The wall was tall and thick enough to stop mainland invaders or pirate ship canons, but it definitely wasn't going to stop a dragon. Nobody alive on Destiny Islands had even seen a dragon, that was how long it had been since one had crossed the sea. But one had appeared this morning, just a dark dot on the horizon at first, growing bigger and bigger until the winged shape was distinctive enough to send the tower watchman to sound the warning bell.
"I'll draw it off!" Sora yelled, already on his horse and dashing off, ignoring the king and his brothers yelling behind him. He was youngest prince anyway, he thought, resisting the urge to look back and see if anyone was coming after him. Even if the worst happened, Destiny Islands had more than enough spares.
He was through the wall gates before anyone had the sense to close the portcullis and trap him inside. Sora's heart was racing, half in adrenaline and half in excitement as he raced towards the field where the dragon was occupying himself snacking on their sheep. The dragon was easy to spot even from a distance, its dark blue scales looking like midnight against the bright blue sky, spouts of flames an unnatural purple.
Sora had had plenty of picture books about dragons when he was little, but none of them prepared him for the sheer size of the thing as he drew closer, or the bolt of alarm that struck his chest when the dragon noticed him, its triangular head swiveling towards the noise of his horse's hooves. Sora's horse balked, skidding to a stop, and refused to go farther no matter how hard Sora snapped the reins.
"Come on, come on," Sora demanded, but it was no use. Sora scrambled down; his boots had no sooner touched the ground than the dragon gave a roar that made his hair stand on end. Sora's horse reared, yanking the reins out of his hand, and took off at a gallop. Aggravated, Sora stomped his foot. "Paopu! You coward!"
A burst of hot air hit Sora's back, blowing his hair into disarray. Dread gathering in his chest, Sora turned around to find a very big, very close dragon peering at him, almost close enough to touch.
Sora was too shocked to yell, or even move. All he could do was stare as the dragon looked him over. Its gaze was surprisingly intelligent, almost critical, as its bright green eyes considered him. Up close, the blue of its scales had an iridescent shimmer, flickering purples and greens in the sunlight, and the membranes of its cheek frills and wings was translucent like the fog that rolled in from the sea before a storm.
"Hey!" Sora finally found his voice, even if it shook a little. "You! Knock it off! Just…go find your own sheep!"
The dragon huffed another hot breath over him, and Sora squeezed his eyes shut, sure he was about to be eaten. A clawed hand grabbed him around the middle like a doll, and then to Sora's even greater surprise, instead of being tossed right down the dragon's throat, he was yanked into the air so quickly that his ears popped.
By the time Sora dared open his eyes, he was high in the air, looking down at open ocean, the Destiny Islands almost out of sight behind him when he twisted to look back.
[Don't squirm] a deep voice in Sora's head warned, making Sora yelp in surprise. [Unless you want to be a pancake.]
Sora went helplessly limp, figuring he was takeout after all. He spent the rest of the trip wondering moodily if he'd been eaten in one bite, or worse, fed to a bunch of baby dragons. That was probably worse, right? Sora lost all track of time as the dragon carried him miles away from home, the sun sinking lower and lower in the sky. The wind was freezing, making Sora's teeth chatter.
It was sunset when Sora was finally set down on a rocky ledge high in the mountains; Sora had never seen a mountain in his life before this, but he was surrounded by them now, jagged peaks and mist on all sides. Sora was numb with cold, his legs were too shaky to hold him, and he plopped to the ground as soon as the dragon let go of him. He barely moved when the dragon nudged him with a claw.
[Go on.] The dragon pushed harder when Sora didn't move. Sora looked behind him and saw an opening to a cave, round and dark and ominous.
"No thanks!" Sora announced. "You'll just have to eat me out here, dragon!"
The dragon huffed. [I'm not going to eat you. And it's Riku.]
"What's Riku?" Sora asked, squinting in confusion. Another huff, and Sora realized the voice in his head sounded…amused?
[My name.] The dragon—Riku—gave up on pushing and simply picked Sora up by back of his shirt. [You'll freeze if you stay out here after sundown.]
The next few days of Sora's life were surreal, to say the least. Riku did not eat Sora, and his cave was not a scary, dank lair. It was big enough for Riku to stretch out fully on one side of the room, leaving Sora the other side to poke around. In fact it was quite comfortable and warm, especially after Riku started a fire in a spot where he'd scooped out enough dirt to make a firepit. The flames were purple, but still warm. It was kind of pretty, Sora thought as he dropped into an exhausted sleep beside it, like a nightlight.
Riku was gone when Sora woke up, but was back with more wood and some food before Sora had investigated anymore than just outside the cave. It was easy to see why Riku hadn't worried about leaving Sora alone; aside from a ledge big enough for Riku to probably sun himself, there was a sheer drop that Sora had absolutely no hope of scaling. Riku didn't mind Sora poking around at the odds and ends he'd collected in his cave, although it was hardly the heaps of gold and treasure he'd always thought all dragons had. He didn't mind answering Sora's questions, either, and once Sora had stopped being scared, he had an infinite amount of them.
"Why don't you have a bunch of gold and stuff?" Sora asked, sitting crosslegged as he busily cleaned the fish Riku had brought back, spitting them to roast over the fire.
Riku shrugged a shoulder. He was watching Sora attentively, sitting with his claws tucked under him. Like a giant cat, Sora thought, smiling to himself. Cute. [I'm not that kind of dragon.]
[There are other dragons, and in these mountains they're mostly green or red. Some types are social, but others are solitary like me. We usually speak like I am speaking to you, unless it is a formal occasion, or mating season. And I learned human from reading books.] Riku flicked his tail towards the back of the cave, where Sora had already examined a large stack of leather-bound books, set on a slab of rock to keep them from the damp of the floor.
Sora tilted his head. "How do you turn the pages with your big claws?"
[Very delicately.] Riku's earfins fluttered. Sora didn't know what that meant, but it was also cute.
Riku also didn't seem to mind Sora touching him. At first Sora only asked shyly to investigate Riku's claws or tail, but after a few days he was clambering all over Riku. He marveled at the difference between Riku's soft, warm belly scales and the tough ones on his back, examined Riku's wing joints from his back, and trailed careful fingers along the delicate membranes of his earfins.
"They're turning bluer!" Sora exclaimed, watching the thin membrane flush bright. "What's that mean?"
[Nothing.] Riku shook Sora off gently. [Dragons change colors sometimes.]
The only thing Riku did mind was Sora leaving the cave. When he came back from gathering wood or hunting and found Sora out on the ledge waiting for him, he always scolded Sora with narrowed eyes.
[It's dangerous.] Riku pushed Sora along with his snout, huffing hot air over Sora and ruffling up his hair. [Stay inside where it's safe. There are dragons out here.]
"You're a dragon!" Sora laughed, shoving at Riku's snout playfully.
Riku bit the back of Sora's shirt and lifted him like a cat scruffing a kitten. [That's different.]
About two weeks or so went by, Sora had lost track of the days after a while, before Riku asked one morning if there was anything in particular that Sora wanted.
"Wanted for what?" Sora asked. He was sunbathing on the ledge next to Riku like they did every morning, Riku stretched out on his stomach, Sora on his back.
[For the cave.] Riku cracked one eye open to look Sora over. [If something would make you more comfortable. Or if you are bored. I can find human things.]
Sora sat up, frowning a little. "Hey, Riku? Not that I'm not having fun hanging out with you, but how long are you planning to keep me here?"
Riku stretched his front claws out in front of him, talons digging into the dirt a little. [Where else would I keep you?]
"No, I mean…" Sora frowned harder. "Why did you kidnap me in the first place? Is it for ransom? Or am I bait to lure knights here to eat? Wait, that doesn't make sense," Sora muttered, looking over the cliff drop to nowhere just past his feet. "It's not like anybody can find this place. Am I like a pet or something?"
Riku shifted his weight a little, like awkward fidgeting. [Not…quite a pet. You humans have stories, about dragons taking princesses, yes?] Sora nodded. [What did you think a dragon would take a princess for?]
"For eating, mostly," Sora said apologetically. "No offense."
[But the princess is always still alive when someone comes to rescue her.]
"I never really thought about it, I guess," Sora said, scratching his head. "What's that got to do with…hey, are you saying that's me? I'm not a princess!"
Riku's chest rumbled a little, his tail thumping the ground in amusement. [Dragons take things because they like them, and they want to keep them. Many like gold or jewels. Some like weapons, some like magic relics. Some may even like princesses, although I've never met one like that myself. I liked you, so here you are.]
"That's…uhhh…" Sora felt his cheeks growing hot at Riku saying he liked him, even though he knew the dragon didn't mean it like that.
[You are getting the sun pinkness.] Riku stood up, shaking himself. He nosed Sora up as well, nudging him towards the cave entrance. [In you go.]
Sora spent the rest of the day mulling all of this over. Once the fear of being eaten had passed, Sora had mostly thought of this as a fun adventure with an unexpected friend. He'd missed home a little, and felt bad that his family didn't know what had happened, but truthfully he'd been bored all the time in his tiny island kingdom. He hadn't thought about the possibility that he'd never go home. And Riku was really great, and fun to talk to, but Sora didn't want to spend the rest of his life inside a cave, no matter how big and warm it was, any more than he'd wanted to spend his whole life on a tiny island.
Riku's protectiveness and desire to keep Sora safe inside the cave made a lot more sense now. He was a hoard thing, just the same as the books, and he couldn't do anything about it anymore than they could, unless he happened to sprout some wings himself.
He tried to keep his worries to himself while he figured out what to do, because however nicely Riku treated him, he was still a large dragon with a lot of teeth. But Riku seemed to sense something was up anyway, returning for several days in a row with odd presents along with the food. The first day it was a new book, the next day it was some unusual fruit Sora had never seen before, the day after that it was a beautifully red wool cloak, soft and warm. Sora hoped Riku had just stolen it off a clothesline or something, and had to muffle laughter at the idea of a great big dragon stalking local washerwomen.
It all made Sora feel guilty on top of everything else. He liked being with Riku, and he knew Riku was trying to make him happy. He didn't want to hurt Riku's feelings, and he wasn't unhappy living here. But when he thought about basically being a spoiled pet for the rest of forever, Sora couldn't say he was exactly happy either.
[You aren't eating properly.]
Started out of his thoughts, Sora looked up from the meal he'd been picking at to find Riku peering at him closely. "I'm fine!" Sora stuffed some food in his mouth and chewed busily, just to show how fine he was.
Riku settled down lower, forepaws crossed and chin resting on top of them, looking at Sora from closer to his level. [You are not a good liar. Are you really so unhappy here?]
Sora cringed. "No! No, I…" Riku didn't look mad, Sora realized, he seemed more…concerned? "Well…it's boring being in this cave all the time. You get to go out and fly around. Can I go out with you tomorrow?"
[No. It's not safe.]
"Ok, maybe, but…" Sora groped for a way to explain his dumb human feelings to a big dragon. "I'm not a book, or a sword, that you can keep just to look pretty on top of a pile of things. And bringing me more stuff won't fix it either. I want to go places, and see things." Sora examined Riku's face, but reading his expression was almost impossible. "Do you understand?"
[Yes.] Riku sounded sad, but resigned, as if he hadn't expected any better. [Tomorrow I will take you back to your island, since that is your wish.]
Riku pushed himself up to his feet, turning to go, but Sora dropped his food to fling himself across the space between them, gripping the top of Riku's claw.
"No, that's not what I want!" Sora said. Riku blinked at him. "I don't want you to just drop me off somewhere! I like being with you, I do, but no matter how nice this cave is, it's just a big cage. Riku, there's like a whole huge world and you've got these awesome wings! If I had wings, I'd go everywhere. Aren't you bored just sitting in this cave too?"
Riku turned his head to look at his cave, his books, his sleeping spot, and then looked back at Sora, earfins flicking uncertainly.
"Wouldn't it be more fun to go on an adventure instead?" Sora coaxed hopefully. "With a friend?"
Riku's earfins folded flat to his head, head drooping. [We are not friends. I kidnapped you.]
"Oh, I don't care," Sora assured. "Honestly, if you'd just asked first, I'd have gone with you in a second. Home is almost as boring as here, no dragons or anything."
[You are asking a lot.] Riku shifted his weight anxiously. [Leaving a good cave and a hoard behind isn't something a dragon normally does.]
"Yeah, well, normal dragons hoard gold and steal princesses," Sora said wryly. "So I think you're already out on a limb, in terms of dragon normalcy."
[You are not that different than a princess,] Riku pointed out, making Sora snort. [Perhaps we could try it. A little.]
"Really?" Sora asked, excited. Riku nodded. Sora reached up with both hands, motioning Riku to bring his head closer. When Riku lowered his head to Sora's level, Sora threw his arms around Riku's snout, hugging him as tight as he could given that his arms weren't even close to going the whole way around. "Thanks, Riku. It'll be great, you'll see!"
Riku kept Sora closer than usual for the night, but Sora didn't mind. Riku was comfortable to lean against, the space between Riku's throat scales and his foreleg cozy for Sora to curl up in. Wrapped in the red cloak Sora fell asleep easily to the steady whoosh of Riku's deep breaths under his ear.
In the morning, Riku returned with a mouthful of horse tack along with breakfast. The majority of it was useless, since Riku was much larger than a horse, but Sora rigged up something with the saddle blanket, some straps, and the reins that would keep him in place somewhere in between Riku's shoulders and his wing joints. Riku was an anxious mess, fidgeting while Sora was experimenting, constantly twisting his neck to see what Sora was doing, or butting his cheek against Sora's head or shoulders.
[That doesn't look safe,] Riku complained. He tried to nose Sora away from where Sora was attempting to climb up his shoulder. [You will fall off. I should just hold you.]
"That won't be comfortable for either of us after a little bit," Sora pointed out. He grunted when Riku's head came down a little too heavily on top of his, Riku rubbing against him a little. "Why do you keep doing that?" Riku didn't answer. Sora ducked out from under Riku and bopped him on the nose. "Hey! Answer me."
[I am scenting you.] Riku flexed his claws against the ground, looking sheepish. [If you smell like a dragon, other things will stay away and not try to eat you. Other dragons will know you are mine.]
"Really?" Sora turned his head to sniff his shoulder. He had noticed that Riku had a certain smell initially, sort of like metal and sort of like ozone and sort of like firesmoke, but everything in the cave smelled like Riku, so Sora had gone nose-blind to it ages ago. Sora shrugged, then held both arms out. "Go on, get it over with, then. I wanna get out of here."
Riku gave up subtlety and rubbed his chin against both of Sora's shoulders and the top of his head, vigorously enough that Sora's hair started to static up. When Sora whined with impatience, Riku pulled back just enough to snort a hot breath right in Sora's face, blowing his hair back.
"Geez," Sora grumbled, trying to finger-comb his hair back down. It was useless. "Whatever. Now stop being a jerk and hold your leg out so I can climb up."
They didn't go far at first. Riku agreed to show Sora some of his favorite places in the mountains, examining and sniffing Sora's makeshift saddle every time they landed somewhere. It was cold out in the mountain air, even bundled up in the red cloak with the hood pulled down tight against his head, but Sora refused to complain or even mention it, for fear of giving Riku an excuse to take him right back to his cave.
The mountains were beautiful, purple peaks reaching into the clouds, some with snow on them. Sora had never seen snow before, frolicking in it and packing snowballs until he had to warm his numb hands against Riku's belly, making Riku give an undignified screech at the cold touch. There was one cave that looked like it was carved out of crystal, and another that sang when the wind blue through it, a wild, sharp song that made Sora tear up and bury his face against Riku's neck.
There was a natural hot spring, too, one big enough for Riku to climb in as well, chest rumbling with a deep purr as the heat sank into him.
"I can't believe you didn't bring me here first," Sora said, groaning in bliss at the hot water loosening all his sore muscles. They spent a whole afternoon there, neither one of them in a rush to leave the hot spring and return to the cold mountain air. By the time Riku dragged him out, Sora was flushed bright pink all over, and too sleepy to complain when Riku scented him all over again.
Eventually, they got to the end of the mountains, and Sora was even more amazed by the endless green valley that spread out in front of them. No matter how high Riku flew, the land spread out as far as Sora could see; Sora's brain could barely take in that there could ever be that much land at once.
[That's how I felt about the ocean, the first time I saw it,] Riku commented when they stopped so Sora could stretch his legs. Riku flopped down for a rest, sending up a plume of dandelion seeds. He watched in mild amusement as Sora investigated the wildflowers growing all over the meadow in colorful bursts. [There is a city nearby, if you wish to see it.]
"Destiny Islands have cities!" Sora protested, feeling obligated to defend his home's honor. "I'm not that much of a bumpkin, geez."
[Not like this one. Your entire island could fit inside this city. All the buildings are made of white stone and purple rooftops. There's a giant clock, bigger than your castle.]
"Ok, that sounds pretty good," Sora admitted, circling back to sit near Riku's head. He had a fistful of flowers, and started idly chaining them together. "I do want to see that. But not just from above on a flyby, I want to go in it." Riku huffed softly, stirring the grass. "And you can't get all weird about it."
[I am not 'getting all weird.']
"Uh-huh." Sora held up his flower chain to judge its length. "So you aren't gonna freak out when I go into this great big city all alone?"
Riku narrowed his eyes. [You most certainly will not be going anywhere alone. Why would you be?]
"Because you're a gigantic, scary dragon?" Sora tied his flower chain into a crown. He stood up and stretched up on his toes to drop the flower crown over Riku's horns. It fell down around Riku's brow ridges; Sora dusted his hands off, examining his work with satisfaction. "You can't just stroll into a city, right?"
[Hm. I suppose that's true.] Riku hefted himself off the ground and shook himself, sending bits of grass and dandelion puffs in all directions.
Then, without warning, there was a pop of sudden air pressure change, forcing Sora's eyes shut. When he blinked his vision clear, another boy was standing beside him, taller, with fine, sharp features, and no clothes.
"Aagh!" Sora yelped, tripping over his feet in surprise and falling on his butt. "Who the heck are you?"
The boy tilted his head, eyebrow rising. "What?"
Sora opened his mouth, but then started noticing more details. Bright green eyes, silver hair tumbling down to his shoulders, and…a flower crown? "R-riku?"
"Of course. Who else would I be?" Riku answered, shrugging. The movement of his shoulders made two small, blue wings flutter out. Sora's jaw dropped.
"You never said you could turn into a human!" Sora accused, flustered.
"You didn't ask." Riku held his hands out in front of him, flexing his fingers. "Of course I can shapeshift, I'm a dragon. You said you knew all about dragons."
"Nobody knows that!" Sora said.
"Hm. You're turning pink again."
"I'm blushing! Because you aren't wearing any clothes!" Sora snapped, trying and failing to keep his eyes up at Riku's face.
"And I don't much care for it, everything hanging out like this." Riku examined himself critically, hands on his hips. "Seems impractical. And your skin is all soft and squishy, this is exactly why it's too dangerous for to you be left on your own."
"Look, can you please just…ohhh my god," Sora groaned when Riku twisted to examine more of himself, revealing a line of delicate scales running down his spine, ending in a slender, human-sized version of his tail. Sora covered his face in his hands, face on fire. He flapped a hand at his cloak, lying nearby where he'd dropped it earlier. "Put that on!" There was the rustle of fabric, and Sora peeked through his fingers to see that Riku was holding the cloak up in front of him, examining it with misgiving. "Maybe that'll hide your wings and tail for now."
Riku frowned. "What's wrong with my wings or my tail?"
"Nothing! They're cute and all, but humans sure don't have…" Sora broke up as he realized something else. "Hey! You're talking out loud!"
"That's how you do it," Riku pointed out. He stuck out a hand and hauled Sora up to his feet as if Sora weighed nothing.
"Yeah…I kind of miss your dragon voice, though." Sora examined Riku's face, noticing two little horns, almost hidden by his hair. He circled around behind Riku to see his wings better, lifting his hand without thinking to the place where they connected to Riku's back, touching the small scales over Riku's spine lightly. Riku's wings flapped a little. "Sorry! Does that tickle?"
"Dragons don't usually—ah!" Riku sucked in a breath when Sora's fingers trailed lower, stepping back quickly just before Sora touched the base of his tail.
"Sorry," Sora said again, even though he wasn't. Riku glowered at him, his cheeks and the tips of his ears going…blue? "You still turn blue when you blush, huh? That's really cute, but you definitely can't do that around humans either."
"Then stop calling me cute," Riku grumbled, reaching up to scrub at his cheek with the back of his hand as if that would rub it off.
"Fine, fine," Sora said breezily, taking the cloak out of Riku's hands to wrap it around his shoulders. "Fold your wings in. Mm, it'll have to do, until we can find something else, not like my clothes are in great shape either. Now let's go see this big city."
"Right now?" Riku asked.
"Of course, right now!" Sora gave Riku his brightest grin and then grabbed for his hand, twining their fingers together as he dragged him towards the road. "It'll be an adventure!"