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Goodnight, Majestic Skies

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“So,” Hakyeon beams, pen poised over the surface of his tablet. The aroma of his spiced tea fills the room and the deafening silence around them. “Space dragons.”

Opposite him, Doctor Jung Taekwoon sips his own cup of coffee silently, eyes fixed on the plate of cakes and tarts Hakyeon had ordered moments ago. He doesn’t reply.

A nervous interviewee, Hakyeon muses, tapping his pen against the edge of his tablet. Looks like he’ll need a little prompting before he talks. “Not everybody can say they’ve ever seen a space dragon, let along take care and raise dozens of them at a time. So what brought you to this job?”

He gets a piercing gaze in return for his question. “Human arrogance,” Taekwoon says, his tone stern, and that’s certainly not something Hakyeon expected.

“Human arrogance,” he repeats gingerly, arching an eyebrow. Taekwoon sips his coffee again. “Could you elaborate?”

Another sip. Hakyeon’s tapping grows faster.

“I assume you’re talking about the environmental concerns that have cropped up in the past two decades of fuel mining?” he prods, and Taekwoon’s eyes blaze. Bingo.

“Human wants, human takes. They kill the ecosystems on planets they wish to mine from and drive the dragons out. That’s all there is to it,” Taekwoon replies, and plucks a cake off the plate. It’s the sugar and strawberry one Hakyeon’s had his eye on since the beginning of the interview. His grip on his pen tightens.

“Yes, many environmentalists and ecologists have raised awareness for the problems of the fuel consumption in our galaxy,” Hakyeon nods. That’s something he could agree on. In fact, there are quite a few articles on his blog dedicated to in-depth coverage over the environmental crisis on several notable planets. “But you’re doing your part to help the dragons out, aren’t you? In particular, your laboratory and the planet you conduct your study on— it’s a safe haven for lost, injured, and homeless dragons to take refuge in, like a new home. And I have to say that it’s an impressive—”

“My labs are not a safe haven,” Taekwoon cuts in sharply. “And it’s not a proper home for the dragons.”

“...right,” Hakyeon says, staring. This conversation is getting nowhere.

Taekwoon scoffs quietly at that and pushes his chair back. “Have you done any preliminary research about what you’re reporting on at all, mister journalist?” he asks, challenging, and Hakyeon bristles.

“Of course I have,” he says hotly, and takes a deep breath to calm himself. It won’t do if he snapped on the main source of information of his upcoming articles. “However, the focus of my work is to gain a firsthand perspective about dragons from you, the expert. It’s not about my opinion, it’s about yours.”

“My opinion will always be the same,” Taekwoon says shortly. He stands, brushing imaginary dust off his leather jacket and jeans. “The fuel companies need to stop their reckless mining procedures and observe the environmental impacts their actions have. Quote me on that.”

“I most certainly will,” Hakyeon nearly snaps. He reigns himself in once more before getting to his feet as well. “Are you leaving already?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’ll remind you that I’ll be dropping by your laboratory the day after tomorrow,” Hakyeon says. He really hopes Taekwoon isn’t offended enough to back out on his promise to allow Hakyeon to stay on-site and report on his observations for the next two weeks.

Taekwoon gives him a baleful glare and picks a clunky bag up off the floor. “I remember,” he mutters, and crosses the room in a few long strides. He’s exiting the meeting room Hakyeon booked very specifically for their first meet up with the hopes of making a good impression. But given the way things turned out, that impression probably didn’t last, if Taekwoon had even been impressed at all.

What a prickly person, Hakyeon grumbles to himself. He stops the recording app that’s been running and glowers down at his notepad, which is nearly blank save for the intergalactic date.

He takes back what he thought about Taekwoon being a nervous interviewee. It seems like he’s got one angry dragon lover on his hands instead.

+

Hongbin arrives with all of his camera equipment to the bustling commuter planet Hakyeon’s staying on in the evening, and they depart at dawn immediately the day after. Hakyeon buys them two cups of pilot’s fuel from a nearby café— a much stronger version of earthen coffee often sold at spaceports for the wary cross-galaxy travellers. The irony of the drink’s name does not escape Hakyeon, even in the early hours of his departure, and it leaves him in a sour mood throughout the whole check-in and boarding procedure.

“You look like somebody’s managed to offend all of your ancestors overnight,” Hongbin comments as they board the spaceship and shoved their carry-ons into the compartments beneath their seats. “What’s gotten in to you?”

“Nothing,” Hakyeon grunts. He wakes his tablet and immediately checks on all the updates: the stats on his personal blog, his work blog, his personal email, his work email, various media platforms, the news, the weather on at least four different planets, and his automatic plant watering system back at home.

“Sure it’s nothing,” Hongbin snorts. The hologram display for space travel safety appears at the front of the cabin, so he lowers his voice and whispers to Hakyeon, “So how was the first interview with the scientist yesterday?”

His next jab on his tablet is nothing short of violent. “It was great,” Hakyeon says tightly, and Hongbin snorts.

“What, is the guy as unresponsive and disagreeable as other journalists say? You knew what you were getting into. It was a miracle he even agreed to an on-site interview, let alone one that’ll go on for so long.”

“Shut up,” Hakyeon hisses, and Hongbin laughs as he dings the attendant for a blanket.

“Suit yourself. I’m going to catch a few more hours of sleep first, because you’re inhumane for making us travel at this hour and that dude lives in probably the most remote corner of the universe known to man. Wake me up in a few light hours, okay?”

The most remote corner of the universe known to man is only one of the habitable rock hunks orbiting one of the larger settlement planets near the dusty outskirts of the galaxy, but it’s still a fair bit of travel away from the more populated planets most people live and work at. Hakyeon’s done some research on it before: the planet’s diverse ecological properties make it optimal for raising and caring for multiple species of endangered dragons. Taekwoon’s laboratory, which has one main centre and three other locations scattered around the land, is protected and funded by various galactic organizations wishing to show support for the preservation of the mysterious animals. In all his years of work, Taekwoon has helped stabilize the previously dropping dragon population, launched campaigns to raise awareness for the diminishment of the dragons, and helped contribute to several databases containing biological information of all kinds of space dragons. He’s also established himself as a serious thorn-in-the-side for many fuel establishments whose actions were now scrutinized with much more legal critique than ever before. For a guy who barely talks, it’s a rather impressive resume.

They arrive at the settlement planet, JEL.EE.FSH, after long light hours of sitting in cramped spacecraft chairs. It’s one of the last stops in the particular route of travel, so by the time Hakyeon and Hongbin wobble into the loading docks, they’re the only two to actually exit the spaceship. Even the filtered oxygen pumping through the mechanically-generated atmosphere of the open space port smells a lot better than the recycled air they’d been breathing earlier.

“C’mon,” Hakyeon shouts over the general noise of the bustling port. “We gotta catch the shuttle and have it take us down to the planet.”

“Are you serious?” Hongbin groans, slumping under the extra weight of all his equipment.

“Very serious,” Hakyeon retorts, and tugs Hongbin along by the arm. JEL.EE.FSH has all the charms of a settlement planet— aggressive portside hagglers, a permanent stench of oil and spacecraft exhaust, the prickly feeling of an electrically generated atmosphere— and Hakyeon can’t wait to leave it all behind and get going before one of them gets pick-pocketed.

They board a bulky shuttlecraft, which roars and creaks like it’s being held together by tacky tape, and it makes Hongbin clutch at all of his equipment with the most traumatized look on his face.

“This is the last time I’m ever picking up a project for you,” he grumbles, and Hakyeon gives him an absent-minded pat on the back. He’s got his tablet out and his battle plan going: if he’s going to survive interviewing Taekwoon for the next fourteen days, it’s going to be done with a well-structured plan that won’t leave him humiliated and grasping for straws like his interview two days ago.

+

The man that greets them when they stagger out of the shuttlecraft is young, cheerful, and tall. His short brown hair ruffles in the natural breeze of a perfectly natural atmosphere (the sharp descent down into a toiling lake had nearly launched Hakyeon’s meagre space meal back up) and he’s grinning when they hobble over, exhausted from their travels.

“Hiya,” the man says, reaching out to shake their hands. “I’m Dr. Han Sanghyuk, one of the researchers who works for Taekwoon. Call me Sanghyuk!”

“Nice to meet you,” Hakyeon nods, trying to pop his ears. “I’m Cha Hakyeon, and I write for Interstellar Databases. This is Lee Hongbin,” he adds, because Hongbin’s looking kind of green and speaking might be a task beyond him at this point. “He’s the freelance photographer who’s helping me out with my project.”

“Cool,” Sanghyuk says, pumping poor, airsick Hongbin’s arm up and down. “Let’s get your stuff into the buggy and I’ll take you all back to the labs.”

“Right-o,” Hakyeon nods readily. He’d kill for a hot shower and a proper nap right now.

There’s a green buggy parked in a paved lot with only a single trail leading away from it, which looks like a rather odd bit of manmade commodity cut into a beautifully lush forest. Hakyeon can’t help but glance around them as they loaded all their stuff onto the buggy, but what was he expecting? A random dragon to pop out of the bushes or something?

“So, welcome to V.I.EX.,” Sanghyuk shouts once they’re hurtling down the path at breakneck speeds. Hakyeon clutches the edge of his seat and tries not to think about how Sanghyuk’s foot never eases up on the gas pedal and how the only thing between him and imminent death if they hit anything is a plastic roof. There’s isn’t even a buggy door on the damn thing. “You’ve caught us at a good time; rainy season just ended and it’s right before the heatwaves come on, so we’ve got some nice overcast days and light temperatures to look forwards to.”

“Right,” Hakyeon yells back faintly. “How long have you worked here?”

“A couple of years,” Sanghyuk replies. “Maybe four? Five?”

“What’s your job here?”

“I’m a geologist,” Sanghyuk says. “Not the first kind of scientist you’d think of when it comes to dragons, but nearly seventy-five percent of space dragons burrow underground when they’re nesting, breeding, or not conducting galactic travel. It’s my job to inspect the caves and help maintain them for the dragons to live in. It can be a little dangerous sometimes, so you could say it’s a... rocky job.”

“Christ,” Hongbin groans in the backseat, and Sanghyuk laughs.

Hakyeon’s not sure what he expected of Taekwoon’s labs— maybe some underground hideout and a few freezer lockers stuffed full of dragon food— but he’s impressed against his will when they rocket out of the forest and the scenery abruptly clears into rolling hills, swaying trees and wild shrubbery for as far as the eye can see. There’s outlines of snow-capped mountains and probably more bodies of water out there, if the low-hanging clouds in the distance are of any indication. Taekwoon’s labs are a series of industrial-looking blocks built right into the hillside, four tiers high and a with large observation deck overlooking the landscape. The path leads them right up to a garage, which Sanghyuk opens with a tap of his identification badge. They roll smoothly in after that and drive by several other buggies and off-road vehicles equipped with some incredibly complicated stuff that Hakyeon can’t name on sight.

It’s even more spacious on the inside.

“Damn,” Hongbin mutters when Sanghyuk leads them out of the elevator and into the lobby. Hakyeon lets out a wolf-whistle. “You guys are loaded.”

“We’re well-funded by a lot of organizations that are eager to take the credit of being pro-wildlife without doing any of the actual work,” Sanghyuk smirks. There’s a lot of doorways, hallways and stairs branching out of the oval-shaped room, leading up to different levels Hakyeon can’t quite see despite the glorious amount of light streaming in through the uncovered windows. It’s a beautiful and modern place.

“Anyway, I’ll show you to your rooms,” Sanghyuk offers, gesturing back to the elevators. “You’ll be staying in our dormitories, we always have a couple of extra rooms available because our staff roster isn’t that big.”

“Who else works here?” Hakyeon asks as they jam themselves back into the lift with their luggage.

“Aside from myself and Taekwoon, two other scientists,” Sanghyuk says. “They’re probably in the labs right now. Last I checked, Taekwoon was gearing up to go poke around in dragon poop to make sure they were eating their veggies or something.”

“Dragons can eat common vegetation?” Hakyeon asks, surprised.

“Sure. Most of them are omnivores and gain a lot of fibres from consuming plant life. Even those with strong meat-oriented diets can survive on eating greens if they’re in a pinch. You’ll have to ask Taekwoon about it if you want more info though; he’s the one who really studies dragon biology for a living.”

“That’s nice,” Hakyeon sighs, thinking back to Taekwoon’s unfriendly scowl and his abrupt exit. The lift rockets up to the upper-levels, and he tries not to anticipate too much from the frowny-faced scientist.

+

He and Hongbin get their own rooms, which are clean and properly furnished with a small bathroom, desk and bed. Predictably, Hakyeon crashes face-first into the mattress without taking his shoes off and sleeps for a solid six hours before Hongbin is hammering on his door, telling him that they should meet the other two scientists over dinner.

The common area downstairs is conjoined with an actual kitchen, and the dinner that is served is a combination of fresh fruits and vegetables and microwave-heated packaged meats and some kind of frozen space food. Two men, one with a bright smile and a large nose, and the other with pretty droopy eyes, await proper introductions with Sanghyuk when Hakyeon and Hongbin finally show up.

“This is Dr. Kim-Lee and Dr. Kim-Lee,” Sanghyuk grins, gesturing to each of them, and Hakyeon’s not sure if the guy is pranking them or not (he’s already established himself as despicable pun-maker, that’s for sure). “They’re one of those couples that like to do the combining surnames thing instead of picking one." The Dr. Kim-Lees look like a friendly pair when Hakyeon and Hongbin introduce themselves in return.

“Call me Jaehwan,” the one with the nose says cheerfully. “I’m the one who prepared all the lovely greens and Wonshik is the one who’s only trusted to pop things into the microwave.”

“Leave my cooking out of this,” Wonshik complains, but judging by the way he looks at Jaehwan it sounds like one of those trivial couple things instead of anything really serious. “It’s not my fault I can’t grow things for shit.”

“Jaehwan is a botanist,” Sanghyuk informs them between mouthfuls of food. “Wonshik’s a mechanical engineer, he deals with all the complicated machinery nobody else wants to take care of.”

“I grow all of my own vegetables!” Jaehwan announces proudly. “All purely organic, no added preservatives or excessive amounts of sodium!”

“And fertilized by dragon dung,” Sanghyuk chortles, and Hongbin puts his fork down with a slightly pained look on his face.

“Hey, you gotta work with what you have when you’re on a hunk of space rock with dragons at every turn,” Jaehwan shrugs, spearing a mouthful of what might be genetically modified breed of spinach into his mouth. Hongbin sighs and picks up his fork again.

“So, you’ve met Taekwoon already, right?” Wonshik asks, his question directed at Hakyeon. When he nods in reply, Wonshik’s grin widens. “What do you think of him?”

Hakyeon smiles, trying not to let the strain show. “He’s... dedicated about his work.”

Jaehwan laughs. “More like he’s obsessed. He loves dragons, but humans? Not so much. You really have to learn to read his poker faces. Sometimes he looks angry without meaning to, and he doesn’t take well to people disrupting his projects. Dragons will always take priority, but don’t worry, he’s actually a really good guy once you get over his little frowns.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hakyeon mumbles.

Fortunately, the conversation shifts gears from there on and Hongbin becomes the next target for questioning. Sanghyuk in particular seemed fairly interested in his freelance photography, and they talk about that until a fair portion of the food disappears and Wonshik is packing away some dinner for Taekwoon, allowing everybody to disperse back into their own work.

Hakyeon claims one of the armchairs by the window for himself and connects his tablet to his laptop. He opens up a blank document and stares at it for a moment, thinking back to the overall environment of the lab. The scientists who work here are definitely a lot friendlier than Taekwoon was, but he’s got to steer clear of his disgruntlement with the man if he wants his pieces to shape up nicely. This series is meant to show the importance of taking care of space dragons; how is he going to promote that if he’s hating on the guy who keeps them alive?

“Hakyeon, I’m going up to the observatory to take some photos,” Hongbin calls, and Hakyeon waves him off, mumbling some kind of affirmative sound a reply. He hears Hongbin leave, and a moment later, the lounge is silent save for the sounds of the coffee maker ticking and the appliances humming. It’s a very homely sound, one that reminds him of his childhood residence back on earth, and he falls into a bit of a lull when he begins to write. He’s not sure how long he spends curled up by the window, but by the time someone walks into the lounge, the sky has turned pinkish-reddish in colour: and indication of nightfall, if V.I.EX. actually had nights.

“Ah,” a soft voice says, and Hakyeon shoots up, startled by the sound. To his surprise, Taekwoon is standing in the kitchen, a hand pressed to his chest, and he looks absolutely filthy. His outdoor gear is a mess of grass stains and mud and his dark hair is lanky with sweat. Strands stick to his temples as he regards Hakyeon with the same piercing quality from their first meeting. His appearance is a far cry from the tidy, fashionably dressed man Hakyeon interviewed two days ago, but somehow, Taekwoon looks more... natural.

“I’m sorry,” Taekwoon says, a moment later. “I didn’t mean to interrupt; I was surprised to see you sitting there.”

“Oh,” Hakyeon says, blinking. “That’s okay. I was just writing.”

Taekwoon nods, eyes flicking down to the leftovers the other scientists had left out for him. He grabs a few plates and then walks over to where Hakyeon is sitting. He deposits the food onto the one of the tables and drops into the plush seat with a quiet groan, practically sinking into the chair.

“Long day?” Hakyeon asks tentatively, watching Taekwoon stretch his long legs out in front of him. His boots are also caked with mud, and there’s a tear in the fabric above his knee.

“Not really,” Taekwoon yawns. “Just eventful. One of the rock-based dragons had a torn a muscle in its neck from burrowing too harshly, and it was very stressed. It took me quite a while to sedate it before I could take a proper look.”

“How big is the dragon?” Hakyeon asks, sitting upright. A kind of curiosity has washed over him; it feels like the Taekwoon here, in all his outdoor gear, is different from the sterner man sitting across from him in the café on the other planet.

“Rock-based dragons aren’t large creatures in general,” Taekwoon says, picking through some of Jaehwan’s spinach. “They’re clunky types. An adult one probably won’t grow any larger than one of our buggies.”

“Do they fly?”

“They have the physical capabilities to achieve flight, but they rarely do,” Taekwoon shakes his head. “As their names suggests, they’re more prone to digging caves, or residing in mountain passes. You’ll find a lot of them in dryer, rocky planets. They’re really bad at moving through water but desert landscapes make them feel exposed and doesn’t provide the kind of cover they seek for nesting.”

“I see,” Hakyeon mumbles. He’s unplugged his tablet from his laptop and he’s scribbling away without even being aware of it. In fact, he’s got nearly two pages of notes and observations by now, from the way Taekwoon sits as he speaks about dragons to the information he’s garnered so far. He’s aware of the scientist watching him as he eats, eyes searching.

“Is there any way you’d like to set up your interview during your stay?” Taekwoon asks suddenly, and Hakyeon looks up.

“Well, I was hoping I could follow you around while you worked, where it’s safe to, of course. I have a professional photographer who’ll be contributing to my articles, so it’d be great if he could tag along too. Some exposé on your colleagues and yourself wouldn’t be bad either, and Sanghyuk’s explained which areas are considered off-limits and warned us not to go off exploring on our own. I’ll do my best to ask things of you ahead of time so we can all work around our schedules.”

Taekwoon nods, expression thoughtful as he shoves forkfuls of meat into his mouth. Hakyeon couldn’t believe the man could eat so much at once.

“That sounds like a plan. I’ll tell you now that V.I.EX. runs on nineteen-hour days, and because of the irregularity of the planet’s shape we’ll get three half-nights in a row before we get a full six hour nightfall. We don’t keep daytime regulation generators like settlement or metropolis planets and illuminate everything for seventy-two, ninety-six hours on end. We do our best to maintain a completely natural course of lighting here for the dragons.”

“Okay,” Hakyeon hums. He wouldn’t mind staring out at the half-nights; the hues of the sky were really beautiful. God knows he needed a vacation away from the constant intensive glare of light exposure in busy cities and ports. His mother would be proud of him.

Taekwoon was tapping his chin as he ate, considering. “I can take you to see the forest dragons and some of the sand dragons tomorrow,” he says after a moment. “They’re some of the tamer dragons, a little more open to unfamiliar visitors. If we’re lucky, some of the water dragons might surface from the lake too.”

“That’d be great,” Hakyeon nods, feeling oddly proud of their little exchange. He didn’t step on Taekwoon’s toes, and Taekwoon didn’t storm off with his dinner. It was a good, civil conversation.

“I’ll meet you and your photographer in the lobby at 0700 hours?” Taekwoon asks. He wipes his mouth and looks down in satisfaction at the emptied plates. “Have all your devices auto-adjusted to our systems?”

“Yeah,” Hakyeon nods, glancing down at his tablet.

“Good,” Taekwoon sighs, standing. “Sometimes Wonshik likes to experiment with our satellite signals, and... well, usually everything that operates on wireless signal resets itself without meaning to. I’d back your stuff up constantly if I were you,” he adds, glancing at Hakyeon’s laptop. “We even programmed a back up for the automated coffee machine so we don’t have to keep on putting our preferences in.”

“I will remember that,” Hakyeon vows with a horrified look on his face, staring down at his electronics like they were live bombs. God, if he lost all of his research data and writing— he shudders and reminds himself to tell Hongbin about the dangers as well.

Taekwoon laughs at his expression, and the sound is surprisingly light, like a bird’s lilt. His eyes scrunch up and he ducks his head when Hakyeon looks to him, amazed.

“I have to go back to work,” the scientist coughs, straightening up. “I’m sorry I didn’t come and greet you to the laboratory when you first arrived.”

“That’s fine,” Hakyeon replies, a little faintly. “We got acquainted all the same.”

“That’s good to hear,” Taekwoon says, collecting his plates. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning?” he adds as he piles everything into the dishwasher, and Hakyeon inclines his head. “Well, have a good night, mister journalist.”

“It’s Mister Cha Hakyeon to you!” Hakyeon calls, but Taekwoon’s already walking away, sparing him a little wave as he goes. He scoffs at the other’s relaxed posture, one hand tucked into the pocket of his pants as the other swings by his side. His gait is languid and graceful, and Hakyeon really couldn’t imagine Taekwoon crawling around in the forest and caves, poking about at dragons.

He leans back into his armchair and stares down at all he’s written down on his tablet.

Jung Taekwoon is a strange, enigmatic dragon keeper... and Hakyeon’s got two weeks to find out all that he can on this strange reptile island on the far end of the galaxy.

Chapter Text

When Hakyeon stumbles out of the lift with Hongbin the next morning, bleary-eyed and tousle-haired, they’re greeted by the sight of Taekwoon and Wonshik in the lobby, dressed in the same attire Hakyeon saw Taekwoon wearing yesterday night: long-sleeved shirts, vests with way too many pockets, baggy pants and boots. Wonshik has a pair of aviator sunglasses perched in his fluffy hair, and he mentally smacks himself for forgetting to bring his pair. There are also bags full of equipment surrounding them, and Hakyeon doesn’t envy them for having so much stuff. He’s wearing outdoor gear, though nothing as fancy as the scientists’, and he’s got a regular paper notepad instead of his tablet. Hongbin’s cradling his camera like it’s his child, and he blinks sleepily at Taekwoon. It takes Hakyeon a moment to remember they’ve never been properly introduced.

“This is Hongbin, the photographer I was talking about,” Hakyeon mumbles, gesturing vaguely between his friend and Taekwoon. They shake hands, during which Hongbin yawns spectacularly.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly, pushing his bangs out of his eyes. “I was based in ET.RN.TY. before this; I’m still on their forty-eight hour clock.”

“They don’t keep daytime regulation generators here,” Hakyeon interjects quickly, because Taekwoon looks like he’s about to launch into his whole ‘we keep natural hours’ speech and he’s not up to hear it all over again before his eyelids have unstuck themselves.

Taekwoon, on the other hand, shoots Hakyeon a surprised look, like he’s impressed Hakyeon remembered what he said.

“Well, hopefully our trip will wake you two up a little,” Wonshik jokes, spinning a collection of jangling things on a keyring. “Let’s get going, shall we?”

The vehicle they take isn’t a buggy today, which Hakyeon silently sends up a prayer of thanks for. It’s a large, eight-wheeled truck that Wonshik activates by tapping one of the many white chips dangling on the keyring onto a little sensor underneath the wheel. The whole vehicle roars to life, and then they’re driving down a fairly short expanse of paved ground before shooting right onto grass and dirt. Everything in the back, whether it’s equipment and humans, bounces as Wonshik shifts gears and takes them up a hill, passing by a grove of trees and scattering some birds amidst the grass as they go. From the passenger seat, Taekwoon reaches up and slides the cover for the sunroof back, allowing a bit of morning light to stream into the interior. Despite his sleepiness, Hongbin’s got his face pressed against the glass, eyes following the landscape as they speed by, and Hakyeon couldn’t help but revel a little in the excitement that wells up in him as they travel.

“You have a lot of locations on this planet,” Hakyeon comments. “How do you keep track of it all?”

“Most of it isn’t inhabited,” Taekwoon replies. “We divide it into four regions: grasslands, forestry, mountainsides and water locations. Our ‘central zone’ here is the conjoining point of most of these regions, and places we’ve deemed optimal for dragons to stay in.”

“What about the uninhabited areas? What if a dragon wanders off in those places?”

“We fit each of the dragons with trackers,” Taekwoon says. “However, most dragons that are injured and transported here and the ones that are bred on location are smart enough to know which areas are good for living, and they won’t go very far from these areas unless they’re ready to leave for good. The only places that we have next to no control over in terms of observation is the waterways. Water dragons are something else, and we’ve lost a fair few dragons in the past because we couldn’t care for them properly underwater. Sometimes, even the water environment on V.I.EX. is just too different for them to survive in. For this reason, they remain the most severely endangered breed of dragons to this day, despite our best efforts.”

“That’s awful,” Hakyeon murmurs, watching as the hills blended into thicker trees. The truck ploughed over raised tree roots and thicker undergrowth, making them sway.

“That’s life,” Taekwoon counters, but not in a challenging way. It’s a statement; a simple fact, and as his eyes flick up to meet Hakyeon’s in the rearview mirror, Hakyeon finds that he doesn’t quite know how to reply to that.

He flips open his notebook instead, and jots quickly down the conversation while Hongbin fiddles with his camera beside him.

He’s not sure how long they have to travel, but after a bit of time travelling through the forest, Taekwoon and Wonshik are having a quiet discussion in the front as they consult a bulky navigation-type system with a lot of coordinates and grids and dots that Hakyeon’s never seen before.

“There,” Taekwoon says suddenly, pointing at a cluster of yellow dots on the screen. “Hang a left when you can.”

“That’s an odd formation they’ve got there,” Wonshik observes, frowning as he slots them neatly through a bunch of trees with the grace of a man who’s driven through the terrain more than a just few times. “They’ve moved pretty far south.”

“And in very short amount of time too,” Taekwoon murmurs. He’s typing away on a very industrial-looking laptop that’s plugged into one of the many outlets in the console. “Have the satellites picked up anything in the forests?”

“Nothing noteworthy or concerning,” Wonshik shakes his head. Taekwoon purses his lips, and the engineer glances over. “Maybe it’s a behavioural thing?”

“Doubt it,” Taekwoon says quietly. He looks up from the laptop and casts a thoughtful look into the distance. “Unless something willed the alpha to move, they won’t uproot themselves so quickly and all at once.”

“Alpha?” Hakyeon repeats, unable to curb his curiosity.

“The pack’s head,” Taekwoon answers, eyes never leaving the forest. He looked like he was waiting for something. “Their central figure and, quite essentially...” Taekwoon cast a quick glance to the sunroof, and to Hakyeon’s surprise, he smiled.

A sudden shadow drops over them, and there’s a sound Hakyeon thought was several intercity choppers powering up at once. But as the synchronized thumps grow closer, he quickly realizes that it’s no machinery. Next to him, Hongbin makes a noise of disbelief and the little bit of sky and tree Hakyeon can see through the sunroof is blocked out by a huge, scaley underbelly soaring just above the treetops.

He’s aware of Wonshik speeding up, kicking the truck into another gear as they follow the formation of the creatures above them. Branches thwack against the windows and sides of the truck and the greens and browns blur together in an impressive mix before they’re shooting out of the edge of the forest, skidding a little on the flat, grassy plains.

Far above them, the forest dragons fly.

Their semi-translucent wings beat like a heart, in smooth motions of ups and downs, and their glides seem to leave behind a kind of turbulent wake that Wonshik’s taking full advantage of as they drive— without it, Hakyeon envisions that they’ll be left behind rather quickly.

At the front of the V formation, he spots a dragon; slightly bigger than the rest, clearly paving out the way for the other dozen dragons to follow. Hakyeon leans forwards, eyes wide with awe as he stares after them.

“The leader,” he breathes, finishing Taekwoon’s sentence, and sees the scientist nodding in his peripherals.

“You’ve got that right,” Taekwoon says, chuckling softly, and the closeness of the sound almost startles Hakyeon. But he’s too transfixed by the sight of the dragons to take his eyes off of them now, even if Taekwoon’s watching him like an adult would look over a fascinated child.

The dragons’ formation dip a little ways ahead, and that’s when Wonshik pulls away from them and follows up on the side until the alpha lands, rearing up and flapping its wings until it lands on solid ground in the distance. The pack follows suit, and Wonshik slows the truck to a crawl. They stop quite a ways from the dragons, and when they all climb out of the car, Taekwoon tosses Hakyeon and Hongbin backpacks and two vests.

“Put the vests on,” Taekwoon says. “Both of them are mine, so they’ll have my scent on them. If we’re going to get close, the dragons will be less suspicious if they’re exposed to a somewhat familiar smell rather than a new one.”

“Right,” Hongbin says, slipping the vest on, and Hakyeon feels a spike of trepidation. Now that they’re closer, he can see the angular crooks of the forest dragons’ wing and the sharp hooks on the tips of it. And then there’s their powerful jaws and the rows of teeth inside, all used for eating meat amongst other things.

“There’s no need to be afraid,” Taekwoon says, interrupting Hakyeon’s train of thought. “I will warn you to remain wary, as dragons are generally proud and mistrustful towards strangers. In particular, this group is very close-knit. If you hurt one, it’s as good as making all of them your enemy.”

“How nice,” Hongbin says, his voice nearly indistinct. Wonshik chuckles at their expressions.

“Don’t worry,” Taekwoon hums, pulling his own pair of sunglasses out of one of his pockets. He slides is on his face and tilts his head towards the creatures. “Stay with us, don’t make any sudden moves, and you’ll be fine.”

It’s a wonder how he made it over when his legs are wobbling like jelly inside his trousers, but Hakyeon’s somehow, miraculously, mingling amongst the beasts moments later. There’s ten dragons resting on the open land, all of which have scales of an interesting mixture of greens and browns, and also something glittery and shiny. It was like looking at an explosion of stardust, streaked along the smooth scales and ridges of the dragons’ backs. They’re all roughly the size of twenty-people seater shuttlecrafts, and Hakyeon guesses they’re probably bigger than the rock dragons Taekwoon was tending to yesterday. Their forms are lean with long, pointed tails. It reminds Hakyeon of earthen snakes.

“What can you tell me about them?” he asks as he trails after Taekwoon. Hongbin’s standing away from the pack with Wonshik, snapping group shots as Taekwoon leads Hakyeon right into the thick of things.

“Forest dragons are one of the most aerodynamic type of space dragons in the galaxy,” Taekwoon says. “This particular group here is partial to forests with colder, wetter climates. Unlike other species of dragons, they don’t shed their scales and grow a fresh one with a thicker one for protection before they enter space travel. Forest dragons keep one layer of scales, which means less weight on them when they’re flying. Their wings grow the same way; they have the toughest wings out of all the dragon species. They also have a secondary wing tucked under their main ones.”

Before Hakyeon could stop him (or even prepare himself), Taekwoon marches up to one of the dragons and yanks one of its wings up. The dragon shifts, rumbling so loudly the ground shakes. Hakyeon squeaks and leaps back, heart pounding in his throat, but Taekwoon’s completely unaffected. He lifts the wing as far as hands could go and jerks his head upwards at a small, pinker wing tucked beneath the first one.

“If their wings are damaged in anyway, the secondary one can kick in,” Taekwoon explains. Hakyeon edges forwards, peeking, but steps away again when the dragon’s sides expand. Taekwoon laughs and lowers the wing, patting the dragon’s side afterwards. “They don’t often do it, but they can also use both wings simultaneously. It’ll increase their speed by quite a bit and helps them glide through asteroid drifts, but it also tires them out greatly. The only times they’ll ever use it is if they’re trying to escape a predator.”

“It’s hard to imagine something with so much teeth and claws might have anything that’ll hunt it,” Hakyeon mutters, shuffling over to Taekwoon’s side.

“Perhaps predator is not the politically correct term,” Taekwoon muses. He leads Hakyeon around the dragons, and they spot Hongbin braving a smaller dragon to take some close ups of its scales. “Stronger dragons might eat smaller dragons if they’re particularly vicious or hungry, but it’s a matter of pride and territory that usually invokes conflicts. A fight over land, food, or a mate— those are all things dragons will do.”

Hakyeon is scribbling into his notebook, tongue between his teeth, and he feels like his wrist might fall off. But he’s also fascinated by Taekwoon’s vast expanse of knowledge about the dragons, and to stand so closely to them while documenting— Hakyeon’s never been a huge fan of extreme fieldwork, but in this case, he has a feeling it’ll be completely worth it.

“I’d introduce you to the alpha, but I think it’s best we save that for another time,” Taekwoon says, arms crossed as he looks towards the biggest dragon of the whole pack. There’s a little furrow in between his eyebrows. “She’s rather antsy at the moment, and I’m not sure why.”

“She?” Hakyeon blurts out. “The alpha is a female?”

“Of course,” Taekwoon replies, and there’s a handsome smirk on his face. “Not all alphas have to be male. In fact, packs with female alphas are often the strongest and most defensive packs. What’s that animal they talk about on earth— bears, was it? You know how they say never come between a mother bear and her cub?”

Hakyeon nods, slowly. He knows where this is going.

“Same thing about a mother dragon,” Taekwoon says. He leans in, and Hakyeon can see his own stiff expression reflected in Taekwoon’s sunglasses. “If you hurt any member of her family, she’ll use those claws to ensure that it’s the last thing you’ll ever do.”

“...alright then,” Hakyeon gurgles, the grip on his pen deathly tight, and Taekwoon moves away, chuckling.

“Don’t worry, she doesn’t consider you a threat, so she won’t pay attention to you. However, I think it’s best that you hang out with Wonshik and Hongbin over there, with some of the younger dragons. They’re playful, so make sure you don’t get nipped.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Hakyeon says warily, and Taekwoon shoots him one last, amused smile before the scientist is trekking towards the larger dragon. Despite his near-ignorance about the creatures, Hakyeon fancies that he can see the heavier figure of the alpha female, the thicker scales on her back and the wiser gleam in her double-lidded, gleaming yellow eyes. The orbs track Taekwoon’s motions as he walks towards her, casual as another man might be heading towards an old friend, and watches as he comes to a halt before her. The alpha lowers her head and nudges Taekwoon’s front with her muzzle, lips curling back as a rumbling— no, a purring sound— vibrates from her underbelly. Taekwoon reaches out then, scratching at the underside of the alpha’s jaw, and the dragon’s eyes closes momentarily. It expels a breath of hot air and the purring grows louder. He’s a big man dwarfed by an even bigger creature.

A sharp clicking noise beside him draws Hakyeon’s attention. Hongbin is standing next to him now, taking pictures of Taekwoon and the alpha. His friend’s expression is pinched, like he’s trying to navigate through a filed of land mines, but his professional side has kicked in and he’s doing his job like a champ.

“I have no idea how he can stand being so close,” Hongbin announces to no one in particular when Wonshik stops by them as well. “I’m about to pee myself from just seeing them, and he’s scratching the damn dragon’s chin like it’s a cat.”

“Taekwoon’s always been good with all kinds of animals,” Wonshik laughs, tucking his hands into his pockets. “He just gets them. He’s really something else.”

“Yeah,” Hakyeon agrees without really listening. He watches Taekwoon reach up to pat the alpha’s expanding nostrils, admiring the lean line of his body. If Taekwoon was a dragon, Hakyeon wouldn’t be surprised if he had the figure of one of the lithe and elegantly streamlined forest dragons. He quickly shakes his head clear of the thoughts and glances down at his notebook, thinking of his article, and how in the world he was supposed to capture the essence of such a man in mere words alone.

+

He wouldn’t say it got easier after that, but after getting over his initial shock, awe and fear of meeting the giant creatures, Hakyeon finds that he’s fallen back into his usual mode of reporting: following people around, raising questions whenever he can, and trying to organize all of his notes at the end of the day. He’d usually sit in the lounge for that, where others popping in and out could chat with him if they wanted to. Taekwoon’s team of scientists is a friendly bunch, and if Hakyeon had been wary of them beforehand he’s certainly a lot more open with them now.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?” Hongbin asks one evening. They’re sitting together in Hongbin’s room, with Hongbin at his desk transferring photos and Hakyeon lying on the bed, propped up on his elbows as he looks at his drafts. His boss had been pleased with the ones he’d sent him throughout the week, and was told to keep up the reporting in a similar fashion. But right now, Hakyeon was on his personal blog, typing up a little update for his followers about his trip thus far.

“As far as fieldwork goes it could’ve been a lot worse,” Hakyeon says, matter-of-fact. “I could’ve, oh, I dunno, stepped in dragon poop or something, you know?”

“Oh, shut up,” Hongbin snaps, pressing a hand to his face. Hakyeon immediately dissolves into giggles and grins at his friend, who shoots him an annoyed glare back.

“Okay, you have to admit, it was kind of funny,” Hakyeon snickers.

“Yeah, which is exactly why I’m laughing oh so hard,” Hongbin deadpans, and Hakyeon laughs even harder.

“You’re just mad that Sanghyuk saw you sink ankle-deep into it.”

“No, I’m mad that you’re making fun of me about it,” Hongbin retorts, but the tips of his ears have gone incredibly red, and Hakyeon wants to rub his hands together with glee.

“Aw, c’mon Binnie, I’m pretty sure you dirtying your shoes won’t alter his opinions of you. The kid crawls through caves with dragons for a living, he’s had to have seen worse. Besides, you’re hot. I’m sure he’s noticed.”

“You suck at giving cheer-up talks, you know?” Hongbin sighs, returning his gaze to his laptop. Hakyeon fakes a gasp of indignation.

“What are you talking about! I’m the smoothest talker you know!”

“One, I’m offended that you seem to think my social circle would be small enough for you to come out top in any category,” Hongbin begins, smirking, and dodges the pillow Hakyeon hurls at him. “Secondly, I’m not the one who’s been getting progressively more tongue-tied throughout the week because he’s too busy making goo-goo eyes at Taekwoon.”

Hakyeon freezes, spluttering.

“Excuse me? Goo-goo eyes?”

“You heard me,” Hongbin says calmly, even though there’s a challenging spark in his eyes and his tone says two can play this game. “What was that time you tripped on literally the flattest piece of ground when we went to see the sand dragons, and you almost fell into his chest? I thought that stuff only happened in romance stories.”

“There was a buried root there, okay!” Hakyeon yells, crossing his arms. “Don’t get me started on how you started blushing when Sanghyuk offered you a hand when we climbed up the caves!”

“Yeah, but I’m not the one who keeps on asking him the most unnecessary questions ever to keep him talking because someone likes the sound of Taekwoon’s voice.”

“That’s— I’m just reporting!” Hakyeon nearly shouts. He tamps down on the heat crawling up his neck and Hongbin laughs. He’s not going to deny that Taekwoon’s voice is rather nice to listen to (and Hakyeon asking a dozen questions a minute has got nothing to do with it), but he is going to throw the second pillow at Hongbin. This time, it hits the photographer square in the face.

“I shan’t sit here and have my reputation slandered,” Hakyeon warns. He rolls off the bed and tucks his tablet under his arm. “I’m going to grab a nice hot drink before I shower and go to bed.”

“Suit yourself,” Hongbin snickers as Hakyeon ducks out of his room. “I’ll send you the photos once I’m done processing them!”

The door clicks shut, and Hakyeon exhales quietly, and then glances down the hallway. He can’t hear any noise coming from the others’ dorms, so he suspects they’re probably still working or relaxing somewhere else.

The lounge is dark and empty when Hakyeon walks in. He flicks on a switch and putters about, finding a glass to pour some water into. He turns, ready to head back upstairs for bed, only to run headlong into a shirtless Taekwoon rounding around the corner.

Hakyeon yelps, leaping back, and the cold water sloshes between the two of them when Taekwoon suddenly grabs Hakyeon’s arms, trying to steady the both of them.

“You scared me,” Hakyeon pants, clutching his chest. His eyes dart down to the water droplets running down the flat expanse of Taekwoon’s stomach and into the band of his sweatpants, and then he makes the mistake of looking up at Taekwoon’s shapely biceps and broad shoulders. For a moment he’s torn between making vague motions of helping and trying not to actually touch Taekwoon’s bare skin, the heat rising in his face as Hakyeon struggles to collect himself.

Fortunately, Taekwoon saves him the trouble (and possible spontaneous combustion) by swiping the water away with the shirt he’s holding.

“No harm done,” the scientist says lightly, giving Hakyeon an amused look before he yanks the shirt back over his head.

Hakyeon splutters again, holding his glass tight, and asks, “Why on earth were you walking around without a shirt on?!”

“I was in the workout room,” Taekwoon explains. He rummages through the fridge and reappears at Hakyeon’s side a moment later with an energy drink in hand. “You have to stay fit if you’re going to run all over the planet chasing dragons.”

“You sure you should ingest that?” Hakyeon eyes the little bottle. “You’re gonna be to wired to sleep afterwards.”

“I’ll be fine,” Taekwoon waves him off. “I do the same with coffee.”

“Like that’s anything to brag about,” Hakyeon huffs. They fall into step with one another as they head back to the elevators.

“Don’t tell me you don’t drink coffee in your field of work,” Taekwoon says, the disbelief evident in his tone.

“I’m more of a tea person,” Hakyeon shoots back, puffing his chest up proudly. “Coffee is only for when I’m in a real pinch.”

“A journalist who doesn’t drink coffee,” Taekwoon shakes his head, jabbing the up button in the wall. “How strange.”

“Oi, don’t talk like you know my field of work,” Hakyeon retorts, waggling his finger at Taekwoon. He gets a raised eyebrow in reply.

“So what is your work, mister journalist? What do you write about?”

“A lot of things,” Hakyeon replies, adopting his most professional tone. “I report for high profile research and trending events most of the time, but I can also to biographies and opinion pieces. A lot of the opinion pieces are posted on my personal blog though, in case you didn’t know—”

“I’ve seen it,” Taekwoon interrupts, and Hakyeon does a bit of a double take.

“R-really? You’ve read it?”

“I looked up some of your work when your boss was trying to set up this whole interview.”

“I see,” Hakyeon stammers. The doors of the elevator slide open and they step inside. Taekwoon hits the button for the dormitory floor while Hakyeon’s stomach does flips. He’d done research on Taekwoon out of personal interest and in preparation for this whole trip, but it hadn’t occurred to him that Taekwoon would search him up as well.

“I noticed that you’ve written some other pieces on fuel management and consumption,” Taekwoon says, his soft voice filling the small space of the elevator. There’s a note of approval in his words, and his gaze is surprisingly soft. “It was a good read. I quite enjoyed it.”

“Seriously?” Hakyeon stares. “T-thanks. Glad you liked it.”

Taekwoon’s eyes flick over to meet his, and for a moment, the two of them stare at each other. The elevator rattles a little as it goes up, and Hakyeon finds himself swallowing hard; but whether it’s because of the pressure in his ears or the weight of Taekwoon’s look, he’s not entirely sure. What he does know is that he’s been learning so much about Taekwoon through the dragons the scientist studies and cares for, the wild treks all over the planet and the brief interactions they have when Hakyeon launches a question at Taekwoon over meals and during their down time. And Taekwoon has entertained him through it all, showing a surprising amount of patience with Hakyeon’s insistence of digging deeper into subjects and going off on tangents whenever the opportunity presents itself.

The ding! of the elevator brings him back to the present, and Taekwoon lowers his gaze, gesturing for Hakyeon to go first. He stumbles out of the lift, face hot, and feels a kind of pleasant shiver go down his spine when he feels Taekwoon’s eyes follow him.

“I think I should take you to the water dragons tomorrow,” Taekwoon says suddenly. He looks away at the door, but then turns back, dark eyes meeting Hakyeon’s. “You’ve seen all the others on land and you’ve adjusted quite well. Before you leave, you should at least see the one type of dragon that we’ve still yet to full comprehend.”

“S-sure,” Hakyeon nods. He fumbles for his keycard with one hand and watches Taekwoon stride down the hall towards his own room three dorms away. “I didn’t pack my swim trunks though.”

Taekwoon laughs. “We’ll manage,” he promises, smirking. The door beeps, and he gives Hakyeon another languid wave. “Goodnight, Hakyeon.”

“ ‘night,” Hakyeon replies faintly, trying to slap his own card against his door, and when it opens he nearly falls through because of how heavily he’s leaning against it. Huffing, he quickly shuts the door of his room and locks it for the night.

It’s not until Hakyeon places his half-filled glass of water and flops onto the bed that he realizes it’s the first time Taekwoon’s called him by his actual name.

 

Chapter Text

 

He hadn’t realized it, but when Hakyeon got around to checking his tablet after waking and showering, he is faced with the realization that there is only three more days before their on-site interview finally concludes.

There’s a part of him that’s expecting this; he’s always so caught up in his work that he forgets that all reports have to come to an end. Hakyeon won’t deny that he’s learned quite a bit on this trip, and he’s enjoyed himself while doing so. But then, there’s also a part of him that’s already missing the open landscape, the occasional sight of dragon formations passing by in the sky, the joking and amicable conversations with all the scientists on the planet, and...

Hakyeon shakes his damp hair out of his eyes and sets his tablet back down on the desk, suppressing a little sigh. He tosses his towel over his chair and slides over to the dresser, picking out the day’s outfit, or whatever’s still wearable after spending the last two weeks leaping over hills and slipping into tunnels in the mountains. He’s still got a job to do, grass-stained trousers or not, Hakyeon reminds himself sternly. No time left for dawdling!

Everybody is seated and eating breakfast when he arrives and tucks himself into the only empty chair at the end of the table. Sanghyuk and Hongbin are sitting rather close, and Hongbin’s showing the geologist something on his camera while they eat. Across from them, Wonshik and Taekwoon are huddled over another bulky laptop, leaving Jaehwan to greet Hakyeon when he sits down.

“Good morning,” Jaehwan says cheerfully, passing Hakyeon a bowl of hot porridge. “Ration delivery was delayed for some reason, so there’s no fresh meats for now. On the upside, now everybody has to eat their greens like good kids!”

“Splendid,” Hakyeon jokes, accepting the bowl with a nod of thanks. He casts a glance over to Hongbin and Sanghyuk, who’s listening to what Hongbin is saying with a slightly dreamy-eyed expression. Hongbin immediately shoots Hakyeon a don’t you dare mess this up for me kind of look, so he snickers behind his spoon and turns back to Jaehwan instead.

“What’re they talking about?” he asks, nodding at Wonshik and Taekwoon, and the smile drops a little on Jaehwan’s face.

“Something’s up with the dragons,” he says, shaking his head. “There’s some strange migratory patterns going on, and they’re trying to track them to figure out why.”

“Like the forest dragons from last week?” Hakyeon asks, and it’s Taekwoon who answers this time.

“They’ve moved even further north,” the scientist frowns, fiddling with a slice of toast on his place. “Some of them are trying to force their land scales to shed as well. They’re lingering around the dunes too, which is weird, because that is very far off from their usual territory.”

“Speaking of dunes, the sand dragons are trying to burrow,” Sanghyuk adds, glancing over. “Same with the rock dragons. I’ve noticed at least three new fissures in the east side of the mountains from where they keep on digging. They’ve gone deep enough for me to actually lose track of a couple.”

“Is something happening?” Hongbin asks, worry evident in his face. Hakyeon looks between the scientists, trying to recall what Taekwoon had taught him about all the dragons during their trip. Weird migration patterns? Shedding land scales? But that would only be replaced with the reinforced, solar radiation-reflective, sturdier scales dragons usually grow just before they begin a flight into space. Why would they need it when they’re settled on a planet?

Taekwoon shakes his head with a sigh. “We’re not sure. This is an unusual act for all the species. The best we can do is keep a close eye on them. Hopefully we’ll come to a conclusion soon enough.”

“That’ll make a great cliffhanger,” Hakyeon muses, shivering when the air temperature control kicks in again. “God that’s cold.”

“It’s been humid recently,” Jaehwan remarks. He’s gazing out of the windows of the lounge, eyes fixed on the clouds forming in the sky. “Oddly humid,” he adds, more to himself, and Hakyeon’s not quite sure what to make of that. Then Wonshik reaches out and takes Jaehwan’s hand, squeezing lightly, and Jaehwan blinks a few times before he returns his attention to his husband and his food. Hakyeon glances over at Hongbin, who shrugs, clearly as confused as he is, before Sanghyuk catches the photographer’s attention again.

On the other end of the table, Taekwoon’s gaze meets Hakyeon’s before he’s looking back down at the laptop, playing absent-mindedly with the crust of his toast. The prospect of eating is evidently something far from being on his first priority.

+

Even though Hakyeon’s met and interacted with every single species of dragon on the island without any outstanding problems (save for the baby rock dragon that thought it could show affection by cuddling its clunky body with him), he’s not sure what to make of the water dragons. He’s only seen some figures Taekwoon showed him from textbooks and documents and some really blurry underwater pictures, and the element of untouchable mystery shrouding the creatures makes him even more anxious. There’s only two things he really knows about them right now: water dragons have the capability to grow up to gigantic sizes because of the sheer amount of underwater areas, and they’re one of the most archaic breeds of dragons still found in space to this day.

Hongbin, who can’t swim to save his life, bails on Hakyeon quite early. Instead, he opts to follow Sanghyuk up to the mountains to observe more of the fissures, a fact that Sanghyuk is rather pleased about, Hakyeon notices. Wonshik’s off to do some maintenance on one of their satellite dishes and Jaehwan is out to collect samples of what he believes to be an incredible species of vegetation growing in the dunes.

“Looks like it’s going to be a busy day of work for all of us,” Hongbin comments as they all lumber into the garage, carrying their gear and tools.

“Make sure you are doing your work up in those mountains,” Hakyeon mutters under his breath, and snickers when Hongbin kicks him in the shin. Jaehwan chuckles as he flounces by with a smirking Wonshik, and that only solidifies Hakyeon’s certainty that the evident attraction between the two has not gone unnoticed by anybody.

“Don’t worry, your photographer is in gneiss hands,” Sanghyuk proclaims loudly. Hongbin pinches the bridge of his nose with a dead expression and there’s an audible sigh from Taekwoon on the other side of the garage.

“Just make sure Hongbin doesn’t fall off a cliff,” Hakyeon laughs, elbowing Sanghyuk as he climbs into the passenger seat of Taekwoon’s truck. “He’s my best photographer!”

“I’m your only photographer,” Hongbin corrects, and Hakyeon sticks his tongue out at him before slamming the door shut.

Even though they’re the first ones out of the garage, they’re the last to leave because Taekwoon has to let all the others leave before he goes back to hook the motorboat transport onto the back the truck. It was a tense couple of minutes for Hakyeon, who fought not to flush when Taekwoon braced his hand on the shoulder of Hakyeon’s seat as he reversed, eyes narrowed as he expertly aligned the truck with the rig and locked it in place.

“Nervous?” Taekwoon asks as they zoom smoothly down a partially paved road at the base of the mountains, bouncing a little every time the road dips. A tiny dragon plushie dangling from the rear view mirror sways with each bump. 

“Kind of,” Hakyeon admits, rubbing his knee. “I have no idea what to expect.”

“You don’t have to go out in the water if you don’t want to,” Taekwoon offers with a tilt of his head. “You can stay on the beach if you’re more comfortable there.”

“No way,” Hakyeon shakes his head, grinning. “You’ve brought me out this far. How will I face my readers if I chickened out of seeing the last type of space dragon?”

“As you wish,” Taekwoon chuckles, and there’s a curve of a real smile on his face. The sight alone makes Hakyeon’s heart thud heavily in his chest, and he quickly busies himself with his notebook once again, launching into more questions about what the water location is like, or how deep the trenches actually goes, just to hide his blush. He’s prone to doing that a lot nowadays.

They’ve driven by the beach a few times, but this is the first time Hakyeon’s seeing it up close. There’s actually more rock than there is sand and other fine-grained minerals that he’d need Sanghyuk’s help to name, but the water is impossibly dark, even on the shores. Taekwoon backs the motorboat and its rig out into the water before wading through the waist-deep dip of the unloading area to unhook their boat. It’s the only portion of the beach that’s got any indication of manmade technology; while the forests and mountains had quite a bit of the scientists’ gear on location, the waterside remained quite natural, and when Taekwoon finally navigated them into more open waters, Hakyeon couldn’t help but marvel at the beautiful scenery.

“Just how many water dragons have you dealt with over the years?” Hakyeon asks, knees tucked up to his chest as he watched Taekwoon fiddle with some water sampling tubes.

“We’ve got a total of sixteen water dragons tracked here,” Taekwoon answers. A sea breeze wind blows by, turning the open pages of Hakyeon’s notebook and ruffling Taekwoon’s dark hair. “We suspect eleven of those dragons are in an semi-organized pack, and the remaining five are older dragons that simply reside in the underwater caves. They don’t cause trouble, so the pack doesn’t care for them.”

“What do you mean by semi-organized?” Hakyeon asks, curious.

“Water dragons shows the highest signs of individualism amongst all space dragons,” Taekwoon explains. “There’s constant battles for dominance in territories or groups that have banded together, and it’s not for the same kind of leadership most land-bound dragons have.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Probably because of the longer evolutionary timespan marine creatures have,” Taekwon shrugs. “Water before land. It’s a rather common situation. Even though a lot of our underwater explorations have expanded greatly, we’ve still got a lot to learn. Have you heard about the recently discovered planet with a liquid component in its atmosphere?”

“Yeah,” Hakyeon nods, excited. “One of my colleagues wrote a cover on it. Definitely one of the greatest finds in the galaxy.”

“They’re saying there’s a chance there might be prehistoric water-based space dragons still living there,” Taekwoon tells him, eyes shining with earnest. “Personally, I’d love to go see them...”

He trails off, expression cutely daydreamy, and Hakyeon blurts out, “You really do love dragons a lot, don’t you?”

Taekwoon turns to him, surprise evident on his face, and Hakyeon immediately flushes. But then Taekwoon smiles and nods.

“I do love them,” he says. “They’re a fascinating species. And even though I’m close with some of them, there’s a lot more about dragons that we haven’t discovered yet. It’s a vast world filled with mysteries, don’t you think?”

“Yeah,” Hakyeon breathes. He thinks back to what Hongbin had said about him falling over Taekwoon’s voice, but he can’t help it; the sheer amount of awe and interest Taekwoon has for the dragons is just as captivating as the creatures themselves.

He’s about to open his mouth and ask Taekwoon more when he notices something in the water.

“What’s that?” Hakyeon asks, squinting, and Taekwoon turns, looking in the direction Hakyeon’s pointing. There’s a dark splotch that’s growing rapidly in size in the water, its shape difficult to place, but Taekwoon seems to recognize what it is. He pales and immediately grabs the engine at the rear of the boat, starting it up with a cranking noise. Hakyeon falls back into his seat, confused.

“Taekwoon?”

Taekwoon doesn’t reply, but the shape is coming too quickly and the boat isn’t starting up fast enough.

“Shit!” he hisses, and suddenly abandons the motor in favour of spinning around, and grabbing Hakyeon’s hand. “Don’t let go of me!”

“What—?” Hakyeon splutters, but he his attention is diverted when he sees the wave coming for him. All he can do is yelp and clutch onto Taekwoon’s hand for dear life as their boat tips, sending them tumbling into the water.

It’s colder than Hakyeon expected, and the first touch of icy water makes bubbles burst forth from his mouth as he shouts. He wiggles as he sinks, disoriented, and when the froth finally clears away and his eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, he sees a long, thick, and very scaly neck glint in the faint light as it brushes right by his leg.

He splutters, writhing away, but Taekwoon’s hand tightens on his in a vice-like fashion. He fumbles at Hakyeon’s side and yanks on the cord of the deflated flotation device he’d put on earlier, and a moment later Hakyeon is rocketing back up to the surface, coughing and completely drenched, with an inflated, bright orange donut around his waist.

He spits out water and shakes his hair out of his eyes when Taekwoon finally bobs up to the surface, gasping for air.

“What was that?” Hakyeon cries, looking down. The shape is still moving on, massive and dark, but it’s diving deeper now, away from them. Hakyeon has no doubt that what he’d just seen was one of the mysterious water dragons that reside on the reserve.

“Dragon,” Taekwoon pants, treading water next to Hakyeon. He’s turning in circles, trying to keep track of the creature before it eventually dips back out of sight into the abyss. “Water dragon. It came up... but why...” he splashes around again, and stares at the shiny hull slowly sinking beside them. “Damn it. The boat...” Taekwoon gives the overturned hull a peeved look before glancing at Hakyeon. “Can you swim?”

“Y-yeah,” Hakyeon answers, and shivers when a rough breeze blows by. He looks up, and to his shock there’s a storm cloud blowing in from the distance, heavy and angry-looking, and he gulps. That hadn’t been there earlier before. Or had it?

“Let’s go,” Taekwoon says, eyeing the sky too. “There’s nothing we can do for the boat now. We have to get out before that cloud gets here.”

“Right,” Hakyeon agrees faintly, and the two of them begin kicking.

By the time they finally crawl back onto the beach, the sky has darkened considerably and there’s a stern wind blowing. The air practically hums with electricity and it makes Hakyeon’s skin crawl. Taekwoon leads them over to the truck and digs out two emergency blankets. He bundles Hakyeon up in one of them after deflating his floatation device and tosses his own blanket haphazardly on his shoulders before driving away from the sea.

“Are you alright?” Taekwoon finally asks him when they’re on speeding back to the lab. Hakyeon nods, his teeth chattering has he scrubs his face dry. Taekwoon looks regretful. “I’m sorry if that scared you.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Hakyeon insists. “I’m made of tough stuff; it’ll take more than a water dragon to rattle me.”

A faint smile quirks the corners of Taekwoon’s lips, and Hakyeon offers a little grin in return before growing solemn.

“Do you know why the dragon turned our boat over?”

Taekwoon hesitates, chewing his lip as he manages the wheel, and finally answers, “Water dragons rarely come so close to the shore or the surface. As to why this one did, I believe it’s got something to do with the sudden migration patterns of other land-based dragons... and that storm cloud coming in from the distance.”

Hakyeon ducks his head, gazing out of the windshield, and watches the bulky, heavy clouds roll in. It’s casting a visible shadow of the grassy plains, and the winds are starting to pick up.

“That’s a nasty-looking thing,” he says faintly, and Taekwoon nods, jaw clenched, and steadily gives more gas.

When they pull up to the path leading up to the garage of the laboratory, fat raindrops have already begun pelting down on them. The howling wind rocks their car and forces Taekwoon to adjust his driving every other second before they’re inching into the shelter of the garage, where the flickering light above them does nothing to alleviate Hakyeon’s worries as they dash back up to the lobby.

Inside, Wonshik, Hongbin and Sanghyuk are gathered together, all three of them with damp hair and mud-splattered clothing.

“There you are!” Wonshik cries, leaping out to them when they stagger in. “What happened to you guys? Why are you all wet?”

“Fell into the sea,” Taekwoon says, throwing his blanket onto one of the chairs. “A water dragon surfaced just off the shallows and overturned our boat.”

Wonshik and Sanghyuk both gape, and Hongbin shoots Hakyeon a questioning look. He shrugs back, just as confused.

“I think you should see the new weather update,” Wonshik says, grabbing one of the laptops from the table. He holds it out to Taekwoon, who immediately scans a complicated-looking diagram with moving lines that Hakyeon can’t make head or toes out of. “A huge electromagnetic space storm burst out on the side of JEL.EE.FSH and it messed with our atmosphere.”

“That’s why all the dragons moved south,” Taekwoon breathes, grabbing the laptop. “They sensed the storm before our equipment could even pick up on it.”

“That, and comms went down in JEL.EE.FSH,” Sanghyuk adds. “They couldn’t send us a warning until now. I’m not surprised if the storm managed to addle with our stuff too, and we received it late.”

“We should set up the storm barricades,” Taekwoon says, setting the laptop down. “I don’t know how bad it’ll get but I’d rather not take any chances—”

“Wait!” Wonshik interrupts. He’s chewing his lip, anxious. “We can’t lock down.”

“Why not?” Taekwoon asks, confused, and Wonshik looks towards the windows, where the rain has started to splatter into the panes in fat, wet drops.

“Jaehwan isn’t back yet,” he whispers, and Hakyeon feels his stomach swoop in fear.

“Where is he?” Taekwoon demands, a muscle jumping in his jaw, and Wonshik shakes his head.

“We don’t know,” Sanghyuk says quietly, biting his nail. “We couldn’t call him or you and Hakyeon.”

“Damn it,” Taekwoon curses. He paces a few steps to the side and pauses. "We’ll wait,” he says, and Wonshik visibly sags in relief. “For as long as we can. If anything we’ll start shutting down the other side of the lab first and leave the garage open. Don’t worry, Wonshik,” Taekwoon adds. He places a hand on Wonshik’s shoulder, comforting. “Jaehwan’s smart. He’ll find his way home.”

Wonshik nods mutely, and allows Sanghyuk to herd him to a seat. Hongbin shuffles over to Hakyeon’s side, unease evident on his face, and Hakyeon pats his friend’s back comfortingly.

“When did you get back?” he whispers.

“Sanghyuk saw the cloud coming in on the mountainside,” Hongbin replies. “He got us out pretty early. Wonshik came back later after realizing the storm had done something to the comm equipment. We kept on calling you and Taekwoon and Jaehwan, but nothing would go through.” He looks away. “I was so worried...”

Hakyeon swallows and puts his arms around Hongbin, hugging his friend close. “It’ll be okay,” he soothes. “We’ll be fine... I hope Jaehwan finds his way back soon,” he adds, and Hongbin nods in fervent agreement.

Outside, the rain continues to streak along the window, falling relentless and quick as time goes by.

+

After Hakyeon changes out of his sopping wet clothes, he goes downstairs to see Hongbin sitting at the sofas, with Wonshik pacing back and forth by the windows. The storm had worsened considerably in the short duration of time he spent upstairs, and the gale outside is so strong it’s making trees bend and the structure of the building creak.

“Any sign?” Hakyeon mouths to Hongbin as he sits, and Hongbin shakes his head, hands trembling minutely from where they’re clutched on his lap. Biting his lip, Hakyeon settles into the cushion and pulls out his tablet. The offline warning pops up and he dismisses it, choosing to open his notepad instead. Two week’s worth of observation and notes appear on the screen and Hakyeon brings up a fresh page, trying to jot down as much as he could remember about the water dragon before he forgets.

Big. Scaly. Wet. Can also overturn boats.

He sighs and taps his pen against the edge of his tablet. It’s becoming less of his stress habit and has turned into a more very stressed kind of habit now.

There’s a sudden rumbling, and they all freeze. It makes the equipment on the table rattle and Hakyeon clutches at the seat in alarm as Taekwoon and Sanghyuk burst back into the lobby.

“Tectonic quake?” he yells, but Sanghyuk’s shaking his head.

“No,” the geologist says, jaw set as they race over to the windows. “It’s dragons.”

From the depths of the trees, a hoard of forest dragons burst forth, a mass of wings and scaly bodies. They tore over trees and skidded along the ground, tearing up bits of earth and grass as they fought to fly against the incoming storm. Despite the anxiety that’s piling up inside of him— this tempest was something even the dragons were trying to escape from— there’s a bit of awe unraveling in Hakyeon’s chest as he watches them fly. Space dragons were truly something else.

“Look!” Hongbin says suddenly, pointing, and they all swivel their heads to look. Amidst the whirlwind of dragons, one of their mud-splattered four-wheelers is struggling to drive back up to the laboratory below.

“Jaehwan!” Wonshik shouts, and he’s out the door before any of them could stop him.

“Wonshik, wait!” Taekwoon yells, bolting after Wonshik. He barely glances over his shoulder as he shouts back, “Sanghyuk! Stay here!”

Sanghyuk twitches, looking torn between running too and obeying orders, and Hakyeon quickly intervenes.

“Let’s go down to the garage,” he offers. “We can open it up for them.”

“Yeah,” Sanghyuk breathes, and the three of them sprint for the stairs too.

When they do arrive to the lowest above-ground level of the lab, Hakyeon’s immediately aware of the storm raging around them. The metal of the garage door rattles frantically under the onslaught of wind and rain, and when Sanghyuk cranks it open, they’re nearly toppled over by the ferocious gale that sweeps water droplets and bits of dirt and sand inside. The beating of the dragons’ wings as they fly above the lab thrums in Hakyeon’s chest as he clutches onto the parked vehicles, squinting against the rain as he tries to visually search for their friends.

“There!” Hongbin yells, and Hakyeon and Sanghyuk both jerk their heads around to see. Running down the wet grass, towards the truck, is Taekwoon and Wonshik, both slipping and sliding as they struggled to keep up their pace on the terrain.

“C’mon,” Sanghyuk chants, his knuckles white with the force of how hard he’s gripping the garage crank. “C’mon guys, hurry, hurry, hurry.”

Then, a particularly vicious gust of wind hits them. It’s enough to make the building creak ominously and send the cluster of low-flying dragons sprawling off to the side— right into Jaehwan’s truck.

And Hakyeon’s not the only one who couldn’t hold back his shout of terror as they watch the truck swerve, careen off the path, and crash right into the cluster of trees at the top of the hill.

 

Chapter Text

 

There’s a buzzing in Hakyeon’s ears as he watches on in shock.

He’s dimly aware of Sanghyuk shouting, but Hongbin darts forwards and grabs onto the younger before he could run outside as well.

“Don’t!” Hongbin says sharply. “If you run into trouble too, what then?”

“But—” Sanghyuk says, desperately, and Hongbin pulls him back, hugging Sanghyuk close.

“They’ll come back,” he says, voice cracking at the end. “They’ll come back up the hill.”

Sanghyuk makes a sound of dismay that Hakyeon could feel resonate in his bones. He sees Wonshik and Taekwoon struggle over to the truck, falling all over the place on the wet grass. They grab onto the truck’s door and disappear from view behind the cluster of dented, mud-splattered metal. He might be imagining it, but he thinks he can hear Wonshik screaming his husband’s name, even over the tremendous roar of the storm that’s tearing everything apart.

“Please,” he whispers, praying to whatever god was listening. His fingers are numb from how tightly he’s clenching his fist. Please let Jaehwan be okay, let Wonshik and Taekwoon get him out, bring them back, bring them back

Then, three figures struggle out from the remnants of the truck, and Hongbin and Sanghyuk both make strangled noises of relief. It’s hard to tell from the distance, but Jaehwan is upright and walking, supported on both sides by Taekwoon and Wonshik. They’re rushing as fast as they can, doing their best to climb up the slope.

Sanghyuk leaps forward, pulling Hongbin with him, but he doesn’t step out of the garage. Instead, he simply shouts for them, his words garbled to Hakyeon’s ears, but that might be because he’s screaming for his friends too. They look tiny amidst the swarm of dragons flying past, their formation breaking up in the heavy winds. His stomach is twisting itself up imagining what might happen if another gust knocks one of those creatures astray again, because this time, they don’t have the outer shell of a truck to protect them anymore.

But the three of them complete their struggle up to the garage, and the moment they’re close enough he, Hongbin and Sanghyuk are rushing out to pull them inside; Jaehwan collapses onto the ground the moment they’re out of the wind, dragging Wonshik down with him, and the two of them huddle around each other without speaking while Sanghyuk shouts for Hongbin to grab the first aid kit off the shelf in the back. Hakyeon shakes the water from his hair, barely sparing a glance down at his drenched shirt and pants as he frantically looks over the couple, searching for any sign of injury or harm until another horrible gust sweeps more rain into the garage, splattering over the concrete and making the suspensions in the parked vehicles groan.

He spins around and grabs the crank, frantically turning it. The metal slips beneath his wet hands, and the garage door jerks its way down, rattling and creaking horribly with each messy turn.

Then, there’s a solid block of warmth by his back, and Hakyeon’s breath hitches as Taekwoon puts his arms around, bracketing him, and seizes the crank as well. Together, they throw their weight onto it and double their speed in rolling it back down, shutting out the last of the noise when the bottom of the metal door finally hits the ground with a resolute wham.

“Good work,” Taekwoon whispers, his breath ghosting by Hakyeon’s cheek, and he realizes then just how out of breath the scientist is. He turns and quickly pulls Taekwoon’s arm over his shoulder, pretending not to notice the look of surprise on Taekwoon’s face as Hakyeon helps him stumble forward.

“Let’s go upstairs,” he addresses the room at large, and Hongbin and Sanghyuk nod immediately. Wonshik also makes a noise of assent, but Jaehwan is still quiet, even as they slip and stumble their way back into the lift and into the safety of the common area, and that’s what’s scaring Hakyeon the most.

They set Jaehwan down onto the sofa with the bright orange shock blanket tucked around his shoulders, and Wonshik immediately kneels down in front of his husband, worry etched over every line in his face as he cups Jaehwan’s cheeks.

“Hey,” he says, voice soft as he tenderly swipes the wet hair out of Jaehwan’s face. Hakyeon could see the beginnings of a lump start to swell on Jaehwan’s forehead, shiny and red, with a bit of skin scraped off. Sanghyuk had disappeared to find a cold compress and Hongbin hovers awkwardly, looking between Wonshik and Hakyeon and Taekwoon with a lost expression.

“Jaehwan,” Wonshik continues, his voice soft and gentle. “It’s okay, you’re safe now. Everything’s going to be okay. I’m here for you.”

And that’s when Jaehwan’s blank expression finally begins to crumble. Tears well up in his eyes and he bites down hard on his lower lip, shoulders shaking as he raises trembling fingers to clutch at Wonshik’s wrists.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m just— I was so scared.”

The corners of Wonshik’s mouth twitches downward and the tendons in his neck jump with the effort he makes to hold back his own tears. “Yeah,” Wonshik answers, his voice thick as Jaehwan falls forwards into his arms and sobs. “I know. I— I was really scared too.”

Sanghyuk runs back into the living room, but he slows to a stop by Hongbin’s side when he sees the two crying on the couch. Hongbin’s gaze slides over to the younger scientist before he gently extracts the cold compress from Sanghyuk’s hands and lean in, touching Wonshik’s shoulder. When Wonshik looks over, Hongbin presses the pack into his hand before stepping back, nodding towards Jaehwan. Wonshik seems to get their offer for privacy, because he shoots them all a grateful look and mouths thank you before turning back to Jaehwan, whispering something they couldn’t hear.

“Hakyeon,” Taekwoon murmurs, and he jumps, because he’s completely forgotten he’s supporting the man as well. He lets Taekwoon slide his arm off his shoulders, already missing the comforting weight. But Taekwoon stands close anyway, stripping off his sopping wet jacket and chucking it onto the ground.

“Can you help me put up the storm barriers?” he asks. His hand bumps against Hakyeon’s wrist, maybe unintentional, but the question was there. Hakyeon swallows hard, looking straight into Taekwoon’s dark eyes as he nods firmly.

“Lead the way,” he says, and lets Taekwoon guide him through the kitchen, down the hall, past the bathroom and the laundry room. They scale the winding stairs at the end of the hall, going up, up, and up until they’re standing on the inside of the observation deck. It’s oval-shaped, with a wide deck that spans all the way around the tower. Hakyeon’s only been here once, when it was during one of the real nighttimes. Hongbin had dragged him excitedly up the stairs to show him the planets and space dust floating in orbit around V.IE.X., and the vibrant colours glowing against a pitch black backdrop had looked magnificent. Now, there’s a thin sheet of rain that splatters endlessly against glass sliding doors, and the locks rattle with the intensity of the windspeed that shakes the whole platform whenever a particularly strong blow smashes into them. The sky above them is grey, with patches of darker clouds that occasionally light up with isolated electric discharge.

He hears a quiet curse behind him, and Hakyeon spins around to see that Taekwoon has opened up a panel in the wall, revealing a whole lot of multi-coloured switches and blinking lights. There’s also a screen on the inside of the wall, but it’s full of flickering static.

“What’s the matter?” Hakyeon ventures, and Taekwoon turns to him with a shake of his head.

“Surveillance cameras went down,” he answers, pointing at the useless screen. “Possibly because of the electromagnetic storm, or something blew into it.”

“Shit,” Hakyeon swears, staring, and Taekwoon’s mouth turns upwards into a little smile.

“Well, good thing I brought you along,” he says, retrieving a small flashlight from one of his pockets. “Because I’m going to need your help now. Can you to stand by the glass and look down at the laboratory below? From this height, you can see the whole building.”

“Okay,” Hakyeon breathes, shifting closer to the glass. The vantage point was indeed great— he could see the garage, the main section of the labs, Jaehwan’s greenhouses down below and all of the generators encased behind a strength-enhanced steel cage off to the side. But there were no signs of the forest dragons, and Hakyeon’s heart lurches as he tries to scan the terrain properly for the pack.

“I need you to watch and see if all the barriers come up properly,” Taekwoon continues, drawing his attention back again. Meanwhile, Taekwoon flicks on a yellow switch. It beeps loudly, making Hakyeon jump, but Taekwoon just talks over it. “Normally I’d be able to observe from the screen, but that’s not an option right now.”

“Alright,” Hakyeon nods, pressing his palms against the glass. It’s cold beneath his touch. “I just have to watch and make sure they all come up?”

“There’s a red line on each barrier that has to meet the top of the building,” Taekwoon says, flicking one of the red switches. The light blinks fast as it’s activated, and to Hakyeon’s shock, he watches as what he had assumed was just a paved walkway along the laboratory open up like the trapdoor to a secret lair. From within it, a large, dark grey block starts to rise up from the depths, and at the very top is a thick rectangular strip, flashing red.

“I see it!” Hakyeon calls.

“Good,” Taekwoon replies, his gaze constantly switching between Hakyeon and the switch he’s holding up. “Once the barrier locks into place and secures itself, the red will turn to green. Tell me when it changes colour, because I can’t see it, and I will stop the barrier and move onto the next one.”

“Gotcha,” Hakyeon says, giving him a thumbs up. The barrier is rising surprisingly fast, and he can’t imagine how much all this tech would’ve actually cost. Their sponsors were definitely on the generous side. When first barrier finally makes contact with the roof, the red strip changes into green instantly, and Hakyeon shouts, “First one is good!”

Taekwoon immediately moves onto the second one, and once again the walkway parts, and a block rises. Hakyeon yells when he sees the colour change again.

“How many of these are there?” he asks, breath fogging up against the glass as he leans against it.

“Four on each main side of the laboratory,” Taekwoon replies. “There’s one that covers the front, but even you can’t see it from this angle, so we’ll leave it. The last three will come up over this tower, so that’ll be last.”

“Ah,” Hakyeon breathes, and from below, he can see a speck of movement, which is when he realizes Taekwoon is putting the barriers up over the massive windows of the living room first. The speck is a person, standing up against the windows as the last barrier moves up. He squints, trying to make out who it is, and it’s not until another taller figure comes up to stand beside the first one that he knows it’s Hongbin and Sanghyuk. They stand close to each other, hands pressed against the glass like he’s got his own, and watches on as the wall crawls up over the glass and locks itself in place, going green.

“Next one,” he calls, and Taekwoon nods, finger already on the switch.

The barriers go up on the other side of the labs, shielding them from the storm, and once those are done Taekwoon quickly moves onto the ones around the tower. Hakyeon walks around the deck until he’s standing near Taekwoon, watching in awe as the column of metal creeps up the side of the tower with the rumble of a very powerful machine driving it, the red light harsh against his eyes. The first one makes contact, and Hakyeon has to clutch at the rails when the tower sways. Taekwoon gives him an apologetic smile, and Hakyeon returns the gesture shyly before turning back to look on into the storm.

What he sees makes his heart stop in his chest.

Not too far from their laboratory, perhaps no more than fifteen feet away in the air, is a wrestling masses of wings, scales, and fangs. Hakyeon’s voice vanishes in a moment of panic as his knees go weak and his stomach turns. He instinctively reaches out to grab Taekwoon’s wrist in terror, a gasp escaping from him.

“Hakyeon?” Taekwoon asks, startled, and in that moment, the cluster before in the air untangles as one shape, with distinctively green scales and two wings, is thrown upwards. It flies high, arcs, and to Hakyeon’s horror, begins to fall towards their tower.

“DRAGON!” Hakyeon shouts, pointing, and Taekwoon whirls around, eyes wild.

He feels Taekwoon seize him around the waist at the same time he realizes his own desperate attempts to latch onto the fabric of Taekwoon’s shirt, and time slows down in the most peculiar fashion.

He can see the forest dragon’s trajectory; knows it will land on them. He can hear the intense grinding of gears and machinery as the rising barrier skids to an unexpected stop without Taekwoon’s control. He feels his feet lift off the floor and Taekwoon’s shoulder digging into his abdomen as he struggles to push Hakyeon away from the glass. His breath catches in his throat, stuck, and as two of them fall towards the stairwell, a shadow passes over the window when the dragon’s back finally crashes into the tower.

The world speeds up again in a burst of broken glass that rains down onto them, stinging. Hakyeon cries out as his back hits the railings, but he and Taekwoon are already rolling down the steps together, bumps and scrapes biting into every bone in his body before they come to a halt on the first landing. There is a terrible creaking sound as the entire tower seems to tilt all at once, and Hakyeon’s heart lurches, thinking it’d collapse.

But the damage is not so great, because there’s a sudden sound that reminds Hakyeon of great canvas sails billowing out under a strong gust of wind, and the next thing he knows the dragon’s wings are open and it’s launching itself away from the tower, spiralling back into the storm. It seems to have increased in volume, or maybe it’s just because the tower is broken, and the noise is greater at this height—

“Hakyeon!” Taekwoon shouts urgently, and Hakyeon’s snapped back to the present. He jolts when he realizes he’s been staring dazedly at some point over Taekwoon’s shoulder this whole time, words washing by him without any recognition. The scientist is hovering over him, fear written all over his face, and his palm is cradling the back of Hakyeon’s head, protecting him. “Can you hear me? Are you hurt? Did you hit your head?”

“No,” Hakyeon answers, struggling to sit up. Taekwoon immediately puts his arms around his middle and hauls Hakyeon upright. He looks stricken.

“I am so sorry,” he breathes, and Hakyeon’s heart lurches at Taekwoon’s expression. “I couldn’t— it was falling towards us— I had to get you away from the glass—”

“I-I’m okay,” Hakyeon interrupts. He plants his hands firmly on Taekwoon’s cheeks, an echo of Wonshik’s actions, and holds his gaze steady even when his voice is shaking. “I’m alright, Taekwoon, really. Don’t worry.”

Taekwoon opens his mouth, but whatever he has to say is drowned by an awful screeching, and they spin around in unison. Hakyeon’s hands drop numbly away from Taekwoon as they look up at the decimated upper half of the tower, towards the faint light.

“Oh, no,” Hakyeon whispers, and he feels Taekwoon’s hand brush against his once more. This time, though, he turns his palm and tangles their fingers together, unwilling to let go.

The glass crunches under their feet as they climb the steps again, and Taekwoon’s hand is tight around his as they clutch the railing and haul themselves up gingerly. The wind hits them hard as they walk onto the deck again, and Hakyeon stares in horror at the gaping hole left behind by the broken class, the smashed-in flooring, and all the warning lights that are going off on the panel.

“The barrier’s been compromised,” Taekwoon says suddenly, and Hakyeon’s gaze snaps downwards. True enough, the metal that had begun is climb up the tower was now crumpled at the top, caving in in certain places and cracked in others. The red light is flickering weakly at the head of the block, and Hakyeon could see little sparks coming out of the exposed wires. The sight leaves him with dread in his heart.

“This is bad,” he says, and Taekwoon’s just begun to nod when a shriek makes Hakyeon’s hair stand on end. Two tangled shapes fall back into view as they tumble down the side of the mountain closest to the laboratory, crashing onto the hill, and Hakyeon instinctively flinches away when the two dragons separate. One is the forest dragon that had fallen into the tower, and he instantly remembers where he’d seen the creature before.

“The alpha,” Hakyeon gasps just as the other dragon slinks into view, long-necked and fang-toothed, with a glimmer of blue-green scales and black spikes running along its spine.

“Fuck,” Taekwoon says, stepping forwards. His eyes are wide with disbelief. “It’s— it’s the water dragon from this afternoon.”

The words alone are enough to make Hakyeon cower back, the memory of the boat overturning and the dragon skimming by him robbing him of breath. But Taekwoon tugs him closer, perhaps sensing his distress, and the two of them watch in stunned silence as the two dragons circle each other, snapping their jaws and jerking their wings. Animalistic rage exudes from both creatures; from the defensiveness of their stances to the sharp glint of their fangs.

“What are they doing?” Hakyeon asks, unable to help himself.

“It’s a fight,” Taekwoon replies, his voice strangely brittle. “The water dragon— the alpha— he’s challenging the female forest dragon for her territory.”

“B-but,” Hakyeon splutters. “That doesn’t make sense; he belongs in the water, doesn’t he? Why would he fight her for land?”

“The storm,” Taekwoon shakes his head. His eyes never leave the scene; there’s a kind of intense focus in it that’s almost reptilian-like. “All this rain and wind is distracting for the land-based dragons. This is his chance to strike them, when they’re weakened by the weather anomaly. It doesn’t matter if he’d ever use the land or not,” he adds, and Hakyeon swallows, throat suddenly dry. “The water alpha just wants to fight. And if he wins...”

“Don’t,” Hakyeon interrupts, almost harsh, and it seems to shake Taekwoon out of his trance.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and Hakyeon squeezes their entwined hands. He knows what Taekwoon is thinking— praying— for too: don’t let the water alpha succeed.

He watches as the forest dragon’s tail tenses, and the water dragon’s neck stiffens in a similar fashion before they’re suddenly on each other, faster than Hakyeon could blink. Claws sink into scales and howls could be heard as the dragons toss each other across the wet grass, tails thrashing against the soil and dragging up patches of earth while their wings beat frantically, rightening the creature each time they’re thrown off balance. It’s like watching an impending train wreck; terrible as it is, Hakyeon cannot drag his eyes away from the sight.

Taekwoon physically jerks when the water alpha gains a sudden upper hand. Aided by the confusion caused by the rainfall and high winds, he lunges forwards and sinks his fangs into the meat of the forest alpha’s shoulder. Her screech is painful, and Hakyeon slaps a hand over his mouth, fear making him lightheaded. The water dragon tosses her aside, rearing up on his hind legs, and when it brings its claws down onto the forest dragon’s wing, Taekwoon’s wounded shout merges with the female alpha's as they watch scales tear off and crimson blood well up. A green body falls to the ground with a heavy thud a moment later, unnaturally still.

“Oh god,” Hakyeon chokes out, but a second later he has to wrench Taekwoon away from the broken window, shouting, “No, no, it’s too dangerous, Taekwoon!”

Taekwoon staggers, but not because he’s backing down; he lets out a weak noise in his throat as the water dragon’s horned head swivels towards them. Hakyeon is suddenly very, very afraid of their intelligence. His legs give out beneath him, and he struggles to stand again. He swears the unblinking green eyes are fixated on them, even at their distance, and the petrifying glare seems to freeze him on the spot even though he wants to do nothing but run. Beside him, he hears Taekwoon’s breathing quicken.

“Get up,” he says hoarsley, “Hakyeon— get up.”

He wants to, he really does, but his knees won’t co-operate. The water dragon swivels its body, tearing its claws from the forest dragon’s wing, and its head remains fixed in one place as it makes its steps towards the laboratory. All Hakyeon could see are fangs, shiny with blood that’s smeared all over the alpha’s jaw, and he whimpers.

“Hakyeon, please,” Taekwoon begs, a kind of fear Hakyeon’s never heard from the scientist bleeding through his voice, and it spurs him to his feet.

And the water dragon, like he can sense their movement, extends his sleek black wings with a tremendous motion before launching himself towards them— jaws wide, fangs bared.

 

Chapter Text

The cold compress slips off Jaehwan’s forehead as he sits bolt upright on the sofa, accidentally dislodging Wonshik’s head from where his husband had been leaning against him, a warm arm looped comfortingly around his waist.

Wonshik looks up in surprise, eyes wide. “Jaehwanie?”

Jaehwan holds up a finger, eyes fixed somewhere near the ceiling. “What was that?” he asks, voice hushed.

“What was what?” Wonshik frowns, also raising his head.

That,” Jaehwan insists, shoulders tense. He suddenly gets to his feet and stands very still, ears practically perked up as he listened.

From his perch on the other side of the sofa, Hongbin looks up inquisitively. He meets Wonshik’s eye and Wonshik shrugs, confused. But there’s concern evident on his face as he touches Jaehwan’s wrist, hesitant.

“Did you... hear something?”

“Yes,” Jaehwan answers, eyebrows furrowed. His eyes pass over the windows of the living room several times, like he wants to look outside but can’t. The normally beautiful view from the laboratory has been completely obstructed by a thick layer of dark grey metal, spanning from the bottom of the building right to its top. It’s like a storm cloud has passed over their usually sunlit room, and there’s an odd sort of silencing effect that stems from being encased behind four thick slabs of enhanced metal— it almost feels as though they’re underwater.

“What’s going on?” Sanghyuk asks as he walks back into the room, a towel in hand for each of them as he looks around, and Wonshik shushes him distractedly.

“Jaehwan’s heard... something,” Hongbin murmurs when Sanghyuk walks up to him, an questioning look in his eyes.

“What is it?”

“We don’t know,” Hongbin mumbles, and ducks his head in thanks when Sanghyuk carefully wraps the towel around his shoulders, giving Hongin’s shoulders a gentle squeeze for comfort. “Nobody else—”

He’s interrupted by a terrifying noise that might’ve been an explosion; the floor seems to jolt beneath their feet and several miscellaneous objects fall to the floor in the background, resulting in heavy thuds and the high-pitched sound of breaking glass. Hongbin flinches and Sanghyuk stumbles into the side of the sofa, a curse word slipping out. Wonshik immediately clutches Jaehwan close, eyes wide as he looks up.

“What the hell was that?!”

Above them, an ominous sound echoed across the high ceilings in an awful, grinding manner that sounded a lot like metal bending in a way that it should not have gone. Hongbin winces and slaps his hands over his ears, feeling the hair stand up on his arms. Sanghyuk grabs his elbow, grip tight, with shock evident in his expression.

“What’s going on? Is the building collapsing or something?!”

“No,” Wonshik says hurriedly, looking frantically around. “That was just...”

He trails off, at a loss for words, and looks towards the other two scientists for help. Sanghyuk shakes his head, mouth pressed tightly shut. His gaze is fixated on the white ceilings, but his hand is tight on Hongbin’s arm, like he’s scared to let go.

“I think,” Jaehwan breathes, like he’s afraid speaking too loudly would send everything tumbling down. “Something’s crashed into the lab.”

There’s a beat of stunned silence, and then, from the other side of the laboratory, the unmistakable shrieks of warring dragons shakes throughout the whole building.

+

Hakyeon knows they can’t outrun a dragon.

Sixteen thousand pounds of coiled muscles, razor-like teeth, scales and solar-deflecting wings were well on its way towards them, and Hakyeon cannot envision himself and Taekwoon making it down the wrecked stairs without the water dragon catching them first, or tearing down the observation tower on top of them, at the very least.

There’s a very small voice somewhere in the back of his mind that says we’re going to die now, aren’t we? and he chokes out a noise, heart in his throat as he slips and stumbles over broken glass. Taekwoon’s hand is tight around his own, pulling Hakyeon towards him, and for a moment Hakyeon draws the smallest of comforts that he’s not alone in this, at the very least, and braces himself for the worst.

But the water dragon doesn’t reach them.

Its wings are spread in mid-flight when the female alpha rears up without warning, her jaws stretched open as an ungodly sound escapes from her maw. She lunges, sinking her fangs into the arched spine of the water dragon’s rump, and doesn’t let go.

The water dragon roars in pain, but he falls, collapsing in an awkward, lopsided fashion onto the ground. The forest dragon tosses her damaged wing behind her, and from underneath it the secondary wing flaps open to help her counterbalance against the water dragon’s violent writhing. She throws her head back, taking a chunk out of the other dragon’s hide, and Hakyeon gags at the sight of blood and at the sound of wounded screeching.

“What is she doing?”

Taekwoon’s gaze is transfixed on the sight before him, lips slightly parted, eyes wide. “She’s...” he stops, brows furrowing, and then continues with a note of disbelief: “She’s protecting us.”

Hakyeon spins around. “Us? Why?”

Taekwoon lifts a shoulder, and for the first time, the dragon expert has no answer for Hakyeon. “I don’t know. But I don’t think she’ll lose.”

The water dragon’s howls aren’t stopping, and Hakyeon can’t bring himself to look on any further. He turns away from the scene, biting hard into his lower lip as he tries to block out all of the sounds. To his surprise, Taekwoon places a hand on his shoulder and pulls Hakyeon towards him, prompting the journalist to burrow his face against Taekwoon’s chest as the grating shrieks turn to whines and the whines turns to wheezes. Soon, the sound of the fight dwindles away into nothing but the sound of rain hitting the demolished side of the tower and the weighty footsteps of the victorious creature.

Taekwoon takes a deep breath. His hands are tight around Hakyeon’s shoulder, and Hakyeon keeps his face pressed against the rain-damp fabric of Taekwoon’s shirt. “Hey,” he says, voice soft, and Hakyeon dares to look up into Taekwoon’s face. The scientist looks both stunned and troubled.

“Is it dead?” Hakyeon whispers, and he can see Taekwoon nod.

“It’s over.”

Hakyeon braves a look over his shoulder, and... it’s not as terrible as he thought it’d be. The water dragon is lying on its side in the ruined meadow, unmoving. There are deep trenches and mounds of dirt were piled up and thrown everywhere because of the dragon’s fight, and there are dark splotches on the grass that Hakyeon deliberately adverts his eyes from. He watches as the forest dragon limps away from the fallen creature, tossing her head. For a moment, another pair of reptilian eyes shift towards them; but there’s a lack of hostility in the female alpha’s expression. It seems like she’s only checking up on them. Hakyeon shivers under a combination of the intensity of her gaze and Taekwoon’s anxious clutch on his shoulder before the dragon finally turns away.

From beneath the damaged wing, the secondary one unfolds, completely unscathed, and the dragon turns her head towards the sky and lets out a series of short, growling barks. 

“Look,” Taekwoon finally breathes, pointing up, and Hakyeon feels his jaw drop as the travelling clan of forest dragons suddenly re-appear, rocketing out of the forest they’d camouflaged themselves in before continuing their migration now that their territory is safe. He’s suddenly struck with an inexplicable feeling of pride at the female alpha’s ability and determination to defend her home and family— is this what Taekwoon experiences whenever he sees the dragons he takes care of are doing well?

The clattering sounds of multiple footsteps startles Hakyeon out of his thoughts; he and Taekwoon turn as the sounds draw nearer and the echoing voices grow louder. Finally, Hongbin’s head pops up at the top of the stairs closely, followed by the other scientists, all of whom are looking terrified. The fear is definitely not eased when they see what the tower’s been reduced to after being hit by a dragon and a electromagnetic storm.

“Oh my god,” Jaehwan shrieks, clutching at the damaged railing. “What— what in the world is this?!”

“Are you two alright?” Wonshik cries, face white with shock.

“Is that... a dragon? A dead dragon?” Sanghyuk splutters, eyes wide as he stares out the broken windows. 

“Hakyeon,” Hongbin says, looking like he might faint as he stumbles forwards to grab Hakyeon’s hands. “What happened here?”

Hakyeon glances over at Taekwoon, and he’s dimly aware that Taekwoon is still embracing him, his thumb stroking comfortingly against Hakyeon’s shoulder. He looks around them, at the absolute carnage scattered throughout the deck, and then back out at the retreating figures of the dragons before he manages a slightly punch-drunk laugh.

“You might want to sit down, Binnie,” Hakyeon says, trying not to scare his poor friend too badly. He can already imagine Hongbin rejecting every single one of his job requests in the future after this trip. “It’s a hell of a story.”

+

In the midst of all the excitement (and even that’s a sheer understatement of all the events that unfolded on this tiny island), Hakyeon had forgotten that the end date of his on-site interview at V.I.EX. was already upon him. And because the storm had cleared out just as suddenly as it had shown up, it doesn’t take long before everything in the lab is back up and running, shuttles and delivery ships can land once more, and it’s time to go home.

Before Hakyeon could really let that fact sink in, he’s already thrown into the whirlwind of packing up. The next thing he knows, the little dorm he’d been inhibiting for the whole trip was swept clean, Hongbin’s photography equipment was wrestled back into their cases, and Hakyeon’s trusty tablet was tucked under his arm as they stood by the docks, standing by their luggage and watching the bulky shuttlecraft that dropped them off two weeks ago descend from a curiously bright blue sky.

Sanghyuk, Wonshik, Jaehwan and Taekwoon had all come to see them off despite Hakyeon and Hongbin’s heavy insistences that they could handle themselves, really, and let the scientists do their repair work without worrying about them (but then Taekwoon had given Hakyeon a pointed look, Sanghyuk’s expression was already set, and Jaehwan and Wonshik were just too insistent, so here they all were, anyway).

While there’s a million and one other great questions Hakyeon would like to ask Taekwoon, like what kind of dragon he likes best, which articles of Hakyeon’s he enjoyed the most, or if he’d like to meet up at a nearby space bar on JEL.EE.FSH. if he’s got some time off, possibly, but Hakyeon is a true journalist dedicated to his craft— so he spends his last few precious seconds bombarding Taekwoon with just one very important work-related inquiry.

“Are you absolutely sure it’s alright for me to publish the incident that happened between the water and forest alphas?” Hakyeon presses anxiously, trying to keep his bangs from flying everywhere as the rickety shuttle finally lands in the water.

“Of course,” Taekwoon says, only slightly exasperated. “For the last time, Hakyeon, why wouldn’t I be?”

“It’s just— it seems like such a terrible thing,” Hakyeon says, waving his arms. “Dragons killing dragons on a research sanctuary doesn’t seem to quite help your image of promoting the preservation of dragon lives, right?”

“Maybe,” Taekwoon shrugs. “But they’re space dragons. They’re creatures that can travel to the furthest corners of the universe with basic instinct. Dragons are wild animals, not a domesticated house cat. What should people expect from them?”

“That’s... true,” Hakyeon admits, biting his lip, and Taekwoon grins at him, eyes crinkling as the polished surface of the shuttlecraft reflects the light of the sun over them.

“I’m not here to make up a pretty, dolled-up story about my facilities. I’m always telling the truth about my work, and I think that’s what you want to do, right?”

A bit of pride and a sense of achievement swells up inside Hakyeon’s chest; he gives Taekwoon a firm nod. Taekwoon chuckles, ducking his head as a spray of water splashes over them. The shuttle wobbles before falling over against the dock and popping open a side hatch with a heavy clunk and quite a bit of steam. Jaehwan is busy wiping water off his face while Wonshik fusses over him, and Hongbin and Sanghyuk are standing together, talking amongst themselves. Hakyeon thinks they might be secretly holding hands.

“Well. Time to go, I guess,” Hakyeon breathes out, squeezing his tablet tightly. He turns and beams at Taekwoon, sticking his hand out for a shake. “It’s been a pleasure, Taekwoon,” Hakyeon shouts over the noise, and he finds that he actually means it. Who knew that after two long weeks of chasing dragons and facing a storm together could change his initial view of a grumpy, dragon-obsessed scientist so much? “Thank you for all that you and your team have done for us.”

Taekwoon’s eye meet his, and he takes Hakyeon’s hand a little hesitantly.

“Will you be alright?” he asks, and Hakyeon tilts his head, confused. “After the whole dragon attack,” Taekwoon elaborates.

“I... won’t say I’m totally alright,” Hakyeon admits. “It’ll take some time to recover from, but honestly, I’ll be fine. Hongbin will too, he gets all cringy and jumpy sometimes, but he’s a photographer. They’d walk over lava patches on volcanic planets in sneakers for the sake of a good photograph.”

Taekwoon laughs, squeezing Hakyeon’s hand, and his eyes are bright. “I was afraid you’d be affected badly,” he admits. “But... more than anything else, I was afraid that you’d get hurt.”

Hakyeon swallows. The air is very warm around him, all of a sudden, and he realizes they’re actually standing quite close to each other.

An unexpected honking blast suddenly sounds from the shuttle, making them jump apart— Hakyeon winces when he sees the shuttle set off a gush of steam from the various potholes on its sides. It really is time to leave.

“You have my intergalactical info,” he says, clasping his hands awkwardly in front of him. “Don’t hesitate to contact me for anything, I’d be happy to help.”

“Alright,” Taekwoon nods, expression contemplative. “Then I have a request right now.”

“Eh?” Hakyeon blinks, and Taekwoon raises his hands. He cups Hakyeon’s face with both palms, touch soft and barely-there, giving Hakyeon the opportunity to walk away if he wanted to.

But Hakyeon stays, standing very still, watching Taekwoon lean in slowly and then surging forwards all at once, pressing their lips together warmly. Hakyeon trembles minutely but smiles into the kiss, placing his hands on Taekwoon’s waist as he takes a second to collect himself before relaxing into the kiss.

They stand like that for a few moments, getting a feel of each other’s lips, indulging in the intimate physical contact, and then break it off in unison.

“If all your other requests are going to be like this one, I’d definitely be happy to help,” Hakyeon jokes, blushing, and to his delight, Taekwoon’s face turns crimson too.

“Video call me when you’re back home safely,” he says. “And let me know once you’re done writing the article. I’d love to read it.” Hakyeon grins so widely he thinks he might’ve cracked his jaw.

“Will do,” he enthuses, and gives Taekwoon one last, fleeting hug before he’s boarding the shuttle, shoving himself into the lumpy seat and yanking the thick harnesses over his front in preparation for takeoff. It’s a shame there’s no window to look out of, but Taekwoon and the others would’ve had to vacate the dock as the shuttle turned its thrusters on anyway. The promise of video chatting will have to do for now.

As they launch back into space, with a terrified Hongbin clutching at his photography equipment like he’s afraid the shuttle might launch them all out into the atmosphere, Hakyeon wonders if the feeling of freedom and rocketing through the universe was something only space dragons can truly experience.

+

InterstellarDatabases > Nature > Nature Feature > New Reads!

The Dragons At The Corner Of The Universe

(And the team behind the care and well-beings of these splendid creatures)

By Cha Hakyeon, feature writer

+

InterstellarDatabases > Nature > New Reads!

>> In Response To “The Dragons At The Corner Of The Universe”

Over the past week, I’ve been reading and replying to some of the comments in my most recent feature article about the space dragons, and after finding myself repeating some of the same comments over and over again, I thought I’d write a little follow up to answer some of the burning questions a lot of my readers seem to have.

Firstly— you have no idea how long I struggled with the decision to write about the territorial fight that happened just days before I concluded my two-week interview. Before I left V.I.EX., I questioned Dr. Jung repeatedly over how he would feel if I published that part of the story. Repeatedly, I must say! (This includes several follow-up emails and a very stressed video conference.) And even after I received more than enough reassurances that it would be alright to reveal the situation that happened, I almost didn’t include it in this piece.

You have to understand, readers, I was making this decision barely forty-eight hours after witnessing a brawl between to much bigger creatures than myself, in an electromagnetic storm, on an unfamiliar planet. This isn’t something I saw through a plasma screen, or on a hologram. This was real. It was dangerous. It was something that happened, and I witnessed it.

Which is why I realized, in the end, that I had to share it. Because the preservation and maintenance of space dragons is more than just little pamphlets ads that pop up between your galactic web dramas. The actions of humans and the efforts of humans are linked together, and ultimately, something that even nature can override. So to some of the critique of the necessity of revealing events that might be what some consider a ‘decline’ or ‘wasted efforts’ in the space dragon preservation program, I’ll let you know right now that my articles hide nothing. Nothing was wasted, not when there was nothing that could have been done to prevent a natural conflict between two territorial creatures from occurring. These are dragons. It’s what they do.

And to those who might mourn the loss of a great beast, you just have to understand— these are dragons. Truly, it’s what they do.

On the little planet in the furthest corners of our galaxy, I have seen life, and I have seen death.

And that is the way the universe runs its natural course, just as it’s always has.

-Cha Hakyeon, feature writer

+

 

 

+

[Epilogue - Two months later]

The door to his apartment had barely slammed shut before Hakyeon was tripping over the threshold, kicking his shoes off and dashing into his room, nearly running into the doorframe as he tried to pull up his Video Chat and untangle his arms from his messenger bag, all at once.

The little swirl of stars circling in the middle of the loading screen gave him just enough time to set his tablet down on the (only) clear spot on his desk, toss his jacket off, and flop onto his office chair before a connection is finally made. A three-dimensional hologram of Taekwoon’s upper body fills the screen as he accepts the call, and Hakyeon feels himself grinning widely when the scientist smiles at him through the screen.

“About time, Hakyeon.”

“Sorry, sorry, the meeting ran way too late, okay!” Hakyeon whines, and it makes Taekwoon laugh, affection evident in his eyes. “I didn’t miss it, did I?”

“Of course not,” Taekwoon chuckles. “Actually, you’re right on time. They’re set to take flight any moment now. If you can set up your hologram scanner quickly, I can put you on Live Mode.”

“Oh thank heavens,” Hakyeon wheezes, and he launches himself to the bookshelf, pushing the floating compartments aside and ignoring the pained wheeze the poor anti-gravity stimulator makes after being forced under all the weight of Hakyeon’s old book collection. He digs out the scanner and the wireless key, barely managing to plug it properly into the laptop because of his excitement. It boots up, does the preliminary scan of Hakyeon’s upper body, and it pings once it could start transmitting a 3D version of himself to whatever device Taekwoon is using.

“Got it,” Hakyeon says brightly, and Taekwoon grins at him.

“Excellent. Now, take a look; you’re gonna love this.”

He spins the screen around, and Hakyeon’s treated to a beautiful view of the sloping meadows, snowcapped mountains, and lush forests once more before a sudden shadow passes overhead. He gasps, unable to stop himself, and nearly leaps out of his seat when the forest dragons begin flying past.

They climb, high into the sky, and then take low, sweeping dives, and Hakyeon watches eagerly as the entire clan cycles around the area Taekwoon has probably gotten the entire team set up in. Even though he can only see a hologram, Hakyeon fancies he can feel the cool breeze and hear the steady thrum of the dragon’s wings washing over him as they fly by.

“Why are they just circling the meadow?” he shouts, and sees Taekwoon lean forwards from the edge of the screen.

“They’re gaining traction and speed,” the scientist replies. “They’ve grown out some of their older land scales and replaced it with fresh ones; they’re all getting a feel of their flight before they make a shot into space.”

“How long does this usually take?”

“Depends on the species,” Taekwoon replies. “Forest dragons are sleek, fast creatures. They’ve been at it for a while already, so they’ll be ready quite soon.”

Hakyeon exhales, clutching at the edge of his desk. “And then they’ll be gone?” he asks. Taekwoon nods, and for a moment, his eyes look far, far away.

“They’ll be gone. It’s time for them to finally go back into space.”

A silence lapses between them, and for a moment Hakyeon’s thrown back to the motto he’s seen at the top of the space dragon preservation program’s site— protect, preserve, restore. Taekwoon has done the protecting and the preserving, so all that’s left is the restoration of the dragons into their natural habitat; it means going home.

There’s a sudden shriek that sounds across the meadow, dragging on like a kind of signal, and Hakyeon’s jaw drops as all the dragons suddenly cluster together and go for a nosedive. It’s almost impossible to see just how nearly a dozen of those gigantic creatures can all fly so tightly packed together, but just before they reach the ground, the alpha pulls out of her dive. It’s so sharp Hakyeon almost gives himself whiplash trying to follow the new trajectory upwards. Taekwoon is quick to grab his scanner and tilt it up to the sky so Hakyeon can watch the dragons fly faster and faster, climbing until they’re nothing more than a fist-sized dot in the sky before the group expands as one— and then they’re gone, rocketing into space with speed and agility even the most advanced man-made shuttles can’t handle. At long last, they disappear beyond the clouds.

A breath he hadn’t realized he was holding finally escapes him. “Wow...” Hakyeon murmurs, still staring up into the sky, even when there’s nothing but plain blue the stretches on and on. It’s not until Taekwoon lowers the scanner that finally shakes him out of his awe.

“What did you think?” Taekwoon asks, eyes shining with excitement for Hakyeon’s reaction. “It’s something else, isn’t it?”

“It was magnificent,” Hakyeon breathes, and he can see the happiness in Taekwoon’s face; his boyfriend is simply glad that Hakyeon enjoyed the scene. It makes his stomach flip-flop with affection. “I’m serious, I’ve never seen anything more stunning and— and— breathtaking— it was just. Wow. I don’t even have words.”

“The mighty journalist has finally been stumped,” Taekwoon teases, and Hakyeon blushes. “Cha Hakyeon had words to write about the grouchy dragon-loving scientists and words to return to skeptics about his articles, but finally, it’s the dragon migration into space that finally leaves him speechless.”

“Oh, shush,” Hakyeon huffs, waving Taekwoon off. “Things will be so different on the planet from now on. Will they ever come back?”

“Some do,” Taekwoon shrugs. “Many more don’t. But it’s always better that way. V.I.EX. is a very, very small planet, considering how big the universe actually is. The dragons will live a better life in their own environments.”

Hakyeon drops his chin onto the palm of his hand, feeling something melancholic twist inside of him already. “And will you miss them?” he asks, soft, and Taekwoon’s smile turns a little sad.

“Of course,” he says. “I miss every dragon that’s left this planet, but at the same time, I’m happier that they can leave. That means Sanghyuk and Jaehwan and Wonshik and I have all done our jobs right, even if we do have to say goodbye eventually.”

“That’s true,” Hakyeon grins. “There’s always two sides to the story, right?”

“Yes,” Taekwoon nods, amused. “You would know best, wouldn’t you?”

“Of course,” Hakyeon proclaims, straightening. “And speaking of stories, I’ll have you know that my editor was so impressed by the reception of the interview, both the good and the bad, that he’s hooked on the idea of a personal exposé next— for the scientists behind the labs, let’s say.”

“Oh no,” Taekwoon groans, covering his eyes, and Hakyeon laughs.

“Hey! This means there’s a chance that I can come visit sooner than imagined because of this, you know.”

“...I can live with that,” Taekwoon muses, and removing his hands from his face. The gesture is so cute Hakyeon almost coos. “I’ve missed you. A lot.”

“Aw,” Hakyeon smiles, and he feels his chest warm at the words. “You know I missed you like crazy too.”

“Let me know if this new article plan of yours works out,” Taekwoon chuckles. “And bring Hongbin again, too... Sanghyuk has been mopey again lately and he’s taking it out on us by making more dumb puns than usual.”

Hakyeon snorts, thinking of his friend. “I will. He’d be happy to go with me too.”

“Great,” Taekwoon smiles. “Message me, so I can prepare to either meet you sooner or in another month’s time, like we promised.”

“Sooner,” Hakyeon says at once, and Taekwoon blushes and smiles at him. “Really. Writing will just be a bonus. I want to see you sooner. I want to be with you sooner.”

“I know,” Taekwoon whispers, fond. “I feel the same.”

It might just be the fine quality of the hologram scanner, but for a moment, Hakyeon can almost imagine himself standing next to Taekwoon on a planet that’s far from home, yet is a place he can see himself returning to again and again to a warm welcome each time.

And soon, he’ll be able to go back again, back to the place where he managed to find love amidst friends and dragons, beneath the universe and underneath the gloriously beautiful majestic skies.

 +

End