“Zeno, look out!”
Zeno whirled around, the battlefield passing before his eyes in a haze of red and brown, bright-glinting steel and the cries of dying men. A fraction of an instant later, he caught sight of the man in his peripheral vision, a bloodied sword held in one heavy hand as he loomed over him. Zeno stumbled back, only to trip over something - was it a body? No, he didn’t want to think about that, couldn’t afford to think of that now, lest he fall to pieces - and was sent sprawling on his back, the breath knocked out of him as he hit the ground.
And all the while the sword was coming closer, moments seeming to stretch to long eternities while the bright steel closed in.
Then suddenly there was red, filling his field of view. At first, Zeno’s stunned mind screamed that he had been cut, that it was his blood spurting out before him, soon to drain his life away into the dust like all these others. But then his senses caught up, and he realised it was a fall of bright hair, caught in the wind and streaming out like the banners that followed them.
The red hair of his king, who had just leapt in front of him, sword clashing with that of the man who had been about to attack Zeno. Hiryuu whirled around, parrying the soldier’s savage blow to his side, ducking and dodging and striking with his quick, deadly thrusts. A moment later he was fighting two at once, another coming from the left even as Zeno watched. Hiryuu moved with a fluid grace that was always greater than Zeno remembered, that always surprised him no matter how many times he saw the king fight. It was almost, he had thought once, as though Hiryuu were dancing; perhaps for him - for a man so lately a god - there was no difference at all.
Not that Zeno was thinking such things now, of course; now his mind was still too shocked, still reeling slightly from the surprise attack. Yet he managed to get to his feet, picking up a sword that had fallen to the ground. It was too big for him, made for a much taller and stronger man than Zeno, but he held it up as Hiryuu fought, the two of them now back to back.
Which is why Zeno only heard the cry of pain, at first, the ragged gasp making him turn in horror, seeing blood, those whose blood it was he did not know. There were soldiers closing in around them, men sworn to fight against King Hiryuu, to spill his blood and that of any who served him; Zeno gritted his teeth, curling his fingers around the hilt of the sword, panic beginning to make his heart flutter and his mind blur.
But before he could even fully make sense of what had happened, the enemy soldiers all around them were falling, twitching and writhing to the ground. One of them fell on top of him, crushing him down to the earth once again. He couldn’t move, he could barely breath, and time seemed to stop, his ears ringing with the impact.
And shouldn’t he be in pain? It had hurt at first, but now he just felt empty, his senses cut off. Shouldn’t the weight of the falling man in full armour have crushed him, or at the very least have knocked him unconscious?
Zeno was never sure how much time had passed, but some time later, he felt the crushing weight of the dead man lifted off him, his own body lifted by strong arms. For a second he struggled, until he realised it was Guen, picking him up effortlessly from under Zeno’s arms and setting him on his feet. A moment later Shuten dropped out of the sky beside him, Abi’s semi-conscious form cradled in his arms.
“Where is he? Did you find Ouryuu and the King?”
“I found Ouryuu” said Guen, frowning and staring around, worry in his face. “But not - ”
“I’m here!” came a muffled voice, and after a moment, Guen was there, helping to haul a dead body from off the king’s chest where he lay on the ground a little way off. “Ah, Guen. Is Zeno alright?”
“I’m fine!” said Zeno, relief washing over him.
“Good, and the rest of my dragons too, perfect!” came the King’s voice, as Guen helped him to his feet. He leaned heavily against Guen’s arm. “Ah… but I think… I might need a little help to walk back to the camp…”
“You’re not in too much pain are you, my King?” asked Zeno, as he carefully poured the tea into two cups.
“No, not much at all, thank you Zeno” said Hiryuu, with a lightness that belied the deep cut from the blade that had caught him behind the knee, where his armour joined. “In fact, I am told that I am healing well; the wound was clean, and it was tended well.” Hiryuu smiled distantly. “I do rather dread the lecture about taking unnecessary risks that Guen will give me though, but he only does it out of love. I am afraid I have upset him though.” Hiryuu accepted the cup of tea with a gesture of thanks. “But the main thing is that you are safe, Zeno.”
Zeno was silent for a long moment, his hand going instinctively to the golden medallion that the king had given him, that he never took from around his neck.
“Zeno?” Gently, Hiryuu laid a finger under his chin and tilted his head up, so that Zeno had to meet his gaze. “You are alright… aren’t you?”
“I…” Zeno swallowed. “I just don’t want you to get hurt!” he burst out, at last.
“Why, of course not.” Hiryuu tilted his head quizzically. “You four dragons were given powers in order to protect me, so it’s only natural that you should want to see me safe.”
“No!” Zeno continued, his mouth dry suddenly, even as his eyes began to well with tears. “It’s… it’s not just that, my king!”
Hiryuu’s brows drew together at the sight of his tears. “Oh… then what is it, Zeno?”
“You…” Zeno sniffed. “Guen and the others told me what happened. They said that you fought to save me, several men at once, and that was how you got wounded.”
“Yes, a slight oversight on my part…”
“My King…. you were fighting to protect me!”
“Yes, I was” said Hiryuu calmly, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
“You shouldn’t be doing that!” said Zeno, his voice tearing. “You shouldn’t be taking such risks, without the others around. You don’t have any powers that could save you…”
“…Nor do you, Zeno.”
Had he imagined the king’s split second’s hesitation? “I know!” Zeno said, clasping his hands together. “But you’re… you’re… more important!”
Hiryuu’s eyes widened. “No I’m not!”
Zeno blinked. “What? But you’re… you’re the King! You’re a god, in human form! Of course you’re more important! I’m just… I’m just…”
“A human” said Hiryuu. There was something behind his eyes, a touch of sadness or nostalgia. “And you are just as important as I am.” The way he said it was perfectly calm, with no room for debate.
“B-but…” stammered Zeno, caught off guard. “But the dragon gods…”
“I know the dragon gods better than anyone” said Hiryuu gently, his eyes soft and far away suddenly, though not regretful. “And I know… I know that they don’t understand humans well.” Before Zeno could protest, Hiryuu smiled brilliantly once more. “It has always been my wish to understand humans a little better, and at least I understand this. You are important, every single one of you.” He laid a light finger on the gold of the medallion. “Powers or none. So please, Zeno, don’t ever think that you’re not.”
Slowly, Zeno nodded. “But still, my King… I am still charged with protecting you! I want to protect you!”
Hiryuu smiled, then. “Alright, well, how about a compromise?”
“How about… we say that we will protect each other?”
Zeno smiled too, at that. “….Yes, my King. Yes, we could do that.”