The mist hung in the air like gauze, dimming the watery autumn sunlight that filtered through the canopy of trees on the cliff above the rocky shore. The cool breeze that had sprung up did little to displace it, and faint echoes of far-off thunder rumbled from somewhere just beyond the horizon, teasing the promise of rain later in the day.
Hanzo lounged on the flat stones just outside of his cave, serpentine body stretched his full length so that the plume of his tail dragged in the fine, white sand. The young dragon was bored, watching flame-colored leaves flutter down from the cliff into the surf, and contemplated taking yet another nap.
What was that?
His ear swiveled to catch the faint crunching of footsteps on the small stones where the sand began. It was unusual, to say the least, for anyone to come this way. Hanzo stood languidly, not particularly worried that it would be a foe: what enemies did he have?
The figure that approached was small and oddly shaped, from what Hanzo could see through the mist. He sniffed, the green scent of fresh grass mingling with woodsmoke and sun-warmed stone and sage competing with the ever-present tang of salt.
No, not oddly-shaped. A human wearing a large hat.
Seeing Hanzo for the first time in the mist, the small human in the large hat paused, wide-eyed, before (its? his? his. definitely his.) his face broke into a wide smile, all dimples and missing front teeth.
“Wouldja’ look at that,” he said with a note of awe in his voice.
“Would I look at what?” Hanzo asked with no small amusement.
A gasp, and little hands flew to cover his mouth, eyes crinkling with delight over freckled, sun-kissed cheeks. “You can talk,” he squeaked.
“As can you.” Hanzo settled back down on the stones. The small human was so much more interesting than leaves. Or a nap. “Do you have a name?”
“‘S Jesse.” Jesse sat down, pointed boots with their plastic spurs first folded awkwardly beneath him and then splayed out in front. There was a scrape on one of his knees, and his white tee was smudged with dirt and grass under his red bandana. Hanzo guessed that he was no more than six. Maybe younger. “Do you have one?”
“Hanzo. How did you get here, little one?”
Jesse shrugged. “I dunno. I was bored.”
“You were bored.” Hanzo didn’t quite know what to make of that; normally, a person had to have great intent to reach this lonely place on the edge of reality. He primly folded dainty claws in front of him and leaned his head closer to Jesse, close enough for the boy to giggle at the brush of his whiskers. “And were you looking for something while you were bored?”
“Someone to play with, maybe.” He kicked his little feet slowly, the toy spurs making scuffing sounds against the stone. “Will you be my friend?” Jesse was smiling, but his words felt weighty somehow.
Hanzo gazed at the small cowboy in the large hat, considering the request. Such things could not be taken lightly. His gaze was returned evenly by eyes that were wide and hopeful, and his muzzle curled into a smile.
“Indeed, I will be your friend.” He reached out to press the blunt edge of one claw to a button nose, and his new friend tipped backward, giggling, into the sand.
Hanzo had nearly chalked up the appearance of the little cowboy from the mist to a dream born of loneliness. He was hardly out of childhood himself: leaving his parents’ nest so early had perhaps been a foolish endeavour, but what was done was done.
But then there was the crunching of footsteps again, light and eager and approaching quickly as Hanzo craned his neck to look outside of his cave. There was Jesse, bright-eyed and huffing as he ran toward him, one hand balled into a fist and the other holding the oversized hat on his head.
“I brought you a present!” he said without preamble as he skidded to a stop in front of Hanzo, opening his fist to offer up the marble and two bottle caps held in it.
Surprised, Hanzo gingerly opened a claw to accept the gifts. “Thank you,” he rumbled. “They are very colorful and shiny.” He did particularly admire the marble, glass with a swirl of blue and green in the center. “I have something for you as well. Wait here.”
Hanzo slid back into his cave, carefully depositing his new treasures on a stone shelf and turning his eyes up to the row of seashells he had placed above the entrance; all of his favorites that he had found since living here. He knew exactly which one he wanted: a small, perfect spiral he had plucked from an underwater grotto at the beginning of summer, red and gold and glossy.
The small gasp and the tangible delight on Jesse’s face was more than worth the loss of the shell: the reverent way he cupped it in both hands and how he breathed his thank you in wonderment warmed Hanzo’s heart in ways he wouldn’t have expected.
The two of them played tag along the shoreline, kicking up sand and bits of foam, and hide-and-seek among the stones until Jesse started yawning. Hanzo wasn’t sure how or where he had gone, only that he had.
Every day, Jesse visited Hanzo, and nearly every day they went on a new adventure.
They swam down to visit the coral reefs and sunken ships, not really thinking to wonder that Jesse should have had to hold his breath. Even if they both came up again with hands and claws full of seashells and bits of coral and the occasional gold doubloon from the heart of a wreck, they always ended up trading so that each thought they had given the other the best bits.
They sailed in an improbable boat made from a single enormous scallop shell with an equally enormous feather as mast and sail, scouting the surrounding islands. Sometimes there were pirates and sometimes there weren’t, but when there were, Hanzo frightened them off if they so much as frowned at Jesse. There were always coconuts on the islands, even if the surrounding waters were anything but tropical.
They explored the forest on the cliff above Hanzo’s cave, not sure what they were looking for but certain they would know it when they saw it. They never did find it, although Jesse did find a great many very interesting bugs.
Once, Hanzo tried to fly from the top of the cliff with Jesse on his back, clinging to his mane and screaming with laughter, but gave it up as a bad job as they plummeted into the sea and came up sputtering. Hanzo swam them back to shore, because Jesse couldn’t swim: it wasn’t that kind of adventure.
It was too bad, really. Hanzo loved to fly.
Just like the second day he had visited, Jesse often brought Hanzo small gifts: an entire wall of his cave had been gouged into shallow shelves, and Hanzo lovingly placed each marble and toy soldier, each plastic ring and colorful eraser, right where he could see them. Bright pictures rendered in crayon and marker stuck to another wall: the ones Jesse had drawn of the two of them together were Hanzo’s favorites.
The sunshine burned off the mist until Hanzo could see far out to the horizon.
And time passed.
Jesse’s hat fit him better, now. He had grown out of the boots with the toy spurs long ago, but his jeans were usually torn at the knees, and his white tee was still smudged, and the red bandana was still there, even if it had faded a bit.
He and Hanzo often talked while they explored, focusing as much on their conversation as where they were rambling to. Excursions in their scallop shell usually ended with them lounging in the sun while they chatted, the improbable boat bobbing on the waves. Their trips to the sunken wrecks had come to a screeching halt the day that Jesse realized that he could not, in fact, breathe underwater.
Hanzo didn’t always understand what Jesse was talking about, people and things and ideas from wherever he went when he wasn’t with Hanzo peppering his speech. Jesse tried his best to explain things, but he didn’t always have the right words.
Hanzo never had trouble understanding, though, when Jesse shared secrets, admitted to fears, talked about his hopes and dreams.
Plastic toys and marbles and pieces of string gave way to interesting coins and cards with shiny foil pictures and bits of jewelry that Hanzo couldn’t wear but still thought were lovely. The pictures that Jesse drew were in colored pencil nowadays, sometimes accompanied by stories scrawled on the back or on a piece of lined paper with a feathered edge where they had been torn out of a notebook. The stories always made Hanzo smile.
And time passed.
Jesse had gotten tall, his hair almost brushing his shoulders, and he had a little patch of whiskers trying to make themselves into a proper bit of beard on his chin. His boots were scuffed and his knees were scuffed, and sometimes his elbows or his knuckles or even his cheeks were scuffed. But his hat fit perfectly, and his faded bandana always stayed the same.
Hanzo and Jesse talked more than they adventured, now, Hanzo curled up against the stones that seemed to have warmed over the years and Jesse curled up against Hanzo. Sometimes they just walked, or on happy days, they ran. There weren’t as many happy days as there used to be, and Hanzo felt it like a stone sitting on his heart.
“Do ya ever feel like there’s somethin’ more out there?” Jesse asked one day, resting against Hanzo with his arms draped about the dragon’s neck.
“Sometimes,” Hanzo answered. “But then I always ask myself whether that something is meant for me. I am happy where I am at.” He nuzzled the size of Jesse’s face. “The company is good.”
Jesse laughed softly as Hanzo’s mane tickled his neck, but there was no humor in his eyes and Hanzo knew he was thinking about wherever he went when he left Hanzo behind on the shore.
He still brought gifts sometimes. A glass prism on a piece of gold string found a home on the wall. A few good luck charms. A teacup with a dragon painted on it that Jesse said had reminded him of Hanzo. A metal tin with a picture of a coyote and a cactus and the moon on the lid. That one had been filled with dried rose petals, and Jesse had not explained why.
The colorful pictures had given way to silvery pencil sketches, done with much more skill but less imagination. Sometimes there were snippets of poetry written down the sides or wedged into a corner of the pictures. Hanzo wasn’t sure whether to love them or hate them, because they were both beautiful and sad, and he didn’t like knowing that his friend carried that sorrow in his heart.
He didn’t know how to help, so he just listened, and never judged when Jesse buried his face in Hanzo’s mane, shoulders shaking, because that’s what you do when you love someone.
And time passed.
The first time Jesse did not come, Hanzo didn’t think too much of it. He has been saying he is very busy, he must have been caught up with something. He’ll be back tomorrow.
Jesse was back tomorrow, smiling in that sad way he had been lately. He tagged Hanzo like he had when they were children and ran off laughing for the dragon to give chase, but Hanzo could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. It wasn’t until Hanzo tackled him to the sand, serpentine body heavy atop him, that Jesse genuinely smiled. He wrapped his arms around Hanzo and buried his fingers in his mane and returned the gesture when Hanzo nuzzled his face.
Hanzo was happy.
A few days later, Jesse did not come again. The next day he returned with a gift, and Hanzo asked him to tie the gold scarf around one of his antlers.
The times when Jesse did not come became more frequent. Hanzo was hurt but tried to convince himself that he understood, patiently waiting outside his cave for his friend. They talked less when he was there, but Jesse always held onto Hanzo as though he were a lifeline and Hanzo always wrapped himself around Jesse’s lean body as they stared out at the mist encroaching on the horizon.
Jesse was missing two days in a row sometimes. Then three. Then his visits became less frequent than his days away. He didn’t seem to have an answer the one time Hanzo asked him why.
For a whole week, Jesse did not visit Hanzo. Hanzo waited, patiently at first, outside his cave, although the stones had cooled with the return of the mist. He became worried as time went by, but had no idea where Jesse went when he left or how he got there. So he stayed, waiting, never straying far from his cave lest he miss Jesse’s arrival.
A week stretched to a month, the month to the entirety of autumn. Still no Jesse. The mist became a winter fog, and thunder ominously rumbled from time to time, somewhere far outside of Hanzo’s vision.
The winter fog became spring fog became summer fog, and suddenly it was autumn again. A whole year. The last tenuous thread of hope Hanzo had been clinging to frayed, and he crept inside, head low and tail dragging behind him.
Dust had settled on the rows upon rows of trinkets, and Hanzo went about the slow, meticulous task of cleaning them one by one, lovingly turning each over in his claws and remembering the things they had done on the days that Jesse had brought them.
Hanzo gazed upon the pictures, admiring each line, and re-read the stories. The ones with the two of them were still his favorites. He saved the poetry for last, and the stone resting against his heart grew.
He wished, for the first time, that dragons could shed tears. This was a broken heart. This was despair.
And time passed.
And time passed.
And time passed.
Hanzo almost didn’t hear the crunch of weight upon the small stones where the sand began, curled, sleeping, in the back of his cave.
It had been years since he had last had a visitor, and only the walls that had once been filled with fastidiously cared-for knick-knacks and fading drawings kept him from wondering whether his happiness had been a very long dream. The gifts had been packed in a crate a long time ago, when the pain from looking at them became too much to bear, and he hadn’t been able to bring himself to unpack them once he realized that looking at the empty grooves where they used to be hurt even more. So he just bore it.
Slowly uncurling himself from around the crate itself, Hanzo crept to the mouth of his cave; there was someone outside, silhouetted in the watery light. He didn’t dare hope.
The man had his back to Hanzo, sitting on the stones and staring out over the misty sea. There was a bottle in his hand, and something like a red blanket draped around his shoulders had replaced the faded bandana, but Hanzo would know that hat anywhere.
“Jesse?” Hanzo’s voice was hoarse from disuse.
Jesse -- for it was Jesse, Hanzo no longer doubted it -- turned, the lines of melancholy in his face lifting in wonderment bordering on disbelief.
“Wouldja’ look at that …” He breathed, reaching out a shaking hand.
“Would I look at what?” Hanzo asked after swallowing hard, then surged forward, headbutting the proffered hand and continuing on to curl around Jesse like he used to. Jesse was laughing, but his cheeks were wet when he wrapped his arms around Hanzo’s neck.
“I started thinkin’ maybe I dreamed ya up all those years …” he said between laughs or sobs, Hanzo was losing track of which. Hanzo aggressively nuzzled Jesse’s face and the side of his neck, noting the many changes.
Jesse was no longer lean and wiry like he used to be, gaining bulk with manhood, and there were far more whiskers scratching lightly at Hanzo’s scales when their faces touched. One arm was made of metal, and Hanzo keened low in his throat when he tried to imagine how that had come about. The friend he loved had suffered, he could see, and Hanzo had been unable to be there for him.
“Where did you go?” Hanzo asked plaintively, minding his antlers as he wedged his head under Jesse’s chin.
“Where I’ve always gone,” Jesse answered, and Hanzo knew he had no other way to explain it.
“When you go this time, are you coming back?”
Jesse’s stroking of Hanzo’s mane and scales stilled, and he looked at the bottle that had been discarded when Hanzo had emerged, amber liquid sloshing onto the sand.
“I don’t know,” he whispered, and he sounded terrified by his own answer.
Hanzo slowly drew his head out from under Jesse chin to search his face and Jesse stared back, hands still fisted in Hanzo’s mane. “Then you will take me with you,” he said, pressing Jesse backward into the sand and settling on top of him.
Jesse smiled for just a moment, perhaps remembering some other time that they had lain like that, before he turned sober. “That world ain’t for you, Hanzo, even if I knew how t’bring you with me.”
Averting his gaze, Hanzo laid his head heavy on Jesse’s chest. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that I don’t want t’see you hurt.” Jesse loosened the fingers of one hand, the one that was still warm flesh and bone, to card them through Hanzo’s mane, stroking his antlers and playing with the gold scarf that had remained tied to the one. Its ends were a bit tattered now, but Hanzo had done his best to take care of it. “There’s no one there like you. They’d take one look at you, and they’d be fallin’ all over each other t’be the first to tear you apart.”
“I am already hurt. I loved you and I waited for you. I waited for so long that I lost track of the years after I lost you,” Hanzo whispered. “I never knew where you had gone, so I couldn’t follow. Whatever I have to do, I want to follow you now.”
“You’d have t’be human, Hanzo, there’s nothin’ else for it.” Jesse sighed, clutching him tightly. “I don’t know what else t’say. I’m just … I’m so sorry I left ya.”
“I do not blame you.”
“When I was little, y’know, people used t’say it was cute I had an ‘imaginary friend,’ someone t’keep me company out in the sticks with hardly anyone else around. Then they started sayin’ I was too old for that kind of thing, and I stopped telling them about you. I still managed t’come for a few years after that, but there was a lot goin’ on then.”
“I was never quite sure how I got here, aside from wantin’ t’be here, so when that didn’t work anymore …” Jesse trailed off. “I didn’t think I’d find my way back to you at the bottom of a bottle.”
They didn’t say anything for awhile after that, simply because there was too much to say.
Hanzo wracked his brain. There had to be something he could do -- he wasn’t going to be left alone again. He had never wanted to be anything else before, but now, he wanted desperately, intensely, to be human.
The funny thing about living on the edge of reality is that desire and intent hold a great deal of power. You just have to be specific.
Jesse almost noticed the change before Hanzo did, he had been concentrating so hard. His body no longer coiled, serpentine, over Jesse’s, but lay draped flatly along it, and Jesse’s arms were suddenly able to wrap all the way around Hanzo’s shoulders.
“How’d you do that?” Jesse asked in awe, and when Hanzo raised his head, lighter than it should have been, to look at him, his eyes were wide.
How did he do it indeed?
Claws had blunted to fingers and toes, scales smoothed into skin and his mane into glossy black hair. The transformation wasn’t perfect, but it would do: a scale still glimmered here and there, and his ears still swiveled to pick up small sounds. Jesse rubbed his thumb over the tiny nub of one antler, the gold scarf still stubbornly clinging to its base, and gazed at him with his lips still parted in shock.
“I … I wanted it. So I could go. With you.”
Jesse laughed, then, a laugh of joy and relief, and rolled them over so that Hanzo was the one being pressed into the sand. It was a strange feeling, Jesse’s weight on top of him and the feel of the sand against his skin, but not unpleasant. Hanzo moved to nuzzle Jesse’s face, but found it didn’t work quite the same way without a muzzle.
“Then I’m gonna try my damndest to bring ya with me,” Jesse said, pressing his forehead to Hanzo’s. “I missed you. So much.”
They stayed like that a little while longer before getting up, Jesse helping Hanzo to stand while he gained his balance on two legs for the first time. Jesse’s face went red, and he draped his red cape over Hanzo once he was standing on his own two feet.
“I have something I’d like to bring with me, if I can.” Hanzo was looking toward his cave, clutching the blanket cape to him in the damp air with one hand. The other clutched at Jesse’s arm.
Wordlessly, Hanzo drifted into the cave to the crate he had slept curled around the past few years. Jesse had followed, and bent to pick it up when Hanzo’s hands were full. “This it?”
“Yes, that’s all I want.”
They returned to the front of the cave, bumping shoulders on the way -- Hanzo feared if he lost contact for too long, Jesse might disappear -- and sat on the stones where they used to. It was different, now, Jesse leaning against the cave wall and Hanzo nestled between his legs, back pressed to his chest.
“How is it that I am smaller than you?” Hanzo mused with only a little indignation. “I was much larger than you before.”
“Don’t know.” Jesse squeezed his waist. “Did ya model yourself after some human you saw other than me?”
“I do not know what I look like.”
“Here.” Jesse fished in his pocket for something, and pulled out a rectangle with a glossy metal surface. Hanzo would find out what the object was later: now, he took it from Jesse to examine his reflection, then handed it back.
“Once, when I was still in my parent’s cave, a prince passed by with his entourage and I told my brother that the prince was very beautiful ... for a human. I seem to have taken many of his features.”
Jesse chuckled, and Hanzo could feel it rumbling against his back. “O’course you’d make yourself look like the prettiest human, even if it wasn’t on purpose.”
“No, only the second best. I could not have possibly looked like you.”
Hanzo could feel the skin of Jesse’s cheek heat up against his temple as he cleared his throat.
And time passed.
As they waited for something to happen, unsure of what else to do, they grew weary and eventually closed their eyes.
When Hanzo awoke, it was not to the sounds of the sea or to the damp chill of the mist, or to hard stone beneath his new body. Instead, his ear swiveled to the nearby sound of soft snoring, warm breath on the back of his neck and strong limbs wrapped around him much like he had once, long ago, coiled a dragon’s body around a young boy.
He opened his eyes to find himself indoors, in a place he didn’t recognize. But he did recognize the hat laying on a nearby table, the smell of wood smoke and sun-warmed stone and sage.
And Hanzo was happy.