The boy came to when they had finally climbed down to the base of the mountain. "Where am I?" He whispered against Shin-ah's neck.
"You are safe." The boy could see Jae-ha walking behind them. He had a haunted look on his face.
Jae-ha suggested, "Let's rest."
Shin-ah agreed. He set the boy down. He stumbled on his feet. He was very frail and malnourished. He coughed. Shin-ah handed him some jerky. The boy didn't hesitate. He took it with a quick movement and devoured it. Shin-ah gave him more.
"Where are you taking me?"
Jae-ha sat next to them. "We're taking you home now."
Shin-ah brushed dirt from the boy's cheek. He touched the boy's scars. "You are not the Blue Dragon, little one. What the village did to you – it is unacceptable."
He gasped. "Where's my mask?"
"You don't need it," Shin-ah told him. "I promise."
They couldn't calm him. He started sobbing and pulled at his face. Jae-ha resolved to rip a thin strip of material from his robe and placed it over the boy's eyes. He could still make out shapes and see them, but they could not see his eyes.
"You don't need it," Jae-ha agreed, "but wear this until you accept that."
He stopped crying, but still trembled. Shin-ah gave him some water and then stood. "Can you walk, little one?"
He nodded defiantly, but his hands were trembling. They went only a short ways before he stumbled. Shin-ah caught him instantly and hefted him into his arms. It wasn't hard. He wasn't heavy. "I can walk," the boy insisted, but Shin-ah ignored him.
"It's alright. I don't mind." Shin-ah told him, "I miss my children and holding you reminds me of them."
The boy said nothing for a long time. Finally, "You have children?"
"Yes," Shin-ah explained. Jae-ha had taken the lead, but he could hear every word. "A daughter, Ah-ri, and a son, Jae-min. Jae-min is named for the Green Dragon here."
The boy gasped. "He's the Green Dragon?"
"Yes," Shin-ah said, "He has the leg of a dragon and can jump so high and far it looks as though he flies."
Jae-ha spun around. "Would you like to see?" The boy nodded and was even further enthralled when Jae-ha leaped into the air.
When he was done, the boy looked expectantly at Shin-ah though his mask. "How do you turn people to stone?"
Shin-ah's arms tightened around him. He said softly, "I don't."
The boy seemed shocked at that, but said nothing else about that. "Where is home?"
"With my wife and children," Shin-ah answered instantly.
Jae-ha said, "With Shin-ah's wife and children, one if which is mine. I long to return to them. My favorite part of every journey is having the children greet me by running into my arms."
Shin-ah ignored the joke. "You will like it there, little one. We live in a home near the capital and my wife is an advisor of Queen Yona. Her name is Mika, a demi-goddess of lightning and storms."
"Goddess?" The boy could not even imagine what a goddess might look like. Surely, she would be absolutely beautiful, but he had never seen a beautiful woman before. He frowned. "I need to go back to the mountain."
Jae-ha jerked around, "You will not go back to that place. It is dark and those people were cruel to you. You are only a child and do not deserve such treatment. You. . . you deserve a happy life. A childhood where you have no worries, where you can play, and be loved."
No one had ever wanted to play with the boy. He hugged Shin-ah's neck hard and ducked his face. He was too ugly to ever be loved. "I know you can't see it now," Shin-ah whispered and stroked his back, "but it will be true. You will see."
As they continued their journey, the boy only seemed to get worse. He was already sickly, but his cough became more pronounced and his breath was ragged. Jae-ha rigged up a sling so that he would be caressed against Shin-ah's chest, but neither would have to hold on all day.
Shin-ah could see the palace when they were still miles away. Night was coming swiftly, but Jae-ha and Shin-ah wanted nothing more than to get home. His heart soared when he saw Mika walk to the gate entrance. Ah-ri danced around her mother's skirt. She said something that made Mika laugh. Jae-ha knew that his brother must have seen her because he suddenly picked up his pace while keeping the boy steady against him.
He hadn't been talking much in the past day. They needed to get him a doctor and quick.
"Uncle! Uncle!" Jae-min came sprinting towards them. Jae-ha ran forward and caught the boy in his arms, swinging him around. "Daddy!" Shin-ah ruffled his son's hair and kissed his forehead.
"Daddy!" Ah-ri reached up to him, but he couldn't pick her up while he had the boy. Mika saw the dark head and a small body in the sling.
"Hold on, Ah-ri." Mika said and tugged on her hand. "Don't wake up your new friend. He's sleeping."
Her big brown eyes went wide when she noticed. "Who is that, Daddy?"
"I'll tell you later, Ah-ri. I promise." He ruffled her already wild blue hair. Mika wanted to embrace him, but she couldn't take her eyes off the boy.
"I want to know now!" Jae-min cried.
"Is he okay, Daddy?"
"He's very sleepy." Jae-ha put his finger on his lips and hefted Jae-min in his other arm. "Come on! I want you to tell me everything I've missed since I've been gone! Ah-ri, race you back to the garden!"
Mika insisted, "It's time for bed!" They were already far down the hill. She looked back at Shin-ah, then immediately started to unwrap the sling. "Is he. . . ?"
"No, there is no new Blue Dragon."
She saw the scars on his face and gasped. "Oh, Shin-ah. . . he's only a child."
"They're old," Shin-ah told her although he knew it wouldn't help. "Probably given to him at birth. I'm sure he doesn't remember the pain." Mika stroked his cheek. It was rough and unshaven.
"Let me take him, Shin-ah. You're tired and need some rest." She kissed him. Shin-ah sighed into her. The boy stirred slightly. He looked up and saw the woman. Her skin was as smooth as milk and her hair was black as the sky above them. She kissed the Blue Dragon. This was the wife, the goddess, he told the boy of.
The boy knew the meaning of beauty now.
"I love you," she said.
Shin-ah pressed his forehead against hers. She seemed to know what he meant without words. "He's so sick, Mika. I'm scared. . ."
"We'll take care of him, Shin-ah. He'll be alright." With that, Mika took him from the sling and lifted him into her arms. The boy's arms went instantly, and unhesitant, around her neck. Somehow, he knew that she would keep him safe.
When the boy awoke again, he was warm and covered in a thick blanket. He was surrounded in softness. He glanced around. The sun shone through thin, nearly sheer curtains. He heard a soft click. When he looked over, a paper door opened and the goddess walked through.
He gasped and dragged the blankets over his head.
She set a tray down next to the bed. "Hm," he heard, "I could have sworn I left a little boy in here. I wonder where he went." He held completely still as he heard her moving around. "Maybe he's over here? No. Hm. Did he go behind the bookcase? No, not there either. Ah, maybe he's hiding under the covers?"
He jerked up instantly and threw the blanket down. "I'm sorry. Don't be mad!"
"Silly boy," she said and sat next to him. He was shocked when she put the back of her hand across his forehead. "How could I be mad at you?"
"I won't take up too much of your time. I swear it. I'll get better soon and then you won't have to worry about me."
"Oh?" Mika sighed, "I do hope you get better soon because I know two little children who are anxiously waiting to play with their new friend."
He didn't know what to say about that.
"Are you hungry?" Mika asked it just as his stomach growled. She handed him a small cup of soup from the tray. He stared at it greedily. "Drink it slowly, okay? Or you'll make yourself sick."
"Yes, ma'am." He promised. He sipped the liquid. It was hot, but he didn't care. It didn't take long before he'd tilted his head back and had slurped it down.
"Hold on a minute!" Mika pulled the cup back, but it was already empty.
"No, no," Mika tried to settle him before he worked himself up. He looked completely torn by her quick words. "There's nothing to be sorry for. I know you're hungry, little one, but as long as you are in our home, there is no shortage of food. You can have as much as you want."
He pushed the cup towards her. "Can I have more, please?"
Mika smiled gently. She took it and set it down. "I will tell Yoon that you liked his soup. He says that it helps anyone get better." She handed him a small bowl of rice. When he moved to take it, she pulled back. "Slowly. I mean it this time."
"Yes, ma'am." He ate with his hands. Mika said nothing about it because he was following her request. When he had finished, Mika stood. He looked up at her warily. Would she tell him it was time to leave? The boy swallowed.
"It's time for a bath. Come along now." The boy swung his legs out from under the covers and was surprised by how steady his feet were.
"Was I asleep for a long time?"
Mika answered, "A few days."
He gaped. "Shin-ah told me about your children. Are they my age?"
"Yes," she said, "Twins. Only a year older it seems. They have been begging to meet you, but you have to wait until you are stronger." She looked suddenly exhausted at the thought of the two. "Ah-ri is especially a handful."
"They. . . want to meet me? Even though I'm. . ."
Mika knelt down so they were nearly face to face. She stroked his cheek. "Of course they want to meet you. How could they not?"
With her sweet touch, the boy finally realized that his mask was gone. She saw his eyes go wide in alarm. He shut them quickly. "My mask! I need it or I'll turn you to stone." Mika's heart wrenched with his words.
Her hands came over his thin shoulders. "Silly boy."
He kept his own hands clasped tightly over his closed eyes as if an evil power would seep out of them and infect her.
"I have been looking at you and you at me all morning. Don't you think I would have turned to stone by now?"
He stopped breathing momentarily. She had a point. And Shin-ah had said himself that the boy was not the Blue Dragon. He did not have those terrible powers.
"Can you show me your beautiful eyes, silly boy?"
"No," he gasped and pulled away from her. "They are not beautiful. They are ugly and evil. That's what they told me. That's why I'm scarred."
"Who could say such cruel things to you?" Mika whispered. He did not expect her gentle words. She touched his arms. "Do you know what I tell my children? I tell them that they are beloved by their parents and their family. They are the light of my world and the most beautiful sweet things I have ever seen. That is what all children are, including you, silly boy."
How could she say such things? The boy had never heard something so loving. He didn't even know what love truly was, but he felt it in her words. He put his hands down. There were tears streaking down his cheeks. He felt her finger swipe them away. No one had ever dared touch him this way before. Now that he had felt such loving human touch, he wished he had more.
Mika seemed to understand his need and pulled him in for a hug. She was elated when he automatically wrapped his thin arms around her neck. After a few long moments, Mika pulled away. "Are you ready for your bath now?"
He nodded. When she stood, she took his hand. The boy watched their hands the entire way to the hot bath. He couldn't take his eyes off of her hand wrapped around his. Except for Shin-ah briefly, no one had ever held his hand before.
The boy was silent the entire time. She undressed him, helped him in the bath, and gently scrubbed his skin and dark hair.
"Will you let me cut your hair?"
He only nodded numbly.
"Jae-min refuses to let me cut his hair. It's infuriating, but he claims he wants to look like Uncle Jae-ha." She chuckled as she trimmed the boy's black hair so it was cropped short. It stuck up in all directions. She helped him out of the bath and dried him off, ruffling his boyish hair. "So cute," she smiled. The boy smiled back. "I have new clothes for you."
He held the towel around his shoulders while she unfolded a pair of blue pants and a blue wrapped shirt.
"Do you like them?" She asked, "I can find others if you want something different."
He shook his head quickly.
"Okay, then, silly boy." For some reason, he liked when she called him that. It made her smile and scrunch her nose. He tried scrunching his nose. Once he was dressed, Mika suggested they go sit out in the garden so he could get some fresh air.
When they went out, the boy saw Shin-ah sitting beneath a tall flowering tree. Mika headed for him. The boy walked slightly behind her, but still held her hand. Mika sat next to Shin-ah and patted the ground between the two for the boy to sit. He did as requested, but sat closer to her. He was suddenly shy and could not meet Shin-ah's gaze.
"The children are out with Jae-ha." Shin-ah told Mika because he knew she was wondering.
"Most likely getting into all kinds of mischief." As she spoke, Mika pulled the boy so that he was against her side. He nestled against her warm body.
Shin-ah smiled and leaned back against the tree. "Yes."
The boy stared at his hands in his lap.
"What would you like for lunch?" He thought she was asking her husband, but Mika tickled his ear when she got no reply. "Do you have any requests?"
He jerked and stared up at her. "Soup? And rice?"
Mika tilted her head, then glanced up at Shin-ah. "How about steamed dumplings? Pickled bamboo shoots? And sweet buns for dessert?"
His mouth fell open.
Mika nestled into a crook in the tree roots so that they were closer to Shin-ah. "Yoon will be here soon. He and I will cook lunch." The boy didn't know what to do or say. It seemed it didn't matter because when he glanced up at the two a few minutes later, their eyes were closed and they were in a light slumber. Mika's head was against Shin-ah's shoulder.
The boy liked Yoon. He was boisterous and unafraid to say the truth. He took one look at the boy and said, "The patient looks better today. I was afraid you would mess something up, Mika."
She rolled her eyes as she chopped up cured ham. The boy sat at a seat next to her and watched them prepare the food. "Thank you for the confidence, Yoon."
"I liked the soup," the boy said very quietly.
Yoon couldn't help but smile at him. It had probably taken a lot of courage to speak up. "Good. Wait until you have a bite of these dumplings, kid. You'll love them."
The boy helped set the table out on the pagoda with Shin-ah. Mika and Yoon came out with the dishes. He watched as Mika laid out several items in a bowl for him. Yoon watched in slight disgust when the boy ate everything with his hands.
"Would you like more?" He nodded at Mika. She served him another helping. He had finished that by the time they had finished their first. Mika said, "Last one or you'll get sick."
While they talked, the boy swung his legs under the table. Shin-ah smiled at him. He was completely enraptured by Mika. He watched her every move and hung on every word. He was cleaner now that she'd given him a bath and his eyes were brighter, more alert. And he didn't look so scared.
That night, after Shin-ah and Jae-ha had put the twins to bed, he went to the room he'd set up for the boy. Mika was in there. He listened at the door as she spoke to him softly.
"Are you warm enough?"
"Here's another blanket anyway."
"Okay. Thank you."
"Do you want me to leave a light on for you?"
"No, I'm not scared of the dark."
"I'll be right down the hall if you need anything, alright?"
Shin-ah came in through the open door. The boy glanced up at him over Mika's shoulder. She was tucking in the covers. He knelt down and brushed the boy's bangs off his forehead. "Sleep well, little one." He kissed him lightly on the forehead, then stood. "Good night."
"Good night." Mika told him, then kissed him the same way.
He watched her blow out the last lantern, then they walked out. He snuggled into his covers further and smiled to himself.
Finally alone in their own room, Mika sat on the bed and watched Shin-ah undress. "He is so sweet," she said softly and hugged a pillow to her chest.
"Yes," he agreed.
"Oh, Shin-ah, what if you had never gone back to your village and found him? I can't imagine."
Shin-ah could. He glanced back at Mika. She looked determined. "We will care for him."
"I swear it," Mika told him, "He will grow up loved and cared for."
He knelt and kissed her fully. "I have missed you."
"Oh, Shin-ah." She let him push her against the blankets.
"I said stop it!"
The boy woke to some kind of commotion. He peered out of his cocoon at the door to his room. He could see dark eyes staring at him through the crack. The door suddenly burst open and a small, blue haired girl burst forward.
She ran and jumped on his bed. The boy sat up suddenly. "Well, we woke you up, so that means we can come in!"
"Ah-ri! Mama told us to leave him alone!"
"Jae-min, don't be a baby."
He took a few steps forward and glared at her. "I'm not!"
Ah-ri stared down at the boy. "Hey, why do you have scratches on your face? Did someone hurt you?" Her eyes were so big. The boy gulped. "Helloo?"
"Stop being mean, Ah-ri." Jae-min hurried forward and jumped on the bed. He crawled around his sister and sat on the other side also facing the boy. "My name is Jae-min. This is my sister, Ah-ri. It's nice to meet you."
Ah-ri asked, "Do you want to go play?"
"Yeah. In the garden."
"Let's go! Come on!" Ah-ri leaped to her feet and started jumping on the bed. "Get up, lazy head. You can't sleep all day."
The boy rushed after the two twins out into the garden.
When Mika and Shin-ah went outside, they were startled to see the three playing some kind of game by the creek. She gasped and started forward.
"Mika," Shin-ah said and stopped her immediately. "Let them play."
"But is he ready? He hasn't fully recovered."
"He'll be alright. This is what he wants."
Mika turned around and stared at Shin-ah. He was staring at the children with a slight smile across his lips.