Dion stretches in his office chair. The party is over. Granted, some pocket of resistant partiers may still be trying to make it last until dawn back at the bar but, for Dion, duty has called for shorter lasting merrymaking and a much less entertaining return to work. For as much as the past few days have been mostly peaceful (something unusual for a holiday season), the station cannot afford to close and the Dei must keep with their duties alongside the Popula. Differential treatment and greater flexibility in schedules because of their nature is one thing but stretch that line too far and resentment between mortal and god is bound to show.
So, no night off for the magic god. No ending a day of partying and gift-giving on a sweet note of not-exactly-sleeping under satin sheets, closely held by a preferably naked death goddess and collecting the delightful success of his gift from her cool, soft lips. Shame… She is probably on her soul-harvesting rounds right now or maybe she has returned and is resting already. Either way, she’ll be having a better time than he is having at the moment, immersed, for lack of something more exciting, in mind-numbing paperwork.
But there will be other opportunities. For now, his eyes fall on the green and brown bracelet that hugs his wrist. He strokes the golden charm shaped like a sleeping dragon that adorns its intricate, leathery surface with the tip of an index finger, smiling at the detail of it and the attention that Alma obviously pays to things concerning him. And it would take some attention to notice Dion’s love of dragons. Other than a single tapestry hanging on his bedroom wall, he lets almost nothing show of it and of the reasons why he loves them so. That story mostly brought him trouble and heartache anyway, but he cannot avoid looking back in tenderness at his early years and the first great adventure of his godly life. When he was young and witless enough to believe that great acts of valor would win him the heart of one whom everyone said could not care less about him but whose love he craved above all.
Foolish him. On a whim, after hearing her speak of how much she believed that love was conquered and proven by great deeds, he had set out to the wild Dragon Lands, dangerous and teeming with colossal beasts, to tame a dragon for her. It hadn’t worked. But those four months there, equivalent to three decades here – for time runs much slower in the Dragon Lands – had shaped the skinny, insecure boy he was then into the charming, strong, confident adult he is. And they had taught him not to believe in love, not to want it for himself and never again to allow it to make him so weak, so vulnerable to harm.
And maybe because he is now remembering this, as his finger absentmindedly strokes the jeweled spine of the dragon charm, the soft music that rings in his ears is one of flutes and wind-chimes.
Of leaves and branches shaking in the wind. Rushing water. Pouring rain. Fire crackling in a narrow cave.
A memory of a cold, stormy night in the place where dragons roam free…
It had not had gone the way he thought it would. Surely, when one decides to embark on a noble quest for the favor of the fairest lady in the world, there are expectations to be met. One should find loyal companions along the way, learn great secrets of the universe, be trained by mystical masters. Certainly not end up in a damp cave, soaked to the bones and shaking with cold, huddling over a small fire while trying to ignore the stench of the dirty, middle-aged man in clothes that must not have seen any water other than rain for at least a few months, sitting with his back against the wall.
“So let me see if I got this right,” the not too tall, filthy man asked, using long, blackened nails to scratch a thick, curly beard that probably harbors half of the lice population in this place. “This girl…”
“Not just any girl,” Dion cut him off with the still too high-pitched voice of his adolescence. The damned thing was taking too long to change. “She is the most beautiful, amazing–”
It was the man’s turn to interrupt him, waving his hand dismissively as if to cut through Dion’s words. “Yeah, yeah, you’ve told me how great she is already.” He threw another damp stick into the fire and settled down again to clean the dirt under his nails with a nail on the other hand. “Anyway, she won’t give you the time of day and keeps flirting with this other guy so you decided you’d come here and capture a dragon to impress her.”
He hated to hear his tale of love and valor reduced to the man’s blunt words. Sure, Edine was willful as the sun was bright but she was also young, dreamful, beautiful and filled with a sweet inner radiance that would blind the world if only she wouldn’t keep it hidden. They were soulmates, he knew. The constant grimace of boredom and mild disgust on her face was just a mask she put on her full, perfectly drawn lips to hide a quiet, candid soul. Her choice in short, draping dresses that hugged the budding curves of her breasts and the sinuous rises of her hips only to reveal her long, shapely legs and the flawless flatness of her back almost all the way down to the tip of her spine was just a ruse. Her sensuous body was just the armor she chose to distract people from how scared she was, from how much she yearned for a strong presence to stand between her and the world and conquer life and greatness for her, a man to be firm and brave so she could be fragile and docile and innocent, as every woman secretly yearns to be.
And the way she spoke at him, so dry and hostile, telling him to grow up, was but a veiled cry of help, asking him only to grow strong enough to save her from a world of frivolous attachments and arranged marriages. He would grow stronger, yes, and prove his worth. And then she would trust him to hold her in his soon-to-be powerful arms and show her the warmth of true love. She would feel safe enough then to pour out the sweetness she was afraid to show and be all he dreamed she could be to him.
So he truly took it to heart that this grubby, sour man would dare attack his lady, reduce her blonde, green-eyed, gentle grace to the simple, peasant name of girl.
“Do not speak of her like that!” Dion snapped, the veins on his skinny, fair-skinned neck throbbing in anger. “You do not know her like I do. She is confused, that is all.”
“You just said she told you to take a hike, lad,” the man noted conversationally, apparently unmoved by the threat brewing in Dion’s bony, thin frame. “That sure don’t sound like confusion to me.”
“If I return with this proof of my valor, she will surely change her mind,” the young god insisted, jutting his chin forward in firm resolve.
That made the square-jawed, primitive-looking man sigh and shake his head. “Look, lad – you have a name?”
That made Dion’s head spin for a bit. Surely he could not risk revealing his true identity, lest this hairy, talking primate know his uncle and send him home before Dion could reach his goal in this place. “Uhh…” he stuttered and cursed himself for it. “Heliwyr. Heliwyr, yes. Heliwyr.”
He liked the name. It was the name of his favorite fiction hero.
The man glanced at him appreciatively as if measuring him for a straightjacket. “I guess lad will have to do.” He muttered. “Draig here. Did you tell anyone you were coming here?”
“Of course!” Dion replied, too, too fast. “Yes… Not as such. I left a note.”
Draig’s fingers traced the ugly vertical scar running over his left eye in what looked like troubled contemplation. “You left your parents a note saying you were coming to the Dragon Lands to tame a dragon for a girl…?”
“My parents are dead,” Dion said, glaring at the man as if he were supposed to know such trivial things. “All I have is an uncle and a mentor. I left them a note.”
Draig snorted derisively. “Oh, I can just see that one. ‘Dear Uncle, I decided to travel to the Dragon Lands to prove my worth to this girl who just told me to go carve a melon with a toothpick’.”
“Look, will you help me or not?” Dion snapped again, feeling miserable and clammy and freezing right down to his bones. “I can always just go back to the Ker-mah, you know?”
“Sure, you can,” Draig replied, visibly unimpressed. “And you can spend the next few months in their bloody company, reading every book in their library and learning everything there is to know about dragons without ever seeing one up close and personal. Isn’t that why you wandered off into the jungle in the middle of a rainstorm?”
“It wasn’t raining then…” Dion mutters.
Draig was right, though, even if Dion would not admit it to save his life. The Ker-mah, gorgeous, charming creatures, bred of god and dragon blood, had received him well and welcomed him into their midst. They had promised to help him in his quest. But after two weeks of nothing to do but read their books and learn the commandments of their culture, Dion had become quite convinced that field experience would not be a thing of the near future. And so, after a very pleasant with the delicately featured head of the order, in her – no, jys – for the Ker-mah had no defined gender, like the dragons from which they descended, hovering instead between male and female, leaning toward one or another at their leisure and need – jys silk-lined chamber smelling of strange scents that made his adolescent mind curl around lustful thoughts and his body tingle in beckoning, slightly embarrassing ways, he had packed his backpack and walked into the night to continue his quest…
Only to end up in this goddamned cave, saved from the pouring wrath of the skies by a man so filthy that water rolled over him as if he wore a waterproof jacket.
Damn all of this to the seventh Hell…
“Look, I could send you out there and let you drown in rainwater or end up in some toothy maw but messing with the Ker-mah’s plans it too entertaining to pass up,” Draig offered, oh-so magnanimously. “So, fine. I’ll teach you to find, capture, tame, heck, even cook any type of dragon you fancy. Fire dragons, water dragons, wind dragons, you name one, I’ll teach. I’m not gonna be fancy about it and you’re gonna have to make yourself useful.”
Dion nodded. “I will do whatever it takes.”
“Good, take those high-class clothes off,” Draig ordered.
“I WON’T DO THAT!” Dion shrieked in shock, wrapping his own arms around his body in demure outrage. Damn the gods of puberty!
“Fine, freeze in those fine, drenched linens,” Draig grunted, rolling his eyes. “See if I care. But try and keep your teeth from chattering too loud while I teach you. I don’t like to have to repeat myself.”
Scowling at the man in deep suspicion, Dion proceeded to unbutton his shirt and lay it carefully over his backpack, welcoming the warmth of the fire on his skin but trying not to look to obvious about it.
Draig merely snorted and threw another stick in the flames. “Now, if you wanna capture a dragon, you gotta learn what goes through their heads.”
Dion nodded, thinking about this. “I see… I must know the dragon.”
“Learn its habits,” Dion added.
“Aye,” Draig nodded dryly.
“Its weaknesses,” Dion said, feeling like he was getting the hang of things.
“Good, good,” Draig mumbled.
“I must become the dragon!” Dion cried, shooting to his feet in triumph.
“Wha–?!” Draig roared. “Why in the blasted Hells would you do that?!”
This left Dion utterly confused. “Uuh…So I can capture a dragon?”
“And you think you could become one, a bony piece of flesh like you?!” Draig exclaimed, gesturing at Dion’s narrow, half-naked exposed body. “You look like an overpriced canape!”
Dion rolled his eyes and slumped back down to the floor, his legs crossed. “I was speaking metaphorically,” he muttered, propping his cheeks on his closed fists.
Draig snorted again. Dion was beginning to think the man would be doing that a lot. “Ha! Shows what you know. Dragons don’t do metaphors. They don’t do sarcasm either.” He paused in contemplation. “Or baths. Definitely not baths. Moving on… What do you know about dragons?”
Dion considered pointing out Draig’s own lacking hydrophilia but decided against it. “Dragons are noble, highly evolved reptilian creatures of the genus Draconem,” he recited instead, proud at his ability to memorize the information in his uncle’s books.
“Right, nothing then,” Draig replied dryly. “The first thing you need to know about dragons is…they are sadistic, arrogant bastards.”
“Somehow that part of the definition has not yet made it into the books,” Dion muttered, looking despondent at the man’s dismissal of his hard-earned academic knowledge.
Snort and Mutter. That should make for an interesting team.
“Oh, they can be charming, mind you, in the same way a snake can be charming to a mouse,” Draig assured him, looking serious. “They’ll say whatever you want to hear just so they can get what they want from you – that is, if you have anything they want – and they’ll be mighty serious about it too…until they eat you whole.”
“Thankfully, I have never met anyone like that,” Dion noted, feeling slightly disgusted at the thought of acting in such a manner.
“The Bearers are the worst,” Draig continued, apparently oblivious to Dion’s commentary. “Guess, you’d think of them as females. They’re the sneakiest, meanest critters and if you find one, lad, run! Don’t try to catch it, don’t try to tame it, and unless you can talk your way out of it, just run! Personally, I’ve used that piece of advice for all sorts of females but you’re a young lad. You’ll get why soon enough.”
“I’m sure I will…” Dion rolled his eyes at the obvious jab.
“You know, you interrupt too much,” Draig complained with a sneer. “Anyway, if you want to capture dragons and bend’em to your will, you’ll need to attack their weakest spot. Know what that is?”
This made Dion brighten a little. Time to show off his knowledge of dragon lore. “You mean the part of their skull just behind the left ear?”
Draig nodded his head, pondering. “That could work…That could work…You see, the problem is…Not all dragons have ears. Try again.”
“Their eyes?” Dion offered.
“Yeah, ‘cuz those are just protected by bunker-grade eyelids.”
“The center of their chest where a single scale is missing from their armor?” He was sure he had read that somewhere.
“The heck kind of books have you been reading?!” Draig cried out in bewilderment. “Fairytales?!”
“Fine, then!” Dion gave up. “What is their greatest weakness?”
Draig’s yellowing teeth glinted in the flame-light, too sharp and amused for comfort. “Why, lad, their greed….”
Dion blinks at the soft metallic catch of the latch in his office door lock opening as someone turns the old-fashioned spherical brass doorknob. He turns his head to see who it is, his memories quickly fading back into the dark recesses of his mind at the first glimpse of long, white hair. Alma peeks in, looking at him almost apologetically before entering. She looks tired and, most of all, worried, but the smile she gives him is pure warmth. Without the smallest exchange of words, Dion knows that she came to be with him. The thought makes his heart skip a beat.
“Hi,” she half-whispers as she closes the door.
“Hi,” he replies, touching his hand to the wall behind him and murmuring a short sound-proofing spell. “Thought you might be resting by now.”
“Yes, I should…” Alma concedes, taking the few steps needed to cross the room and stand just beside his chair. “But as I was returning from my harvests, I decided that I don’t want to go to bed all by myself.”
Dion snorts at a passing thought. “You won’t be. Saira will be there.”
Alma rolls her eyes but smiles at the joke. “Let me make it clearer.” She touches her hand to his leg in a signal for him to move his left leg enough that she can sit on his thigh, sidesaddle. Their office is so small that his desk barely has enough room between it and the wall to allow for Dion to sit down and rise without advanced contortionism but, still, he manages to humor her and she manages to squeeze herself into the tight space available. Her arms drape over his shoulders as she breathes in his ear, “I don’t want to go to bed without you.”
His lips curl in pleasure at the little kiss she leaves on his earlobe. “Ah… Well, I could recommend the sofa,” he says, reaching up to stroke her cheek. “But this feels much more pleasant. If you can sleep like this.”
Her body shakes with a quiet snort before she straightens to look into his eyes. “I very much doubt your leg would enjoy that.”
“I’m sure I know a spell or two to stop my leg from ruining my fun,” Dion replies almost immediately, making her chuckle at his wit.
She leans to press the bridge of her nose to the side of his face and her arms squeeze him gently. She snuggles close to him, breathing peacefully against his jaw, and he holds her closely as silence spreads between them. He can sense that all is not well with Alma. It hasn’t been, all day. Her stress has been showing in small ways, here and there, even though she has tried to hide it, and the opportunities to sit down and relax, truly relax without party preparations and people hovering around, have not been many. So to feel her tense frame loosen against him and hear her little sigh of bliss is a great relief to him.
How strange that this would be so. How alien that a simple hug like this could ever feel to him as precious as a night of lovemaking. More, even, for he and Alma haven’t been allowed that level of intimacy yet. Four months ago, it would have barely registered as a short step to taking a woman to his bed. That he could ever spend all day craving this affectionate, completing touch, knowing that he cannot take it much further into passion is… He has spent decades diving into women’s beds to emerge triumphant but unmoved. Hollow. But…hadn’t life given him such an early warning about the dangers of falling in love? About how deceptive and disappointing it can be?
And yet, here he is, heart overflowing with pleasure and empathy at an innocent touch that just leaves his body wanting. Who would have thought that? Who would have thought that the great, romantic lies of love could come true?
In the quietness of their office, the sound of her deep, slow breathing so close to his ear is hypnotic. He has closed his eyes to enjoy the moment and barely notices the thinning and blurring of his thoughts as he loses track of time and drifts off into shallow sleep.
Some time must have gone by, though, because his leg is tingling with discomfort by the time he feels himself surface from that gentle lull. He forgot to cast that spell. A few light taps to the underside of his thigh produce the expected result: nothing. Still holding him closely, Alma seems to sleep soundly. He does not really want to wake her but his leg is starting to scream obscenities and now it is too late to do anything about it other than moving it to restore proper blood flow. Maybe he can somehow work out the geometry of lifting her in his arms while he raises himself on just one leg?
Fool, he admonishes himself. You have magic, don’t you?
A quick fumble through some dusty pages of his memory and he finds what he was looking for. His thoughts wrap around a levitation spell that encircles Alma and lifts her, still in very much the same position, from her perch on his leg. He rubs his aching limb as he makes sure she does not float up high enough to hit her head on the ceiling.
But something in her must sense the magic because she stirs, her eyes fluttering open in that haziness of waking. She looks around, then down at him, her eyebrows rising in surprise. She rubs her eyes with the back of her hand almost as if she were trying to get them to see straight and visibly stiffens when realization dawns.
“Am I… floating?” she asks in a voice still tinged with sleep.
Dion rises immediately to take her in his arms, cringing ever so slightly when canceling the levitation spell adds half of Alma’s weight to the load that his currently recalcitrant left leg has to bear. “You must have been dreaming very light dreams.”
Alma raises an eyebrow at this as she drapes her arms around his neck. “Your leg fell numb, didn’t it?”
“I didn’t want to wake you,” Dion replies, avoiding a full admission. “But now that you’re awake…sofa?”
She nods. “Yes, please.”
He gently eases her legs to the floor. Carrying her to the sofa would probably be the epitome of romance in this situation but the small office crammed with breakable things sitting on the desks and tables, waiting to be knocked down and shattered into a hundred pieces, is not really all that amenable to epitomes in general. So he lets her walk to the sofa and sit before he sits down by her side and wraps an arm around her shoulders.
She folds her legs up onto the sofa and reclines against him, hugging his chest and making a show of snuggling into perfect comfort. “Hmm…And now I’m not letting you go.”
Dion chuckles, delighted at the choice in words. “I was hoping you would say that.”
She straightens and smiles at him with that enticing look in her eyes that usually precedes a kiss. Her lips make good on that promise, interrupting the conversation with sweet, busy silence. They eventually break away from kissing to settle again into tranquil – if mildly tense with pent-up desire – snuggling.
“The streets were so quiet tonight,” Alma says conversationally as she plays with one of the delicately handcrafted buttons on his shirt. “As if everyone decided to stay inside for once.”
Dion nods. “Strange, isn’t it? I would expect a lot of intoxicated people and rowdy party-goers, like in other wards.”
“Oh, yes,” Alma agrees. “I’ve been through some pretty bad shifts on nights like this. Happy people make for very stupid people too.”
Dion chuckles at this. “I’m willing to bet that tomorrow will not be half as peaceful. If there are bad days to be Guardia, Death’s day off is the worst of them.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Alma replies, her voice suddenly edged with nervousness and sorrow. “I’ve always spent it at Father’s.”
She had told him before that she had decided to attend the ceremony at Death’s estate. The authorization to leave Three Rats for the day had arrived just two days ago and all the arrangements had been made to allow her to spend the day away without much interference on normal station life. But her anxiety at facing off her father’s suggestion that she should stay away this year – later revoked apparently on a sudden, surprise visit from Death himself – has been clearly growing these past few days. Dion has been half expecting the goddess to give up at the last minute.
“It will be all right, Alma,” he states softly, tightening his embrace a little. “Sky and I will stretch our shifts and take care of things here and all you will have to worry about is attending the ceremony and showing that their opinion matters very little to you.” He kisses the top of her head. “We will be here waiting when you return.”
A small whimper escapes her throat as she squeezes him in her arms. “Thank you.”
“Are you still taking May with you tomorrow?” he asks, more to change topics than to know the answer.
“Yes,” Alma says, still fighting the thick layers of emotion in her voice. “Can’t bring her present to the ward yet so I’ll have to take her to it.” She sighs. “Now there is another piece of heartache.”
“Six months go by very quickly,” Dion notes. “And she will be safe. You know that. The Academy is a highly controlled environment.”
“I know…” she concedes. “But I have been without her for so long and now that we have finally found each other and started getting along, she’s leaving. And the other Bunnies are all heartbroken to see her leave.”
He falls silent at that. He cannot understand her pain, not really. Surely if he were to suddenly find out his parents were still alive and nearby, he would not want to leave their side anytime soon but that is a bit of a what if kind of empathy, the only type he can feel in that situation. Or perhaps…if he were to be forced to leave Three Rats and all the people he has met here, all those familiar, friendly faces. Of course, he had never pined for the day he would see them for the first time but to lose them now, even if temporarily, would be painful. And the longer he spends with them, all of them, the more painful it becomes to imagine letting go. His bonds to this station, to the Bunnies, Sky, Alma are like chains attached to his emotions and while he welcomes the sustaining anchor they provide, he is terrified at what having them ripped away one by one might do to a heart not used to loss of any kind.
The thought of it shakes him, making him hold her tighter. Could I even stand it if you left?
“I am not going anywhere, dear,” she says.
The words are like an electric shock. He stiffens immediately, looking at her in surprise. She squirms a bit in his tight embrace to look up at him as she explains, “You were murmuring under your breath. Asking me not to leave.”
“Oh…” He feels his stomach tie in a knot, his cheeks become dangerously warm. He is ashamed of his weakness, of letting her see him so vulnerable to her, so needful of her. To have his own body betray him into such an admission makes him want to…to…leave? Run away from her influence? Destroy what they have so it won’t make him any weaker?
Gods, how can he be so afraid of something he wants so badly?
“You do that sometimes,” she notes quietly as she strokes his chest, making him wonder if she is becoming telepathic. “Murmur sweet things when you are not paying attention to what you’re saying.”
Relief. This time his mouth has not betrayed his thoughts. “When will you be back tomorrow?” he asks to try and change the subject.
“The ceremony should take until noon, then a little mingling, then I have to pick up May, walk back here…” Alma makes some mental calculations. “Around early sunset?”
“Perfect. I’ve spoken to Sky,” Dion tells her. “Asked him to trade shifts tomorrow, so we can spend the evening all by ourselves, enjoying each other’s company. That way, even if the ceremony turns sour, we can always end the day on a high note.”
Alma straightens at this. “Oh…and he agreed? I think he was planning on spending Mayumi’s last night here with her,” she points out.
“I…did not think of that,” Dion admits. “But he immediately said yes and did not seem very bothered by it.”
“Well, then…” She looks haughtily into his eyes, lips barely keeping a grin at bay. “Are you inviting me to a date, Lord Gwydion?”
He chuckles quietly at the ridiculously out-of-place use of the old-fashioned, polished First Ring ways he was brought up on. Still, he joins the game. “Would you deny me, Lady Alma?”
The prim and proper façade falls smoothly into a wide smile. “Never. What will we do, then?”
Dion shakes his head, denying her access to his plans. “Just leave everything to me.” He strokes her cheek. “Think you can rest now?”
“I’ll do my best,” she replies with a mischievous grin.
He finds that strange but still removes his arm from around her shoulders so that she can lie down. Which she instead takes as an invitation to lean in closer for a kiss, putting her hands on his shoulders for support. He accepts it without hesitation, thrilling at it in the usual way, letting the freshness of her mouth drive away his worry. She is like a siren, crawled out of the water to drown him in bliss and those tender lips are her song. How could he not want to keep her?
He casts that levitation spell again to hold her up, making her giggle while he turns and reclines fully along the length of the sofa, and opens his arms to receive her body on top of his.
Comfortably settled into the familiar position, he pretends to scold her, “That was not sleeping.”
“Well, sleep was not coming easily,” she blatantly lies, grinning like a child caught being naughty. “Wasn’t that restful enough for you?”
Dion chuckles at that, reaching a hand to stroke her hair and nudge her closer. “You know what I would be doing if we could.”
“One of these days, we will not be able to restrain ourselves,” Alma notes.
“Maybe it is time we discussed our options,” Dion offers, going through the mental list of spells he has been researching for the occasion.
Her nose stroking his cheek, Alma nods agreement. “Yes…”
“We can do that now,” he says, kissing the lips that hover so close to his.
Where was he again? Ah…spells. Research.
Just five more minutes, he thinks as they fall once more into a whispered, passionate silence.