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with ne'er a fear of drowning

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“Hey, Sil, come here for a minute,” Kurt says, holding out a loose sheet of parchment. “I need to borrow your tongue.”

Sil obliges him, trotting over and licking carefully up the side of the proffered page. She doesn’t even take advantage of the opportunity to slobber on his fingers, which shows an unusual level of restraint on her part.

“Thank you, gorgeous,” Kurt says, and gives her a brief appreciative chin-scratch. He turns back to his map and carefully pastes the new page onto the southern edge. “That’s all for now. You can go back to showing those trees who’s in charge.”

She goes tearing off immediately. Kurt’s not offended; she has a lot of energy to burn after being stuck on Lima for nearly a week. A bad storm kept them grounded for two days, and then Kurt’s dad insisted that he stay and help repair the damage done to various roofs by the plum-sized balls of hail that had pummeled the village. Most of his friends were recruited as well, so it wasn’t entirely awful, though Santana’s barbs and Puck’s blustering bravado are really best tolerated in small doses. He spent most of his time working with Mercedes and Rachel, but it was still a painfully dull, tedious task. By the time the repairs were completed to his dad’s satisfaction, Kurt was crawling out of his skin with the urge to go, to hop on Sil’s back and fly away in any direction, any direction at all, as long as it took him somewhere new where he’d never have to look at another shingle or endure another lecture from Will about the true meaning of teamwork.

Now that he’s finally out, it’s every bit as good as he expected. He loves his dad, and his friends too, but nothing can compare to the thrill of taking off with Sil for parts unknown, exploring places no one in his village has ever seen and discovering dragons that have never been described in any book.

It's freedom. Kurt can’t get enough of it.

He begins to draw in the surrounding area on the map, consulting his compass to make sure he’s orienting himself correctly. Sil rejoins him after a while, settling down nearby to gnaw on a sapling she ripped from the ground, stripping off little ribbons of bark with her teeth.

Once he’s taken care of the sparse forests to the east, he turns south, toward the grey looming shapes of cliffs in the distance. That’s where they’ll go next, he decides, after he’s done with the map and Sil has finished destroying her sapling. It looks like just the sort of habitat that might be favored by a Gronckle or a Snafflefang.

Sure enough, just as he is setting his pencil to the parchment, he spots movement near the cliffs – not just one dragon, but a whole flock. He squints, trying to make out what they are, and is surprised to realize that they’re all different sizes and colors, from what looks like a Snaptrapper all the way down to a few tiny specks that could be Terrible Terrors or Sidewinders.

It’s rare to see different species flocking together in the wild, and such a large group…

Well, now he’s really curious.

He quickly stashes his map and jumps to his feet. Sil looks up in surprise, the battered sapling still clamped loosely between her teeth. Kurt jogs over and launches himself up into the saddle, nearly forgetting to flip his prosthetic to riding position in his haste. “Come on, gorgeous. Let’s go track down some friends.”

+

By the time they make it to the cliffs, the dragons Kurt spotted are nowhere to be seen. He’s not worried. There can’t be too many hiding spots in these bare, rocky canyons, especially not for a flock that size.

An hour later, though, he’s starting to question his own sanity. He and Sil have searched the canyons high and low, and they haven’t found a single trace of the other dragons: not a nest, not a bed of embers, not even a footprint in the dust.

Where could they have gone? It’s possible that this wasn’t their destination, and they continued flying south, or veered west toward the sea – but then, why cut through the cliffs at all? It doesn’t make any sense.

Kurt’s eye catches on what looks like a crack in one of the cliff faces. Maybe they’ve tucked themselves in there somehow? He steers Sil in for a closer look, only to discover that it’s not a crack at all, but the opening to a narrow gorge, cutting back through sheer walls of rock.

“What do you think, Sil?” he calls, grinning. The flock went this way, he’s sure of it. “Up for a little more exploring?”

Sil crows her approval, and they swoop down into the gorge.

The gap between the gorge walls widens and tapers at random intervals. It’s narrow enough in a few spots that Sil’s wings nearly brush the sides, and Kurt steers carefully, not wanting to be taken by surprise by an unexpected jutting of rock.

The gorge grows greener and less forbidding the further they go, plants sprouting up through cracks in the stone. Trees start to appear, clinging tenaciously to the rock face; in places, they’ve grown out across the gap, tangling their branches with those on the other side to create a sort of canopy.

He and Sil navigate a series of narrow, snaking turns, and then the gorge just…ends. The rock walls fall away, opening up to a small, startlingly lush valley. The creek below feeds into a lake, surrounded on all sides by moss-covered boulders and a handful of trees trailing their slender, drooping branches out over the water.

Sil brings them down in a small clearing near the mouth of the gorge. Kurt slips off her back, removing his helmet and looking around in wonder. He never would have expected to find an oasis like this tucked away in such a barren landscape. The moss beneath his feet is thick and springy, and the trees ringing the clearing are easily twice as thick as any trees on Lima.

Sil is busy investigating a nearby bush, which sags under the weight of its massive, brilliantly colored flowers. She pokes her nose right into the center of one, and promptly lets out a rather spectacular sneeze, shaking free a haze of shimmery golden pollen.

“You deserved that,” Kurt informs her. He scans the edges of the clearing, trying to decide which direction to head first. They’ve found the dragons’ den, no doubt about it. Now, if they can just find –

The stillness around them is suddenly broken by an earsplitting roar, as loud and shocking as a thunderclap. Kurt staggers in surprise, instinctively reaching out for Sil as he looks wildly around, seeking out the source. It sounded so close, but there’s nothing there.

Before he can think through his confusion, a huge shape appears right in front of them. It seems to materialize out of thin air, bright red and snarling, with enormous curved teeth –

It’s a Changewing, and it’s angry.

“It’s all right,” Kurt says, trying to keep it calm while he reaches for his Dragon Blade. He can see other dragons approaching now, drawn by the Changewing’s roar. He has to gain control of this situation, and fast. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

In one practiced motion, he draws, extends, and ignites the blade. A few of the newly arrived dragons rear back in surprise; the Changewing stays where it is.

Kurt spins the flaming sword in slow, deliberate circles, watching the dragons’ eyes for the telltale pupil dilation. Most of them stare at the blade, mesmerized, following its movement with dreamy expressions.

The Changewing, it seems, will not be so easily placated. It ignores the sword entirely, still focused intently on Kurt himself.

“We’re not going to hurt you,” Kurt repeats quietly, but his voice only seems to upset the dragon more. It growls, lowering its head in a way that looks fairly ominous.

All right, then. It seems a more dramatic approach is called for.

Kurt extinguishes the blade and quickly bends down to retrieve a canister of Zippleback gas from his boot. Before he can fit the canister into the sword’s hilt, the Changewing snarls and lunges forward, halving the distance between them. It spits out a small stream of acid, which falls just short of Kurt’s feet, sizzling as it eats through the moss.

Kurt jumps back, and Sil roars, incensed at the threat.

“Redbrier!”

The Changewing’s head whips around in the direction of the shout. Kurt follows the dragon’s gaze, and is astonished to see a small, dark-haired man leaping off the back of a Hobblegrunt. He hits the ground at a run, and the small crowd of dragons shifts to let him through, clearing a path for him to sprint right up to the infuriated Changewing.

Kurt takes an instinctive step forward, alarmed – he can’t just stand back and watch this idiot get himself killed – but the Changewing doesn’t attack, even as the man skids to a stop by its head and wraps his hand around its front horn.

Kurt has rarely seen a Changewing permit that kind of familiarity from a human. Even he has trouble wrangling them sometimes.

“Easy, now,” the man says in a hushed, soothing voice. “Easy, Redbrier. No need to get all worked up.”

He’s completely unarmed, not carrying so much as a knife. He isn’t even wearing any kind of protective gear, just trousers and a simple blue tunic. On closer inspection, it looks as though he’s been bathing: the tunic clings to him in damp patches, and his hair is dripping, plastered in wet curls to his forehead. He’s barefoot.

Kurt exchanges a baffled look with Sil. Who is this man?

The Changewing – Redbrier, Kurt supposes – lets out another low growl, turning its head to glare pointedly at Sil and Kurt. The man pats its nose. “Yes, well spotted, sweetheart. Why don’t I find out what they want, hmm?”

The dragon growls again, but sits back slightly on its haunches, allowing the man to step in front of it. One of its antennae slithers forward to wrap protectively around his ankle.

“You’ll have to excuse him,” says the man – the boy, really, for he can’t be a day older than Kurt’s nineteen years, if that. “He’s had some unpleasant encounters with humans, and he’s not a big fan of unannounced visitors.”

The boy’s tone is light, but Kurt can see the tension in his shoulders, the hard set of his jaw. The Changewing isn’t the only one unsettled by the appearance of two strangers.

Kurt deliberately meets the other boy’s eyes, trying to convey his utter lack of ill intent. “We mean you no harm,” he says. “Sil here just saw your dragons and wanted to come say hello, that’s all.”

Sil snorts and grumbles next to him, not amused at having the blame shifted to her shoulders.

The boy’s gaze flickers warily between Kurt and Sil. He has lovely eyes, the color of honey fresh from the skep. “That’s your dragon’s name? Sil?”

Kurt nods. “Short for Silhouette.” He slowly lowers his hands, encouraging the boy to watch as he clips his Dragon Blade back into its holster. “I’m Kurt.”

The boy stares at him, worrying his bottom lip. Those lips are rather lovely as well – focus, Kurt.

“Blaine,” he says at last. “My name is Blaine.” He hesitates for a long moment, then adds, “You are welcome here. Both of you.”

Kurt’s shoulders sag in relief. “Thank you.”

Blaine dips his head in acknowledgement. His attention shifts back to Sil, who is still crouched defensively at Kurt’s side, tail curled around his legs. “Is she…” His eyes go wide. “Gods above, she’s not – ”

Kurt smiles. “She is.”

“Night Fury,” Blaine breathes, awe-struck. “I can’t believe it. They say they’ve all died out.”

“Not quite,” Kurt says, though his heart sinks at yet another suggestion that his beloved Sil may be the last of her kind. Even this boy, with all his dragons, has never seen one before.

The last trace of reservation has vanished from Blaine’s demeanor, replaced by open fascination. He glances eagerly back to Kurt. “May I?” At Kurt’s nod, he drops to his knees and shuffles slowly toward Sil, reaching out carefully as he approaches.

Sil sniffs at his outstretched hand, curiosity overwhelming her lingering crossness at their less-than-cordial reception. She must decide that Blaine measures up, because she nudges her snout against his palm before giving him a quick, slimy lick from wrist to fingertips.

Sil,” Kurt rebukes her – honestly, he’s told her a million times – but the other boy just laughs, evidently not concerned by the viscous strings of dragon saliva sagging like webbing between his fingers.

“Oh, she’s beautiful,” he says. He strokes Sil’s nose with his wet hand, slips the other one down to scratch under her chin, and she croons with pleasure, pressing forward to butt her head against his shoulder.

Encouraged by Blaine’s acceptance of the newcomers, the other dragons have started creeping closer, eyeing both Sil and Kurt with blatant interest. Even the Changewing, Redbrier, looks a great deal calmer now. He pads hesitantly up behind Blaine and peers down over his head at Sil’s blissed-out face. Apparently satisfied with what he sees, he turns to Kurt with an inquisitive noise, ducking his head in a show of contrition.

“It’s okay,” Kurt assures him, smiling. He rubs Redbrier’s neck, briefly surprised to encounter a raised mess of knotted scar tissue near his shoulder. “No hard feelings. I’m sorry for scaring you.”

He feels a sudden tug at his leg, and looks down to see a Terrible Terror wrestling with one of the leather straps looped down the side of his trousers.

“Hey, no, cut that out,” he says, yanking the leather out from between the Terror’s teeth. The little dragon chirps excitedly and lunges for the strap again, plainly delighted by this game.

“Tripod, leave it alone,” Blaine says firmly.

The Terror freezes with the strap in its mouth, eyes shifting furtively over to where Blaine is watching expectantly.

Leave it,” Blaine repeats, and the Terror immediately drops the strap, scuttling back a few paces as if to distance itself from its wrongdoing. “Good boy, Tripod.”

Kurt is impressed. The Terrors on Lima frequently seem to suffer from selective deafness when it comes to obeying instructions.

“Tripod, is it?” he says, crouching down to pet the dragon’s head. He’s about to comment on the odd choice of name, when he suddenly notices that Tripod is in fact missing a back leg. He seems to get by quite well without it, easily darting around to Kurt’s other side to investigate the rest of the fastenings on his trousers.

Kurt wouldn’t think much of it, but he remembers the scarring on Redbrier’s neck, and Blaine’s comment that the Changewing had had bad experiences with humans. His curiosity piqued, Kurt looks a little more closely at the dragons around him. That Grapple Grounder has a drooping wing; the Hackatoo is missing an eye; one of the Sand Devils has a twisted, withered leg.

In fact, of the two dozen dragons crowding around, only a handful are without visible injuries.

“You’ve rescued them,” Kurt says, amazed.

Blaine nods distractedly, absorbed in rubbing vigorously at the sweet spot between Sil’s shoulders. “Injured by trappers, for the most part, though not all. That little tyrant at your feet bit off more than he could chew of a Whispering Death’s dinner.”

Kurt frowns. “Trappers? You don’t mean dragon trappers?”

“Have you not encountered them?” Blaine asks, sounding surprised. Kurt shakes his head. “You’ve been lucky, then. Their ships sail further and further north each year. If I were you, I’d be very careful flying over the sea, or even along the coast. I shudder to think what they would do to get their hands on a Night Fury.”

Kurt’s hands clench into fists at his sides. “I’d like to see them try.”

“I wouldn’t,” Blaine says frankly. “I’ve seen what those men are capable of. They can’t be reasoned with. Best to steer clear of them altogether.”

If Sil understands their discussion, she doesn’t seem troubled by it. She coils herself happily around Blaine, encouraging him to continue his massage all down her back. Her tail sweeps in front of him, and he touches careful fingers to the bright red material of the prosthetic fin, dark brows drawing together in concern.

“What happened to her? This certainly looks like a trapper’s handiwork.”

Kurt winces. “Ah, no. That was me, actually.” Blaine’s head snaps up, his face slackened with shock, and Kurt has to force himself not to squirm in discomfort. He could never truly regret the series of events that brought Sil into his life, but it does reflect rather poorly on him when contrasted with this apparent dragon savior. “I shot her down during an attack on my village – well, we thought it was an attack – it’s, uh, it’s kind of a long story. It’s all right, though,” he adds, and scuffs his metal foot against the ground to draw Blaine’s attention to it. “We’re square now, aren’t we, gorgeous?”

Sil gives him her wide, toothless grin and bounds back to his side, nuzzling fiercely against his belly. He curls his arms around her head and hugs her close, running a hand along the line of little spikes that run back between her ears.

“Well,” Blaine says, clearly taken aback. “You’re quite the pair.”

Something about the way he says it makes warmth bloom in Kurt’s stomach. They’ve only just met, but for some reason he desperately wants Blaine to be impressed by him. There is something so captivating about him, with his big pretty eyes and the easy way he handles his dragons. All right, yes, he’s probably the handsomest boy Kurt has ever seen, but that’s not all. He’s just…different. Special.

Anyway, Sil likes him, which Kurt has found to be as good an indicator of character as any. She’s never steered him wrong.

Blaine stands, brushing off the knees of his trousers. “Would you like something to eat? I don’t have much to offer you beyond fish and berries, I’m afraid. I don’t exactly entertain a lot of guests.” He rubs the back of his neck, looking a bit sheepish, as though he is somehow to blame for not anticipating that his home would be invaded by strangers today.

Oh, Kurt is absolutely done for.

“Fortunately, I happen to have some jerky with me today,” he says, and drinks in the sight of his new friend’s brilliant smile.

+

They share the jerky and berries on a wide, flat rock near the water’s edge. They chat while they eat, trading questions and brief explanations. Kurt learns that Blaine is eighteen years old; that there are currently twenty-six dragons living here in the valley with him; that they have only recently settled in this area, having abandoned their previous den after it was discovered by a hunting party.

For his part, Blaine is very curious about the back-story behind Kurt and Sil’s friendship, so Kurt gives him an abridged explanation of how they came to know each other, and how Lima went from being at war with dragons to restructuring its entire way of life around them.

“That’s…that’s amazing,” Blaine says, shaking his head in wonder. He looks at Kurt the way he looked at Sil earlier, like he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing. “You’re an extraordinary person, you know that?”

Kurt does know that, actually, but the compliment still warms him right down to his bones. “Thank you,” he says, with a smile he hopes does not look half as dopey as it feels. “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Blaine ducks his head, cheeks darkening with the hint of a blush, and Kurt nearly swoons right off the rock.

Redbrier and Sil have moved past their mutual hostility from earlier, and are romping around together through the trees. Redbrier keeps disappearing while Sil’s back is turned, camouflaging himself to blend in with bushes and tree trunks. It never takes Sil long to find him, probably because he seems to delight in teasing her, prodding her flank with an invisible claw or tripping her up with his tail while she’s sniffing around for him.

Most of the other dragons have long since grown bored of the humans and wandered off, though a handful remain, grooming themselves or dozing peacefully on nearby boulders. Kurt notices that the Hobblegrunt has stayed especially close, hardly straying more than twenty paces from Blaine’s side.

“Oh, Prism?” Blaine says, when Kurt points this out. “Yeah, he never goes too far.” He looks toward the dragon in question and clicks his tongue, which seems to be all the invitation Prism needs to trot over and nestle down next to him. He lays his head across Blaine’s legs, sighing blissfully when Blaine scritches behind his stubby horn. “You’re just a big spoiled softie, aren’t you, Prism?”

Kurt watches them both with a knowing smile. “He was the first, wasn’t he?”

“How’d you guess?” Blaine says wryly, as Prism tries to snuggle even closer, his golden-yellow frill vibrating with pleasure.

By the time they’ve finished eating, the sun is already starting to sink toward the horizon, so Kurt reluctantly calls Sil over and prepares to leave, with a promise to return soon.

“We could go flying together, if you like,” Blaine suggests shyly. He pats Sil, who responds by giving him a sloppy, affectionate slurp farewell. (She’s changed a great deal since Kurt first met her, but it still doesn’t take much more than fish and cuddles to win her over.) “I’d love to see her in action.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Kurt says. And then, a little boldly, he adds: “I should warn you, though, she’s a terrible show-off. I hope your dragons can keep up.”

Blaine smiles up at him. “I think we’ll manage.”

+

Once they’re soaring comfortably above the clouds, Kurt flops backwards to lie flat between Sil’s wings, grinning stupidly up at the darkening sky.

“Blaine,” he sighs. “That’s a good name, don’t you think, Sil?”

Sil snorts. Even without seeing her face, Kurt can tell that she’s rolling her eyes at him.

He whaps her gently with the flat of his hand. “Oh, what do you know? At least I kept my tongue to myself,” he says primly, and Sil shakes all over with her throaty, rasping laugh.