeah?” Mikey pushes himself up on his elbows so he can look down at Gerard. “Guess I’ll have to think of another way to warm you up then.”

Gerard could suggest some ways, in fact, he has countless memories of Mikey using his hands and mouth, always hidden in some way, when their parents and grandma were out for the day or mostly, high up in the mountains well away from the city walls.

They're memories Gerard loves to revisit, and just thinking of those times makes him shiver. Breath hitching he tries to lie still as Mikey knee walks down Gerard's legs, his expression hungry and wanting. Gerard can almost taste how much Mikey wants this, but there's no time for drawn-out and teasing, not when they're both so tired and cold.

"It's been too long," Mikey says, swallowing hard, fumbling a little as he works at Gerard's belt. "I've missed this."

And Gerard has too, how Mikey enjoys taking control, Gerard trembling with the effort to stay still as Mikey takes him into his mouth. Resisting the urge to thrust, Gerard knows he's going to be taken apart, hard and brutal.

He can feel it, the connection between them pulsating with need, a desperation to get close, Mikey sucking hard and working his throat until all Gerard can do is scrabble at the ground, unable to stop the noises that break free as he seeks purchase, his whole world exploding around him.

 

~*~*~*~

In the last few years Gerard has become used to physical exertion. But training with the other cadets while being watched over by the commanders is completely different to this. Then, Gerard knew back-up in an emergency was moments away. Now, he and Mikey are completely alone and Gerard’s all too aware of the dangers that lurk close-by.

This high in the mountain the air has become thin, and Gerard gasps for breath, every movement taking more effort. They’ve started to slow down as they walk, and Gerard would say this is why attempting this pass is frowned on, except, there’s something else out there.

Gerard doesn’t know what that is. Just, the longer they walk the more there’s something at the edge of his range. It’s something both familiar and not, an alien sensation that’s leaving Gerard feeling unsettled, and at all times, fighting against the urge to turn back.

“We should stop for a while,” Gerard says, dropping his bag to the ground. Nearly a week since they set off and the contents are lighter now, a lot of food gone and fresh water a constant concern. Hands shading his eyes he looks around, seeing nothing but more rocks and the barely there trail that keeps snaking upwards. From here it’s impossible to see the top of the pass, thick clouds covering the mountain tops, the vivid red of a distant lava stream the only colour in sight.

“Are we staying here tonight?” Mikey asks. He’s dropped his own bag, rotating his shoulders as he looks around too. “Because it’s not very flat. I don’t want to end up rolling down the pass again.”

“That happened once,” Gerard protests, “And you didn’t roll very far, that rock stopped you. But no, we’re not stopping here. It’s just….” Gerard hesitates, trying again to recognise what he’s picking up so faintly. “Can you feel that? It’s, I don’t know, something.”

Mikey waits a moment, his expression blank, and then, “Nothing. I did think I sensed people last night, but they went so fast I figured I’d picked up something from town. It was Jenna’s party yesterday.”

As explanations go it could happen, the mass thoughts of Mikey’s friends amplifying any emotions directed his way. But this distance from town it’s unlikely and Gerard casts out his own senses, using his training to retain focus over the vast distance. It’s something he can’t do for long, especially without the help of a dragon, and Gerard’s trembling when he eventually says, “Got them.” It’s the briefest of touches, a sense of laughter followed by surprise before mental shields are pulled down. But, it’s enough. “There’s at least one person ahead of us. Probably a few days walk, close to the top.”

Mikey looks up the trail, as if somehow, despite the cloud cover, he could see the other people look back. “Are they what you’ve been sensing.”

“No.” Gerard is certain. What he’s just sensed was familiar, humanity that’s surrounded Gerard his whole life. The other is nothing like that, it’s nails down Gerard’s spine, a prickle on his skin as he tries to understand what he’s feeling and gets nothing. “That’s something different. I don’t know what but I don’t think we’re meant to go up there.”

“Well I’m not going back now,” Mikey says and picks up his bag, shrugging it onto his back. “And if those people can be up there so can we. Screw the mutant hogs.”

“You say that now but when they’re gnawing on your legs….” Gerard says, falling into the joke. It’s just easier that way, using an imaginary danger to distract from the unknown thing that’s actually up there.

“I’ll distract them by screaming and you can hit them with a stick,” Mikey says, grinning at Gerard. “Make sure it’s a big one.”

“The biggest,” Gerard promises, and once again they start walking.

~*~*~*~

“We have to be close to the top now.” Mikey’s voice is faint, exhaustion obvious as they attempt to stay on the track. Right now it’s an effort to put one foot in front of another and all Gerard wants to do is sink to the ground and sleep.

“We have to be,” Gerard says, but there’s no way he can actually tell. Now they’re up in the cloud-line everything is foggy, mist coating Gerard’s skin until he’s wet through. The top of the pass could be feet away or still a day’s walk, and they’re slowing down with every step.

If it wasn’t for Mikey,Gerard would stop. He’s Gerard’s prop in both body and mind, keeping Gerard going when he tempted to give up. Every part of his body hurts and the pressure inside of his head is immense, a presence pushing in that Gerard can’t keep out. It’s all around him, alien and wrong and he brushes his hand under his nose, wiping away blood.

“We’ll get there soon,” Mikey says, and even manages to speed up a little, small stones rolling from under his feet as he scrambles between two rocks. “And when we do I’m going to sleep for a week.”

“Probably not a good idea at the top of a mountain.” It’s these conversations that keep Gerard going, halting and panted at times, they’re something Gerard can keep hold of. A tiny speck of familiarity while all around they’re surrounded by wrong. “I could blow you instead.”

“Tempting,” Mikey says, and for a moment arousal is evident through the layers of exhaustion and pain that surround him. “But you probably won’t have enough breath, and I’m not climbing to the top of this mountain for you to die sucking my dick.”

“You could leave an interesting marker stone, here lies Gerard Arthur Way, he valiantly died in the midst of fellatio. God rest his soul.”

“Again, tempting.” Safely beyond the rocks, Mikey turns, holding out his hand so he can help Gerard squeeze through and upwards. “But how about we skip the blow job and you just stay alive instead?”

“I can do that,” Gerard says, clasping Mikey’s hand. “That’s if my head doesn’t explode first.”

“It’s getting worse?” Concern floods from Mikey and he stops still, thoughts about turning and going back starting to form.

“Yeah.” There’s no point in lying, but Gerard adds, “It’s okay, I can cope.”

“You can,” Mikey says, and while the concern remains, his utter conviction that Gerard can do this means any thoughts of turning are draining away. “But if it does get too bad...”

“I’ll say,” Gerard promises, cringing as he casts his senses out once again. “Something doesn’t want us up here. It’ll be better once we get over the top.”

“It better,” Mikey says, and takes the lead once again.

~*~*~*~

One foot in front of the other. Come on, we’re nearly there.”

By now Mikey’s voice is little more than a whisper, hoarse and rough after his non-stop encouragement over the last hours. Gerard lets the words flow over him, soothing against the deafening noise in his head.

“Come on, Gee. I can see the summit. Just a little bit further.”

Gathering the strength needed to look up, Gerard sees that Mikey’s telling the truth. Not that there’s that much to see. There’s no sign, just more rocks, except, this time they’re mainly flat and not going up.

“Told you we’d get here.” Mikey tightens his grip, ensuring that Gerard doesn’t drop to the ground. “A few minutes rest and we can start to go down. You’ll feel better then.”

Gerard hopes so, because truthfully, he doesn’t think he can go on for much longer. Every step is an effort, even with Mikey taking most of his weight, and Gerard’s head aches so much it’s impossible to think.

“You’re not giving up now,” Mikey says, and Gerard doesn’t know where he’s finding the strength to keep going. “From you, idiot. Same as I always do. We’re getting to the top even if I have to carry you up.”

Gerard shakes his head just a touch, white lights flashing behind his eyes with the movement. “Too heavy.”

“So I’ll get the mutant hogs to chew off your legs.” Mikey laughs, the kind that’s verging on a loss of control and not humour. “I’ll use one as a stick to rest on.”

“Make sure they’re chewed at the thigh and not knee then, you need the length,” Gerard says, almost pitching forward when the pressure in his head suddenly disappears in a flash.

“Gerard….” Mikey freezes in place, his face streaked with dirt and eyes wet, cheekbones stark and skin pulled tight. It’s like he’s been stripped back, should look fragile somehow, but isn’t at all, he’s Gerard’s rock, has been forever.

His legs shaking, Gerard straightens, light-headed and ears ringing, his voice rasping when he says, “It’s gone, the noise.”

“But there’s something else.” Mikey’s eyes are narrowed as he looks toward the summit. “Something coming, no, someone coming.”

Gerard tries to cast out his senses, forcing himself to focus despite how his mind feels battered and bruised -- and finds what Mikey is sensing. “It’s two someones.”

And at the summit, two hooded men walk into view.

~*~*~*~

“We’ve been watching for a while now,” Ray -- the taller man says, “Frank thought you’d turn back at one point, but Shavaron was insistent you’d go on.”

“They spent nearly an hour flat on their backs not moving,” Frank protests, indicating back down the pass. “When you got back up again. Fuck. No wonder she was interested. You’re the first to get through the defenses in decades.”

“Shavaron? Defences?” If Gerard wasn’t feeling so exhausted and ill he’d seek out his own answers, but right now he’s barely able to shuffle after Frank and Ray. They seem to know where they’re going despite the lack of a trail, and Gerard can only hope they’re not about to be torn apart and murdered after finally reaching the top of the mountain.

“I don’t think they could rip off our arms,” Mikey says, making no attempt to lower his voice. “Not unless they’re some kind of mutant changelings that like to lurk on mountains and eat human flesh.”

Frank looks back, one eyebrow raised. “A puppy could tear off your skinny arms, and I don’t eat any kind of flesh, nevermind human.”

“And we’re not mutant hogs,” Ray says, smiling as he adds, “Though Frank sounds a bit like a one when he’s sleeping.”

Despite sensing these two people are safe and mean them no harm, Gerard doesn’t like the idea that they could have been close enough to hear his conversations with Mikey. “You could hear us?”

Ray shakes his head. “No us, but Shavaron kept snorting and mentioning mutant hogs. She liked that. That and your bond.”

What Ray’s saying doesn’t make sense. Gerard doesn’t think that it would even if he was feeling at his best. Which means he’s no hope of understanding right now.

“It’s easier to show you,” Frank says, and Gerard can feel the touch of an unfamiliar mind against his own for a moment. “A few minutes and you’ll see.”

“See what? More rocks?” Mikey says, pointing at a towering pile of rocks that they’re slowly approaching. “Because we’ve seen lots of them lately. Too many of the fucking things.”

“But these are special rocks,” Frank says, smile bright as he pulls down his hood and strides forward, arms held out to his sides as he walks up to and then leaps into and through the rocks with a wild cry.

Ray shrugs. “He doesn’t get to do the big reveal very often. In fact, this is the first time.”

“It’s a mirage.” Concentrating, Gerard can see a barely there shimmer in places, but as soon as he looks with normal eyes only, all he can see are the rocks. “One of the best that I’ve seen. It’s almost flawless.”

“It’s usually completely flawless,” Ray says, and then, “I can see why Shavaron was so interested.”

“Shavaron again.” Gerard turns his attention from the rocks to Ray. “Who is he? Or she? You haven’t told us anything.”

“I haven’t,” Ray agrees, and slows as they approach the rocks, letting Mikey and Gerard catch up. “But Frank’s right. It is easier to show you.”

With that, Ray walks through the rock mirage, and all Gerard can do is follow behind.

“We’ve been camping here a while.” Frank’s waiting on a well worn trail, one that’s surrounded by patchy but green grass. After so long seeing nothing but greys and ribbons of red, the colour is striking, and Gerard presses his foot on the grass, feeling it give under his weight. “It gets a bit cold sometimes, but the others help with that.”

“Others?” Gerard casts out his senses, trying to see who else could be waiting -- there’s nothing.

“They’re shielding,” Ray says, and then, “It’s that or have your mind blown this first time.”

“I get the feeling you mean that literally.” Gerard rubs at his forehead, the memories of pain still close.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Ray says, the truth of his statement shining true. “It’s all about the testing. Annoying but needed. I’ve some powders that will help if you need it.”

“I’m okay.” Gerard doesn’t sense any deceit in Ray’s offer, but still, Gerard’s not about to take an unknown substance from someone that hangs out on the top of a mountain. Especially someone who’s wearing a full length black cape and hood.

“The capes are warm,” Ray says easily, and smiles when Gerard startles at his words. “Your shielding is all over the place. It will be for a while.”

Instantly Gerard shores up his mental shields. It’s something he excelled at in training school, but somehow up here, he can feel cracks constantly appear. Frustrated, Gerard focuses on Mikey, using his presence and a lifetime of memories to shore up and plug every gap.

“Or you’ll be able to fix things straight away,” Ray says, sounding impressed. Looking at Frank he says softly. “I think Shavaron is right.”

“She’s always right,” Frank says, and then, “She’s annoying like that.”

“Is she your mom? Girlfriend? Random mountain top dweller too?” Mikey asks. He’s wandered slightly away from the group, attention going in all directions as he takes in the scenery around them. “Is she a mutant hog?”

Frank laughs, the hem on his cloak slithering against the hard ground as he follows the trail. “There’s no mutant hogs around here, no to the first two, and maybe?”

“So there’s mutant hogs elsewhere,” Mikey says, sounding pleased with that fact. “So a random mountain top dweller wants to see Gerard.”

Frank shakes his head. “No, she wants to see you both. It was Gerard that caught her attention, but it’s your bond that makes you both so strong. We need that.”

“Good.” Despite the throbbing in his feet, Gerard hurries his pace so he’s close to Mikey once more. “Because where he goes I go and vice versa.”

“Which is just as it should be,” Ray says, stepping off the trail and heading for a wall of rock that curves off into the distance. “Behind here.”

Gerard looks closely, trying to see if the rock is another mirage. But nothing shimmers or moves, just Ray turning sideways next to a deep shadow as he says, “This last gate is an old fashioned one. Some of us need to suck in to get through, but you’ll be fine.”

“By which he means him,” Frank says, exasperated as he says loudly. “I’ve told you a thousand times you haven’t got a gut.”

“Compared to you I have.” With a deft sideways step, Ray disappears into the shadow, the only sound fabric whispering against rock.

“Now you,” Frank says. “Once you step in keep going. It’s not that far.”

“I’ll go next,” Gerard says, unwilling to let Mikey walk into the unknown first. “You follow.”

Mikey approaches the shadow, says, “I’ll be right behind you.”

If stepping into the shadow is creepy, the sidestep into the rock is even more so. In a blink nearly all light is gone, and Gerard is all too aware of the rock that surrounds him so completely. The only sound is his own breathing, and Gerard takes careful sidesteps, the tunnel sides narrowing and scraping against his stomach and back on occasions.

Clutching his bag at his side, Gerard takes slow deliberate breaths, reminding himself Frank said it’s not actually far, no matter how it seems like Gerard’s been inside of this rock forever.

“You’re only a few steps away now.” Ray’s voice is welcome, and Gerard narrows his eyes when he sees light spilling into the tunnel. “Around a corner and you’re here.”

Gerard quickens his side steps, eager for fresh air as he steps into bright sunshine, and onto a ledge where he can look down into a long and bowled valley -- one that’s filled with dragons, some awake, some slumbering, and some commanding the air, swooping and roaring, leaving flaring flames and smoke trails behind them.

At first, Gerard thinks that he’s dreaming, or hallucinating, because nothing he’s experienced in life has prepared him for this. Unlike the neat dragon pens back in the corps, these dragons are spread out and roam free, dozens of them, so many that Gerard doesn’t know where to look first.

Some lumber across the valley floor, huge and yet dainty in the way they look around, their brilliant, shimmering scales catching the light. While others seem to be napping, curled up and looking like vast living hills, their wings tucked in and tails stretched out over the rock.

It’s the most magnificent thing Gerard’s ever seen, like a colourful, amazing fantasy land made real.

“This is another mirage, right?” Gerard says, because no way is this real. It can’t be, it’s not possible that something so amazing has been tucked away out of sight at the top of this mountain. “Those are dragons. Big dragons. Wild dragons.”

“They’re real, and they’ve been here for a long while now,” Ray says, his hair blowing against his face when one of the bigger dragons stretches its body and flaps red-tipped green wings. “That’s Ragalut, he’s one of the elders.”

“He’s beautiful,” Gerard says, unable to look away from the way Ragalut’s wings flex, the webbing between muscle and bone shimmering bright. It’s a beautiful sight and Gerard takes a careful step closer to the side of the ledge, needing to see more.

“Holy hell.” Gerard looks back, grinning when he sees Mikey’s expression when he steps into view. “Are they real?”

“Very,” Ray says, grabbing hold of the back of Gerard’s coat when a small orange dragon takes flight, swooping past in a hot gust of air. “And that’s Dillox. She’s one of the youngest, hasn’t really got control of her wings yet.”

“Which is why I spent last week rebuilding our shelter yet again,” Frank says, watching as Dillox attempts a sharp banked turn that knocks down a small boulder from the top of the valley. “And why the shelter is away from the rock sides.”

“They’re your dragons? You’re their riders?” Gerard stares down at the dragons, but there’s so much to see it’s impossible to take in completely. The mounds of smooth topped boulders that have been shaped into nests, the crackle of multiple fires, the flames reflected in the many pieces of shining metal, glass and glittering stones that litter the vast expanse of ordinarily dull ground. It’s like nothing Gerard’s ever seen, and a world away from the order of the dragon corps he’s left behind.

“Nope, they’re not ours,” Ray says, seemingly amused at the thought. “Well, not like you think.”

“Are you dragon rider spies?” Mikey asks, and Gerard’s easily able to sense he hopes the answer is yes. “Because that would be badass.”

Ray considers for a moment. “I guess, sort of. But again, not how you think.”

It’s yet another half answer, but Gerard can’t be annoyed. “Don’t tell me, Shavaron will tell us the whole answer.”

“You’ve got it,” Frank says brightly, leading the way to the head of a roughly hewn set of stairs that have been cut into the side of the valley. “Be careful going down, it’s a long way to fall and Ray always bitches when he has to set another broken bone.”

“Because you were averaging one a month,” Ray says. “That’s too many, even for us.”

It’s a throwaway comment, one that could be easily dismissed, but Gerard senses a significance in Ray’s words. About to question, any words dry up when Gerard approaches the steps, and looks down at the steep drop.

“It’s not as bad as it looks,” Ray says, indicating a thick rope that’s attached to the wall using small iron hoops. “Hold onto that and take your time. You’ll be fine.”

With a deep breath, Gerard takes hold of the rope and starts to go down, forcing his attention to remain on the stairs only, his every step slow and deliberate, almost afraid to breathe as he makes his slow descent.

“Told you it wasn’t that bad.” Frank’s waiting at the bottom of the stairs, energy bubbling over as he pulls off his cloak and drapes it over a boulder. “Once Mikey and Ray get down we’ll go and see Shavaron, she’s expecting us.”

A last step down and Gerard lets go of the rope, the pain in his hand and calves forgotten as multiple dragons look his way. From here they all loom over Gerard, scales bright and many with horns that spill over their heads and back. It’s a riot of different colours and sizes, all of them huge, even the littlest dragons almost the size of Gerard’s former house. But what all the dragons have in common is the look in their eyes, the curiosity as they flex their necks and look between Gerard and Mikey.

“They’re all nosy bastards,” Frank says, reaching out his hand so a golden dragon can nuzzle its snout against his palm. “Aren’t you, Brasult.”

“We have new people to see. New futures to embrace. Of course we shall look.” Brasult hisses the words, speaking in both mind and out loud. “Welcome new soul brothers.”

“Not yet.” Ray cuts in quickly, Brasult dipping his head in response to the gentle revoke. “We need to see Shavaron first.”

“Ah, yes,” Brasult says, wisps of smoke curling from between his sharp pointed teeth. “We shall talk later.”

“I’ll look forward to it,” Gerard says,his former training kicking in as he bows toward Brasult, and then takes a stumbling step back when Brasult snorts, a plume of flame barely missing Frank’s shoulder.

“There’s no need for that here,” Ray says, and fixes a stern look at Brasult. “And no need for laughing, either. Remember when you were new and tried to nest in Maral’s place?”

“I remember,” Brasult says, moving so he can look Gerard directly in the eye. “I apologise.”

Being so close to Brasult is unnerving, especially so as his face is almost as big as Gerard’s whole body. Despite that, Gerard feels safe, and he risks reaching out so he can brush his fingers over Brasult’s snout, feeling the cool surface. “It’s okay.”

Brasult tilts his head, pushing rough scales against Gerard’s fingers. “You must see Shavaron now, she is waiting.”

“He’s right,” Ray says, and to emphasis the point starts walking, Gerard reluctantly following, his hand tingling when he lets it drop.

“Shavaron’s in the meeting place. She usually hangs out here but wanted to talk in private,” Frank says, hurrying so he’s taking the lead as they walk away from the dragons and the widest part of the valley.

“She’s your leader?” Mikey asks, and for the first time Ray gives a straightforward reply.

“Yeah, she is. One of the best out there.”

It’s why Gerard’s so surprised when they walk around an empty nest-mound and are faced with a huge crater, and in the middle of that, a medium sized dragon. Even at this distance Gerard can see that it’s old, with violet scales that have lost some of their lustre and spindly spines on the end of its tail flopped on the ground.

Despite that, it’s a dragon that radiates a sense of peace and respect, dignity there in the way it curls around its long neck and says in a deep boom, “Welcome. My name is Shavaron and this is my place. My home.”

Despite himself, Gerard starts to bow, there’s no way he can’t.

“There is no need for that. We are all friends here. All equals,” Shavaron says, and she lifts up a front leg, her grey talons catching the light. “Come. Sit. Listen. We must talk. But first you should be refreshed.”

“And that’s our cue.” Ray flashes a smile at Gerard and Mikey. “We’ll go and get water and food ready. You can come with if you want, Shavaron won’t mind.”

“We can wait,” Mikey says instantly, and Gerard agrees. Despite how thirsty and hungry he is, the urge to talk to Shavaron is stronger. There’s no way Gerard can wait, not when it feels like something significant is looming, the next phase in his life there waiting.

“That’s fine,” Frank says, and then, “We can take your bags if you want.”

Immediately Gerard clutches his bag harder. Even if it’s lacking in food now, it’s still packed with things that he loves, reminders of his home and past. Gerard can’t let that go, even if he does trust Ray and Frank.

“No worries,” Frank says easily. “There’s rocks that make decent seats near the base of the crater. It’s warmer down there, too.”

It takes a moment to see what rocks Frank means, but when he does Gerard counts four, all set in a line. “Those?”

“That’s the ones,” Frank says and waves down at Shavaron. “We’ve got a permanent shelter behind that ridge. You can’t miss it. But we’ll be waiting when you’re done.”

“Thank you, little one.” Shavaron blinks, slow and steady, the spines on her tail twitching. “I have much to talk about with our new friends.”

“You do?” With Frank and Ray walking away, Gerard’s left alone with Mikey and a situation that feels slightly unreal. In all his years of training Gerard hasn’t heard of wild dragons, and especially not ones without riders. Which these don’t have, at least, they’re not wearing any harnesses that suggest that.

Shavaron shakes her head, smoke seeping from the back of her mouth. “No riders. No. We do not live like our shackled brothers and sisters. We are equals. Humans and dragons.”

It’s the first time Gerard’s heard the suggestion that the dragons in the corps could be considered as shackled. Sure they wear harnesses and never fly without riders, but they never complain. In fact, they seem happy with the way that they live.

“Because they know no other,” Shavaron says, her head tilting and eyes half-closed. “But yes, they are happy with their chosen rider and rules. However, we are not.”

“You and the other dragons?” Gerard asks.

“Yes.” Shavaron shifts in place, clouds of dust billowing around her. “Come. Sit where I can see you more easily. My eyes are clouded and my old neck is aching.”

“Sorry.” Hating that they’ve inconvenienced Shavaron in any way, Gerard hesitantly picks his way down the side of the crater, Mikey at his side, both sliding at times until they reach the seat rocks.

“That is better.” Shavaron waits until they’re both sitting, her eyes closing as if in sleep. She isn’t, Gerard can sense that she’s thinking, even if the thoughts themselves are muted and unclear. “I am sorry. I have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Now that it is here this old mind is ready and yet the words remain hidden.”

“It’s okay, we have time,” Gerard says, taking a moment to just breathe as he listens to the muffled roar of dragons and looks up at the sky, where high above, Dillox is plunging in and out of the clouds.

“Yes. You have time now. But not soon.” Shavaron opens her eyes, her gaze attentive despite the film that subdues what should be a bright yellow. “Since I was a young hatchling this moment was forecast, when four come together to fight at our side. Many dismissed this, unable to see why humans could hold the key to it all. But not I. Not the family that stay by my side.”

“Fight?” Mikey sits forward on his rock, concern and curiosity blending as one. “I don’t understand. We’re not part of the corps. I haven’t even officially ridden a dragon.”

“That is so.” Shavaron fixes her gaze on Mikey and breathes out slowly, the resulting warm breeze rippling his clothes. “But that does not matter. Danger is coming and four will step up for the fight. Four soul brothers who will help save us all.”

“Soul brothers. That was said before,” Gerard says, needing to understand a situation that seems suddenly huge and overwhelming. “I don’t get it. I assume you mean Mikey and me, Frank and Ray. But we don’t even know them. We only met them today. We can’t all be soul brothers.”

“You shall know them,” Shavaron says, as if stating an inevitability. “It has always been destined to be so. We just had to wait for the right people and moment. I am sorry for causing you such pain. But I needed to be sure. Only the destined would find us.”

“It’s okay.” It’s all Gerard can say, even if the last few days have been the worst of his life. “But, are you sure it’s us? I mean, I didn’t even get chosen. I’m nothing special.”

“Like hell you’re not,” Mikey says fiercely, glaring at Gerard. “You’re amazing. Of course you’re the one.”

“Both the one,” Shavaron corrects, radiating calm and sureness as she does so. “And yes. I am sure. I have seen this ending for all of my life, and now the final details are clear. It will happen soon, but until then, go, eat, attend to your hurts. This old body is tired.”

It’s obviously a dismissal, and Gerard stands, bowing shallowly, all words gone as he and Mikey make a slow walk-climb back up the crater.

~*~*~*~

“I still don’t get it. A fight? Fight what?” Gerard’s sitting in front of a fire, his bare feet soaking in a stone bowl of water that’s gently steaming. His stomach full and a mug of berry juice close at hand he feels physically better, but mentally his thoughts are in turmoil. “And soul brothers. No offence, you both seem nice, but you’re not my brothers.”

“It’s a lot to take in at first,” Ray says, looking up from where he’s kneading a batch of dough. There’s a streak of flour over his cheek and Ray absently tries to wipe it away, leaving more in its place. “It took us a while to get used to the idea, too.”

“It did,” Frank agrees, and he drops an armful of wool blankets onto the mattresses that are tucked at the back of the shelter. “We must have asked a thousand questions, a thousand thousand. And it still didn’t make sense.”

Mikey takes a drink of his juice, says, “And does it now?”

“Yes,” Ray says instantly, his conviction running true. “I can’t fully read Shavaron’s mind, neither of us can. But she’s seen what’s going to happen and explained where we fit in.” Ray stops kneading, abruptly still. “And now you’re here.”

“You’re scared.” That’s obvious without sensing Ray’s feelings, and Gerard watches as Frank abandons the bedding to stand next to Ray, briefly touching his arm.

“Terrified.” Ray starts kneading again, puffs of flour billowing off of the bench. “We’ve been expecting and training for this forever, but knowing and actually happening is different.”

Mikey eyes Ray and Frank. “What kind of training? Guns, knives, hand-to-hand combat?”

“A bit of it all,” Frank says, reaching up so he can brush the flour off Ray’s cheek. “Lots of bareback dragon riding. Nothing formal, we were hoping the final two would have insane fighting skills, but….”

“You got us instead,” Gerard says, under no illusion that either he or Mikey could be classed as good fighters. “That’s what I don’t get. Why us?”

“Shavaron says it’s your bond.” Frank leaves Ray’s side, sitting on the bench on the other side of the fire. Stretching out his legs he warms his feet in front of the flames, shadows flickering over his body. “It is one of the strongest I’ve seen, and you both managed to get to the top of the mountain. That has to count for a lot.”

Gerard considers Frank’s words, but, still he can’t see how he and Mikey fit in the plan. “Okay, forgetting why us for a minute, do you even know what we’re supposed to be fighting?”

Frank shrugs. “Shavaron says a mighty foe, but after that I’m not sure exactly. I don’t think it’s humans or dragons, so I’m guessing some break out from the other.”

“But nothing's crossed over for centuries, not since the dragons.” At least, that’s what Gerard had thought, back when he didn’t know wild dragons existed and hid at the top of a mountain. “If something else comes through…. fuck, we’re supposed to stop that?”

“We will stop that, we’ll save the fucking world,” Frank says, and then adds, “Unless the fates play unfair. A string unravelled too soon or some other hogshit. Shavaron always says it’s not an exact science.”

“But the battle will happen?” Gerard asks, cold inevitability settling in at Frank’s immediate response.

“Oh yeah, that’s going to happen. We’re destined to fight.”

Mikey waits a moment and then says, “And are we destined to win?”

Quietly, Ray says, “We don’t know.”

~*~*~*~

Somehow, within a few days, it feels like Gerard’s been living with the wild dragons forever. He knows all of their names, has asked Frank and Ray multiple questions, and now he feels physically better, loves to explore the valley and talk.

Being able to converse freely is amazing, and Gerard quickly learns that dragons are more than something to ride and discuss corp rules and maneuvers. They're all individuals who like to talk and laugh and in many cases; have fun. Not that Gerard always understands their humour, he still doesn’t get Ragalut’s joke about the sheep, shining stone and spear, but what he did love was the sound of resulting dragon laughter, even if Gerard nearly did get scorched by a stray flame.

It’s a place Gerard could easily settle down in, he and Mikey making a new home. But, every moment he’s aware something significant is coming. There’s no outward talk of the fight, Shavaron remaining silent despite more questions, but it is coming. Gerard can sense it, a feeling in the air that’s constantly building.

“I think we should be training.” Gerard steps into the shelter, startling Frank who’s sprawled on the mattresses reading a book. “We need to be prepared.”

Frank carefully marks his page with a giant dragon scale and sets his book to one side. Sitting he says, “We’ve been waiting until you were both feeling better. There was no point training before that.”

“We are now,” and it’s true. Even if Gerard’s feet are still skinned in places, he can move without pain, and his head hasn’t ached since he got here. “So what do we do? Have you got a plan?”

“Truthfully?” Frank asks, and at Gerard’s nod, says, “No concrete plan. We didn’t know when you would appear, and it’s not like we’re experts at combat ourselves.”

“So we’re going in blind?” It’s a scary thought, because Gerard’s no combat expert either, and as much as he trusts what Shavaron is saying, he’s not about to stand by and let Mikey go into a fight where there’s no chance of winning.

“I didn’t say that.” Frank stands and reaches up to a shelf, pulling down four pairs of gloves. “We’re not combat experts, but what we are is fucking amazing at riding a dragon.”

Gerard takes the pair of gloves that Frank offers, running his fingers over the supple black leather. “You said you weren’t dragon riders.”

“And we’re not. Not in the way you mean,” Frank says, pulling on his own gloves. Unlike the pair that Gerard is holding, Frank’s are almost worn through in places, the leather scuffed and patched. “We ride the dragons, but we’re not in charge of them, or the dragons us. We’re a team, one that works together.”

“They’re okay with that?” Gerard has to assume that they are, but somehow he can’t imagine Ragalut allowing anyone to ride on his back, or Shavaron able to take to the air at all.

“It’s their choice to allow it, it’s not like we’re making them do it,” Frank says, and then, “And a lot of them enjoy duo flying, especially the youngsters.”

“I’ve only ridden solo a few times,” Gerard admits, remembering back to those few exhilarating flights, where it felt like he owned the air, even if the dragon he rode only said a few words. “And that was with a harness.”

“Well we don’t use those here,” Frank says cheerfully, scooping up a coil of rope that’s piled next to the door. Deftly he separates the strands, handing a loop to Gerard. “This is yours now. Look after it because it’s all you’ll get to hold on.”

Gerard stares at the rope, trying to understand how this will help stay on a dragon. “This is it? Where’s the saddle and reins?”

“Reins?” Frank’s smile fades as he looks at Gerard. “Why would you need them? You’re not in charge of the dragons. You decide where to go together, you’re not steering them like some kind of horse.”

Embarrassed, Gerard dips his head. He wants to defend his experience, explain about his time in the corps as a trainee and how he’s spent years learning to first buckle on and then ride with a harness. But now all the words feel wrong -- the whole idea of being in charge at all is starting to feel wrong -- especially after getting to talk to the wild dragons. “Sorry, you’re right.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Looping the rest of the rope over his shoulder, Frank pats Gerard’s back, letting his hand linger a moment. “I know things are different down there. But up here, well, you’ll see.”

And Gerard does see, over and over again.

With a sigh, Gerard pushes back his hair from out of his eyes, determined that this time he’ll get on, and actually stay on Ownoon’s back. In theory it should be easy, Ownoon’s one of the smaller dragons, but not a youngster. She’s got the advantage of patience, good humour, and stocky dull scaled legs perfect for vaulting off onto her back. But somehow Gerard keeps sliding off every time.

“Squeeze with your thighs when you get to the top,” Ray says, moving so he can watch Gerard’s jumping technique. “When you do that grab the rope and hold on. You won’t hurt her.”

“You will not,” Ownoon agrees, twisting her neck so she can peer at Gerard. “You just tickle. Like a bug on my back.”

Gerard has to laugh at the comparison. It’s either that or burst into tears of frustration that he just can’t do something so simple. Taking a deep breath, he runs, plants his foot on Ownoon’s leg, pushes himself up, and slides of her back once again.

“Fuck. Fuck.” Gerard lands hard, knees and palms stinging from hitting the ground. He’s just glad they’re trying this on patchy grass and not rock. At least this way Gerard’s not breaking his kneecaps. “I can’t do this.”

“Yes you can. Mikey makes no attempt to help Gerard get up, just stands watching, encouraging in words and emotion. Gritting his teeth, Gerard stands, pushing aside his frustration as he focuses only on Mikey, taking in the love and encouragement that he gives so freely. Mikey smiles, says, “You’ve got this.”

“I’ve got this,” Gerard repeats, his shoulders straight as he circles Ownoon and gets ready to jump once again. “Run, jump, squeeze, loop.”

Gerard runs, plants his foot and pushes, and somehow, this time he miraculously stays on her back. Wobbling, he squeezes his thighs together and with a snap of his wrist, throws the rope so it twists around Ownoon’s throat before crossing the ends.

“Well done.” Ray slaps Gerard’s ankle, almost startling him to fall once again. “Now get your balance and hold on.”

Ownoon turns her head, hot breath gusting in Gerard’s face when she says, “Do you wish to go for a ride? I will not go too high this first time.”

More than anything Gerard wants to take to the air. Knees locked against Ownoon’s sides and gripping the rope tight, he takes a deep breath and says, “Yes.”

Ray walks to Ownoon’s head, stopping her flying a moment as he gives some last minute advice. “Remember, it’s all about balance and riding as one. The rope won’t keep you on, it’s just there for a bit of help, it’ll just slide off if you let it go loose.”

Gerard can feel cold sweat on his back, his heart thumping as he clutches the rope, making sure it is pulled tight and crossed over.

“Yeah, that’s right.” Ray smiles and steps back. “Just trust her. Riding is about the two of you, when you’ve got that connection it’s easy.”

As soon as Ray’s out of range, Ownoon spreads her wings, and Gerard has to remind himself to stay focussed and not fixate on how beautiful they look, a rippling, shining blue between webbing, her muscles working as she runs forward and says, “Do not worry, little one. I will look after you as if you were my own egg.”

With that they take off.

~*~*~*~

“And when she went higher it was fucking amazing,” Gerard says, wincing when his accompanying enthusiastic hand movement pulls at his ribs. “And fucking scary. I kept thinking I was going to plummet to my death, but Ownoon was great and when we started working together….”

“You looked great up there.” Gently, Mikey rubs ointment into Gerard’s shoulders, something Ray promises will ease the ache. “And when you both burst through the clouds. Fuck. It looked like you were born on a dragon.”

“It didn’t feel like it at first,” Gerard admits, and even now he can remember the initial feeling of uncertainty and fear as they spiraled higher and higher. But it was a feeling that quickly changed to exhilaration, when, after a few minutes it felt like Gerard and Ownoon were one, Gerard easily anticipating and leaning into her movements as they soared through the sky. “Shame I fell off when we landed.”

Mikey grins, digging his fingers into Gerard’s knotted muscles. “Your dismount does need some work. At least you didn’t roll into the fire.”

Gerard moans, caught between pleasure and pain as Mikey changes shoulders. “It was close. My ass got a bit singed.”

“I’ll check it later,” Mikey says, and then, “I didn’t know dragons could blow cold air, too. Next time I wash it I’ll have to ask Ragalut if he’ll dry my hair.”

“Fire blower-outer, hair dryer, I’m sure he’ll agree,” Gerard says, happy and feeling boneless as he slumps forward. “It’s been a good day.”

“It’s been a long day.” Mikey stops kneading and leans forward, brushing a kiss against the nape of Gerard’s neck. “We should go to bed. Frank and Ray will be back soon.”

Gerard focusses in, easily finding Frank and Ray. “They’ve just left Shavaron. They seem worried, and tired, and kind of uncertain about something.”

Mikey gently tugs at a strand of Gerard’s hair. “Stop snooping and come help sort out the bed.”

“Fine.” WIth an exaggerated sigh Gerard pushes himself up from the floor, shivering a little when he moves away from the fire. This high in the mountains it’s always cold, but it’s easy to forget that when hanging out on the valley floor with the hot bodied dragons. In the shelter, however, it’s noticeably cold, especially at night.

“Next time Ray and Frank go down the mountain we should go with them,” Mikey says, his arms full of the spare woollen blankets. “I wonder if they go down part way on dragon back? It would make sense, especially when they’re bringing back stuff like the barrels of flour.”

“Probably.” Gerard hasn’t really considered the logistics of getting supplies up to the valley, but the well stocked larder suggests they obviously get up somehow, and using the dragons would make sense. “If one of the smaller dragons took them they could hide out outside of the town. Then take off after dark.”

“It would explain a lot of the stuff said at the tavern,” Mikey says, grinning as he lets the blankets drop onto the mattresses. “Remember when Shane the bricklayer said he’d seen a winged demon with red eyes and flamed-breath? It was probably Dillox on a supply run.”

Gerard pictures Dillox in flight, and can easily imagine she would appear demon-like, especially to someone who’d indulged in multiple tankards of ale. “Guess Shane wasn’t imagining things after all.

“Poor Dillox, labelled a horrific thing of the night.” Mikey sits on the edge of the mattresses, hunched over as he starts to unlace his boots. “Then again, she’d probably like that.”

“She would,” Gerard agrees, looking around the shelter to see if anything needs clearing away before he settles down for the night. There’s nothing, all food safely stored and all there’s left to do is blow out the lanterns: but not yet. Picking up the smallest lantern from off of the table, Gerard holds it away from his body as he opens the door of the shelter. Outside the sky is an inky dark blue, the moon shining bright, while in the the main valley fires crackle and throw up sparks that gleam before winking out of existence.

From where he’s standing Gerard can’t see any of the dragons, but he can hear their deep snuffling breathes and in some cases, snores. At complete peace, Gerard takes it all in, and knows, this is a moment he’ll remember forever.

“Hey honey, we’re home.” It’s Frank’s voice that breaks the stillness, and he appears seconds later, grinning at Gerard. “Are you waiting for us?”

“Just taking things in,” Gerard says, stepping aside so Ray and Frank can enter. “Is Shavaron okay?”

“She’s a bit worried,” Ray says, and he’s carrying the same worry, his shoulders hunched as he leans against the counter. “She’s been sensing things, changes happening soon.”

“Bad ones?” Gerard asks, but he already knows the answer. There’s no way he can’t when he’s been feeling the same things. An itch on the edge of his awareness that something big is coming, and not in a good way.

“Very,” Frank says, no trace of his former grin left at all. “But she’s happy about things here. That’s a bit of weight off her shoulders.”

“Have you known her long?” Mikey’s shuffled to the back of the mattresses, back against the wooden wall of the shelter and feet pushed under the blankets. “Or been here long? I can’t tell.”

“Longer than you’d think.” Ray looks at Frank, as if seeking some non-verbal answer. One that Gerard deliberately doesn’t seek out, giving privacy despite his curiosity. Thankfully it appears Ray gets the answer he needs, and he says, “It’s been at least forty years for me, Frank a little bit less -- I think. When you’ve been here so long it gets hard to keep track.”

Gerard can hear the truth in the answer, but even so, “There’s no way you’re that old, even if you arrived as a baby.”

“I use good skin care.” Ray smiles briefly, a moment of lightness before becoming serious again. “But yeah, forty years. It’s being around the dragons, aging seems to slow for us here. No idea why, it just does.”

“I think, there was this old account in one of the texts that we learned,” Gerard says, trying to remember something that he’d read years before. Eyes closed, he imagines the old book in his hands, turning the brittle pages as he studied late into the night. “It said how a rider and dragon lived for a great span of years, side by side for well over a century. The teachers said it was a bad translation.”

Frank takes off his cloak, hanging it up on a hook. “Didn’t they notice any ageing fucked-upness in the corps? You all must have hung around the tamed dragons.”

Gerard considers, but as much as he does, he can’t remember any suspiciously young corp riders. “No, but no one stays with their dragon who picks them. You’re moved on after a year.”

“You’re taken from the dragon that picks you?” Repulsion radiates from Frank in both emotion and words. “That’s barbaric to them. They pick you and then you’re taken away. No. Just no.”

With what he knows now, Gerard agrees, but back then it was normal, something they were trained for, so all the riders would have experience on different dragons and maintain a professional relationship only at all times. “I didn’t know any different back then, and the dragons never said anything.”

“Well they wouldn’t,” Frank mutters, agitatedly pacing before Ray stops him with a hand to his shoulder. “Sorry. You know now. That’s all that matters.”

“Going back to the aging,” Mikey says, directing soothing feelings to Gerard while looking between Frank and Ray. “Do you feel any different to when you arrived?”

“Physically, no.” His own cloak taken off and hung up, Ray starts to unlace his boots, bending so his shirt slips forward a little, exposing his lower back. “Mentally. Fuck yes. Things have changed so much. When I first got here the only thing I was worried about was not getting eaten by dragons. Now it’s the end of the world.”

It’s a big change, and Gerard better understands the heavy weight that both Frank and Ray carry, a weight that Gerard wants to help shoulder, even if the thought of a battle still scares him. Pushing back that fear, he steps onto the mattresses and focusses on Ray, trying to stop the urge to stare at the revealed skin of his back.

“You’re shameless,” Mikey says softly, moving in close when Gerard sits down at his side. “But you’re right. It’s a nice sight.”

“It is,” Frank agrees, and for a long moment they all blatantly watch Ray tug off his boots, something that’s causing his shirt to slip even more.

“Seriously?” Ray looks up and pushes back a strand of hair behind his ear, more confused about the scrutiny than embarrassed. “You two are as bad as Frank.”

Frank winks at Ray, says, “They’ve got taste, and eyes. What do you expect when you’re doing that?”

“Pulling off my boots?” Still confused, Ray straightens, and places his boots so they’re neatly lined up against the wall. “That’s nothing exciting.”

“It is when it’s you,” Frank says, and in a matter of seconds has pulled off his own boots and launched himself onto the mattresses, landing heavily as he pats the space left between him and Mikey. “Come and lie down. I’ve kept you a space.”

“Generous as always.” Carefully, Ray steps over Frank’s legs and settles down in the space he’s been left. Which, considering four grown men are sharing four narrow mattresses, isn’t a big space at all. “Sorry, Mikey.”

Mikey shrugs, uncaring that Ray’s pressed so close. “I don’t mind. You’re nice to lie next to. You’re warm.”

“No, he’s hot,” Frank corrects with a laugh, and worms around so he’s facing Mikey and Gerard. “So, while we’re sharing secrets. What about you two? Are you, you know? Ray didn’t let me look too deep and find out myself.”

“Are we what?” It’s a delaying technique, and everyone knows it, Frank not replying while Gerard tries to work out what to say. How to explain his relationship with Mikey so they’re not thrown into the nearest lava river or kicked out of the valley.

“He’s my brother, my best friend, my everything.” Gerard can’t think of any other way to explain it. Even then it doesn’t come close to explaining what Mikey means to Gerard, how he’s been at his side and in his mind since the day he was born. How that bond strengthened and changed and they became close in all ways. “He’s my world.”

“You’re lucky, not many people get that,” Frank says, and then, as he glances at Ray. “Or they spend too long finding that.”

“You’re not going to kick us off Ragalut’s back mid flight?” It’s a serious question, even though Gerard can’t sense any judgement at all. “Mikey’s my brother…”

“So you said.” Frank indicates himself and Ray, the dragons out of sight in the valley. “And we’re non-aging former travellers who hide out with wild dragons and are preparing to fight a battle we could die in. You take happiness where and when that you can.”

“You do,” Ray agrees, pulling at the blankets so they’re all covered. “You love him, that’s all that matters.”

“I do,” Gerard says, and despite Mikey staying silent, he can feel his agreement, the sense of love and contentment that’s a fixture in Gerard’s world.

“Sappy bastards.” Frank grins, but there’s no censure in his words, just a sense of happiness and total acceptance. And in that moment Gerard realises that the dragons have been right all alone. That not only has he made new friends, but he’s met his soul brothers.

Two have become four.

~*~*~*~

If it was possible for Gerard to be jealous of Mikey, it would be happening now. Standing with Frank and Ray, Gerard watches as Mikey easily jumps on Dillox’s back, deftly throwing the rope and holding on, looking comfortable at all times.

“Are you sure you haven’t done this before?” Ray says as Dillox snorts flames in approval.

“Not officially,” Mikey says, holding on one-handed as he uses the other to scratch at Dillox’s neck. “But I’ve been out on a few rides with a friend who rode with the corps.”

It’s something Gerard has always suspected, but never questioned or attempted to probe. It was just better that way, when he could plausibly deny to any officials that his brother was doing something so illegal.

Ray gives Mikey a thumbs up. “Well that friend taught you well.”

“He did.” Dillox swivels her head, her long neck twisting so she can look at Mikey, her red eyes wide and gleaming. “You feel good on my back. Like you are meant to be there. You shall be my precious egg rider.”

“Dillox.That is not how we do things.” Surprised, Gerard sees Shavaron approaching. Each step slow, her tail dragging along the ground as she lumbers forward and eases herself down next to a fire with a great sigh. “He is not yours. We do not belong, we are a group, not two minds only.”

“Sorry.” Dillox dips her head, contrite as she says, “But he is fun. Along with the darkness he has fun things in his head that make me laugh. The first time he went flying with his friend they fell in the lake but his friend laughed and said that’s what sweet things do. Which I do not understand, because he is not sweet. I have licked him to make sure and….”

“Dillox,” Shavaron cuts in, gently butting her head against Dillox’s. “Forgive her, she is but a youngster and has not learned to hold her forked tongue. If you wish you may ride another who is less intrusive. Brasult is big but he is a good flyer.”

“It’s okay, I don’t mind her looking,” Mikey says, petting Dillox’s neck, soothing at her distressed sound when he adds, “But if you want me to change to another dragon I will.”

“No, this is okay. If you do not mind her ways I will not say no.” Shavaron blinks her eyes half-lidded and apparently on the verge of sleep. “Enjoy your flight. This old one needs to rest now, but I shall be watching inside of my head.”

Dillox roars in response, looking sheepish as the unexpected sound makes Gerard jump. “I am sorry. But I do like flying, and now I am getting ready to fight. I have been waiting a long time to save the world. And that time is now.”

“Not right now, thank fuck,” Frank says, and then, “But soon I think.”

Gerard has to agree. While he hasn’t spent forty years living with the dragons and expecting a battle, he’s been here long enough to know things have changed, and are changing more every day -- the sky getting darker, the wind tainted with grit and something metallic and always, that increasing sense that something is coming.

“We shall be ready.” Confident, Dillox flaps her wings, her claws snickering against the rock as she runs forward, smoke pouring from her mouth as she opens it wide and roars.

As they take off, Mikey punches the air with one hand and roars along, too.

~*~*~*~

“You must come now! You must see!”

High overhead, Ragim banks a tight turn and dives toward earth. His silvery wings outstretched and catching the light, he lands gracefully and runs forward, stopping close to Shavaron and Ray.

“Slowly, Ragim. Tell us what you have seen,” Shavaron says, slowly pushing herself upright. “Speak clearly, tell us what has alarmed you so.”

“A rip! Creatures!” Ragim shivers, his wings outstretched to their limit and the scarlet ruff on his head standing up high. “I was flying up in the clouds, where I could not be seen from below. And I saw it. I saw them, coming out of the other.”

Shavaron straightens further, the spikes on her tail upright as she looks to the sky. “The things that you saw. Where they big? Many?”

“Small, like Dillox when she was but an egg,” Ragim says, calmer now as he answers the questions. “I saw two only. Black like the night sky and with wings tipped with claws.”

“Sentinels sent to send back their findings.” Momentarily sorrow hangs heavy, the weight of the imminent battle pulling her down until Shavaron pulls in a breath and says, “The time is not now, but soon. This advance guard means others are coming, and we must be ready. We are the only things between here and there. We must stand together, the dragons and soul brothers. It has been forecast so and will be so.”

Gerard swallows hard, bile burning his throat as he clutches his rope, all thoughts of practicing riding pushed away. Concentrating, he tries to sense the sentinels, and recoils when he does so. Their presence is wrong in his mind, a dark bruise, seeping slime, wrongness in all ways. Despite that, he needs to know what they’re doing, and he asks, “Where are they going?”

“To the town,” Ragim says. “I saw one perch on the top of a tower. I do not think they are visible to the humans, but the captured dragons were unsettled.”

“They remain so.” Shavaron turns her head to look at Gerard, studying him for a long moment. “Go. See. But you must remain hidden, for the time is not now.”

Dillox runs forward, puffed up and impatient. “I will take you. I will take you and my egg rider. I am fast and will not let you be seen.”

Gerard looks at Shavaron, ensuring she’s okay with the plan before he says, “That would be great, thank you.”

“It is nothing, I can carry two easily. I could carry many more if I had to,” Dillox says, and holds out her leg. “Come, we shall go now. I am ready. Egg rider, we must go!”

“He’s coming,” Gerard says, closing his eyes against the hot gust that accompanied the shout. Already he’s aware that Mikey and Frank are close, both rushing when they come into view. “Mikey, we’re going to fly home, see what’s happening down there.”

“I heard.” Tense, Mikey hurries to Dillox and jumps on her back, deftly uncurling the rope he’s had looped over his shoulder. “You’re okay hanging on?”

“God yeah,” Gerard’s got no issues with that at all, and he jumps up, hastily grabbing at Mikey’s back for purchase when Dillox tries to help by pushing him up with her leg.

Dillox huffs a little, caught between laughter and being contrite. “I am sorry soul brother. But I wish to see these monsters. If I do so I will breathe fire in their faces.”

“You will do no such thing.” Despite not raising her voice, Shavaron’s displeasure is clear, Dillox deflating a little under her cool stare. “You are to go down and look only. Fly swift and sure and ensure you are not seen.”

“Understood.” Dillox dips her head, enthusiasm reigned in as she gives her respect.

“Go now,” Shavaron says, slowly turning toward the meeting place and one of the fires that are always kept burning. “This old one has much to discuss.”

Instantly Gerard grips hold of Mikey, holding on tight as Dillox starts to run, her wings flapping wildly and seemingly uncaring of the other dragons who’re clustered before her. Sure they’re about to collide, Gerard squeezes tighter, glad he did so when Dillox takes off at steep angle, one that would have had Mikey and Gerard slide off of her back if they weren’t holding on.

“Hold on, she’s a bit jerky at times,” Mikey says, something that’s shown almost immediately when Dillox swoops over the rock face that circles the valley. Flying with her is nothing like Gerard learned in the corps, or anything like the rides he’s taken with Ownoon, who loves to talk and discuss what she sees as they fly. This is like riding a firecracker that turns at random and likes to dive through the clouds. Which is terrifying in parts, but also exhilarating, so much so that Gerard almost forgets why they’re approaching his former home.

“Can you sense them?” Mikey’s words are whipped from his mouth as he talks, his question communicated mostly by thoughts. “I think I can sense something close to the castle.”

“It is them.” Dillox replies before Gerard, hissing under her breath as she adds. “They smell and feel foul. They should not be here.”

Gerard has to agree. Just with a brief probe of his mind the sentinels feel wrong, even more so now he’s close to his old home. They don’t belong here, they’re invaders in a place Gerard still loves and he needs them to go. His skin prickling, he stares toward the castle that looms in the distance, and two of the spires which are marred by two blots of darkness close to the top.

“That has to be them.” More than anything Gerard wants to get closer, but he knows that they can’t. All he can do is look from a distance and then go, but not before one last thing. “Dillox, can you fly to the south without being seen?”

“You think that it’s safe?” Mikey asks, but Gerard can feel how much he wants Dillox to say yes. Even if it does mean they’ll only see their family home for only a few seconds.

“I will have to fly high and fast,” Dillox says, her wings flapping even faster as she adds, “You want to see your egg layers. I wish to see them too.”

Mikey leans forward, petting Dillox’s neck. “They’d like you. Grandma would make you spicy soup and dad would talk about flying.”

“And would your egg mother give me pickled cucumbers? I would like to taste them,” Dillox says, laughing as she cranes her neck to look at Gerard. “I would be able to eat them.”

“That’s because you’re used to digesting fire,” Gerard says, enjoying the way he can feel Mikey laughing. “And yes, she would give you some.”

“Good, then it is a promise for later,” Dillox says, abruptly changing direction and climbing up high as they pass over the town. “Sorry, I can not go slower. We are not supposed to be seen.”

“It’s okay,” Gerard says, and it is okay. He knows that they’re already taking a risk by flying this way. But he needs to know his family are safe, even if that’s trying to see on a fly-by. Looking past Dillox’s head and neck, he sees his family home fast approaching, and tightens his grip on Mikey.

“Mom’s been washing the sheets, and there’s new flowers in the garden,” Mikey says, the loss of home so strong all Gerard can do is press in closer, brush a kiss against Mikey’s shoulder and hold on.

“We’ll see them again.”

“I hope so,” Mikey says, leaning back against Gerard as Dillox speeds through the sky.

And all Gerard wants to say is, he knows so, but he can’t. He doesn’t know that, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen during the battle or after. But one thing he does know, whatever happens Gerard is going to keep Mikey safe: whatever that takes.

~*~*~*~

“Do you think we should stand guard?” Ray’s standing outside of the shelter, looking up to the sky, where the rip from the other is now easy to see.

In the last day it’s at least doubled in size, the area around the rip a deep purple. It’s like the sky itself has been bruised, the rip a violent slash that’s painful to look at. It doesn’t help that any moment Gerard expects something to push through. He still doesn’t know what, but something is coming -- and soon.

“The dragons are watching,” Frank says, urging Ray inside with a gentle push to his back. “If something comes through they’ll wake us, and you need to relax. You didn’t sleep at all last night.”

“I don’t know if I can.” Ray does come inside, but he’s unable to stay still, pacing the small space. “What if they come through and we’re not ready? We’ve been waiting for so long, and it could happen when we’re asleep. That could be the difference between winning or not. It could….”

“It won’t be.” Frank stands directly in front of Ray, stopping him walking. Stepping close, he looks up at Ray and says, “Come to bed.”

“I won’t be able to sleep,” Ray says, but he’s making an effort to calm, slowing his breathing as he looks down at Frank. “Okay, fine. I can try.”

“Good,” Frank says. Circling the room he blows out two of the lanterns, leaving one burning close to the window. In the light of the flame he looks pale, somber as he takes a last look outside before forcing a smile. “Get yourself in before Mikey and Gerard get the best spots.”

Considering they always sleep in the same places, it’s an idle threat, but the effort at light-heartedness is welcome. Playing his own part, Gerard quickly unlaces and kicks off his boots, arms outstretched as he claims the middle of the mattresses and nearly all of the space.

“What did I tell you?” Frank says, mock sad apart from the twitch at the corner of his mouth as he looks at Gerard. “Now I’m going to have to evict him.”

With that warning, Frank pounces, landing heavily on Gerard before trying to flip him onto his side. As tussles go it’s a quick one, Gerard laughing too much to resist as Frank squirms and tickles and uses every unfair advantage.

“Okay. I give.” Still smiling, Gerard flops onto his back, enjoying the way Frank punches the air in victory for all of a second, before noticing Mikey has taken Gerard’s former space.

“You sneaky bastard, how did you do that?” Frank narrows his eyes, taking in how Mikey is lying, arms behind his head and looking like he’s been in that position for hours. Attention going from Mikey to Ray, Frank demands, “Did you let him do that?”

“Like you said, he’s a sneaky bastard.” Ray shrugs and smiles, the first spontaneous smile he’s shown for days. “I’d try and stop him, but you know….”

“I know you’re an easy touch,” Frank says, his expression softening as he looks at Ray. “But you’ve let him in now. You might as well try and carve out some space.”

Ray eyes the mattresses and the inch of space left at one side. “I can try, but there’s going to be some squishing going on.”

“Fine by me,” Frank says, magnanimous as he shuffles and settles himself between Mikey and Gerard. “You okay with this?”

Gerard knows the question is for him and Mikey, and it doesn’t require any thought at all to realise that Frank sleeping between them isn’t an issue at all. “It’s fine, as long as you don’t snore, or drool in my ear. That’s kind of disgusting.”

“He does both,” Ray says, and wedges himself into the space left on the mattresses, a move that makes him lean heavily against Mikey. “Sorry. I’m squashing you.”

Mikey shakes his head, making no attempt to move away. “You’re not. I like having you there.”

It’s true, Gerard can tell Mikey feels comfortable, and more than that, is enjoying being so close to Ray. As reactions go it’s not a surprise, to anyone it seems.

“It does feel good when he’s close.” Frank pushes himself up on one elbow, taking in the way Mikey’s plastered against Ray. “Very good.He does this thing when he blankets you and it’s just….”

“Frank. Stop,” Ray cuts in, his relaxed mood of before draining away. “It’s not right. Not now.”

“Of course it’s right.” Frank rests his hand on Mikey’s side, fingers brushing against the stripe of bare skin where his shirt has pulled up. “We’ve been leading up to this. Waiting for it. You know that. What better time than now?”

“The night before we might die in a battle you mean?” Ray says, and then, “And we might have been waiting, but they haven’t. We don’t even know that they want that. Want us.”

At those words Ray stops speaking, the silence stretching uncomfortably as Gerard tries to catch up with what he’s just heard. It doesn’t help that Ray has suddenly shielded up tight, leaving Gerard to try and figure things out with no sense help.

“Do you want to have sex with us?” Or, like Mikey, Gerard could have just asked directly. “Because if you do that’s okay. I’d be more than fine with that, Gerard too.”

“Yes. No. Oh God,” Ray moans, and there’s no doubt he wants to get up and leave. “I mean, yes I want to, we want to. But you don’t have to. It’s not something that comes along with being soul brothers. Despite what Shavaron says we’d still be good.”

“Shavaron’s forecast included us having sex?” Gerard asks, and if it wasn’t for Ray looking so tragic he’d laugh, because this whole situation is ridiculous.

Frank turns to the side so he can look at Gerard. “Sort of. It’s a lot of talk about the greatest mental and physical bond. It’s not like she sat there describing how years in the future we’d end up having an orgy.”

“Not that we want that anyway,” Ray cuts in, his shields starting to lower. “It’s just. We like you and hopefully you like us and when we saw you, well, we talked and agreed if the prophecy was right we wouldn’t be disappointed.”

One hand still on Mikey, Frank uses the other to wrap his fingers around Gerard’s forearm. “By which he means, yes we want sex with you, but no, not an orgy. Not yet anyway, that can be on the list if we survive the battle.”

“It’s a tempting incentive to survive,” Mikey says. “That and not being dead.”

“Being dead would suck.” Frank says and then, “We could seduce you both, but it’s late and we need to kick ass tomorrow, so if you want to….”

“He’s a suave bastard,” Ray says, yet more tension bleeding away as he admits, “But he’s right.”

If he was asked how he’d first agree to sleep with two other men, Gerard would never describe this situation. How could he when what’s happening right now is so unexpected, and slightly awkward but most of all tempting.

Despite not knowing Ray and Frank for very long, it’s something that feels right. All Gerard wants to do is say yes and he knows that Mikey’s feeling the same. Even so, he still needs to ask out loud and says, “Mikey?”

“Fuck yes.” Mikey’s response is instant, anticipation and want building as he places his hand over Frank’s lacing their fingers. “It feels right.”

“That’s because it is right.” Gerard’s sure of that now, the same way he knows it’s up to him to make the next move. Wanting to touch, to taste, he rolls onto his side, leaning over Frank. “I’m going to kiss you now.”

"Well, get on with it then," Frank says, stretching out, his posture casual but everything else screaming out, please.

It's a command Gerard's happy to obey. Leaning in, he rests his hand against Frank's side, needing the contact as he brushes his lips against Frank's.

"Fuck," Gerard breathes, his lips tingling as he stares down at Frank, who stares back with wide eyes. "That was just..."

"Amazing," Frank says, and then, "And you need to do it again."

"Is he always this bossy?" Gerard takes a moment to glance over at Ray, which is a mistake, because doing so has shown how Mikey's nuzzling at Ray's neck, enthusiastically nipping as Ray's eyes flutter closed. Gerard can't stop looking, taking in the contrast between them, Ray's hair messy, spilling onto the pillow, how he sounds when Mikey keeps sucking and kissing, working his way across and down Ray's throat.

Gerard loves those noises, and he takes them all in, his whole body tingling as they merge together, bodies pressed close and constantly shifting lines and colours. Mikey's dark hair against the muddy green of Ray's shirt, the fabric falling apart as Mikey works at the buttons. The way Ray looks, his expression open and wanting as he stares down his body, watching as Mikey keeps using his mouth, teeth gently biting at Ray's raised nipple.

"That's fucking beautiful," Frank says, openly admiring. "But you've got more kissing to do."

Before Gerard gets the chance to reply, Frank's moving, straddling Gerard and leaning forward, his hair falling down in dark strands, turning his face into deep shadows.

"Sorry, I'm not up on group sex etiquette yet," Gerard says, startling a laugh out of Frank. Which is good, because hearing him laugh makes this easier, like now Gerard can stop worrying about making a wrong move.

"None of us know what we're doing." Frank smiles, and gently presses his fingers over Gerard's mouth. "This is us. It doesn't have to be perfect. We'll make it up as we go along, that's all we can do."

"Sounds good to me," Gerard says, reaching out so he can cup the back of Frank's head. Tugging, he pulls Frank in closer, more than ready for this next kiss.

His shields lowered completely, it's almost overwhelming at first. When Gerard is experiencing four lots of feelings, the need to touch, the need to be touched. Gerard wants to grab hold of Mikey and hold on. To nose at Ray's stomach and lower, to explore and taste and drag his tongue over Ray's cock. He wants to offer his neck to Frank, feel the bite of sharp teeth into his skin.

Gerard wants it all, and his whole body is trembling, tension building as he deepens the kiss, loving the way Frank responds so freely. Tongues touching, Gerard gasps as Frank squirms above him, rubbing his body against Gerard's.

"I won't last if you keep doing that," Gerard manages to say, his words wet sounding and hoarse.

"So don't." Frank kisses again, deep and unrelenting before he pulls back slightly and says, "Let go, Gerard. Feel it all."

And Gerard does. He feels Mikey's heart racing with excitement as Ray flips their places, holding Mikey down with the weight of his body. Feels the way Ray's allowing his desires to fly free, any self consciousness gone as he takes in the way he's been watched and admired. Feels how Frank is so close, how much he wants this, his frustration at the layers of fabric between them as he drags his dick over Gerard's.

Gerard feels it all, emotion and needs. Words, thoughts and sounds.

It's too much. It's not enough. It's perfect as all four merge together, Gerard's back arching, his mouth falling open as abruptly, he's tipped over the edge.

~*~*~*~

“Is it okay that I’m frightened?” Mikey asks, his voice low as he stands close to Gerard. Above them the sky is a stormy dark blue, red smoke bleeding from inside of the rip. It’s like the sky itself is bleeding, and Gerard half expected blood tears to splatter his face.

“It’s okay,” Gerard says, his own fear overshadowed by the overwhelming urge to get Mikey to safety and hide him away. “There’s still time to hide, you don’t have to do this.”

It’s something Gerard has to say, even though he knows there’s no way Mikey’s about to hide now. Things have gone too far, and together, they’re making a stand.

“I’m going,” Mikey says, and far above something starts to crawl out of the rip. Gerard can’t see what it is, just a dark shape that looks distorted and huge. “If I don’t make it out,” Mikey grabs hold of Gerard, hugging him tight, his head tucked against Gerard’s neck, fitting together perfect as always. “Don’t you dare go near any lava rivers. I love you and you need to promise.”

“Promise,” Gerard says, and pulls up his shields over the lie. “But we’re both going to make it out. We all are. We’ve an orgy to arrange, remember?”

Mikey laughs, the sound a vibration against Gerard’s neck. “Like I’d forget.

“I know you won’t,” Gerard says, the pressure in his head growing every second. High above there’s an explosion of sound, cackles mixed with roars and Gerard knows this is it. He just needs to let go first. “I love you.” A last kiss, gentle with promise and words left unsaid, and Gerard reluctantly pulls back. “Time to go.”

“Yes. We must go now! Dillox is prowling around Ragalut, while close by Ownoon and Brasult are talking to Frank and Ray. “It is time to beat back the creatures.”

“It is,” Shavaron says. She’s standing close to the side of the valley, and all around is surrounded by dragons, old and new, large and small, a riot of colours, spikes and ruffs. Gerard’s got to know every one, and he’s afraid for them all. “This battle has long been told. How good will battle evil, how the world must be protected by four soul brothers backed by wild dragons. We must fight. We must fight hard. My dragons, my family, my heart. It is time to do what needs to be done.”

As one, all the dragons drop to their front knees, bowing close to the ground as Shavaron stretches her neck and lets out a roar.

~~~~

“Dillox, Ownoon, patrol the town, I and Brasult will go up high” Ragalut says, his sides puffed up and wings rigid as they glide down the mountain. “Do not worry about being seen, that does not matter now. All that matters is fighting back how you can.”

It’s a plan that makes sense, Dillox and Ownoon much smaller dragons and better suited for close-up flying, but Gerard doesn’t like the idea of being separated from Mikey. About to protest he lets the words dry in his mouth, knowing that despite his concerns, Mikey is well able to look after himself. He’s got Dillox, Ownoon and Frank, and all around, many of the riderless wild dragons.

Below flames leap from one of the castle spires and Gerard can hear screaming as the black creatures continue to flow from the rip and attack. From this distance they look like a hybrid of dragon and ghoul, but whatever they are, they’re fucking scary, and they destroying Gerard’s town.

Rifle clutched in his hand, all Gerard can hope is bullets can hurt them somehow, or at least distract them until they’re bathed in flame from the dragons.

“Look.” Mikey points to the north of the town, where in formation, a corp of dragons are taking flight, material colours fluttering on the dragon’s sides, the riders harnessed in and shouting orders.

It’s easy to recognise Commander Drex’s favourite formation as the dragons swoop as one before falling away into two columns, one of which is instantly attacked by one of the creatures.

“We will help them,” Dillox says, utterly serious as she peels away and heads for the town. “Ownoon, Frank, come with us.”

“Coming,” Frank yells, and with a whoop, he and Ownoon follow, leaving Gerard with Ray, Brasult and Ragalut.

“We will go upwards, stop more getting out,” Ragalut says, abruptly turning course, his wings flapping steady and strong as they approach the rip. This high the air is thin and Gerard’s eyes water due to the smoke. Wiping them with the back of his hand, he holds onto the rope, looking around for the creatures.

There are none. And then suddenly there are three. Ragalut roaring when a black shape rakes at his side with its claws.

“Ragalut!” Gerard looks down at Ragalut’s side, seeing blood and bubbling acid seep from his wounds.

“I am okay.” Ragalut roars, smoke pouring from out of his mouth. “I am going to eat them now.”

“And I will help,” Brasult says, wingtip brushing against Ragalut’s tail as together, they spin in the air and attack. All Gerard can do is hold on, and he’s got no idea how he’s supposed to help as the dragons and creatures attack one another. This is a battle for powerful creatures, not a human who’s barely holding on as Brasult tumbles and screams out his rage.

“You matter. We matter.” In the heat of the moment Gerard thinks at first it’s Ray that he’s hearing, but within moments he knows that it’s Mikey. He’s not close but Gerard can still hear him clearly, shouting encouragement into all of their heads. “We managed to shoot one. Aim for the base of their necks, and once they’re distracted let the dragons move in.”

“I can do that.” At least, Gerard hopes he can. Shooting a target in the valley is completely different to this, when Gerard has to balance as he aims for a target and fires.

And misses: but Ray doesn’t, black blood exploding from the creature's neck as Ragalut and Brasult roar as one, flames shooting from their mouths, the creature shrieking as it’s engulfed.

His hands shaking and ears ringing, Gerard looks toward Ray, but there’s no chance of a congratulations when, from all sides, more creatures are approaching. Gerard starts to repeatedly fire, wildly at first, then methodical, calm washing over him as all around, blood splatters and dragons and creatures roar.

“Watch out, behind you.” Gerard shakes his head, trying to focus on one thing as he realises that Ray is yelling. “Ragalut. Gerard. Behind you!”

 

Gerard turns and tries to fire, but he’s too late. Already one of the creatures has latched onto Ragalut, talons sinking into his sides and back as it crawls toward Gerard. This close Gerard can smell the stench of its breath, his whole body cold as the creature gets close enough to touch, its talon dripping Ragalut’s blood when it pulls it up, and with a hissed cackle, slams the talon through Gerard’s thigh.

Impaled, Gerard screams, and in his head three others scream back. Gerard wants to tell them he’s okay, but he can’t. Pain has taken his ability to focus and Ragalut is loosing too much blood, his wings flapping wildly as he tries to stay on a level.

“Get off them!” Ownoon and Ray swoop forward, Ray hanging outwards, one leg braced on Ownoon’s side so he’s got more reach to shoot. “Get off them now!”

There’s the sound of a shot, Gerard driven backwards as he’s splattered with blood from the creature. But not enough. It’s still moving, beaked mouth open wide as it starts to pull up its leg, intent on impaling Gerard again.

“Fuck you.” Dizzy, black spots floating in front of his eyes, Gerard fumbles his pistol, trying to focus and aim. “You don’t get to hurt Ragalut like that.”

Gerard fires, and this time the creature slumps, breath fetid as it screams, acid and matter dripping from its ruined chest.

“You need to get it off, the dragons can’t burn it when it’s attached.” It’s Ray yelling, looking concerned as Ownoon flies close, her wings nearly brushing against Ragalut’s. “There’s more creatures coming out of the rip. We need to finish this one. If you don’t get it off it’s going to kill you both.”

Truthfully Gerard thinks it’s going to kill him anyway. He can feel his thigh burn and bubble from inside, the talon grating against bone when he attempts the smallest of movements. “I can’t.”

“Yes you can,” Ray yells. “You have to.”

Gerard slumps forward, catching himself on one hand, the world turning to grey as he tries to focus and find Mikey.

“Gerard.” Ray keeps yelling, urging on Gerard with words and mind. “You need to get it off you both right now. Ragalut is dying.”

“He’s not allowed to die.” Gerard jerks up, tears flowing as he hears Ragalut’s pained breathing. “I’m going to pull this thing out now.”

“Good,” Ray encourages, urging Gerard on as he takes hold of the creature's claw and pulls. Instantly fire flows through Gerard’s whole body, his blood turned to flame and his bones crumbling as he keeps pulling, the skin on his fingers peeling away as acid spills from the wound. Nauseous he spits out bile when the talon comes free with a wet plop, the creature toppling onto its side. Steeling himself, Gerard pushes, his hand disappearing into coarse fur until, finally, it falls from Ragalut.

As soon as the creature is free, Ownoon twists in mid-air, already roaring flames that engulf the creature, igniting it into a ball of red and black fire.

“I am sorry. I can not keep flying.” Ragalut pants out the words, blood streaming from multiple deep wounds. “You must try and jump onto one of the others. They will get you down.”

“No.” Gerard leans forward, wrapping his arms around Ragalut’s neck. “I’m not leaving you. We can get to the ground. You can do it.”

“I do not think that I can,” Ragalut says, his eyes slipping closed. “But for you I will try.”

And he does, he fights to keep flying, his whole body straining and wings flapping, hard at first and then slower…. slower…. not at all.

With a great sigh, Ragalut says, “I am sorry,” his eyes closed and body limp as they plummet towards earth.

Clinging on, Gerard tucks his head against Ragalut’s neck, sends out sorrysorrysorryIloveyou, Mikey’s face the last thing he remembers before hitting the ground.

~~~~~

Gerard. You need to wake up. Gee. Please.

Gerard tries to open his eyes, but they feel gummy, the lashes glued together. Beneath him he can feel something hard, and his whole body throbs, the taste of blood in his mouth as he coughs, gasping for breath.

Gerard. Wake up. Where are you? We need you. I need you.

Gerard needs Mikey to shut up, to get out of his head and let Gerard slip back to sleep. But he won’t, he keeps mentally calling, frantic and afraid. Gerard hates that. He needs to tell Mikey he’s okay, but Gerard can’t, because he’s not.

He can’t move, every breath hurts and when he finally manages to prise open his eyes, all he can see is the still body of Ragalut close by, and then further, the flames engulfing the castle. They burn high, snapping against the dark sky smokey sky, while all around the black feathery creatures circle and scream. All Gerard can think is: they’ve failed. The creatures have come through the rip and took over.

“They have not won yet.”

Startled, Gerard groans, his head throbbing as he looks around, sure he can hear Shavaron close by.

“I am close but not here,” Shavaron says, her words conjuring soothing and peace. “But you must be brave. You and Ragalut both. You are both needed, and that means you must fully wake up.”

“Ragalut’s still alive?” It’s what Gerard needed to hear, and he painfully pushes himself up on one knee. Reaching out he rests his hand against Ragalut’s huge chest, feeling his faint breathing.

“He is alive, yes. His journey is not over. As yours is not over too. But you must move now. You must face your hurts and be brave. The time for four is right now.”

“Ragalut?” Gerard’s voice breaks, feeling raspy in his throat as he pulls himself closer to Ragalut, his leg feeling like it’s going to shatter as he drags it behind him. “Ragalut. Can you hear Shavaron?”

“I can,” Ragalut says eventually, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth as he slowly turns his head toward Gerard. “I can hear the others too. They are waiting. They need us.”

Gerard takes in Ragalut’s bloody body, how his wings are folded in close to his body, one ripped at the tip. “Do you think you can fly?”

Ragalut looks directly at Gerard, their connection so strong at that moment that Gerard feels like he’s part dragon. “I can with your help. Your strength. Together we can do this. And then together we will fight.”

“Okay. Okay.” Gerard doesn’t ask what he needs to do. He already knows.

Slowly, each movement agony, Gerard pushes himself upright, balancing on one leg as behind him, Ragalut struggles to his feet too. While he’s doing so Gerard looks around, now able to see the devastation in his town, the creatures clearly winning despite the wild dragons and dragon corps that still fight high in the sky.

“I am ready,” Ragalut says.

In response, Gerard stands as straight as he can, focussing in until the only thing that matters is Ragalut. As one they breathe, as one they feel, connected in body and mind as Gerard says, “Do it.”

Ragalut takes a deep breath, and suddenly Gerard is engulfed in flame. It roars past his body, caresses his skin, fiery tendrils slipping down into his throat -- but it doesn’t hurt. It can’t. For right now Gerard is part dragon, energised and starting to heal, sharing his strength with Ragalut who stretches his wings, the ground shaking around him as he says, “It is time to end this.”

Gerard agrees.

Still connected he runs forward, the world shimmering around him, made strange and amazing when he sees through his new dragon eyes.

Stretched to his full height, Ragalut roars again, shooting fire and smoke into the sky. “I am dragon. We are dragon.”

“We are dragon,” Gerard agrees and climbs onto Ragalut’s back. There’s no rope, but he doesn’t need it, not when Ragalut’s body is Gerard’s own. Every move that he makes, each thought that flows through his mind is Gerard’s, Gerard balancing easily as Ragalut runs and takes flight.

“The others are waiting,” Ragalut says, and Gerard can feel them. They’re strong in his mind, leading him in, Gerard’s soul brothers and dragons, all waiting to band together and deliver this last blow.

“You are back! Dillox spins excitedly, Mikey holding on, his expression clearing when he sees Gerard. “We thought you were lost. My egg wanted to come down and find you, but we had fighting to do. I burned off the face of two creatures and my egg shot six of them too.”

“I couldn’t feel you,” Mikey says, remembered misery heavy and cloying as he pitches his voice so Gerard can hear. “I got mad.”

“That’s an understatement.” Frank flies close with Brasult, sounding impressed as he says, “It was like he was born holding a rifle.”

“Like I said, I got mad,” Mikey says, ducking when one of the dragon corps flies past just a little too close. By now it’s one of the few of the corp dragons left flying, the ones that are left fighting alongside the wild dragons, all their efforts concentrated on stopping any more creatures coming out of the rip.

“That needs to close.” Gerard stares at the rip, grief hitting hard when he realises the only way to do so is from within. “We have to end this. I have to end this.”

“No young one, that step is not yours.” At first Gerard thinks once again Shavaron is talking through mind, then he senses her coming, that unique mixture of age, wisdom and love. Surprised, he turns, and sees Shavaron approach, Ray and Ownoon close by her side.

It’s the first time Gerard’s seen her flying and he knows he’ll never forget how Shavaron looks right now. Magnificent and graceful, the awkward gait of old age swept away as she flies, sleek and beautiful, the dragon she used to be centuries ago revealed.

“We can find another way,” Frank says, all enthusiasm gone as he and Brasult fly and take up a place at Shavaron’s front quarters. “There has to be something.”

“There is not,” Shavaron says, inclining her head as Dillox and Mikey sweep into place at her hind quarters. “This is how it must be. As I go into the flames surrounded on all sides with those brought to protect me on my last journey”

Gerard can tell Frank wants to protest more, but he remains silent, shoulders tight and shields pulled high.

“You will be okay,” Shavaron says, affection shining through as she looks over to Frank. “You have come far since we first met. And you will continue to do so. You will live long and be happy.”

Above, another creature explodes from the rip, another enemy in a battle that’s going against them. With the town burning below him and all around, dragons injured and struggling to fly, Gerard’s aware this needs to end now, and he and Ragalut fly to their place.

Four dragons, four soul brothers, four guardians as Shavaron takes her last flight.

As one they fly upwards, dodging the creatures, flames roaring and guns blasting, working together as one, when, protected between them, Shavaron flies forward, direct for the rip.

Close and Gerard can taste rot on his tongue, his chest tight and eyes streaming.

Closer still and more creatures attack. Dillox takes one out with her fire. Ray shoots one in the head. Frank shouts, standing up on Brasult, yelling and screaming as he ducks beneath talons and shoots.

Even closer, and all the dragons start roaring as one, the soul brothers yelling along. They’re all joined, all emotions, thoughts and feelings meshing together, Shavaron’s protectors to the last.

To now: when without a look back, she flies into the rip and starts roaring. A roar that keeps on building, louder and louder as Shavaron screams out her outrage, flames burning bright as the gasses seeping from the rip start to ignite.

And explode, sudden and violent.

The world shaking, dragons buffeted by foul smelling wind, a thousand shrieks filling the air and Shavaron, gone in an instant.

Gone as the rip closes behind her.

~*~*~*~

Sitting on one of the rocks at the meeting place, it’s easy to remember Shavaron. How she liked to curl close to the fires and tell stories. How patient she was when Gerard kept asking questions, how along with her dignity and calm, she loved shiny things, her rock nest surrounded by things that would glitter.

Gerard misses her, more than he would have ever imagined.

“She knew it would happen.”

Even if he hadn’t heard him slide down the crater side, it would have been no surprise to hear Ray. Since the battle Gerard, Mikey, Ray and Frank have remained joined in a way that means Gerard knows where they are at all times. It’s something he’s used to with Mikey, but the addition of Frank and Ray is something that feels right, that it was always meant to be this way.

“She’d accepted she’d die a long time ago,” Ray says, taking a seat on one of the rocks. Bending, he picks up a fragment of mirror, letting it catch the sun in his hands. “It was just a case of waiting for when.”

What Ray’s saying isn’t a surprise, and in time Gerard knows it’ll help with the grief of losing Shavaron. But not yet, not when things are so raw.

“Yeah, I miss her too,” Ray says, and he and Gerard both look behind them as Frank and Mikey appear, Frank throwing himself down the steep side while Mikey follows more sedately. “The dragons are planning a party to celebrate her life.”

“I like that idea.” And Gerard does, better to celebrate who Shavaron was and not mourn her passing.

“The dragons throw a great party.” Frank arrives in a flurry of skittering stones and panted breath as he skids to a stop next to an end seat rock. “You haven’t experienced anything until you hear Brasult sing. Just don’t drink if they offer you something from a cauldron. I don’t know where they get it from but last time they partied I tried some and woke up a day later.”

“And only wearing Dillox’s hoarded necklaces,” Ray says with a laugh. “The dragons talked about it for almost a year.”

“Gossipy bastards,” Frank says fondly, and looks over at Mikey. “Took you long enough.”

Mikey sits on the last rock. “Good things come to those that wait.”

“So they say,” Frank says, sounding amused. “But that doesn’t apply here. Or make sense.”

“It could.” Mikey shrugs, his attention on the fire that crackles at the side of the crater. “I miss her.”

“We all do.” Serious now, Frank kisses his fingertips and presses them over his heart. “She was amazing.”

“She was the wisest dragon I know, the wisest anything I know,” Ray says.

Gerard thinks of the town, how he can see his family now and how the wild dragons are talking to those in the corps. Things are changing and will continue to do so, but what won’t is, Gerard’s found his new home, his brothers.

“She saved us,” Gerard says, and then, “To Shavaron, thank you, we love you.”

“To Shavaron,” the others repeat, and somehow, somewhere, Gerard knows that Shavaron heard and is happy, flying free for eternity, flames roaring as she swoops through the air.