Opening his eyes hurt so much that he squeezed them shut again, trying to figure out where he was by touch alone. Whatever was under his cheek felt wet and gritty, and he wondered if the storm had managed to toss him up onto a beach somewhere. A vague piece of his mind pointed out that while his legs and front might be cool, the rest of him was getting almost painfully hot and he should move. He tried to get his knees up under him but sudden pain stabbed through his side and he collapsed back, crying out silently. For long moments he could only lie there, digging his fingers into the wet sand beneath him, until the pain faded down to a steady low throb.
As he lay there he tried to remember what had happened to make his ribs hurt so much, and how he’d ended up here, wherever here was. Slowly his memory came back and he saw the storm again in his mind’s eye, the violent black stormclouds and the great wave that had smashed their little sailboat like a child breaking an old toy. He remembered the shock of the cold water and Alejandro desperately trying to reach him, but after that there was nothing but a red-tinged blank spot in his memory that wouldn’t come clear no matter how hard he tried to force it. After a while he gave up and shakily attempted to get up again, favouring his right side as best as he could.
He got his elbows under him and one knee, and stayed there for long moments, trying to breathe steadily through his nose. The smell around him didn’t match the smell of sea and salt air; it smelled of dust and dryness and something brackish and metallic. With an effort he pulled his other knee beneath himself and settled his weight, risking the opening of one eye to look around. The sunlight seemed to lance into his skull and he whimpered, the sound low and miserable.
As his eyes adjusted he managed to look around, though his surroundings made no sense. Instead of the gentle white and pale golden sands of the Caribbean beaches, he was looking at rough, heavy, dirty red and brown sand that stretched away to the heat-shimmered horizon in dunes and hills. A few runty cactuses grew unsteadily off to his left and when he managed to pull himself up a little more, he saw he’d been lying with his lower half in a muddy pool of water. It was brutally hot with the sun high overhead in a coppery blue sky and nothing around him offered much in the way of shade. He still dragged himself to what little dimness the nearest sand dune offered and collapsed there, panting for breath.
Dimly he knew he should drink, though instinct and his nose were both telling him that the water was bad. He stared at it anyway, licking at his dry lips, and tried desperately not to think of water glasses beaded with condensation and topped up by ice fresh out of the freezer. He whimpered again, without consciously realizing it, and dragged his eyes away from the muddy pool, trying to figure out what to do next through the pounding inside his head. Part of him just wanted to lie down and sleep the pain away but he forced himself to sit up, reaching up absently to scratch drying sand off his cheek.
He didn’t know how he had gotten to this place, which looked nothing like the tropical islands where he’d been vacationing, but his first thought was to find Alejandro. Alejandro handled stress badly and always had; when they’d first met he’d been so tongue-tied that Ciaran had found it oddly charming, enough that he’d agreed to personally help deliver the cake Alejandro was ordering. He’d ended up staying for the party, caught up in the whirlwind of a family featuring multiple cousins, all of whom had welcomed him like a long-lost brother. No one had looked at him with pity or acted like he was too stupid to understand simple things; they’d just made sure to face him when speaking and tapped him on the shoulder when they wanted his attention, pushed drinks and food into his hands, and made him feel like a member of the family.
He’d kissed Alejandro for the first time out in the backyard, sitting on the wobbly old swingset down by the back fence, safely sheltered in the shadows from the lights and raucous laughter in the house. It had been little more than a peck, a brief press of his mouth against Alejandro’s, brought on mostly by his pleasure at being included, but Alejandro had turned completely red from his hairline to the collar of his hooded sweatshirt. Ciaran had been so entertained that he’d done it again, shoulder pressed against the chain on one side of his swing, one hand tugging Alejandro closer to meet his mouth for a much longer kiss.
He smiled remembering it and didn’t realize that he’d drifted into a half-conscious state, slumped in the scant shade of the dune. High overhead a dark shadow winged through the endless blue dome of the sky, its long tail curving out behind it. Unaware of its presence, Ciaran slid deeper into sleep, still dreaming of that cool spring night four years earlier and how Alejandro had held his hand the entire way home, occasionally giving him a slightly puzzled, shy smile.
The cold woke him hours later and he opened his eyes to darkness lit only by the glitters of stars high above him. His head pounded and his mouth felt swollen, his tongue covered with grit. It took him three tries to push himself just to his hands and knees, and he stayed there for long minutes, his head hanging so his dirty hair fell across his face. Getting to his feet seemed impossible and eventually he just crawled down towards the brackish pool, the pain in his side flaring with each movement. He collapsed at the edge of the shallow water, shivering so hard his teeth chattered together, and forced himself to only wet his mouth and tongue. The water tasted disgustingly metallic but his throat still cramped up in need and it was all he could do to keep from drinking until he burst.
He crawled back to the dune and scraped a shallow bed out of the sand, curling up in it with his arms wrapped around himself for warmth. He dozed and woke, dozed again and woke again, desperate for a drink each time. Shivers wracked his body and he knew he couldn’t take another day without water. His stomach clenched painfully as he remembered the picnic lunch with Alejandro and hot tears pricked at his eyes. Wiping his nose with one sand-speckled hand, he took a deep breath and heaved himself up onto his feet.
The world swung crazily and he found himself down again, lying flat on his back and staring up at the stars in their midnight tapestry. He squeezed his eyes shut, curling his hands into fists, and rolled over to the begin the painful process of getting up all over again. This time he managed to stay upright, though he swayed like a drunk in a windstorm, his heartbeat pounding out a fast, jerky rhythm inside the confines of his skull. He pressed a hand to his side, where the pain still throbbed angrily, and took one unsteady step, then another. Fixing Alejandro in his mind, he made himself start walking, unsteadily making his way around the dune.
He lost track of time as he stumbled forward one step at a time, until the sky began to lighten into the pink and grey of sunrise. Blearily he looked around and saw nothing but harsh, lifeless desert all around him; even the dying water hole had vanished into the distance. As the sun rose so did his thirst, until even swallowing was torture. He pushed on, head hanging, his bare skin turning an angry red under the sun’s powerful rays, and when he stopped sweating he knew he was dying.
He felt the solid thump behind him even though he couldn’t hear it, a heavy vibration in his bones that shivered sand down the dune in front of him. The smell that came to him on the wind brought goosebumps up on his skin despite the heat; coppery blood and fire and a heavy animal scent that seemed to sink into his tongue until it was the only thing he could taste. He stared straight ahead, eyes so wide white showed all the way around hazel irises, breathing in fast, shallow gasps. A huge shadow fell over him, blocking out the sun, and he finally turned, feeling creaky and stiff.
If he’d had any moisture left to spare, he might have lost control of his bladder at the sight of the beast towering over him. Instead he only fell to his knees, arms hanging slack by his sides, and stared up at the craggy reptilian head, the size of a city bus, hanging in the air above him at the end of a long and powerful neck. The beast tilted its head to stare back at him from one bright golden eye, the pupil, like a goat’s, a horizontal bar of black. It was like looking up at a rocky stretch of desert shaped into a massive dragon and given life; even the horns on its head were as grey and misshapen as old trees. It spread its wings, revealing dusky membranes threaded with veins of glittering gold, and opened its fanged mouth wide to roar. Just the vibration of the sound made Ciaran grip his head in both hands to keep it from falling off, feeling the ground shake beneath him.
He looked up again and felt calm sweep over him. Struggling to his feet, he staggered towards the beast until he was close enough to feel the heat baking off its sandy, pebbled skin. The dragon reared back slightly at his approach, twisting its sinuous neck to keep him in sight. Smiling, swaying on his feet, Ciaran reached a hand up towards it, fingers curled in like he was only offering his knuckles for a shy dog to sniff. Hot breath washed over him as the dragon ducked its head down, touching the very tip of its pointed muzzle to his hand.
The touch lasted only a second before the dragon suddenly whipped its head to the side, knocking Ciaran back down to his knees. The dragon bellowed so loud Ciaran felt it in his guts, then someone grabbed the back of his shirt and lifted him into the air, dragging him onto something he barely recognized as an ornately decorated saddle. Pain slammed through him and his vision blurred, until he was only vaguely aware of the arms around him and the movement of the animal beneath him. As he slipped down into darkness, he thought of Alejandro and willed him to be safe.