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Our Hearts Are Gold

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Charles is sitting out on the wide wall of the castle enjoying the sunlight and a good book when a dragon drops down out of the sky.

The only warning Charles has is a sudden shadow falling across him, which he mistakes for a cloud passing over the sun, so he doesn’t look up and see the beast diving straight for him, like a falcon towards a rabbit. A moment later he’s blasted by a wild gust of wind that knocks him clear out of his chair and sends him sprawling, and before he can roll himself over something heavy smashes into his back, shoving him down face-first into the stone and pinning him in place.

Dragon! ” someone shouts, and then all hell breaks loose.

Half-stunned, it takes Charles a moment to react. He tries to move, shifting to pick himself up, and then chokes a little as the massive weight on his back crushes him down a little more. Guards are rushing in from all angles, shouting and brandishing swords and spears, while the great bell in the west watchtower is clanging, sounding the alarm. Slowly, Charles turns his head, craning his neck to look back over his shoulder.

The dragon towers over him, leathery wings spread wide and gaping jaws filled with gleaming fangs. It opens its mouth wide and roars, drowning out everything else, the sound vibrating through Charles’ entire body and shaking him to the core. A couple of the braver guardsmen throw their spears, but they bounce harmlessly off the dragon’s wine-red scales with a clatter, and the dragon retaliates with a ferocious sweep of its heavy, spiked tail, throwing several men across the wall and smashing some of the merlons.

“Your Highness!” someone shouts, but Charles doesn’t have time to answer. The dragon closes its claws around him—careful not to impale him but tightly enough to hold onto him even as Charles starts to struggle—and pumps its powerful wings, beginning to lift off the ground.

“Get back!” Charles shouts at the guards who try to rush forward, some hefting their spears again while others try futilely to reach for him. The dragon’s hold on him is unbreakable, talons clamped tightly around him, and Charles knows if he struggles any harder, he’ll cut himself to pieces on the sharp claws. “Watch out!”

The dragon snarls, pumping its wings harder and harder, slowly gaining altitude. Its head rears back and Charles cries out as a bright jet of flames bursts out of its mouth in a steady stream. Charles has to throw up one arm across his face to protect himself from the blast of heat, and down below he hears the shouting turn into screaming along with the unmistakable crackle of fire.

“Charles!” a new voice shouts above the din, and Charles drops his arm to find he’s level with the castle’s wide balcony. Raven sprints outside, her eyes wide as she leans against the stone railing, reaching for him desperately.

“Raven!” Charles shouts back helplessly, dangling in the dragon’s grip uselessly as the ground begins to drop away faster and faster.

In the blink of an eye, the gap between them widens from ten feet to fifty, and Charles can only watch as Raven seems to shrink smaller and smaller as the dragon climbs higher and higher into the sky, the castle and the village surrounding it reduced to a tiny portrait. Fear clogs Charles’ throat, because if the dragon drops him now he’ll fall to his death.

The wind whistles loudly in his ears, and Charles shivers at how quickly it’s gotten cold. He tries to twist in the dragon’s grip, and his movement must annoy the dragon because it gives him a sharp squeeze, and Charles freezes.

Climbing even higher into the sky, the dragon passes through a blanket of clouds, and when it emerges on the topside Charles can’t see the ground at all anymore. He has no idea where the dragon is taking him, or what it plans on doing to him.

He’s trapped, and in all likelihood, soon to be dinner.

 


 

 Charles jolts awake when he hits the ground, landing face-first in a pile of coins. He feels frozen solid, every muscle in his body sore. At first he can’t even move, lying stiff as a board as the dragon steps over him, leaving him where it’s dropped him and lumbering off.

The dragon had flown for hours, well into the night. Charles had spent the entire duration clasped tightly in its claws, growing colder and colder in the relentless, icy wind high above the clouds. At first he’d tried to keep track of where they were going, but as the hours wore on and Charles had gotten weaker and weaker with exhaustion, hunger, and thirst, he’d started dipping in and out of consciousness.

Somehow, he manages to get himself rolled over onto his back. Bright light flares up suddenly, and Charles cranes his neck to watch the dragon breathe fire onto an enormous brazier, the flames immediately beginning to crackle as if they’ve been burning for hours. Even from several yards away, Charles can feel the warmth of it and he shudders at the burst of heat pouring over him like bathwater.

With the help of the fire, Charles can see now that they’re in a large cave, the ceiling high overhead with a few long stalactites hanging down like jagged teeth. Endless piles of jewels and gold cover the floor, some of the larger mounds nearly tall enough to reach the ceiling. In the center of it all, the dragon curls next to his fire, long tail strewn out lazily amongst the riches of his hoard.

“Come closer,” the dragon says when he sees Charles watching him. His voice is deep, but not the guttural snarls Charles had imagined a dragon’s voice would sound like.

Slowly, Charles sits up. Unwilling to turn his back to the dragon, he sneaks a glance over his shoulder. Judging by the cold air at his back, the entrance to the cave is somewhere behind him. If he can make it out of the cave and find somewhere to hide…

“There’s a blizzard outside,” the dragon says, correctly interpreting Charles’ furtive glance. “I wouldn’t try any escape attempts right now, unless you want to freeze to death.”

“As opposed to being eaten?” Charles asks, his voice coming out thin but surprisingly steady.

The dragon makes a rumbling sound, shaking his head and snorting, making the fire ripple. “I’m not going to eat you,” he says impatiently, like he’s annoyed with Charles for assuming.

Charles barely swallows back a disbelieving laugh. “You understand I have no way to trust you.”

The dragon flicks his tail, and Charles is reminded of the kitchen cat flicking her tail in annoyance whenever a mouse manages to escape her claws. “My word should be good enough.”

“You kidnapped me,” Charles points out, his voice echoing slightly in the cavern. A smaller voice in the back of his head tells him it’s probably a very bad idea to goad the dragon the size of a small house staring down at him from only half a cave away, but he ignores it. “You attacked my home, and probably killed some of my friends in the process. We’ve heard reports from other kingdoms of dragons carrying off their princesses, who are never seen again. It’s not hard to guess what happened to them.”

“I didn’t kill anyone, I wouldn’t have even had to fight back if your friends hadn’t attacked me first,” the dragon says exasperatedly, “and those other dragons weren’t me. I’ve never carried off a princess before.”

“My friends were trying to protect me from you,” Charles shoots back incredulously. “And wait a moment, is this seriously your first time carrying off royalty?”

The dragon narrows his eyes, nostrils flaring. “So what if it is?” he asks grumpily, tail flicking again.

“Good job, you’ve completely mucked it up,” Charles says dryly. “I’m a prince, not a princess.”

“I know you’re a prince,” the dragon snaps irritably. “I know how to tell humans apart.”

Do you?” Charles asks skeptically. “Then why did you even take me?”

“Would you rather I’d taken your sister?” the dragon growls, making the whole cave rumble, the gold coins clinking together softly as they tremble. “I could’ve just as easily flown off with her instead. I could fly back and exchange you for her right now, and then I’d have a princess.”

“No,” Charles says quickly, the first bolt of real fear striking him in the chest at the thought of Raven in danger. “Please…” He swallows. “You already have me. Leave her out of this.”

“Then come sit by the fire and stop asking me questions,” the dragon says, satisfied, and Charles has no choice but to obey.

Carefully, Charles does a quick assessment of himself. The dragon hasn’t nicked him anywhere with his claws so Charles isn’t bleeding anywhere, and a quick pat down of his legs confirms nothing is broken; miraculous, given an entire dragon landed on top of him.

Moving himself closer to the fire is slightly awkward thanks to the slipperiness of the loose gold coins covering the ground, but he manages, dragging himself further into the sphere of warmth and light, moving only a little stiffly on account of aching muscles and wariness. He settles down on the exact opposite side of the giant brazier from the dragon, even though it offers little protection—if the dragon lunges at him, fire is hardly going to be an obstacle. The warmth isn’t unwelcome, however, and Charles tells himself it’s better if his joints aren’t stiff and frozen.

Charles studies his captor. In the glow of the firelight, the dragon is beautiful. His scales are a deep wine red, glimmering just as brightly as the gold and jewels around them. His great leathery wings are folded neatly across his back, avoiding the long, sharp tines running down the center of his spine, from the scythe-like tip of his tail all the way up his long neck. His horns are thick, curled like a ram’s, and his eerie silver eyes study Charles just as intently in return.

“You’re hurt,” Charles realizes. A spear from one of the castle’s guardsmen is stuck clean through one of the dragon’s hind feet, the wound slowly oozing blood. Someone must have gotten a lucky throw in, for all the good it’d done Charles.

“It is nothing,” the dragon says dismissively, but Charles notices how he seems to be holding it awkwardly still.

“I can help you,” Charles offers after a beat. He doesn’t know what he hopes to gain by helping the dragon who is in all likelihood saving him for a snack, but Charles doesn’t like needless suffering. “I can help pull it out of you, and if you have any wrappings—”

“I don’t need your help.”

Charles bites his tongue to keep from arguing. The silence festers for a few long moments, and Charles focuses on getting his blood moving again, rubbing his legs to make sure circulation is flowing. The dragon continues to watch him, reptilian gaze unblinking.

“Where are we?” Charles ventures to ask at last. The dragon mentioned a mountain before, and Westchester is more of a land of gently rolling hills. Dismayed, Charles wonders just how far from home he really is, and how difficult it’s going to be to get back.

“Didn’t I say to stop asking questions,” the dragon says, showing his fangs in warning.

“Are we just going to sit here and stare at each other all night, then, until you eat me?” Charles asks wearily. “I don’t see how it matters whether I know or not, since you obviously aren’t intending to let me go.”

“I’m not going to eat you,” the dragon harrumphs, his wings shifting. “The Savage Lands.”

“The Savage Lands?” Charles says, despair only widening. He’s thousands of leagues from home, in a wild, lawless territory none of the neighboring countries had wished to claim.

“Yes,” the dragon says, a tad dry, “so attempting to escape really is futile.”

Charles slumps a little where he sits. Even if he somehow managed to get away from the dragon, the chances of him successfully navigating through the unforgiving terrain of the Savage Lands and finding his way back to Westchester are minuscule.

“You are sad,” the dragon observes.

“Of course I’m sad,” Charles answers bitterly. “I’m going to die out here.”

The dragon sighs. “I will protect you from harm.”

Charles lifts his head. “You’re really not going to eat me,” he says slowly.

“At last, he sees reason,” the dragon remarks dryly. He sets his chin down on top of one of the piles of gold, resting comfortably.

“Why did you take me, then?”

“It is not important right now.”

“I rather think it is,” Charles points out. “If I get any say at all in the matter, I’d like to go back home, please, if I’m not meant to be a meal. Surely people were hurt when you started breathing fire and thrashing about, and I’d like to know that everyone is okay.”

To his surprise, the dragon doesn’t grow angry or impatient again this time. “And your throne?”

Charles blinks. “What about it?”

“You don’t feel cheated from your birthright as a prince, since you’re stuck out here?”

“My throne is the last thing I’m concerned about right now,” Charles says flatly. “It’s what’s gotten me into this mess in the first place, isn’t it, since you presumably carried me off because I’m a prince?”

The dragon lets out a low rumbling sound, though it doesn’t seem as menacing as before. It takes Charles a moment to realize the dragon has laughed. “That was part of the reason, yes.”

“And the rest?”

“It is not important right now,” the dragon reminds him, but he sounds almost amused.

Charles huffs out a frustrated breath, but he feels himself relax a little. It’s probably safe enough to trust the dragon at his word that he won’t eat Charles. There would be little point for the dragon to lie, as Charles is already completely at his mercy anyway.

“When, then?” Charles asks, making himself a little more comfortable where he sits. He won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. “When will I get to know?”

“When I decide so,” the dragon says gruffly, blowing a long stream of smoke out of his nostrils. “Go to sleep. I will hunt in the morning, and there will be food.”

Charles wants to protest, but the dragon has pointedly shut his eyes, oddly reminiscent of Raven slamming her bedroom door shut when she’s in a mood. Charles’ stomach growls at the thought of food—he’s missed dinner, but he can hold out till morning at the very least.

His exhaustion is catching up to him, amplified by the warmth of the fire which is serving to make him feel drowsy again. Charles supposes it’s safe to sleep; he’s as safe as he can be while held captive in a dragon’s den—nothing else, at least, can get to him here. It’s worth the risk, if it means he’ll wake up in the morning with his strength back. Then he can concentrate his energies on figuring out how to give the dragon the slip.

He doesn’t remember when he shifts from sitting up to lying down, curled on his side in a small indent in the gold coins, and Charles slips off to sleep in between one thought and the next.

 


 

 In the morning, the dragon is nowhere in sight. Instead Charles wakes to find a wheelchair sitting beside him within easy reach, every inch of it plated with gold—even the seat cushion is covered in fine golden silk. Since he hadn’t seen the chair at all last night, Charles can only assume the dragon has dug it out from the depths of his hoard just for him, after observing Charles last night. Oddly touched, he pulls himself easily up into the chair, feeling a little bit better about his prospects now that he’s sitting up again and no longer stuck on the ground.

The golden wheels are large enough to get across the coins on the floor at least in the flattened-out pathways made by the dragon, so Charles makes a slow and cautious circuit around the brazier, trying to peer through the piles of riches to see if the dragon has merely moved to a different spot, lurking out of sight and waiting to pounce. But even when Charles accidentally knocks over a stack of goblets made out of solid gold with a loud clatter, the dragon doesn’t appear.

It means the dragon must already be out hunting, so this is Charles’ golden opportunity.

Emboldened, Charles wheels himself back around and heads towards the cave’s entrance, blinking rapidly in the harsh sunlight as he emerges. The blizzard from last night has gone down but already Charles misses the warmth of the brazier as the bitterly cold air begins to seep through his clothes, sinking into his very bones. White snow covers every inch of the landscape around him, and the wheels of his chair snag a little as he moves further out of the mouth of the cave.

The dragon hadn’t been kidding—Charles is high up on the side of a mountain, a small plateau serving as the ledge of a cliff, with a tiny path off to the left that must be the only way up or down by foot. It’s no surprise the dragon has made his den up here, since it’s remote and easily defendable, but it creates a whole new slew of problems for Charles: he needs to make it down off the mountain, and more likely than not he’ll be terribly exposed—and therefore easy pickings—while doing it.

He’s not worried about his own capability. Charles is strong enough to pick himself up and climb down rocks if the pathway isn’t totally clear, but his new chair won’t be an easy companion. The gold is heavy, and will be hard enough to push through the snow, and unlike his chair at home this one doesn’t appear to be collapsible, so if he does have to resort to climbing down, it will be a challenge to drag the chair along with himself. He might have to abandon it up here and hope for the luck of running into a passing traveler once he’s down off the mountain.

Charles takes quick stock of himself. He’s going to need something to keep his legs warm, that’s for certain. He hurries back inside the cave, casting a quick look around. There’s no telling how long he has until the dragon returns from his hunting trip, and Charles needs to be as far away from the cave as he possibly can be, with a good hiding place at the very least for when the dragon comes looking for him.

There’s a pile of animal pelts in one corner of the cave, possibly the only things in the cave not made out of gold. Charles rifles through it until he finds what he supposes once belonged to a wolf, and wraps it around both his legs as best as he can. It just has to work for as long as it takes him to get off the mountain.

Knowing full well this could be suicide, Charles heads back out of the cave and starts making his way down the narrow path to begin the long, arduous process of climbing down the mountainside.

 


 

He wakes to a faceful of dragon fangs, but Charles is too delirious to flinch. Everything is hot, like he’s been baking in an oven, but when he tries to struggle sluggishly, something heavy settles on his chest and pins him in place.

“—idiotic, foolish human,” an angry voice is snapping, loudly enough to hurt Charles’ ears. “I told you attempting to escape was futile, but perhaps I should’ve specified life-threatening for you to get the message.”

“S’too loud,” Charles mumbles, pawing at the weight on his chest feebly. He feels like a turtle stuck on its back. “Hurts.”

“I don’t feel sorry for you,” the voice snaps at once, but at a significantly lower volume. “I should’ve left you out in the snow. Stupidity deserves to take care of itself.”

The world is blurry, even when Charles blinks several times. His fingers hurt too, like they’re burning, and Charles can’t hold back a whimper at the strange sort of pleasure-pain sensation when he tries to move them. “What happened?”

“Isn’t it obvious,” the voice answers icily. “You thought it would be clever to try escaping while I was away hunting. You made it about halfway down the mountain before another blizzard kicked up. It took me an hour to locate you, and you were nearly frozen solid.”

“You saved me?” Slowly, Charles’ vision clears. The dragon is curled around him, surrounding him with four solid, scaley walls emitting furnace-level heat. His head looms over Charles, glaring down at him while pressing him effortlessly down with one claw.

“Not that you deserve it,” the dragon bites out.

“You saved me,” Charles repeats, dazed. He reaches up again with one shaky arm and strokes the claw on his chest. “Don’t be afraid, I’m alright.”

“I’m not afraid, I’m furious,” the dragon huffs, blowing out an angry cloud of smoke.

“It’s okay,” Charles tells him sleepily, eyes beginning to drift shut again. He’s wrapped in something soft and wonderful, which somehow diminishes the threat of the peeved dragon hovering over him. “I’m going to sleep now.”

He drifts off to the sound of the dragon muttering more derogatory names under his breath, but the claws delicately rearranging him are terribly, painstakingly gentle.

 


 

The venison is a little tough, with no seasoning and slightly charred on one end, but as far as Charles is concerned it’s the best meal he’s ever had in his entire life. He holds the bone with both hands and tears into the meat with his teeth, swallowing so quickly he gives himself the hiccups.

“Slow down,” the dragon says, eyeing him with distinct distaste, which Charles finds is rather rich coming from someone with blood splattered across their muzzle. “I didn’t go through all the trouble of digging you out of a snowbank just to watch you choke.”

“Relax,” Charles tells him, even as his chest jumps painfully. “I’m not going to choke. I’m just starving.” He emphasizes his point by tearing off another large chunk of steaming hot meat and chewing it with exaggerated care.

“You are a prince, you do not know the meaning of starving,” the dragon says, unimpressed. Back on the opposite side of the brazier from Charles again, he’s just as prickly and remote as he was last night.

“You’re right, my friend,” Charles says ruefully. “I’m grateful for the meal regardless.”

“‘My friend’?” the dragon asks dryly. “You’ve certainly changed your tune.”

“You saved my life,” Charles answers. He hesitates, and then licks his fingers clean so he can pull the heavy fur pelt around himself tighter again. It had been a little embarrassing to wake and discover himself completely nude beneath the blanket, but Charles’ clothes had been soaking wet when the dragon dug him out the snow. He never would’ve warmed up while still wearing them. “I think that means I can count you as a friend.”

“I’m still the one holding you captive,” the dragon points out, but he almost sounds pleased.

“I’d much rather be on friendly terms with you,” Charles says firmly. He grins a little. “Then I can convince you to take me home.”

The dragon lets out a long, slow breath, lowering his head to go back to picking at the second deer carcass he hadn’t opted to roast. Charles is glad the thick metal base of the brazier hides most of it from his view from where he sits propped up against a pile of gold.

“Besides,” Charles says after a beat, “I don’t know what to call you.”

The dragon falls still. For a moment Charles wonders if he’s overstepped some kind of boundary, but then he answers stiffly, “Erik.”

“Erik,” Charles says, trying out the name. The dragon lifts his head again, swiveling his neck around to stare. “Thank you for saving my life, Erik.”

“I wouldn’t have had to if you’d only obeyed me in the first place,” Erik says, and if he were human Charles thinks he would be rolling his eyes.

“Well,” Charles says, a little sheepishly. “I didn’t know a second blizzard was coming. And I do want to go home.”

“You won’t make it,” Erik says. “The weather is unpredictable in the mountains. And if you don’t freeze, you’re an easy target for wolves.”

“Surely the wolves don’t come up this high?”

“They know better than to try,” Erik answers, snapping his teeth, and goes back to his meal.

Charles finishes eating more slowly, taking his time. He’s lucky he didn’t get frostbite; even his toes escaped the ordeal unscathed. Erik seems to have rescued the golden wheelchair, too, because it sits conspicuously a few feet away. At first Charles doesn’t want to move, too full and comfortable, but he knows he’ll regret it eventually once his back starts to hurt. Carefully setting the bone aside, Charles gathers up his pelt in an attempt to keep from losing it while he crosses the floor, only to watch as Erik’s long tail arcs over the brazier and gently pushes the chair closer.

“Sorry.”

“No, thank you,” Charles assures him. He pulls himself up and gets himself situated, making sure his legs are settled properly and his fur pelt is still wrapped around him enough to keep him decent. “Thank you for digging this out for me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a golden wheelchair before.”

“It’s one-of-a-kind,” Erik hedges, ducking his head down to make himself busy again.

Watching him for a few moments, Charles decides not to push. He feels warmed from the inside out thanks to the hot meal, but he can still hear the blizzard howling outside. He’s lucky Erik managed to find him at all, he realizes. Otherwise he would certainly be dead.

“You still have the spear,” Charles says, studying the stick of wood still embedded in Erik’s hind foot. It looks as if Erik tried to get it out himself, but only succeeded in breaking it off because it’s much shorter now—too short for Erik to be able to get his teeth around it. It might as well be a splinter now due to Erik’s size, but the wound is still oozing blood, and Charles imagines dragons aren’t immune to infection. “Please, Erik, let me help you.”

“I’m fine.”

“You are not,” Charles says with a small laugh of disbelief, “it’s still bleeding and it’s only going to hurt worse over time.”

You’re only going to make it worse by touching it.”

“I am not. I’m going to pull it straight out, and then you’re going to go outside and dunk it in the snow to clean it.”

Erik puffs himself up, looming upwards towards the ceiling in what’s clearly meant to be a threatening display but only serves to remind Charles of an irritated pigeon. “You dare to tell me what to do?”

“No, no,” Charles says, swallowing his urge to laugh. “Of course not. But I’m worried about your injury and would like to help. You saved my life. Let me repay you.”

Erik doesn’t answer, his hesitation clear in every line of his body. He slowly lowers himself back down to all fours, wings pressed tightly against his back with reluctance.

“You can trust me,” Charles says into the silence, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“Very well,” Erik says at last after another small pause. He lies down neatly, sweeping his tail off to one side so nothing stands in the way of his hind foot. “You can pull it out.”

Charles smiles, sensing the olive branch. “Excellent. You’ll feel much better when it’s out, I promise.” He pushes himself around the brazier, approaching the waiting dragon.

Body tense, Erik watches Charles with glittering eyes. “Make it quick.”

“I will,” Charles assures him, coming to a stop next to Erik’s hind foot. His talons are razor sharp, each as long and thick as a human leg—no wonder Charles had felt like he was in a cage when Erik had carried him off. The broken spear itself is buried in the meat of Erik’s foot, where his scales are smaller and not as thick as the ones on the rest of his body to allow for finer maneuverability. Despite how Erik’s broken off most of the shaft, there’s still plenty of length left for Charles to be able to wrap both hands around it. “Okay. I’m going to try and pull it all the way out in one go. Hopefully the tip doesn’t break off.”

“If it does, you’ll need to get it out.”

“Of course,” Charles agrees. “I’ll pull on the count of three.” He offers Erik a small grin. “Try not to smash me out of reflex.”

“Don’t worry, Charles,” Erik says seriously, his bottomless gaze unblinking, “I will not hurt you.”

“I know you won’t,” Charles says, faintly surprised by his own conviction and knowing Erik means it for more than just an accident when Charles pulls a piece of wood out of him. He still has no idea why Erik attacked his castle and carried him off, but somehow, some way, he knows Erik truly means him no harm. “Alright. Three—two—”

Quick like lightning, Charles leans forward and wraps both hands around the broken end of the spear and pulls with all his might, arm muscles straining when the jagged point catches and refuses to budge for a split second. With enough force to send himself rolling backwards a couple feet in his chair, Charles yanks the spear entirely free with a small splatter of dark dragon blood.

Throwing his head back with a piercing roar that shakes the entire cavern, Erik’s wings flare out wide and his tail lashes, smashing into one mound of gold and sending pieces flying everywhere. Charles drops the bloody spear and throws his arms up in front of his face to keep from being pelted by coins. Leaping up to his feet, Erik propels himself forward towards the mouth of the cave, buffering Charles with a huge gust of wind as he pumps his wings, leaping into the air before he’s even cleared the entrance, disappearing out into the howling blizzard.

Slowly, Charles lowers his arms again. All things considered, that went rather well, he thinks as he picks up the spear to examine it. The metal spearhead is still attached to the end of the shaft, so Erik shouldn’t have to worry about any more pieces left in his foot.

Only a few minutes pass before Erik returns, emerging from the wall of wind and snow outside. He pads back into the cave, pausing only to give a mighty shake that sends freezing cold droplets of melted snow raining down everywhere.

“Hey!” Charles protests, shivering as a few of them land on him, icy enough to sting.

“You won’t melt,” Erik says dismissively as he makes a slow circle around the brazier, sweeping up some of the gold pile he knocked over with his tail. Fascinated, Charles watches as the rest of the melted snow remaining on Erik’s scales evaporate before his eyes, the dragon’s body temperature so hot it makes the snow go from water to steam in seconds with a soft hiss. “Thank you, Charles.”

“You’re welcome,” Charles says as Erik settles back into his spot beside the fire. “Do you want me to look at it again and see if I can clean it up a little?”

“There is no need,” Erik answers, coiled comfortably in his nest made of golden treasure. “Now that the spear is out of the way, it will heal quickly.”

“If you’re certain,” Charles says skeptically.

Erik gives one of his strange dragon laughs, the vibration of the sound reverberating in Charles’ chest. “Dragon magic. I am certain.”

“Point,” Charles allows, and they settle into a comfortable silence.

Instead of sitting opposite from each other on either side of the brazier, now they’re nearly next to each other, facing in towards the hot flames. For the first time since he woke up, Charles realizes he’s no longer tense with wariness, comfortable where he sits wrapped in fur beside an enormous dragon. Outside the cave the wind whistles and howls, but inside is cozy and safe.

“Erik,” Charles says, his gaze on the flames, “I think it’s time you told me why I’m here, my friend.”

Erik sighs, the flames dancing in the wake of his breath. “Yes.”

“Really?” Charles spins his chair so he’s facing Erik.

“I lied before,” Erik begins haltingly, “when I said I’ve never carried off a princess before. I’ve carried off plenty.”

“Okay,” Charles says slowly, remaining calm. “What happened to them?”

“I brought them back,” Erik confesses, lowering his head to rest his chin on his two front feet, “none of them...worked out.”

“I’ve never heard of a dragon returning a princess,” Charles says, trying to recall all the bits of news filtering in from outside of Westchester.

“I know. We stage it a little. I drop them off a couple leagues away from the closest town, so no one sees. They make up a story about their own escape. News of a dragon carrying off a princess is much more exciting, that’s why you only ever hear the first part. I also spread my kidnappings out between kingdoms that are very far apart from each other, as well as years’ worth of time. It’s a win-win.”

“You say that like the princesses all cooperated with you,” Charles says in confusion.

“You just helped pull a spear out of my foot,” Erik points out, “I’m not that unlikeable.”

“Very true, my friend,” Charles says, laughing. “Alright, then what’s all this about? Why didn’t any of the princesses...work?”

Erik sighs again, his reluctance returning. “I’m not actually a dragon. I’m a human just like you.”

“I...don’t entirely follow,” Charles admits.

“A long time ago, I was a prince like you,” Erik says, “from a kingdom very far from here called Genosha. I’ll spare you wistful anecdotes about my youth and skip ahead to the part where we were besieged by an evil sorcerer named Shaw. He tried to destroy my country, and we were able to thwart him at last. But with the last stroke of his dying power, he was able to lay a curse on me.”

“He turned you into a dragon,” Charles guesses.

Erik dips his chin in a very human-like nod. “Obviously.”

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Charles says, with feeling. By the sound of things, Erik has been a dragon for many, many years now—long enough, even, to have outlasted the normal lifespans of all his friends and family.

“That was a long time ago,” Erik says quietly, as if reading Charles’ mind. “Shaw is dead and Genosha was saved. That is all that matters.”

“But you’re trying to turn yourself back into a human, aren’t you?” Charles asks. “There’s a way to break the curse, isn’t there? That’s why you keep kidnapping princesses, but you bring them back after it doesn’t work and the curse doesn’t break?”

“You’re catching on,” Erik says, a tad dry. “Yes, there’s a way to break the curse, but it’s very...specific.”

“Well?” Charles says when Erik stops there. “What is it?”

Erik shifts, as if restless—or embarrassed, Charles realizes. “The window of opportunity is small. Every ten years on the anniversary of my transformation, there’s a chance to undo the sorcerer's spell. On that day, in order to break the curse, I have to…”

“You’re stalling,” Charles points out in amusement when Erik trails off again and adjusts his wings. “It can’t be that bad. I won’t laugh, I promise.”

“I have to kiss my true love,” Erik says in a rush, so it takes Charles an extra couple of moments to work out what he’s said.

“Oh,” Charles says blankly, too surprised to laugh at all. “You think I’m your true love?”

“I don’t know,” Erik says, his tone growing defensive, though he mostly sounds forlorn. “I’ve tried with a lot of princesses. Then I thought maybe I had it a little wrong, and I should’ve been trying with princes all along instead.”

“We barely know each other,” Charles says, but he tilts his head, considering Erik thoughtfully. “And you seem rather certain your true love is someone else of royal descent. You’ve never tried kissing someone who isn’t a princess?”

“It has to be someone with royal blood,” Erik explains, “since I was royal too. Like blood plus like blood, and the curse is broken.”

“You’ve had to make your choices very carefully, if you can only try this once every ten years.”

Erik nods again. “I’m never quite free of the creeping doubt that I’ve missed my chance decades ago by choosing one person instead of another.”

“I’m still not sure how I could be your true love after only knowing you for two days,” Charles admits, “especially since we only met because you kidnapped me.”

“Sorry,” Erik says, a little abashed. “But obviously you saw how castle guards tend to react when a dragon swoops down out of the sky. It’s a lot easier to act like a real dragon, and carry the princess—or prince, in your case—off to somewhere quieter where I can actually have a chance to explain without people throwing spears or shooting arrows at me.”

Laughing, Charles shakes his head ruefully. “I suppose I can’t fault that logic.”

“And as far as the whole true love thing…” Slowly, Erik blows two thin, curling trails of smoke out of his nostrils thoughtfully. “I’ve had a long time to think about it, as you can see. I don’t think it’ll be an instantaneous thing. I won’t see my true love and suddenly know, or otherwise I would’ve broken this curse a long time ago.

“I think it’s possible to meet your true love without realizing they’re your true love—even if that means you’re only in each other’s lives for only a day, or a week, or a month. I think it’s more about the potential being there, that if you had the time to develop your relationship, then your love could grow into something pure and true. And if you don’t get that kind of time, then...I guess you just never know what that person was to you. But it doesn’t stop you from being able to be with someone else, or multiple other people, with love that’s just as authentic. They just aren’t...The One.” He adds extra gravitation to his last two words.

“I see,” Charles says softly.

“I don’t want to interrupt someone’s life,” Erik says, “I’ve had my own life interrupted for long enough, so I don’t want to do that to someone else. If I kiss someone and it breaks the curse, I don’t expect an automatic profession of undying love or for them to want to be with me. If they want to be with someone else they’ve actually known their whole life instead of a random stranger who’s been a dragon for far longer, then it’s okay. I just want to be myself again. I’m content with going my separate way afterwards if that’s what the other person wants.”

But you’ve been alone for long enough, Charles thinks, looking up at Erik sadly. Instead he says, “You certainly have given it a lot of thought.”

“I’ve had a lot of time on my hands,” Erik says dryly. “It’s think about what ‘true love’ could mean, or keep adding pieces of gold to my collection.”

“So you collected all this yourself?” Charles wonders, momentarily distracted.

“Not exactly. Since I’m not a real dragon, I don’t really have the unquenchable need to go flying about pillaging castles for treasure. But I do still feel better if I have a hoard of gold to live in, if that makes sense.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Charles says. “But where does the gold come from?”

“I make it,” Erik says, rolling his wings in what Charles takes to be a shrug. “Dragon magic. Or rather, I think it’s just some of the residual magic from the sorcerer, because if actual dragons could do this then they wouldn’t be stealing stuff, would they?”

“Show me?” Charles asks hopefully.

Erik lifts his head up, arching his magnificent neck. For a long moment nothing happens, but then he makes a deep growling sound originating from the depths of his broad chest, and Charles swears he sees a flare of flames spark brightly in Erik’s eyes. A moment later, Erik extends a clawed front hand towards Charles, offering him a stack of golden clothes.

“It’s a little uncomfortable, like indigestion,” Erik says while Charles shakes out a tunic in amazement, “but I’ve done a lot of experimenting over the years. I can make pretty much anything, it just comes out as solid gold—or at least gold in color, if I’m doing something like cloth. Forty years ago or so I once made an entire ship. It’s buried somewhere in the back.”

“Incredible,” Charles says. “Wait a moment, so this chair—?”

“I made it while you were sleeping on the first night,” Erik says, studiedly casual. “I hope it’s okay. I would’ve brought along your original chair if I’d realized back at your castle.”

“It’s perfectly fine,” Charles assures him. He grins. “You were a little preoccupied with the spear-throwing, so I suppose it’s forgivable.”

Erik huffs out a breath, carefully tilting his claws to slide the rest of the clothes into Charles’ lap. “Anyway, here’s replacements for the wet clothes I had to tear off you before you froze to death. These claws aren’t really good for more delicate things.”

“I think these will suffice,” Charles says with a laugh. “What will you do with all this gold once you break the curse?”

“I don’t know,” Erik admits. “I don’t think I’d want anything to do with it. Besides, without me as a dragon here to defend it, it won’t take long for another dragon to sniff it out and lay claim. I might be able to fight off contenders as a dragon, but as a human?” He snaps his teeth. “I’d rather not finally get my original body back and then waste it by getting torched over gold.”

“Fair enough.” Charles shrugs into his new clothes, smiling to himself when he notices Erik has closed his eyes where he’s set his head back down. Everything fits him perfectly, even the legs of his new gold breeches fall at a good length in his sitting position. He wonders if it’s because of dragon magic, or if Erik’s just observant. “I’m decent. Though I feel a little ridiculous in all this gold.”

“It suits you,” is all Erik says when he opens his eyes again, reptilian gaze unreadable.

Taking a breath, Charles smooths his palms down his thighs. “My answer is yes, by the way. I’ll kiss you.”

Erik bares his fangs, and it takes Charles a moment to understand he’s grinning. “Thank you, Charles.”

“Now I feel the pressure,” Charles says with a small laugh, “because I’m going to feel terrible if I don’t break the curse.”

“It’s okay,” Erik says, “there won’t be any hard feelings.”

“We haven’t already missed the deadline, though, have we?” Charles asks, worried. Erik carried him off yesterday, and Charles wasted most of today with his escape attempt and subsequent near-death. He doesn’t want Erik to have wasted his once-every-ten-years chance.

“It’s not until tomorrow,” Erik says, amused, “I give myself a small buffer between when I carry someone off and the anniversary of the curse. I have to have time to convince them to kiss a fire-breathing dragon. Usually it takes a little longer than with you, though.”

“Well, I’m assuming no one else has ever tried to escape before and nearly wound up dying,” Charles says, chagrinned. “I was more inclined to trust you after you saved my life.”

“There have been escape attempts,” Erik says with a laugh, “but I’ve always caught them before they got very far and carried them back kicking and screaming again. No one’s ever gotten themselves buried in a snowdrift.”

Charles scoffs. “I could’ve made it if it weren’t for the blizzard.” He softens. “I’m glad I wasn’t able to escape, though.” He never would’ve found out about Erik’s predicament, and wouldn’t have been able to have a shot at helping.

“Me too,” Erik says, understanding. “The day is tomorrow. I’ll fly us back to your kingdom, and then we’ll give it a try. That way if the curse is broken, we’re not two humans stranded up here on top of a mountain, and if it isn’t broken, then you’re already home and free to go.”

“One round trip vacation in exchange for a kiss,” Charles says. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

“Then we are agreed,” Erik answers, satisfied, and Charles smiles to cover up the strange mix of nervous apprehension and anticipation fluttering in his stomach.

 


 

Flying back to Westchester takes longer than the first trip, but it’s also worlds better. Erik carries Charles much more carefully, cradling him gently in an upright sitting position with Charles facing backwards, so the back of Erik’s hand blocks the worst of the wind, and his claws carefully interlocked to both avoid cutting Charles while holding onto him at the same time to keep him from slipping.

In the claws of his hind feet, Erik carries the golden wheelchair. He’d been unwilling to leave it behind if it meant stranding Charles without it, even though Charles knows the solid gold must be heavy. Erik doesn’t complain, not mentioning it once during any of the numerous breaks he takes to give Charles a breather from being clamped in his claws.

By the time they cross into Westchester, it’s already late afternoon. Charles recognizes his kingdom at once when the flat, grassy plains they’d been flying over give way to green, rolling hills, with occasional pockets of forest in the valleys between. High above the land and safe in Erik’s hold, Charles enjoys the bird’s eye view of his country and the familiarity it brings after his unexpected whirlwind of an adventure.

The sun is beginning to set by the time Erik finally touches down on the top of one of the hills, depositing Charles gently into the soft, springy grass. From this high up, Charles can just barely make out Westchester Castle, the road down below leading to it in a straight shot.

“Looks like we’re making it just in time,” Charles remarks as Erik sets down his chair next to him.

“Yes,” Erik agrees, “but there’s still plenty of time before the day is truly over. And if this doesn’t work out, I’ll hang around a little longer and set you down closer to your castle once it’s dark.”

Charles smiles as he hoists himself up into the chair. Between the gold of the chair and the gold of his clothes, Charles feels as if he’s practically gleaming in the glow of the sunset. “Thank you, Erik.”

Crouching down beside Charles, Erik folds his wings neatly with a soft rustle. “Of course.”

“Listen, Erik…” Charles says slowly, wondering if he’s overstepping. “Even if this doesn’t work and I’m not the one meant to break the curse...once I explain things back home and everyone knows you don’t mean any harm, you would be welcome to visit anytime.” He hates the idea of Erik flying back to his lonely cave for another ten years of waiting in solitude. “Even if I’m not your true love, I can still be your friend.”

Erik makes a small noise of consideration. “I...would like that too,” he says, cautiously pleased. “Just as long as there aren’t any more spears thrown in my direction.”

“Deal,” Charles says with a grin. Growing serious, he taps the wheels of his chair with his thumbs before he makes himself stop fidgeting. “So...how exactly does one kiss a dragon?”

Laughing his strange dragon laugh, Erik carefully lowers his head down to Charles’ level, taking him in with one huge eye. “Easy. Plant one wherever you’d like.”

“Oh, is that all, then?” Charles says cheekily, before he leans in and presses his lips against the warm scales just above the side of Erik’s mouth.

At first nothing appears to happen, and Charles starts to lean back, oddly disappointed, with a rueful apology on the tip of his tongue. But then a bright, golden light flares up, so blinding in its intensity that Charles closes his eyes, bracing himself, though for what, he doesn’t know—

From behind his eyelids, he senses the brightness fading away, and with it comes the sensation of warm lips pressed gently against his own.

Slowly, Charles opens his eyes, and comes face-to-face with Erik.

They lean back from each other gradually, breaking their kiss off gently. Erik stands before him in the flesh, dressed in golden garments similar to the ones he created for Charles. He stares at Charles blankly for a moment, struck dumb, before he tears his gaze away to look down at his own two human hands in wonder.

“It worked,” Charles’ mouth says, dazed, “I’m your true love.”

At that, Erik’s eyes snap back up to him. “It worked,” he repeats, and his human voice—his regular voice, Charles tells himself—is just like his dragon voice without the inherent deepness, “the curse is broken.” He gives a startled laugh. “I’m me again.”

Charles’ cheeks ache with how hard he’s grinning. “Congratulations, my friend. Welcome back.”

Erik runs a hand through his hair, looking surprised by its softness. “I can’t believe it,” he admits weakly, a brief lost expression crossing his face. “For so long I’d hoped, but...I got used to the disappointment.”

“Why don’t you come back to Westchester Castle with me,” Charles offers before he can second-guess himself. “We can help get you back on your feet, and you can stay for as long as you like, until you figure out whatever you’d like to do.”

“Charles.” Erik regards him solemnly. “I meant what I said, before. You know I don’t expect anything from you, despite...what this means.” He gestures between them. “It’s alright.”

“I know,” Charles answers honestly. “You also said true love takes time to develop, if one has the luxury of time. I...wouldn’t be opposed,” he says slowly, “to seeing what happens.”

Erik studies him for a long moment, almost unnaturally still and reminding Charles of his dragon self. Then he smiles, the expression sitting lovely on his face, and Charles feels his breath catch. “I’d like to go back to Genosha one day, to see it again, but there’s plenty of time.” He takes Charles’ hand with his own, twining their fingers together. “I wouldn’t be opposed to seeing what unfolds with you either.”

“Good,” Charles says, smiling back, and for a moment the reflection of the sunset in Erik’s eyes gives the impression of dancing dragonfire one last time, “then let’s go home.”