Streetlights flickered in the marketplace, illuminating the daytime sky. Even with the sun overhead, the smoke of the city was dark enough to hinder even the best eyesight, and so the lights were on every minute of every day. At daytime they were dimmed, and the shadows seemed to fly around one boy in the street. A crowd began to gather around the brown-haired youth whose hands were a blur of tan, catching pins as they fell and tossing them up into the smoky air, juggling deftly as if the act came as naturally to him as blinking or breathing. His strong arms catapulted the spinning pins until they appeared to kiss the low clouds of smog from the factories, falling neatly into his awaiting hands to journey into the sky again for the entertainment of the growing crowd.

As the crowd grew larger, the boy heaved his gray pack onto the pavement in front of him, his juggling never missing a beat. As his pins flew, a thin, scaly snout emerged from a small opening in the zipper, pushing the tag until it was free. The pack sagged open, a clear invitation for coins from the awed throng that watching in silence, and a magnificent blue dragon soared out, stretching its long, azure wings. Its serpentine body coiled as it rose through the musty air, seeming to grow larger with every second. Soon it was over ten feet in length, and it released a fountain of heated sparkling water from its jaws, the shimmering spout evaporating before it reached the ground. The haze blurred the audience's view of the dragon who began to dance in the stuffy air, its wings spread like a blanket and its scaly body like a beautiful river in the sky.

Coins fell like sparkling embers of a fire into the rucksack at the boy's feet, golden coins, silver coins, bronze coins, copper coins, and even a small ruby from the wife of some rich merchant. The dragon soared lower, contracting until it was small enough to streak through the narrow road, through the ring of tossed pins and float just inches over the heads of the amazed city-folk, looping and spinning until the crowd became dizzy merely by watching. The dragon swooped back towards the boy, snatching pins as they came into its reach. It began to juggle as well, and soon they were passing the twelve pins back and forth, each focusing intently on the pins that bridged between them.

Somehow, the crowd's attention began to center on the boy once again. He had begun juggled them all himself again spinning around and passing them through his legs. The massive crowd looked on, almost forgetting the dragon who seemed to have disappeared. Suddenly a roar sounded from behind them and the city-folk ducked, the dragon spinning forward over their covered heads, growing with each rotation. The pins disappeared into the gray pack along with the day's profits, and the boy was snatched into the air by the azure dragon that flew off into the smog, its rider gracefully waving farewell. The crowd broke into applause and laughter, and then separated into smaller clumps, finally melding once more into the hustle and bustle of the market. The talk of the city circulated about the boy and his dragon, for entertainment like they had been shown was not ordinary or common in the crowded, industrial city.

~*~

Taisuno chuckled gleefully as the air beat against his face. He pulled goggles over his eyes, not even noticing the purple tint to the sky. He rode Hopscotch often, so he was used to the protective spectacles. He clipped the pack onto his belt for more security and leaned over his dragon, urging it forward with his mind.

'That has got to be our best performance yet!' He congratulated his familiar through the mind link they shared. Hopscotch beat his wings happily and looped in the air, diving to the ground playfully. Taisuno felt the pull of G-forces on his skin as he and his friend descended to the ground, resting by a river that separated the plains from the dense forest to the west. The boy hurdled off Hopscotch and sat on his favorite spot, a smooth tan boulder right next to the water, and ran his dirty hands in the murky water that was the norm around the mechanized city.

Hopscotch ran his rough, scaly tongue over the boy's ear and disappeared into the brush, reemerging soon after with two rabbits and a fox in his powerful jaws. He tossed a rabbit at his human, starting to work on his own, larger meal. Taisuno smiled and thanked his familiar telepathically, pulling a tin of bread and a flask of clean water from his bag. Hopscotch rolled his violet eyes, drinking directly from the river. The two enjoyed their midday meal in indulgent silence.

"We fetch a pretty penny, don't we Hopscotch," The boy chuckled as he stroked the dragon's snout, now done with his meal. "This spare change will feed us for weeks!" The dragon shrunk, small enough so that he could sit on Taisuno's shoulder or curl up in his pack. He eyed some geese thoughtfully, contemplating if he was hungry enough for the effort. He decided against it, crawling onto his human's lap. Taisuno scratched at Hopscotch's head, itching his lighter throat scales. His hand traced the scar on his arm, eyes drifting off as he remembered the day he had obtained it.

"What is that, Tai?" The middle-aged woman's face was wrinkled in disgust. Her hand was clutching her long skirt as she pointed accusingly at the dragon at her son's feet. The young ten-year-old grasped the sky blue dragon at his feet, his small fingers seeming to protect the snarling creature.

Taisuno just turned his head away, eyes burning with despair. He couldn't believe that his mother hated the one he loved so much. It was impossible for her to judge his familiar in that way, even if having one was considered barbaric to her.

His mother grabbed his shoulder and spun him around, eyes blazing. "Don't you turn your back to me!" She screamed. Her rage and anger surprised Taisuno. She was so different from the gentle and loving mother he had always known. He blinked back tears as he tore away from her.

"Don't you tell me what to do with Hopscotch! I love him!" Taisuno cried, clutching the dragon closer to his chest. He stroked the smooth scales that were so sharp on the edges, his fingers brushing harmlessly over the jagged ends. Hopscotch himself was on edge, sensing the boy's discomfort and confusion, He squirmed free and fled to the bed, as Taisuno's mother advanced upon him.

The woman slapped Taisuno to the ground in her rage. Guilt flashed briefly in her eyes, but she was quick to defend herself. She grabbed a glass bowl off the table raised it threateningly over her head. "Don't say that! Proper young boys don't keep such… vermin as pets! Only savages and peasants keep such reptiles in their filthy homes! You can't love such a beast! You can't!" She hurled the bowl at the dragon, the heavy glass breaking over its head. She quivered with rage, but her eyes were bright with triumph as blood flew from the wound and Hopscotch lay still.

"NO!" Taisuno screamed, his arm bloody where shrapnel from the bowl had sliced it. He rushed to his familiar's side, cradling the limp head in his arms. He glared up at his cackling mother. She was insane; obviously she'd stop at nothing to get what she wanted. Taisuno stood up, shivering with rage. Before he could stop himself, he grabbed a paperweight off his desk and threw it towards her as hard as he could. Her head snapped back and she fell to the floor. Unconscious or dead, he wasn't sure.

Taisuno stared horrified at his mother, collapsed on the floor. What had he done? What had he DONE?

Hopscotch snorted and brought the young boy back to reality. He looked down at his now tattered trousers and his muddy boots and felt the emotion welling up inside of him. He felt the soft, painful tickle of tears on his quivering lip. Hopscotch immediately mopped up his tears with a snakelike tongue, concern clear in his shining eyes. Taisuno patted his friend on the head and looked over to see City silhouetted by the setting sun, the outline shimmering with light.

'It's not so bad. I can't pity myself, that won't get me anywhere! We have enough money for food, and a great act, and I can get some new clothes soon! And of course, we have each other. Surely, someone else is worse off than we are. We could be in war, like Tosu, or starving in the streets. There are fierce battles elsewhere, but not here!' He thought with finality as he lay down on his pack to sleep for the night.

Taisuno was right. Elsewhere, a battle raged.