Hello again, all! I haven't been dead (nor have I abandoned Utopia), just collaborating on this story as part of the X-Men Reverse Big Bang challenge. It wasn't meant to be much more than the 5k word minimum requirement, but as of posting this teaser, it's at something more like… 60k.
What's that? "Teaser", I say? Why yes! The Affairs of Dragons is an illustrated story, so the majority of it is hosted over on ArchiveOfOurOwn. If you like this, you should head over there using the instructions at the end of this chapter. If you don't like it… Well, you should at least check out the fantastic art Palalife did to accompany this!
Charles spent more time with books than people to the point where, when he'd lost most of his furniture in the move to London, he'd decided to simply make do with what he had, leaving only a few essentials and strategically placed piles of books. It was a temporary arrangement, and it had persisted for three years.
The single remaining armchair provided an excellent view through his balcony, and when he returned from the lab in the afternoons he liked to enjoy the advantages of living high above the rest of the neighborhood. He lounged there, wearing the teddy bear slippers he'd received as a gift from his sister without any self-consciousness. The breeze that slipped in through the partially open balcony door was brisk with autumnal chill.
Faded echoes of chatter and traffic drifted up from the street below while Charles drank his hot tea, engrossed in a book propped against his thigh. It was nineteen sixty-five: there was a wall that split Germany, men had drifted through the vacuum of space, and the world might erupt into thermonuclear violence at any moment.
Charles' life, by contrast, was uneventful.
Or at least, Charles' life was uneventful until a dragon appeared on his balcony.
There was no question of what it was.
The long neck curved with an elegant strength, muscles firm and strong beneath gleaming black scales. Its wedge-shaped head bristled with horns, and its eyes were a catlike green, sharp and alert as they judged the distance to the street below, blunt nose swaying gently as it looked about with an unhurried deliberation.
It was difficult for Charles to focus on, as if it were enveloped in heat shimmer despite the fall weather. His eyes watered, fighting to squint closed, but he held them strained open to catalogue every detail.
It was huge. Not like a building or even most automobiles, but perhaps a smallish horse; the size of the balcony had been a major selling point for the flat and this creature had to squeeze sideways to fit, arching its lithe body up over the railing to stand with its forelegs on his balcony and its hind on his neighbor's.
Something scalded his chest, and Charles jerked his teacup away with a strangled yelp. He looked down; the tea had splattered all down the front of his white shirt and was soaking into his cardigan, still steaming. It burned, and he plucked the sodden fabric up off his skin before glancing quickly up again, certain he would find that the dragon had been the result of reading too long and sleeping too little.
Great green eyes met his. There was no doubt: pointed black pupils shrank to focus in on him and Charles caught his breath, freezing in place. The forward placement of those eyes suggested a predatory lifestyle; the jaw lined with sharp teeth confirmed it. Charles held very still, tea on his chest cooling from burn to ache, while a quiet and frantic voice within insisted that it made no sense for a flying beast to have vision based around movement.
The dragon's eyes widened, just a little. It blinked. Then it curved its head away, turning to the open sky. It drew back onto its hind legs, stood crouched on his neighbor's balcony, and then leapt out into the air with a great heave, flapping its wings thunderously as it soared low over the building across the street and then gained altitude, growing ever smaller with distance.
Charles gaped until it vanished behind a tall building, and sat clutching the armchair for a few moments longer.
Then he jumped to his feet. The book fell to the carpet and the tea sloshed dangerously in the cup but he ignored both as he hurried to the glass door. He pulled it open further and slipped out through the gap, snagging a button on his cardigan along the way and almost ripping it off in his haste.
Charles caught himself on the railing and leaned against it, peering over the rooftops; then he looked down to the street, expecting to see upturned faces looking back at him. Those wings had been loud, and the shadow immense—but all he saw below were hats and hair and the slow navigation of cars along the narrow road.
No one else had seen the dragon but himself, and that meant…
He was going crazy. He'd been exposed to too many chemicals in the lab, had to deal with too many grad students, stayed up late too many nights in a row, too often—it would have happened eventually one way or the other. No one else had seen the dragon, and it had been right there.
There might have been one other person who'd seen it—who could have been just as close.
Charles rushed to his front door, catching his foot on a textbook as he went and stumbling the rest of the way. He undid the chain, unlatched the door, and tumbled out into the dim hallway, where he lurched sideways toward his neighbor's door.
Holding his breath, he rapped over the peeling blue paint with his knuckles.
Charles knocked again, louder, and the door rattled loosely in its frame.
He waited a little while longer, watching the strip of daylight beneath the door for the shadows of feet. Finally, biting his lip, he reached out and wiggled the knob back and forth.
Locked, of course.
Charles leaned his shoulder against his neighbor's door and sagged down into it, hanging his head, suddenly exhausted. A faint ringing began in his ears. He saw the stiff brown tea stain that covered his white shirt and, below that, the innocent staring eyes of his teddy bear slippers. The mostly-empty teacup still clung to his fingers.
He looked like a crazy person, and he blushed to imagine what his neighbor would have thought. Charles knew what the man looked like, and from several different angles, even if they'd never traded names; they'd encountered each other rarely over the three years of Charles' professorship, but he was certain he'd made a poor impression by staring slack-jawed every time. So it was a good thing, really, that no one answered—even if this meant that Charles was a crazy person.
Dragging himself from the door, Charles shuffled down the hallway to where his own hung open. He shut it behind himself, and when he was satisfied that it was locked again he went back toward his armchair.
His knees felt weak and he wanted nothing more than to sit, but his book still lay on the floor, its pages scattered beneath it. With a sigh, Charles at last set down his teacup and knelt over the book. He swayed dangerously, and steadied himself with a hand on the arm of the chair as he hooked a finger in between the pages, parted where he'd stopped in his reading.
Charles pulled himself to his feet with the book closed around his finger, and stood straight for just an instant before the world began to tip. Scintillating darkness clouded his vision, and his sense of balance spun around his ears. Pain pinched his forehead.
As carefully as he could, he sank back down to his knees. Then to his hip, supported by his hand, and down to his elbow.
Once he lay fully on his side, Charles curled up with the book clutched to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut, trying to press the queasy static from them.
Unfortunately, he could see it just as well with his eyes closed.
His wings trembled where they stretched into the cool night air, aching with strain. It took all that Erik had to crest one last tall rooftop, and he nearly scraped against it with his belly.
From there he slipped gratefully into a glide. Home was a square of black on the side of a building, and he could see it now. It galvanized him, and he found the strength to flap his wings once more. The thought of rest beckoned him, though the morning was not far off.
Hurrying had its price: he dove down but his exhausted wings possessed neither the coordination nor the energy to break his descent.
Erik slammed into the balcony. The railing screeched in protest and the tiles shattered under his sudden weight, but the structure held, and he caught himself before he fell to the street below. The iron in the railing thrummed against his skin, but didn't burn. Elsewhere, he heard the whispers of sleepy voices raised in panic, but he ignored them.
He nudged the glass door fully open with his nose and pulled himself up into the flat, tucking his wings against his sides. Even that relief hurt, but it was minor compared to his injuries.
Erik closed his eyes against the darkness and drew in a slow breath. His sides expanded, stretching a gash over his ribs. The bright pain of it bloomed behind his eyelids and he centered himself around it, drawing his will together into a tight ball, folding himself as he had folded his wings.
He opened human-shaped eyes and stood barefoot on carpet. In this shape he wore clothing, but he knew without needing to check that the gash in his side was no longer there.
No longer there, but not gone. It was a knot in his will, sharp and unpleasant as a bone in his throat, and he pulled his lips back in a snarl.
Sleep. Rest would help him heal.
Erik turned in the direction of his bedroom and stopped, realizing two things in quick succession.
First, there was a human sprawled on the floor.
Second, this wasn't his flat.
Stalking closer on noiselessly bare feet, Erik loomed over the human, his head titled and eyes sharp. He knew this man; knew him, vaguely, to be his neighbor. He knew, also, that this human had seen him—not the shell he encased himself within but his real self. They'd met each other's eyes, and there could be no doubt.
If Erik had known that it was some changeling moving in next to him, he might have paid more attention. He might have convinced him to move away again, or tried to be more cautious in his comings and goings—more cautious even than one mistake in three years. As it was…
Well. He had already decided what to do when he'd flown away that afternoon.
Erik crouched down, lowering himself gently to one knee, and flexed his fingers, talons slipping out through his disguise, long and sharp and wickedly hooked. He drew back his arm, but not far, because flesh was fragile.
The human's lashes fluttered against his cheeks, and with a sigh, he turned his head and looked up, meeting Erik's gaze for the second time that day. He smiled and blinked rapidly, eyes unfocusing before sliding shut again. "Oh; it's you," he said, and then his smile pulled into a grimace.
Erik lowered his talons, just a little. Tipping his head to one side, he watched as the human shifted weakly on the carpet. A hand found Erik's knee and curled loosely over it. The voice was quiet, but he spoke clearly—almost lucidly, for all that it was nonsense. "Are you here to carry me away?"
Frowning, Erik looked the human over again; talons receded into skin and he reached down to touch these new fingertips to that sweat-slick forehead. His skin was cool to the touch, not feverish at all, though he watched Erik with no apparent understanding that Erik had no place being there. More interestingly, he watched Erik as if he didn't know what he was, or that he should be afraid.
Erik smoothed his hand absently over the human's head and peered around. He'd never really taken an interest in his neighbor's flat, but now that he was here he couldn't help but feel pity. There was hardly anything in the place except for piles of books and a few lonely pieces of battered furniture.
When the human saw through his glamour, Erik had assumed that it was because he had power; he'd assumed that his neighbor was one of the Silence's spies, either sent to him or stumbled upon him by accident. Now he knew the truth to be different—this was not a man to be feared, but he could be.
The human leaned into Erik's hand, guilelessly trusting. It would be easy to kill him. He would never tell anyone what he'd seen, and he would never turn into someone who could be a threat. He was small and soft and Erik could end it quickly; almost painlessly, if he was careful. Human flesh was unappetizing, but he could get rid of the evidence if it meant that the Silence wouldn't come knocking at his door.
Humans—changelings especially—had killed many of his kind, after all, and they'd done it less mercifully.
Erik exhaled slowly, and then climbed to his feet. He was tired, and hurt. He wasn't in the mood for killing.
He shuffled toward the door, head hanging to watch for books, but he didn't get very far before the human made a soft noise of discomfort. Erik paused, and twisted very slightly at the waist to look back.
The human had curled up into a ball, holding himself and shivering.
Erik had lived for a long time, and knew what had happened. He wasn't sparing this human's life just to let him die slowly. In his own home, he was safe from anything that might kill him, present company excluded; there was absolutely no reason to be concerned. Except…
…Except that he'd left the balcony door open, and the human had kicked off one of his ridiculous slippers, and he looked cold and pathetic, lying there. Weak, but… not offensively so.
Erik exhaled slowly through his nostrils and walked back to the balcony door. Shutting it, he raised an eyebrow at the damage he'd done outside. Then he turned, and went to stand over the human, where he hesitated. His brows leaned against each other and he frowned, echoing the unhappy curve of the human's mouth. He considered leaving, now that he'd shut the door, but the wound in Erik's will twisted rebellion.
The human's body was light, and it was easy to gather him up into his arms. Harder to stand with him, injured as he was, but he lifted them both without stumbling. Erik looked down to see that the human had pressed his cheek against his chest, and that he continued to shiver, the flesh of his body not yet registering Erik's warmth. He didn't struggle, however, and for that Erik was grateful.
The layout of their flats appeared to be mirrored, so Erik found the bed quickly. Once laid on top of it, the human's body trapped the sheets, so Erik took a spare quilt from the closet and spread it over him.
Then, generosity expended, Erik left. He had an early morning, after all, and little time to rest until then.
Continued at the website ArchiveOfOurOwn under the username Takmarierah.