It happened to every nation, every few hundred years or so, and it never got easier. Like a first love, though, the first dragon death was the hardest.
America was sitting on the roof of an abandoned barn, stroking the muscle of a heavyweight, as the Europeans said, sky blue dragon who had to crane his neck down to America's side, even though he was sitting on the ground three stories below. His breath puffed in the late November air, coat close around him.
"They're amazing, aren't they?" the boy nation whispered in a leaf-soft tongue, leaning back precariously to stare up at the starred sky, like salt crusts and light sparkling over an ocean. The dragon kept him from falling automatically with a nudge, offering back support. The scales covering his snout were brittle and pale, but the gold eyes were still intelligent under a curving crown of horns.
"I will never understand why the stars so fascinate you, Amitola," the dragon's voice rumbled from deep in his long throat. America laughed and climbed off the roof onto his head, small enough still that the dragon was barely inconvenienced by the scrambling colony, merely holding still as he climbed down the spikes of his neck to sit at the rider's spot.
"C'mon, take me to them, Hinto. You're good at that."
Hinto sighed and stepped away from the barn so he could unfurl his wings completely, war-torn and silver-tinged. He sprang into the air, and if it took more effort than it used to, he ignored it. After all, his captain was still a boy, even though he was older than the aging dragon. America whooped and cheered from his back as they climbed into the clear night sky, cold this far up and aching. Hinto's bones ached, but America stroked his neck with all he was, and his heart ached more.
They had been together since his hatching, a special egg waiting a special rider. His origin tribe found him in the curious boy with sky eyes who never aged. He wandered without a name, and he wasn't human.
He fed Hinto his first bite while he still had shell on his back, and named him Blue with all the simplicity of a child, but in a language a thousand miles away.
Hinto grew in leaps, spikes on his spine and a club of them at his tail, scales dusted with sunset, sunrise, and every color in between at first before settling on a bright, pale eggshell blue, blending perfectly into the brilliance of a midsummer's day. Hinto's names for his rider changed just as much before he was Amitola, the rainbow to his sky.
America was too small for him, but he thought bigger, adult and in charge. They accommodated.
When the first Europeans sailed onto their shores, they hid against the sky and watched.
There was little they could do to stop the invasion, so America walked among them, learning and growing and hair brightening. The natives they had grown with faded into the woods.
They met England first over the ocean, both of them curious about the men crawling over this new brown dragon's body. America skittered up Hinto's neck to stand on his nose as he stretched forward to investigate the odd arrangement.
The man sitting at the base of the foreign dragon's neck yelled at him in a panic, and although his words were alien, the meaning was clear. America laughed.
"Hinto would never let that happen, Now go away and leave us alone!" But the foreigner was just as ignorant of his words, and wasn't about to read his tone as well. The other people clambering around the dragon were staring at Hinto and America, who didn't have his name yet, and Hinto bared his teeth at them.
They gestured their way to shore. America had seen foreigners from the ocean with their ships coming for a few years now, watching from above on clear days, but he and Hinto had avoided them, watching and waiting as they tore through his ground and muddied his water. But this was the first dragon they had seen, and when they landed on a large stretch of beach, America slid down and hid among Hinto's tail spikes, each taller than him by a head or two, as the aliens leapt off the harnessed dragon, the first yelling man walking immediately towards him. Hinto pulled him in closer with his tail, and the yelling man stopped and said something in his other language. America shook his head, he didn't know. Hinto bent down his head and growled in his face when he tried to get too close.
Instantly, the harnessed dragon leapt to his defense, snapping at Hinto's nose. The yelling man shushed her, pet her muzzle, and she settled in a mirror defense of Hinto - captain first.
America and the yelling man looked at each other from behind their dragon's limbs, and the boy started giggling. The yelling man's mouth quirked up, and then they were both laughing, and America wove through Hinto's deadly spikes with ease and approached him.
"Who are you?" The yelling man shrugged to the question, so America pointed at his dragon and said, "Hinto." Then himself, "Me." Then the yelling man, "You?"
Comprehension. He put his hand to his heart. "England."
America smiled. "England! Welcome." He waved in greeting, and the other men started creeping forward to say their name and marvel up at Hinto, who never let his golden eyes off his rider.
After that, America had many different names again, with different foreigners claiming and fighting over bits of him and beating his people back, away from the coast. America himself assimilated, taking to the languages of the European, as he learned to call them, like flying as his hair and eyes and skin grew fairer to match. Hinto barely tried the new languages, preferring the tree whispers of their native tongues, and America did little to force him to Westernize with him. He was still the biggest dragon they met, and more than once America heard the human flyers moan about the shame it was that Hinto was not in their fighting force, but instead captained by a boy who wasn't even big enough to file his spikes down properly.
They gave Hinto a breed name, which he had never needed before. Sky Spiketail. America thought it was pretty, but Hinto could have cared less.
He held aloof from most of the foreign dragons, as more and more transported over, but the brown dragon they had met England with, Bess, was pushy and young, and kept him company, looked out for him, even though he was twice her size and her age. They were never as close as their captains became, but they had an understanding of each other and a fondness.
Through the century and a half, Hinto was there as America was colonized, civilized, a steady ear and a sky blue shoulder against religion, heartbreak, illness, always reminding him of his wild past and his rainbow days. Soon they even matched in looks, America's eyes the color of his scales and hair his spikes, gold and light and copper.
But, unlike baby nations, dragons don't live forever.
It was 1773 in the Europeans' calendar, and Hinto took America for a star flight, even though his wings could barely keep his bulk aloft that long. Now America was a teenager by looks, big feet and hands and a charming smile. He stood at the back of Hinto's neck, bareback but for the grooves of handholds kept cut into one of the biggest spikes. "The people are getting restless," America yelled through the wind in a native tongue. "England's still putting on his airs with the taxes. Something's going to happen."
Hinto looked back with the corner of a gold eye. "I should think so. You haven't seen him in at least four years."
"And eight months, three days." America smiled sheepishly at Hinto's snort.
"You can miss him if you want, you know."
America shrugged. "I do, but he's not you. He doesn't sort through my head like you." America rested his cheek on the spike he was clutching, the point just over his head, and closed his eyes with a sigh. "Boston is angry."
"Boston is always angry." America laughed, and Hinto's eyes softened as they could. "Enjoy this night. The stars are beautiful."
"Yeah." America tilted his head back and watched the stars twirl above as Hinto flew aimlessly, the dual sets of constellations he knew overlapping, merging.
When Hinto landed in the large field behind their English-built home, America slithered down and hugged his muzzle. "Thank you, Hinto."
"Of course, Amitola." Before America could turn and let go, though, he reached around and captured him with his foreleg. "Stay the night. It would be a shame to put a ceiling over this sky."
America smiled. "Of course. Hinto." He curled up on Hinto's leg, and the dragon curved his wings around, leaving a gap for a skylight, and they talked in low tones until the grey light took them to sleep.
When England shook America awake later that day, Hinto was dead, and his surprise visit became a week of consoling, crying, and yelling.
They buried him where he lay, dragon-carried dirt and a small service. America slept on the new hill for six nights, avoiding England and Bess. He couldn't look at them without Hinto appearing.
England left without saying goodbye, angry at America's all-encompassing grief. (It had been too long for him; he had forgotten the pain.)
Soon after, America painted up like a native with his new people and threw tea in the harbor.