The hut and prison of his childhood had always been damp, cold, dull, and dirty. For a long time, he had believed his existence itself could be just described as such. The air was heavy in humidity and low in freshness. It would be frequent for the boy called Jae-ha to catch colds and have a runny nose --sometimes mixed with his own blood. His cell of confinement wasn't made to be healthy, neither for him or his predecessor. There was no comfort beyond two thin floor mats covered in filth and earth. Moss as vibrant green as the Dragons' hair grew between the stone bricks that formed the walls.
That dawn was no different to others in appearance. It was a chilly night, and it would be a chilly morning. The icy steel of his shackles didn't make it any better. Jae-ha was used to it, though. His body shivered sometimes, but the low temperature was common occurrence enough for his slumber to remain uninterrupted. Then, one night, the silence was broken.
The sound of the door creaking open could be heard across the house. Garou, of course. Who else but Garou? No one would come close to the accursed residence of the two monsters unless they had urgent business with his predecessor. Sometimes they left the food at the entrance, but nothing further. As much as the dragons were despised, the villagers kept the distance.
Jae-ha continued to sleep placidly and didn't mind the soft footsteps. A voice spoke and he didn't catch on the strangeness in it at first. He didn't process the meaning in the words. They didn't seem to be important enough to stop his rest. Neither was the rustle of clothes.
All of a sudden, the coldness in the air was gone. A rush of warmth wrapped around his entire body like an embrace. Rugged cloth stroked the skin of his hands and ankles. It was a marvelous feeling. Then a gentle hand caressed his forehead. What a nice dream, he thought. No one was ever this tender to Jae-ha, or even tender at all.
The voice kept rambling in a murmur. He distinctively heard it calling the villagers idiots for restraining the Green Dragon. The bitter tone and words were very like something Garou would say, but something was as off with the warmth and the fingertips that played with his fringes. Then he realized that the voice sounded nothing like Garou's deep, hoarse grumbles. It was higher-pitched, though he couldn't tell if the person was younger or older than his predecessor. There was melancholy, yes, but also an uplifting lilt that made him feel like he could soar under the sun.
The hand moved away from his face and he heard the steps. That person in his dream was walking away. That faint sense of being left behind made Jae-ha open his eyes a little, perhaps to interrupt the fantasy before it got too depressing. To his surprise, he witnessed a stranger by the door frame, on his way to leave his house.
The man was turning his back on the boy and didn't show his face. There wasn't anything remarkable about his silhouette, particularly from the low perspective of a child lying on the floor. But his hair! Against the morning light outside, his golden locks of hair shined like the sun in a summer day. Anything else about him was eclipsed by the radiance of this halo. For a child who lived between gray stone walls and bone-chilling cold chains, there was beauty in the highlights of the unruly mane. A beam of light among the darkness and bleakness.
And then in a second he crouched through the door and he was gone forever. So was his light, like a cloud had covered the clear skies.
He tried to move yet he could not. The warmness remained around him and made him drowsy and heavy. His eyelids slowly closed against his will. His lips beckoned the presence in his sleep.
"Yellow Dragon... don't go..."
"Hey, brat! Wake up!"
Jae-ha was greeted by the usual kick to his dragon leg. It was harder to sit down that morning and his skin was covered in sweat.
"Hey, Garou," he replied as he rubbed his purple eyes. "Did they give you food for breakfast?"
"Yeah, but that's not important. Where the fuck did you get that?"
Jae-ha looked around. There was an old brown blanket covering his body from his waist down. Soon his dream came forth to his mind: the soft hand on his forehead, the man of sunshine with golden hair at the threshold. The Yellow Dragon. Was that real, then? The cloth was a tangible proof that he hadn't been an illusion, a wish, a visage.
He wasn't going to tell Garou that he thought he was a fellow Dragon. This visit was something special, something he wasn't forced to share with him unlike anything else. Besides, he wasn't completely sure of his identity. Maybe it was a normal blond guy and his sleepy mind played tricks on him.
"Oh, that. This person I hadn't met before passed by. Maybe he was looking for you? He threw this thing on me and ran away while muttering something. I was fast asleep so I didn't see his face." It wasn't really a lie, Jae-ha thought. Just an embellishment.
Garou’s sunken eyes stared at Jae-ha. He seemed to believe the story.
"Weird. Maybe the elder forced him to do some charity work." Garou picked up the rags, stood up, and pushed them against his body.
"Hey, old man! That's mine!"
Turns out that the blanket was actually a traveling cloak. It was used and weathered and it had a few holes and rips. Nonetheless, it was still in decent condition. It even had a hood and some inner pockets.
"Says who? You can't go outside, so you have no use for it." The green-haired man tried it on. Garou wasn't too tall himself, yet the length was perfect. Unfortunately for him, the previous owner had a less muscular back and it was too tight on his shoulders.
"Tsk, not my size," he complained. "You can have it, I guess." He took off the cloak and threw it next to Jae-ha. "They'll expect me to thank him. That dumbass didn't even say his name?"
"I said he didn't talk to me." He forced his brain to remember the dream, and then something popped in. "I think I heard him say that Shuten would be furious?"
"Pffft, it was probably a prank, then.” He shook his head and a cascade of long hair danced with it. “We have three Shutens in the village, so that doesn't clear up anything. Oh well, sucks for Shuten but we're keeping these rags."
Jae-ha smiled. He took the clothes and put them next to his face. The cloak was still warm, and it smelled of grass and animal fur and feathers. He closed his eyes and imagined he was walking down a forest, far away from that prison. Sunshine burned on his face and wind blew on his ponytail. For an instant, he was free and loved.
How disappointing, that Ouryuu had run away without him. He tried to feel his presence, but to no avail. Was he still near the village but hiding from him? He had no desire to follow his fated duty once he could finally set himself free from his chains --and he had broken one link the last time he tried! Nevertheless, that man had been the only kind and affectionate person he had ever met. Why had he even come, if it wasn't to unlock him?
Oh well. No point in asking himself that. Maybe it was better to stop believing it was Ouryuu. Maybe a traveler who got lost or a villager felt sorry for the little monster. Just a free coat for the winter. Less heartbreak that way.
He would still be startled, years later, by any long blond hair he saw in a crowd in Awa.
The wonderful and terrible thing about love is how it lifts us and knocks us down at the same time. When he found himself aboard Captain Gigan's ship, his heart was filled with the laughter of his fellow pirates, the taste of salt in the air when he jumped through the sky, the smell of the tobacco of her pipe, the touch of silky clothing worn by courtesans. Before that, it was the acrid words of Garou, the taste of his own blood on his lips, the touch of iron chains, the fading smell of forest on a forsaken cloak. It had been years since he last clung to the image of the golden halo. No need anymore, he had other things to imagine by then. He had even forgotten his voice.
Of course, they had to come and pick Jae-ha up. His mind became instead affixed to the red glow of Yona's hair, as dawn had come to the port and dusk fell over Kumji's life. Jae-ha found that it was a similar feeling to the impulse that tempted him as a kid to search for the Ouryuu: beautiful shining hair and a tough kindness of heart. That seemed to be a weak spot to him, a siren's call to follow a destiny he didn't desire.
And so on his first day of journey with them, from the back of the group, Jae-ha would look below at Yona's short tresses with admiration. He looked at the others' heads. Kija's silvery white, Shin-ah's light blue tucked inside his wig, his own dark green strands. The next one they'd want to search is Ouryuu...
Once again, the remembrance. Walking for days through forests didn't help. The scents were too close to the musty cloak he had used as blanket for two winters. He thought he was over it, yet the idea of seeing him again had his inner child a little excited.
'I'm acting stupid,' he told himself. 'I was what, 8 or 9 at the time? That was at least 15 years ago. There's no way that guy is alive. Even if a new dragon took a long time to be born, he would be in his thirties or fourties by now. No one has lasted so long, not even that stubborn Garou. We're looking for his successor here.'
Jae-ha was a practical guy despite his sillier, more extravagant side. He was disappointed when he reflected on it, but he let it go fast. Yona's firey hair was bad enough for his heart, so it didn't matter too much anymore. He still yearned to see the beauty of Ouryuu's gilded head, but just out of curiosity, just like Seiryuu's covered eyes. The forbidden fruit you're not allowed to have makes you want to take a little bite, right? He could stick around and see this successor's face anyway.
Turned out that the Yellow Dragon of his generation was an energetic youth that barely looked older than Yoon and Yona. Zeno was a bit of a fashion disaster and was easily knocked down by Hak's fist. Feature-wise he wasn't breathtaking in Jae-ha's savvy opinion, but Zeno was handsome enough to keep up with the rest of the group's aesthetic. At least when the boy bothered to wash his face and wasn't showing all his teeth like a horse, that is. Jae-ha liked that he was a fellow errant soul who dropped his village like a hot potato. Everyone else had been too sedentary for his taste.
Oh well. Good thing he had low expectations.
Days later, they trekked through a windy valley on their way to the priest's house. The song of the cicadas and the increasing heat announced the coming of summer. The dew-covered grass stained the heels of Jae-ha's beloved white boots. He found all that prophecy talk that awaited them there so bothersome. More chains to tie him down to these people, less freedom. Kija was definitely looking forward to it, and it was hard to figure out the way Shin-ah felt. How about Zeno, walking next to him, who had just arrived and was used to roam with no destination? Was the poor kid sick and tired of the journey? To Jae-ha's dismay, he was wearing his usual goofy grin and didn't look fatigued. 'Guess the only annoyed dragon is Ryokuryuu?'
Yona's ankle, however, started to act up. No surprise, as she had twisted it during her time on the cargo ship and she never gave it time to heal up nicely. Yoon decided to call it a break. They sat on the ground while the youngest boy opened his bag and took out an ointment he had made himself. The girl removed her red shoe and let her ankle be rubbed in silent resignation. The wind scared off the excess of warmth, so it was actually sort of nice.
Jae-ha turned around. Zeno was still standing up and had turned his back on everyone. He stared at the rocky mountains ahead, at the clear azure sky, at a flock of white birds that flew too far away from them. He seemed lost in thought.
And Zeno's hair, it shimmered under the sun. There was the same glow around his head, the same reflection of sunshine, the same radiance in every hair lock. The smell of wet grass beneath and around them was driving Jae-ha mad with nostalgia. Suddenly he was eight or nine again, dreaming about yellow halos or running through the woods. Every flicker of light was just fascinating. He suspected that the length and volume of hair wasn't too different to the previous Ouryuu's.
Zeno realized he was being watched. He faced Jae-ha with dreamy eyes and his most content grin. The front bangs shined as well. The golden medallion that hung from his headdress was swinging with the breeze, just like the rest of the mane. The dragon carving in the noble metal glittered so much it was blinding. The green scarf danced in waves like a flag.
"Hey, Ryokuryuu!" Zeno chirped as he got closer to Jae-ha. Most of the glow was gone in an instant. "What's the matter?"
"Heh. Nothing much, Zeno-kun." Jae-ha hoped he was hiding all signs of surprise from his face. "I was just thinking that your honey-colored hair is beautiful. You should comb it and style it better, because it's too untidy and you're wasting its potential."
"You think it's pretty?" The boy chuckled. "Why, thank you, thank you! I should return the compliment. Hmmm... Oh, I know!" He punched his open palm. "Zeno really likes to see you smile! It's a charismatic smile, and your teeth that aren't fangs are not pointy at all, which is nice."
"...Like it should be," said Jae-ha with a sigh. What kind of dumb praise was that? Was that the best Zeno could come up with? "What did you even expect? I'm the Green Dragon, not a Green Crocodile."
Zeno just shrugged and laughed some more before he sat down. Like a little kid, thought Jae-ha.
From that moment on, whenever Jae-ha traveled on the rearguard, he would find himself sometimes staring at the back of Zeno's head. He made it an unspoken habit –after he had lost the battle and started thinking of his partners as lovable little brothers, of course– to flatten Zeno's unruly blond hair with his hand. For good luck. Jae-ha tried not to do it often since it was taken as an open invitation for cuddles from the owner of the bird nest. Not like said cuddles were bad, but he had a reputation of cool guy to maintain and Zeno didn't seem to care if he ruined it. Just a bit of petting for good luck, really.
When Jae-ha learned the truth about Zeno with the others, and he had assimilated all that new information, his mind idled to three particular thoughts:
First, wow. Wow. That he had lived for so long and could do all those things was absolutely incredible. He was older than dirt. Literally older than a lot of dirt, most likely.
Second, wait what? What do you mean he was married? He needed more details. Or maybe not. Eww. He still wasn't sure if he wanted those mental images, but... marriage, man.
Third, there's been only one Ouryuu in history, and Jae-ha really wanted to kick his face so hard.
"Zeno-kuuuuuun! Just the old man I wanted to talk to!"
Jae-ha put his left arm around his fellow dragon, who had just finished his combination of breakfast and lunch. He had slept all morning and they all had to go and wake him up an hour ago. Yoon had reluctantly given him a double ration, and the rest all left him to enjoy his prolonged meal in peace. Until now, at least. Jae-ha couldn't see his face, but he felt his back muscles tense over the new nickname.
"What is it, Ryokuryuu~?"
Jae-ha chuckled in a friendly manner, and then he lowered his voice without changing his jovial expression.
"I need a word with you in private, if you don't mind."
"Very well. I guess that's fair."
They walked to a clearing in the forest, and Jae-ha's hand was still firmly resting on Zeno's shoulder. Zeno didn't seem to be too bothered and let himself be dragged. The day was cloudy and not particularly pretty. A spotted deer stopped its grazing when it saw the men, and skipped back to the thickest part of the woods.
"Okay, shoot," grinned Zeno. "There's something on your mind, obviously. Zeno will answer your question."
Jae-ha towered and quickly glanced at his friend's head from behind once more. As the day was opaque so was the hair color. Without that green fabric around it or that dangling jewelry, the resemblance to the one in the threshold seemed clearer. Or was it because he knew the truth? Not like it mattered much. There he was, there he had been for months.
Jae-ha stepped in front of Zeno. On a reflex act, he flattened those golden locks. In response, Zeno exhaled and closed his eyelids and eased his jaw, sharp fangs visible from the huge smile. That's when Jae-ha grabbed his cheeks with his fingers and squished them until the skin became redder. It took two or three seconds for Zeno to lower his brow in a squint.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow! Hurts, hurts!"
Jae-ha glared with tightened lips.
"For someone who can get dismembered or impaled with swords," he sneered as he let go, "your tolerance to pain is really low. Must be your age, poor thing. Be glad that I'm an easygoing guy, or you'd be regenerating half of your teeth."
He made a dramatic pause as Zeno massaged his cheeks and tilted his head.
"I have a question, alright. Tell me, why did you go to my village that one time?"
Zeno's eyes opened wide, incredulous. He crossed his arms and licked his lips.
"I thought you were sleeping..."
"So you don't deny it, eh? I was, but I saw a blond guy from behind for a fraction of a moment. I guess I should say thank you for the cloak, it was useful... You know, Zeno-kun, I've been wondering for a while if there was a way to find out whether that was really Ouryuu or a crazy dream I had. In the end I never said anything to you. Care to guess why?"
"Ryokuryuu assumed it was Zeno's predecessor? And well, now you know I never had one."
"Correct and correct. And also, I don't ask the others about their predecessors because it can be a sore topic for us. Unless you're Kija-kun, but he's a special snowflake. So, are you going to tell me? And more importantly, why did you leave like that, without a word? Do you do that kind of creepy thing a lot?"
Zeno took some time to order his thoughts. His eyes were filled with sorrow and tenderness.
"I wish I had a better answer, but here it goes. She had been born. I could tell the signs. So even if I tried to stay far from the other dragons, I couldn't help myself. Just once. I said the first day that I didn't care about the dragons. It wasn't a complete lie... I didn't use to. You guys, your generation, was probably going to be the ones serving Hiryuu with me, if fate said so. I longed to see your cute faces even though it was too early."
"You visited the other villages as well, didn't you?" Jae-ha put his hands on his hips. "You said this morning that we had grown so much. Kija-kun felt nostalgia for some reason when he was feverish and looked at you."
"I did, yup. The three of you were pretty cute! I don't think the others remember me."
"Too bad I do. And that's the reason why you ran away: so I couldn't recognize you later and question why you hadn't aged a bit."
"...Are you upset at me, Ryokuryuu?" Guilt darkened Zeno's features like one of the clouds in the sky.
"I was, when I was little. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why you didn't want to release me and take me with y..."
It was too late. Jae-ha had blurted it without an intention. He sank his boots into the earth as he realized he had sounded like a little child. He avoided Zeno's surprised stare and straightened up his sleeves.
"It's not obvious? You still didn't have your full powers. It would be us, a little boy and a guy who's not strong, against a bunch of villagers armed with bows and your predecessor who could jump higher than you by then. I admit I miscalculated; I assumed he would pass away sooner, maybe days or weeks after my visit. He was a really tough man to survive for seasons and seasons."
"So... you didn't actually want to leave me there." Jae-ha felt like a chain on his ankle had been broken when Zeno shook his shaggy head.
"Be aware," Zeno grimaced, "that taking you and only you in would've been unfair. Should I also pick up Seiryuu, who lived isolated in the dark? Would Hakuryuu feel betrayed if I never picked him up, since his village adored him, while I took you both? There were many possibilities, and... Zeno couldn't handle those decisions. So I just waited to meet you all again, if it was bound to happen. And let me tell you," he added with a loving smile and sparkles in his eyes, "it was one of the hardest things I've done. Even if it was just for some minutes, I knew I loved those three adorable children already."
Jae-ha's felt a knot in his throat. There were definitely not tears in his eyes. His heart was definitely not beating faster.
"Zeno... that was... sappy as hell! Don't be so cheesy, grandpa. Making your younger brother want to cry is not beautiful."
"Well sorry, sorry," Zeno pouted a little. "But cut it with the grandpa. At least use big brother."
"Too weird, ancient one. But maybe when the others aren't around. Maybe... big brother."
Jae-ha wasn't surprised in the least when Zeno giggled, opened his arms wide like a bird's wings, and threw himself at him. He hugged back and tussled that golden hair some more. A little part of him hoped that Shin-ah couldn't see them.
There was no glowing halo on the Yellow Dragon that day, but the embrace warmed them up just as nicely as the sun.