The statue was a nice one, in Estinien's admittedly limited opinion of them. Carved from a solid chunk of veined green stone, the design was straightforward enough, clearly intended to be displayed on a ledge or other place of honor within the home. The subject portrayed was that of an intricate, multi-winged dragon coiled protectively around a beautifully polished egg, which was nearly as large as the scalekin itself.
All told, the entire piece was about the size of a cannonball, fit to be loaded into one of the Bertha cannons and fired at any aerial attackers. The sculptor had even made sure to capture Vrtra's horn properly, rising in a triumphant -- and rather graphic, when viewed from the right angle -- arc towards the heavens.
Luckily, it was lighter than any of Ishgard's munitions, though not by much. Estinien shifted it from arm to arm as he padded through Meghaduta's hallways, feeling the evening breeze tickle at his sleeves. There had been lighter options -- tiny statuettes no larger than his hand, oil lamps that had been cunningly smithed so that the flames looked like they rose from the dragon's maw -- but larger ones too, and already he was considering the value of having an entire set of ornamental pillars delivered to the nearest Radiant post.
He'd been out in the city when he'd discovered what was happening. Somehow, the schedule of Meghaduta's attendants had adjusted around him without any explanation; no one came to rouse him before noon anymore if he happened to delay his morning schedule, and even then, they looked apologetic about it. Extra blankets and pillows had appeared in his room one day, along with a lushly-padded wicker chair that resembled a reclining basket and a matching stool in case he wanted to put his feet up. The meals he'd been getting lately were different too, flavored with herbs and unfamiliar spices, flower petals mixed in with the sauces. The portions were still sizable and did not sit poorly on his stomach, so he didn't mind -- though it was curious enough to make him wonder if he was at risk of being poisoned by an enterprising assassin or five.
When he asked one of the attendants about it, however, all he got back was a complicated explanation about traditional nutritional benefits for one's health at an unspecified stage of their life journey. Something about maintaining his energies, it seemed. It seemed like such a bizarre concern that he offered to provide a demonstration on the spot -- envisioning a bit of light acrobatics across the rooftops -- but the attendant broke into such a fit of frantic refusals, their face flushed dark with embarrassment, that Estinien hadn't had a chance to elaborate.
Instead, they'd bowed themselves hastily away, insisting that such things could be saved for the satrap -- which didn't make any sense at all either, considering that Vrtra was already perfectly aware of Estinien's combat capacities, and also held a vast number of unnecessary opinions regarding the risks of standard Ishgardian battle maneuvers.
Really. Every dragoon Estinien knew had broken their legs at least once during training; it gave them all something to complain about together in the endless cold, measuring the weather in their bones. You snapped an ankle. You shattered an arm. You learned.
But after yet another breakfast of rice mixed with a thick sauce of milk, cinnamon and other spices -- a combination that was beginning to grow on him despite its sweetness -- Estinien had chosen to head for the markets, intending to walk off the weight while patrolling the city itself. Such explorations always proved entertaining; a few of the merchants had exterior stalls to encourage travelers to investigate their wares more extensively, and Estinien had wandered around the stores, poking at small carvings of various Manusya and Mrga, and browsing entire arrangements of paintings, tapestries, and statues of the Sisters displayed respectfully for purchase.
Amidst the shine of jewels and metal, he'd spotted an entire row of dragon figurines lined up on a table, shadowed protectively by the drapes overhead.
He'd gravitated towards the statue that had first attracted his attention, which had looked the most like Vrtra out of the bunch. The merchant had asked for several million gil, which seemed like a perfectly reasonable price for quality work. The logistics of actually finding that much money presented the biggest obstacle; Estinien had never owned such a sum in his life, which meant he'd have to borrow it from Aymeric while keeping the whole affair secret from the monstrous duo of Krile and Tataru. He'd be laboring in the service House Borel for the rest of his days, forced to attend parties and speak coherently to nobles with more titles than common sense.
Luckily, a sharp-eyed Radiant had spotted Estinien as he was pawing through his purse for what little funds he had on him as a down payment, and after a very quick, hissed conversation in the corner, the merchant had come back ashen-faced with panic. Of course the statue was free, no cost involved: a gift for the consort of their beloved satrap, may this bring them both the luck they desired and all the associated blessings, and so forth, and so on. Estinien hadn't really paid much attention as he'd happily bundled up the statue into a carrying sack, listening with only half an ear as the merchant had added on something about he would be praying for their first nest to be a large one, which was rather silly because Vrtra's new roost already took up half of Meghaduta's highest floor. Any larger, and they'd have to devote the rest of the level to it -- which Estinien privately thought would be good to give the dragon some proper room anyway.
But just as he had tied shut the sack and was departing, the merchant had bustled back into Estinien's way, brandishing a large bottle of amber-colored tonic. Dangling ribbons had been tied around the glass neck, obscuring the label and its intent.
"For your endurance," the man had explained eagerly, pushing this new gift forward. "In helping you to, ah. Adjust. I would imagine that even a single egg will be... heavy."
Estinien tilted his head, completely baffled by whatever the merchant was implying. In response, the man promptly began to make a series of cupping motions -- gestures which got all the wider as he glanced repeatedly down to Estinien's belly, as if fitting him mentally for a new jerkin.
Estinien could feel the moment when the expression on his face turned from confusion to disbelief, as he realized that -- par for the course with how little the people of Radz-at-Han actually knew about dragons, thanks to Vrtra's closed-mouthedness -- they believed rather logically that dragons needed reproductive mates in order to reproduce with. Vrtra had no other dragon housed nearby. Instead, all of Radz-at-Han knew his chosen companion to be Estinien, which meant that the dragoon was now logically serving a vital role in that interaction.
The recent influx of smiles and encouraging nods and herbs being offered in every single meal suddenly made vastly more sense now.
"I'm not bearing anything," he said shortly, which only elicited a fresh round of frantic apologies as the merchant sought to reassure him that no, no, of course the logistics would not work that way, there were concerns in size, in skeletal structure, how foolish of him to even think so! -- before promptly rummaging around several shallow drawers and offering him a second bottle, this time for virility.
"To help the seed make itself known when one's partner is, shall we say, larger," he said conspiratorially, pressing the tonic into Estinien's hand with a wink.
A wink which -- Estinien also realized -- meant that the man expected events to be going in the other direction entirely.
As flattering as it was to have people believe that the strength of his cock alone was potent enough to fulfill Vrtra in such a manner -- a feat that not even a roegadyn was capable of, if Estinien had to be honest -- it was even more daunting to realize that apparently all of Radz-at-Han not only participated in such ideas, but were actively encouraging it.
This is not, he thought dourly, like Ishgard at all.
He managed to extricate himself in a hurry without accepting either bottle, on the promise that he would return as necessary. Frankly, he was probably quite fortunate that the city wasn't intent on him being the one responsible for generating an egg of any sort. There was no way that Estinien would be able to fit even one of Vrtra's hemipenises more than partway into his body -- let alone both, particularly since they were arranged several fulms apart.
That hadn't prevented creative attempts towards that end, of course. Matters worked quite well when one party was as naturally flexible as any other scalekin, and the other was a dragoon trained to perform pirouettes in the sky. Vrtra's cocks were wonderfully smooth in Estinien's hand: firm with rectangular tips, the skin translucent enough that he could see the veins streaking each hemipenis like streams of ruby ink in blushing cream. And, unlike many other scalekin, a dragon's assets were not covered with rows upon rows of bristling, hooked spines -- an assumption that Ishgard had encouraged upon any who might have listened a little too long to the saucier fabrications surrounding Shiva.
But they had the same deep groove running from tip to stem, wide enough that Estinien could trace it easily with the pad of his thumb. The wyrm's fuller, the senior dragoons had called it when he was still a trainee. They had diligently pointed out the anatomy one day in the field, using a smaller scalekin that had been taken down and butchered in the snows for lesson material. Like the hollow of a blade, a dragon's seed flowed down the curving depression like water in a riverbed, traveling along the surface of a wyrm's cock rather than within.
Even knowing that, it had been a surprise the first time that Estinien had experienced it directly -- messier, when those same liquids spattered everywhere without said cock being firmly seated within a willing body. Estinien had regarded the aftermath of his sodden clothes with deep amusement. It was different from what he was accustomed to, but he found he couldn't complain -- not after he had bent his head to lick Vrtra clean, his tongue dipping lazily in and out of the fuller's ridges. He had traced the contours with his mouth as methodically as following the whorls of an elezen's long ear, lapping at the engorged flesh that was still so fragile and pliable within his hands, while Vrtra's embarrassed apologies had turned into different noises altogether.
He'd moved on from there to trying out other positions until he'd ended up stretching across Vrtra's groin like a belt, bracing one cock between his thighs and rubbing against it in lazy rolls of his hips as he bent down to take the other with hand and mouth. Despite the dragon's scales, it wasn't unpleasant to go unclothed. There were advantages to dragons having different reproductive methods: their cocks did not need to produce viable seed, and so they came often and in great volume, the slick fluids intended to facilitate multiple acts of coupling that might go on for days, or even weeks at a time.
Trying to match that to an elezen's flimsier anatomy had been daunting. Estinien had accepted the challenge without a second thought. The results had been imperfect, true -- awkward as he did his best to attend to each hemipenis equally while Vrtra's breathing had begun to escalate in speed, skipping erratically as the dragon's wings had jerked and his tail whipped across the floor. Thankfully, enthusiasm had more than made up for experience. With only a little practice, Estinien finally managed a decent enough rhythm, working the thick erections until they each glistened with spit and sweat.
He'd applied all his focus to the endeavor, not flagging in his attentions for even a moment until Vrtra had made an astonished roar and had come from both cocks at once. Hot fluid jutted over Estinien's arms and thighs and belly, making every ilm of his skin suddenly slick enough that Estinien had found himself following suit: his body sliding fast and wet against Vrtra's own, pleasure spiking past any thought of holding back. His cock had found the groove of the wyrm's fuller guiding him as easily as a lover's hand. Eagerly, he had rutted up against it over and over, until he crested similarly with a grunt, adding to the mess.
He had lingered like that, rubbing back and forth in small fractions of motion even as the sensation became nearly intolerable, before finally allowing himself a low groan of pleasure at the sight of his cock half-buried in the fold of Vrtra's fuller -- and then heard Vrtra make an equally deep, startled noise before the dragon came a second time again, a short spurt as a fresh burst of liquid spattered over Estinien's hands and groin, bathing him completely in it.
It had been, Estinien admitted, very good.
Good enough, in fact, that he had felt absolutely no shame in doing it several more times since.
As a youth in Ishgard, he'd believed all the tawdry stories that had been bandied about to disparage Shiva, encouraging listeners to imagine every manner of carnal fantasy possible as long as it supported the Church's stance that she was a foul temptress -- fantasies which would inevitably be carried back with them to their beds that night, furtively working themselves under the covers as they bit their lips to keep from making noise. As an adult, Estinien had rolled his eyes and dismissed them as exaggerated propaganda even as he had loyally taken up his spear for battle. The tales were grotesque, certainly, but were merely crude insults fit to taunt their enemies. No one would possibly try such things with an actual dragon.
Except it was harder, really, to disavow the possibility after everything Estinien had been doing with Vrtra. If anyone was guilty of laying down with a dragon, it was him, in a wide variety of physical arrangements and positions. It was impossible to think of the same acts as disgusting now, not when Estinien gladly initiated more than his fair share of them. He didn't know if he'd be able to look at Hraesvelgr the same way again; the dragon's relationship with Shiva must have certainly gone through the same extensive degree of experimentation. An entire nation had spent the last thousand years gossiping nastily about it, after all.
If Estinien had been in Hraesvelgr's place, he would have likely tried to raze Ishgard himself instead of watching Nidhogg take vengeance from afar.
But none of that really mattered here in Radz-at-Han, which was a city that celebrated the joinings of its many peoples together, and -- more importantly -- which was now wishing all manner of familial blessings upon the satrap and his apparent nesting partner.
"What," Vrtra asked faintly as Estinien lugged the statue into the dining hall, "is that?"
Estinien took his time in turning the heavy ornament around for display before setting it upon a table, angling it so that it faced Vrtra square-on, beady eyes aimed at the larger dragon in silent demand.
"A blessing for our shared fecundity together," he answered bluntly. "If I'm to understand correctly."
Estinien patted the statue's rigidly erect snout. "Don't want to be a fertility deity? It doesn't have to be you specifically, I suppose," he pressed, savoring the opportunity to dig the jest deeper, even as his fingers languidly rubbed up and down the statue's largest horn. "Mayhap dragons in general will come to be seen as bestowing such fortune. Come now -- is it truly so bad to see such respect being given within Thavnair? I need hardly remind you of the alternative."
Vrtra had been perusing the statue while Estinien spoke, prowling off his dais and slinking towards it warily, the sinuous weight of him crouched low like a housecat which had just spotted a vilekin that it wasn't sure was poisonous or not. "Becoming enshrined as an object of worship may indeed be part of Thavnairian tradition," he murmured. "Yet I mislike the potential for how such reverence can be easily twisted into becoming a weapon for others. I would not wish to repeat the fate of my brood-brother, Bahamut. His memory nearly destroyed our star."
"'Tis harmless without the Ascian magicks." At least, Estinien hoped so. The Warrior had said something once about a giant green chicken Primal, and Estinien had grimly tried to put the story out of his mind. "Thavnair's people have worshipped the Sisters for generations, and it wasn't until Fandaniel meddled that they were given a shape. Besides," he tapped the egg meaningfully, watching the faint reflection of his skin tint the surface, "I get the distinct impression that your people would enjoy the sight of live dragons even more."
The ghost of Vrtra's scales slid over the egg as the dragon moved away. "Aye. Hatchlings are highly inquisitive -- there would be no quarter of the city spared from their questions. Though I wonder... how might they grow in the cradle of this land, living alongside mankind?"
"Radz-at-Han seems delighted by the chance to find out. Ishgard, at least, has endured the onslaught," Estinien supplied helpfully. He had already spent more than enough hours trying very hard not to think about what would happen if any rumors started trickling back to his homeland about the current satrap's chosen consort. At least Ishgard already had a statue honoring the union of dragon and mankind. Metaphorically. "According to the Warrior, several dragonlings have flocked to explore the city's restoration. One's latest molt even granted her the dexterity to handle the finer crafting tools of mankind, if you can believe it."
"Truly? Mayhap I should look for her maker's stamp upon the market wares next."
"I'll have the Warrior put in a special request," Estinien smirked. "One with an even bigger horn. And a few extra ornamental ridges."
Leaving the statue alone at last, Estinien sprawled back against his chair, kicking out his feet as he considered the size of the live dragon's fangs when compared to the proportions of the smaller figure. Only a few days past, Vrtra had used them to pin him down very gently and very thoroughly upon a table, one on the back of each leg with Estinien's knees spread wide, leaving him open for Vrtra's tongue. It had been highly memorable. Dishes had been broken. "I'm sure any broodlings would be perfectly safe, so long as they gave the alchemists a wide berth. And the aether of this land is vitalized once more. The eggs would be nourished well, lest you harbor any fears of that."
Vrtra had finished retreating back to the dais on the far half of the room, and was in the process of curling up methodically, making precise turns of his body so that he would not accidentally knock over the furnishings. "It is no small matter to tend to young dragons, Estinien Wyrmblood. Centuries must pass before they will grow to full adulthood. 'Tis the responsibility of the one who hatched them to ensure they are raised well. Thus, one's entire brood is of vital assistance when it comes to caring for each new clutch. If this had been a different era, I might have turned to one of my brood-siblings in partnership. But now... I have no children of my own to look towards for that end, and I do not wish to impose on my kin."
"Impose away." Flicking his hands into the air, Estinien rolled his shoulders into a shrug. "Mayhap even our vaunted Warrior of Light could be persuaded to lend their assistance. Adventurers perform far more menial tasks, I assure you. You can even use them as practice for fire-breathing lessons if you'd like."
He fully expected Vrtra to laugh off the remark, dismissing the matter entirely in favor of discussing some gossip from the city, some trifling point that could be solved with a good spear or three -- but the dragon turned his head away suddenly, tucking a wingtip against his chin in a gesture that Estinien was beginning to recognize as discontent, whether Vrtra himself knew it or not.
He narrowed his eyes as a strange hunch began to gnaw at him. "Do you... want hatchlings?"
Vrtra was silent for a long, incriminating moment before making a heavy sigh. "Have I not spent the last several thousand years refusing precisely that?" One wing fluttered half-heartedly before he let it drop back against his jaw. "'Twas necessary to protect the people of Thavnair from what they might otherwise fear, as well as any of my own brood who might have fallen prey to those who would feast upon them. Allag wrought naught but ruin upon us. Nor did I wish for any of my children to be drawn into Nidhogg's war -- dragon or not. I took well to heart the plight of my sire," the dragon added darkly. "He did not seek a second brood."
Again, Vrtra pulled himself into a smaller, hunched ball. It was intolerable to watch. Shoving himself up to his feet, Estinien hooked his fingers into the wooden back of his chair and carried it all the way over to Vrtra's dais, plonking it down so that it faced the dragon directly with no excuse of the statue between them.
"It's not the days of Allag anymore," he said shortly. "And the wounds from Nidhogg's war are healing. If that statue's any proof, I imagine that anyone who caused harm to a hatchling here in Thavnair would be looked upon poorly by every citizen of Radz-at-Han."
Vrtra's discontented rumble might have frightened a younger dragoon; Estinien was more seasoned than that. "Nay. It is... unnecessary. I have found purpose in nurturing the people of Thavnair. No greater wish could I hope to achieve," the dragon murmured, wavering. Then -- before Estinien could press the advantage -- Vrtra lifted his head once more, just enough to turn a single gleaming eye back. "And what of thee, brother of my brood-brother? Hast thou ne'er considered the matter of children from thy loins?"
Estinien snorted. "We're speaking of you, not me. Who'd want one of my brats screaming around the place anyroad?"
But Vrtra's tail had uncoiled, sliding forward towards Estinien's chair. The spade-like end of it flicked at Estinien's ankle, and then slid upwards to trace along the inside of his thigh. At its tip, the diameter of the dragon's tail was as wonderfully thick as another man's cock -- and supple, besides, twining along Estinien's leg as it traveled knowingly along his body.
He was already half-hard before Vrtra's tail had even reached his groin. He could not help making a soft groan as it rubbed cajolingly against him, glad for the loose fabric of his trousers. As the end of it moved inquisitively against him, he slipped his hand down automatically to help guide it into a slow, steady rub, seeking the spot right below the head of his cock where Estinien loved to be touched.
There was no chance to pretend towards immunity. Vrtra had brought him to climax many times before like this -- many, many times. Already, Estinien could feel himself beginning to thrust shallowly against the friction, his hips angling forward, breath coming faster until he was on the verge of panting.
"You can't out-argue me by distracting me from the subject," he tried anyway, even as he let his spine slouch further, knees falling open to expose more of himself to the contact. Vrtra's tail obliged by coiling along his balls: a firm pressure that Estinien let his hips roll into, rutting shamelessly against the sensation. "I can... I can keep my focus perfectly well."
Vrtra's chuckle was a smug one. "Then come here, ehsk afah, and I shall show thee what other arguments I have in store for contemplation."
He had guessed that Vrtra had intended to exhaust him past the point of any questions, and in that regard, he was utterly correct: by the end of the night, Estinien was worn out enough that he barely enough wit to stumble into bed rather than collapse directly upon the floor. It wasn't until late the next morning that he managed to open his eyes. Weariness had made his sleep heavy, deep enough that one of Meghaduta's attendants might have been forced to rouse him if the city expected to see him before the next dawn.
But his body came inexplicably awake all at once, leaving his mind to fumble in confusion as Estinien blinked at the canopied silks of his bed. There were no shouts, no horns sounded nearby to warn of an attack. He listened anyway, baffled by the lack before something else inside him turned towards a faint pressure in the distance.
Tiamat, he realized, drinking in the familiar wave of aether that was gradually approaching, instincts stirring as they sensed another of the First Brood drawing near.
She landed on one of the ridges outside Meghaduta, and he and Vrtra went out to meet her. Even with that discretion, she was near enough to the city that her arrival attracted a sizable amount of attention; clumps of people filled the streets below, waving as giddily as if they had just seen a herd of unicorns prancing down the highroad.
After their initial greetings, Estinien gave the two their privacy to speak -- but not without seeing the glad way that the brood-siblings welcomed one another, butting their heads carefully together, long necks twining as two elezen might clasp their hands tight in heartfelt sentiment. He could feel the same yearning within himself, rising wildly within his blood; his body felt suddenly inadequate, far too small and lacking a tail to properly gesticulate with. It was a wild, reasonless need, immune to all logic. He wanted the feel of Tiamat against him -- to rub the memory into his skin and clothing so that he would have the heat of her even after she departed, lingering like a touch of a loved one's hand on your shoulder, a blessing brewed from their sweat and perfume.
He knew where the urge came from. They were Nidhogg's instincts, Nidhogg's joy. But they were his now too, words in a language he had inherited, feelings that had learned to find their voice outside the boundaries of what he formerly knew. Estinien's flesh had been made into a copy of Nidhogg's own -- but a second dragon had slept somewhere beneath his skin even before that, one of his own birthright as a child of Ishgard, a form that belonged wholly to him.
It moved restlessly now, longing to be part of that same small circle which Vrtra and Tiamat shared, using another form of speech which needed no tongue to frame it.
What a strange affair, Estinien thought dryly as he stared down at his naked hands, opening and closing them in lieu of the wings he did not have. The bitterness tasted of self-mockery. To find myself envious of that which I had never imagined as something that could possibly be wanted.
He kicked his heel against the pillar angrily, feeling the burning inside him as raw desire bit and snapped at his thoughts. If he wanted something -- it insisted -- then he should seek a path towards being strong enough to have it. Always, he had lived by that rule before. Train until you were skilled enough to slay every enemy upon your path. Defy those who would seek to harm you. Follow your heart, no matter who judged you for it.
In that, both he and Nidhogg were in agreement.
He struggled against the urge a while longer before turning and stalking away, allowing Vrtra and Tiamat their privacy to speak without his gloom overshadowing their reunion.
But she came to him afterwards, nosing gently against him before leaning down and rubbing her neck against his shoulder as she would have for any other member of her family. The rush of air in her lungs was like a distant bellows, a blacksmith's forge sheltered behind walls of impenetrable scale. Her wings cupped the sky like a dome.
He dispensed with his petty resentment in a rush, like pitching a broken spear off a cliff and not caring to see where it landed. Without any second thought of formality, he threw an arm around her neck and pressed his full weight against her, soaking in the wordless love of it. "Tiamat."
After a long moment, she drew back, studying him shrewdly. "Thou remainest in fine health, I see."
"Vrtra feeds me like a prize chocobo." Shaking his head, Estinien clapped a rueful hand across his belly; even a dragoon's regular exercises could only do so much against the luxurious feasts which were placed before him each day. "He seems to take great delight in cosseting me. It is fortunate that I have not suffered from seasonal illness, or else he would have every alchemist in the city at my bedside, making me ingest all manner of wretched tinctures."
"He hath a tendency to dote." Tiamat's tail swished back and forth across the ground, leaving amused curls in the sand. Then she added, slyly, "Of late, Hraesvelgr and I have heard his song echo as far as Bahrr Lehs itself."
Merriment danced in her voice at the observation; Estinien knit his brow, trying to understand why. "'Tis... heartening to hear him singing again after so long, I imagine?" he hazarded.
"His joy is clear," was her tactful answer. "Pray, continue thy good work."
It seemed like such a vote of confidence that Estinien was suddenly unsure of what he was doing at all, other than distracting a major ruling power from overseeing their nation properly. "Are you certain?"
Tiamat settled her wings in the draconic version of a shrug. "After all that was lost, it appeared inevitable that our kind was fated to dwindle away, devoured by ne'er-ending bloodshed and the other hungers of mankind. Yet, thou givest me hope that we might renew ties with this star and flourish once more. Our sire struggled desperately to find peaceful lives for his brood, ones beloved and loving. Long had I believed that chance forever gone."
She shook her head, bending her neck up in solemn regard of the sky above. The hour was late enough that the first stars were beginning to peep through the haze, jewel-bright pinpricks that adorned the warm violet of the sunset that was spreading out over the city like another layer of silk.
In silence, she contemplated their light before shifting her focus back to Estinien.
"To thy hands, I entrust the care of our youngest, who hath not had the pleasure of many things. Yet... I believe he will have them with thee." Judgement passed, Tiamat furled her wings neatly, though not without a degree of noticeable satisfaction. "I shall return to Zenith without fear of his well-being, and inform Hraesvelgr of the same."
"I will do my best, Tiamat." He ducked his head, fighting back the urge to shuffle his feet. The exchange felt oddly, strangely formal, and yet he found himself glad of her approval. "I swear it."
Despite his promise, Estinien didn't rush to confront the subject again. Others -- say, of the House Borel persuasion -- might have sent the topic worming its slow way into every conversation that presented itself. Estinien had neither the skill, nor the patience for such tricks.
A chance would come up, he assumed. Eventually.
It didn't help that Vrtra kept him too busy to put much thought into the subject. Encouraged by their ongoing successes, the dragon had taken to experimenting further with his tongue as part of their regular play. He was particularly fond of wrapping it around Estinien's cock, flexing and contracting in rhythmic pulses -- only to go purposefully still every time that Estinien began to show signs of climax, gasping and bucking desperately against the slick heat. The teasing had gone on so extensively one evening that eventually Estinien had broken down into incoherent shouts, spouting fragments of dragonspeech that he couldn't consciously recall.
It was probably for the best that he didn't; Vrtra had looked intensely smug for the rest of the night, or at least the parts that Estinien could remember clearly.
The systematic efforts kept Estinien's mind occupied for a while, passing the days pleasantly after Tiamat's departure. A little too pleasantly, truth be told -- it wasn't until nearly three weeks had flown by before Estinien spotted an opportunity to mention it again. Their dinner had been a rich one that evening; he had sprawled out to let the dessert lassi digest in his belly, but Vrtra was preoccupied with his own thoughts, casting furtive glances towards the nearest row of archways that overlooked the city.
After several rounds of watching the dragon shift back and forth like a man being gnawed upon by ants, Estinien finally intervened, padding over to join him even though it meant relinquishing his alluringly soft couch. "Is there something out there that's bothering you?" he ventured, half-curious if there was a threat to investigate, or some creature worthy of being deemed a mark. He hadn't done much hunting lately, too busy with -- other things. "Want me to go looking?"
Vrtra glanced up at his approach, but then -- just as quickly -- went back to mulling over the view. "Nay. Or rather... there is naught," he corrected himself, his hindwings betraying him as they fluttered uneasily over his flanks. "Merely a change in weather."
Knowing better than to believe him, Estinien leaned against the nearest pillar, folding his arms across the thin silk of the shirt; Meghaduta's attendants had also developed opinions about his manner of dress, not merely his food. Below them, the city drowsed in luxurious calm, its winding streets lit with the glow of merchants and workers taking advantage of the cooler night temperatures to get their business done. Even from his vantage point, Estinien could see only the smallest glimpses of the activity that filled the lower markets. Awnings and shades were everywhere, designed to shield against the sun while allowing hot air to escape. It was not an environment for a large dragon to navigate; even though Vrtra had become known to Radz-at-Han, the mammet remained an essential tool for interacting with it.
"If you had sired a brood, would you have built the city differently?" he asked suddenly, curiosity striking him. "Balconies for young dragonets to perch upon, plazas for mature dragons to take in the sun. Would there have been two names for each landmark, or just one? Artha's Aetheryte Plaza could have been named Tharl Nuun instead."
"Tharl Nuuh," Vrtra corrected absently, a murmur as he shuffled his bulk around to deliberately turn his back upon the view. He settled down sluggishly, wings limp and flattened out, as if he were going as boneless as a cat. "We must needs work upon thy pronunciation."
Picking his way around Vrtra's leg, Estinien settled down beside the dragon's flank. He reached up to rub the nearest wing joint carefully, checking the hide for irritations; it was one of many spots that Vrtra could not easily scratch. "As will the entire city. Your people are eager to adore you, Vrtra. Why not instruct them as well?"
He felt the heave of Vrtra's sigh, and then the dragon rolled onto his side, obeying the pressure of Estinien's hand to move him. "Most mortals have not the lifespan required to master even a fraction of the connotations required to converse freely in dragonspeech. Thou art fortunate to have our brood-brother's legacy in this regard."
"That may be, but I've not the wit for vocabulary lessons tonight." Sweeping his palm lower to Vrtra's belly, Estinien watched for each miniscule shift in expression, investigating the dragon's mood. The cloaca was further down, but it wouldn't take any effort to reach. "We could take your mammet and go visit the bazaars instead," he suggested, even as his fingertips walked their way gradually across to the dragon's vent, tracing each scale as they went. "Or stay here for the rest of the evening to enjoy one another. Or even take a flight together out of Radz-at-Han, down to Yedlihmad and then to follow the coastline west and around."
Vrtra shifted as Estinien's hand crept closer to the vent, but the dragon did not move away: rather, his tail began to twitch, revealing his own rising interest in at least one of the options.
"How is it that I desire all of these things?" he murmured at last, plaintive in his resignation. "Thou art making me greedy, Estinien Wyrmblood. Of late, I find myself wishing for... far too much."
The opening of the cloaca was beginning to swell open with each pass of Estinien's hand. The blunt head of the nearest hemipenis nudged out; Estinien stretched down to wrap his fingers around it, capturing its girth against his palm. Soon enough, he would need both hands in order to ring it entirely, but for now, he didn't mind. From tip to stem, Vrtra's hemipenes were softer than Estinien's own cock; housed entirely within the cloaca when not engorged, they had no need of thicker skin to protect them, and so every ilm was like satin. He loved to pet them, much to Vrtra's mixed embarrassment and arousal -- their softness was an unexpected delicacy, a vulnerability as tantalizing as a bared throat.
He continued to caress the hemipenis as he thought, idly enjoying the feel of it. "The people of Radz-at-Han will not leave you," he said eventually. "You made your choice 'twixt mankind and dragon when you thought it had to be one -- and mayhap it was one once, in days past. No longer. Now, the question is simply: do you want both?"
He knew he had hit the mark when Vrtra's tail froze in a stuttering moment, forgetting even the sensation of physical pleasure. "Ne'er have I placed mine own wishes above the well-being of my people," the dragon rumbled, gradually recovering, "I refuse to leave them behind."
Estinien shook his head. He kept the ferocity of it to that gesture alone, encapsulated in his face and voice -- his fingers carefully restrained as they made only the faintest strokes along the hemipenis that he cradled. "They're not asking you to, Vrtra. You can have them too," he repeated firmly. "Out of all the many children in Thavnair that you watch over, what is one more added to the mix? The brood you need to help raise your hatchlings is already here. They dwell in every home, every street. Their chorus is no dragonsong, aye, but they offer their voices to you nonetheless. Can you not hear them even now?"
Again, Vrtra wavered. His massive horn swung towards the window, and then back again with a guillotine's ponderousness.
"It is too much to think about," he murmured at last: a baritone growl of surrender. "It is... too soon."
Estinien's hand slowed to a halt. Even without Vrtra's confession, it was plain to see how swiftly tension had returned to the dragon's posture, blaringly loud. He regarded the situation with dismay. Melancholy was a terrible opponent; you couldn't just stab it to death.
"Then we will ignore the matter for the nonce. I say we entertain ourselves tonight instead," he asserted, and finally breached the dragon's vent with his fingers, sliding them into the overpowering heat of the cloaca.
The opening enveloped his knuckles whole. The bump of his thumb rubbed against the lip of the vent; Estinien twisted his wrist and then his entire hand was slipping inside, entering smoothly from long practice. Vrtra writhed at the stimulation, chin scraping against the floor as the sensation took him, a long ripple making its way from his neck all the way down along his body. The inner muscles contracted tightly around Estinien's hand, clenching down hard as a sudden spasm began to shake its way through the dragon's body, brought to an initial climax from that penetration alone.
Estinien waited for it to pass before he continued on. The nearest hemipenis was beginning to grow erect again, thickening against his fingers. The lip of the vent pushed his sleeve up. His hand was going steadily deeper, familiar with the territory it had explored so many times before, learning the contours of Vrtra's body as extensively as his own.
He found the nearest scent gland by touch; it was already leaking, swollen and waiting eagerly for sufficient pressure to release its tension. With his fingertips, he rubbed it in in firm, coaxing circles until a flood of oily liquid burst over his skin, seeping from the vent. The smell of Vrtra's arousal flooded the room, drenching him in sweet musk.
The tang of it was enough to make his mouth water. His fingers were slick with fluid, coated with the odor of Vrtra's readiness. The cuff of his shirt sleeve -- rucked all the way up past his elbow -- was already soaked through.
He didn't rush. Even as Vrtra's wings stretched wide, Estinien kept pushing carefully, stroking the dragon from the inside: his hand moving slow and easy as Vrtra shuddered in pleasure, whispering words in dragonspeech that Estinien had never heard before.
With that, Estinien figured he had said his piece as best he could; he was not like Alphinaud or Aymeric, to dissect matters until they had been pared down to the smallest scrap, each detail negotiated in order to minimize protests later. There was no time for such diplomacy upon the battlefield. A person either spewed their complaints or died with them unsaid.
One's enemy hardly cared either way.
But the next morning brought another gift, this one sent to Meghaduta directly and delivered over breakfast. Presented in a silver box, it was the dried liver of a fork-tailed chamrosh: an organ no bigger than Estinien's thumb and twice as rare for how difficult it was to preserve intact.
"You will want to set aside at least eight bells to allow for proper use," the official announced, breaking formality long enough to give Estinien a slyly approving glance. "But the prolonged effects of even a single sliver are known to last for well over a sennight, depending on one's health."
Thankfully, the conversation wrapped up there, the official excusing herself merrily in order to give them both -- Estinien could only assume -- some privacy.
Medicinal properties aside, it didn't look stranger than any other object Estinien had consumed in the past. Wiping his hand clean, he reached over and fished the organ out of its waxed paper wrapping, poking at the spongy meat curiously. It was tougher than he expected -- closer to the consistency of a heart, the toughness of a muscle which could not afford to stop working until the very last moment when there could be no further salvation.
Pinching it between two fingers, he lifted it to his nose and sniffed it gingerly.
Vrtra made a soft huff of amusement as he watched the examination. "Dost thou truly wish to consume it? After all we have enacted together, I did not think thee concerned about thy staying power."
"Do you think it's been brined?" was Estinien's response.
He was about to pop the whole thing into his mouth to give it a few experimental chews when Vrtra made a displeased grunt. "My apologies, Estinien Wyrmblood. I will ask the Radiants to discourage such gestures, lest you become inconvenienced by gossip. It is not my wish to sow discomfort."
Estinien lowered the morsel. Vrtra had arched his neck, but his jaw was thrust forward in the equivalent of a frown. "I don't care."
"And if they truly begin to believe that thou art capable of contributing to a shared nesting ground?"
The question was enough of a challenge that Estinien rose instinctively against it, shoulders going back in defiance. "Are you saying I can't? Ishgard's children bear the blood of dragons too," he parried, jabbing his thumb recklessly at his chest. "Mayhap one day I will wear wings and scales again, and then you will never be free of me, aye?"
The boldness of it rang as brilliantly as a battle-horn; it wasn't until the words had had a chance to sink in that Estinien truly realized what he had just declared. Like a novice trying to improvise in midair, it felt as if he'd flung himself towards the heavens while hoping to combine two maneuvers into one, flailing around wildly without any clear idea of how to strike the target.
The room was in free-fall around him; he had lost all sense of the sky.
Vrtra looked equally startled. Pulling back upon his haunches, he tilted his chin down in consideration, and then chagrin.
"Your transformation by our brood-brother was an unwilling one," he said gently. "And there are many who retain numerous fears against us. Such a decision would mean that you might ne'er again walk this star as a man. Wouldst thou truly give such a thing up, Estinien Wyrmblood? Couldst thou gladly embrace what was once thine own destruction?"
And there it came: the ground fast towards him, reminding Estinien that gravity knew its powers well when it came to punishing the hopeful. Vrtra was right. Unlike the first time he had fallen prey to Nidhogg's wiles at the Steel Vigil, the dragon's second possession had been nothing short of complete ownership, tearing apart Estinien's aether and remaking him like clay. It had been a maelstrom of energies, driven by a blur of unending hatred that could never be satiated, no matter how much blood was sacrificed to quench it.
But there had been grief inside Nidhogg too, just as blinding as Estinien's own -- grief and fear and hopelessness, an outrage born of seeing one's loved ones die endlessly to the basest betrayals, all while you were powerless to stem the tide through any means save slaughter. He had felt all of that while in Nidhogg's grip, carried on tides of dragonsong: the sorrow of an entire people that he had never known as anything other than monsters, until he had realized he was one of them, down to the bone.
The world had never looked the same since. It couldn't. Not anymore.
He felt oddly breathless, bracing himself for an impact that he could not back away from. It was like being thrashed regularly as a child through use of a book, one large enough that your father stored it on the highest shelf and only took it down for the purposes of drilling obedience into you, disdaining the use of his own hand directly. Once a sennight, the buckles of its thick bindings left mottled outlines on your skin, bruises leaking souring colors from every point of impact.
The bookshelf loomed like the Tribunal itself. You were too small to reach. You could only stare upwards in livid hatred, waiting until you were old enough at last to pull over a chair in secret and clamber on your tiptoes, intending to destroy the book whole so that it could never hurt you again.
Only instead -- once you held it in your hands -- you discovered that it was a tome of children's fables, intended for innocent delight. Each page was decorated with soft watercolor scenes of rounded animals and sunlit meadows, where tranquility reigned supreme. There were tales of talking dogs and magickal cloudkin, lullabies of frolicking lambs painted lovingly across the same pages that had blistered your skin. Stories meant to soothe a child to sleep with, bestowing nothing but peaceful dreams.
Stories that you might have been able to love, once.
That -- perhaps -- you still could.
Estinien rose to his feet; it was his turn to pace restlessly now, turning back and forth in place like a broken toy, unable to orient himself to a compass north. He wasn't sure how he felt anymore in that strange space between memory and possibility, confronted by something that had once been so terrible in the past, and now shimmered like a tentative promise for the future.
There was a breeze coming through the curtains, but it was a hot one, of no use save to make someone sweat more. He wanted to plunge into one of Meghaduta's cool baths, immersing himself in the water with his eyes tightly shut, blocking out both light and truth.
"Aye. It wasn't right of Nidhogg to force it," he blurted at last. The words were clumsy and painstaking, but it felt like he was setting something down as he did -- as if he was finally ripping the loathsome cover of that book off with his own hands, metal and leather-bound wood dropping to the floor in harmless chunks and leaving the softer pages behind, removed from their bed of malice. "And if you'd asked me before all this had happened, I'd have said that turning into a dragon would be naught but a betrayal -- a heresy of the highest degree, destroying everything I sought to protect. A mockery of every vow I had ever made. Choosing that road would have ruined all that I held dear."
With that, he expelled the last of the air in his lungs. The ghost of that ancient bile slid over his tongue -- and then was gone.
Vrtra had gone tellingly still beside him. The space between them was a few scant fulms: a minuscule gap that would have once only been filled by slaughter.
It took no effort to bridge it now. Estinien turned towards Vrtra without hesitation, his hand coming to rest lightly on the dragon's throat. "Much like you, I imagine."
Vrtra stirred. "Indeed," he murmured. "In order to nurture offspring of my own bloodline, I would have to abandon my other children first. Or... so I have believed, for many thousands of years. And so it has been. Yet," he continued, a susurration that was growing strength by the moment, a rainstorm becoming a flood, "as thou hast reminded me, the world has changed. Even now, my thoughts turn outwards to dream of what was once unimaginable. And e'en as I think it unimaginable... I find it already here, beside me."
Scales whispered as Vrtra's tail swept across the floor, circling into a half-moon around them both. The dragon lowered his head down, pressing the ridge of his jaw firmly against Estinien's side; Estinien leaned back, bracing himself in equal measure.
His voice was rough when he found it again, thick with emotions he could not put definitions to, their boundaries eddying into murk where his mind and his instincts blurred. "Anyroad, like it or not, I'll be worthless as a dragoon fifty years from now, aye? But I'd be a fool to leave you to your own devices after so short a while. Who knows what pit of guilt you'd crawl back into?"
Vrtra made another huff, this one of disdain. "Thou thinkest me as fragile as a newly-hatched whelp," he groused -- but the sound was a little bit too stilted to have anything other than a knot of grief at its core, already weaving itself together from every scrap of happiness that the dragon allowed himself to savor in the present moment.
Estinien heard it clearly. His palm stroked down across Vrtra's neck; the pulse of the dragon's blood trembled against his skin. "Fifty years isn't tomorrow, Vrtra. I'm not planning on being such a piss-poor excuse of a fighter that I get eaten next moon by the nearest pisaca on the road. So you've got time too," he emphasized, letting his head tip forward until his brow touched Vrtra's scales in unspoken reassurance, letting his muscles go slack and heavy. "Neither one of us has to rush. Understood?"
For a moment, Vrtra held himself there: a statue grander than all the rest, and far more precious. Then he shifted, giving enough warning that Estinien was able to straighten up before risking his balance. "Aye. And you would be such a little thing at first. It would take a great amount of aether and time for you to mature to the size of a dragon full-grown," he rumbled, and then paused. "Though, if I lent you my eye, I wonder if it would aid you until then."
The humor of the thought amused Estinien briefly, his imagination tossing around half-born ideas of wearing Nidhogg's shape, or a variation of Vrtra's, or entirely his own. Then he frowned, realizing what such an offer meant. Vrtra could only afford to part with one eye; for as long as Estinien held it, the dragon would be unable to use his mammet for exploration. The streets of Radz-at-Han would be barred to him.
For centuries -- perhaps thousands of years -- Vrtra would not be able to walk among his people in the same ways that had given him comfort before, witnessing the prosperity of his city firsthand and knowing every part of its workings.
It was a monumental sacrifice, and one that Estinien had no wish to disgrace. There were no words in him that had the necessary elegance. Instead, he rapped his fingertips lightly on one of the rigid frills of Vrtra's skull, drumming them upon the hard carapace.
"Are you sure? I might end up just as big as you," he emphasized meaningfully, making a show of eyeing Vrtra up and down like a banquet on display. "Mayhap... even larger."
The audacity of it was enough to catch the dragon's attention; Vrtra froze for a moment, and then his tail lashed, flicking against the back of Estinien's legs with a sudden agitation. "That would be highly unlikely."
Estinien drew in a deep breath through his nose, his blood stirring as quickly as if he had spotted fresh prey fleeing through the snow. "Well?" he grinned. "What if I were able to pin you down a bit? How would you like it if our positions were reversed?"
Vrtra cleared his throat, leaning his weight from side to side. On the edges of the air, a faint musk was already thickening.
"I do not find your current size displeasing," he said sternly after a moment -- but Estinien only laughed at the attempt for decorum, running his hand affectionately along the whiskers of the dragon's jawline, and by then, there was no further need for words anyway.